"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Recipes–Tandoori-Style Grilled Salmon

This recipe is simple to make involving just a marinade, a few hours resting, and a few minutes cooking.  I have tried to get this right many times – I recreate from memory and sometimes I forget few things – and this time I’ve done it.  This dish is designed to be grilled in an oven, but there is no reason why you couldn’t grill it on an outdoor grill.

Tandoori-Style Grilled Salmon

* 1 1/2 lbs. Atlantic filet, skin removed, cut into 2-3” pieces

* 1/2 cup reduced fat or whole milk yoghurt

* 1 Tbsp. whole coriander seeds, pounded

* 5 whole cardamom seeds, pounded

* 2 tsp. whole fennel seeds, pounded

* 5 whole cloves, pounded

* 1 Tbsp.  (approx.) ground cumin

* 1 tsp. ground masala (optional)

* 2 tsp. curry powder

* 2 tsp. ground cinnamon

* 2 tsp. garlic flakes

* 5 grindings fresh black pepper

* salt to taste

- Put all the ingredients into a large mixing bowl and mix well

- Refrigerate for 5 hours (3 is the minimum), mixing once or twice

- Place the salmon pieces on a piece of tinfoil on an oven grill and grill for 8-10 min.

- Salmon is done when the tops are browned

What Is A CEO Worth–Or Any Of Us For That Matter?

There has been a lot of flap recently about executive pay and how it has ‘gotten out of hand’; yet the salary-and-benefits packages are not decided by senior executives themselves but by boards of directors.  They decide whether or not the remuneration offered to top executives is worth it.  

Since there is no x/y equation to plug in performance and spit out salary levels, firms and their boards must make often very subjective judgments as to worth and value.  While objective criteria form the basis for selection, and past performance regarding corporate profitability, labor management, financial savvy, etc. is scrutinized very carefully, subjective judgment will always come into play. Corporate bunglers sneak in under the vetting radar all the time.  The genius at Sewickley Ball Bearing may not be able to transfer his skills to mining or software.  The fact that he raised the profitability of his former company by 50 percent in two years, cleared employee dead wood while neutralizing difficult unions, and negotiated risky Wall Street investments without ultimate liability, does not mean he can do the same in a different environment. 

The board of directors seeking to hire him may have been so impressed by his categorical successes that they overlooked the facts that in their state the Attorney General was on a tear, the IRS increasingly nosy, the labor unions among the most powerful in the country, and the labor force far less educated and motivated than at Sewickley.  They might have been enticed by the candidates pushing the envelope and skating close to the edge of law and corporate propriety, but have misjudged how far he crossed the line.

This happens all the time.  Baseball managers go bust in one season. CEOs who transfer from private to non-profit agencies don’t get the cant and ‘mission’ and in driving the bottom line to the floor send the rats scurrying from the ship. Church pastors are found with their hands in the till and their hands down little boys pants. Army colonels on their way to the Pentagon are caught in delicto flagrante with the hot major in Supply; or who are so addled with anger and vendetta over the loss of a company that they do something stupid and more soldiers are killed.

The point is, you never know, and you pay for what you think you are going to get, not what you may actually get. Given the relative subjectivity of the employment decision, it is not unusual that decisions on benefits packages are even more subjective.

Attempts to apply objective criteria to salary levels will always fail.  If a company is failing, although there may be textbook cases and historical evidence to suggest time to profitability, no two companies are exactly alike.  Furthermore, the amount of money available to rectify structural problems may be limited.  Finally, as above, the wrong rider might be in the saddle.  Projections to profitability are almost always wrong.

All this corporate sabermetrics, however, is valid only after an new CEO his hired – that is, his salary increases may be tied to some objective criteria – but the question of how much to offer him to get him to join the firm is another question altogether.

If the board of directors has faith in a candidate based on his past performance, personality, professional and social contacts, intelligence, and machismo; and if they feel that because of his attractiveness he has many suitors, then they can and should pay whatever it takes to hire him, so long as his benefits package does not break the bank.

So, under these conditions, is a benefits package of $10 million too high? One of $100 million? One of a billion over three years?  No CEO salary is too high if the there is money in the till and confidence in the minds of the board.  Private corporations are not like municipal government where public service employees are hired for life as long as they are loyal and show up. If the new CEO turns out badly, he can be cashiered on two weeks notice.  High-stakes capitalism is a risky business, and sometimes investments turn out badly.  You simply turn the page.

The non-profit world is more regulated because of its many government contracts.  Salary levels are rigorously controlled and tied to salary history rather than performance.  If you made $50,000 last year in your last government contracted job, you cannot be paid $100 thousand, regardless of your unique contributions to the firm.  A CEO of a large profit agency in Washington once tried to do this and found ways around the rat’s nest of public regulations.  The candidate had exactly the right skills to manage a key division of the company and bring it back from the dead.  He had the technical background, the agility, the political savvy, and the intelligence to turn the whole company around. Yet at the relatively low salaries the non-profit was traditionally offering, he would have paid them no mind whatsoever.  However with the enhanced benefit package devised by the CEO, he was at least listening.

The howls from the staff were wild and savage.  As a man he was throwing off the new initiative to redress female salary inequality.  As a corporate outsider he was jumping many pay grades above the most senior staff in the organization.  Morale would become frayed, initiative dampened, etc. etc. Worst of all, his ‘outrageous’ salary was an affront to the ‘mission’ of the company.  How could he be paid a Wall Street salary when there were poor, starving children in Africa?

In the private sector, no one cares about any of this nonsense; and companies are free to spend their money on whomever and however they want.  Risk is implicit in any decision.

So why the outcry over executive salaries? Why, for example is the invidious comparison made between the salary of the CFO responsible for a portfolio of hundreds of millions of dollars in a volatile market and the stock-and-errand boy.  The fact that the CFO makes 100 times as much is completely irrelevant.  The stock-and-errand boy should be paid a salary commensurate to his responsibilities and the demands of the market independent of any other job category.  What relevance does the smaller income disparity among job levels in Sweden have to do with corporate America?  Different culture, different economic system, different history, and different social contract.

I had a boss once who was a whiz at winning government contracts; and she was rewarded for her performance.  The reality of his department, however, was far different. Everyone who rowed in her slave ship was tired, disaffected, and angry.  Her model – work ‘em to death; the line of job applicants goes out the door – was good for short-term profits.  While her market analysis was right, and that the supply of bright young things did indeed outstrip demand, she did not count on the intangible of reputation.  Word got around that she was as unforgiving as Simon Legree and an arrogant, dismissive, and intolerant manager who ruled by fear and intimidation.   The line outside the door dwindled.  Those employees who secured new employment put molasses in her gas tank, went viral in their condemnation, and joined class action lawsuits against her.

The board of directors had missed the downside of her very appealing drive, ambition, and work ethic. After five years of rising profits, the curve went south, trusted employees left the firm, and she was out on the street in months.

Her high salary was worth it to the company for five years, but the irreparable damage she did to corporate image and integrity was incalculable.  In other words, her salary which was many times that of any one under her and as high as anyone but the President paid dividends. No one on the board batted an eyelash at the One Percent protestors in the park.  They paid her what she was worth, rode her coattails for five years, then took a loss.  Her replacement was paid even more.

Corporate enterprise is a risky business; and companies should be free to do what they please and either reap the benefits or suffer the consequences. No matter who has a say in executive pay decisions – top management, boards of directors, or stockholders – decisions will always be subjective and given to the whims of the marketplace.

‘There are no whiners in private industry’ said R. Whitfield Hunt III, one of the new breed of laissez-faire capitalists of the early 20th century who were too busy building America to notice anything else but expansion and profits.  “Whiners”, he said, referring to the progressives of the era, “should go back to running soup kitchens and managing bread lines.  Up here this is America.”

Today’s capitalism is a rather meek version of yesterday’s muscular enterprise.  There has been some softening of the edges and a lot more government regulation; but it still remains a bare-fisted arena. The unions have  been destroyed, the collaboration between corporate America and Wall Street restored; the consumer cannily manipulated by the use of big data and savvy advertising; and the landscape continually altered by sharp merger-and-acquisition lawyers who find ways around Congress just as successfully as they have in the past. 

Therefore, don’t look for any corporate mea culpas over executive pay anytime soon; and expect the whining from the One Percenters to die down and be forgotten.  The American capitalist juggernaut is back after some years of downturn. Lessons were learned, especially how to outflank, outrun, and outthink government, and business is thriving.  As Whitfield Hunt said, “Up here this is America.”

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Do Genetics Determine Political Choice?

A close friend and I have differed significantly on politics for years; and although I have always thought that trust, respect, humor, energy and vitality, intellectual agility, and forthrightness were the elements at the heart of our friendship, he felt that political philosophy, the element that most defines character, must be at the core of any serious relationship.

We have gotten over our differences and are back to the friendship begun at age 12, but I have always had to admit that he had a point.  Political philosophy is very different from politics and is a corollary of moral philosophy.  One either believes in the perfectibility of man or an ineluctable, predictable destiny based on uniform, universal and hardwired human nature

There is no doubt, as Tolstoy elaborated in his Epilogue’s to War and Peace , that every act is predicated on millions of antecedents, and that Napoleon’s victories were not because of his unique brilliance, but because of the confluence of many random and predictable events, past and present. Tolstoy however never denied the dramatic historical place of Napoleon. One cannot deny the potent presence of Robespierre, Genghis Khan, or Henry VIII.  In short, the two conceptions of historical reality can co-exist.

Nietzsche said it best.  Willful expression of the individual enables him to rise above the herd in a meaningless world.  In other words, life may be nothing more than a random clacking of billiard balls and that any one individual action per se is meaningless; but the super-human effort to deny inevitability is heroic.

Greek tragedy is all about individual action set within a predestined scenario.  The tragedy is that man will always fall.  The exaltation is that he will always deny the forces arrayed against him.

Individualism, said my friend, is the problem - a corrosive force that degrades community and social integrity.  The group will always be more important than the individual.  Collective action, cooperative enterprise, and democratic agreement on norms, principles, and ethical behavior is what defines the best in man – not aggressive, self-interested, and dismissive individual enterprise.

These contrary beliefs do not simply define politics, but the way one behaves. One's  understanding of man’s relationship to God, secular institutions, society, and the geo-ecological environment are profoundly different. Our reactions to and sympathy/empathy for others is determined by a moral philosophy which either blesses and anoints others as brothers and sisters; or sees them as evolutionary competitors struggling for survival, dominance, and genetic longevity.

How did we become so different? We are both from the same socio-cultural milieu.  We both went to elite preparatory schools and universities; and although our immediate socio-cultural heritage was indeed different, there should be no reason why our political philosophy should have so dramatically diverged.

Some researchers have suggested that political philosophy has a genetic basis.  Although society, culture, education, and upbringing certainly have a role, it is bits of DNA which align in certain ways to produce conservatives or liberals:
Over the last two decades, political scientists, and psychologists have used genetics and neuroscience to claim that people’s political beliefs are predetermined at birth. Genetic inheritance, they argue, helps to explain why some people are liberal and others conservative; some people turn out to vote; and why some people favor and others oppose abortion and gay rights. The field itself has a name—genopolitics—and it is taking political science by storm. In the last four years alone, over 40 journal articles on the subject have appeared in academic journals (John B.Judis, The New Republic, 10.29.14)
The principal proponents of ‘genopolitics’ go on to explain the difference:
Alford, Funk, and Hibbing label the ultimate difference in orientation “absolutist” vs. “contextualist.” The “absolutist” is characterized, among other things, by a “relatively strong suspicion of out-groups … a yearning for in-group unity, and strong leadership.”
Judis, the author of The Atlantic article questions assumptions, methodology, and conclusions. His most telling indictment, however, is directed at the leap of faith that proponents of genopoltics make when they conclude that the beliefs “held, for example, by conservatives in the modern United States is remarkably similar to that held by conservatives in other cultures and at earlier times in American history.”  In other words, conservatives have been ‘absolutists’ forever, uneasy with change, subtlety, and diversity and fearful of moving out of their own closed environments.

Definition is everything; and this arbitrary classification appears deeply biased.  The researchers clearly favor a 'contextualist' approach and conclude that not only is American political culture polarized, but it has always been and will always be so because of genetic predetermination.

No one doubts the serious political divisions of America today. Whole swaths of the country cannot possibly be the result of genetic predisposition.  Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia are among the most socially, religiously, and economically conservative in America.  They share a common and collective belief in fundamental religion, an early-American trust in individual enterprise and distrust of government, and inflexible belief in ‘family values’.  A quick perusal of Southern history - slavery, Reconstruction, and the post-Reconstruction resurgence of the Old South at least suggests why the South is largely conservative.


The wealthy are conservative because they worked for their riches and want to pass them on to their heirs.  Marginalized, poor inner city minority populations are likely to be progressive because ever since Reconstruction, government has provided for and taken care of them.

Yet something is missing in a narrow socio-economic determinants of political belief. The more interesting question is why do individuals from the same socio-economic and cultural milieu often differ substantially on political philosophy. Wealth, background, and upbringing seem to have no politically predictive value.  There were as many liberals among the Shaker Heights, Grosse Pointe, North Shore, Park Avenue crowd as conservatives. Why was this?

Culture, rather than more narrow socio-economic factors, seemed to be in play. For some it was religion.  A belief in Christian compassion and generosity influenced their views on poverty, social equality, and public investment.  Others retained the  more fundamentalist view of religion learned in childhood.  The Christian God is forgiving, but one must work for His favor.

Historians of wealth could not ignore the lessons of history – that it was no more than a familiar repetition of war, perimeters, power, plots, and rises and falls from favor. How could one possibly make any investment in social causes when poverty, misery, and a luckless consignment to the margins was the rule not the exception?  Adults of large inherited wealth had been taught noblesse oblige since they were children, and this morally liberal philosophy determined their more temporal political choices.

In other words, fundamental differences between conservatives and liberals go far beyond region, class, and income.  Political philosophy, not politics, guides political choice. Those who believe that the presence of an ineluctable human nature drives the cyclical machine of human events are likely to be conservative.  Like Nietzsche, they understand that only the expression of individual will and ambition validate an otherwise meaningless, predetermined life. Those who because of faith, family tradition, or simple predisposition have a more idealistic perspective tend to come to a belief in consensus and cooperation.

The genopolitics proponents, however, are right in one regard – nurture alone is not responsible for the selfless or selfish individual.  Somewhere in the double helix there is some combination of DNA bits and strands which predispose some of us to love and caring, while others of us are naturally willful, fearless, and ambitious.

So the question is not whether we are conservative or liberal, but do we see the world in terms of historical determinism itself determined by a hardwired human nature; or in terms of a special and unique human endowment - compassion - which has yet to be fully realized.

Recipes–Spicy Shrimp And Rice Low Country Style

Low Country Boil is a specialty of coastal South Carolina and Georgia.  It is a combination of shrimp, sausage, corn, and potatoes and is delicious.  The shrimp are boiled in a spice which is very similar to Old Bay, commonly found around the Chesapeake and DC area.

I was inspired by Low Country Boil for this recipe, particularly the use of the spice to marinate the shrimp and as a key ingredient for the sauce.  I use a mix of Old Bay, Cajun, and Low Country Boil spices for this recipe; but if you cannot find the Low Country spices, the Old Bay and Cajun mix will be fine. 

The trick of this recipe is the reduced shrimp liquid.  It suffuses the rice and other ingredients, and every bite has a full shrimp flavor. .

Spicy Shrimp With Rice Low Country Style

* 1/2 lb. large shrimp, shells on

* 1/2 red bell pepper, chopped

* 4 lg. cloves garlic, chopped

* 1 med. onion, chopped

* 1 cup (approx.) loosely packed fresh basil leaves

* 3 lg. sprigs parsley

* 4 tsp. each Old Bay and Cajun spice (Low Country Boil spice optional)

* 1 cup rice (Jasmine, Basmati, etc.)

* 3 Tbsp. olive oil

- Place shrimp in a large mixing bowl, sprinkle spices liberally, add 1 Tbsp. olive oil and mix well.  Marinate for at least an hour, but 3-4 hours in the fridge would be better

- Cook the rice, and let cool at room temperature for at least 3 hours

- After marinating, add the shrimp to a very hot iron skillet, and cook for approximately 5 minutes, turning frequently.

- When shrimp are done, let cool, remove the shells, and place the shells in a saucepan.

- Cover with water (1” above shells), stir, bring to a low boil and let boil until the liquid is reduced to approximately 1/2 cup

- Strain the shrimp water into a container, discard the shells

- Sauté the garlic until done; add the basil, parsley, onion, and red pepper and sauté over medium heat until the peppers are beginning to soften

- Add the shrimp liquid, stir, and let simmer for about 20 minutes or until the liquid has been reduced by half.

- When the sauce has been reduced, cut the shrimp into 1” pieces (approx.) and add to the sauce

- Add the cooled rice, mix well, reheat over low heat and serve.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Avoiding The Occasion of Sin–Keep Your Hands To Yourself

“Idle hands make light the Devil’s work”, intoned Father Brophy from the pulpit at nine o’clock Mass.  As usual he was resplendent in his silk robes, gold crucifix, and embroidered chasuble. He paused to adjust his long sleeves and to smooth out a stray wrinkle which had been missed by the rectory maid. “And busy hands in the wrong places grease the skids to his fiery Inferno.”

Timmy Brixton knew what was coming – another one of Father Brophy’s harangues about self-abuse, the ‘unholy concatenation’ of impure thoughts and deeds. Timmy at age 14 had been heir to the sins of the flesh since two years ago when he first discovered this, the most unexpected and wonderful pleasure of his young life.  It was even more of a surprise because no one had told him about it – God’s secret he supposed, a gift under the Christmas tree, a surprise package of ecstatic good feeling.

He became quickly addicted and wouldn’t have been able to stop even if he had good reason to. Although he heard Father Brophy bang on about the sinful practice, Timmy for the life of him couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.  God had created Man in his own image which meant part, parcel, and mechanics; so whatever Man did should be all right with Him.  Of course murder, theft, and covetousness he could understand.  These were crimes against society and moral law let alone punishable acts; but the release of sexual energy?  How could that possibly be a sin.  If what the nuns had told him in Catechism class was right, then God had the same equipment as men did; and women, too, for that matter.

So far, the sexual trajectory of Timmy Brixton was no different than any young adolescent.  He pleasured himself whenever he could – at the movies, in school, and even in church. The problem was (although Timmy didn’t consider it a problem) that he was more interested in the girls he conjured up in his fantasy than in flesh-and-blood reality.  He imagined Sybil Birnbaum coming in the front door on a wave of perfume and cigarettes, hair up and styled, mink coat long and so fine that it caught the light of the candles like a mirror, long gold earrings and her sensuous mouth colored only slightly with lipstick. As she walked into the living room, she let her mink coat drop to the floor to reveal her perfectly smooth, white, naked body.

Or Nancy Billings, the Latin teacher who came to his house to tutor him on the third declension. She came up to his room, knocked lightly on the door, and sat beside him on the bed. He could see her breasts through the light silk blouse, and tasted the sweetness of her breath as she leaned over him.

Or Marilyn Monroe, the sexiest woman on earth, who let her long blonde hair fall on his face and shoulders as the kissed him with her warm, full, sensuous lips.

Marilyn Monroe

In other words, why bother with the pimply, dumb, and lifeless girls of the seventh grade when he could have sex with any woman in the world?

His father began to worry when Timmy turned down invitations to the Holly Ball, the Sylvan Meadow Cotillion, and the Farmington Gala – Christmas events were the young girls and boys of West Hartford, New Brighton, and Avon paired up, shared kisses under the mistletoe, and sat under the bare oaks of the garden.  Mr. Brixton had no idea what was going on in his son’s head, but as his diffidence and indifference to girls increased, he felt the boy needed a talking to.  This was the Fifties, after all, and Haley Brixton was worried to his bones that his son was queer.  He had no idea how to breach the subject, as taboo as it was in those days, so he beat around the bush so circumferentially that Timmy had no idea whatsoever what his father was getting at.  Even if he had, he would have been unconcerned.  Every single one of his sexual partners had been gorgeous women.

Even in real life he was warm, attentive, and solicitous to the girls in his class.  He wasn’t indifferent to women – not by any means. It’s just that they couldn’t possibly compare to the sultry beauties of his daydreams. Joanie Brand’s teeth were a tad horsey – long and overexposed.  Betty Grayson’s nose turned left.  Erica Noyes’ cheeks were so plump and rosy that they reminded him of the Red Delicious apples his father bought at Roger’s Orchards.  And these were the attractive girls in his class.  The dogs were an ensemble of bulge, stringy, and unkempt.

Because Timmy was so confident of himself and his sexuality, his indifference to girls was a titanic turn on for them.  They had to have him, and their attention and bitch-in-heat overtures made him the envy of his male classmates.

Timmy had no idea at the time that he was actually on the cutting edge of what was the most significant social revolution since Robespierre.  The final elision of mind and computer would transform reality into virtuality. Everyone could live in the virtual fantasy world of their own creation thanks to the deciphering of the electrical code of the brain.  All those synapses fired for a reason, created images, thoughts, and sensations; and once they were deciphered like the double helix, they could be manipulated, mediated, and turned into limitless programs of virtual time and space.

In simpler terms, a man entering this virtual world – one which was indistinguishable from the ‘real’ thing – could sleep with the Duchesse Anne of Bretagne, stroll through the formal gardens of Versailles with Marie Antoinette and make love to her in the royal bedchamber, be oiled and perfumed by the geishas of the Emperor of 17th Century Japan, or eat foie gras, truffles, and foraged sea grass with a Hollywood starlet.

Timmy – Timothy as he was known in his adult years – was one of the Google programmers who worked on the final interface of mind and machine and wrote the most sophisticated software programs to accompany the radical hardware connections developed in Switzerland.

Every night, Timmy slipped into his virtual world via a simple portal connection to his brain - the preying mantis goggles and virtual reality helmets were things of the past – and chose his fantasy. If Googling was impressive in the early twenty-first century, it was nothing compared to decades later when surfing the web meant travelling into history, finding a site, and then reconfiguring it to one’s own pleasure and fantasy.

Timmy was fortunate to have gotten his Uncle Preston’s genes and at 98 was still going strong with a mind as acute, perceptive, and disciplined as it was in his twenties. He continued to program at Google, and within a space of less than ten years, the company had millions of subscribers who had chucked ‘reality’ in favor of virtual worlds never before imagined.

Timmy had seen this coming.  Americans, he knew, would be a captive market. Everything they did from building outrageous copies of French chateaux, Spanish villas, and Moroccan Kasbahs to groupie obsession with Hollywood glitz and glamour was already a dalliance with virtuality.  More and more people became engaged in interactive social media and plugged themselves in to every form of media available.  In other words, they increasingly had no use for the hard, concrete, smelly, and palpable.  Virtuality was fine with them.

Of course the Church was outraged, and Pope after Pope railed against the distortion of God’s creation.  What control could they have over the spiritual destiny of anyone if people carried out their own spiritual quests in the Himalayas of their virtual fantasies?

Despite the fact that the Church played a speed-up offense in the second decade of the century and talked warmly about gays and women, they could not shake the sexual sin thing.  God created a man and a woman to join in sexual congress for the sole purpose of producing a child of God, and that was that.  It had been so since the Gospel of St. John, and it would be forever more.  And, as Vatican spokesman said when the Church finally caught on to what virtual sex actually meant – none other than self-abuse – “Keep your hands to yourself” or words to that effect.

It was too late of course. Self-pleasuring was the sine qua non of virtual sex in a virtual fantasy; and advances in brain electronics and chemistry were such that crude personal manipulation was no longer necessary.  The same brain-computer link which enabled the powerful software developed by Timmy Brixton, could also activate the pleasure centers of the brain to produce endless, infinite orgasms with no sweat.

Almost near 102 and still alert as ever, Timmy thought of Father Brophy and his sexual harangues at Sunday Mass.  The Catholic Church could certainly use more priests like him although, of course, his breed had died out years ago.  In fact the Church became quickly supernumerary as individuals found their own salvation and redemption and entered a virtual world without crime, sin, or delinquency; and there was no escaping the fact that masturbation – finally, twenty years after the new virtual software had been introduced, the Church brought itself to say the word – was here to stay.  Of course it had always been there, but no one, let alone the Vatican had any idea that it would become central to the Brave New World that had arrived.

Most of the rest of us who knew Timmy thought he was nuts at the time.  What could have been better than to feel the actual tits of Nancy Billings or to get under the skirt of the hot Jewish princess, Sybil Birnbaum?  Yet, for those of us old enough to witness the revolution in which Timmy Brixton played such an important part, we had to admit that he had always been on to something big and we were proud to know him.