TED Conferences: For Genuine, Original Thought

This post-holiday time, this bleak mid-winter, has always put me into a thoughtful, planful (if there is such word) sort of mood.  I don’t think I’m alone either.  Seems to me that the chaps who plan the World Economic Forum feel the same way which would possibly account for this event being held at the end of January each year.

The Davos event is very attractive to many people. There’s an appeal to rubbing shoulders with some of the most powerful people in the world – Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch, Bono  – dining sumptuously amid elegant surroundings, and discussing important topics (sorry “Important Topics”) in one of the most beautiful villages in Switzerland. Could just be that the skiing around Davos is good, too.

With all the events around the current worldwide economic trouble, interest in this year’s Davos event should be particularly high.  This event, though, has never really interested me.  Somehow it falls short.  There seem to be two groups of people at this event: the A-listers who headline the events, and the people who want to ‘network’ with them.  The whole thing has a feeling of a high school, model UN conference.  Like the cool kids in high school and the kids that wanted to hang out with the cool kids in high school.  Like Tyler Brule.

The forum’s website says the 2009 meetings will be ‘focused on managing the current crisis’ and will be attended by 1,400 chief executives, 250 public figures, and 41 heads of state. In other words, a lot of the people who got us into the current crisis.

I much prefer TED.com, an organization more geared toward original and innovative thinking.  In addition to well-known figures such as Al Gore and Rupert Murdoch – who will be found on the Davos circuit, too – TED events (which stands for technology, education, design) typically feature such interesting thinkers as Joshua Klein who invented a vending machine for crows as a means for researching and demonstrating their surprising intelligence and Evelyn Glennie, the Scottish percussionist whose deafness didn’t prevent her from being accepted to the Royal Academy of Music and whose talk on ‘feeling music’ provides a fascinating alternate understanding of sound and performance.

As with Davos, participation in the TED Conference is pretty limited but the TED talks, as they’re called, are readily accessible on TED.com and, unlike Davos, are worth watching whether right away or months or years later.  When I listen to Ken Robinson describe how schools could easily be performing much better or Malcolm Gladwell characteristic use of the engaging anecdote to help us understand the impact of personal choice, I am left thinking that the solutions to the world’s problems are much more likely to come, however serendipitously, from this group of thinkers than from Davos.

If your attention span is on the short side, listening to Richard St John’s ‘8 Secrets of Success’ will be three of the best-spent minutes of your life.  And you could do it from Davos, if you really need to be there.


Evelyn Glennie, ‘How to Listen With Your Whole Body

Richard St John, ‘8 Secrets of Success


Featured Food | Drink

Restaurant Review: Fuji-Ya

Tucked away in a small space at the corner of Divisidero and Geary in San Francisco is a little place which offers what may be the finest sushi in the world. Perhaps it was because it was my first time eating sushi, but Godzilla’s will forever be the best in my mind. It was also a dinner the cemented my now 20-year friendship with the High-Energy Bond Guy.  HBG and I were among the Friday night crowd trying to get into the place.

Divisadero and Geary is a bustling corner and Godzilla’s is a pretty small place so when they fill their 20 or so seats, the waiting crowd spills out onto the sidewalk.  HBG and I were among the Friday night crowd standing curbside to get into the place and the whole thing had a festival feeling.

In addition to the delicious tuna sashimi, the tender edamame was infused with just the right amount of saltiness, and I will forever be grateful for having been introduced to wasabi, truly one of the world’s most fabulous creations.

A few years later, I was staying and working in Knightsbridge, in a place just around the corner from Harvey Nick’s. It’s then that sushi became a staple of my diet.    On the fifth floor of HN’s is their famous food court and I would often run over there to have a rolls for lunch at Yo! Sushi. Yo! Sushi is a Kaiten-zushi restaurant, where plates of food come by on a conveyor belt.  You grab what you want, stack up the plates then hail the waitress who comes over to count them up, does the math (colors on the plates indicate different prices for the dish), and gives you your tab.  The food court had terrific atmosphere.  The great energy of one of the world’s great cities could always be felt at that counter and I had lunch there frequently enough to become a recognized regular.

There’s something terrific about being a regular.  They know your name, your preferred table, and, if they’re good, know enough to let you know what special things are on hand that you’ll care about.

Here in Saint Paul I’ve had trouble finding that place where I could return frequently without tiring of it – until Fuji-Ya opened at the corner of Wabasha and West Seventh a few years ago.  Like Godzilla’s, it’s a smallish space that provides an intimate atmosphere.  It fills up quickly providing a nice buzzing energy without feeling crowded.

Sit at the sushi bar, if possible, where ordering is quickest and you’ll get your sushi as soon as it’s ready.  Be sure to order the Wasabi Crunchy, a roll with cucumber, shrimp in a spicy mayo covered with wasabi tobiko flakes. The decor is bamboo-meets-bang and olufsen and the “Godzilla vs Mothra” movie playing on the big-screen plasma near the bar adds a hip-kitsch vibe to the whole experience. This is a place where you can pop in, be certain of a terrific meal, and simply enjoy the experience.  This is a place for regulars.

About Town Featured People

About Town: Irv Williams

A good sax player, over long years of playing ought to become known for range, deft handling of ‘the axe’, mellow tone, and skillful phrasing.

Irv Williams has mastered all these skills and more to attain a revered status, certainly among local jazz fans.

I’ll always remember Irv – not just for his skillful musical phrasing, but for one, very telling phrase. I was hosting an event at the University Club in the early 90s where he and his trio were hired to play. The crowd had assembled and, many of them having gotten their cocktails, started to have that ‘what now?’ look that crowds get.

Irv was sitting serenely in a chair at the far end of the room near the piano watching the crowd but showing no signs that he was on the verge of producing the mellifluous tones he’s known for. Although he came highly recommended, I’d never met the man before or heard him play so I walked over to introduce myself. We chatted briefly before I was able to bring myself to the key question: “When do you plan to start?”.

He looked me in the eye, paused for a two count, and let me have it:

“I play when I get a scotch and I’ve been paid.”

My eyes locked with his, I snapped my finger for a waiter and pulled out my checkbook, scribbling out Irv’s payment with a wry smile all the while taking his words to heart. The evening clicked along beautifully from there and I’ve been a devoted fan ever since.

In the years that followed, I’ve trekked all over town to hear him play. There were the gigs at the old Bristol Cafe in St Anthony Main and that lounge at the Doubletree Hotel in Minneapolis in the late 90s.

Recently, the LSW and I sat through a couple of Irv’s sets at Il Vesco Vino, the Italian restaurant that replaced The Vintage. Ably accompanied by pianist Peter Schimke, Irv is clearly as comfortable as ever blowing out a range of tunes, mostly mellow and gentle but with occasional bursts of energy. As always, too, he welcomes the audience request but will adjust the range and tempo of these standards to his liking rather than play them as we might be accustomed to hear them in what we might think of as their definitive, recorded versions.

Irv is a gentleman and a generous performer, but, in keeping with the best tradition of jazzmen, make no mistake – it’s his world and you’re just passing through it.

Williams and Schimke perform Saturdays from 8-10 at Il Vesco Vino and have just released a new CD called “Duo”


Wild Oats XI Wins 2008 Sydney-Hobart

Wild Oats XI, the three-time winning supermaxi, ended the 2008 Sydney-Hobart Race as she began it: with the lead over its class rival, Skandia, winning line honors for the fourth year running, though fluky winds and a shark collision made it fall short of its hoped-for record. Clear skies and fair winds greeted the start of the race and mostly continued throughout the two days before the first finishers crossed the line off Battery Point in Hobart, Tasmania.

Wild Oats XI, a 30 meter/98 foot yacht – the largest allowed by the race’s rules – was designed by the team of Reichel/Pugh and skippered by Mark Richards, is owned by Bob Oatley.  80-year-old Oatley is a wine exporter and #9 on Forbes list of richest Australians. Its Supermaxi-class rival, Skandia, was designed by Don Jones and is owned by 42-year old Australian property developer Grant Wharington.

Despite the delightful and cooperative weather, however, the race was not without incident. Early in the race, 14 crew members had to be resced from the yacht Georgia, a Farr-designed 53-footer owned by Graeme Ainley. The boat, having lost its rudder and taking on water as a result, issued a Mayday call near midnight on the 26th. Nearby competitor Telcoinabox Merit was able to assist the damaged vessel which is expected to be lost at sea.

Wild Oats XI, after taking an immediate lead fell behind Skandia shortly into the race. The steady winds north of the Bass Strait favored the lighter weight Skandia.  As the winds decreased and became fluky in the strait, Wild Oats XI made up lost way. Her efforts were nearly scuttled, however, after she hit a 6 foot shark a few hundred miles from Hobart. The shark struck the bow and became caught in the rudder as the boat passed over. Crew members needed to execute a special maneuver – using the sails to put the boat into reverse – which allowed the shark to break free and the yacht was able to resume its course.

Wild Oats XI ultimately overcame this setback to regain the lead and win the race with an unadjusted time of 1 day, 20 hours, 34 minutes and 14 seconds. For comparison, recall that this year’s 635 nautical mile Newport to Bermuda race was won by supermaxi Privateer in 2 days, 12 hours.

Winning the IRC Division 2 slot was Ragtime, the race’s sole US entrant this year.  Ragtime (ex-Infidel – bad luck to rename a boat –Ed.) owned and skippered by Chris Welsh is a wooden-hull, fixed-keel 65-footer built in 1965.

Theater | Music

Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker

Settling into my plush seat at the Orpheum waiting for the curtain to rise on the evening’s performance of the Nutcracker, I was in a mood of pleasant expectation knowing that I could look forward to an evening watching an old favorite, familiarly done. Nor was I disappointed.

Anatoly Emelianov’s choreography delivered all the key elements one looks for in this ballet. The festive Christmas eve party where the entrances of the partygoers serve as an amuse bouche of dance and set the tone for the rest of the performance. The dreamlike sequences of the growing Christmas tree and the Nutcracker coming to life create the entrancing transition into the dreamlike world of the ethereal, the thrilling, the exotic.

Apart from one unfortunate fall in the second act, the corps de ballet showed their maturity as dancers who had become seasoned and practiced in their roles and delivered a taut, graceful and otherwise flawless performance. A highlight of the evening was provided by the pair performing the Arab dance sequences whose high-energy, athletic rendition added a staccato note.

By far the most delightful feature of this production, however, came from watching the promising talent contributed by the young dancers who are recruited locally for each city’s performance. The younger snowflakes in particular added a sweet, ethereal charm to the evening.

The theater itself helps set the stage, if you will, for properly enjoying the ballet which has become a perennial American holiday favorite even if Tchaikovsky himself preferred Sleeping Beauty. With its red and gold accented décor, the deep, comfortable seats, and the rococo paintings on the ceilings, there’s a feeling of old St Petersburg in the theater that helps provide the ideal setting for enjoying this holiday favorite. The house very sensibly, too, allows patrons to bring their drinks into the theater after the intermission thereby allowing a person to comfortably finish a cocktail while enjoying the second act.Something tells me Tchaikovsky would have approved.


Book Review: ‘Blandings Castle and Elsewhere’, PG Wodehouse

I suppose it’s typical, for most people who read, to read in the evenings. For those of us with this habit, picking up a diverting volume or treatise on some subject is really quite the best way to relax at the end of a day.

"Blandings Castle and Elsewhere" by PG WodehouseWith PG Wodehouse it may be a bit different. Of course, an evening spent reading PGW is an evening spent well and I highly recommend it. It’s just that, speaking for myself, after twenty minutes or so reading let’s say, Blandings Castle and Elsewhere, I sometimes find myself grinning so widely that my smile might meet itself at the back of my head.

That is to say a chap can get to feeling so cheery that it seems a waste to simply turn out the lights and drift off to sleep after a few pages of this joy. Seems much more sense to start a day this way. If the world was filled with people heading to work, twenty minutes of Wodehouse already under their belts and the milk of human kindness sloshing about their insides, the world would be a much better place.

It’s not hard to imagine a conversation like this:

“What a lovely dashiki, Rev Wright.”
“Thank you. It was a gift from Sen.., um, a parishioner.”
“I’m familiar with the Yoruba designs that became symbol of the black power movement of the ’60s but that pattern looks to be Kikuyu. And the orange in the pattern brings out the beautiful deep brown of your eyes. Very flattering”
“Why thank you. I had no idea you knew anything about Africa. At least nobody ever gave you any credit for your obvious intelligence, Gov Palin.”
“Well, West Africa anyway. And, please, call me ‘Sarah’.”
“And I’d like you to call me ‘Jeremiah’.”

See what I mean? Good things could happen.

Take this ‘Blandings Castle and Elsewhere’ I was just mentioning. Terrific book about a terrific place. If you’re not familiar with Blandings Castle, it is the country seat of Lord Emsworth, the amiably doddering peer who too often finds his peace broken by his aimless son, Freddie, or interfering sister, Lady Constance.

This volume is a loosely-related collection of stories around Blandings, is something Wodehouse called “the short snorts in between” and “a small dose” and is the perfect place for someone unfamiliar with Wodehouse to start. Apart from the these small doses, this volume includes a story about the cleverly mischievous Bobbi Wickham and some thoroughly funny send-ups of the motion picture business in Hollywood, drawn from his time as a screenwriter.

With Blandings Castle’s broad parklands, messuages, and, the gravel-free path through the yew alley (the importance of which you’ll understand if you read the story ‘Lord Emsworth and the Girl Friend’) you’ll soon find that nothing could be nicer than to potter about the place” – if only in the mind’s eye – of a morning?


Sound and Fury: Looking Beyond the 2008 Elections

While standing in line today waiting to vote, I was reminded of that great line of George Carlin’s: “Think of how stupid the average person is and realize half of them are stupider than that.” Considering how sharply-but-evenly divided we are on the question of who should be the next US president, it is easy to think that the ‘other half’ is the stupider because they’re voting for ‘that guy’ and we are among the smarter – because we won or despite losing, whichever way it goes.

Although the choice of president is very important, he’s typically just the most visible element of the government. There are special powers and privileges and a gifted rhetorician can sway and engage popular opinion in support of his efforts to work with Congress. Nevertheless, let’s remember that much of what we have heard and been told until now is only so much sound and fury which signifieth, well, maybe not as much as we thought.

Regardless of which side you’re on, the most important thing to remember is that there are natural constraints to what the next president will be able to accomplish. We’re in a rough economy and we have a divided electorate. So, whether tomorrow you Greet the Dawn or fear the Apocalypse, let’s take a moment to look beyond the elections and consider the months ahead.

The Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s highly unlikely that Sen Obama, as President, would change the course of either of these wars from the one they’re on under current leadership. By leadership, I’m referring to the military leadership and not the Bush administration. The surge has shown itself to be a success with deaths in Iraq falling to the lowest point in the war. Indeed, there were fewer killings in Baghdad last month than occurred in Chicago. A president McCain can keep his campaign promise to support the troops and Obama will be forgiven if he accedes to realities on the ground if he abandons a fixed schedule for troop withdrawal.

The US and Worldwide Economy. Since government has only a few albeit very powerful tools available to influence the direction of the economy – the power to tax your money, spend your money, and throw you in jail if you don’t cooperate – much of what can be tried is underway: massive Keynesian stimulus spending via checks to US tax filers (not necessarily payers but we’ll discuss that another time) and massive, unprecedented bailout dollars to major financial institutions. In light of the major commitments already in place and the enormous existing government debt, it’s unlikely that the next president will be able to engineer major new spending programs in this weak economy. If McCain tried, the Democrat majority is likely to oppose his budget efforts. Massive spending by an Obama-led congress would probably risk a further market meltdown, as Clinton learned to his disappointment in 1993.

Where, then, can the next president get his way? For Obama, two places. Regulations, rules, and other soft-cost legislation and judicial appointments. Resurrecting the fairness doctrine, removing the secret ballot for union votes, and enacting other rules that are designed to guide the economy should be fairly easy for him to accomplish and the costs will be hard to calculate. A compliant, Democrat-led Congress will likely be quick to move on any judicial nominations they receive. A President McCain, on the other hand, would have a bigger hill to climb. He’ll need to be uncharacteristically Reaganesque and win the support of the public to put pressure on their own legislators to get his agenda through. And, assuming there’s no Democratic super majority, he’ll need to dust off the Veto pen.

In any event, we’ll soon see how my broad predictions pan out.

Sailing Sport

Speedboat Wins Line Honors in 2008 Newport-Bermuda

Although it’s a terrific sport, it’s not difficult to see why sailing hasn’t become a widespread spectator favorite.  ‘Monday Night Sailing’ is something that holds more appeal for an active participant than it does as as a concept to pitch to a network executive. That is to say, often the things that make something fun and challlenging to do make it terrible to watch and vice-versa. The corollary ‘sport’ might be NASCAR.

There are a few reasons for this.  For one thing, it doesn’t start or finish quickly so a person needs to pay attention in order to discover and understand the drama of the event.  For another, there are many, complex rules some understanding of which is required to know what’s happening.

Finally, there’s plenty of math involved.  The boat that’s first over the finish line – the one that takes ‘line honors’ – is not necessarily the winner.  There are several divisions and classes – boats grouped in some fashion for scoring purposes – and the winner of a division is determined by various things including the dimensions of the boat and whether they broke any rules along the way. Oh, and there are two scoring methods used.

The 2008 Newport-Bermuda Race was a pleasant, though perhaps not historically noteworthy, event. It was well-run, had nearly record-level participation, and the gloriously beautiful weather would have made this a memorable running except for one thing – the wind.

Thwarted by strong breezes directly out of the south, Alex Jackson’s Speedboat was prevented from breaking any course records as it took line honors.  The yacht crossed the finish line near St David’s Lighthouse at 5am EDT Monday, June 23, several hours ahead of Il Mosto, its nearest competitor.

Winner of this year’s St David’s Lighthouse Trophy was Sinn Fein, a Cal 40 captained by Peter Rebovich who won with a corrected time (see what I mean?) of 100 hours, 13 minutes and 44 seconds, 25 hours ahead of Selkie.

The Gibb’s Hill Lighthouse Trophy was awarded to Capt Julien Dougherty of the 37-footer Tenacious with a corrected time of 107:01:26.

Featured Travel

Weekend Visit: Boulder Junction, WI

If you get on Wisconsin state highway 51 just east of Menominee and head north, you’re headed straight into cabin country. This is an area covered by vast patches of farmland – pig and turkey farms, and huge swaths of pine forest which hide lakes and the cabins to which long lines of Suburbans with TVs in the headrests and kayak-topped Subarus can be seen heading, side by side, on any given summer weekend.

The best lakes are remote and, therefore, a long drive from Saint Paul. This means you to drive past a seemingly endless series of exits containing a Hardees, a Citgo station, and a fireworks tent in a vacant lot.  Or a Culvers and a guy on the side of the road selling corn and Mutual Funds out of the back of his truck. You get the idea. It’s all a blur after the first hour.

Most people don’t seem to make it further east than Balsam Lake or further north than Minocqua and I’ll admit that five hours into a drive from St Paul makes the Thirsty Whale seem like a genuine oasis.

But give the Crocs and Coors Light crowd a miss. Persevere.  Forge ahead. Ignore the siren song of the many cold Leinenkugel’s on ice at the TW, and continue just a little way further north for your patient efforts will be rewarded. Branching off 51, north on county road M, and a little way beyond the Chequamegon National Forest lies the delightful little town of Boulder Junction.

True to its name, Boulder Junction sits at the intersection of county roads M and K and is the natural path interconnecting the various villages and resorts nearby. It’s here that the road turns sharply east/west for a quarter mile then resumes its north-south path through the woods.

And it’s this quarter mile that has one of almost everything – but just one:  the gas station, the hardware store, the outfitters, the motel. It’s sort of like Sesame Street for the north woods.

Thankfully, there isn’t only one of everything.  There are two restaurants on this stretch – if you don’t count the hot dogs on the heat rollers for sale at the gas station – and they are very different, which is why they can coexist in this microcosm.  The Outdoorsman is for the posh outing. At least it aspires to be and doesn’t do too badly. We had a very nice dinner there on a recent trip, of which I’ll write more some other time, but they could invest in some air conditioning and a door for the bathroom that latches.  After dinner, go to the imaginatively-named Boulder Beer Bar and Restaurant  for the cold Leinie you passed up earlier.

The town also has its fair share of antique stores and ‘northwoodsy’ craft stores.  It’s worth going in to one or two of them for the experience though I expect you’ll soon be visually and intellectually gorged on all things related to loons.  Chances are good, though, that on any given summer weekend there’ll be a yard sale that has real wood furniture, and if you’re lucky, maybe an old Hamm’s beer sign that will make it worth a stop.

Bring your bikes, too.  There are several miles of great bike paths that run south from town along county road M.

Below are a few details to help round out your trip.

Where to eat:
The Outdoorsman Restaurant
10383 Main Street
Boulder Junction, WI 54512


Where to Drink:
Like anyone needs any help finding a place to drink in Wisconsin. Just stay away from anything that looks like it doubles as an icefishing house in the winter or a place that’s a ’50’s rambler in a residential neighborhood and you’ll be OK. If you still want advice, try:

Boulder Beer Bar and Restaurant
5509 County Road M
Boulder Junction, WI 54512


Where to Stay:
Northern Highland Motor Lodge
PO Box 347
Boulder Junction, WI 54512


Where to get gear:
Coontail Sports – also for bike, kayak, and canoe rentals
5466 Park Street
Boulder Junction, WI 54512


Sen Obama Becomes Dem Nominee for US President

Sen Barack Obama, addressing a cheerful and sporadically cheering crowd of supporters in Saint Paul tonight, declared victory in the primary contest and established his status as the Democratic candidate for the US presidency.

With the final Democratic primaries finishing earlier this evening in Montana and South Dakota, and with a significant number of undeclared super-delegates lining up behind him in the last 24 hours, Sen Obama today secured the 2,118 delegate votes necessary to attain an insurmountable lead over Sen Hillary Clinton.

“Tonight, I can stand before you and say that I will be the Democratic nominee for President of the United States,” he declared confidently in the hall where his Republican opponent, Sen John McCain, will accept the GOP nomination in September.

Striking a statesmanlike tone and in a clear effort reunify his Democratic base as he shifts his attentions to the general election, Mr Obama paid homage to Sen Clinton, citing her efforts with healthcare and children’s issues. “It was an honor to compete with Hillary Rodham Clinton,” he said.

Setting the stage for the general election, Obama focused most of his energy tonight on Sen McCain. Visiting most of the liberal touchstones of the current election – Iraq, universal healthcare, US energy policy, ‘wealthy CEOs’, and ‘tax breaks for big corporations’ – Obama worked strenuously to tie McCain to the ‘failed policies’ of President Bush, giving a clear hint of what his strategy will be in the coming months.

While Sen Clinton congratulated her opponent earlier today, she has yet to officially withdraw from the race and there is continued speculation that she is seeking a negotiated exit from the competition.

Sen McCain spoke earlier this evening to his supporters in New Orleans.