Thursday, June 19, 2008

Offshore Drilling: Yes or No?

With gasoline prices seemingly reaching new highs every day, the call is getting louder for drilling of oil off the shores of the US coastline.

Of course, the NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) don’t want drilling off the shore where they believe they can actually see it. The Tree Huggers believe that it could damage the environment. Some think that it only helps the oil companies increase their profits. There are others who have grown weary of the US and the world being dependent on the whims of OPEC. There are conspiracy theorists who think that the U.S. has held off on increasing drilling on its own turf because they think the U.S. hopes that OPEC will sometime run out of oil, and when that happens, we'll still have ours and be top dog in the world of oil.

Me? I think the issue of drilling offshore may be a moot point if we don’t get more refineries to process the crude. Several reports say that the US has access to plenty of crude oil, both on its own turf and from outside suppliers, but there just aren’t enough refineries to move the oil through the processing pipeline. There is also the issue with the large number of various gasoline blends that are produced in the US to cover individual state emissions regulations, weather variations (winter blends vs. summer blends), and grades of gas (regular to premium).

Here’s what I think. The US should immediately consolidate and reduce the number of blends used across the country and settle on a select few that will handle most cars and also provide proper emission standards. For example, if California gas has the most stringent emissions regulations, then why don’t we all use that blend of gas? If a car will run on regular or premium, why exactly do we need the middle octane gas? Or, why don’t we just all run on premium? By only producing one octane level for gasoline, the current refineries could operate more efficiently and could increase their capacity. As far as weather related gas blends, well, I don’t understand the dynamics of how gasoline must be modified to handle all climates, but I would have to think there is a way to reduce the number of blends there as well. If not, possibly making changes in other gasoline standards would be enough to help increase refinery capacity.

If these changes are not enough and more refineries are needed, then they should be built. I know the NIMBYs would not like that. But something has to give if we expect the gasoline supply to stay stable and prices to stop the upward spiral, and if we have to continue to drive gas-fueled vehicles.

While I would not want someone drilling for oil on Lake Erie – I live only a few miles from its shore – I would accept it if it meant that we could get off foreign oil dependency. I also would be all for wind turbines on the Lake, which is a side issue discussed off an on in the Lake Erie and Great Lakes region. And I also think that while we need to do all we can to protect our fragile environment, I would be open to offshore drilling as a whole if it was done in a highly controlled manner with all safety precautions in place. Same for drilling in Alaska.

But it goes without saying that ALL these points would be moot if we could find ways to power our cars, and our homes, and our power plants with energy that is not based on fossil fuels. This discussion has been going on since the 1970s and the oil crisis of that time (I remember it well) and it seems that in over 30 years we’ve made little progress.

With the upcoming presidential election, all eyes will be on Barack Obama and John McCain and how they will approach the subject of gasoline prices, offshore drilling, and renewable energy sources. But we shouldn’t let it end with the election – we should expect results. After all, I don’t want to wait another 30+ years for a viable solution.

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Monday, June 16, 2008

One Man’s Death: News Coverage Gone Overboard

First of all, I will preface this blog by extending my sympathies to the family of Tim Russert, who was NBC’s Washington Bureau Chief and also was the host of NBC’s Meet The Press. It is always heart breaking to lose a member of one’s family, especially so suddenly. Having my own family members who have died, both suddenly or after lengthy illnesses, I know it can be hard to accept.

What I take exception to is the over-the-top coverage on the part of NBC News and MSNBC, who seemed to cover Russert’s death to the point of ignoring all other news in the country or world. I understand their shock, and their belief that Russert made a huge contribution to their network. There is no doubt that he did, as evidenced by the wall-to-wall coverage on MSNBC and the same on NBC Nightly News and The Today Show. But let’s be realistic here, we aren’t talking Walter Cronkite here, who probably would deserve such coverage but would probably find such behavior vulgar.

While NBC and MSNBC were busy covering the death of one man, the people of Iowa were fighting widespread and devastating flood. Yet, one would think that there was nothing else going on in the country or the world more important than Russert’s death. To make matters worse, a lot of the coverage was to allow those who worked with or were friends with Russert recount stories about him. It was like an endless eulogy, but at least one could escape it by changing the channel.

The news shouldn’t become the news, and if it does, they should cover themselves with impartiality, humility, and restraint. While I believe the network did right by acknowledging Tim and celebrating his life, I think they did terribly wrong by ignoring other news in the country, specifically the Iowa flooding. Let’s hope the NBC and MSNBC can move on, and quickly.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Finally – an Honest Restaurant Review

Looks nice, but looks can be deceiving.
I often read the restaurant reviews in my local papers and sometimes in the New York Time or other large national papers. For the most part, it seems to me that no reviewer ever goes to a bad restaurant. I know that they have to exist because I’ve had the displeasure of eating at some of them. Still, even some bad restaurants gets better reviews than they deserve, almost as if the reviewer is ashamed to admit they even ate there.

But a writer at the New York Times finally wrote a review that seems unbelievably honest. In fact, it perfectly relays one of the worse dining experience I’ve heard in recent history. The author, Frank Bruni, writes about “Ago” at the Greenwich Hotel in TriBeCa, and if there was a Pulitzer for best restaurant review, he deserves it. Here it is for your enjoyment:

No Trouble Drawing a Crowd

Published: June 11, 2008
BECAUSE our 8:30 p.m. table at Ago wasn’t ready by 8:51, we were still at the bar when the great wave of white wine crashed over it.

I’m talking about the “Poseidon Adventure” of wine spills. Shelley Winters could have done the backstroke in it. I’m not sure how the bartender set it in motion, and neither was he. He kept marveling at its fury and aftermath: my friend’s wine-splashed chin, her wine-soaked skirt, her wine-sopped entirety.

He apologized perhaps 639 times, and I wouldn’t recount the incident if that were the whole of it. Spills happen.

The following shouldn’t.

At 8:56, when he asked my friend if he could help out in any way beyond free drinks, she wondered if he could maybe see about our table for four. He bolted away for a prolonged huddle with the hostesses, who had noticed (and seemed to giggle) over the sauvignon tsunami, and with a manager. He was visibly pleading with them.

He returned at 9:02 with something less than disaster relief. Our table, he said, should be ready in 10 minutes. Never mind that we’d been told at 8:45 that we had five minutes to go. Never mind that Ago has some 110 seats, giving it more flexibility than many restaurants have.

We waited. And waited. One of the hostesses finally fetched us at 9:22. I’ll do the math: that’s 52 minutes after our reservation.

She led us to a round table little bigger than a bike wheel. When our four appetizers later arrived and claimed every square millimeter of it, the waiter audibly contemplated balancing a fifth, communal appetizer that we’d ordered on top of our wine glasses.

The table was pressed so close to a column that I couldn’t lower my right arm all the way, and if my wine-drenched friend leaned back in her chair, the column obstructed her view of me and mine of her.

For its soggiest customer, Ago had made available its sorriest real estate.

This restaurant isn’t in the hospitality business. It’s in the attitude business, projecting an aloofness that permeated all of my meals there, nights of wine and poses for swingers on the make, cougars on the prowl and anyone else who values a sort of facile fabulousness over competent service or a breaded veal Milanese with any discernible meat.

The one I had one night was pounded so thin that the breading on top met the breading on the bottom without pausing for much of anything in between. A vegan could have made peace with it.

Some of the other food passed muster. The best of the pizzas from Ago’s wood-fired brick oven had blistered, smoky crusts and thin sheets of decent Parmesan. An appetizer of burrata was suitably creamy, and a juicy T-bone — cooked, like the pizzas, in the brick oven — satisfied the steak lover in me.

But this restaurant in the new Greenwich Hotel in TriBeCa doesn’t concentrate its energies on quality or consistency. It’s content to be a deafening “hot spot,” which is how it’s identified in the headline atop its inaugural press release, and when you’ve got the heat and the crowd is standing-room-only, why sweat the raw artichoke salad? The paltry artichoke was hard to find among all the frisée, and Shelley could have done the freestyle in the dressing.

Ago’s principal owners include the chef Agostino Sciandri — the restaurant, pronounced AH-go, is named after him — and the actor Robert DeNiro, who treated TriBeCa much better with Nobu. They teamed on an initial Ago in West Hollywood, another in South Beach and yet another in Las Vegas. New York is getting their sloppy fourths, emphasis on sloppy.

They poured some money into the place, which occupies a corner space with grand windows. The reclaimed wood in the beams on the high ceiling is from the 1800’s. The mirrors are antique glass. With columns bedecked in marble and a floor of terra cotta from Tuscany, the trattoria wears Prada, or whatever the decorative equivalent is.

The menu is divided into antipasti, pasta dishes (along with risotto and gnocchi), pizzas and main courses of fish and meat.

It has stabs of ill-advised invention, like a starter of gummy juniper-smoked swordfish with misshapen, oddly frayed wedges of orange and other citrus.

It has usual suspects, like spaghetti (overcooked) with clams (slightly gritty), or grilled branzino (moist, though bland) with sauteed spinach.

Apart from gnocchi with a robust lamb ragu, most of the pasta dishes — much more expensive and less reliable than those at Morandi, say, or Gemma — were on the bland side. And no pig should perish for a pork chop as dry as one at Ago.

Desserts were dead-on one night, dead ringers for Sara Lee another. Stick with the terrific gelato, made in-house.

Brace yourself for confusion.

I called in early May for a reservation in early June and was informed that everything between 6 and 10 p.m. was booked. I called a few days later to ask anew about the same dates and was informed that reservations weren’t yet being taken for that time period.

A sommelier chided me for ordering wine bottle No. 199, saying the number didn’t exist. Wrong: it was there, but the restaurant had inexplicably put it after No. 200 on the expensive list.

A food deliverer conflated veal and lamb into some hybrid beast, the juveniles of two species in one. This happened on a night when my companions and I waited 26 minutes past our reservation time. Our appetizers included a pasty tuna tartare.

Then came an entree that perplexed us, a pale slab of meat with one long bone.

“What is this?” asked one of my friends.

“The special veal chop,” said the food deliverer.

“But I ordered rack of lamb,” my friend said. I had heard him.

“Yes,” said the deliverer. “That’s rack of lamb.”

My friend pressed: which was it?

“It’s the special rack-of-lamb veal chop,” the deliverer said, at which point we sought deliverance from him and searched for our frequently vanishing waiter, whom I had come to think of as the bucatini Houdini.

When he reappeared, he identified the meat as veal. He insisted that rack of lamb couldn’t have been among the specials he’d recited because the restaurant wasn’t even serving it. My friend and I were apparently in the grip of the very same auditory hallucination.

He offered to bring us something else, but we stuck with the veal. It wasn’t half bad.

When we left we noticed him squabbling with nearby diners. They were telling him he’d mucked up their order, and they looked miserable.

They had clearly gotten the hang of the place.



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Thursday, June 5, 2008

Obama and Clinton: Dream Team or Nightmare Ticket?

Now that Barack Obama is the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee, the focus turns to the selection of his running mate.

Months ago, Hillary Clinton suggested a Clinton/Obama ticket seemingly to try to lure those unsure of voting for Obama a president. Now, her hubris may have come back to haunt her, as she recently said she would be opposed to and Obama/Clinton ticket, with her as VP.

How the mighty have fallen.

And Clinton continues to hang on, not officially conceding the primary to Obama, a move that has frustrated even some of her staunchest supporters. Is Clinton deluded? Did she think that by hanging on to the bitter end she would be able to better state her case for the spot of second banana? Is it strictly about money, because she can continue to raise funds for her candidacy until she conceded? By continuing to raise funds, she can be trying to get enough cash to minimize the millions of dollars she loaned to her campaign months ago to keep it going.

Regardless of her reasons, it looks like Hillary is in major denial. In the June 4 edition of the Wall Street Journal, an article called “Clinton's Road to Second Place “ detail the numerous errors made by Clinton and her campaign staff. An excerpt says:

“Conversations over months with dozens of Clinton staffers, advisers and supporters suggest that over her 17-month campaign, the second-term New York senator and former first lady was smart, substantive and tireless. The surprise was how good a campaigner she grew to be.

Still, these people say, Sen. Clinton is responsible for what one confidant called "grievous mistakes." Those help explain why Sen. Clinton -- the best brand name in Democratic politics, and an early favorite to be the first female nominee in U.S. history -- lost to a relative newcomer who would be the first African-American major-party nominee.

A campaign spokesman said the Clintons were unavailable for interviews.

The mistakes boil down to mismanagement, message, mobilization failures and the marital factor.”

Does this sound like someone we want to have as Vice President of the United States? I don’t think so. And Hillary’s biggest drawback is something that initially was thought to be one of her biggest advantages – and that’s her husband, former President Bill Clinton. What Bill Clinton proved campaigning for his wife is that he still wants to be in the thick of things, and that he’s developed a sharp tongue, and frankly may be prone to being meddlesome to the point that any President would see him as a liability. You see, Bill seems to have made it clear that with Hillary, you get him too – like a 2 for 1 package deal. And the Bill Clinton baggage alone would make this a nightmare ticket for Barack Obama.

This is definitely a deal that Barack Obama should say “pass,” and he should look to finding another candidate that will not alienate all those that voted for Hillary. I’m not saying he must chose another woman – although it would be a smart move – but I do think that he must be very mindful of the female voters out there who seem to be teetering on moving to the McCain camp.

Hopefully, though, people would be smart enough that they would see the futility of voting for John McCain just because Hillary didn’t make it. It would be like cutting off one’s nose to spite their face. Only in this case, the stakes are much higher.

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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Diagnosis and Prescription for the Democratic Party

This election season, the democratic primary seems to go on and on. Some say that the lengthy primary season has been detrimental for the party, making it look disjointed. If anything, it’s made them look weak.

The problems were many. Hillary Clinton appeared to be the favorite going in, and this may have made her campaign complacent. With some states tiring of New Hampshire and Iowa always having the first say in the elections, Michigan and Florida changed their primary dates in violation with party rules and they were told their votes wouldn’t count. (Of course, the Democratic Party recently changed their mind and said they would count – for some, but not for the full delegate equivalent.) Then, the media hyped “Super Duper Tuesday” and said the election would be decided after that day – it wasn’t. Caucuses also seem to be questioned because their structure doesn’t allow easy opportunity for all voters to be represented, like other states with traditional primary voting. To make matters worse, the democrats have “superdelegates” who can decide on their own who to nominate, and many of them are taking forever to declare. As the primaries ran through the states, and it seemed that Clinton was hanging tough, the superdelegates remained on the fence, almost refusing to take a stand, seemingly fearful they wouldn’t pick the person who could beat John McCain in the fall.

The last primaries are in progress, and hopefully the superdelegates will get off the fence and make their choice, ending once and for all the dispute over who should be their party’s choice to run for president.

Some in the media are blaming Hillary Clinton for hanging on too long, wishing that she would have pulled out by now, and hoping for a unified party before the convention. Frankly, I think it is her right to hang on as long as she has a chance. I blame the superdelegates – who are supposed to be the party’s anointed wise people – for not taking a stand and making their choice sooner, essentially leading her on and causing the party division. Barack Obama has been gracious during this whole thing, but I am sure that the superdelegate issue has been frustrating for his campaign as well.

And while all this is going on, Hillary had to fend of criticisms for her husband’s campaign commentary. Hillary should have muzzled Bill long ago. Barack had to face the scrutiny of his church (now his former church) and has been blamed for every controversial comment made by guest speakers at the church. He should have cut ties with that church long ago, probably the minute that Reverend Wright became an obvious liability. Still, some in the media and pundits seem to be saying that all these negative issues would never have come out had Hillary not dropped out sooner. Those people are deluding themselves. The negativity that happened over the last few months are just a preview of what the republican campaign will be leveling at them over the next several months. I would rather it get out and be diffused NOW and get it out of the way before it can be used in home stretch of the presidential election.

Since nothing can be changed for this election, let’s think forward to the 2012 presidential election. The Democratic Party just cannot continue with this kind of mess of a primary season. They have made themselves look weak and conflicted. Here’s what I think they should do in the future:

1. Commit to having all primaries conducted over a period of four months.

2. Every presidential election season, rotate the order in which the states can hold their primaries. For example, if Iowa has voted in the first month, they vote in the last month in the next president primary. Once the party has decided the window of time in which a state can hold their primary, the state can’t move it to whatever date they want. If they do, their votes will not count, period.

3. Eliminate caucuses and allow all voters to choose their candidate by traditional voting methods, including absentee balloting.

4. Eliminate the superdelegates. In this day of non-stop media coverage, internet accessibility, and various other ways to get information about candidates, I think the American people are adult enough to be able to choose who they want representing their party in the presidential election. We don’t need an elite group of people choosing who they want to run, especially when it may be in conflict with the popular vote. By the way, if caucuses are eliminated, the whole question about whether those states delegates really represent the wishes of the people could be eliminated.

Those are my ideas. I think the Democratic Party can only blame themselves for this mess. The media can be considered collaborators in this effort by continuing to fan the flames by over-hyping primaries, making things sound like their over long before they are decided by the people.

I hope that the party hasn’t ruined its chances for this election. Here’s hoping that the party wises up before 2012.

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