June 10, 2013
More Reflections on Visiting St. Petersburg, Russia
In May 2013, I went to St. Petersburg, Russia for the second time in three years. In 2011, I spoke at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, a business-oriented event that focused heavily on natural resource extraction in Siberia but had a panel on protecting IP in the Internet era. They put 15 speakers on a 75 minute panel, a ridiculous set-up by any measure. (This year, my session had 9 speakers over 3 hours, also ridiculous but in a different way). I enjoyed the trip to St. Petersburg but came away from the trip with subdued enthusiasm.
This time, I was invited to speak on Internet regulation (I presented my “Safe Harbors and Immunities” paper) at the St. Petersburg International Legal Forum, which drew 2,500+ attendees. Having just been to St. Petersburg less than 2 years ago, and recalling the numerous hassles of traveling there, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go.
As it turned out, I had a fabulous trip! St. Petersburg still poses challenges to the independent tourist, including the onerous and expensive visa requirements (which actually got worse in the last 2 years), the long flight time, the difficulties with speaking English, the crowds, the high cost, the characteristically lax attention to scheduling details (such as the fact the organizers rescheduled and extended my session time without telling me) and the limited vegetarian support (although this has improved). So why the difference on this trip?
The Food. Last time, I barely ate anything for the week. This time, I actually found decent vegetarian food in St. Petersburg. See my separate blog post on the St. Petersburg vegetarian scene.
Location. On my first visit, the organizers housed me at the Park Inn Pribaltiyskaya on the west end of Vasilyevsky Island—a mediocre hotel, with few nearby amenities, and a good 40+ minutes from the heart of town. This time, the organizers placed me in the Hotel Astoria, located at St. Isaac’s Square right in the heart of town. The central location made it easy to walk to restaurants and the major attractions in town.
All Expenses Paid. The organizers paid for virtually everything in Russia: airfare, hotel, ground transportation, most meals, and numerous tourist excursions. It turns out I enjoy things more when they are completely free.
Private Tours. The organizers arranged private tours of many key attractions, including after-hours tours when the crowds were gone. The Hermitage is great no matter what, but it’s even better when there are no crowds and no lines.
In other words, St. Petersburg is a fantastic tourist destination when you get free and special access to its best resources.
I also had comparatively nice weather. I had one day of torrential rain, but the remainder of the time was sunny with temperatures over 70 degrees. In the sunshine, St. Petersburg really sparkles.
Yusupov Palace. St. Petersburg is filled with palaces, and Yusopov Palace lacks the brand recognition associated with the most famous. It was never occupied by legends like Peter the Great or Catherine the Great, nor was it ever a royal palace. Indeed, had it not been included in one of the free conference tours, I probably would not have put it on my destination list. Still, it turned out to be a fine tourist destination. It is a well-preserved palace with many of its original decorations and objets d’art still there (see 1, 2). I was most impressed with the 160-seat private theater, impeccably restored and still in use today—but now open to the public, as opposed to a venue for private performances as initially constructed.
Kronshtadt. Kronshtadt is an island in the middle of the Gulf of Finland—a key location for defending St. Petersburg and other Russian interests on the Gulf of Finland from naval threats. It was so important to the Russian military that it was closed to outsiders until 1996. It’s still a major military town, but now the doors are open to tourists. It’s far enough off the beaten track, however, that not many tourists go, making it an intriguing destination for adventurous tourists looking for something different. (Still, because of its military importance, it’s not a good destination for independent tourists—I recommend a guide).
Six factors detracted from my visit to Kronshtadt:
1) Late start. Typical of Russian scheduling, we left nearly an hour late.
2) Cancelled boat ride. The tour promised we’d travel by boat. Instead, the tour guide said that an impending storm made it possible we wouldn’t be able to get back by boat, so we bussed there instead.
Though Kronshtadt is an island, it’s been connected to the mainland by “dams” that act as wave-breakers to keep massive Baltic Sea waves from pounding St. Petersburg. The dams, however, make the seas between Kronshtadt and St. Petersburg pretty glassy, so I am skeptical about the explanation. I suspect bussing instead of boating saved the tour organizers a fair amount of money. While the drive to Kronshtadt was interesting enough, a boat ride would have been more fun, and the ugly traffic getting over St. Petersburg bridges meant a very long delay getting back to the hotel.
3) Closed attractions. One of the main advertised attractions was the Naval Church, an impressive and beautifully restored church. However, due to renovations, it was closed during the week and only open on weekends. Surely the tour operators knew this, or could have found out…?
4) Unknowledgeable tour guide. Our tour guide knew some about Kronshtadt, but it clearly wasn’t her expertise. She was fumbling around asking for directions, surprised by what was open and closed, and generally not very knowledgeable. Ideally you would get a tour guide who is intimately familiar with Kronshtadt, not just a general St. Petersburg expert.
5) Weather. As feared, the clouds moved in while we were in Kronshtadt, casting a gray pall and sending us for umbrella cover.
6) Uninspired co-travelers. Our group included three French members who pooped out after just a couple of hours and started bitching that they wanted to go back to St. Petersburg, forcing us to turn around earlier than advertised.
Despite all this, Kronshtadt was mildly interesting. They were organizing for a celebration the next day, so we saw numerous naval ships in the harbor on display. We saw abandoned military installations. We also saw a quiet residential community—disorienting after the hustle-and-bustle of St. Petersburg—that was oddly segregated: young male soldiers working by the water, female significant others (some with babies) and older residents strolling and conversing in the residential interior. We also saw a nicely restored Orthodox church with a private tour by one of the priests. Perhaps with a more knowledgeable tour guide and more energetic traveling companions, we could have even seen more interesting things. Otherwise, this was an expensive tour for what I got.
Catherine's Palace in Pushkin. One of Catherine the Great’s palaces, Pushkin is the home of the notorious Amber Room: a room covered virtually floor to ceiling with amber decorations. The Amber Room was looted during the WW2 German occupation and the original decorations have never been found, making it one of the most mysterious lost artifacts of the modern era. The room has been recreated and is a nice room, but after all of the hype, perhaps I had built it up to impossible expectations.
Otherwise, the palace is similar to other royal palaces. I think it’s unfair to say that if you’ve seen one Russian palace, you’ve seen them all. Each of them has their own mind-boggling hubristic aspects that need to be seen to be believed. Still, if I had to choose between seeing Pushkin and Peterhof because I didn’t have time for both, I think Peterhof gets the nod due to its ocean-side setting and its interesting fountains and gardens.
Other Destinations. Other places I visited on this trip (see my earlier post for reviews), all paid for by the conference organizers:
* Hermitage. It will take many visits to exhaust the exhibits there. This time, the tour guide focused mostly on the architecture. The peacock clock is still amazing.
* Peterhof. I still didn’t get into any of the buildings or the upper gardens, but the boat ride to Peterhof was glorious this time (super weather) and the fountains remain amazing.
* Boat ride on Moika Canal. I enjoyed the canal ride a lot more when I wasn’t paying for it and the weather was delightful.
On my own, I went to a celebration at New Holland. New Holland was the original harbor for St. Petersburg, and for 300 years it was closed to outsiders. It’s not fully open yet, but it’s undergoing renovations and is now opened part of the year for celebrations. I went late on a Friday evening with good weather, and the young crowd was engaged in all kinds of games (basketball, Frisbee, ping-pong and much more), lots of drinking and plenty of flirting. The buildings themselves are ominous and foreboding, but the public still doesn’t have great access to them. My hope is that the redevelopers will find a way to make New Holland into a bona fide tourist attraction. It has the potential to be really great.
On my own dime, I also went up St. Isaac’s colonnade for a birds’-eye view of St. Petersburg. On the clear day I had, it was easily worth the $5 entrance price, though with less visibility it wouldn’t be worth it—and the $10 price for evening admission seems pretty steep.
I also tried to watch the bridge raising along the Neva River. As usual, the Russians provided unreliable scheduling information, so I didn’t get to see this spectacle after waiting quite some time.
Perhaps the most stunning street-sight was the Friday evening discovery of a full and quite talented orchestra, with a choral section, performing a symphony for free from the back of St. Isaac’s cathedral. The whole situation was a little silly, as the crowd was on both the near and far side of the street as cars noisily drove between them. Not the best acoustics, but the price was right. As usual, it made me wish there was some way I could have gotten the scheduling information so I could have planned this into my schedule, but therein lies one of the common frustrations of an English-speaking American trying to navigate St. Petersburg.
The Hotel Astoria
The Hotel Astoria is a nice hotel. Its most remarkable feature is its central location, across the street from St. Isaac’s cathedral and just blocks from the Neva River and Nevsky Prospect. You pay a premium for that kind of location, but a prime location is crucial to enjoying the city.
The other standout “feature” of the hotel is its high prices. My room cost $400/night, presumably a discounted rate for the conference organizers. Internet access cost over $25/day (they had two old computers in their business center that I used instead—I never had to wait for one). Afternoon “tea” was about $40. The breakfast buffet (included in my room rate) was an astounding $40. The hotel provided room-temperature bottles of drinking water for free, but cold bottles of water in the mini-bar…well, I don’t even want to know how much mini-bar items cost. The hotel obviously catered to a different economic class of customers than me.
About the breakfast: In the Russian tradition of luxurious excess, the buffet literally was a caviar and champagne buffet. Even more conventional offerings, such as fruit and bread, were better than typical European hotel breakfast fare (although still reflecting the supply challenges of being located at the 60th parallel). I especially liked that they offered soy milk so I could enjoy a bowl of cereal. As hotel breakfasts go, this was one of the nicer ones I’ve had. However, there’s no way I would pay $40 out of my own pocket for it.
My room was decent-sized, with a king bed, a sitting chair, a desk and a decent-sized bathroom. I didn’t ask for a non-smoking room, and there was an ashtray in the room, but I didn’t notice any cigarette smell in the room (and I’m sensitive to such things). The room’s single window looked onto the busy square, but two double-paned windows successfully blocked out most of the noise.
Although there are other first-class hotels in St. Petersburg that might be nicer (the W stands out in my mind), the Hotel Astoria is an excellent choice….if someone else is paying the bills.
June 06, 2013
The Exciting Vegetarian Restaurant Scene in St Petersburg, Russia
St. Petersburg’s vegetarian scene has improved dramatically in the past 2 years. Russia is still not vegetarian-friendly, and Russian vegetarians have a lot of work remaining to overcome years of official anti-vegetarian socialization (see, e.g., this 2012 St. Petersburg Times article where government officials erroneously criticize the healthiness of a vegetarian diet). Still, vegetarian restaurants are proliferating across Europe, and St. Petersburg has caught the wave.
I didn’t make it back to Café Botanika, St. Petersburg's leading vegetarian restaurant, but I did try three other vegetarian restaurants:
Troitsky Most. This is St. Petersburg’s venerable vegetarian institution, and its only vegetarian chain. I went to the Moika Canal location, just a block off Nevsky Prospekt. While the restaurant is vegetarian-friendly, their menu is old-school and not vegan-friendly. Most of the dishes had dairy, such as their flagship lasagna. Worse, the server didn’t speak English, making it difficult to navigate the menu. I tried a cold garbanzo bean salad and savory "broccoli wheat" pancakes with sour cream, neither of which were remarkable. Cost for this modest meal was about $5. The restaurant decor was atmospheric, but the food wasn’t worth a second visit, especially in light of the alternatives.
Rada and K. This busy and large cafeteria-style restaurant mostly caters to a student crowd. They claim to offer Indian cuisine, and optically most dishes looked like Indian food, but it didn’t taste like Indian food--at all. No matter. If you don’t expect it to taste like Indian food, the food tasted fine if a little bland. As usual, the server had limited English capabilities, so navigating the cafeteria line wasn’t easy. I got a chicken “curry” with a large mound of kasha, a big bowl of “dal,” a potato pierogi (?) and a “curried” cous-cous salad. (I ordered so much food because this was both lunch and dinner). My taste buds didn’t sing, but the food was filling and satisfying, so I’d consider the meal a success. Cost for this two-meals-in-one was about $12.
Café Ukrop (a photo of the storefront). (Ukrop is the Russian word for dill, though I didn't notice an excessive use of dill at the restaurant). This is two restaurants in one. The first floor is casual with ordering out of a deli case. Upstairs is a charming sit-down restaurant, tastefully decorated with modern and festive fixtures. They claimed to have an English language menu, but no copies were available on my visit. Instead, one of the servers spoke competent English and patiently explained each menu choice to me. There were numerous vegan options, and they are separately identified on the menu.
I ordered a “Mexican” barley soup, raspberry-cherry dumplings and apple strudel—ALL VEGAN. The Mexican soup was bland and uninspired. It was thin on the barley and had no Mexican-style spicing at all; I presume what made it “Mexican” was some parsley. The dumplings were amazing. The humble-looking and plain dumplings were filled with cherries and raspberries and then covered with a raspberry drizzle. Though the dumplings sound like a dessert, they were savory. The berry sourness with a little sweetness mixed with the plain dumplings worked incredibly well—the flavors were sophisticated, nuanced and unexpected. Recommended. The apple strudel was very good and I had a hard time believing that it was vegan (though the English-speaking server repeatedly confirmed that they were). Overall, the combination of the lovely décor and the successful vegan dishes made this restaurant a must-visit on any vegetarian tour of St. Petersburg.
Others. Based on the Happy Cow listing, I also sought out Chisty List, a bar in an obscure location at the cul-de-sac of an out-of-the-way street. Though Happy Cow said they were open 24 hours, they stop serving food at 11 pm, and I arrived too late to try it. I would have ordered food to-go in any case, as the place was very smoky and my low-fashion attire apparently offended the other patrons.
There were a dozen other vegetarian restaurants I didn’t try this trip, plus numerous other long-standing vegetarian-friendly restaurants such as The Idiot (which I don’t recommend in light of other better and cheaper options) or Tandoor (which offers real Indian food, not the Rada and K bastardization, though at a premium price). Overall, the combination of strong vegetarian options like Café Botanika and Café Ukrop with the proliferation of other options has finally made St. Petersburg into a city that vegetarians can enthusiastically visit.
May 31, 2013
Want Vegetarian Food or a Spinning Class in Cuba? Tough (Guest Blog Post by Lisa Goldman, Part 2 of 2)
[by guest blogger Lisa Goldman]
[Eric's note: in March 2013, Lisa and I visited Cuba. I have written several posts on the subject that I'll be posting to my Tertium Quid blog and ultimately cross-posting here, probably in the next month. I also have posted a monstrous set of 230 photos (see a smaller batch of "favorites"), and Lisa posted her own batch of photos. Lisa has written two reflection pieces on the visit, and this is the second post. See the first.]
Cuba: I came. I saw. I did not eat (or exercise).
Guidebooks had warned me that the food in Cuba was notoriously bland, and the selection poor. I’ve travelled enough to take those warnings seriously, but I’ve never experienced anything like this. Lack of decent food choices while travelling is a familiar hazard for vegetarians, but Cuba took it to a new level. It’s the only place I’ve ever been when there wasn’t even a place to pick up a granola bar or bag of snacks – and I don’t mean there wasn’t a place to purchase these near our hotel. I mean there wasn’t a place to purchase these in the entire country. Well, now. That’ll keep a girl honest. I’ve never eaten so few calories for so many consecutive days in my life. Forget your cleanses, your South Beach, your paleo diet. If you want to lose weight, try the "Vegetarian Tourist in Havana" Diet.
The food in Havana isn’t a prize even for omnivores. Cubans primarily get their food from 4 sources: (1) ration stores for a handful of limited basics at extraordinarily low (subsidized) prices, (2) what they call a grocery store, which is closer to a liquor store in the US with a small selection of non-ration food items at much higher prices, (3) farmers markets for fresh produce and meat, again at mostly high prices, and (4) restaurants (which used to be solely government run with limited options, but has recently widened to allow for private restaurants in individual’s homes).
If you want to find a place on this planet that is untouched by the chemical sh*tstorm of processed foods and the unrelenting marketing and packaging that comes with it, try Cuba. The trade off is that Cuba has also isolated itself from knowledge and availability of healthy foods. The food that is available, like most everything else in Havana, reflects a time warp. Most options seem like items the government decided to purchase or produce for the masses during a planning cycle dating back to 1960. The government restaurants look like somewhere Arthur Fonzarelli might fit in, from the menu to the diner decor. If you like extremely bland baked chicken, ham sandwiches, white rice, white bread, canned green beans or bad pizza, you’ll be good. Otherwise, you are seriously out of luck. They have never heard of whole grain anything. A cup of yogurt, greek or otherwise? Forget it. And if you want a leaf of kale, it’s gonna be a long swim.
Here is a summary of my meals:
Day One: We arrived in the evening, and the concierge suggested a nearby private restaurant called La Moraleja. He said it had the best vegetarian selections in the area. When we arrived we discovered that the menu listed zero vegetarian options. After speaking with the waitress, she said they could prepare three vegetarian choices: pasta, lasagna or risotto. She emphasized the lasagna as a good choice, but Eric doesn’t like gobs of cheese, so we ordered the pasta and risotto. Ten minutes after placing our order, the waitress returned to our table to ask us if we were sure we didn’t want to switch our order to the lasagna. Hmmm, they were obviously struggling with our order, but we still declined the lasagna. Forty five minutes later, our meal arrived. Eric’s pasta was plain spaghetti with some oil and a diced tomato mixed in. My risotto appeared to be Chinese white rice, congealed together with some sort of cream and a tiny amount of diced eggplant mixed in. Both dishes were tasteless. The meal cost about the equivalent of US $25.
Day Two: Our hotel offered a large complimentary buffet breakfast. Surveying the options, I was initially hopeful that I would find something good to eat. My hopes were dashed quickly, and by the end of the week, I simply couldn’t face the breakfast buffet anymore (I skipped it entirely my last two days). The eggs were so greasy they slid around my plate and left a trail that made me think of snail slime. The beautiful looking fruit had so little flavor I pulled it away from my mouth to double-check that I had bitten into the melon I thought I had, and not a piece of potato. The cereal was so stale and gritty, it recalled the Passover “Crispy O’s” we’d deemed inedible a previous year. And the bread, oh sweet mercy, how did they screw this up? They were working with identical ingredients to bakers the world over: flour, water, yeast. And believe me when I tell you, I have previously never met a carb I didn’t like. But these rolls, pastries and BLOs (bagel-like objects – or was it supposed to be a donut? It did have sugar sprinkled on top so we never did resolve this) were abysmal. I’m at a loss to describe exactly what was wrong. The texture? The flavor? Yes.
Lunch on Day Two was at a restaurant with the tour group. Anna the tour guide was very good about reassuring us that she would talk with the restaurant and make sure they served us a vegetarian meal. And yet, the first thing I was served was soup with large pieces of chicken in it. Anna was embarrassed and apologetic and had them correct it with a salad. This was my first of several Cuban salads consisting of shredded cabbage, topped with canned corn and canned green beans. Mmmmm mmm. My entrée was white rice, boiled sweet potato, and “salted vegetables” (basically the same as the salad, except the cabbage is cooked and saltier). Dessert was … wait for it … white rice (this time with sugar in some sort of pudding type presentation). Oh my. Cue the search for a grocery store.
Clearly restaurants were not going to be bastions of satiety, so I asked Anna where we could find a grocery store. I was naively hopeful that I could at least find a place to pick up a few items to survive on, perhaps some granola bars, pretzels, yogurt, or produce. In previous travels when I’ve encountered difficulties accommodating my vegetarianism, I’d always been able to cobble together a work around by visiting the local market, however humble. I wasn’t expecting to find Whole Foods, but I wasn’t expecting what I did find either.
The first “market” Anna dropped me off at was so unrecognizable as such that I walked right past it. Turns out the market was the snack stand outside of a bar, selling newspapers, soda, water and a bit of candy. No food here.
For dinner that night, Eric and I decided to walk to La Buena Vida, a private restaurant that had previously been purely vegetarian but had evolved into a pescatarian restaurant. When we wandered inside, the place was absolutely empty, but adorable. It was a little disconcerting to be the sole patrons, but I felt encouraged by the apparent effort someone had put into decorating the place and designing the menu. Communication was an issue. This restaurant was deep into residential Havana, far from tourists. The menu was Spanish only, and between my poor high school Spanish and the waiter’s poor English, ordering was a bit of a stab in the dark. We ended up with a black bean soup that was so salty I could not eat it. This was beyond a matter of my personal salt level preferences. It tasted like the lid of the salt container had fallen off and dumped into the soup. At about 48 hours into our trip, plus a 5 mile walk to this restaurant, I was hungry, but this was inedible to me. Our entrees were a vegetable kebab and a vegetable pie. The kebab veggies were very oily, and had a bizarre texture. The piece of corn was so chewy and tough, if I had closed my eyes, I would have never guessed it was corn in my mouth. The veggie pie dough tasted “off” and inside the sauce was oddly sweet, as if they had put sugar in with the vegetables.
Eric and I enjoy sampling vegetarian food, especially vegan food, when we travel. We’ve been to more than our share of “funky” restaurants, since many vegan places are run by people from other cultures and religions/cults. You’ll have to take me at my word when I say I think we have a fairly high tolerance for new flavors and unfamiliar dishes. So long as they’re vegetarian, we’re pretty open-minded. But, this wasn’t simply unfamiliar, it was bad cooking. Too salty or too sweet and just badly prepared. The waiter said the chef used to work at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. We decided perhaps he was the dishwasher there. The food looked pretty, as if someone had seen how Chez Panisse presented the food, but any resemblance to Chez Panisse food ended there. After politely eating what we could and paying our bill, we departed without ever encountering another customer. I don’t think shifting from vegetarian to pescatarian is going to save this place.
Day 3: Breakfast at the hotel was identical every morning, I’ll spare you further description.
Lunch that day was at a restaurant with a large cow sculpture on the roof – not the most auspicious sign for a vegetarian traveler. I ate some black beans served with my daily staple, Chinese white rice. I was also served more “salted vegetables” that were so oily I barely touched them. Lunch was served with a glass of sangria and a piece of cake with neon green frosting, both were tooth-achingly sweet. I don’t turn down many desserts, but this one stayed on the plate.
For dinner, the group went to a Chinese restaurant. What the hell, at least the rice was thematically appropriate here. Again, we found nothing vegetarian listed on the menu, but the waiter was happy to accommodate us. Eric and I shared vegetable chop suey and vegetable chow mein (turns out these were identical dishes, except the latter was served over noodles). I found these vegetables vastly superior to the salted veggies we’d be served everywhere else. I even spied some dark green leafy vegetables in the mix. The group as a whole found the meal barely passable, but I was so grateful to see vegetables beyond cabbage and canned corn and green beans, I ate more than at any other meal all week, save one. Also, Anna had told us that this restaurant was located in “real” Havana, appeared to be filled with locals rather than tourists, and the prices reflected that. This was one of the cheapest meals we had all week. Eric and I paid about US $12 for our two entrees, bottles of water and tip.
Day 4: Lunch today was at “the best Creole restaurant in Cuba.” I ate a portion of a greasy unappealing plain egg omelet. I skipped dinner entirely. Thank goodness I had packed a few emergency Luna bars in my luggage; by this point I was rationing them to myself, 1-2 per day depending on the circumstances. Today was a 2 bar day, however there was one food highlight. Anna took us to a farmers market. By this point in our trip, finding a fresh fruit or vegetable was a bit like hunting for Big Foot. I wasn’t sure they really existed here. But, lo and behold, this was a beautiful farmers market with a great variety of produce. Has anyone told the restaurants about this??? I could no longer blame the poor vegetarian food experiences I’d had on lack of ingredient availability. I conjectured that it must be due to 50 years under a political regime and culture that restricted choices and exposure to culinary ideas. Get these people some Food Network TV and epicurious.com stat!
Today, Eric and I also ventured out in search of exercise classes. Since I teach indoor cycle, pilates and other fitness classes at home in the Bay Area, I was very curious to learn the options available in Cuba. Initially Anna had told me enthusiastically, “Of course Cuba has pilates and indoor cycling!” But, when I kept checking back with her, she was unable to turn up anything. The closest she came was a sort of a spa in the wealthy Miramar neighborhood that used to offer cycle classes, but it had cancelled them indefinitely because the bikes fell out of repair and needed to be replaced.
Turning elsewhere, we asked the concierge at our hotel for guidance. She had never heard of any classes, but suggested maybe trying another fancy hotel catering to foreigners. At Meliá Cohiba Hotel, we found a lobby and pool area much more deserving of the 5 star rating than our Hotel Nacional, but the concierge was similarly stumped by my query. We wandered by Cohiba’s gym room, asked around there, and found someone who had heard of a yoga studio nearby. Finally a lead! We walked straight there and found a yoga studio of sorts in a residential area. It appeared more of a religious gathering place that incorporated a few yoga classes a week than an exercise studio, but it was locked up and wouldn’t be reopening until after we left the country, so I couldn’t inquire further. This is the closest thing to a group exercise class of any sort that I was ever able to find in Havana.
Day 5: Field trip! This was the only day that we left Havana. We headed to Cuba’s mountains to an area called Las Terrazas. By this time, Anna and the group were so sympathetic to the pathetic food offerings all week, they made special arrangements to drop us to eat at El Romero, a vegetarian restaurant (there are 3 total in the country if you count the pescaterian one we tried in Havana earlier). This was our best meal of the week, incorporating many kinds of produce and flavors. Much of it was unfamiliar to us, and some of it was kind of bizarre. My main dish was sort of like an Italian eggplant parmesean style entrée, with sautéed vegetables in between slices of eggplant, but then it was topped with a layer of Mexican style refried black beans. I can’t say I have plans to try to replicate the dish, but I did eat it all. Also, the fresh baked bread at this restaurant was very good, and someone needs to put the baker in touch with whoever is responsible for the daily bread travesty occurring at Hotel Nacional’s breakfast buffet.
Dinner was a scoop of ice cream at the famous Coppelia in Havana. We’d heard about this place many times, walked by it and seen the lines, and even gotten a cone to share at one of the outposts earlier in the week. Tonight, when we tried to order, we learned that they only had vanilla left at that time of day, so we went to one of the satellite counters maybe 20 yards away which was still offering chocolate and almond. I ordered the almond. It tasted like vanilla. The popularity of this place with the locals confounded our group. Coppelia has about 6 different places to order under the same roof, all under the same name, part of the same property, but the flavors may vary from one counter to the next, only steps away. The upstairs area serves the identical product for a lower price (using the Cuban pesos, instead of the Convertible tourist dollars); the line for those tables can be very long, but not always. The ice cream is fine; our group found nothing extraordinary about it.
Day 6: Another 2 bar day, I skipped both breakfast and lunch. For dinner, Eric and I, along with another from our group, sought out Al Medina, a Mediterranean restaurant in Old Havana that the guide book had suggested was a good place for vegetarians. All I can say is, all the warring countries in the Middle East should join together and direct their ire here. The hummus was inedible (watered down mayonnaise maybe??), and the falafel unrecognizable (potato balls?). I don’t even know. (See the photo).
Day 7: I skipped breakfast again, and gorged on a crappy and extremely overpriced ($30!!!) veggie burger and fries when I arrived at the stop-over terminal in Cancun.
It took me about 2 months to recover the weight I lost on our Cuban vacation. I used to know someone who cycled on and off Nutrisystem every few months. I’m considering the same sort of system for myself, visiting Cuba every time my jeans get tight.
May 28, 2013
Reflections on Visiting Cuba (Guest Post by Lisa Goldman)
By guest blogger Lisa Goldman
[Eric's note: in March 2013, Lisa and I visited Cuba. I have written several posts on the subject that I'll be posting to my Tertium Quid blog and ultimately cross-posting here, probably in the next month. I also have posted a monstrous set of 230 photos (see a smaller batch of "favorites"), and Lisa posted her own batch of photos. Lisa has written two reflection pieces on our visit, and she's sharing the first in this post. See the second.]
In March of 2013, I went to Havana, Cuba. Prior to booking this trip, I hadn’t given Cuba much thought. Born a decade after news of Bay of Pigs and the Missile Crisis had grown stale, Cuba wasn’t a hot topic at the family dinner table. But, I did grow up in the U.S. during some of the Cold War. So, I got the memo: USA good, Cuba bad. I didn’t question this much until I went to college, where I got my mind pried opened up enough to consider that some aspects of socialism had merit, but that’s as far as I took it. This is the background I brought with me to Havana – uneducated but open-minded.
My first impressions were not great. I wouldn’t call Havana’s airport welcoming. After exiting the plane, we queued up for passport control. Unlike any other country I can recall, in Cuba, there is a solid red (natch) wall. All the passport agents sit in their booths in front of their individual doors. These particular Cubans are not friendly people. If you smile for your required picture as a nervous joke, like I did, they do not smile back. If you pass their review, they buzz you through the door, with a buzz that sounds a little like what I imagine hearing from the high security section of a mental ward. You must approach one at a time (no husband/wife teaming like most any place else). When Eric got buzzed through that door ahead of me, and it slammed solidly shut behind him, a tiny part of me panicked that I’d never see him again. When I got buzzed through, a tiny part of me panicked that I’d never see the other side of that door again; nightmares fed by 80’s movies of people trapped behind the Iron Curtain flashed through my mind. In truth, the process went pretty smoothly, even if my deodorant had to earn its “extra strength” promise that day.
My impression did not improve when we set out the next morning and saw Havana in the harsh light of day. Our tour guide Anna took us through “old Havana.” It had charm. The beauty of the original architecture was apparent. But, so was the poverty. These buildings were in terrible shape, paint worn away, concrete crumbling, windows broken, wires strewn haphazardly. This is what they were showing off? Then, later that evening, Eric and I took a very long walk from our hotel to visit the only vegetarian (now pescatarian) restaurant in the city, La Buena Vida. As we passed through one neighborhood after the next, I grew increasingly uncomfortable. No one had told us we weren’t allowed to walk beyond the bounds of tourist Havana, but it still felt like we had ventured beyond where we were supposed to, seeing things perhaps we weren’t really supposed to see. Near our hotel, there was a certain energy: music playing, classic cars cruising, teens milling around enjoying movies or ice cream. But, a few miles out, into the regular neighborhoods the mood was very different. It was eerily quiet and dark at barely 7pm. Block after block offered the same two government determined restaurant choices (pizza or chicken) and attracted minimal interest. The most crowded spots were definitely the bus stops. The people looked sort of dull, resigned. We passed a couple stores, one even had the old bronze Woolworth’s title still inlaid into the entry terrazzo, but the shelves inside were almost entirely empty. But this was no movie set depicting 1970s Russia. And, this clearly wasn’t a Woolworth’s anymore either. This was Cuba 2013. The general ennui made me feel depressed and claustrophobic.
I was also disturbed that our lovely tour guide for the week, Anna, who had been educated as an attorney and graduated near the top of her class, had chosen to be a tour guide. Since I have also abandoned my JD, I am not one to look askance at fellow “recovering JDs.” The difference here is that her motivation was financial, and it demonstrates one of the paradoxes of Cuba: Cubans who have access to tourists and tourist dollars (literally the type of dollars specifically required for tourists to use are different, which are much more valuable than the Cuban pesos Cubans are supposed to use) have a huge financial advantage over Cubans who don’t. So, you will find JDs as tour guides, MDs as taxi drivers, and the like – not because they don’t want or can’t find positions in their field, but because it’s not fiscally advantageous to do so. It is obvious the dual currency system and the financial incentives are a mess. It cannot be good for Cuba to invest so much in the higher education of thousands of its most talented residents and then release them into a system that rewards them for ditching that expensive education in favor of jobs that don’t require that kind of investment.
So, while I had arrived with an open mind, within 48 hours, I felt my mind closing. It seemed like Cuba’s attempt at socialism wasn’t working. Living conditions appeared mostly very poor, work incentives twisted, food so horrendous it earned its own separate blog entry, extremely limited access to internet, TV and other media, and an utterly dysfunctional dual money system. It would take me the remainder of the trip plus a few serendipitous hours chatting with an expert in the airport to shift my opinion once again.
I spent the next several days observing. At our request, Anna took us to a ration store. Cuba still issues ration cards to its citizens, and people go to ration stores to collect their monthly allowance of bare necessities like white rice and powdered milk. If you think their cars are retro, you should get a load of this system. Paper ration books, chalkboards noting what rations are available, scales straight from the 1800’s to weigh out the rice. It’s incredible really. But even more disturbing was neighborhood where we happened to visit the ration store. Anna called it a “marginal neighborhood.” That was generous. I would call it a straight-up slum. Now I understood why she took us to “old Havana” on the first day and thought it was nice. Those buildings I initially found in shockingly poor condition did seem beautiful in comparison. I didn’t get any pictures of it because they shuffled us out of the area so quickly (Eric caught one). I remember looking through one broken window and seeing large chunks of concrete all ove rthe floor of someone's home. All I will say is that in any city in America, I believe that entire neighborhood would be condemned in an instant.
Of course, I realize that in America those residents would in turn be left mostly homeless, which is no real improvement. But that’s not the point. The point is that this was exactly the sort of “bottom,” the sort of abject poverty, that I thought socialism was supposed to guard against. I’ve forgotten most of whatever I’d memorized about Karl Marx for some college exam, but I do vaguely recall something about how society should trade off opportunities for individual wealth, so that the masses would not suffer absolute destitution.
It seemed like that wasn’t working out that well in practice. Oh, Cuba had succeeded in driving out the individual wealth. The mob, and its casinos, and its money (and all the ugly underbelly that goes with that) is long gone. But, it didn’t feel like the bottom had risen up as a result. It appeared that the disparity between the rich and the poor had narrowed only by virtue of dragging everyone down to the poor end of the spectrum. As Eric put it: Cuba’s socialism didn’t redistribute the pie, it just shrunk it for everyone. Well, damn if that doesn’t suck. I’ve heard about studies that show that happiness has more to do with the disparity between classes, than with one’s absolute wealth. In other words, poor Cubans should be happier than equivalently poor Americans because the Cubans aren’t as drastically worse off than the middle or upper class Cubans. Perhaps they are happier. I don’t know. I’m lucky enough that I haven’t come close to either situation. But from where I sit, I think it looks pretty crappy to be poor in either country.
In the US, of course, there is the possibility, the opportunity, however improbable and difficult, to lift oneself out of poverty. It’s a story we love to tell – the homeless child who made it to Harvard, the US president raised by a struggling single parent, Oprah Winfrey. It’s a cruel, false promise for many, but still, I can’t help but treasure that hope, however slim. A girl’s gotta hold onto some propaganda. If I found myself in a situation where I lost everything, I like to think that I’d find a way to bootstrap myself up to something better. I’d like the chance.
On the other hand, as desperate as the “marginal” district and some other areas appeared, none of these people were homeless. All had access to reportedly excellent healthcare and a good education. That’s not nothing.
So, which system is better for the majority? The poor? It made my head hurt to try to weigh and compare the two systems. I spent a lot of time talking with Anna, and other very smart, obviously well educated Cubans. I might have been more sympathetic to Cuba’s socialism if I hadn’t been so damn hungry (see food post). And then Hugo Chavez died, providing an unexpected glimpse into Cuba’s governmental control.
When Hugo Chavez died, the Cuban government issued an edict that the country was in national mourning. All music and dancing were strictly prohibited. It was like someone unplugged Havana. Our group had reservations to see the famous Buena Vista Social Club that night, but when we showed up, the show was shuttered. Same with the other Cuban institution, the Tropicana cabaret. But, it was not just the big, obvious venues; every bar, every restaurant, even every last cruising convertible Chevy were silenced. Anna timidly sang us a few bars of a song to demonstrate Cuban rhythms (because our drumming/dancing excursion had been cancelled), but she would only do so behind the tinted bus windows, and expressed fear for her job should anyone else see and report her. Like, for serious.
Now, I’m just a regular gal; not much for political protesting or other grand statements. Search me for tattoos or exotic piercings, and you’ll be disappointed. I like the idea of the 1st Amendment, but don’t exercise my right in any overt way very often and wouldn’t expect myself to buck at feeling impinged. But, there it was. I couldn’t believe the control and fear wielded over the citizens by the government. Yes, they may have been truly mourning Chavez’s passing, but that wasn’t the reason they were shuttering their businesses and censoring their singing in public. They were told to. And, they did. Simple as that. It made me extremely uncomfortable and homesick for the US where I can protest if I want to … even if I never really want to.
Hugo Chavez’s death made the paradox of socialism stand out in stark relief. This was supposed to be a government dedicated to the common man, yet the government ruled the common people with a very short leash. It seemed incredibly paternal. Yes, the government will assure you your rations, your healthcare, your shelter; in exchange, you will do exactly as the government says. I think I may just have too much independent American baked into me for that. I’m so not interested. At least not for those rations and that shelter. I’m not proud to say this, but if I’m being honest, I probably have a sell-out price. But, Cuba wasn’t anywhere near it.
The country stayed in mourning until our departure. I continued to cast about, my last couple days in Cuba, trying to get a true sense of whether the average citizen was satisfied with their lot or not. I was too timid to bluntly ask Anna or the other locals I came into contact with “do you believe you are better off pre or post-Revolution?” and I doubted I would get an honest answer anyway. I headed back to the airport much less open-minded about socialism than I had arrived.
But then, I ended up sitting down next to a stranger and having a lengthy discussion in the airport lounge that shifted my opinions once again. The stranger I sat next to turned out to be Saul Landau. I didn’t know it at the time, but Saul Landau is a journalist, filmmaker, commentator and professor. He’s travelled extensively to Cuba (over 100 times in his estimation from the 1950’s up to the present), written and filmed much about Cuba, and was fascinating to talk to. Ironic, that just as I was about to depart, I stumbled upon this font of knowledge, willing to talk to me, and able to answer my litany of questions, most of which I’m sure were embarrassingly simple to him.
I even asked that number one question on my mind: were the poorer Cubans really better off post-Revolution? His answer surprised me: “Unquestionably, yes.” Just like that, plain as day in his opinion. This held a lot of weight with me, since he had seen Cuba through many transitions. He even regaled me with stories of travelling in the mountains sitting in a Jeep with Fidel himself. And of course, he mentioned the world-class heath care and education systems, available to all Cuban citizens (actually, in some cases, even non-citizens: Saul’s own American daughter got her M.D. in Cuba, completely gratis.) Now, obviously Saul, like any of us, comes with his own biases. But the answer he delivered, with no hesitation, made an impression on me. It made me reconsider the conclusion I thought I had come to. I don’t think I see Cuba with the same rose-colored glasses that Saul does. I certainly don’t enjoy their ham sandwiches the way he relished his at Gate 12. But, I given his extensive, far superior knowledge and experience with the country and its people, I have to give due deference to his opinions.
In the end, all my teeth gnashing is irrelevant, of course. Which system, capitalism or socialism, works better? Where are the poor better off? There are no easy or absolute answers, comparing these two countries directly isn’t the correct metric anyway, and besides, who am I to say? I know where I’m more comfortable, given my upbringing, bias, and comfortable middle-class status. But I can certainly see how my view might change if any of those variables differed.
The only real conclusion I came away with is that the 50 year old U.S. embargo against Cuba should end. Whether I decide I think Cuba’s government is valid or not – either way, the embargo makes no sense. The U.S. trades with countless other countries with governments or policies at least as counter to U.S. ideology as Cuba’s. And, in any case, if the U.S.’s intention was for the embargo to hurt the Castro regime and/or encourage Cubans to overthrow their government, I think we can count that experiment as a failure. The embargo appears to have been quite an effective tool assisting the Castro regime in insulating itself from U.S. influence. However, since Raul Castro took over for Fidel, evidence of capitalism seeping into Cuba is everywhere, the future is obvious. Castro’s “revolucion” is headed in the same direction Stalin’s went. It’s only a matter of time and opening up trade will simply accelerate the process.
As far as I can make out, the embargo has stayed in place primarily for two reasons: (1) the large population of Cuban Americans living in Florida both resent the Revolution/Cuban government for taking their property in Cuba, AND, have a strong financial incentive to keep the embargo rules in place which allow them uniquely (as opposed to non-Cuban US citizens) to send money and materials to Cuba, giving them a monopoly on investing in the newly permitted private Cuban businesses profiting handsomely off tourists, and (2) most Americans just don’t know or care enough about this situation to demand change. It seems to me that the U.S. simply has too much on its plate to bother with this issue. No politician wants to do battle with the vocal Cuban population in Florida when most Americans don’t care.
As more people travel to Cuba and come to similar realizations, and as the generation of original Cuban refugees passes on, I hope to see a change in US-Cuban relations. Once that happens I believe both countries will mostly be better off. Cuba’s unique “time capsule” nature will be a necessary casualty of such a change, so I am grateful to have been able to visit when I did. It was a fascinating trip. But I look forward to better food next time around.
March 18, 2013
How the Shutdown of Google Reader Threatens the Internet (Forbes Cross-Post)
In the early 2000s, the Internet was eclipsing other mass media like print publications and broadcasting. Panicked by this development, some scholars projected a dystopian future where Internet users would create their own "Daily Me" (a term popularized in Nicholas Negroponte's 1995 book, Being Digital [affiliate link]) of customized information sources. As people relied on their Daily Me instead of traditional media sources, the dystopians feared that people would only consume information that reinforced their existing beliefs, rather than being serendipitously exposed to content that challenged or conflicted with their existing perceptions. For example, in his 2001 book Republic.com [affiliate link], Cass Sunstein wrote:
For countless people, the Internet is producing a substantial decrease in unanticipated, unchosen interactions with others.
The resulting lack of intellectual diversity may produce "echo chambers," where only like-minded people talked to each other and reinforce each others' own increasingly polarized viewpoints. This in turn jeopardizes core democratic principles.
The past dozen years have suggested that these dystopian fears aren't completely unfounded. As one example, many people now rely on social media as a primary news source. In many cases--especially with "bi-directional" services like Facebook or LinkedIn where people only connect with "friends"--social media only surfaces content from people who are likely to share common viewpoints. Plus, those posts are culled by mysterious algorithms (such as the algorithm controlling Facebook's newsfeed) that further reduce exposure to diverse viewpoints.
Still, I never believed these dystopian predictions, mostly because I believed technological tools like RSS would triumph over them. (For my more detailed rebuttal to the dystopians, see this article). RSS makes it easy and quick to keep up with dynamically changing online sources. The effectively zero transaction cost means that readers can easily monitor a smorgasbord of sources--including a greater diversity of source--than was possible with other technologies. Plus, RSS feeds bypass third parties' black-box algorithmic filtering that might suppress countervailing views; RSS enables a direct communication from the publisher to the reader.
In my case, the costlessness of subscribing to RSS feeds, plus the simplicity and reliability of Google Reader, has helped me aggregate a vast number of RSS subscriptions (over 220). With that many subscriptions, I can track developments across a wide variety of industries, topical areas, databases, and yes, viewpoints. Rather than circumscribe my worldview, the Internet in general, and RSS in particular, have vastly increased the diversity of my information consumption compared to the heyday of mass-media offline publications.
People have been predicting the death of RSS for years (see, e.g., this 2009 TechCrunch article), but the death of Google Reader moves us closer to RSS's demise than ever before. Without an obvious RSS reader alternative to Google Reader (and with heightened fears that any replacement RSS reader might exit the market, just like Google and Bloglines), some folks will simply give up on RSS altogether and rely exclusively on social media, email alerts or bookmarks. Others will use RSS less frequently because the alternative provider isn't as reliable or elegant as Google Reader. Collectively, with reduced reader demand, fewer publishers may support RSS feeds, creating the possibility of RSS's downward spiral.
The potential death of RSS increases the odds that the dystopian predictions will come true. Without a viable RSS reader, I would dramatically reduce the sources of news I consult, probably by 90% or more. It's not feasible to keep up with hundreds of sources via bookmarks (seriously?!). Email alerts? I have a tough time managing my in-box as it is. Social media? I already use it extensively as a complement to RSS, but it's scattershot and much slower to read. Plus, some sources I current track don't enable any of these RSS alternatives today. Without an RSS reader as reliable and efficient as Google Reader, my information flows will be lower-volume, slower, more heavily intermediated by third party algorithms, and--as the dystopians predicted--less diverse. And if I and others circumscribe our reading sources, publishers will get fewer readers, and the entire Internet ecosystem will shrink.
I don't blame Google. It's their choice to kill a service, especially one they offered for free. Still, I'm hoping that one or more RSS reader competitors will emerge a trustworthy addition to my daily routine. RSS may not be a mainstream tool, but for those of us who use it, its loss would be a major blow. If Google Reader's demise accelerates that unfortunate outcome, we will have lost something of significant social value.
January 23, 2013
Wandering Buddha Restaurant, New Orleans
I dread going to New Orleans because it's not a city for vegetarians. But, on my most recent trip there earlier this month, I was shocked to discover that The Wandering Buddha, an all-vegan restaurant, had opened up...serving Korean food in a place not known for having a thriving Korean community. In fact, the Wandering Buddha may be one of only 3 Korean vegan restaurants in the United States--the others being HanGawi and Franchia in NYC. Pluses and minuses of my visit:
* It's a Korean vegan restaurant in a very meaty town. If you're a vegetarian or vegan visiting New Orleans, you MUST make the trek and support this bold initiative.
* The food tasted authentic. The cuisine wasn't clearly watered down for American or local tastes. Everything was fresh and good (not great, but good). We tried almost every dish on the menu and there were no standouts, but no clunkers either. On the plus side, perhaps I liked the side dishes to the braised tofu the best, and on the minus side, the lettuce wraps were so leafy that they were more lettucy than wrappy. The owner sold the scallion pancakes highly and my dining companions loved them. I thought they were fine but not hype-worthy.
* The bar was surprisingly clean and not too scary.
* We went on a Sunday evening and were entertained by two surprisingly excellent bands. No cover charge or drink minimum! It wasn't my kind of music (the first was zydeco and I'm not sure how to describe the second), but the performers were quite talented and overall I enjoyed the music a lot. With a full belly and good tunes in a completely unexpected location, for the first time I could almost understand why people liked vacationing in New Orleans.
* Prices were fair and I'm pretty sure we were undercharged.
* The neighborhood is sketchy.
* The restaurant faces out of the back of a dive bar, the Hi-Ho Lounge. There are a few tables outdoors. Alternatively, there are a few tables in the bar itself where the restaurant will serve food, but most drinks are ordered from the bar and are on a separate check. The arrangements were a little confusing.
* Though the bar was clean, like most New Orleans restaurants, it was smoky. The bar had high ceilings that prevented the smoke from being too oppressive.
* While the bands were great, there were some dramatic performers that acted out bizarre scenes in between the music. I had absolutely no idea what was going on or why they were there. And there was really no audience (the place probably had about 30 people in the joint, over half of whom were the band, the dramatic performers or the waitstaff) so I really didn't understand who they were performing for. Themselves, I guess. It was all too high-concept for me.
If you can handle the cigarette smoke and the sketchiness, go ahead and order in and enjoy the music. If not, order to-go and take it back to your hotel room if the weather doesn't permit outdoor eating. Either way, recommended.
January 22, 2013
Plant-Based Pizza, Willow Glen (San Jose)
Before Plant-Based Pizza opened in the Willow Glen district of San Jose in November, the Bay Area's leading vegan pizza spot was Pizza Plaza, inconveniently located in Oakland. Now, we have a hometown option! In fact, with the November openings of Plant-Based Pizza and Veggie Grill (just a few days apart), the South Bay vegan scene has gotten a lot more interesting.
Plant-Based Pizza has a small but clean facility with 5 eat-in tables, meaning they don't really expect most customers to eat on-site. On our visit, we got a peppers and shroom pizza slice and a 12" vegan BBQ pizza. The BBQ pizza had a thin crust, daiya cheese, an unobtrusively mild BBQ flavor, non-housemade fake chicken, and a few onion and cilantro here and there. Yet, the flavors worked surprisingly well together, creating an irresistible combination that meant we enjoyed every bite and had no leftovers.
Prices were on the high side but fair. The menu has many more intriguing options to explore. The world needs more vegan pizzerias! Please, let's support this place so it will remain a viable business.
Our photo gallery.
January 21, 2013
Advantages and Disadvantages of Taking an In-House Counsel Job
[This blog post holds my personal record for gestation of a blog post. The outline for this post traces back to a student talk I gave at Marquette University in 2004. I first started working on the post some time in 2005 or 2006. 7+ years later, I'm finally sharing it with the world. Sadly, I don't think the post is noticeably better for all of its incubation.]
This post provides my perspectives on the pros and cons of practicing law as in-house counsel versus at a law firm. Although my perspective is hardly unique, I am one of the comparatively few people who actually preferred practicing at a large law firm over in-house. When I tell people this, they almost always express surprise. My experiences may be colored by practicing in a start-up environment, with its advantages and disadvantages, and my conclusion may reflect my particular personality idiosyncrasies. Nevertheless, this post will provide my insider's view on life as in-house counsel.
Advantages of In-House Practice
The Lawyer Can Become a Business Decision-Maker. In-house lawyers take on business responsibility in several ways. First, to the extent the lawyer supervises outside counsel, the lawyer usually handles those vendor relationships. Second, the in-house lawyer often gap-fills any business decisions that aren’t owned by other people within the company. Finally, the in-house lawyer may share in making business decisions with the “business” people. Often, the in-house counsel’s co-workers prize the lawyer’s business input as much as his/her legal analysis.
The Lawyer Becomes Part of the Team. Most outside counsel have a “hired gun” relationship with their clients. The outside counsel is responsible for providing the best service possible, but then that lawyer flips his/her advice “over the wall” and leaves the implementation to someone else. In contrast, in-house counsel often become part of the execution team. Because in-house counsel are part of the team, they can be much more proactive than the outside lawyers. They can raise issues early and see the issues through to resolution.
In-House Counsel’s Interests Better Align with Corporate Objectives. Even with innovations in alternative billing and long-term multi-iteration relationships between companies and firms, usually an outside counsel’s interests do not align very well with the client’s. After all, the law firm has its own profits to manage, and doing so inevitably diverges with the client’s profit maximization. This is endemic to any customer/vendor relationship. Certainly hours-based billing creates numerous potential conflicts of interest between firm and client.
In-house counsel’s economic interests align much more closely with the client’s. There will never be perfect alignment, but the combination of being an employee plus possibly an equity interest makes a huge difference.
As an added bonus, usually in-house counsel don’t keep timesheets and don’t have billable quotas. This is often the #1 advantage cited by new in-house lawyers. However, this isn’t always the case. Some companies use a chargeback method to divisions/departments that requires keeping track of expenses; and companies may view in-house counsel as substitutes for outside counsel, which makes their goal to squeeze as much value out of the in-house counsel as possible.
Greater Ownership of Outcomes. It’s often easier for in-house counsel to point to specific favorable outcomes for the company and claim credit/ownership of those outcomes. A product counsel can point to a new successful product they guided through the development process and feel a sense of responsibility; a litigator achieving a favorable case outcome can have the same feeling.
Easier Prioritization. In-house counsel can often prioritize conflicting time demands easier because, after all, the requests are all coming from the same company and they can be prioritized based on profitability or the company’s strategic objectives. In contrast, outside counsel have a tough time prioritizing conflicting requests. Naturally, every client wants to be #1 but inevitability priority choices must be made, and telling a client that they aren’t #1 isn’t a path towards long-term client happiness.
On the other hand, it can be even harder for in-house counsel to tell a co-worker that they are not at the top of the priority list. So although it may be easier to prioritize tasks, it may be more painful to say no to people you have to work with the next day.
Better Work/Life Balance. The stereotype is that in-house counsel have a better work/life balance. I wonder about this in practice. Sure, in-house counsel can call up outside counsel and dump a project on them on Friday at 5pm while the in-house counsel goes on to enjoy the weekend. However, to the extent that in-house counsel are cost centers and the company is trying to maximize value out of a cost center, inevitably there will be significant pressure placed on the in-house counsel to do more and work harder. In the end, I think this is very specific to the company and the legal department. Some employers are going to provide better work/life balance than others.
Cons of In-House Counsel
You’re Answerable to a Boss. Some of you may find this an odd “con.” Doesn’t everyone have a boss? The answer, of course, is yes unless you’re self-employed. Even a CEO is answerable to the board or investors.
However, at some law firms, the supervisor/supervisee relationship can be quite attenuated. In firms with a power-partner model, the associate’s power partner is the boss; but at firms with a free-agency model for assigning new projects, it’s possible that no one partner views him/herself “responsible” for an associate. As it turns out, that was the situation I had when I was at the law firm. Although I had partners who nominally were accountable for my time, in practice I had a significant degree of autonomy. Partners have even more independence.
In-house, the lawyer will have a boss in the classic sense. The boss will conduct your performance evaluations, and your success will depend on doing what the boss wants you to do and keeping your boss happy. If the boss isn’t a lawyer but second-guesses your legal advice, that can get especially awkward.
Because bosses can change—they can leave the company or the position can be reorganized (a fairly common occurrence)—the job can change unexpectedly. Even if you love your current boss, your next boss may be a jerk. With a change in supervisors, a good job can become a terrible job overnight. There is almost nothing in-house counsel can do to avoid this risk.
Furthermore, job advancement in-house often requires a boss who will champion for your cause. Sadly, many bosses are not very good at being advocates for their supervisees, in which case in-house lawyers can get stuck in their career progression.
You’re Expected to Know the Answers. In-house, your clients expect you to know the law cold. Occasionally it’s acceptable to request some research time, but most of the time it’s not. In some cases, your clients will think you’re an idiot if you don’t know the answer off the top of your head. In particular, in-house can be a difficult place for newly graduated JDs because usually there’s no training.
Lawyers who start in-house face the added problem that the business clients don’t prize legal accuracy as much as they prize good business counseling. If anything, clients hate legally accurate answers that conflict with their business objectives. As a result, lawyers who start in-house, over time, often become more skilled at business counseling than legal counseling; they don’t necessarily know all of the relevant legal doctrine, and the clients don’t value that extra legal expertise. But in-house counsel are socialized to give clients what they want, which is that they want “yes,” not “no.” As a result, in-house counsel are constantly under pressure to distort their legal analysis to support a business conclusion of “yes.”
Finally, because in-house counsel often are viewed as more skilled at business counseling than legal analysis, their clients sometimes value outside counsel’s advice more than in-house counsel’s. (This is true with outside consultants as well, who often are hired to say exactly what someone internally has already said).
In-House Counsel as a Cost Center. As mentioned above, often employers hire in-house counsel to reduce expenditures on outside counsel. This means employers try to maximize the return from each in-house counsel and reduce in-house counsel’s ability to pay for outside counsel. In-house counsel are obvious targets in any layoff, and they are often expendable after an acquisition.
In-House Counsel as Too Generalist and Too Specialist. In terms of future employment opportunities, in-house counsel can end up in a weird squeeze. On the one hand, in-house counsel often are generalists. They handle any legal matters that appear on their desk, especially in companies where the legal department is small. Further, in-house counsel often are expected to keep up with a wide-ranging set of practice areas, making them the master of none. At the same time, in-house counsel can become incredibly specialized; they focus on the legal issues posed by a single company in a single industry, and thus they may lack the practice diversity across industries and competitors that outside counsel can develop.
Thin Infrastructure. Often, in-house legal departments provide light resources for attorneys. For example, secretarial staff may be spread thin or non-existent. The company may not subscribe to helpful publications or databases.
Consequences of Internal Conflicts. Inevitably, your clients will want to skirt the law, even if the company is fundamentally trying to be ethical. There are too many laws, too many stupid laws, too many laws that impose unreasonable compliance costs, and too many grey areas. In-house counsel have few good choices in these circumstances, especially if the lawyer advised the client on one course of action and the client rejected the advice. If the lawyer feels like he/she needs to “withdraw” from the representation because of the client’s now-possibly-shady behavior or because of the implicit vote of no confidence due to the client ignoring the lawyer’s advice, the lawyer’s options are limited. The lawyer can simply walk away from the job, immediately cutting off the salary (and foregoing any equity upside) and burning bridges with the remaining co-workers; or the lawyer can slowly try to find alternative employment, a time-consuming and costly transition. A standard “best practice” for law firms is to not become too dependent on any single client because it will create pressures to do unethical things. In-house counsel, by the very nature of the position, violate that best practice.
For more thoughts, see The Conglomerate.
January 10, 2013
Recommended Vegetarian Cookbooks for New Vegetarians
by Guest Blogger Lisa Goldman
[Eric's note: I am occasionally asked for vegetarian cookbook recommendations by people who are becoming vegetarian or looking to eat less meat. Given that my cooking repertoire is quite limited and usually involves the microwave as a key resource, I asked my wife Lisa--who actually does cook using cookbooks--for her expert opinion. Note: the links are Amazon affiliate links, but I recommend you try out any cookbooks from the public library before buying.]
Eric has requested many times that I write a guest blog post on Vegetarian & Vegan Cookbooks. I promised to deliver and then, much to his dismay & frustration, delayed many months because I wasn’t sure where to start.
The Vegetarian & Vegan Cookbook category has exploded in the last decade. Back when I started to cook (around 1993 when I moved into my first college housing with a kitchen), library & bookstore shelves had such a limited selection, it was easy to navigate and narrow down which books to select or recommend. But now, their shelves practically groan from the load. This is a good thing! However, it has become impossible to put together a well-researched list that’s truly exhaustive of all the choices available.
My thoughts and recommendations below reflect only my narrow and somewhat dated sampling (I haven’t purchased nearly as many cookbooks in the past ~3 years as I did the previous 5+ years before that). Still, I hope it’s helpful, and I welcome your feedback.
CATEGORY 1 – MY FAVORITES
(1) Moosewood Cookbook – I’m talking about the original from Mollie Katzen. I think this was my first cookbook and it’s one of the top 10 best selling cookbooks of all time *in any category.* Originally published in 1977 (updated in the 1990s), some of the recipes are a little dated. But, many are still great. Three of my favorites: Brazilian Black Bean Soup, Lentil Bulgar Salad and Gypsy Soup. This one will never lose its spot on my shelf.
(2) Veganomicon – Isa Chandra Moskowitz has published many cookbooks. If I could only pick one, it would be this one, although it would be tough to part with her original book Vegan with a Vengeance. There are a lot of great recipes here. If you want to “try before you buy,” check out the dozens of recipes she’s posted at her website. Favorites include: Snobby Joes, Pineapple Cashew Quinoa Stir-fry, Lentils & Caramelized Onions, Pasta Della California, Tamarind Lentils, Potato & Kale Enchiladas, Jambalaya & Manzana Chili Verde.
(3) Peas & Thank You – I picked this one up on a whim at Costco a couple years ago. Author Sarah Matheny has a very popular blog. Her recipes are simple and very kid/family friendly. This isn’t the book I’d necessarily use to impress guests, as some of her shortcuts result in less exciting flavors than in Veganomicon (for example), but it still very good and certainly beats microwaved frozen food.
MY “PRETTY GOOD, IT HAS AT LEAST 3 RECIPES I REALLY LIKE AND HAVE MADE MORE THAN 3x SO I’M KEEPING IT” CATEGORY
I don’t have a lot of bookshelf space, and as Eric will tell you, I can be pretty unsentimental and ruthless in sorting and giving away lesser-used items in my house. So, the cookbooks that have made this category, while not my favorites, still deserve consideration.
(1) Books by Dreena Burton. I own Vive le Vegan and Eat Drink & Be Vegan. I’ve found many of her savory recipes to be serviceable but not “wow this is amazing.” In my opinion, she really excels in the sweets category. If you are interested in baking vegan, look here first. I prefer her chocolate chip cookie recipe to anyone else’s (including Isa’s), but all of her cookie recipes are excellent. If I were buying today, I’d probably go with her most recent and well-reviewed Let Them Eat Vegan (but I haven’t tried that book myself yet).
(2) Books by Nava Atlas. I own Vegetarian Express (now updated/revised and called Vegan Express), Vegan Soups & Hearty Stews for All Seasons, The Vegetarian Family Cookbook and Vegetarian 5 Ingredient Gourmet. I think Vegetarian Express might have been my second cookbook after Moosewood. It’s sort of the predecessor to Peas & Thank You: a simple cookbook for getting healthy meals on the table for the family quickly. No “wow” recipes, but lots of reliable and easy stand-bys (Mexican Casserole is my favorite). Nava also has a website if you’d like to try out some of her recipes to see if her tastes suit yours. I confess that, in the past few years, her books have collected dust on my shelf. I cannot recall the last time I cracked one. It might be time to pass them along. If I had to keep only one, it would be her Soups and Stews book because I’m a real soup & stew lover.
(3) Moosewood Restaurant Books. These cookbooks are often confused with Mollie Katzen’s original Moosewood Book. In fact, Mollie has nothing to do with these, and they are written by a variety of chefs from the Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca. Still, these books are generally very good. I own Moosewood Restaurant Low Fat Favorites and Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home. I flip through these on a regular basis. I particularly like the Lentil Sambar recipe in Low Fat Favorites. I’ve also heard good things about the Moosewood Daily Specials cookbook. I’m not sure I’d buy these retail, but if you see a deal on them somewhere, they’re worth picking up. (Note, most of the Moosewood Restaurant books have a “fish” chapter, but they are otherwise entirely vegetarian.)
(4) Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World – If you’re really interested in vegan baking and cupcakes in particular, this cult favorite by Isa & her friend Terry Hope Romano is definitely fun. If I ever want curry favor with Eric, I know that the Banana Split Sundae cupcake recipe here will do the trick.
COOKBOOKS ON MY SHELF THAT I WISH I COULD SPEAK HIGHER OF, BUT RARELY USE
(1) Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone – Deborah Madison is a highly regarded cookbook author, and this book makes lots of other people’s “must have” lists. However, I have been disappointed with it. The recipes taste good; she does know how to cook! But they tend to be on the rich side, and she regularly does the “recipe within a recipe” stunt, which is a personal pet peeve of mine. I detest getting knee deep into a recipe only to realize that ingredient #7 is actually an entirely separate recipe (e.g. “add 1T of Romanesco sauce, found on page xx” which of course is complicated and makes a 2C batch, so now you don’t know what the heck to do with your 2C-1T of sauce). I rarely cook from this book.
(2) How to Cook Everything Vegetarian – This one was released more recently and is authored by Mark Bittman, whom everyone seems to love. And, while I have been impressed with several of his articles, I’ve been underwhelmed by the handful of recipes I’ve tried from this book. Nothing awful, but no obvious “must repeat” recipes either. Maybe I’ve just selected the wrong things. I’m not ready to toss this into the give-away stack quite yet, but it’s hardly at the top of my recommendation list.
(3) How it All Vegan – The was one of the first popular vegan cookbooks, and used to be talked about regularly, but it’s completely dropped off my radar in favor of more current vegan books like Veganomicon. I love the spirit of it, but I think Veganomicon supersedes it; no need for both.
(4) Vegan Brunch – I bought this because I thought Isa could do no wrong. And while I wouldn’t call this book “wrong,” I haven’t found a lot right with it. I like her coffee chocolate chip muffin recipe in here. Otherwise, nada.
(5) Fresh from the Vegetarian Slow Cooker – I LOVE the concept of the slow cooker. When I come home at the end of the day, I’m already too hungry to start cooking. It’s not uncommon for me to eat some crappy microwave dinner just to sate myself, and then start cooking a decent meal which I’ll have the next day (which rarely tastes as good as eating something freshly made). But with a slow cooker, I can prep in the morning, and then it’s ready for me when I come home later. But, there’s a price to pay for that convenience. Most veggie meals I’ve attempted in the crockpot come out mediocre. I bought this cookbook to help with that, but haven’t found anything amazing. Still, I’m holding on to it, because hope springs eternal. I’ll keep trying. The No Hurry Curry recipe isn’t bad.
(6) World Vegetarian – I like Madhur Jaffrey for some reason I can’t even recall. Maybe I saw her on a cooking show? Who knows. I also like the idea of this book. In general, I favor ethnic foods with interesting spices and flavors. So, I thought it’d be awesome to sample all sorts of exotic recipes from this book. Somehow, I haven’t ever found my favorites in this book though. Check it out from the library and see what you think. Let me know if you find some winners.
MY COOKBOOK WISHLIST
(1) Plenty or Jerusalem – Both of these cookbooks by Yotam Ottolenghi are bestsellers. With beautiful pictures and purported great recipes, there’s a lot of inspiration here. Yotam is a professional chef. I checked out Plenty from the library once and tried a couple recipes. They were very good, but pretty heavy (lots of oil) and somewhat complicated. I’d still love to have one on my shelf so I could have more time to peruse and try my hand at lightening some of them up a little for my tastes.
(2) The I [Heart] Trader Joe’s Vegetarian Cookbook – I am a loyal TJs shopper. I have previously purchased a cookbook devoted to TJs products before, but it wasn’t vegetarian and there weren’t many recipes that appealed to me. But, I’d love to give it another shot with this edition.
(3) The Indian Slow Cooker – I mentioned my unrequited love for the slow cooker. This book has good reviews, and I think many vegetarian Indian dishes may actually lend themselves to the slow-cooking methods. I wish my library had this book so I could try it out. Until then, it’s on my wishlist to purchase. (Not entirely vegetarian.)
(4) Super Natural Every Day – Heidi Swanson authors the very popular 101 Cookbooks blog. She’s based out of SF and I like her focus on health rather than diet. Her photography is beautiful too. Another highly reviewed cookbook that I’ve sampled from the library and enjoyed.
(5) Appetite for Reduction –Isa published this one a year or two ago. I’ve checked it out from the library a few times. The recipes are good. Not as amazing as some of the Veganomicon ones. There is a price to pay for cutting out so much of the fat and calories after all. But, if you’re interested in some lighter vegan recipes this is a good book to have around. Honestly, I can’t believe I haven’t put this on my shelf yet. (Hey Eric – do you SEE my spending restraint?!)
(6) The Sprouted Kitchen – I keep hearing great things about this one from people I trust. I’ll be looking to check this one out at the library soon. (Not completely vegetarian, but almost.)
December 23, 2012
Spring 2013 Travel and Speaking Schedule
Here's my tentative upcoming travel and speaking schedule for next semester. As usual, if I'm going to be in your neighborhood and you want to connect, let me know.
* January 5-7: AALS Annual Meeting, New Orleans. I'm speaking at the IP Section meeting Sunday afternoon. Other than that, I have some play time both Sunday and Monday, so let me know if you want to do some New Orleans tourism. Among other things, I'll be on the hunt for vegetarian food in unfriendly environs.
* January 15: talk at Los Altos High School about online content [I know! can you believe anyone would put me in front of high schoolers???]
* February 6-7, ABA Antitrust Section Consumer Protection Conference, Washington DC.
* February 20-21, Yale ISP, New Haven. I'll be giving a noontime talk that Thursday.
* February 21-23, Notre Dame, South Bend. Attending a marketing workshop on Friday.
* February 28, USF/Microsoft Trademark Conference, Los Angeles.
* March 1-9, Cancun and Cuba.
* March 15, 15 Year Retrospective of the DMCA, Santa Clara University.
* March 16, Internet Law Works-in-Progress Conference, Santa Clara University.
* April 11-13, Trademark Scholars' Roundtable, Bloomington, Indiana.
* May 2-3, ITechLaw Annual Meeting, Scottsdale, AZ (not confirmed yet).
* May 30-31, Rocky Mountain IP Institute, Denver (not confirmed yet).