Meeting “Leon”

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Have you ever had the chance to meet someone in person whom you’ve watched dozens of times on the screen? Earlier this year I had the pleasure of doing just that – a benefit of being a journalist that sort of makes up for the poor pay and job security. The guy I met, Alan R. Solomon, isn’t exactly a household name but, in my house at least, he’s an icon. My kids and I refer to him by his character’s name in the 1980 Disney film Midnight Madness – Leon, the Game Master.

Haven’t seen it? That’s not surprising, but not because it’s bad. Starring Stephen Furst (of Animal House fame), David Naughton (American Werewolf in London, Dr. Pepper guy), Eddie Deezen (various nerdy characters, including Eugene in Grease) and featuring  a very young Michael J. Fox and Paul Reubens (Pee Wee Herman), it’s actually pretty good and very funny. A crazy ensemble movie in the mold of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World starring Spencer Tracy and Milton Berle, it was based on a real-life all-night puzzle hunt going on in L.A. at the time.

Great concept, superb cast, and a nice debut editorial performance by Michael Nankin and David Wechter. So what happened? It was only Disney’s second PG film and the sophomoric, slightly risqué humor (very mild by today’s standards) caused the studio to get cold feet. It was hardly promoted and released at an inauspicious time. But then it had a revival on HBO and seemed to be on constantly in the early 1980s. For me and many others, that’s when it became a cult classic. The twist is that people all over the country emulate the puzzle hunts by staging their own all-nighters – life imitating art imitating life, so to speak.

By last summer, my kids and I had watched the DVD 30 or 35 times. Seeing the movie for the third time in a week while on vacation in Cape Cod, they asked me what I thought “Leon” was doing now. I decided to humor them by looking it up and, after some research, found out that he went on to become a professional game show designer. In the movie he’s a nerdy genius obsessed with games who plans the all-night puzzle hunt pitting five teams (nice kids, mean kids, jocks, nerds, sorority girls) against one another. Life imitating art again.

I decided to pitch it as a front-page story in The Wall Street Journal. The editors took a bit of convincing, but it worked out well. It was almost surreal speaking with Alan over the phone because, despite being 63 now, he sounds just like young Leon. Not a professional actor, he was picked out of the crowd for his looks and mannerisms. Here he is with his lovely assistants, Candy and Sunshine:

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We were sporting “FAGABEEFE” t-shirts we made  for the occasion (it’s a classic line from the movie):

How did we meet him? After the article appeared, the organizers of an elaborate Midnight Madness game in New York City that I wrote about in the article invited Alan and his wife to attend, flying them from his home in California. We were invited to the start of the contest in lower Manhattan by the chief organizer Elisha Wiesel (who, believe it or not, is the son of the Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel). Clearly the apple didn’t fall far from the tree – Elisha has raised huge sums for charity Good Shepherd Services through the game.

Alan acted as a sort of surprise grand poobah of the event, staying up for 36 hours straight and losing his voice, but he took time to speak with me and my sons. He and his wife Sharon were really warm and friendly. He even gave us an autographed copy of an item from the movie – the handout from the cult members in the airport scene (a treasured keepsake along with an original movie poster that David Wechter sent me). He may not be a bona fide celebrity, but he is to my boys. They thought he was great and said meeting him was better than some other pretty cool stuff they did with me as part of my reporting – even riding in floating cars. That’s really saying something.

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The life aquatic

They say that sailing is 99% boredom and 1% sheer terror. Perhaps that’s true – I haven’t spent enough time on the water to get tired of it or, thankfully, to experience anything that scared me out of my wits. Based on my limited experience, I’d say it’s more like 30% relaxation, 30% inspiration, and 50% inebriation. Yes, I know, that adds up to 110%, but cut me some slack – my brain is still recovering from the sun and alcohol of a wonderful sailing trip last week in the British Virgin Islands week with my good friend István.

You may have guessed from the funny accent on the second vowel that he’s not from these parts. I met and befriended István when I moved to Hungary in 1993. Despite having been ruled for quite a while by an admiral, Hungary – a landlocked country – doesn’t have much of a nautical tradition. He learned the ropes in England after receiving sailing lessons for his 30th birthday, which was 16 years ago. Now he’s a day skipper and a darn good one too. I survived last week’s trip and another one a decade ago in Croatia. All I had to do was obey whatever nautical commands he shouted at me in a combination of Hungarian and English. “Bend the jib! Húzd meg jól! Hoist the mainsail! Man the poopdeck,” and so forth. Actually, he kept it much less technical since the extent of my seafaring knowledge is knowing fore, aft, port, starboard, and that water is wet.

Let me preface the description of our sailing trip by saying that our wives, Éva and Nicole, deserve to be joint spouses of the year for letting us go. Thank you! Even if the elements don’t cooperate, sailing is a great way to relax and to spend time with friends. For both our trips,  the weather was beautiful and the setting even more so. The only thing that would have made it better is bringing our families along and we’re working on that.

The natural beauty, good infrastructure, and warmth of the locals make the BVI a sailors’ paradise. I flew to St. Thomas, one of the U.S. islands, and took a short ferry ride over to Road Town in Tortola, the main town of the BVI. We set sail the next day and hit Norman Island, Cooper Island, Virgin Gorda, and Marina Cay in that order over the next five days, mooring each time.

I can describe the beautiful, clear water, inviting islands and tropical breezes to you ad nauseam, but words really don’t do them justice. The rest of this blog post will try to give you a sense through pictures:

This was our boat, a 41 foot Jeanneau named ADA:

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Our boat, the 41 foot ADA

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A rainbow over the water

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The Bitter End on Virgin Gorda

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Virgin Gorda

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The valiant captain

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Boats moored on Norman Island, the inspiration for Treasure Island

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A landlubber gets his sea legs

 

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I ♥ Street Meat

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Maybe you’re the type of person who turns his nose up at the carts found on nearly every street corner in Manhattan. I bet if they called it viande hachée de la rue, quadrupled the price and served it on a white tablecloth though you’d be fine with it. In any case, I’ve had it thousands of times with no ill effect (clutches chest).

I don’t know what it is about street meat that keeps me coming back. The fact that it’s the cheapest thing for lunch in Midtown Manhattan? The instant gratification of a meal cooked in front of your eyes on demand. The exotic and occasionally overpowering flavors served up by the Indian/Afghan/Arab proprietors? The danger that an unscrupulous operator is feeding you chopped up sewer rat or homeless guy?

Sorry. Anyway, I had a fantastic experience last month when I applied and was accepted as a judge in Street Meat Palooza 6, run by Zach Brooks’s Midtown Lunch website. I nominated my favorite guys at the Kabab stand at 55th and 6th by the Love sign. When I worked at the FT, I frequently bypassed the Famous Halal Guys at 53rd and 6th (who really are sort of famous)  and went there instead. They did pretty well too, placing 8th. The contest involved doing a blind taste test on 16 different dishes.

The winner this year? Drum roll please …. the Trini Paki Boys Halal Food cart. I remember it and rated it highly. I will say, in my guys’ defense, that it’s a tad pricey at $6 to $8 a plate compared to $5 for the basic chicken or lamb over rice up on 55th. But, in Zach’s wise words:

Street Meat Palooza isn’t really about winning or losing. It’s about discovering that even after 6 years of some hardcore street meat eating, we still discover new things year after year. Here’s to unlocking fresh surprises next year!

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Getting your kids to eat fish

Believe me, I’ve heard every excuse, including the frustratingly irrefutable “it’s fishy.” No kidding guys, it’s fish – what did you expect it to taste like? But I’m here to tell you how to get your kids to eat and even enjoy the bounty of our seas, rivers and lakes. And, no,  I’m not talking about rectangular breaded strips from the Gorton’s Fisherman either (though I should note that the inventor of the fish stick died this year at the ripe old age of 96, no doubt fortified by Omega 3 and panko breadcrumbs). I mean fish from an identifiable species with some real flavor.

Step one is to make it fun, and what’s more fun than catching your own dinner? Our friend Dan, an experienced fisherman, accompanied us along with one of his boys on a four hour bottom-fishing expedition last week on Cape Cod. My three guys ranged from enthusiastic to skeptical. The most blasé of them stayed that way for all of 15 seconds after we dropped anchor. I baited his hook, let out the line, and wham! A big one had taken the bait and, less than a minute later, a monster black bass was on the deck. Check it out:

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Call me Ahab

That’s pretty much the way it went for the next couple of hours. It was like, well, like shooting fish in a barrel. Except we were dangling bits of chopped up, dead squid on metal hooks and getting them to bite it. Even with one kid taking a break for seasickness, I think we caught about 35 and we kept 24 fish, mostly porgies. On to the next step which is paying a deckhand a dollar a fish to gut and fillet them for you.

What’s that you say? Afraid to get our hands dirty? Aside from the fact that I already was covered in a fair amount of fish blood and slime, thank you very much, sharp objects and rocking boats are not a good combination for me. It isn’t much safer on dry land. Plus, let’s face it,  cleaning fish is gross. So the six tired landlubbers rested and took home the fillets in nice little baggies.

Step three is to cook it in the way most likely to appeal to the taste buds of a child. That probably doesn’t involve lemon, capers or garlic – not that we had any of those ingredients. Good old breading and frying with egg batter worked fine.

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Any Omega 3 left after this?

And the final step – eating a glorious meal that was swimming around a few hours earlier. Of my three taste testers, even the harshest critic and quasi-vegetarian approved. In fact, following his five star review and owing to the fact that we had a crapload of fish left, we saved the rest for fried fish sandwiches. I figure we saved the cost of the fishing trip in meals not eaten out. Despite having fish for breakfast(!), lunch and dinner the next day, popular demand dictated that we have fish sandwiches the next day too!

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MUCH better than a Filet-o-Fish

I can’t guarantee the same results but, in our case, a half day at sea may turn into a lifetime of trips down the supermarket seafood aisle.

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How to cook like my Nagymama

My grandmother, like a lot of people’s grandmothers I suppose, didn’t use recipes. But she was a great cook. She lived with us on-and-off when I was a kid and the simple Hungarian meals she made were absolutely the best.

Even after living in Hungary and traveling there for over 40 years now, the way a dish tasted when she made it has been the benchmark against which I’ve measured all other versions of the same thing. Everyone, up to and including trained chefs, fell short. For example, I once had paprikáscsirke (chicken paprikash) at Gundel, the iconic Budapest restaurant then owned by the restaurateur George Láng and the wealthy art collector and cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder. As a nod to traditional peasant food, they had it on the menu. It was good, but it wasn’t Nagymama’s.

When I was in grad school in my early 20’s, I had a sudden inspiration to make  paprikáscsirke with galuska (egg dumplings). I bought what I thought were the ingredients and reached her on a very expensive long distance call. To my growing alarm, she couldn’t really tell me amounts – just approximations like “a pinch” or “not too much” of various ingredients. But whatever she said was good enough to make a passable version. It was good enough that my girlfriend didn’t believe at first that I had made it. She even married me four years later – that’s how good Nagymama’s paprikáscsirke is! (Disclaimer: Matrimonial results may vary).

I’ve refined it over the years and, unfortunately, my grandmother isn’t around to ask for advice any more. Mine still isn’t as good as hers, but I think it’s pretty delicious. So here’s the “recipe”:

Step 1: Steal a chicken. (Just kidding – old joke about Hungarians).

Step 2: Skin and remove gristle from a few pounds of dark meat chicken (say five or so legs and same number of thighs).

Step 3: Chop two large or three medium onions. Dice one tomato and an Italian pepper or similar.

Step 4: In a deep saucepan, fry the onions in a bit of oil until glassy but not brown. Remove from heat and add about two tablespoons of Hungarian sweet (édesnemes) paprika. Make sure the pan isn’t too hot as paprika will turn bitter if burnt. And don’t use paprika that’s been sitting around for more than six months – it’s useless. Here is what the real stuff looks like being made:

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Step 5: Add chicken, pepper, tomatoes, a dash of black pepper, a pinch of caraway seed and a tablespoon of salt. (if you can get it, a squirt of gulyáskrém or, better yet piros arany, works wonders). Cover almost to the top with water and put back on low heat, covered. Leave it that way for an hour-and-a-half to two hours, checking occasionally. Add a little water if too much evaporates. For the last 15 minutes, partially uncover and let the sauce thicken. Chicken should be very moist and falling off the bone. If the sauce is not bright red or orange, add more paprika during cooking, but don’t overdo it! This is what the final product looks like:

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Step 6: When chicken starts to cook, peel and cut two cucumbers into extremely thin slices for your uborkasaláta (cucumber salad). Try to remove seeds. Lay out on a plate and sprinkle all over with salt. Then put another plate on top and weigh it down with a bunch of heavy cans or whatever. Press down on it a bit. Leave for an hour and then drain the fluid, rinsing off the salt and patting dry.  Cover in a mix of ¼ cup white vinegar and 1 cup water with a tablespoon of sugar mixed in. Let sit in the fridge. When you’re ready to eat, remove it from the liquid. Put on a side plate and add a small dash of paprika so it looks like this.

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Step 7: Mix 4 eggs, 3 cups flour, 1 cup water, ½ cup melted butter and 3 tablespoons salt. Mix well until a thick dough develops like this:

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Step 8: Cut into inch-long pieces and drop in boiling water. After two or three minutes or when they rise to the top, remove and boil next batch. A little butter or, if you prefer, olive oil, should be slathered into the finished galuska to keep it from sticking. The final product looks like this:

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Step 9: Time to eat! Make sure to pour lots of the extra sauce on top of the galuska. For an optional “trefli” way of preparing it and so not the way my grandma did it, but perfectly good and traditional, put sour cream on top. Here’s one happy customer:

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Who said necessity is the mother of invention?

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I happen to be a great believer in American ingenuity – particularly when it comes to products we don’t really need. The great nation that brought forth the pet rock and pre-made peanut butter jelly sandwiches without the rind has been particularly innovative when it comes to financial sphere – the stupider the better. Leveraged synthetic collateralized debt obligations anyone?

But I just read this from Vanguard Group’s Martha King: “We believe that the great exchange traded fund land rush is over. Virtually every square inch of the market is tracked by an ETF.”

I strongly disagree and think it has only just begun. Sure we can bet on the tiny Mongolian stock exchange or buy products that return three times the inverse of the gain of obscure industrial metals, but we’re still just scratching the surface. I humbly submit a couple of ideas, free of charge:

BALD An exchange traded fund that only invests in companies with depilated CEOs. You may scoff, but a widely-read Wall Street Journal article from last October cited a study done by the Wharton School which concluded that baldness can be a business advantage. It said that bald men “are perceived to be more masculine, dominant and, in some cases, to have greater leadership potential than those with longer locks or with thinning hair.” Well known baldies running big companies include Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos, General Motors’s Dan Akerson and, last but not least, Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer. Then again, there may be a few rotten apples in this bunch: Dennis Kozlowski, convicted of looting Tyco, junk bond king Michael Milken, who also did a stint in the slammer, and, last but not least, Ken Lay of Enron, who dropped dead before a likely fraud conviction. Which brings me to my next idea:

JAIL Now obviously you wouldn’t want to own a company whose CEO merely was suspected of doing something for which he or she later wound up in prison. On the other hand, once the head honcho, or honchess, already is in the slammer, the returns can be eye-wateringly good. Take once high-flying media company Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia  whose namesake was convicted in July 2004 of insider trading. Over the next year, the stock soared by 224%. Why might a company that hasn’t already gone bankrupt at the time the boss is sent to the Big House be a good investment? For one, it’s radioactive, leaving it very cheap. For another, maybe the company was larded with expenses that can now be slashed by the new, honest bosses. And speaking of lard, my last idea:

OINK Bacon and pork in general are hot, hot hot.I quote the great authority, Mr. Baconpants:

… even people who are health nuts get in on the bacon crazy. They may join in on a bacon meme so they can feel like a bad ass without the health effects. I wouldn’t call these people part of the Bacon Nation, but they do add to the popularity of bacon.

So the reason that bacon is so popular is because almost everyone LOVES bacon (even if they don’t eat it themselves). What is also helping to bring bacon popularity to an all-time high is the fact that we are living in a time were healthy eating is almost government mandated. This is causing more people to join the anti-health movement than ever before.

Obvious beneficiaries of the bacon craze are Smithfield Foods, Oscar Mayer (owned by Kraft) and the state of Iowa. Much to my disappointment, I looked up this stock ticker and it’s already been taken by some obscure Chinese food company. Ditto for PIG. But PORK and BACN are still free. Soowee!

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Vox populi

ImageAccording to an opinion poll, 45% of the American public believes the U.S. should help the Syrian rebels if the government uses chemical weapons against them. Should Assad be quaking in his jackboots?

Well, he probably should, but not because the U.S. population is finally fed up with him. Left to their own devices, they might one day be in favor of bombing Damascus back to the Stone Age but would need a little help finding it first. Nearly nine out of ten Americans can’t locate Afghanistan on a map of Asia or major regional countries on a smaller one of the Middle East. Three-quarters did not know that Indonesia is a majority Muslim country. It’s the most populous one. (Oh, and our president, who lived there as a child, is not a Muslim – though 17% of Americans think so).

Heck, even our information outlets get confused, as the above map of Egypt from Fox News shows (Hint: it’s not really between Iran and Jordan). And if our best and brightest are a bit fuzzy about geography, our cutest and sweetest are really in the dark. Take the now infamous audience question for Miss Teen South Carolina 2007:

Question: “Recent polls have shown that a fifth of Americans can’t locate the US on a world map. Why do you think this is?”

Answer: Miss South Carolina Lauren Caitlin Upton
“I personally believe, that U.S. Americans, are unable to do so, because uh, some, people out there, in our nation don’t have maps. and uh… I believe that our education like such as in South Africa, and the Iraq, everywhere like such as … and, I believe they should uh, our education over here, in the U.S. should help the U.S. or should help South Africa, and should help the Iraq and Asian countries so we will be able to build up our future, for us.”

Oy! Bombs away.

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Warning, do not attempt

Do not attempt

Just how litigious is American society? We’ve all heard the tale of the woman who put a steaming cup of coffee that she had just bought at a McDonald’s between her legs. Sustaining burns in her “pelvic region” when it spilled, she won $640,000 in punitive damages. Yes, folks, you can have Stella Liebeck to thank for the warning labels on takeout cups of coffee telling you that they are hot.

There are warnings on everything these days. Superhero Halloween costumes have labels warning us that the cape will not make you fly and jars of peanut butter caution us that “this product contains nuts.” But possibly the stupidest disclaimers of all are what I see on the many car commercials during football and baseball games (which, being all I ever watch on TV, make up a big chunk of the advertisements I see, along with those for beer, tools and erectile dysfunction drugs).

Take one I saw yesterday during the LSU-Arkansas game in which a Ford Fusion drives along a twisty mountain road and then off of a cliff, soaring through the air.  The small print tells us: “Fictionalization. Do not attempt. professional driver on closed course. Cars can not fly.”

Um, thanks. Another one shows a volcano erupting and spewing out a tiny object that then lands in the foreground. It’s a rugged SUV with a driver inside that then drives off. The warning: “Do not attempt.” Another shows a Nissan Frontier snowboarding down a mountain, doing some neat barrel rolls. The helpful warning: “Fantasy. Trucks can’t snowboard. Do not attempt.” My favorite is one for the Fiat 500 that shows several of the cars diving into the ocean or driving into the water from beaches in Italy and then emerging from the water in New York. “Fictionalization. Do not attempt.”

Now there are plenty of legitimate lawsuits, but one has to believe that they are in the minority. An estimate from five years ago holds that torts in the U.S. incur costs of $865 billion or nearly $10,000 per family of four annually. That’s incredible – and it doesn’t even include the cost of paying lawyers to come up with all these warnings about nuts in peanuts and not being able to launch a car out of a volcano. At least they have a good chuckle when drafting these disclaimers at $195 an hour.

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Cruising

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As usual, my vacation plans were a tad overambitious. Realizing that two weeks spent in Canada and Maine would be heavy on activities not able to be enjoyed by everyone in the family and rustic locales that would have caused marital stress, I decided to finally see what all the fuss was about and booked a cruise instead.

It had always seemed like a perfectly awful way to spend a week, but could 15 million passengers a year (including my sister, my in-laws, etc) who go on them all be wrong? Curiosity, and a sudden scramble to find alternate plans, got the better of me. So, if you’re one of the 96.74% of Americans who haven’t been on a cruise (or higher proportion of any other nationality), here’s my personal take on the experience.

THE GOOD

  1. Cruising is easy. In our case, very easy – a half hour drive to Bayonne, NJ, where we were efficiently processed, had our bags whisked away and were on board our ship, the Celebrity Summit, 45 minutes later. Once on deck, the ship is your hotel so there’s no need to pack and unpack. Also, there’s no need to worry about baggage fees, etc, though the staterooms are pretty tight on space. Finally, your kids can’t stray too far.
  2. Being at sea is cool. We spent three days on the open ocean and not being able to see land in any direction is a unique feeling. You can spot plenty of other ships in the distance and it’s fun trying to make out what they are. Strolling on the deck in the moonlight beats any after dinner walk I’ve been on. Having said that, they don’t call it seasickness for nothing. I only got queasy once, but two of my kids were worse off. My wife, who wore one of those ear patches, was hit worst of all, but, strangely, a day after we got back home.
  3. The service was excellent. Now Celebrity is a higher-end cruise line so experiences may vary, but the ratio of passengers to staff was two-to-one. They are mainly from the developing world or eastern Europe and seem to be highly-motivated, if probably woefully-paid by American standards.

THE BAD

  1. You are trapped. Yes, the ships are big, but you’re basically stuck with the same group of people in a large, somewhat cramped hotel. The cruise lines know this and constantly try to sell you stuff or otherwise take money out of your pocket. This is why they never sail empty – better to give away a cheap fare at the last minute and make it back on $3.50 soft drinks and losses at the casino.
  2. It’s crowded. Imagine 2,000 people trying to share a few hundred deck chairs, a handful of hot tubs and two small swimming pools. Now picture all this with blaring music, plates and bottles left lying around willy-nilly and the pool pitching back and forth. Despite the cruise lines’ best efforts, you can only fit so many people on so much deck space without unwanted togetherness. Fortunately, if you veer off the beaten track, parts of the ship are practically deserted. (For example, the library – not a very literary crowd these cruisers!).

THE UGLY

  1. Sheer, unbridled gluttony. It’s not so much that many of our fellow passengers were generously proportioned but how they spent the cruise – stuffing their faces. Food is available 24 hours a day and is free except for certain specialty restaurants. Being free, there is an appalling amount of waste – half-eaten servings left on the table to leave room for dessert. Personally, I still feel guilty if I don’t clear my plate or if we order too much in a restaurant. I can only imagine what the serving staff from India or Haiti thought of the waste and the thousands of unnecessary calories.
  2. Ka-ching. The cruise lines’ ability to milk the maximum return out of passengers is a wonder to behold. Passengers too lazy or intimidated to walk 200 feet from the boat and hop in a local taxi or ferry paid twice as much or more for “excursions” that took them to the same places. People paid hundreds of dollars for beverage packages and then bragged how clever they were by staying drunk all day. Maybe they did well compared to paying the inflated prices on board, but I bet few if any consumed enough that the ship didn’t clear a profit.
  3. This ain’t the Titanic. I don’t mean the hitting an iceberg and sinking part – I mean the glamour aspect. This cruise line sold itself as fairly sheeshy and required formal dress for some dinners, but we weren’t exactly rubbing elbows with Rockefellers. Retired dentists were about as rarefied as the passengers got. And the food was fine but more “goor-may” than gourmet. What else could it be given the logistics of feeding so many people and the fact that every fish or steak has to be frozen? I winced every time people picked up days-old sushi. Yuck.

We had fun, enjoyed some nice family time and had a blast on the beaches in Bermuda. But we won’t go on a cruise again for a long time, if ever. I can see the appeal for adults traveling alone, for large groups or for couples looking for a trip that keeps their young children occupied while the adults go do what adults do. For us, a week at the beach would have been more relaxing and cheaper while an airplane journey to a foreign locale would have been more interesting. You may go somewhere on a cruise, but it’s not really traveling.

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Asteroids

Please insert 130 billion quarters to play

I got a request from the friend of a friend a couple of weeks ago to write a short freelance piece about, of all things, asteroid mining. Not exactly right up my alley, but he said they wanted to look at the financial end of it with some humor. That sounded a little more like it so I got permission from the ethics person at the WSJ and dashed something off. But it seems that there was a tiny bit of confusion at the publication which had already commissioned someone else. To protect the innocent, I won’t name the magazine, but it rhymes with  “mopular pie-ants” and is only read by middle-aged men in doctors offices and barber shops these days, as far as I know. And, just so my efforts weren’t an absolute waste of time, I’ll share with you, my five or ten readers, what I learned:

There’s gold in them ‘thar rocks. Plus cobalt, tin, osmium, molybdenum, platinum and other valuable elements. The only problem is, they’re millions of miles away, embedded in asteroids.

But entrepreneurs believe they can one day tap these riches. Planetary Resources, co-founded by X-Prize Foundation sponsor Peter Diamandis and funded by deep-pocketed investors such as senior Google executives and director James Cameron, says the payoff is worth it.

“Many of the scarce metals and minerals on Earth are in near-infinite quantities in space,” said Diamandis at an April press conference.

Now Avatar might have made it look sort of easy, apart from those pesky blue aliens, but mining asteroids is a titanic challenge. For starters, dragging a huge rock back to earth might be messy. Remember the extinction of the dinosaurs? A platinum-rich asteroid touted by the group as a possible mining target is about 500 meters across or around 10 times the diameter of an object that crashed into a sparsely-inhabited Siberian forest 104 years ago. The smaller projectile had an impact of around 100 Hiroshima atomic bombs and wrought devastation for hundreds of square miles. Just think of the liability issues!

Instead, the plan would be to survey the richest ones and then bring those space rocks to near-earth orbit for mining as part of a space colony. Technology for doing so might exist in a matter of decades. The scientific credentials of leading staffers lend credibility to the effort but, even if the laws of physics allow for it, what about those of economics?

People willing to bankroll a space-mining operation could just as well troll for minerals a lot closer to home. Scientists know, for example, that seawater contains gold – about 20 million tons of it according to U.S. government scientists. Multiple schemers and scammers have been tripped up trying to extract this bounty profitably, even at today’s record price of around $1,600 an ounce. Just imagine if they were successful.

Well, for starters, the yellow metal would be worth a lot less than the current value if anyone were to crack the problem. All the gold mined from antiquity through today amounts to a little under 160,000 metric tons according to The World Gold Council. At the market price, the gold in seawater would be worth a little over one quadrillion dollars – all the money in the world and then some. Simplistically assuming we each desired the same amount of gold, the price would be just $13 an ounce and we could sprinkle it on our breakfast cereal.

So while promoters may be onto something when they say space mining is possible, the huge upfront research and development costs and ensuing price distortions would mean that they wouldn’t recover their investment even if they succeeded. No wonder the smartest rocket scientists all seem to wind up at Goldman Sachs these days.

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