Friday, November 30, 2007

Michelin vs. the San Gabriel Valley

Michelin has recently begun expanding their restaurant guides to the U.S, so a few days ago I thumbed through the new Michelin Guide for Los Angeles. I immediately wanted to post about how lousy it is, but since I'm not exactly an expert on fine dining, I felt pretty unqualified to do so. Thankfully, though, I picked up the new L.A. Weekly and saw that Jonathan Gold - the only restaurant critic ever to win a Pulitzer Prize - found it just as worthless as I did.
What bothers me is that the guide was so evidently put together as a fly-by-night project showing neither knowledge of nor much respect for Los Angeles, that the usual Hollywood banalities are recycled like so much fryer sludge at the biodiesel plant, and that there is so little imagination at work. In France, at the moment, the main cultural importance of Michelin is as an institution to rebel against, a homogenizing force whose lavish preferences, either real or imagined, jack up prices and fill dining rooms with rich tourists. In Los Angeles, it is merely irrelevant. [emphasis mine]
The first thing I noticed that bothered me was that not only did they only list four Chinese restaurants in the whole region, but the ones they did list were pricey, chic establishments catering to white people, and not a single one of them was in the large swath of Chinese suburbia in the San Gabriel Valley that stretches from Monterey Park to Arcadia (no, Pasadena doesn't count). Just to give you an idea of what an omission that is, all six of the Chinese restaurants on Gold's 2007 list of the 99 Essential Restaurants in L.A. are in the San Gabriel Valley.

It's not just Jonathan Gold, either. Last year Los Angeles magazine named six other restaurants in the SGV as the best Chinese food in town, noting that "Today Monterey Park and the surrounding area is recognized as the avant-garde Chinese food capital of the United States." Even the New York Times' Mark Bittman called Los Angeles the "best international eating city in the world" in an article touting the Chinese restaurants around Los Angeles. The Bittman article lists yet another five different places, one of which is - gasp - back in the historic Chinatown in L.A. proper, not the SGV.

Not a single one of these 17 places recommended by real foodies who know the city merited a mention in the Michelin guide. I can vouch for the quality of five of them myself, plus many others not listed. You may say that the Michelin guide is only for fine dining, whatever that is, not hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurants, but Michelin themselves disagree. Their own FAQ (warning: that's an MS Word document) claims that restaurants are selected only on the quality of their cooking and that the guides cover a range of prices and cuisines.
Don't forget that stars are awarded for the establishment's cooking, and that alone.
That's what they say; I say the Guide is only for food snobs and not for people who appreciate good eating. They even attempt to be egalitarian by highlighting a handful of restaurants they recommend with meals supposedly under $25, but the list contains few restaurants where one can realistically expect to pay less than about $20. That can be two or even three times the cost of an entree at most of the Chinese restaurants recommended by the knowledgeable food writers.

Look, my car rides on Michelin tires, their Atlas of North America is one of my favorite books, and the one Green Guide of theirs that I've looked through (the California one) was an exemplar of well-organized, thoughtfully-considered, clearly-presented travel information. And who can deny the appeal of their iconic logo? But if you were to use their L.A. Red Guide, you'd miss out on a lot of good places to eat and you'd spend a ton of money doing so.

UPDATE: This Chowhound thread dating from last year, when the San Francisco Michelin Guide was first released, is relevant. I liked this exchange:
...The Michelin Guide is for tourists. It's for them to find things in your town that they can't get elsewhere...
Actually the Michelin star system steers French tourists to what's most like what they could find in France.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Alphabets and Syllabaries

Omniglot is a neat website showing, among other things, all sorts of different writing systems in use around the world. This includes everything from abjads (consonant-only alphabets) to alphabets to syllabaries and all sorts of other stuff.

I had no idea that the Latter-Day Saints had experimented with creating their own alphabet (called "Deseret," of course) back in the 1850s. There are all sorts of other neat writing systems on display--- one of my favorites is Cherokee, which looks like Roman script, but is pronounced completely differently. What I've heard is that Sequoyah had seen printed material in English, which he couldn't read. But he understood its purpose and based the writing for his own language on it. I'm not sure exactly how accurate that is, though.

It's pretty remarkable how many different writing systems one sees on signs just driving around Southern California - Roman, Cyrillic, Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, Ge'ez, Armenian, Hangul, Chinese, Kanji, Hiragana, Katakana, Khmer, and Thai, by my reckoning (most Indian establishments have their signs in English). The one that I can't read that I think would be most useful to learn would be Arabic; I may not know how to speak Russian, but I can at least read Cyrillic script to get place names and such. It's be neat to be able to do the same in Arabic.

College Football Playoffs?

One of the most fun things about college football is complaining about the BCS. Yahoo Sports' Dan Wetzel presents what looks like a very sensible alternative here, essentially a 16-team playoff involving the winners of all eleven major or mid-major football conferences (now called the FBS), plus five at-large bids. The main complaint about the BCS, and before that, just the polls by themselves, is that they determine a national champion by subjective measures*, not through on-the-field competition.

Wetzel's plan certainly fixes that problem, and I think it's intriguing to include the champions of the MAC or Sun Belt Conference alongside the Pac-10 or SEC champions. I still see a couple of issues with this plan, though:

1. Too many games? Wetzel's plan involves teams playing as many as four postseason games in the bracket, plus another if they have a conference championship game. The time is certainly there, as most regular seasons finish up around the end of November, but I don't know if they really want student-athletes to spend all December playing football.

You could fix this by eliminating non-conference games earlier in the season, but I think that would cause problems of its own, making the season less interesting, as well as annoying various concerned interests there. I think that's why I've seen other proposals that only have 8 teams in a tournament. On the other hand, it would only be a small subset of teams playing that many games, so maybe this is not so much a problem.

2. The real sticking point here is that it totally screws up the existing bowl games. I think as many people who might like Wetzel's system on its own merits would be pissed off because the Rose Bowl or Orange Bowl would be left competing for scraps, and a bunch of lesser bowls would fold completely. Not just the bowl promoters, but fans, too. The real problem with "solving" the BCS is not that nobody can think of a plan that sounds decent in a vacuum, but that nobody can think of a plan that doesn't anger too many of the stakeholders.

I think it's very viable to work the existing bowls into a playoff format, though. Even if we stick with Wetzel's plan in all other respects, it would be simple to just replace the top-tier playoff games with bowl games. The exact position of the games could rotate - one of the four BCS bowls could be the final, two would act as the semifinal games, and the other could be a quarterfinal game, alongside three of the lesser bowls. The first round of the playoffs could take place at regular home fields, as in Wetzel's plan, or be distributed among eight lesser bowls.

But the really neat part about this sort of system is that while the tier-level of the bowls would be determined by a rotation, the question of which teams are seeded to play into these bowls could be determined by the traditional matchups. In other words, make sure that the BCS Bowls are positioned in the tree so that their traditional entrants are playing to participate in that bowl game somewhere in the bracket.

For example, let's say for the sake of argument that this year, the Orange Bowl were to be the final, the Rose and Sugar Bowls were semifinal games, and the Fiesta Bowl was to be a quarterfinal. Traditionally, the Rose Bowl pits the Pac-10 and Big Ten champs against each other, while the Orange, Sugar, and Fiesta Bowls have the champions of, respectively, the ACC, SEC, and Big 12 playing at-large teams.

Looking at Wetzel's bracket, expected Big 12 champ Missouri is ranked #1, so its first playoff game would be played at home, and assuming it wins, its next game would be the Fiesta Bowl (a week earlier than normal) against the winner of the Oklahoma-USC game. Ohio State (Big Ten) and USC (Pac-10) are on opposite sides of the bracket, so their seeding would have to be adjusted so that they're on the same side, playing in to a semifinal Rose Bowl game. Virginia Tech (ACC) would be playing to get to the Orange Bowl, but since that would be the final this year, everybody would be playing into it and it wouldn't affect the seeding. The semifinal game over on LSU's side of the bracket would be the Sugar Bowl.

So some adjustments in the seedings would have to be made, but it's very doable. This eliminates things like a few years back when USC lost its bid for the national championship game and ended up falling back into "just" the Rose Bowl. This way, for example, Big 12 teams are fighting both to get into the Fiesta Bowl and also to win the national championship. It also requires tweaking the dates of some of the games, but I think that should not be as big of a problem, either.

Otherwise, my adjustments still have the main advantage of a playoff system, namely, that a team's fortunes are made on the field, and teams like Boise State last year, or Hawaii this year aren't excluded from playing for the championship because they're in the WAC, but they would have to prove themselves against the big teams to do so.

On the other hand, some people just like things the way they are, because the subjective rankings have "mystique." His comments about the 17th-ranked team complaining that they wouldn't be given a shot at the championship are a load of crap... if you're ranked that low, you're not one of the very best teams in the country, and if you manage to squeak in to the tournament, you should be thankful for that. On the other hand, he has a good point about not releasing polls for the first three weeks of the season. The polling should reflect how well the teams play, not how good they looked on paper.

*Yes, the computer rankings are subjective, as they objectively apply subjectively-chosen formulas. If they truly "objectively" measured a team's strength, they wouldn't all disagree. It's like the old saying about how a man with two watches never really knows what time it is.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Guess the Spot

Here's a fun game where you can guess the identities of various landmarks from aerial photos. It's multiple choice, which makes it considerably easier... I think I might try putting up a quiz like this of my own here on the blog.

I got 16/16 correct. How'd you do?

Oh, by the way, I've been in the field of view of 6 of these locations, though in half of those cases I didn't actually go inside the landmark in question. I've also been just outside the field of view of one more. I'll let you know which ones in the comments, so please take the quiz before reading the comments.


Everyone knows Greenland is a Danish possession, and I knew that in 1917 we purchased the U.S. Virgin Islands from Denmark, but I did not know that the Danes once had colonies in India and West Africa.

I have a calendar of old maps on my wall, and November's map is an 1897 map of the world that colors territories around the world according to their colonial power. It's pretty stunning to see how few independent countries there were outside of Europe and the Americas at the time. Liberia and Ethiopia were, at the time, the only independent states in Africa.Colonization of India is usually thought of as a British thing, but the Portuguese were first, and France, the Netherlands, and Denmark all had their outposts in South Asia.
China as a whole maintained its independence, but many different foreign countries controlled cities along the coast and had influence that stretched into the interior. Hong Kong and Macao only reverted to Chinese control in the previous decade, but earlier in the twentieth century no fewer than ten colonial powers controlled no fewer than 20 enclaves in China. It would be interesting to visit some of these places to see how much evidence remains of the former colonizer.

BONUS: The smallest country to colonize the Americas was the Duchy of Courland, a vassal state of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in present-day Latvia. The colony was on the island of Tobago but only lasted a few decades in the 17th century before being abandoned.

BONUS #2: If you're a Belgiophile and would like to visit a former Belgian colony without going to Central Africa, you can take a cruise ship to Santo Tomás de Castilla on the Caribbean coast of Guatemala, a short-lived Belgian concession zone.

Friday, November 23, 2007

More on the unaffordability of healthy food

The data illustrated in this diagram dug up by Matthew Yglesias may have something to do with the relative affordability of healthy vs. unhealthy eating.I should note, though, that I think whoever put together the pyramid on the left was being a bit imprecise and misleading with its composition. It looks like the percentages were divvied up just according to length along one of the edges of the pyramid. But the relative values are perceived as being volumes. The ratio of the volumes of the Meat/Dairy portion of the pyramid to the grains part is not, I believe, 73.80 to 13.23. The point of the diagram stands, but the graphic representation exaggerates things.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Paglia -> Ciccone?

I liked this quote from Nathan Rabin's review of Body of Evidence:
I’m not entirely convinced that Madonna wasn’t somehow willed into existence some time in the late ‘70s by Camile Paglia. It’s as if Paglia was sitting around one day and thought “Wow, if only there was one virgin- whore- bitch- goddess- sinner- saint- icon- God who could embody every pretentious idea I’ve ever had. Then I’d be set.” Bam! Suddenly a full-grown Madonna would materialize out of thin air and masturbate with a big black crucifix while dressed as Elvis.
More thoughts on Madonna here.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

New Supermarkets

So, a lot of the talk around town lately has been about the giant Whole Foods flagship that opened in Pasadena November 7 and the Fresh and Easy stores that opened their doors a day later, British grocer Tesco's first foray into the United States. On Wednesday, Jen and I checked both of these out, hitting the F&E on Eagle Rock Blvd. and then heading over to Pasadena for the Whole Foods.

The L.A. Times described Fresh and Easy as something between a Trader Joe's and a Ralphs. It's somewhat bigger than a typical TJ's and most of what it sells is under a store brand. Prices are generally but not universally on the low side, and one of their specialties is a large variety of prepared foods. Unlike Trader Joes, though, they make an attempt to carry all of the basic items a standard supermarket would carry, although for most items they might only carry their store brand and one leading name brand. They take some pride in their store layout and graphics, although I didn't see what was so special about it, and in their customer service, although most of the checkout stands were those annoying self-service scanners.

They also don't have anywhere near the number of specialty items that Trader Joe's carries, which was disappointing to an expatriate Brit we chatted with who was scrutinizing the tea selection and found it to be rather pedestrian. In fact, beyond maybe a couple of Indian foods, there wasn't much of anything unique about their selection. While I suppose it might be a nice store to have in one's neighborhood, I don't really know what niche it's trying to fill. Perhaps the quality or "niceness" is one step up from a typical supermarket, but I have to wonder if I would find everything I'm looking for during a weekly shopping trip. They're also apparently lagging behind one of their stated goals of opening up in underserved communities. One thing that would be nice would be if they included a few more British items, just to have something in the selection that other places don't.

Having unique items isn't a problem for Whole Foods. Their new store on Arroyo Parkway in Pasadena is huge, with two floors and a wide variety of myriad foods, and in all sorts of organic or otherwise ethically popular varieties, though most national brands aren't represented. In addition to the standards like a butcher, a seafood guy, a baker, they have all sorts of other specialty food makers on site, from a juice bar, chocolatier, and sandwich maker to a guy who makes jams and roasted nuts.

The BIG catch, though, is the price tag. On multiple occasions while touring through the store, I had to exclaim a "Holy crap!" at the prices. Just to name a couple of examples, earlier in the week we had picked up a package of rambutans at a Chinese supermarket in our neighborhood for $4.99 a pound, which isn't cheap, but it's a rare fruit. It was great that Whole Foods had them, but they charged $9.99 a pound. Filet mignon was available at Fresh and Easy for $13.99 a pound, but at Whole Foods, a pound would run you $31.99.

Maybe it was organic or free range or something, but seriously, if you're making supposedly ethical food that's way out of the price range of a normal family, then all you're really doing is making another luxury item like designer clothes or high-end furniture, but with the food, it's one that you can then turn around and show off to your friends as a token of your moral superiority. Of course, Whole Foods is a business and I'm sure they're making a lot of money in rich neighborhoods with this business model. But if organic food advocates are really so convinced that their food-production techniques are superior to factory farming, why not figure out some way of making these foods accessible and affordable to everyday people? Or even better, the people living in poor neighborhoods who have nothing available but lousy food choices?

Also, the layout of the store seemed to be deliberately confusing, as if I were in a Vegas casino.

In short, I might go to a Fresh and Easy from time to time if there was one nearby, but I can't think of any reason why I'd shop at Whole Foods. Ehh, maybe the prepared foods would be good for lunch.

UPDATE: Another article about the unaffordability of healthy eating.

Thursday, November 15, 2007


Those of you who know me know I'm always making lists of things. Forbes Traveler has a page full of best-of travel lists, so I could help but peruse them and tally up how many of the places listed I'd visited. The site is nice in the sense that they have nice photos and writeups, but I find it really annoying that you can't just flip through the photos manually without kicking in the automatic slideshow.

Anyway, here's how I fared against some of their lists:
I've only visited 9 of the 50 Most-Visited Tourist Attractions in the world, but my wife, who's been to Europe and Orlando and has spent more time than me in New York, registered about 21 of these.

I've only visited 2 of their 10 Hidden National Park Gems - Point Reyes National Seashore and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. CORRECTION (11/1/08): How did I miss seeing Mammoth Cave National Park on that list? I've been to three.

I fare better on their list of the top 30 Most-Visited Cities in the U.S.A., where I've been to 22 of the cities listed. Orlando is the only city I've missed in the top 17. (Surprising that New Orleans didn't make the list, though the figures are from a post-Katrina 2006.)

Considering the number of cities around the country I've been to, however, it's kind of surprising that I've only been to 5 of the 25 Most-Visited Museums in the U.S. - The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, the Museum of Modern Art (New York), the California Science Center, the Getty Center, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

On their list of the 15 Most-Visited Amusement Parks around the world - and alternates with fewer crowds - I've only been to the two local ones, Disneyland and Knott's. But reading the list can be a fascinating peek at the colorful parks one might see around the world.

Also worth noting would be the comparison between the 20 Countries Most-Visited by Americans and the 20 Countries Whose Residents Most Visit America. There are some interesting differences there - the positions of Mexico and Canada are flipped, far more South Koreans visit the U.S. than the other way around, etc.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Mike Davis Criticized

Tom Angotti dismantles Mike Davis's Planet of Slums, calling it a simplistic anti-urban screed that greatly exaggerates the negatives of cities and ignores the efforts of a lot of good people. Obviously I don't share Angotti's socialist viewpoint, but most of the pertinent points he makes are spot-on. What's interesting is that with the criticism coming from an unapologetically Marxist source, Davis and his supporters can't claim that he's being opposed simply for his leftist politics. If the people on your side are calling you a pessimistic, self-aggrandizing windbag, maybe it's because you're a pessimistic, self-aggrandizing windbag.

I must say, though, that one thing that bothered me about Angotti's review is his use of the terms "the North" and "the South" to describe the developed and less-developed (or developing, or whatever) world. I've seen this terminology before, and it always strikes me as being a poor choice of words. For one, it's insider jargon that's likely to confuse people because it appropriates terms that are more commonly understood to be simple geographic divisions. It's inaccurate because countries like Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore are clearly part of the developed "North." It also implies that geography is destiny; there's nothing about being in the north that determines the development level of a country, and countries' status can change. Taiwan and Korea, for example, have much more advanced economies now than they did 30 years ago, while Eastern Europe has been in a state of upheaval since the fall of Communism.

A binary divide obscures divisions between moderately-developed countries like Mexico and the truly destitute like the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It also ignores divisions within a country, such as that between Shanghai and the rural interior of China. It seems like using "Developed Countries" and related terms should be self-explanatory, and flexible enough to change depending on the context or as situations change.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Stuff Involving Peter Gabriel

I've been a Peter Gabriel fan for years, which on the one hand is frustrating because he can take as long as a decade between studio releases, but on the other hand is kind of nice because it's not like he's flooding the market with inferior products. 2002's UP album (which counts as recent for him) didn't make any kind of commercial impact, but it's a strong album nonetheless.

A few years ago, though, like Pearl Jam, he decided to release high-quality recordings of every one of his concerts on CD, though through an online source, not in stores. You can insert the obligatory comment abut physical recording media being dead, but I still think this is a really cool thing to do. I do wish Gabriel and other artists (besides the Grateful Dead, whom I can't stand listening to) had done this years ago when they were in their creative prime, rather than now, when they may very well produce a good show but have passed the point where their concerts have the spark of vitality that can make a live performance truly special. Keeping the set lists nearly the same from show to show means buying more than one set is only for the truly obsessed.

Genesis, for example, is one of my favorite bands, and I considered attending one of their shows at the Hollywood Bowl for their reunion tour last month. But I didn't. Why? Not just because of the price tag, but because what I would really have liked to see would have been Genesis in a theatre in England in their early prime in 1973 or a bigger stage circa 1980, at their crucial transition from prog to pop. Even if it's the same guys on stage, a concert today just isn't going to be the time machine performance I'd like to see. (Ditto for the Police.)

But how cool would it be if, say, the Arcade Fire or Fiery Furnaces were releasing live recordings (CD or digital-only or whatever) of all their shows? Then a music historian or interested fan could listen to them and hear the creative process work itself out on stage. That would be exciting!

Back to Peter Gabriel, I see that one of the humanitarian things he's done is, along with Richard Branson, fund the "Global Elders," a super-team of ancient embodiments of the primal cosmic forces, or, as we like to call them, retired world politicians. Sorry, I can't help but think of the Elders of the Universe with that name. Anyway, this group includes people like Jimmy Carter, Nelson Mandela, etc., and I guess they're supposed to go around the world resolving conflicts and stuff like that. Sounds like a noble mission, but I feel like any kind of honest assessment of their chances of success will make me sound like a wet blanket.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Dress Barn

Is it just me, or is "Dress Barn" a really bad name for a store? What sort of imagery are we supposed to think of when we see that name? Farm animals? Dresses big enough for a barn? Dresses that look like they might be worn in a barn? Who wants to buy dresses out of a barn?

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Dolla Dolla Bill, Y'all

Inspired by Matthew Yglesias pointing out that Jay-Z is conducting business with a stack of 500-euro notes in this video, I did some searching around the web for info on U.S. currency. Wikipedia, of course, has plenty of info on things like the two-dollar bill and large-denomination bills, but if you're not bothered by extensive editorializing, this guy will teach you all about the six different kinds of U.S. currency (i.e., Federal Reserve Notes, Silver Certificates, etc.) as well as giving you his opinions on just about every aspect of monetary policy. If you're interested in odd foreign currency, Wikipedia will show you examples of hyper-inflated currency, like a 500-billion-dinar Yugoslav banknote from 1993.