Author Archives: John Beekley

An Umbrian Adventure

As most of my readers know, I have been a big supporter of Make A Wish for many years. And, one of the ways I support them is to attend their events and buy some of the fantastic once-in-a-lifetime adventures that pop up from time to time in their auctions. I know, tough job, but someone has to do it…

This year I could not make it to the auction back in March because I was driving across the country with Tyler. Karen went, however, accompanied by Brian, our younger son. And, looking through the event booklet, she spotted an intriguing event: five nights for eight people in a villa in Umbria, generously donated by Sabatino Tartufi, an important Italian supplier of truffles. Karen could not contain a sudden, mysterious twitching problem in her shoulder, and next thing you know her arm somehow raised her paddle just as the bidding was concluding! Sold! We assembled our group, and put a date on the calendar for late October.

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Sunrise on the distant hills of Umbria

As we moved into summer, I figured we should start getting the trip organized, and I asked Make A Wish for a contact at Sabatino that could help with things like the address of the villa and other logistics-related questions. Shortly thereafter, I received a phone call from a guy named Federico, offering to help. Federico proceeded to give me not only the logistical information I needed, but spent nearly an hour on the phone with me, enthusiastically sharing with me his favorite restaurants, wineries, hill towns, etc. Clearly very passionate about Umbria, and truffles! He mentioned that he was based in the USA, but would email me the contact information for Grazia over in Italy, who he said was the perfect person to help organize our trip.

When I received Federico’s email, I was astounded to see from the email signature that he was, in fact, the CEO of Sabatino! Feeling very flattered that the CEO took such an interest in making our trip successful, I proceeded to contact Grazia, and over the next few weeks she put together for us an absolutely fantastic itinerary – winery visits, olive oil tastings, cooking classes, truffle hunting, special tours, dinner reservations, and more. Truly a once-in-a-lifetime trip!

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The villa, taken from just up the street

Fast forward now to early November, and we are back in Virginia. The trip was, indeed, fantastic – so much so that, in general, I will let pictures tell most of the story. Here are a few general impressions…

  • Umbria is rustic, unspoiled, and beautiful. Massive peaks, windy country roads, lovely towns placed on hilltops. Pictures and words do not really do it justice, you need to visit to appreciate it!
  • Umbrian cuisine is wonderful – simple foods, comfort foods, usually cooked by grandmothers it seems! Just a few ingredients in each dish, ingredients of good quality, well prepared. I looked forward to every meal, even when I was so full from the last one that I could barely contemplate eating.
  • Our hosts from Sabatino were so warm and generous. Every day when we returned from our adventures, there was a fire ready to go in the fireplace. They cooked a couple wonderful meals for us, and provided a kitchen well stocked with goodies for breakfast. The villa itself was beautiful, and in a fantastic setting.

If you are not already looking into flights and hotel, you should be!

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Lovely piazza in the city of Assisi

There were so many highlights during the trip that I could not possibly enumerate them all. So, here are just a few of them…

  • We went on a truffle hunting expedition in the woods near the villa, with one of the world’s sweetest truffle dogs. It was amazing to watch how gentle she was with the truffles she found – bringing them back to her owner without the slightest hint of a tooth mark.

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    Truffles! Very fresh!

  • At Decugnano Barbei winery, we had a cooking lesson from a sweet Umbrian grandma, who showed us how to make pizza, pasta, and other goodies. We then had a four course meal where we got to eat the fruits of our labors.
  • Grazia set up a “light lunch” for us in a trattoria in the ancient hill town of Portaria, where we had four types of bruschetta, an ethereal pizza farcita cooked in the coals on the hearth, and two pasta courses. We politely declined the offer of dessert!
  • During our visit to Sabatino, they got word that the first white truffles of the season had been found, a rare delicacy in extremely high demand by their clients. They not only allowed us to buy a few, they came over to the villa that night to help us prepare and cook them. Not only did Vania (who is not a grandmother yet, but cooks like one!) save us from inadvertently ruining these delicacies, she showed us how to do everything from prepare truffles properly to slicing bread without smooshing it!
  • Karen and I would visit the same little bar in Montecastrilli every morning to have a cappuccino and a pastry, and to watch life in the town unfold. We got to be friendly with the owner and the barista, even though we could not really speak to each other. I looked forward to it every morning.

That is all I have time to write about; I suggest you go to Umbria if you ever have the chance and create some highlights of your own! Some more pictures follow…

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Taking a break from the truffle hunt

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Ancient gateway to the small hilltop town of Civitello

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Early morning at our villa in Umbria

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The hills around the villa

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In the barrel room at Scacciadiavoli winery in Montefalco

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View of the town of Montecastrilli from the villa

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View of our villa from the woods nearby

Such a special trip… we are already thinking about when we can go back!

Go West Young Man!

Back in the summer of 2014, Tyler and I journeyed from California, so he would have a car to use during grad school, job search, etc. We had quite a road trip. If you need a reminder, you can read about it here, here, then here.

Fast forward to 2018… earlier this year Tyler gave me a call, told me that his transfer to Seattle had come through, and asked me if I would like to drive with him from Charlotte out to Seattle. Why, of course, said I!

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Departure Photo, March, 2018

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Departure Photo, June, 2014

We got on the road with only a few objectives, and with nine days to make the drive. We settled on a northerly route to accomplish one of Tyler’s objectives (visit as many new states as possible) and one of mine (visit my fiftieth state). We knew that a northern route might be a little risky in the late Winter, but the weather reports looked good, so off we went! We like to stay off the interstates as much as possible to avoid [1] trucks and [2] boredom, so we used our trusty atlas to guide us to promising county, state and US highways. With two well-stocked phones and an old iPod, we had a fantastic soundtrack for our journey!

Tyler also had an objective to visit as many National Parks as possible, so we drove off towards western North Carolina and Smoky Mountain National Park. The mountains were spectacular even in winter, and the waterfalls were flowing.

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Waterfall with forgotten name in the Smokies

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The mile-high “Mazdarati”

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The Smoky Mountains in late winter

We spent the night in western Tennessee, and got on the road early after a lovely breakfast at the Holiday Inn Express. First stop was Cumberland Gap National Historic Park. Tyler wanted to stop there to add a park to his list, and I wanted to stop there so I could pretend to be Daniel Boone, and so I could listed to an old traditional banjo piece entitled, oddly enough, “The Cumberland Gap”. We visited Pinnacle Point to take in the view, and were pleased to find that while the parking lot was in Kentucky, the viewpoint, six hundred feet away, was in Virginia.

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Pinnacle Point at the Cumberland Gap

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In my mind I could see Daniel Boone scouting through these hills!

As we left the park and started driving through Kentucky, we soon stumbled upon the birthplace of that most world-famous of all Kentucky products. I am talking, of course, about Kentucky Fried Chicken!

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I learned a lot about the Colonel, who was quite the character!

After passing on fried chicken as a mid-morning snack, we continued across the state to sample the Kentucky product in which we both had a higher level of interest. Yes, I am talking about Kentucky Bourbon!

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The column still at Wilderness Trail, which had not yet been put into operation

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Fermentation at Makers Mark, still done in huge tuns made of cypress wood

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The Makers Mark distillery grounds. Yes, we got to taste some lovely stuff!

We spent the night in Louisville, where oddly enough there was a huge St Patrick’s Day street celebration (on March 10th!) and more drunks per square meter than I had seen in a long, long time. Next morning it was off to Chicago to visit the Carbery’s, some friends of mine from Yale. We spent a lovely evening with them and had some very tasty Chicago pizza.

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I believe that Chicago has the most interesting architecture of any American city

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Chicago pizza

After Chicago we headed for Michigan by way of South Bend. Tyler had never seen Notre Dame, so we paid a quick visit to the campus (home of the fattest squirrels I have ever seen!) and took the obligatory Touchdown Jesus photo.

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A quick pose…

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Get it?

Both Tyler and I were interested in visiting the upper peninsula of Michigan, so drove up the mitten right about at the pinky, stopping for the night near Traverse City. We awoke the next day to unexpected snow, which made the drive “interesting”. Once we crossed the bridge onto the Upper Peninsula, however, the snow cleared up, and we had a nice drive through the UP, along the upper edge of Wisconsin, to Duluth, Minnesota. We had a lovely beer at a local brewery, marveled at Lake Superior, and got back on the road for a couple more hours.

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Gassing up as the snow starts

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Lovely driving conditions

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Yes, the “Mazdarati” got a little dirty

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The shores of Lake Superior

We spent the night in Grand Rapids, MN, most notable for an only-in-Minnesota sign at the hotel, and a Mississippi River that was the size of a large creek.

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Pets are OK, but not Hockey Sticks

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The Mississippi Crossing

After leaving Grand Rapids, it was off to Fargo, North Dakota, and my date with destiny. North Dakota is my fiftieth state, and I am not the only person who saved this state for last. In fact, there is a large club! I got a T-shirt and certificate for my trouble, and got to see the real Wood Chipper used in the movie “Fargo”.

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The Wood Chipper

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State Number Fifty!

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Proud member of the club

We had very nice tacos for lunch in Fargo, the got back on the road to South Dakota. We stayed in Wall, but did not go to the drugstore. The next day we went to Badlands but could not see it, and went to Mount Rushmore, which was above the clouds. Still impressive, and moving.

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Lovely day for the Presidents

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Bad Visibility and Brutal Cold in the Badlands

From Mount Rushmore we headed for Gillette, Wyoming, then up towards Billings, Montana. We saw some beautiful countryside, and we saw some stunningly large mining operations. We ended up spending the night in Bozeman, which was a lovely small college town. The next morning, following the ubiquitous motel breakfast, we headed for Big Hole, which I had driven through some years before at dusk with Roscoe, and wanted to see it in daylight.

I checked the road reports, which indicated everything was clear. However, between the publication of the report and our arrival, six inches of new snow fell, the temperature dropped to 19 degrees, and the roads were only partially cleared. Tyler got his first taste of truly hazardous winter driving, and our pace slowed to a crawl. As we reached Big Hole, the conditions got better, but the bike rack started falling off when we hit bumps. A quick inspection showed that each bike had taken on about twenty pounds of frozen road spray, which had to be chipped off.

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Bikes in Big Hole, post-chip. The debris pile on the road came from the bikes

We stopped at Big Hole Battlefield and learned how despicably Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce were treated, then it was off to Idaho. We followed the path of Lewis and Clark down nearly to the Snake River, then turned north to Pullman, WA, to continue our tour of America’s small breweries.  We then suffered through a somewhat hellish evening drive through Eastern Washington to the garden spot called Ritzville.

The next day was the last of our drive. Pretty uneventful, though the Columbia River crossing was a definite highlight.

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Early morning shadow portrait above the Columbia River

We arrived in Seattle pretty much precisely on schedule at noon. Tyler got his key from his roommate, and we made the inevitable trip to Target to gear up. In the meantime, Karen flew up spur-of-the-moment from California, and the three of us had a lovely dinner together. Sunday morning it was back to the airport, and California.

I love a good road trip, even in Winter, and hated to see it come to an end. Could be my last cross country drive for a while, I’m afraid!

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Tyler and I are big fans of paper maps, and our route is hi-lighted here. This is the same dog-eared atlas we used to navigate out to North Carolina in 2014!

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Final trip odometer reading.

Banjo Odyssey

Way back when I was a kid, I played trumpet and french horn, and was actually getting reasonably good at it. However, in eighth grade, wrestling practice got in the way of trumpet lessons, followed by football, then rugby, and I gave up my fledgling musical career for the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

Over the next baker’s dozen years, my musical participation was extremely limited, and I always had a gnawing feeling way in the back of my mind that I left something behind that perhaps I should not have. As I approached the age of thirty, I decided to do something about this, and rented a saxophone, since it seemed in band practice when I was tooting away in the horn section, the sax players always had better parts and more fun. However, after about six months of playing around with the sax, I had a kid and then started a company, and I returned the sax to the music store so I could spend the next fifteen or so years focusing on family and career.

As the kids got older, the musical urge surfaced again, and I decided to give it another go. I tried and abandoned the following, in order: piano (way to hard, it would take a decade before I could stand to hear myself play), drums (too boring to play by myself), blues harmonica (too boring, again), and guitar (too hard, just like piano). I thought about going back to trumpet or sax, but I was thinking (rightly, I suspect) that they were just too damn loud.

About this time, Karen and I saw the band Barenaked Ladies at a charity event. On one song the guitarist, a good-natured Canadian, pulled out a banjo and started picking. And suddenly it became clear… BANJO! Banjo was the instrument I was looking for! And I could not figure out why I had not thought of it before.

As a kid, I always thought the banjo sounded really cool. Mainly because of this:

And, when I got a little older, because of this classic scene from Deliverance:

Banjo has some great advantages… it is quiet enough that my awful playing and practicing will not disturb the neighbors, or my wife. The banjo is tuned to an open G chord, which means it sounds OK even when you hit wrong notes. And, it turns out it is reasonably easy to learn. And fun.  It makes a happy sound, as Steve Martin memorably discusses at about the 11:55 mark in the following…

So, anyhow, I have been playing the banjo for about two and a half years now, give or take. I try to play thirty or sixty minutes each day, and I watch plenty of instructional banjo videos on Youtube. I am certainly NOT a natural at this, as I seem to have a difficult time getting my fingers to go quickly to where I need them to be. I suppose that is why I am not very good at typing, either!

While I certainly will not claim yet that I am competent, I am finally reaching the point where I can play well enough to get genuine pleasure out of it. My aspirations are simple… I would just like to be able to play the banjo as well as a nine-year-old. THIS nine year old!

I’ve got a ways to go, I’m afraid…

Spring Reading, 2017

Wow, who knew it would be so difficult to sit down and write a few words about the books I have read? I am trying to stick with it, though…

Here are the books I have read over the past couple months. No four-star ratings this time, but I am a harsh grader. Some very fun and interesting books, though!

Waiting for the Barbarians, by J. M. Coetzee

IMG_0080Why I Picked Up This Book: I read an interview in The Atlantic with David Gelerntner, an unusual, very intelligent guy who has some views I agree with and some I don’t. Anyhow, he mentioned Coetzee, and that reminded me that I have wanted to read something of his. I have had good luck with Booker prize winners, and I had heard Coetzee’s name mentioned along with Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, etc. I chose Waiting for the Barbarians because it had the best reviews on Amazon.

One sentence describing what this book is about: The magistrate of a colonial frontier town responds to the real or possibly imagined conflict with the tribal Barbarians.

Ratings:

  • Entertainment:  star1star1star1  At 150 pages, this was a pretty quick read. The character of the Magistrate and of his antagonists  could easily be envisioned as corollaries to modern-day politicians and military men. The Magistrate was a man with a conscience, and it was interesting to see how determinedly he was willing to stand for what he believed in and against what he opposed.
  • Insight: star1star1 Interesting portrayal of nonviolent resistance. I will also note here that I read like an engineer, taking things pretty literally. So I am sure that there are likely to be subtle insights that I missed!
  • Knowledge: star1 I did not really gain any new knowledge from this book, nor did I expect to.

Reminder: in a particular ratings category, four stars is mind-blowing, one star is meh, or in some cases NA. And I do not believe in grade inflation.

The Godfather, by Mario Puzo

IMG_0081Why I Picked Up This Book: I recently read a book by Garry Kasparov where he described the Putin regime as operating essentially the same as the Corleone operation in The Godfather. I thought reading The Godfather might be fun, so I picked up a copy.

One sentence describing what this book is about: A young man enters the family business and discovers his true self.

Ratings:

  • Entertainment: star1star1star1 The Godfather is a very entertaining book to read; the type of book where one feels inclined to cruise through 150 pages or more in a single day. It is by no means a work of art; but it is not quite a “guilty pleasure” either. Somewhere in between. Since of course I have seen the movie, it was easy to visualize the story, as the movie sticks very close to the book.
  • Insight: star1  I did not get any significant insights from the book.
  • Knowledge:  star1  I did not really gain any new knowledge from this book, nor did I expect to.

Reminder: in a particular ratings category, four stars is mind-blowing, one star is meh, or in some cases NA. And I do not believe in grade inflation.

Three Stones Make A Wall, by Eric H. Cline

IMG_0110Why I Picked Up This Book: I saw a brief review of this book in the Wall Street Journal. Archaeology is a subject I know almost nothing about, but I have always found it somewhat awe-inspiring to view objects that were made thousands of years ago. It sounded interesting , so I picked up a copy.

One sentence describing what this book is about: This book is a history of key archaeological sites and practices told by a leading professor of archaeology.

Ratings:

  • Entertainment: star1star1star1 This book presents fascinating stories about key archaeological sites such as Troy, Masada, Megiddo, Herculaneum, Mayan cities, and others – how the site was discovered, who discovered it, and how they explored it. It is written as a series of stories, and Cline’s style is conversational rather than academic.
  • Insight: star1star1 Helped develop my sense growing sense of just how advanced the Ancients were politically and philosophically, and how fundamentally things have not changed all that much since ancient Greece.
  • Knowledge: star1star1star1 I really gained a better understanding of early civilization and how it evolved, not to mention how ancient sites are discovered and investigated. Made me want to sign up for an archaeological dig!

Reminder: in a particular ratings category, four stars is mind-blowing, one star is meh, or in some cases NA. And I do not believe in grade inflation.

Anatomy of a Song, by Marc Myers

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Why I Picked Up This Book: I saw a few excerpts in the paper, discussing how certain songs were conceived of, developed, and produced. They were interesting and fun to read, so I figured I’d get the book.

One sentence describing what this book is about: This book is an oral history of 45 iconic hits that changed rock, r&b, and pop (just like the cover says!).

Ratings:

  • Entertainment: star1star1star1 I find it really interesting to hear how these songs came about. It is always interesting to me to hear how serious many (not all) of these artists were in the pursuit of their craft. It was fun to read about the songs and then listen to them, hearing many of them in a new light.
  • Insight: star1star1star1 It is surprising to see how educated and serious all these artists were. It is really difficult to picture Jim Morrison discussing chord trasnsitions from A minor to B minor a la John Coltrane, for instance!
  • Knowledge: star1star1 Interesting stuff to learn, but not really life changing!

Reminder: in a particular ratings category, four stars is mind-blowing, one star is meh, or in some cases NA. And I do not believe in grade inflation.

How to Read and Why, by Harold Bloom

IMG_0132Why I Picked Up This Book: I had seen a few interviews with Harold Bloom, and he seemed like a smart, interesting guy. I saw the title of the book, and was intrigued.

One sentence describing what this book is about: An erudite professor of English discussed how and why to read his favorite plays, poems, and novels.

Ratings:

  • Entertainment: star1 Listening Bloom talk about English is like listening to Einstein talk about Physics. I forced myself, with difficulty, to finish this book.
  • Insight: star1star1 The main insight I got from reading this book is that I made the right decision NOT to major in English
  • Knowledge: star1 When I selected this book I was hoping to learn how to read a book to gain more insight and understanding. I did not realize that what the title really meant was “how and why to read certain important works”.

Reminder: in a particular ratings category, four stars is mind-blowing, one star is meh, or in some cases NA. And I do not believe in grade inflation.

TIDES: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean, by Jonathan White

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Why I Picked Up This Book: I saw an advertisement for this book in Wooden Boat magazine, and decided to check it out.

One sentence describing what this book is about: This book contains everything you could possibly wish to know about the tides, including the science, history, geography, spirit, and amazing facts, all told by a surfer dude science journalist.

Ratings:

  • Entertainment: star1star1 Some of the chapters were extremely interesting to read, though I think in many cases it would have helped to have more photos. However, at some points the scientific background and discussions got a bit tedious, tempting me to skip ahead.
  • Insight: star1star1 The effect of the tides on human thought and the emergence of society was pretty dramatic, and not something that I have thought much about. And in these days of rising sea levels, it certainly merits some serious thought!
  • Knowledge: star1star1star1 It was really cool to read about some of the amazing tides around the world – for instance, the tide that roars up a river in China as a 25 foot wall of water, or the tribe in Canada that climbs through the ice in the Hudson Bay to forage in the caverns left behind by the receding tide. I will never look at the beach in quite the same way.

Reminder: in a particular ratings category, four stars is mind-blowing, one star is meh, or in some cases NA. And I do not believe in grade inflation.

INGREDIENT: Unveiling the Essential Elements of Food, by Ali Bouzari

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Why I Picked Up This Book: Karen and I attended a lecture/demonstration by Ali Bouzari, and the lecture was sufficiently interesting (and the food sufficiently delicious) to cause me to purchase the book.

One sentence describing what this book is about: Useful, comprehensive facts and techniques regarding food chemistry, written for the non-scientist.

Ratings:

  • Entertainment: star1star1 As I enjoy food and cooking, I am quite happy to read books about food cover-to-cover. Even cookbooks! While this book contains no recipes, it has lots of useful information on how to take advantage of the interactions between water, sugars, lipids, minerals, etc.
  • Insight: star1star1star1 Very thought-provoking. Makes it easy to understand why some recipes work and why some don’t. Will be very useful for troubleshooting things that don’t quite work out the way I planned.
  • Knowledge: star1star1star1 Packed full of interesting and useful information regarding food interactions. It is scrupulously written without using scientific jargon of any kind – a bit excessively so in my opinion.

Reminder: in a particular ratings category, four stars is mind-blowing, one star is meh, or in some cases NA. And I do not believe in grade inflation.

My Reading List

I have been a voracious reader for as long as I can remember. Even as a young child, my TV time was severely limited, so my nose was almost always in a book. Sounds almost quaint these days!

In the process of tidying our empty nest a bit this weekend, I decided to relieve my bookshelves of any books I did not think I was likely to read or refer to again. You see, while I used to believe that owning an interesting library was the sign of an educated person, I have recently come around to the idea that having stacks and stacks of books  may actually be the trademark of the pack rat. So, deciding that traveling light was the way to go, I pulled the books from their various shelves and set them on the floor in preparation for boxing.

I decided to take a picture of the books prior to putting them in boxes so that I could send it to places and/or people I would potentially donate the books to. Way easier than writing up a list! Here’s the picture:

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Two or three years worth of books, ready to go into boxes and off to the Danville Library

Looking at this pile, I came to the realization that while I had read all of these books, there were several that I could barely recall, if at all. There were also many of them that had informed, illuminated, or entertained me quite profoundly. But, I’ll have to say, my primary feeling was one of regret and perhaps slight embarrassment about all this information that I had ingested, but to a large degree had forgotten.

This feeling got me to thinking about my younger days, when my brain did not seem to be such a sieve. Of course, back in those days of college and before, there was often a lot at stake, such as upcoming exams, papers, classroom discussions, and the like. And, back then, I would usually take notes, use a highlighter, or write a quick summary so as to jog my memory later when wanted or required. So, I’ve decided that perhaps I should start using those techniques again!

I’m afraid that I don’t have the patience these days to read with a highlighter or pen in my hand all the time. So I have decided to do a quick summary of each book I read. I will do that here, on chateaubeeks.com, as it just seems like the easiest and most accessible place to put it. That way, years later, if I am trying to remember what book it was that I liked so much about, say, the Brooklyn Bridge, I will have a shot at finding it!

When I choose a book, I am generally looking for one of three things, or some combination of the three. In no particular order, I am seeking some combination of [1] entertainment, [2] insight, or [3] knowledge. So I am going to record how the book did in each of these three areas, then jot down a few notes. We’ll see how it goes!

Regarding Entertainment, I will grade each book as follows, from high to low:

  • star1star1star1star1 Exhilarating: This is a book that is such a pleasure to read that it is difficult to put down. It is so fun, so deeply moving, or so well written that I hate to see it end. It might make me laugh out loud or pause to allow tears to clear from my eyes.
  • star1star1star1 Engaging: I very much enjoyed reading the book and am likely to recommend it to others. It usually has a great story or great characters to separate it from the pack. It is good enough that it makes me set aside other things to spend extra time reading it.
  • star1star1 Pleasant: A good book, but not a great read. A nice story. On the nonfiction side, a book that gets boring from time to time. I might find myself dozing off from time to time, or watching The Voice instead of reading.
  • star1 Challenging: A book that is tough to get through, takes real effort to stick with it. On the nonfiction side it usually compensates by tackling material I am very eager to understand, so am willing to tough it out. On the fiction side, it is Faulkner, or Joyce. Often I just can’t make myself finish, even though I know I should.

Regarding Insight, here are the grades, again from high to low:

  • star1star1star1star1 Life Altering: This is a book that made me change the way I think about the world. Its impact hangs in my consciousness for weeks, months or years.
  • star1star1star1 Eye Opening: This provided insights that made me see things in a different way. It may have helped me understand the views of other, or understand why things are the way they are.
  • star1star1 Astute: The insight or insights provided by this book are significant and non-obvious. These are insights that are worth considering but are unlikely to change my view of the world.
  • star1 Incidental: I did not get any significant insights from the book.

Finally, on Knowledge, I will assign one of the following:

  • star1star1star1star1 Revelatory: This book provided me with knowledge that I found profoundly interesting, extremely useful, or intensely edifying.
  • star1star1star1 Enlightening: I learned lots of new interesting or useful things reading this book.
  • star1star1 Supplementary: This book provided nuggets of new knowledge that helped round out my knowledge of a subject with which I am already somewhat familiar.
  • star1 Incidental: I really did not gain any significant knowledge from this book.

You can assume that any book that does not merit even one-star in any category (i.e. impossible to read, trivial and obvious, full of misinformation) will get abandoned rather than finished, so will not make be written up. And this does, in fact, happen!

To test my methodology I decided to write up three books which I have read recently, each of which is “five stars” in one of the categories: Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner, The Cave and the Light by Arthur Herman, and The Rise and Fall of American Growth by Robert J. Gordon.

Click here to read about these books, all three of which I found to be exceptional. And, if you happen to have read any of these books, comment and let me know if you agree or disagree with my assessment!

Three Great Books: Angle of Repose, The Cave and the Light, and The Rise and Fall of American Growth

Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner.

Why I picked up this book: Over the past few years I have been working my way through a list of the 100 best novels as selected by Modern Library. Angle of Repose is number 82 on the list.

One sentence describing what this book is about: Angle of Repose is about a turn-of-the-century family making their way in the American West, as told by their grandson, who reveals his own story while telling theirs.

Ratings:

  • Entertainment: star1star1star1star1 Angle of Repose had many interesting stories wrapped around each other. It took place in locations with which I am very familiar, but which have changed quite dramatically since the story took place. The characters were all extremely vivid, complex, and believable.
  • Insight: star1star1star1 The angle of repose is the steepest angle that a granular material can be piled up before the pile collapses. The book used this metaphor very cleverly in the exploration of emotions and relationships.
  • Knowledge: star1star1 Among other things, learned some interesting things about civil engineering, specifically about mining mercury in the Almaden Valley (now part of Silicon Valley) in the late 1800’s.

Other notes: This is the first book by Wallace Stegner that I have read. The book is beautifully written, conveying almost photographic images of the setting and very tangible depictions of feelings and emotions.

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The Cave and the Light, by Arthur Herman.

Why I picked up this book: Came across this book while browsing in a bookstore, and was intrigued by the subtitle: “Plato versus Aristotle, and the struggle for the soul of Western Civilization”.

One sentence describing what this book is about: The Cave and the Light presents a distilled view of the teachings of Plato and those of Aristotle, and discusses their impact on serious thinkers from antiquity to the present day.

Ratings:

  • Entertainment: star1star1 Perhaps leaning towards challenging, this was neither a quick nor easy read. The writing style was fairly engaging, but there is a lot information to process, and a lot to think about while reading.
  • Insight: star1star1star1star1 After reading The Cave and the Light I found I had a much greater understanding of how the basic principles of our society evolved. I find now that I often read articles and opinions more critically, subconsciously considering whether a Platonic or Aristotelian viewpoint is being espoused.
  • Knowledge: Enlightening. I learned a ton about great thinkers I had never heard of, and about the history of Western thought in general.

Other notes: None.

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The Rise and Fall of American Growth, by Robert J. Gordon.

Why I picked up this book: I read a short review of this book in either the Wall Street Journal or the San Francisco Chronicle (NOT the NY Times, because their reviews are NEVER short) and thought it sounded interesting.

One sentence describing what this book is about: The Rise and Fall of American Growth describes the huge improvement in the American standard of living from roughly 1870 to 1970, and takes the position that this improvement has now largely stagnated.

Ratings:

  • Entertainment: star1star1 This book is 650+ pages long, and includes, tables and graphs. The writing style is engaging, however, and the material is so interesting that the book is both engaging and taxing
  • Insight: star1star1star1 We engineers often talk (or even gloat) about the current pace of technological change. However, this book really hammered home the fact that the capability to send disappearing messages containing funny movies really does not compare to things like running water, electrification, and the highway system when it comes to real impact on our living standard.
  • Knowledge: star1star1star1star1 The Rise and Fall of American Growth paints a vivid and astounding picture of what life in America was like prior to the 1870-1970 growth century. It covers all aspects of our living standard incredibly comprehensively.

Other notes: None.

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Adventures in Underwater Construction

Way back in 1929, my great grandfather built an unusual boathouse on Lake George. Ever since, the Boathouse has been a touchstone for all his descendants. It is currently owned by his grand-daughter (and my aunt) Julie, and her husband, Ken.

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The Boathouse

In 2015, Julie and Ken had the Boathouse inspected. Specifically, they were interested in the condition of the underwater parts of the foundation that are not easily visible from the surface. Not unexpectedly, the inspection indicated that substantial restoration work should be done in an expeditious manner. Since Ken and Julie have little experience working with contractors, and Karen and I have a fair amount, we were invited to act as sounding board, moral support, and comic relief throughout the process, which is still ongoing. This blog will show, primarily in pictures, the remarkable work that is underway.

First, some quick background on how the Boathouse is built. Starting from the top and moving down: the Boathouse is built around over a dozen 12×12 inch vertical timbers. These timbers in turn sit on steel plates that sit on large concrete blocks. In turn, the blocks (and we are under water now) sit on cribs, which can best be visualized as log cabins filled with stones (you’ll understand when you see the pictures a bit further down). Finally, these cribs sit on the bottom of the lake. The entire structure is built over the lake; it touches land, but does not sit on the land in any way.

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The closest I have to a “before” picture. The columns you see are the 12×12 timbers

The execution of this design back in the 1920’s was nearly flawless; almost 90 years later, the Boathouse is still within one inch of being perfectly level. In contrast, my house in San Jose was out of level by far more than that within three years of being completed! But after many years of a very harsh environment, some materials have simply reached the end of their expected life.

The process to repair the boathouse can be described with ease, but accomplished only with difficulty. The process is as follows:

  • Lift the Boathouse just a little bit, essentially putting her on “stilts”
  • Demolish and remove the old concrete
  • Reinforce the cribs
  • Pour new concrete
  • Gently put her back down

Of course, things are complicated a bit by the fact that most of this work must be done below the surface of the lake. And in the harsh Adirondack winter!

So, now that you have the general idea, let me show you some of the details, in full technicolor…

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The first step was to get the water out of the Boathouse. This was done using a “coffer dam”. For reasons known only by the contractor, they started work in mid-December

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The coffer dam is basically a steel frame covered with a large, thick plastic tarp

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The tarp extends along the bottom of the lake for 25 feet, and is held down with sand bags

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Once the coffer dam is in place, it forms an impermeable barrier, and the water is pumped out. Amazingly, it works!

OK, now that the water is gone, lets see what this foundation looks like!

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Here’s a pretty good example. As you can see, the crib sits on the bottom of the lake, and the concrete (which clearly has seen better days) sits on the crib. And finally, the timber sits on top of the whole thing

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I was curious why the wood does not rot. As it turns out, wood does not rot under water, because there is no oxygen. That is the same reason why Spanish galleons are found on the bottom of the sea, several hundred years after they sank.

You might be wondering how they manage to lift the Boathouse…

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Smaller beams are attached to the large 12×12, and supported on the bottom of the lake

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Small but powerful jacks are places at the bottom of each auxiliary beam to do the lifting

Now that the Boathouse has been lifted, it is time to remove the old concrete.

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Demolition in progress

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Demolished concrete pier, with timber suspended by the auxiliary supports

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Pier’s gone, time to take a well deserved break

The Department of Environmental Conservation would not allow ANY concrete debris to be left in the lake – even though it had been in the lake for 85+ years. So, we had to figure out how to get it off the lake bottom, out of the Boathouse, and into trucks for disposal.

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Conveyor from the work area, through a window, and outside

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The start of the conveyor, inside the Boathouse

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The rubble is piled in the emptied lagoon, for removal at the end of the job

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Lots of old concrete. Unfortunately, the canoe boathouse will need to be removed so that the concrete can be loaded into trucks

Once the old concrete was demolished and removed, it was time to strengthen the cribs. The cribs are held together by steel pins, which have largely corroded and weakened. They  were reinforced substantially with some serious lag bolts.

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Now THAT’s a serious lag bolt!

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One problem with cribs is that the corners can separate, allowing the crib to collapse. Bolts in the corners will prevent this from happening

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Lag bolts visible on the corner of this exterior crib

Now that the cribs are solid, it is time to replace the concrete piers. Concrete technology has come quite a ways since 1929; this time steel reinforcement will be used.

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Rebar laid out and ready for placement in the forms

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Plywood forms under a couple of the suspended timbers

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Looks about ready for some fresh concrete!

It was tough to get the old concrete out, and it certainly was not easy to get the fresh concrete inside. I wish I could have been there to watch this!

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Pumper truck getting ready for action

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The best way to get the concrete in turned out to be to go over the boathouse and in from the lake side

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Up and over!

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The view from the lake

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Masons working on a new pier

For anyone who loves this Boathouse, it is truly a beautiful sight to see the lovely, smooth concrete on which she now rests.

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Completed pier to the right of the workers

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Completed pier. If you look closely, you can see that the timber is still suspended about an inch above the concrete

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The same pier, prior to restoration

And that’s about where she stands at the moment. Since these photos were taken, she was gently let back down onto the piers. There is plenty of work yet to do, but the end is in sight. The walkways need to be reconstructed, the rubble needs to be removed, the water needs to be pumped back in, and the coffer dam needs to be removed. But the heavy lifting, so to speak, is complete!

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