Bonnie Scotland

2013.06.09   |   Photos   |   Travel

scotland.loch.lomond

For a while I’d told myself that if I were to ever see Europe, one of my top picks would be Scotland. It’s got mountains, history and whiskey. Also, I’m a quarter Scottish, going 5 grandpa’s back to the Isle of Skye, and figured there’d be a kilt or tartan someone along my family tree. So for a while, this is where the idea stood, until last year when my father passed away. It sparked some soul searching, and I’d figured it was time to take Mom on a proper European vacation. So we were Scotland bound.

The plan was to start in Glasgow, and then looping clockwise around the country until we ended back at Glasgow airport. The plan looked great on Google maps, and I was able to hastily plan a few lodging options along the way. Even had the rental car set up to take us on the high and low roads across “Caledonia.” So we flew the 7 hours from Philly to Glasgow, and weary-eyed, made our ways into the heart of town.

It should be said I like English, Scottish and Irish accents. I guess the term is “anglophile“. I practice them poorly when I’m driving along, and I’ve gotten quite good at them in my own mind. So one of the first experiences I was anticipating was getting around a bunch of Anglo “blokes” and absorbing the multitude of accents. Also, I’d started reading up on Scottish history and culture, and learned well in advance that Tartans and Kilts are really a century-old attempt at merchandising Scotland’s culture to others, so I knew that there were more tourist gimmicks than true artifacts and memorabilia of Scotland.

To sum up the trip, the first day we stayed around Glasgow, did some walking and finished the evening at a local pub. When you’re awake for 30 hours, alcohol really just heightens your state of delirium. On the second day, we lost the key to the rental car. This was considerable cause for panic, but after being assured this was only a matter of 80 to 150 pounds (up to $225) and a 2 or more days wait, we changed course and stuck to day trips from the city. We toured more of Glasgow that day, and I ended the evening at a pub with 2 Scottsmen, and Englishman and a Palestinian. Good group, bought some rounds, got sick on port wine. Day 3, we took a bus tour of Stirling Castle, Loch Lomond and a Whiskey Distillery. By the end of that day, we found the car key (in my mom’s purse), and after reflecting on the experiences so far and the options ahead, decided it was best to make our fourth day in Scotland our last.

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An indelible man

2012.08.19   |   Family

George at the tap in Coney Island

George at the tap in a Coney Island bar, circa 1953.

George F. Kovats was born to George Stephen Kovats and Clara Zabinski Kovats in Brooklyn, NY right before Europe knew WWII. Back then, the Great Depression left empty building lots in Brooklyn where kids would play stickball and bring stolen potatoes to roast during school hours, only to be chased by policemen. Back then, when you got caught, the roughing up done by the cop was nothing compared to what waited at home.

George was a tinkerer at heart, encouraged by his father’s vocation and days at his grandparents’ house pulling apart and piecing together appliances. His grandfather “Mudgie” in particular nurtured this curiosity, and helped shape George’s idea of manhood. In time he’d resemble the large stature of this Polish brass worker.

In school, he took to math, but was mostly drawn to machine shop. He’d even staged a personal protest against music class, until the school yielded and offered him consecutive classes in machine shop. It was no surprise he’d follow his father’s footsteps into noisy hangars of gigantic motors and machines.

The day after George graduated from Our Lady of Angels High School, he was at the office of American Machine and Foundry looking for employment. His father, George Stephen, was an acting foreman there and made certain his son would receive no preferential treatment. Following the ranks of many others, the younger George would work the floors building machines that made smaller machines.  There were noises louder than you could imagine, dangers waited past every verbal rule, and a lot of sweat was owed each day.

George adapted, and went on to carry days at the shop and with nights as a Coney Island bartender. He’d sweat through his shifts, mingle in the evenings, and close each night with dip in the water. Before this became routine, he was drafted by the Army. In 1957, George was on the way to becoming a Motor-T specialist when his father fell ill. In the midst of training, George was transferred to Fort Hamilton, NY on compassionate assignment in order to stay close with his sick father. Lo and behold, he’d known the General’s secretary from bartending days, and soon he was the base General’s driver. His two years closed comfortably, and in spite of an offer to travel to France as a Sergeant, George opted to return to his sick father and the machine shop.

The years that followed would be marked by the death of his father, the marriage of his two brothers, a move to the New York City Transit Authority maintenance shop in Coney Island, and a routine of work, dinner with his mother, and nights out with the boys. By his thirties, George had become a professional bachelor, drinking through the nights and working his shifts with a heavy head. In the fall, he’d spend weekends with friends in an upstate New York hunting lodge, paying his way as the lodge’s cook. Living for years with his mother had honed his cooking skills, enabling him to manage a kitchen and meals for 40 men each weekend.

By 40, it would seem evident a family wasn’t in George’s future. With his two younger brothers long married, George was comfortable in his bachelor routine, living in the same apartment he’d grown up in, working days in Coney Island, enjoying his nights around Bay Ridge, and occasionally volunteering his time to church organizations for occasional events.

One fall, the wife of a hunting lodge buddy set George up with a neighbor on a blind date.  He escorted a 31 year-old Pittsburgh native, Jennifer MacQueen, to a local Halloween dance at St. Anselm’s church. It was a busy evening as George was serving as both Jennifer’s date and one of the event organizers. In the midst of the evening, Jennifer had mentioned in conversation that she was holding a dinner with friends the next day. Once they’d closed their evening and parted ways, George returned the next day with a dozen trays of unserved food from the previous evening to help supply Jennifer’s gathering. That gesture won her over – it revealed a compassionate provider who would always find ways to help others.

A year later, the two would be married, and shortly after they would have their first child, another boy named George.

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If you’ve follow the news over the last 2 to 20 years, you’d notice the US has a few housekeeping issues. Folks can prattle on about the various ways we’re hurting, but in short, we’ve discovered a consumption based economy is prone to bubbles and isn’t sustainable without a real economy to back it up. Apparently, when we were flipping homes and making crazy money from questionable financial machinations, the money that we saw coming in from seemingly nowhere collapsed – much like the inevitable plummet of Wile E. Coyote after noticing he’d been running for some time in mid air.

OK, so we weren’t solvent. Apparently farming out every single manufacturing job in the country to mainland China has come with some cost, chiefly a $245 Billion trade defecit.

And we can’t expect the government to fix issues like these anytime soon because they’re embroiled in their own fruitless efforts to fix our national balance sheet. Kinda like everyone else, the nation has racked up some hefty credit card bills. And, you know when a family has money problems, it causes fights. Congress can’t pass anything bipartisan anymore, so it gestures and threatens and filibusters. About the only thing they were able to work together on in the past 10 years is blowing all the cash that helped drive up our debt in the first place.

So we can’t expect to leave High School and make a living on an assembly line any more. America needs to train for tomorrow’s jobs, right? Except, if you take just a passing look, you’ll notice our public Education system is up sh-t’s creek also. Any number of documentaries (see Waiting for Superman – it made me cry) will show you that we don’t produce Engineers and Architects like we used to. But, those are what tomorrow’s economy demands. If we can’t even improve on dropout rates from the nation’s high schools, we don’t stand a chance when 30 years down the road the demand for high tech employees doubles or triples.

Overall, if you look at how the US is doing versus other countries that we’ve traditionally look at condescendingly in the past, we’re not doing so hot. We put the space race on hold – no more Nasa flights to the moon, and a mission to Mars is now left to Science Fiction writers. Since we’ve shipped all the factory jobs overseas, Engineering shops are slowly following, and if you continue the trend, next to go are the corporate offices. Like it or not, we’re a take hike away from accelerating that trend.

Silver Lining

All this to say, it feels like our prospects in the US aren’t looking great for the next fifty years. So if the economy is feeling hollow with no great future, I think the one thing we can always turn to – which continues to be true through good times and bad – is that America is still the cool kid on the block.

Half of China’s wealthiest would rather live in the US. We’re an open society; Jersey Shore proves this fact. Where else in the world would something so hideous have a chance to exist? Sure, Finland has great students, but I’ll bet they all want XBoxes and iPhones. And I bet you if I played Black-Eyed Peas in Brazil, people would recognize the song from a commercial and have the same response as we do in America (shameful, mild enjoyment). You know how suburban kids either look like Justin Bieber or Jay-Z wannabes? Same goes for German kids.

You may not have great odds at equipping your family with a great education or jobs in the US, but if they make it out of college, we’ve oodles of venture capitalists to fund all of their hair-brained schemes. Part of why we mourned so much for Steve Jobs is because we treasure his sort of ballsy, driven creativity that builds American empires like Apple. America takes risks and sometimes wins big.

If we can find away to fix our balance sheets, economy, educational system, retirement system and government – or at least delay the pain and let our children deal with our mess – America’s fabric makes it an awesome place for influence to start from. We may not always find a way to profit from it, but the US is still a global center for “cool”. Hopefully its value holds up.

The value of toys

2012.01.01   |   Family

As a parent that’s gone through several holidays and birthday cycles, you quickly realize most toys are junk in gift wrapping. You almost know going in to it that half of the toys you give to the average American kid are going to get about a days-worth of attention before they become toy box filler to the child. In our house, it ends up in the “Goodwill” bin.

Part of this makes sense because of how kids work; You can’t expect a child (or even teenager) to share equal attention among 5-10 toys for any length of time. The other part is that some toys are junk from the get-go. They were junk when they were designed. And if it weren’t for the box and their commercials, the toy would be a complete waste of injection-molded Chinese plastic.

God Bless you, Apple Alphabet toy.This is where I have to pay homage to the toys that got it right, and were a lasting member of our kids’ arsenal. MVP goes to the Apple Alphabet toy we got our 1 yr-old son two Christmases ago. It was the simplest toy, but it taught both the alphabet, letter sounds, and even provided animals that start with those letters, including a guessing game that asks to identify the described animal.

My son picked up all the letter sounds really quickly from the toy – I want to say he was a little over a year old. He played with this toy on road trips, on the go, alone in his room, and of course with myself and my wife as well. Best $15 we spent that Christmas.

Legos are of course the next best toy you’ll ever get a child. Our kids are finally old enough for the normal-sized bricks, so we got them a starter set, and they’ve been steadily gravitating to them all week. I was hooked on Legos for years – probably from 5 through 11. My friend and I would spend hours building competing spaceships, race cars, fortresses, and anything else we could come up with. The big thing to do back then was also trade the good pieces – joints, swivels, doors and other rare Lego goods. I just hope our kids get into them as much as I was growing up. It’s a lot of quality, creative time.

Sticking with the classics, Play-Doh has been a great past-time for the kids this year, though they have no respect for fresh doh or clean colors. If I give them green and pink, we’re likely have have a marbled clump of pink and green dough sitting out on the table when they’re done, containers left scattered open. Still, give them a plastic knife and some colored clay, and they’re hooked.

Finally, Pop-It Beads were a huge hit with my 5 year-old daughter. Recently she received these for her fifth birthday, and she spend probably spent a combined 20 hours so far just coming up with endless configurations of bracelets, jewelry, and odd knick-knacks. They’re like Legos with a twist for girls, and frankly they’re awesome. I could tell Elena right now we’re going to start building necklaces with the “pop beads” and she’ll respond with excitement almost every time.

Outside of books, that seems to be it. Everything else gets fair play, like my son’s Hot Wheels cars he carries with him wherever he goes, but the rest of the toys get passing interest. Which I’m fine with. Would definitely prefer to draw their attention to writing and reading at this age then spending hours on Mommy’s Android tablet. Don’t get me wrong, that happens, just prefer to reserve it for really crappy weather days.

Here’s hoping your toy picks work out. Odds are, they didn’t, but if they do, spread the word. Good toys are hard to find.

Google plus: meh

2011.07.17   |   Tech Stuff

You’ll see a lot of talk about a second tech bubble a lot these days, and understandably so. We’re so prone to swooning over big moves on Internet, especially when it’s from one of the top players.

Remember Google Wave? I barely do – never really followed it, just recall the month or so of anticipatory hype. Then nothing. But if you look back at some of the press it got during it’s time, you’d think it was going to change everything. Of course it ended up not lasting long enough to really educate most folks on what it was supposed to be.

I’m not going to say Google+ is Google Wave redux, but the hype factor is quite similar, so I’ll choose to discount it’s coverage as an indicator of future success. Let’s remember, it’s Google. They could release a new web service centered around colon health, and it’d have 50 million users in it’s first week. I’m not surprised “Google’s take on Facebook” gets 10 million users it’s first week, especially when wrapped by a super-secret-limited-share release that only amps the interest.

Looking at the service itself and the environment it enters, it’s looking to take away from Facebook’s 750 million users. Facebook was clever how it found and fit a niche: making the act of sharing personal information fun, and reaping massive profits from it’s surrounding targeted advertising network. Of course, this is a sore spot for Google – that’s their racket too, only Google doesn’t make it as fun, and they’re a whole lot sneakier about it.

So why will an exodus of Facebook’s 750 million flock to Google+?

Privacy Concern: I would really hope not. Comparing Facebook and Google on respect for user privacy is like comparing which handgun is safest for toddlers. I read a guy claiming Google’s terms of use are friendlier than those of Zuckerberg, and maybe so. But come on. I almost prefer a Facebook’s brazen “I will exploit every life detail you share” policy versus the more discreet Google approach, which only your imagination can expand on.

Minimalist Design: OK, this one actually draws users, but probably not the droves you’d expect. Geek chic loves pretty interfaces, fewer buttons, smooth transitions, and everything that feels new. If geek chic were a cultural group, Apple would be their religion, and Google Chrome would be the window they view the world through. It’s a strong, vibrant base in the computer user market.

It’s also a minority. Apple computers makes up about 11% of the market, and Chrome users are around the same. Problem is, Facebook became Facebook because you could find anyone on it, not just the guys you knew at the Coffee Shop or in Art class. Which leads into…

Users: If you want to beat Facebook, you better start sprouting users (and I don’t mean Google users, but Google+ users – look at Google Buzz to understand the difference). Yes, Google is ubiquitous and yes, it stands to benefit from nagging every user with your little icon at the top of every authenticated Google product user experience. But if you don’t have high school friends and fantasy football league buddies waiting on the other end of that icon, it ends up just another forum to broadcast what you ate for breakfast and hope it sparks a conversation.

Features: This one I don’t buy too much either. Circles are nice, granted. Frankly creating a “work” circle effectively is all I needed to completely replace my LinkedIn account (some manner to separate my drunken ravings from my professional drunken ravings). But, I’d argue features are too subjective and more vulnerable to competition and one-ups manship. One could argue Bing has fresher features than Google’s standard search, but that ain’t helping them much on market share.

The bottom line as far as I’m concerned is Google+ will not replace Facebook, but if it’s successful in the next 3 months, could stand to compete. Maybe it’ll live as a “geek’s choice” social network, just as its incomplete browser product serves the same base. But if it ever plans to take over Facebook and succeed in world domination, it’s too late to just do Facebook “but better.” Facebook did it at the exact right time. Google will have to do something different. Something that doesn’t feel like a smart guy’s take on an online property that’s thrived over the last several years. They’ve got the mental horsepower and resources to do it.

Otherwise, Google will have to go back to what it’s sublime at: filling niches that no one has dominated yet with clever solutions and harvesting massive amounts of behavioral user data for its advertising empire.

“Chopped” at home

2011.06.19   |   Cooking

Anna and I are really getting into the show Chopped as of recent – it’s a Food Network show (which is porn for fat people, as we know) that throws 4 chefs into a 3 part challenge to create meals from mystery ingredients. So you might have for the appetizer round celery, tuna fish, calf liver and some Mediterranean vegetable no one ever uses. Chefs get 30 minutes to whip that up into something people would pay top dollar for.

Frequently, while we’re watching Anna gets into berating the contestants about falling back on the same ideas every episode. “I’d totally be grabbing bacon right now.” “Just crumble it! Use it as a topping!!” And so on. So I finally said on a lark, “OK, we’re doing Chopped here at home.” She’s all into cooking and baking, so the idea intrigued her.

Yesterday I swung by Publix to pick up the mystery ingredients, trying to keep it somewhat mixed but not crazy difficult for a first go. And so, here goes the first Anna Chopped:

Appetizer

I grabbed by basket of ingredients, debated the groupings, and settled on the 4 I’d give her:

  • Peaches, fairly ripe
  • Provolone cheese, “smoke flavored” (I use the quotes gingerly)
  • Sour cream and onion Pringles
  • Pepperoni

It ain’t exactly a softball lob, but doesn’t require too much imagination to use these together.

Flatbread with provolone, pepperoni and peaches

First thing we quickly realized is the time element really makes the show hard. I took it easy on Anna and gave her 40 minutes for the appetizer (think the show gives 20) to account for kid interruptions I can’t intercept and to make sure she doesn’t cut her fingers off in the mad rush. After 40 minutes, she needed another 5 minutes to let the flat bread fully cook.

The second thing we realized is you need some chef training to come up with good names. I asked, “so what is this?” Anna replied “Flatbread” with a smile. OK, flatbread annndd…? We’re still not settled on a decent name.

To help the dish, she added prosciutto (we didn’t have bacon) and some basil from the garden. After eating it, I really liked everything together, and actually would have liked more peaches, oddly enough. But, I’m a sucker for pizza, so this was a winner on flavor front. The only thing I could criticize was the originality – flat bread seems like the go-to idea. Sounds harsh, but Ted Allen would agree.

Flavor, 5/5, presentation 3/5, creativity 2.5/5

Dessert

The flatbread was really filling, so we skipped to dessert. I modified the second group and came up with:

  • Corn chips
  • Dates (my aha!!)
  • Cream cheese
  • Honey

Again, not too hard really, and Anna can make anything given cream cheese. The result:

Custard with date pudding and cream cheese sauce in corn shell

Again, Anna wasn’t thrilled with her presentation aspect. I told her she needs to squirt green stuff on a blank white dish to surround anything she’s plating. It what I see constantly on those artsy cooking shows.

The only failing of the dish was the abundant sweetness. She added sugar to the custard part, and with the honey in the corn shell + brown sugar and the powerful sweetness of the dates in the pudding really made the dish way sweet. I ate it, it was delicious. Anna and Babcia got through a little, but not too far before stopping to avoid sugar coma.

I was feeling jaunty about the dates – I don’t really know dates well, and Anna really didn’t know what to expect with dates. But, they really made a nice topping to the whole dish. I really liked the pudding – almost like a sweet plum pudding. I suspect Anna has a predilection toward these creme-brulet cups, so it’ll be interesting to see if she is able to incorporate new containers for her future desserts.

Flavor 4.5/5, creativity 3.5/5, presentation 3.5/5

Outcome

It was damn fun, actually, and I got a dinner out of it. Anna was feeling like I was treating her by helping her cook for me. That’s a rare win / win scenario any husband would endorse. We’ll see where this goes, but it’s feeling like a good way to get Anna more acquainted with new ingredients and cooking methods.

I’m already preparing our next round. Wonder how long before I can incorporate oddball fruits from the international farmer’s market?

Air of Agility

2011.05.26   |   Tech Stuff   |   Work

You want to know the secret to staying healthy? Eat right, and exercise.

What, you need more? OK, eat fruits, avoid excess starches and fats, and do aerobic exercise 3 times a week for 30 minutes or more.

If we keep going further, we could get into a variety of prescriptive systems for achieving a balanced diet and exercise routine. Assuming you find a winner among the proposed systems and you have detailed advice on how to achieve an ideal eating and active routine, at best what you have is a blanket set of guidelines.

And truthfully, the guidelines will most times not be far from what’s common knowledge on the subjects of eating and exercise. People don’t hire personal trainers and pay for dietary meal plans because they haven’t figured that fast food and sedentary habits lead to double chins. They pay for these things because they need help with practicing within guidelines. They know and have likely tried to practice within commonly accepted guidelines, but for a number of reasons it’s usually difficult, and the status quo wins. Guidelines are often hard.

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P90…g

2011.05.10   |   Self absorbed

So, I’ve become disgusted with my body image. I suppose it’s how you know you’re a thirty-something married parent.

This isn’t the first time, and in the past, I’ve had canned responses to the issue. Basically, I’d run a lot. 4-5 times a week. And I’d skip lunch most days. It wasn’t so much a starvation technique as it’s been almost my daily cycle, recovering from dinners where I’d gorge on food. It’d go snack, skip, gorge. Yes, that’s the title of my next health-centric book. “Snack – skip – gorge, you fat bastard.” I expect readers will be even more disgusted with themselves after a thorough reading.

Anyways, recently I discovered I was mortal. Apparently this happens to a lot of 30-somethings.

Normally, I could break a 2 month exercise fast with a 6 mile run, no stretching, no problems. The next 4 days I’d be sore, but functional. This had been true back through my Marine Corps days through the worst of my training – if I was sober, I could perform. Sometimes even sobriety was optional.

Then, last week, my knee started acting up. Not cool, first off. I mean, why wait until I’m 32 to give me crap. But then it wouldn’t go away; my knee was a consistent nuisance for almost 2 weeks. I’d had a few points during this period when I woke up early to jog / run, only to give up until my joint was fully healed.

This morning was the final straw. I woke up, laced up, got outside and started one of my usual routes… only to crash to a halt before the first stop sign. That friggin’ knee.  I’d been feeling the effects of excessive laziness and consumption already, and a morning of no exercise would only exacerbate the mood. After a day of not “feeling it”, I came upon a lark. Why not commit to 90 days of exercise? Put my 24 hour turn-key gym to work!

Generally I despise discussing physical fitness progress, technique, or pretty much any other aspect of my well-being (this post is part of a brief departure). But for some reason I feel like there’s merit in committing to a “90 day challenge”. I think that’s likely the largest appeal of P90X, which I’ve had passing interest in so far. Folks cling on to personal challenges, so I’m going to try to do the same; commit to an harsh goal and add it as a blog post for some shred of commitment. It worked briefly with A Blue Screen (which was my previous webcomic that I’ve since lost all data and access to…. because Mochahost has terrible security).

So anyway, for the next 90 days, I will use the local gym for at least 30 minutes each day. Not exactly a mission to Mars, but more a modest proposal for consistent effort toward some physical betterment. Today was the first day. I’ve got a sheet of where I’m at on my various exercises, so it’s hopefully onward and upward from here. The next biggest hurdle is tomorrow.

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