Rooting for Wuhan

This, with one key correction that you will notice in the second paragraph, is the latest edition (mailed out Feb. 9) of my occasional e-mail newsletter, which you can subscribe to right here:

Hello, readers!

About five-and-a-half years ago, I spent a few days in Wuhan. It was on a China tour with four other U.S.-based journalists that had been organized by the China-United States Exchange Foundation (a trip that I wrote a little about in this very email newsletter at the time). The original travel plan had included an excursion to Urumqi in China’s far northwest, but a deadly car bombing at an Urumqi street market put the kibosh on that (as well as helping to inspire the government’s brutal effort to “re-educate” the area’s Muslim population in concentration camps), and our itinerary was changed to Beijing-Wuhan-Shanghai.

Wuhan is a city of 11 million on the Yangtze River 500 miles due east west of Shanghai. It has long been an inland transportation hub (“the Chicago of China,” people kept telling us; “Stove City” is another nickname, because it gets so hot in the summer, and there was some talk of it being the “Detroit of China” because they make cars there). It also has a big concentration of institutions of higher learning. As the Chinese government tried to stem the huge tide of young people moving to the country’s booming coastal cities, it had singled out Wuhan for attention and investment. Wuhan had been the second-biggest city in the world without a subway system, after Mumbai, but now it was getting one. (Mumbai now has a subway, too, but there’s just one line in operation there while Wuhan already has nine.) Futuristic new office parks were going up on the outskirts of town in an attempt to lure tech companies.

We flew from Beijing, where the skies had been surprisingly clear and blue, into the middle of a major pollution alert. As my trip-mate Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson wrote in the Financial Times:

Of the 199 cities tracked by my iPad’s air-quality app, Wuhan ranks as the most polluted by some way. On a day when the readings for Beijing and Shanghai are 112 (“lightly polluted”) and 152 (“unhealthy”) respectively, Wuhan gets the maximum score of 500 (“beyond index”). The Pm2.5 reading – reserved for particularly pernicious particulates – is almost 900.

This cast a pall over the city, making even beautiful parts like Wuhan University‘s hillside campus and nearby East Lake look mostly … gray. And there weren’t that many beautiful parts. Construction work on the subway and other projects was partly to blame, but even the not-under-construction parts of the city tended toward the sprawling and the charmless. Oh, and those futuristic new office parks on the outskirts? Mostly empty, while nearby apartment blocks appeared to be completely devoid of life. Lots of young people came to Wuhan for college, one local official told us resignedly, but it was really hard to get them to stick around after graduation.

We didn’t stick around long either, instead boarding a high-speed train to Shanghai, where a very pro-government venture capitalist assured us the next day that Wuhan was merely going through some growing pains. We were skeptical. Since then, we’ve been emailing one another every time Wuhan pops up in the news, and it’s never been for anything positive: The city has been beset by major floodsair-traffic controllers who fall asleep on the job, people dumping feces on “dancing grannies,” a Wuhan University medical student dying from excessive sperm donation, and … empty apartment buildings.Now, of course, the news from Wuhan has turned downright awful. After local authorities there bungled the initial reaction to the outbreak of a deadly and contagious new coronavirus, the Chinese government effectively abandoned Wuhan and the rest of Hubei province in hopes that cordoning the region off would slow the spread of the virus. Whether that’s working is still very much in question, but resulting shortages of hospital beds, medical supplies and medical personnel in and around Wuhan have definitely increased the death toll there. As of Monday morning China time, 871 of the 910 confirmed deaths from the disease worldwide had been in Hubei.

All of which is a long way of saying that I’ve been thinking a lot about the place lately. Especially the good parts, like the food and the people we met. Wuhan really needs boosters these days, and I’m rooting for it. Praying for it, too.

I haven’t been writing about it, or the virus in general. Diseases aren’t among my areas of expertise, although if this one keeps spreading I guess we’ll all have to get up to speed. I did want to share some of my (limited) experience with Wuhan, though, and this seemed like a better place to do that than my column.

So what have I been writing about in said column?

Academic publishing. Yes, it might seem a little arcane, but there’s lots of money in textbooks and even more in scientific journals, and a battle under way for control of scholarly publishing that will shape how scientific research is communicated and even conducted. I wrote about a rumored executive order from the Trump White House (it’s still only a rumor) that would require all government-funded research to be published without paywalls, then went to a conference in Berlin to learn about how publishers are coping with similar efforts in Europe. There’s more to come in that vein, but in the meantime I also just wrote about why college-textbook prices have stopped skyrocketing, and whether that can last.

How and where we live. Walking around the lovely Berlin neighborhood of Dahlem, where multi-million-euro mansions co-exist comfortably with apartment buildings, gave me the lead-in to a discussion of the strangeness of single-family zoning that I’d been meaning to write for a while. I also wrote about people leaving Amsterdam, London and Paris; people leaving California for nearby states; people leaving New York, Illinois and California for all over; and the changing politics of housing in California.

Transportation. I wrote a followup to my July saga about Amtrak’s long-distance trains, this time with an (I think) more sophisticated analysis of the railroad’s finances. That same week, Devin Leonard had a great Bloomberg Businessweek story about Amtrak’s feathers-ruffling CEO, and a few days later I wrote a column about the U.S. freight-rail successes that Amtrak’s creation in the 1970s helped enable. I also wrote about how much a parking space in Manhattan is really worth.

Christmas. Just one column, but a loooong one, detailing the role of Washington Irving and a few other early-19th-century New Yorkers in creating the modern Christmas holiday. It’s also available free of paywalls (but also free of illustrations and links) at Yahoo! Finance.

Some other things. “The Secret to America’s Low, Low Taxes,” “How Soybeans Became Ubiquitous” (also available as “intelligent audio for busy people” from something called Curio), “Lots of Teens Are Still Shunning Cars,” “A 1988 Climate Warning Was Mostly Right,” and “U.S. Could Actually Use More Nigerian Immigrants.”

Till next time,


Deep thoughts on leafy greens

This is the latest edition (mailed out Nov. 10) of my occasional e-mail newsletter, which you can subscribe to right here:

Hello, readers!

Food writing has always struck me as a field where the supply of talented people who want to get into it is much greater than the demand for its products, so the career prospects are especially iffy. My friend Jeff Gordinier has made a successful go of it after a mid-career switch away from music writing (a field with a similar labor-supply dynamic, come to think of it), but I harbor no dreams of following in his footsteps.

I am, however, obsessed with food, and constantly looking for ways to write about it that make sense for a purported business/economics journalist. These usually involve charts. Like this one:
tweeted this chart out in September while digging through the spreadsheets on per-capita food “availability” that the U.S. Department of Agriculture updates every summer. They’re compiled by taking estimates of food production, imports, exports and storage, then dividing what’s available for consumption in the U.S. by the population. So it’s not exactly consumption, but it’s close enough, and provides fascinating insight into American diets and American lives that for some foodstuffs is available back to 1909.

The main reason for escarole’s decline, I’m guessing, is that Italian-Americans assimilated and stopped sautéing and braising it and making soup out of it. It’s not as if Americans have stopped eating leafy greens in general. Spinach is always popular, hitting its all-time availability high (since 1970) in 2005, but not falling back all that much since. Iceberg lettuce has had a long fall and romaine/leaf lettuce a long rise, and are now available/consumed in roughly equal amounts. Kale has of course recently experienced a boomlet, although it is nowhere near catching up with spinach and the lettuces, and may have peaked. The numbers for collard greens and for mustard greens aren’t far below kale’s, and kale passed collards only in the past couple of years, demonstrating that there’s still some major regional variation in American eating. Personally, I’d be all for a national collards boom. I interrupted the writing of this email, in fact, to start cooking some collards with chopped-up shallot and smoked duck breast, red pepper flakes, chicken broth and white wine for Saturday lunch. This was a success.

Shockingly, I have yet to do a column on leafy greens. (If you have any tips or suggestions on that, please let me know.) I have used the USDA food availability data to write about “The Fall of Juice and the Rise of Fresh Fruit” and, in a column published today, “What Decades of (Sometimes Dodgy) Dietary Advice Made Us Do.” Other recent food-related columns include, “In the Future, We Will All Work in Food Service,” “The U.S. Is Growing More Corn Than It Can Handle” and “Are Burgers Really That Bad for the Climate?” The latter was an explanation and critique of a shocking statistic about beef’s climate impact from a New Yorker article on Impossible Foods.

What else have I written about? Well, it’s been a long time since the last one of these emails, so it’s been a lot of things. One disturbing discovery that I made while sorting through my columns since early July is how many have had “Trump” in the headline. American media coverage in general has been very Trump-centric for the past three-plus years, of course, but I had sort of prided myself on not getting caught up in that. No more: “Is It Trump’s Economy or Not?” “The Secret to the Trump Economy? More Government Spending,” “Trump’s Economy Is Plagued by Even More Uncertainty Than Obama’s,” “Trump’s Bungling a Good (Yes, Good) Policy,” “At the G7, Trump Is One of the Popular Ones,” “Trump Is Driving Women Into Law School,” “The International Student Slump Isn’t Just About Trump,” “A Decline in RV Sales Is Bad News for Trump,” and “This Measure Says Growth Is Slower Under Trump Than Obama.”

A couple of these (the RV one, for example, which involved an actual visit to the RV/MH Hall of Fame and Museum in Elkhart, Indiana) barely mentioned the president, but in general the headlines are accurate reflections of the contents. I don’t know what to say, other than that I promise to do better.

A selection of other recent writing follows. I realize the non-subscribers among you will run up against the Bloomberg paywall meter before long, especially since we’ve gone from giving everybody 10 free articles a month to “a dynamic paywall based on 22 criteria,” so I’ve only picked a few that I’m especially proud of. Also, if you’d prefer to run up against the New York Times paywall instead, here’s a book review I wrote of Binyamin Appelbaum’s The Economists’ Hour and Janek Wasserman’s The Marginal Revolutionaries.

Economy: “Economic Growth Rates Look Almost Medieval,” “Most Canadians Are Now Better Off Than Most Americans,” “The Mancession Is Finally Over​.”

Housing: “New York’s Latest Tenant Revolt Is Centuries in the Making,” “Housing’s ‘Missing Middle’ Keeps Shrinking​.”

Business: “How Bowling Alleys Made a Comeback,” “The New York City Retail Apocalypse That Wasn’t​.”

Environment: “Cities Are Good for the Environment, But Many City Dwellers Aren’t,” “Climate Change Definitely Probably Caused This Heat Wave.”

Energy: “Behind Alaska’s Big Fight Over Oil Money.”

Other things: “‘Broken Windows’ Theory Was Right … About the Windows​,” “American Exceptionalism Is About Being Self-Critical, Not Perfect” (an essay about the Massachusetts Bay Colony and its legacy based on one new history and one newish one), “The Amtrak That Works, and the Amtrak That Doesn’t​.”

This last column, written in July after a delay-plagued trip across the country in the California Zephyr and the Lakeshore Limited, got so much blowback from partisans of Amtrak’s long-distance services (one of whom is my wife) that I’ve been studying up for a second look. The added research may not change my views much, but it will involve attending my first Congressional hearing in decades next week, so that’s something to look forward to.

Till next time,


Reading while traveling

This is the latest edition (mailed out June 29) of my occasional e-mail newsletter, which you can subscribe to right here:

Hello, readers!

You travel to see and experience new things, and meet new people. But also to read a lot, right?

Reading is something to do while you’re in transit, when you’re wide-awake from jet lag at 2 a.m., and when you’re worn out from all that seeing and experiencing and meeting and need a break. It’s also a way to learn about the places you’re visiting. And if you’re someplace where the internet doesn’t work very well, and you’ve already downloaded a bunch of books on your Kindle or iPad, it’s something to do when you can’t get online.

So, yeah, I’m in China at the moment, and I’ve been reading a lot.

I left San Francisco last Wednesday morning and arrived in Beijing Thursday afternoon. About half of the difference was time zones, but that still left lots of hours in the air. I had meant to spend a bunch of that time writing a column, but the wifi on the plane wasn’t working and I didn’t have a plan for a column that wouldn’t require research and hyperlinks. Because I had committed to getting some work done, watching movies felt like cheating. So I read.

First I went through the big pile of newspapers I had collected in the United lounge at SFO (FT, NYT, WSJ, San Francisco Chronicle and San Jose Mercury-News). Then I started in on one of the books about China that I had downloaded onto my iPad: Michael Schuman’s Confucius and the World He Created.

Michael and I worked together at Time, although he was in Hong Kong and I was in New York and we only met once. Now he too writes for Bloomberg View, amongother places, and lives in Beijing with his wife, CNBC reporter Eunice Yoon. I was planning to have dinner with them Friday night, and figured it would be good form to have read his book first. As it turns out, dinner got moved up to Thursday night and I had to report to Michael that I was only 71% done, according to Kindle. But the remaining 29% included many pages of footnotes, so I was closer than I thought.

It was totally worth the effort — the book is an entertaining tale that gave me a much better sense than I had before of the constants in Chinese civilization over the past two millennia. Continuity is also a major theme of Tim Clissold’s Chinese Rules: Mao’s Dog, Deng’s Cat, and Five Timeless Lessons from the Front Lines in China, which was the ebook I moved onto after Schuman’s. I had wanted to download Clissold’s memoir of his early days in the country, Mr. China, which my Beijing-based friend Mina Guli had recommended, but that wasn’t available in electronic form. So I bought Chinese Rules instead, and discovered at the end of the first chapter that Mina — Clissold’s former business partner — was a major character in the book.

The two of them had spent several years, starting in 2005, helping Chinese companies get carbon credits under the United Nations’ Clean Development Mechanism. Clissold tells that story quite entertainingly, and deftly weaves in a lot of Chinese history. The five “Chinese rules” come across as awkward add-ons intended to package the book as management advice, but the rest is so good that it really doesn’t matter.

After I finished Clissold’s book I started in on Jonathan Spence’s Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K’ang-Hsi, which assembles the scattered writings of the great 17th and 18th century Qing-dynasty ruler into something like an autobiography. I’ve started sleeping through the night and haven’t been on any more airplanes, so I haven’t gotten all that far into it yet. But this passage seemed worth sharing:

Usually, north of the Wall, we drink river water all the time, and it’s not harmful; but in summer one has to be careful of mountain streams if no rain has fallen for some time to wash away the impurities, just as one has to watch out for dysentery if the springs have been stirred up by rain. While on the march it’s dangerous to drink from the ditches at the roadside—they can give you cholera. If there’s no decent water to be found, you must just distill what there is, and make tea with it.

This was more than a century before John Snow figured out that a contaminated well in London was the source of a cholera epidemic and that boiling water was a good idea. The Chinese knew some stuff that Europeans didn’t.

Maybe they still do. Another book that I’ve been reading in actual paper is The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy by Daniel A. Bell, a Canadian political theorist who teaches at Tsinghua University in Beijing. In this age of Brexit and of Trump, that sounds like a pretty timely topic, so I’ll be meeting with him tomorrow. Expect a column, or two, out of that.

So far the columns I’ve written here have been on Brexit and the experts and on theGreat Firewall. Before I came to China I wrote about the inevitable weaknesses of corporate boards, the meaning of affluence, the non-zero-sum side of Uber,PreCheck and graphene, among other things.

I’m in China (including Hong Kong) for another week and a half. And I’m hoping I can finish another book or two while I’m here.

Till next time,


Consuming Swedes

I never knowingly ate a rutabaga before we moved to London in 2000. The sometimes-giant root vegetables — most likely a hybrid of a cabbage and a turnip — are called “swedes” in the British isles. The Swedes themselves apparently call them “rotabagge” or “rotbagge,” meaning something like “root lump.”

Not a glamorous name! And not a glamorous vegetable. Jane Grigson, my chief authority on English cuisine (and one of the most entertaining cookbook authors ever), wrote of the swede that:

As a vehicle for butter, with haggis and whisky, it is exactly right. But after a north country upbringing, I conclude that otherwise swede is a vegetable to be avoided.

My first experience in cooking a swede came after reading a newspaper article (I’m thinking it was in the Observer) that recommended grating one along with a few other former roots (carrots, maybe potatoes) and frying them up in a patty as a way to get the kids to eat their vegetables.

That wasn’t a big success — it tasted fine, but the kid (who was one or two at the time) didn’t really like it, and making and frying the patties was a lot of work. Over the past couple of years, though, I have developed an easier variant that has become one of my favorite winter dishes. All you need are a rutabaga/swede and a few of the only other vegetables you’ll find on sale at a New York farmers’ market in winter and early spring.

I usually go with a parsnip, a sweet potato and all or part of an onion:
Swede 1

The rutabaga has to be peeled, and the skin is so thick that I use a knife instead of a peeler. I also peel the parsnip and the onion, but just scrub the sweet potato. Then I chop Swede in cuisinarteverything into big chunks that go into a food processor with a shredding-disc attachment.

When everything’s shredded, I spread it out on a cookie sheet onto which I’ve already drizzled a tablespoon or two of olive oil. Then I put it in the oven.

How hot an oven? I haven’t really settled on a temperature. When I’m already roasting kale at 275 degrees, I cook the rutabaga mix at that temperature and it comes out really well, although it takes forever (two hours plus).

But it also works at 400 degrees if you keep an eye on it and mix it around frequently. As I write this I’ve got a batch cooking at 333 degrees, a temperature that allows me to step away and blog about cooking rutabagas while cooking rutabagas, but requires that I go back and toss them around every ten minutes.

In any case, the idea is for your root vegetables to start out like this:
Swede 2

And end up like this:

Swede 3

Along the way I add two or three tablespoons of butter and a pinch or three of salt. On occasion I have added a lot more butter than that. It certainly didn’t make things worse (rutabaga is a “vehicle for butter,” after all), but the returns seem to be diminishing. Also, I’ve cooked it with just olive oil and that’s fine too.

Screenshot 2016-04-03 18.43.36As for seasonings, I imagine there are herbs or spices that could work, but the nutty, slightly sweet flavor of the rutabaga and friends is so appealing that you really don’t want to mask it. Also, this tastes pretty good even if you don’t cook it to the level of crispy wonderfulness depicted above. But it’s not as crispily wonderful, of course.

I usually serve this in place of rice or potatoes at dinner. The nutrition info at left is for rutabaga that isn’t slathered with butter and salt. But still: look at all that Vitamin C! This is how Swedes avoided scurvy back in the day, apparently. And it’s more interesting than rice or potatoes.

The best part comes in the morning. Warmed up, these make for spectacular hash browns. I usually just put some in a bowl, microwave it for 30 seconds — with a little butter, of course — and drop an over-easy egg on top. A couple drops of Cholula sauce, and you have a Swedish-Mexican-English-American delicacy.

California water, the series

Update: The drought is over, but I’m still writing about water in California, so I’ll keep adding links to columns here.

California is in a really bad drought. Central Valley farmers are responsible for the bulk of the state’s water use. I grew up in a suburb of San Francisco, and have fond memories of the short-but-fierce 1976-77 drought, during which I was allowed to go for weeks without showering to save water (I went swimming in the pool every day instead). Then my first real job out of college was as the farm and business reporter for the newspaper in the San Joaquin Valley farming metropolis of Tulare. I was there for a year during the 1985-1991 drought, and wrote a lot about irrigation.

So I already knew a few things about California water issues and agriculture. And since April [2015], when I was inspired by a Joe Weisenthal tweet to write about the new phenomenon of #almondshaming, I have been learning a lot more, and writing about what I’ve learned for Bloomberg View. Here are my California water columns, in reverse chronological order. I’ll keep adding the new ones as I write more.

But first, a photo I took in May of San Luis Reservoir, the giant off-stream holding pond in the hills between Los Banos and Gilroy where water from Northern California loiters before being released southward down the California Aqueduct:

San Luis Reservoir — It's Been Wetter

San Luis Reservoir — it’s been wetter

The Dried-Up Heart of California’s Water Dilemma, April 26, 2017. The story of the Tulare Lake basin, the former marshland that is now the world’s most productive agricultural region — and California’s biggest consumer of water.

California Tries to Refill Its Biggest Reservoir, April 18, 2017. California’s reservoirs are filling up. Its crucial snowpack “reservoir” is, despite what I wrote in my previous column on California water, pretty full this year too. Which leaves the state’s overtaxed groundwater basins. Fill ’em up!

California’s Snow Is Turning to Rain, January 5, 2017. There’s no sign that California has been getting any drier over the past century. But it’s definitely getting warmer, which has some not-so-great consequences for the state’s water-storage and -delivery system.

There’s No Such Thing as Normal in California Water, February 4, 2016. A lot of rain and snow falls on California. It is just not evenly distributed. The disparities are partly geographic and partly temporal — year-to-year and even day-to-day variance in precipitation is greater in California than anywhere else in the U.S.

You Don’t Drink Treated Sewage? Gross! July 29, 2015. In Orange County, twice-treated sewage that percolates into the groundwater has become a clean, reliable, indispensable water source. Other urban areas should be doing this too.

Don’t Blame Fish for California’s Water Shortage, July 13, 2015. Letting water flow through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and out to sea is essential to keeping California’s water supply system working. Without the outflows, salt water would intrude and contaminate the supply.

Let Data Centers Have Their Water, June 30, 2015. The data centers that keep the cloud aloft use more than 100 billion gallons of California water a year to stay cool. That’s about 0.8% of the water used by farms, families and businesses in the state each other — not nothing, but not a major factor in the state’s water troubles either.

Why California Needs Thirsty Alfalfa, May 26, 2015. Explaining why farmers grow what they do in the Central Valley, with help from 19th century cattle magnate Henry Miller — and his great-great and great-great-great grandsons, who now farm 10,500 acres of tomatoes, cotton, alfalfa, melons, future Corn Nuts, and wheat northeast of Los Banos.

Rice Gets a Bath Amid California’s Drought, May 15, 2015. Yes, they grow rice in California — hundreds of thousands of acres, flooded in five inches of water. This happens mostly in a few counties north of Sacramento with great water right, and the birds who fly through the Sacramento Valley love it, so hardly anybody’s complaining.

Greedy Environment Steals California’s Water, May 5, 2015. Farmers and their friends in California like to say that 50% of the state’s water supplies are diverted for environmental uses. This isn’t exactly wrong — the statistic comes straight from the state Department of Water Resources. But most of the water they’re talking about flows into the ocean from a few rivers in the very wet northwestern corner of the state that are separated from Central Valley farm country by rugged mountains.

Jerry Brown, Water-Tunnel Salesman, May 1, 2015. The story behind the governor’s plans to bypass the Delta with two 40-foot-wide, 35-mile-long tunnels. It’s the modern version of the Peripheral Canal, and it may actually be a good idea.

Draining California’s Water Savings Account, April 29, 2015. Most of the farmers dependent on the federal Central Valley Project will be getting no irrigation water at all this summer. So why is the valley so green? Farmers whose water rights predate the CVP and the State Water Project are still getting lots of water — if less than normal. And everybody else is pumping it out of the ground.

William Shatner’s California Pipe Dream, April 27, 2015. Captain Kirk, who owns a ranch in the San Joaquin Valley, wants to start a Kickstarter campaign to raise $30 billion for a water pipeline from Seattle to California. His plan is just the latest — and probably least-well-thought-out — in a series of such proposals over the past century. Yet since the 1970s, none of them has gone anywhere.

Cows Suck Up More Water Than Almonds, April 13, 2015. Almond growers have been getting all the (negative) attention lately, but California’s dairy farmers and cattle ranchers are responsible for more of the state’s water use than any other agricultural sector. Still, almonds are pretty high on the water-use list. As is rice.

Farmers Use Water. Get Over It, April 9, 2015. Yes, agriculture accounts for about 80% of California’s water use and 2% of its gross domestic product. That’s a lot of water use for a relatively small amount of economic output, and it’s worthy of scrutiny. But it is not per se a misuse of resources. Water is an essential input for farming in a way that it isn’t for most other industries.

Amid a Drought, Cue the Almond Shaming, April 7, 2015. The California drought has made almond growers into symbols of agricultural power and waste. Which is interesting, given that the state’s almond boom has been in part a reaction to policy changes -— among them higher water prices — imposed during a previous drought.


This is the latest edition of my occasional e-mail newsletter, which you can subscribe to right here:

Hello, readers (and if you’re wondering what this is, I just added you to the subscription list for my occasional email newsletter; scroll down to the bottom if you wish to unsubscribe):

When I joined Time magazine in 2007, I got an office between Joe Klein’s and Nathan Thornburgh’s. Joe was perfectly nice but he wasn’t there much and when he was there, he was usually haranguing somebody over the phone. So I mainly hung out with Nathan. Now Nathan and I are both part of the vast Time diaspora —he co-founded and co-runs a wonderful travel site called Roads & Kingdoms — and we still hang out from time to time.  A few months ago we met up at Birch Coffee on Columbus between 96th and 97th, and afterwards this happened:

Justin … told me as we walked back to Broadway that what Roads and Kingdoms really needed was more Breakfast, that Breakfast was a stunningly underrated meal, and that if I was smart I would start a Breakfast vertical as soon as possible.

This week my recommendation became reality. Roads & Kingdom’s Breakfast vertical (a vertical is a digital-journalism thing that’s sort of equivalent to a section in a newspaper) is a thing, a beautiful thing. The very first breakfast looked this:

That is a donburi bowl (which is redundant because “donburi” means “bowl”, but I’m just trying to be clear here) from a restaurant in Hakodate, the southernmost city on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, containing what writer Matt Goulding describes as:

… scallops swollen to the size of English muffins, salmon eggs that pop like little depth charges of salt and umami, cat tongues of uni that melt over the warm grains of rice like egg yolk on a carbonara …

This, and the subsequent breakfasts (there’s a new one every day), makes me more than a little self-conscious about the piece I’ve been planning to turn in about Joey’s and my regular Saturday morning breakfast at Tom’s Restaurant on Broadway. But it also makes me very proud to have played a role in getting this thing going.

As for my own writings, the piece I put the most heart and soul into over the past couple of weeks was a column about the sad, sad standoff between Steve and Elaine Wynn, once the most powerful (and maybe the most endearing) couple in Las Vegas. The best part of it was reading old stories about the two, and the best story was by another former co-worker of mine (at Fortune), Nina Munk, in Vanity Fair in 2005. One of my favorite passages was about how their parents introduced them in Miami over Christmas break in 1960. Steve was a sophomore at Penn; Elaine a freshman at UCLA.

From dinner with their parents at the Miami Jai-Alai Fronton, he took Elaine to the Boom Boom Room at the Fontainebleau; then he drove her to the 79th Street Causeway, where they were parked until two o’clock in the morning. Ten days later, she was wearing his Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity pin.

The column I put the most hours into was on the new Steve Jobs book by two more former Fortune colleagues, Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli. I read their book, which took me most of a day. But first I also finally read Walter Isaacson’s much-longer Jobs biography while flying to Birmingham, Alabama, and back. More than 1,000 pages in a row, then, about a man who said “shit” all the time (it really does seem to have been his favorite word). Fun!

Actually, it was fun. They’re both quite entertaining books.

Other things I wrote about: “The Rise of Chipotle Nation,” “Are Money Managers Lemmings?” “China’s Leap Forward in Digital Medicine,” “Kraft Was Global, Then It Wasn’t,” “The Intangible Corporation.” And many more.

Till next time,


The Rise of the Y-Axis-Zero Fundamentalists

On Friday, I read a Natalie Kitroeff story on the declining appeal of law school, and was so struck by this chart that I shared it on Twitter:

law schools

The chart tells a dramatic story: all the gains in law school enrollment since the mid-1970s have been wiped out in just three years. Twitter responded to that drama with lots of retweets and favorites — but also with lots of disapproving remarks like this:

And this:

There were many, many more responses like that. A couple of them wielded the name of Edward Tufte, today’s leading authority on the visual presentation of data. Which is interesting, because after about five seconds of Googling I found Tufte’s actual views on the practice:

In general, in a time-series, use a baseline that shows the data not the zero point. If the zero point reasonably occurs in plotting the data, fine. But don’t spend a lot of empty vertical space trying to reach down to the zero point at the cost of hiding what is going on in the data line itself. (The book, How to Lie With Statistics, is wrong on this point.)

For examples, all over the place, of absent zero points in time-series, take a look at any major scientific research publication. The scientists want to show their data, not zero.

The urge to contextualize the data is a good one, but context does not come from empty vertical space reaching down to zero, a number which does not even occur in a good many data sets. Instead, for context, show more data horizontally!

Thanks to one of the offended responders on Twitter, Abhinav Agarwal, we can see what the chart would have looked like with a zero base:

I love that he went to the effort to make that (thanks, Abhinav!) but … it is less informative than the original chart. Yes, in the new version it’s now crystal clear that law-school enrollment hasn’t gone to zero. But who looked at the original chart and thought it had? (Well, this guy says he did, but I think he’s kidding.) And the contrast between the herky-jerky rise of the past four decades and the straight-line drop since 2010 is much less clear in the zero-base chart. It hides the precipitousness of law schools’ change in fortunes.

Such arguments seem to carry little weight, though, among the legions of what BuzzFeed’s Matthew Zeitlin has dubbed y-axis-zero fundamentalists. I had somehow missed out on their rise, I guess because all of my HBR time-series charts over the past few years have for various reasons (the main one being that my Excel skills are so limited that I don’t know how to truncate the axes) featured y-axes that go to zero. But apparently now this is a thing. The Huffington Post‘s Ben Walsh reported a similar experience with a recent (non-zero-based) chart on taxi medallions in New York. According to Walsh, “all the responses were like ‘rule violated. i refuse to consider your thesis’.”

When I checked the Twitter bios of the people who objected to chart, most of them were software programmers, so I wondered if it was some weird coder obsession. It might be, but a simpler explanation was that prominent programmer Jeff Atwood had retweeted it to his 152,000 followers.

Instead, I think it’s mainly just that more and more people have acquired some amount of statistical literacy, and have learned along the way that not basing your y-axis at zero is can be misleading. As Duke sociology professor — and believer in non-zero-based charts — Kieran Healy Tweeted when I asked him where he thought the reaction came from:

“Narrow axes can make small and inconsequential changes seem big,” Healy went on, “but—symmetrically—zero-axes can make big and real changes seem small. What matters isn’t some iron rule like ‘Always have a zero-base axis!’, it’s your prior commitment to being honest with the data.”

It is easy enough to find examples of people using broken y axes to mislead. From a Media Matters compendium of Fox News chart outrages:


This isn’t much of a time series, and I really can’t think of any good reason why the y-axis on a bar chart shouldn’t go to zero. But more important than any simple rule is that this chart was obviously crafted to deceive — there’s really no other reason to draw the chart this way.

The chart, on the other hand, was crafted to show the data as fully as possible. Facebook “data visualization guru” Andy Kriebel recommends adding a note to any non-zero-based-y-axis chart explaining why you didn’t base it at zero. That’s not a bad idea, but I also think the overwhelming majority of those who read a chart like this one online (as opposed to those who see a chart flitting by on the TV screen) are able to figure out what’s going on. I love that so many people online are on the lookout for dodgy charts. But focusing on the data isn’t really dodgy.

Update:  My brilliant colleague Scott Berinato, who is working on a book on data visualization for the HBR Press and created the cool Vision Statement “How to Lie with Charts” in the December issue of HBR, emailed me with his thoughts, which I don’t entirely agree with but seemed worth sharing given that he knows more than I do:

I have to agree with them about the Y axis. Not because it should be a hard and fast rule but because of the metaphor problem. Our brains create 0 when your line begins or ends at the bottom — a metaphorical zero as in “no one is going to law school because the line’s at the bottom.” This is exacerbated by the headline “Empty Classrooms,” which creates a textual cue that “empty” is what matters. 

There’s also the slope problem. Tufte is right and wrong. He’s right about just show the data but a truncated axis doesn’t actually show the data. The data is not the line, the line divides space that represents the proportion of a (those enrolling) and b (those not). So by truncating the axis we not only create a more severe-looking slope, we literally hide representative space, and more on one side than the other.

Having said all that, this kind of thing is rampant, because of web design. This chart would be very tall otherwise. So we have to think about the tradeoffs. My developing sense for these situations is to go even simpler. The data that matters here is:

‘74: low

‘74-‘10: Steady, rolling climb.

‘10-‘13: precipitous fall off

In theory we could build this same chart with three data points — ‘74, ‘10, ’13 — unless those three small humps on the climb matter to the story, which I don’t think they do. Basically start with as few data points as possible then add as necessary. Don’t even connect the lines necessarily; use points.

New Job

So … this happened:

Bloomberg View today announced that Justin Fox will join the opinion and analysis site on January 5 as a columnist covering corporate strategy and trends, innovation and the broad business landscape.

The rest of the announcement is here. It was supposed to come out Tuesday morning, but it came out Monday afternoon instead after Ben White of Politico Tweeted this:

Ben had gotten the news from Bloomberg View’s PR people in hopes that he’d put it in his widely read Morning Money daily e-mail the next day (which he did). But he didn’t realize he was supposed to hold off, possibly because he’d known for weeks that I was considering the job. I’d gone for a long stroll in Central Park one afternoon to think things through, run into Ben and his son playing in the dirt, and, because I’m really bad at keeping secrets, immediately blurted out why I was on walkabout.

Anyway, the early disclosure was fine, because on Tuesday Bloomberg announced that John Micklethwait of The Economist was replacing Matt Winkler as its Editor-in-Chief, and my news was entirely forgotten. Good thing, because I’m still at HBR and I’ve got a bunch of work to do.

Forgotten Kale

kale 3

This is kale that’s been sitting in a 280-degree (Fahrenheit; that’s 137 Celsius) oven for a really long time. I’m not exactly sure how long, but it was at least an hour. And once it cooled off enough to eat, it was spectacular.

The key here, other than the low temperature, is massaging the kale with olive oil and a pinch of salt. It’s not enough just to pour the oil on, you’ve got to make sure the leaves are coated. The kale starts out like this:

kale 1

And should look like this right before you put it in the oven:

kale 2

Roasting kale in the oven is something we’ve been doing for a while, but the idea for the oil massage came from “crack broccoli” — broccoli with oil, salt, and a little bit of sugar massaged in, then roasted on a cookie sheet at 500 degrees. You don’t want to add sugar to the kale; I tried that once and it was nasty. And high temperatures don’t work either. The leaves burn too easily.

So I kept turning the temperature down, and eventually landed at 280. After 30 to 40 minutes, that gets you some pretty good crispy kale. But one night last week we had friends visiting from Australia. There were small children involved, an overexcited dog, and … at some point I walked into the kitchen and realized it smelled kale-ish. I had completely forgotten that it was in the oven. I figured the stuff would be ruined, but it turns out that no, at 280 degrees, it just keeps getting better. Just the right amount of crispy. Just the right amount of oily. Not burned at all.

By that point it may also have lost all its nutritional value. But really, who cares?

Update: It turns out this works even better at 250 degrees. I also cooked it at 180 once by mistake, and that didn’t work at all.

Update 2: Lately we’ve settled on 275 degrees as the best temperature, although 250 may be better if you’re actually likely to forget it.

Crimes Against Okra


Battered, fried okra of the sort they serve at meat-and-three restaurants in the South is a magnificent thing, and I ate a ton of it during my years in Alabama. Bhindi masala, the spicy okra dish common in Indian restaurants, is pretty great, too. Then there’s gumbo, and lots of African and Caribbean and Asian and Mediterranean okra dishes that I’d really like to try someday.

But when okra is fresh off the field, as it is these days at the farmer’s markets around me (the photo above was taken at the Thursday market in front of Columbia University), going to the effort of battering or spicing or stewing seems almost criminal. The okra is so flavorful on its own that cooking it with just a little bit of oil and salt is the best possible thing you can do with it.

I discovered this years ago, I think because I had bought some okra and was just too lazy to go the full Southern battered route. The recipe — if you can call it that — then became a family mainstay because when my son was a toddler, okra prepared this way was one of the only vegetables he would eat. Now, because it is okra season and most people north of the Mason-Dixon Line have no idea to do with the stuff, I’m out to proselytize the stuff, in part to ensure its continued availability at farmer’s markets. So here’s what you do:

1. Buy some okra, of the fresh, unblemished sort that is customary at farmer’s markets and can occasionally be found at supermarkets. Small pods are usually better than big ones, but the key differentiator is whether they feel slightly springy to the touch or kinda hard. You want springy. How much? Maybe 4-5 pods a person, although I’m perfectly capable of consuming 20 pods all by myself. Okra tends to be pretty expensive as veggies go — $6 a pound seems to be the standard price at the farmer’s markets I frequent; the very pretty ones above, though, went for $8.

2. Chop the okra into rounds of about half an inch. I discard the end and the tip of each pod, which is probably a waste. They’re perfectly edible, I’m just worried that they won’t cook well with the rest. Warning: this will get a little sticky. You may need to wash your knife midway, and you’ll definitely want to scrub the cutting board when you’re done.

3. Put a skillet (preferably cast-iron) on the stove and turn the heat up to medium. Pour in some olive oil and, if you like butter (I do!), throw in some of that too — although it’s really fine with just oil. Maybe a tablespoon of each if you’re cooking 20-25 pods.

4. Throw the okra into the skillet. The pieces will stick to each other at first, so you’ll need to spend some time with a spatula separating them and making sure they get coated with oil/butter. I add a pinch or two of salt at this point, but don’t put in too much. You can always add more when it’s done.

okra in skillet

5. Cook, flipping the okra rounds over with a spatula pretty frequently, until most of them are brown on both sides. I used to go to great lengths make sure every single round got evenly browned, sometimes even picking them up one-by-one with tongs. But that’s really unnecessary.

6. Eat.

okra to eat