Food and Drink

A Week at Sea

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Cruises: love them, hate them.  They're certainly perfect for those "intersection of the life stories of ten people" movies.  Our good friend and budding travel agent Malcolm arranged for us to join him and some of his college buddies on a cruise through the Western Caribbean.  Crystal and I are not huge cruise people, but we love traveling with Pam and Malcolm and the decision to join in was made after a few glasses of wine, so there you go.  Plus, the itinerary included diving at Grand Cayman--a bucket list-worthy activity.  So, in early April we found ourselves meeting up with our BFF's for the week at the San Jose Airport, as we headed to Houston and then Galveston to start the cruise.  What follows are my notes, for your enjoyment and amusement. 

The cast of characters:

  • Connie and Bob, from Malcolm's Cal Poly San Luis Obispo days
  • Greg and Leona, also from Malcolm's Cal Poly days
  • Pam and Malcolm, our partners in crime
  • Crystal and Dan, your humble narrators

Day One:  San Jose/Houston/Galveston

Our plane to Houston is two hours late taking off, since the crew hasn't shown up. It has to with United/Continental flying different planes and not being able to swap crews.  Malcolm's head is going to explode.  Connie tells the gate agent: "You WILL be taking care of this… either get us there on time or fly us to Jamaica and put us up in a hotel until the ship arrives." Malcolm happens to be approaching, with all papers at the ready.  Connie sends him away.  Perfect good cop/bad cop routine.

Houston. Magically, our bags are the first off the plane.  Our driver gets us to Galveston with minutes to spare.  He is a Texas gentleman all the way, but pushes the limits of what Texas State Troopers will allow with respect to speed.

The nice thing about arriving so late: no lines at check-in.  Could this be the new trend?

My first thought on arrival in Galveston: the smell of hydrocarbons. It takes me back to high school and visiting an oil refinery as part of our Chemistry class.  I'm pretty sure breathing this stuff isn't healthy.

On board the cruise ship.  First up:  mandatory safety drill.  Due to intercom problems, it sounds like a Peanuts cartoon: "wah wah wah.. Wah wah, wah wah wah wah.  I get the essentials about how to put on the life jacket.  I'm looking around for Rose and Jack.

On to our room, then to the Two Poets bar to meet up with our other traveling companions, Greg and Leona.  Despite having purchased the cruise line's all-you-can-drink pass, I stop at two Manhattans.  A man's got to know his limits.  Our traveling companions carry on, until our dinner at 9.  I'm definitely not going to be able to keep up with these people.  A tough thing for an Irishman to admit.

Dinner at the resident steak house.  Lots of fantastic wine.  Stuck my finger on the wrong Italian wine description when ordering wine, cost me an extra $40.  You only live once--if you're lucky.

Great dinner, much conviviality.  But eating meat late at night--not such a good idea. In to bed for a full nine hours of sleep.  Considering I never went to bed before we left for the cruise, I'm improving my average quickly.

Day Two:  At Sea

Coffee on the mini-deck, watching the ocean go by.  No worries here.

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Into the gym for some self-imposed penance.  That felt good.  FitBit was happy.  Plus, now it's lunch time.  Out on the pool deck (in the shade, let's be sensible) and on to sample the drink of the day.  It's got blue Curacao in it, and you know what I think about what blue in nature means--pain.

Don't tell anyone… but it turns out they do have Wi-Fi on the ship (at exorbitant rates, of course). I'm going to pretend I didn't know that.

Day 3:  At Sea

Best sighting of the day: a T-shirt reading "Los Angeles Dodgers of Los Angeles." This addresses a favorite pet peeve of mine regarding that other baseball team based in Southern California.

As this is our second day at sea, today definitely qualifies as an "OMG, I wish I didn't get sunburned yesterday!" kind of day.

Day 4:  Falmouth, Jamaica

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Finally, land!  I can't wait to get off the ship.  Malcolm has arranged for a tour of the Appleton Estate rum distillery.  Since it's in the interior of the island and we have limited time, he has arranged for a driver and tour guide.  This leads to an immediate immersion in the language and culture of Jamaica.  For instance, our tour guide says "ting" instead of "thing", "hear" instead of "year" and "Otre Rios" instead of "Ocho Rios."

Our first stop, by the side of the highway, is to point out the high school where Usain Bolt graduated.  Our tour guide is clearly proud of what Bolt has done for the country.  She points out that he purchased a school bus for the high school.  I marvel at the fact that the track is just dirt covered with a little bit of grass.  No wonder these guys are fast, if these are the training conditions!

We're on a two-lane road up and over the mountain to a high mountain valley where the Appleton distillery is located.  With one lane each way, Orville, our drivers, is doing a lot of passing and then jamming back into our lane to avoid head-on collisions.  I did not realize a thrill ride was included in the tour!  Could this be the origin of the reggae song, "we be jammin'?"

Going through the countryside, we see lots of small shacks, with wood or cinder block construction.  Other houses are simply shipping containers with cutouts for windows and doors.  It seems like every town has its bar and jerk take out place.  At the distillery we learn that Appleton makes an over-proof rum, called Jamaica's Best.  Most of it never leaves the island, and given all the bars advertising it along the way, I can see why that would be the case.

Back in the van, as we have to hoof it to our next stop for my request: jerk barbeque.  After asking several Jamaicans for a recommendation, we settle on the most popular choice--Scotchies.  This is exactly what I was looking for in a jerk place.  It's flimsy, made from concrete blocks, corrugated metal and palm fronds.  It's sooty from all the barbeque, with great aromas.  There are guys cooking chicken and pork on top of pimiento logs placed over the wood coals, with pieces of corrugated tin roof used to hold the smoke in.  The food is fantastic--jerk chicken with a side of grilled breadfruit.  And the heat means that the Red Stripe beer goes down easily.

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We learned at the Appleton estate that the Pimiento tree provides the berries that we call allspice, which provides jerk's unique flavor.  Our tour guide says they crush the berries and use them for jerk seasoning, and use the leaves to flavor other dishes, including something called bammy.

After getting our jerk, we head over to a gift shop that is primed for our arrival.  We're whisked away by sales clerks offering us all sorts of stuff.  Most of our group opt for the Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee.  I go for the package of jerk spice.  Greg, waiting outside the shop, is offered ganga by one of the locals.  Greg gives him his, "you do realize I used to be a prison guard, yes?" look and respectfully declines the offer.

Day 5:  George Town, Grand Cayman

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Crystal can't dive today, due to a sinus blockage; that's a shame.  So she's off with some of our group to go see sting rays and dolphins.  That turned out to be super fun.  Our dive group is walking around George Town, killing time before our dive boat leaves.  There are lots of backyard chickens.  Since George Town is a cruise ship port of call, we start noticing that it seems like every port has a Margaritaville, KFC, Burger King and Domino's Pizza.  And there is always lots of shopping for jewelry and cheap T-shirts.

Our first dive is a wall dive, across from the Great House.   The water is beautiful and clear, with at least 60-80 feet visibility.  I'm a little more "buoyant" (ahem) than I used to be and have some trouble getting down to the bottom.  We're at 80 feet, and the wall drops off to… nothing. We learn that it's 3,500 feet to the bottom.  Between my struggles getting down and swimming against a strong current, I'm using air like crazy.  In no time at all I'm back on the anchor line of the dive boat, slowly ascending.  Even so, I saw lots of beautiful corals and sponges, in all kinds of colors.  I also saw a turtle munching on something.

Our second dive is on the wreck of the Oro Verde.  There are many stories about how the ship met its demise.  I like the story of the captain who tried to smuggle marijuana along with the bananas and got tossed overboard when he wouldn't share with the crew.  The dive book says something else entirely--that the ship was sunk on purpose--but where's the fun in that story?

Either way the ship is all broken up, scattered across the sea floor.  There are a couple of bikes down there for good measure, which many of the divers attempt to ride.  We see more wildlife on this dive:  lobster, a nurse shark, an arrowhead crab, and lots of corals and sponges.  I do a much better job managing my air consumption.

Day 6:  Cozumel, Mexico

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Today's agenda includes a trip to the Tulum archeological site and Mayan ruins.  Tulum is actually located in Playa del Carmen, about 20 miles south of Cozumel.  But there's a reef that runs along Playa del Carmen that protects the coastline from hurricanes.  So we have to dock in Cozumel and take a tender (think big, smelly water taxi) down the coast, then disembark and take a bus to Tulum.

We heard the story of one city that carved a break in the reef to allow cruise ships to enter and dock.  The city was later wiped out by Hurricane Gilbert.  That will teach you to mess with Mother Nature!

Armando and Julian are our tour guides.  They're both Mayan, and clearly proud of their heritage.  They claim that Mayans are probably descended from the Chinese, owing to similar body types.  The physical anthropologist in me objects.  It's also clear they're still ticked off at the Spanish for that whole Conquistador thing.  Armando and Julian tell us that the temple is aligned to capture sunlight from the summer solstice.  The engineering is pretty amazing.

There are iguanas all over the grounds--lots of iguanas.   Armando says they're "like backyard chickens."  I am not pleased.

In suggesting explanations for the disappearance of the Mayan civilization, our tour guides point to poor resource management.  They say there were more than 5,000 cities, and it took 20,000 trees to build each temple and city.  The Mayans stripped the land of its resources and died out as a consequence.  Another morality tale!

Despite being on the Gulf coast, it's very hot when the wind stops blowing.  Cold beer never tasted so good.

We're back on the tender for the trip to Cozumel.  They're selling blankets and other trinkets. Talk about a captive audience!

Day 7:  At Sea

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I fall asleep on our stateroom couch last night.  I guess I just like sleeping on couches.  I slept in--until 8:30 AM.  After that, I put in a nice long workout in the gym.  Those Margaritas won't go away by themselves.

Later that evening, it's NCAA Final Four time!  Both games were very exciting.  It was fun to be in the bar with the Florida Gator fans, who were whooping it up early on, but ended up skulking away once their team fell behind to UConn.

We had a great dinner at Sabor, an upscale Mexican restaurant on board.  There were very arts-fartsy margaritas (that were nonetheless very good) as well as guacamole made table-side.

Day 8:  Galveston

Hurry up and wait is the order of the day.  Our bags were packed and left outside the door the night before.  Now it's up for one more breakfast on the ship.  We have to come to grips with the fact that tomorrow we'll be clearing our own dishes and making up our bed--and not every day.

After breakfast it's down to the assembly areas to wait for our turn to disembark.  Things drag  a bit owing to the time needed to get through customs and immigration.

Off the ship and back in Houston, we drop Greg and Leona off and have some time to kill.  We decide to go to the Johnston Space Center.   It was a very cool experience, especially if 1) you're a technology geek and 2) you lived through the era.  Seeing the Saturn V rocket up close (Connie estimated it at 510 feet long) as well as some of the capsules really brought the times to life.  The Mercury capsule looked a lot like a garbage can mounted on top of a rocket.  And as Malcolm said, just remember you're strapped to a rocket provided by the lowest bidder.

Next we're off to the airport for a reasonably relaxed time through baggage check and ticketing.  One or two more beers and we're on our way back home.  It will be nice to get back home and the 542 messages I no doubt have waiting for me.

Would We Do It Again?

Our travel style is a little more toward the hang-with-the-locals approach, and we generally would rather stay longer in one place than see several places for just a few hours at a time.  That said, we couldn't beat the company on this cruise, and have made some new friends that we're already meeting with on other adventures.  So while we generally opt for other vacation formats than "cruising," it certainly works if you go with the right people.

Random Thoughts

  • Flotsam and Jetsam--where'd that term come from?
  • A boat is still a boat.  I don't care how big the cruise ship is, when it's in the ocean it feels like a boat.
  • It's interesting to see how people get all competitive at the start of a cruise.  Parents are rushing to get in line for towels, deck chairs, a spot by the window… Fortunately, after a bit people start to relax and realize there's enough of everything to go around.
  • Stairs are a life saver for staying in shape on the ship.  Walk up and down several flights of stairs each day and you'll get a workout without noticing.
  • The "port of call" culture is interesting.  It seems like every stop featured the same chain restaurants, along with a jewelry store, maybe an art store and some place where you can buy an "I'm With Stupid" T-shirt.
  • With all the bad press about people getting Norovirus on cruises, it was interesting to see what the cruise line had done.  Purel hand sanitizer stands were everywhere, and you were encouraged to clean your hands before and after every meal.


Been on a cruise lately? Let me know what you think!

Product Managers on the Road, Islamabad Edition

Off to Islamabad, Pakistan, to lead an implementation of Office 365 for the country office of one of our NGO customers. Herewith, some random notes, observations and musings.

  • Got properly adjusted to Islamabad time by having three meetings and one fitness workout in the 12 hours before my flight. I'm at the airport feeling like I've been up all night because I have been up all night. That's one way to adjust to the 12 hour time zone difference.
  • Ready to use the "Clear" card I've received so I can skip past the security line, but the TSA agent tells me that line isn't operating. I'm pretty sure she just doesn't know how it works. At any rate, TSA Pre means I get to go right through security. Pretty sweet.
  • Lunch at Cat Cora restaurant. Who is this executive chef imposter?



  • I can tell that everyone in my family is nervous about me going to Pakistan. It probably didn't help to watch an entire season of Homeland before I left.  As Pakistan goes, Islamabad is about the safest place I could be going. Most of the violence is in the southern part of Pakistan, in Karachi and Balochistan. Even so, I understand the difference between "relatively safe" and safe.
  • Brian calls. He's greased things for me with the State Department in Islamabad. Nice to have powerful friends.
  • Prepared for my trip by reading CIA Factbook on Pakistan. Main issue is low GDP growth. Also poverty and illiteracy.
  • My American Airlines flight to Chicago is delayed for an hour, then for six hours. There goes my connection… Now I'm f*d. Because I have checked bags (and people get hinky when bags fly without their owners these days) the best choice American can offer involves arriving one day late, after spending 20 hours window shopping in Doha airport.
  • Thankfully, my virtual travel agent and airline expert Brian calls to tell me there's an Emirates flight leaving in an hour if I can get on it. I call the travel agent and, after a bit of work, get re-booked. Now, to find my luggage.
  • In the Emirates line. I think this is what the American Airlines baggage agents were referring to when they talked about "lunch hour": the group in front of me is a family with about ten bags each.
  • Emirates has this rule that your carry-on can't weigh more than 15 pounds. And they make a big deal about saying they'll gate-check your bag if it's overweight. From what I could see, that rule is not being enforced.
  • 15 hours in a middle seat. Thank God there are free drinks on this flight. The hardest part about this flight? Sitting still. My iPhone is out of battery power (after all those phone calls rearranging travel) and I've put my laptop in the overhead bin, so I can at least stretch my legs out under the seat in front of me.
  • Pre-flight announcements in Arabic—that's a first.
  • Fake starry skies on the cabin ceiling--nice touch Emirates (or Boeing).
  • Surprising, and refreshingly helpful, reaction to the woman behind me feeling ill. They arranged for a medical person to see her when we landed.
  • The Dubai airport is like a Las Vegas hotel or a shopping mall. Marble floors, bright lights, indoor garden, boutique shops and food courts. And prayer rooms. Don't think they have those in Vegas.


Yes, those are real trees... inside the airport terminal

  • Watching as people board flights for Riyadh, Bangalore, Delhi, Dhaka, Doha, Tehran… definitely at a crossroads point for the Middle East and Asia.
  • I wish I could have taken a picture of that woman in the burka walking through the terminal with her carry-on bag on her head.
  • My introduction to Pakistani culture starts with the flight to Islamabad--a Boeing 777 that's full. I expected that on the flight to Dubai, but not to Islamabad. The gate agent announces that the gate is open for boarding, and everyone--everyone--rushes to the gate. The agent keeps saying "business only" (which sounds like "B-C only" or "bees knees only") but it has no effect on the crowd. Eventually some security guard shows up and restores a bit of order to the line. I am going to have to get used to having people crowd around me. There's a very different sense of "personal space" here, meaning "there's no personal space here."
  • The culture lesson continues as we board the aircraft. People are trying to sit in whatever seat seems most desirable, slowing down the whole process. The flight attendants are constantly telling people to go sit in their assigned seat. At least they're stricter about enforcing the 15-pound overhead luggage rule.
  • Arrival in Islamabad. At once strange and wonderful, as I had expected. Islamabad has a layer of… what? Can't tell if it's smog, fog or a combination. The result is that the sunlight is filtered, which adds to the feeling that everything is a kind of tan-white color.




Islamabad, from the Capital Monument. They say that's "fog."  I have my doubts


  • We exit the aircraft in Islamabad, using the older style portable stairways that put you onto the tarmac. They load us onto buses; another opportunity to experience crowding. The sign for Benazir Bhutto Airport—block letters that look like they're perched on a wall—and the age of the terminal reminds me of a typical '60's James Bond film.
  • Once in the terminal I have to pull out my laptop so I can look up the street address of the office I'm visiting. I need this to fill out the immigration forms. As a result, I'm literally the last person in line for immigration. There are several immigration queues (my favorite: "ladies and children") with the Pakistani's again ignoring the signs and jumping to whatever queue seems the smallest. I'm sticking with the (sole) queue for "foreigners and diplomats," wanting to avoid any incident, when the guard waves me over to one of the shorter lines. God takes care of fools.
  • Next up is baggage claim. Now each of those passengers that were ahead of me going through immigration is crowded around the baggage belt, with the baggage carts three-deep behind them. It takes me about 10 yards from when I spot my bags until I'm able to dive into the line to grab them. And customs/baggage check? No more than a glance by some official as I walk past.
  • It's the ride from the airport to the guest house that really tells me I'm not in Kansas anymore. Some of the scenes:
    • Women riding side-saddle on the back of Honda motorcycles (the basic form of taxi here)
    • Beggars at the window when we stop for a red light
    • Horns honking the instant the light turns green
    • The trucks and passenger vans decorated in all sorts of bright colors and jewels
    • Five guys riding on the roof of a passenger van
    • The police security checkpoints designed to reduce the flow of cars to one car per lane, so police can decide if anyone needs to be detained for further questioning
    • People playing cricket in a dirt field
    • As in India, drivers using their horns to say "I'm here" to anyone ahead of them changing lanes
    • Armed soldiers in front of sensitive locations
    • Barbed wire, and lots of it
  • It turns out that I have just enough time to get from the airport to the guest house, unpack and take a shower before I'm headed to the customer's office for meetings with local staff. Feels like my Nortel trips to Paris and London, where we'd go from the airport straight to an all-day meeting. I'm OK with not doing that anymore.
  • Apparently there's no extra charge for the next-door rooster that wakes me every morning.


I'm pretty sure this tells you where to face when you're praying in the direction of Mecca

  • I'm beginning to wonder why I so enthusiastically said, "I love spicy food!" at lunch, when I eat something that freezes my vocal chords for about 20 seconds.
  • Hearing the call to prayers for the first time as it broadcasts from the local mosque and echoes across the city is an experience. And I have to admire the devotion of Muslims as they take the time for prayers. I have enough trouble getting to church on time once a week, much less multiple times daily.
  • First text message on my local mobile phone? An announcement about the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan leader, by a US drone the day before scheduled peace talks with the Pakistan government. Yeah, that should complicate things.
  • A visit Saturday to the Capital museum. Interesting spin on history: the exhibits basically say, "India was decaying, but then we took over and now it's flowering". Plus lots of stuff about benefits of Islam. Still, it's interesting to realize that Pakistan has only existed as a country since 1947.


Capital Monument, Islamabad. Kind of a lotus flower design


Detail of bas-relief on one of the lotus petals, highlighting people and events in Pakistan's history


  • It seems that all the police checkpoints have an advertising deal with Wazir Fabrics. Way to monetize, police force!
  • At Daman-e-Koh Park. High enough to be above the "fog". The sight of women in burkas is surprisingly normal. Yes, there are men with monkeys on a leash. And yes, that was a monkey I saw running across the parking lot.


View of Islamabad from Daman-e-Koh park

  • Lunch at Jahangir Balti and BBQ. Slightly awkward moment when we suggest to our guide that we invite the driver to have lunch with us. They're fascinated that I know and like some many kinds of Indian food. Our guide excuses himself for afternoon prayers.
  • Actually posted on the lunch menu: "Smoking, photography, pets, arms, ammunition and eatables from outside are not allowed."
  • Shopping trip cut short by request from customer's Chief of Security to return to our hotel and stay inside, as a result of the Taliban killing and fears of a reprisal.
  • Let's see. There's cricket, soccer, and a tennis match. Oh, and 10-year old World Wrestling Federation.
  • My wake up text message: "is it advised to avoid Centaurus (a large mall) and Kohsar Market. It is also advised to be extra vigilant while visiting markets, parks and public places." You don't have to tell me twice.
  • And just to hit the trifecta, there's going to be a solar eclipse today. I'm sure the population will take that in stride. Or not.
  • Hierarchy is a big deal here.
  • My kingdom for a vegetable.
  • As we sit working in the customer's basement conference room I'm invited to share lunch by one of the employees. Lunch consists of oranges, persimmons ("chaponese [Japanese] fruit") and pomegranate seeds. We compare notes on farmer's markets, local food and family vs. factory farming.
  • Migration team "thank you" dinner at Saidpur Village. A reconstruction of a village from times past, set up as a tourist attraction. I can tell it's a tourist spot because the guy I saw Saturday at Daman-e-Koh with the balloon target shooting game is here. Favorite dinner menu item among the team? Hamburgers.
  • New culinary experiences:
    • Mix tea, made by boiling tea in milk (apparently condensed milk)
    • Pakistani food for breakfast every morning. One day there were labels to indicate what the food was, but most days you just lifted the lid on the warming tray and took your chances.
    • Mutton karahi, a spicy stew made from hacked-up pieces of mutton. You could also get a chicken version. I couldn't help but think the mutton had a slightly slimy feel to it. Still, it was quite good.
    • Lahore fish, fish fillets fried in a spiced flour coating.
  • So the Taliban have selected another hard-line radical as their new leader, someone nicknamed "Mullah Radio." And, naturally, they swear off any peace talks with the Pakistan government. This should end well.
  • Headed to the airport for our 3:30 AM flight to Dubai. The place is chaos. Driver tells us that everyone is returning from the Haj, which means there are 5,000 relatives waiting outside the terminal to pick up someone. I get a few I-hate-Americans looks.
  • My traveling companion, David, and I stand gawking in the terminal, trying to figure out which way to the departure area. Two Emirates baggage handlers show up, grab our bags, and instruct us to follow them. They proceed to plow through the crowd, cut to the front of the baggage screening line, throw the existing bags off of the conveyer belt and insert our bags. Next, they push their way to the ticket counter and get us checked into our flight. I tip the guy $10, figuring it's money well-spent. His reply? "What about for my partner?" I'm tempted to suggest he share the $10 but decide this is not the time to cheap out. Best $10—no, make that $20—I've ever spent.
  • Another tip: for $10 each we get to stay in a sort of "Red Carpet Club" and wait for our flight. For the price of admission we get all the water, tea and juice we can drink. Oh, and free Wi-Fi. In keeping with the Wi-Fi network security practices we observed all week, the Wi-Fi password—naturally—is 123456789.
  • David, former Marine, spots the defense contractors in the VIP Lounge.  Two of them can stay, but the one that looks like he carries the weapons is asked to leave. Ohhh-K!

Back in Dubai, headed to SFO. Welcome to the middle seat. 15 hours of opera, old Disney movies, Dubai tourist videos, and Bruce Springsteen's entire music collection. None of that matters—I'm on my way home.


Product Managers on the Road, “DC Dysfunction” Edition

For your viewing pleasure, here are some notes from my visit to Washington, DC during the last days of the US Government shutdown. I was out to meet with one of our larger customers, a group of sixteen agricultural research centers, to talk about a plan to migrate their messaging and other services to Office 365. As has become my custom, I took the opportunity to line up some informal visits with a couple of other customers. And, as luck would have it, I was asked by another customer if there was any way I could pay them a visit in Boston (Watertown, to be exact; across the street from my first MIT residence.) Since I was going to be in Washington, I arranged to leave one day early and head to Boston for a visit.  Herewith, the details...


I wake up at 3:00 AM, after falling asleep in the chair watching TV. Since the car will be picking me up for the drive to the airport at a little after 5:00 AM, and since I haven't packed, I decide to pack before I go to bed. Good call—efficient and focused.

Hit the Town Car, asleep almost immediately. Next thing I know, we're exiting the freeway for SFO.

During the flight to Washington I have a brief panic attack. Did I actually pack my suitcase? Or did I just pull it out of the closet and load it into the Town Car, empty?

Landing in Dulles.  Since I'm wearing a backpack for my carry-on, I nearly walk out of terminal without my suitcase. I have that groggy feeling you get when you take a midnight flight somewhere—except I didn't.

Brian and I meet for beers at the Black Rooster. The weather is quite nice, so we sit outside and catch up. Brian wants to take me to his latest find, a small Thai restaurant near his house. After taking some time to get there, we realize why they never answered the phone when he called to make a reservation: they're closed Mondays. Oh well.

Instead, we go to dinner at his new favorite Ethiopian restaurant, Zenebech Injera. The food is good and surprisingly cheap for Washington. We splurge and order a bottle of their best Yellow Tail wine.

I'm always surprised at how many homeless people I see on the streets.


Today is meeting day. I've got customer meetings about every two hours. With meeting over-run's and factoring in transportation between visits, the result is a series of meetings from 11 AM to 6 PM, without a break.

Brian and I catch up for dinner again, and I get to see his (new) office. From there, we walk past the White House. In the (officially closed) federal park across street, Brian points out the lady that's been protesting for the last 15+ years. Apparently if she doesn't abandon her post, the park police (when they're working) leave her alone.


DC Shutdown Humor: Someone put "Sorry, We're Closed" stickers over the monument icons on this Metro subway map

We have drinks at Old Ebbitt Grill (near the White house), very cool and historic. I loved the duck decoys. The bartenders are all white-haired, and you get the feeling they have the goods on every politician who's worked in DC over the past forty years. We decide to stay for dinner. The menu is very good and the prices are not too expensive, considering the tourist-trap location. Plus, we get fresh oysters!


Today is an all-day session on how to roll out Office 365 to all the agricultural research centers. I arrive at the meeting location a few minutes early, only to discover I'm at the wrong building. Nothing like a four-block run in the morning to get the blood flowing.

Lunch is at a local American/Vietnamese restaurant. I notice that the Pho isn't served with Jalapenos, although Sriracha sauce is available. We have to remind one of the diners that it's hot sauce, not ketchup, in the red bottle on the table.

After the meeting I head over to the Charles Tyrwhitt store to buy a shirt. I discovered the company while in London a while back, and love their shirts. Now that the Great Recession is thawing for me, I have an opportunity to buy a new shirt. After extensive shopping, deciding, and optimizing on my purchase, I go to pay and realize I don't have my credit card. You know, the one I got JUST FOR THIS TRIP? Holy sh$t, where could it be? I head back to my hotel and spend equal amounts of time ripping apart my room looking for the card, and calculating how I'm going to pay for my hotel in Washington, fly to Boston, and fly back to San Francisco with just the cash I have on hand (which is never very much).

Fortunately, I call the Old Ebbitt Grill and they have my card. Phew!  The rest of the night is spent retrieving the card and tracking down Brian to see if he wants to meet up with my sister Mary (who's now flown into town) and me. Turns out Brian needs a night for laundry and what not (since he spent part of the weekend at an event in New York), so I have the rest of the night to myself.

I have a final beer at Mackey's Public House, a pub next to the hotel. It turns out that the hotel bar next door, Recessions, gets Brian's vote for DC's best dive bar--go figure.

Unsurprisingly, Congress passes the debt ceiling bill just in time. The glum mood that has existed in DC for past 16 days starts to ease.


Another early wake up and off to the airport. At least I'm flying out of Reagan National (or whatever it's called) so it doesn't take too long to get to the airport. I get a view of the Pentagon 9/11 memorial "contrails" as we head to the airport.

Hello Boston; good to see you again! As I take the "T" into downtown Boston, I realize I'm part of the morning commute, which wouldn't be bad except I have a large bag I'm dragging around. Soon enough, I make my connection, from Blue to Green to Red Line, and the next thing I know I'm in Harvard Square. It's refreshing to see the same impossible-to-understand accents on Red Line. I finally find the bus stop for the 71 to Watertown Square. Oh, I pay when I get off the bus? OK, so some things have changed since I was going to school here…

Several of our favorite haunts are still there: theTown Diner, Mt. Auburn Steakhouse (now the Mt. Auburn Grill, New Yorker Diner, Demo's.

Thursday is another full day of meetings. It's a little like the old Johnny Carson "stump the band" routine, as people cycle through to ask me about their respective area of technology interest. Lunch is brought in from Theo's—the restaurant may not be from my time but the style is the same; no horseradish, you'll have to have mustard, bub.

After a full day, my customer gives me a ride back to the airport. My first chance to ride through The Big Dig since they finished it. On to the UA lounge, where I get to grab a glass of wine and get the user accounts set up for another customer migration to Office 365 that's starting the next day. Soon enough, I'm on my way home. Miles to go before I sleep.

Cayenne Pepper Sauce

Last year I grew a big batch of Cayenne peppers, thinking I would dry most of them.  I did dry a bunch, but I had enough left over that I thought I’d try making a pepper sauce out of them.  I found this recipe and really liked it because it was both simple and easy to extend/modify.

Well, last year’s pepper sauce didn’t last very long, so this year I decided not to dry my extra peppers, but to make sauce from any peppers I wasn’t going to use right away.

Here on the table you’ll see a variety of peppers harvested from the garden and (for a few) picked up at the local farmer’s market.  There are Poblano’s in the lower right, Pimiento de Padron’s (center) that have gotten too big to fry up, in both red and green colors.  There are a few Corno di Italia Italian sweet peppers (lower left), and some Anaheim’s both from the garden and from the market.  And of course, there are the stars of the show: Carolina Cayenne peppers (that big pile of red peppers near the center of the picture).  Go here if you want to get more information on different pepper varieties.




The first step was to remove the tops from the peppers and chop them up into smaller pieces.  I didn’t worry too much about removing the ribs or seeds (where most of the heat resides) because

  • I like the heat 
  • it’s a labor-intensive job
  • they all get strained out at the end

Once that was done, I loaded them into a saucepan.  You’ll see I also added some tomatoes from the garden, since I was already concerned that I had a lot more of the hot peppers vs. mild peppers in the mix.




At this point (departing from the order in the recipe I quoted above), I added the white vinegar to the pan and let the mixture come to a low boil.  Then I added the kosher salt.  This mixture then simmered for about 20 minutes.  At some point I tasted the mixture and decided it was still too spicy.  So I tossed in some carrots (a garden first this year!) to add a little sweetness.  Here's everything simmering nicely.  Be sure to use your vent fan when cooking the peppers, unless you like searing your lungs with hot pepper vapors.




Once the mixture had simmered and then cooled, I blended it in batches.  When I had the whole mixture blended, I started the process of straining the mixture through a sieve.  This is where all the bits of any size get strained out.  You can see from the picture that the mixture is thick enough that it wouldn't just run through the sieve by itself.  So this is a thicker sauce than a red pepper sauce like Tabasco.




I then took a wooden spoon and carefully scraped down the sides of the sieve, pushing the contents through into the bowl underneath and capturing the solids.  I knew I was done when I felt like I was pushing around a golf ball-sized hunk of seeds and skins.




At this point I would normally check the sauce for consistency and adjust, but I liked the consistency just as it was.  If I had wanted it thinner I could have added some more vinegar.  Last year, to thicken the sauce, I simmered a sweet potato in the vinegar and blended up some of that to give the sauce more body.  That also helped curb some of the sauce's spiciness.




As you can see that saucepan of peppers yielded about a quart and a little more of pepper sauce.  Happily, I was able to give some of the sauce to my favorite pepper lovers and still have some for myself.  The other cool thing is that I discovered that the remaining vinegar used to cook the peppers had plenty of flavor.  So I strained all the seeds and solids out of that and bottled it, like Tabasco. 



In fact, an easy thing to do is to just pop a couple of peppers into a bottle of vinegar, with a little salt and maybe a garlic clove.  It will infuse the vinegar with pepper flavor and you’ll have a great accompaniment for your next batch of sautéed greens.  So go out and grow some peppers, so you can try your hand at making some killer pepper sauce!


Product Managers on the Road: DC Summer Edition

It's the end of July and I'm ending the month the way I started it—on a trip to Washington, DC. I'm here to attend the Inside NGO conference, to speak in a couple of panel discussions. A conference in Washington, at the end of July/beginning of August. Other than the possibility of good hotel rates once Congress clears out of town, there's not a lot that's initially appealing about the idea. But you know the Product Manager's code: complete the mission.

Search History Can Tell You a Lot

So herewith are a series of random musings that will give you some idea of how the week went. Let's start where our intelligence agencies would start: my search history.

  • Time in Bonn
  • 1730 rhode island ave nw
  • Washington convention center
  • Crowdsourced funding
  • "siri, how do I get to the Metro?"
  • Clyde's Washington DC
  • Dukem Ethiopian
  • Zaytinya
  • Cisco connected devices

My Dinners with Brian

It's sort of a tradition. Crystal or I visit Brian, he lines up dinners at restaurants he wants us to experience (and/or places he'd like to try), and we pay for dinner. Seems like a fair deal. On this trip:

Zantinaya (link)  Amazing. Jose Andres (I've spent three summers trying to grow Padron peppers just to make his tapa recipe) put a twist on Spanish tapas, featuring Middle Eastern, Greek and Turkish equivalent types of plates. Absolutely amazing. And it didn't hurt that the couple next to Brian and I gave us a bottle of wine to share over dessert.

Dukem (link)  If you've been to DC, it doesn't surprise you to know that there are a number of Ethiopian restaurants. Brian brought me here because Crystal wouldn't go, being unable to disassociate Ethiopian food from some of her more challenging Kenyan meals. You have to get used to the idea that your utensil consists of pieces of a giant crepe. But once you get used to that, the food is quite good.

Kangaroo Boxing Club (link)  A small joint (aren't all great BBQ places like that?) near Brian's house in Columbia Heights. Unbelievably, the signature dish is barbecued pastrami. And of course, it's out of this world. And don't miss the various macaroni and cheese sides—they're worth the extra workout time.

Luke's Lobster (  Shockingly (to hear some of my friends tell the story), I had never actually had a genuine lobster roll. In Boston you didn't bother with the roll, and just ate the whole lobster. I had a few trendy lobster roll send-up's in California, but having missed the family outing to Maine one year, I didn't get to experience the "lobstah" delight. Until now. This was authentic, true to Maine's roots, and completely delicious.

Some Things I Learned at the Conference

  • Why "M&E"—Monitoring and Evaluation—Matters. The "revenue" side of NGO's is the grant money they get from funders like USAID . So it makes sense that they want to show that the grant money was well-spent. For NGO's, no impact means a lower likelihood of obtaining follow-on funding. This also means that data collection is a big deal. No data means you have a harder time describing your impact. And since much of NGO work happens with illiterate people and in Internet-challenged locales, it makes data collection a tricky task.
  • What also matters is accounting. You've got multiple grants, with different reporting requirements and (sometimes) different rules about things like expense reimbursement. Teasing out the sources and uses of funds becomes an important activity.
  • Who exhibits at a conference like Inside NGO? Well, you might not have thought about companies that can deliver fleets of trucks. Or handle security. Or tell you what the going rate for talent in fill-in-the-country.
  • The best leave-behind? The legal firm that set out little "goodie bags" on the tables, with their business card and little chocolates. The chocolates had a QR code on them.
  • I must be good at handling ambiguity. I was presenting on a "future of technology" panel with another person and it was a challenge to get the material together, boil it down, and focus it on a clear set of messages. It seemed like every discussion and slide deck was taking things further and further toward perfect entropy. But we were actually able to focus on some key topics and bring the material back around to support those topics. We talked about order and chaos as one topic, and invited the audience to guess which of us represented each quality. Great fun!

More Random Observations

  • Picked up Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In (buy it here) as a presenter gift.  Now I can see what all the buzz is about in Silicon Valley.
  • Brunch and happy hour: two Washington traditions.
  • Bocce league. Because nothing says, "I'm ready to drink with my friends!" than a game of Bocce.
  • Redskins mania is in full swing. There are multiple on-site stories from… Redskins training camp.
  • Apparently you can measure the state of the economy by the level of indifference exhibited by the bar/restaurant wait staff.
  • Yes, I actually saw a man pulling a cello across the street. The cello had a rubber wheel attached to the base. Very interesting photo opportunity.
  • The conference had a jobs board (the old paper kind) located right next to the entrance to the exhibits.  That seemed a little awkward: "hey, Jim, what are you looking at?"
  • While enjoying a "half smoke" sausage from one of the street vendors outside George Washington University, I see the classic Washington casual outfit for the summer: tan slacks, penny loafers, a blue blazer, blue pinstripe shirt and a tie. Sported by more than one of the high school students on some kind of college immersion program.
  • Live jazz combo at the airport – that's a nice touch.
  • Ordered a burrito in the Dulles Airport. Clearly I am desperate. Perhaps I should've followed Brian's advice and gone to Wendy's.
  • We're delayed an hour, waiting for thunderstorms to clear. I discover this after waking up from my nap, which started the moment they started reading the pre-flight emergency instructions at the gate.
  • Kid behind me spills his drink all over his seat cushion (not much a flotation device now!) Flight attendant asks us to swap a spare seat cushion for the soaked one. Throws in some free wine to seal the deal. Works for me!

Another good trip. I got to spend some quality time with family and friends, met some folks I'd only talked to on the phone or via email, and had great feedback on the panel discussions. And the heat/humidity wasn't bad at all. Either that, or my visit to Houston (link) has forever increased my tolerance level!

Product Managers on the Road, Capitol Edition

One of our largest customers, a group of agricultural research centers, held the annual meeting of their IT Managers in early May, in Washington, DC.  I was invited to attend so that I could provide an update on a pilot Active Directory project we were conducting, and to give a talk on Microsoft's direction with respect to cloud computing.  Naturally, this meant an opportunity for another "Product Managers on the Road" edition!

Travel Day.  Flight leaves at 6 AM... yeesh. At least I have a car taking me to the airport.  Brian's with me, since he came out to make a surprise visit to Sean during Sean's chemotherapy treatment.

After saying goodbye to Brian (he's on a different flight back to DC) I head to the gate.  Okay... it's a 737 with only paid amenities.  Time to stock up on some nuts and dried fruit for the flight. I send a couple of text messages to Sean to see how he's feeling.

It's a full flight, and naturally everyone is attempting to carry their life's possessions onto the flight.  They were taking volunteers to gate-check bags; a great way to check your bags for free.

On the plane. The passenger ahead of me is falling asleep, and keeps snapping her neck as her head drops forward.  Reminds me of me at the opera.

Good news: there's a monitor in the seat back.  Bad news: I can't turn it off.  Welcome to six hours of the same Lincoln car commercial.  Or I could pay to watch network TV shows, with commercials. Wait, what?

Dante, who's traveling with me, finds the oldest Peruvian restaurant in DC.  I get to experience aji, a kind of all-purpose hot sauce.  I stupidly ask Dante if he's ever had Peruvian food, forgetting that Dante is from Peru


Niner fans--you never know where they'll turn up. 

Meeting Day One.  At the IT Managers meeting.  I learn a new term when one of the IT Managers says he is going to “throw a spanner in the works.”

Many of the IT Managers here are European.  Maybe that's why they commented that today's hot meal is "a real lunch" compared with yesterday's cold sandwiches.  I also notice a reluctance to eat in the meeting room, even though there are more places to sit there.  This is certainly different than a startup!  There's also a bit of the "Microsoft as Evil Empire" feeling in the room.  How long until Google attains that status?

Good news: the Golden State Warriors' playoff game is on TNT! Bad news: there's no sound.  I get to watch the entire game, including two overtimes, on forced mute.  Steph Curry's face at the end of the game says, "can we just get this over?"

Meeting Day Two.  During one of the smoking breaks (!) I observe the commotion as a group of people are trying to feed/protect a duck they find nesting in the flowers.  The contrast in attention paid to the duck vs. the homeless guy panhandlng nearby is perfect.


Yes, that's a duck nesting in the planter outside the building I was visiting.

Dante and I get to leave the meeting early.  So I take Dante to see the Capitol Building.  We're walking, and when I feel the first couple of raindrops we head for shelter.  Good thing--the skies open up for 10 minutes or more.  We end up taking a taxi the rest of the way to the Capitol building.  Of course, the rain stops as soon as we arrive.


This is outside the World Bank, one of our customers.  But I took the photo because the logo reminded me of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Huh?

Looking for a cab after out Capitol visit.  Thanks to a kind taxi driver, I learn where to stand (and where not to stand) if you're looking for a cab, in the rain, at 5:00 PM.

Evening off.  Brian and I had planned to go see the Washington Nationals play, but I already have one experience getting rained on while watching them, so we change plans.  We end up getting some great seafood, including, oysters we've never heard of before, at Hank's Oyster Bar in Georgetown.  Then it's over to a 60s style bar for a drink.  I feel like I'm in some sort of James Bond movie.

Day Three.  Visiting another customer, have some time before my appointment.  The weather's cleared up a bit, so I take a stroll near the White House and then back to where I had been staying.  I decide I'd better eat now, since I may use up all my lunch time walking back to my hotel.  I grab a hot dog and find a bench to sit and eat.


I can only imagine the advice McKinsey gave this vendor: "diversify!"

Now back to the hotel, to check out and go to my next appointment. 


I found the food trucks.  Too bad I already ate lunch!

A great meeting with my customer, now on to the airport and back home... As Brian had told me, Thursday afternoon is the worst time to fly out of Dulles; all the Congress-people are headed back home for the weekend.  So everything takes longer, and my plan to change into casual clothes before the flight is for naught.  I have just enough time to get to the gate and hand them my ticket.  And who do I run into (almost literally) at the gate? Jackie Speier.  Brian interned for Jackie when he first went to Washington, so it was great to catch up with her and let her know what Brian is doing these days.

Late-night arrival in SFO.  Fortunately, I have a car taking me home so I can doze off.  Great trip, great fun with Brian and co, great customer interactions!







Product Managers on the Road, Weekend Edition

Note: I started this post a week ago, as I was on my way to New Mexico for a one-day ski trip.  It was written sort of as-it-happened so don't expect too much literary refinement!


So I'm on my way to Albuquerque, New Mexico. I'm headed there to meet up with my son Brian for a day of skiing in Taos, about two hours away. It's my first trip since I renewed my passport, and my first flight in maybe a year. So, on with the random observations…

  • SJC is quite different than I remember it, at least getting to long term parking is different. First, it's called "Economy Parking." OK, that explains the lack of "Long Term Parking this way" signs. And no, I can't circle around the north end of the runways to get to the long-term parking lot I usually go to; that one's only accessible from De La Cruz/Coleman Ave.
  • So glad I printed out my boarding pass on Southwest Airlines ahead of time! I was able to skip the lines and go straight to baggage check (FREE baggage check, thank you Southwest!).
  • Had to be told to remove my shoes before going through the metal detector. Rookie mistake!
  • People are wondering why I'm carrying around my down jacket, aka Puffy or Puff Daddy. Hey, maybe I don't need it in San Jose or Las Vegas, but I will in New Mexico!
  • Our gate is directly across from the Illy espresso bar in Terminal B… torture!
  • I must be like a dog… I never noticed the "order here" and "pick up here" signs at Jamba Juice because they're way above my head.
  • SJC offers free Wi-Fi (after you watch a commercial). The iPass business model continues to erode.
  • So my flight to Albuquerque stops first in Las Vegas. That explains all the bachelorettes, fraternity boy groups, folks trading stories about where to get the best drinks and cheapest food, and the abundance of women with surgically enhanced breasts waiting to board my flight.
  • Judging from her makeup, I'm pretty sure the San Jose gate agent is moonlighting as a Las Vegas showgirl.I'm pretty sure I'm the only person on this flight who won't be getting off the plane in Las Vegas.
  • We haven't even boarded and I've already heard a "lost wages" reference.
  • There are nine of us going on to Albuquerque. So it's guaranteed that the other two people in my row are among them.
  • When the pilot said it would be "bumpy" going into Las Vegas, he meant, "We're going to re-enact that part of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea where the SSRN Seaview collides with the giant sea creature."
  • Always interesting when the airport shares a runway with the local Air Force base, as is the case in Albuquerque.
  • Brian's hotel is full of college students attending an indoor track meet at the convention center next door.  Reminds me of basketball tournaments at the (then) Reno Hilton.
  • Why am I always nervous before I go skiing?
  • Special thanks to my hairdresser for telling me about the Bavarian House in Taos.  It was definitely worth the long ski run to get to it!
  • As we sit outside at the Bavarian House, I realize that my beer is getting colder as it sits waiting for me to drink it.
  • Skied down several mogul runs… not by choice.
  • Perfect timing: we're both ready to stop skiing at 2:30, just as the snowfall picks up and the mountain disappears under the weather.
  • Even at 25, I still have to talk Brian off the ledge occasionally.
  • The New Mexico highway rest stops are nothing to write home about.
  • Bighorn sheep crossing—now that's cool.
  • But our favorite: the "cow crossing" signs with added "UFO crossing" decals.
  • You can't beat New Mexico architecture.
  • Either there are a lot of empty houses around, or there are a lot of people that only spend the summer in New Mexico.
  • It's odd that the food in New Mexico is great, but there's really no "fine dining" experience.
  • There's Mexican food, and there's New Mexican food, and they're not the same thing.
  • Your basic choice: do you want red or green sauce with that?
  • Who knew there was a local New Mexico wine industry?
  • Brian (after we've driven through Santa Fe and the snow is blowing sideways): "Siri, get us the hell out of here!" Siri: you should take up your existential questions with someone more qualified than me, preferably a human."
  • As the weather front descended on us while driving back to Albuquerque, Brian and I both thought of the alien space ships from Independence Day.
  • The turn-by-turn navigation app clearly has not mastered Spanish pronunciation.
  • Why does the female voice in the Albuquerque Doubletree elevator have a British accent?
  • Leave it to Brian to know the names of the New Mexico congressional delegation, and be able to pick them out of the list of people waiting for a first class upgrade on his flight back to Washington.
  • You can't beat traveling with your adult children.
  • The storm has passed through Albuquerque and is headed east. Me, I'm headed west thank you!
  • Ah, San Diago, whales va….
  • I can't wait to do this again.

Garden 2012 Recap

Along with the photo album recounting the various stages of this year's garden, I thought I'd provide a review of what did and didn't work this year.


We tried okra this year, which was fun. It's true that if you pick the pods when they're small and use them right away (that day) then the sliminess associated with okra is minimized. Conversely, if you (as I did) let some of the pods get quite large (more than about 3-4 inches long), they have the consistency of tree bark.

I was able to get some good plantings of radicchio, the "Treviso" type that looks more like Romaine lettuce than a red cabbage. The flavor is bitter, like the more common forms of radicchio, but this variety can be used easily in salads as well as sautee's.

Garlic was a big hit. We planted it in the fall of 2011, and it was ready in the May/June time frame. We had some locally grown garlic as seed stock, which produced a hardneck variety with red paper skins. Drying the garlic was quite important, and those bulbs that we didn't dry thoroughly tended to rot. But the flavor and freshness of home grown garlic is a real treat!

Sweet peppers were largely a hit. We grew a number of varieties, focusing on yellow and red bell peppers, as well as Italian "horn" style red peppers. The peppers we grew under solar mulch did much better than the ones grown without it; the solar mulch peppers had much more well-developed root systems. We ate the peppers fresh and also roasted a lot of them, then froze or canned them. The sweet Italian ones were some of my favorites.

Through random chance, the one hot pepper variety that made it into the bed with the solar mulch was Joe's Long Cayenne. These were a pleasant surprise. First, they plants are prolific: I probably harvested 20 or more peppers off of each plant. The peppers were long, thin and crinkly, with a beautiful red color. Initially I had thought only about drying some of the peppers (for a favorite Cajun "uncle") but I had so many peppers that I was able to make a sauce with them. The taste of fresh cayenne pepper sauce is so much better than anything store-bought! I made some Tabasco-type sauce and then made a thicker version that would be great as a hot wing sauce. How good was it? The sauce was gone long before I had a chance to think about canning it.

One problem we did have with peppers (and some of the tomatoes) was Verticilium Wilt. At first I thought the peppers had been sunburned, so I put a row cover on the bed. But the peppers kept developing soft spots, which is a symptom of wilt.

We were much more judicious in planting summer and winter squash, especially after last year's summer squash overload. We put just three squash plants in a bed (along with hot pepper plants—see below), which gave them enough room to spread out and produce lots of fruit. With the plants not all crowded together it made it easier to find the fruit before they turned into squash baseball bats. The winter squash (butternut) turned out shorter than what you find in the store, but the flavor is still great.

I planted eggplants (having learned how to start them, along with peppers, from seed) in a barrel planter that I relocated to a sunnier spot in the yard. They did well and produced lots of 4-5 inch fruit (a purple variety and a purple/white striped variety). It turns out that the smaller size of the fruits meant that they were more tender and easier to cook up than larger eggplants. It was great to go out and grab a few for a quick stir-fry.

Fava beans did well this year. Planting early helped, as did using the smaller cages (sold for tomatoes) for support. I'd advise you to plant in quantity, because it takes a lot of fava beans to make a meal or side dish. You also have to pick them every day; we didn't, and the crop went bad after spending too long on the vine.

Kale was another hit. We planted both Russian and Toscano varieties; both were great. Kale is getting up there with Chard as one of my favorite vegetables for growing and eating.

We grew basil, since it goes so well with tomatoes. Cheryl made pesto and froze it; I haven't tried that. There's nothing like fresh basil in the summer, and they attract bees and other beneficial insects.

Foul Tips

Broccoli and cauliflower both did reasonably well this year. We got some nice heads of each, more so with the cauliflower. But the heads were on the small side, and letting them grow past baseball size usually didn't result in better size or quality. Using transplants made a big difference; it also helped to plant when the weather was still cool, in the early spring.

Corn turned out to be largely a bust this year, due primarily to not planting it early enough in the season. I selected a "late season" variety (Montauk) that did manage to produce some ears by September-October. But there just wasn't enough sun to get the ears really plump. Still, they tasted great!

We planted onions (Copra, for storage, and Alisa Craig Exhibition, for sweet onions) at the same time as the garlic. Since we planted the onions as seeds, thinning was required. And while I thinned once or twice, I decided late to thin the onions again. The Copra onions that were thinned and replanted early on did great. The Alisa Craig onions did well, but never developed the large bulbs I expected. This variety probably needs less daylight than we get at our latitude. The onions that were thinned late took a while to regain their vigor and grow, leading to under-sized bulbs at the time of harvest. The lesson here: thin early, and be aggressive!

Chard (aka Swiss Chard) is normally a staple in our garden. But for some reason we forgot to plant it early, as we usually do (it's one of the first vegetables ready for harvest). We did plant Chard in the summer, and got some good harvests, but we could have done better if we had planted earlier.

Cheryl and Patrick attended a tomato seed-starting class, and passed with flying colors. And rather than thin three seedlings and keep the best one in a pot, Cheryl kept each. That, together with the unexpected germination of "volunteer" plants from last year in the pepper and asparagus beds, meant that we had over 100 tomato plants in the garden. And yet, the production was not what you might expect with that many plants. The main culprit seems to be lack of soil fertility. Few of the tomato plants were as healthy and vigorous as I would normally expect—the plants looked spindly. They did produce a lot of tomatoes, but probably not as many as they would have if they had been healthier. A lot of the Marzano varieties produced well, but the fruit was small (under 3 inches).

We had wilt problems with some of the plants, and lots of "cat's eye" cracking due to inconsistent watering. The cherry varieties did reasonably well, as did the larger, "golf ball" sized tomatoes. But the oxheart and beefsteak varieties were not so productive and what tomatoes they did produce were kind of sick looking.

That said, the flavor of the tomatoes was fantastic! (One note—you really could only compare varieties in the field, since once they were harvested they all ended up in one basket and you couldn't tell one variety from another). We found a great recipe for tomato sauce that involved just roasting the tomatoes (along with other aromatics such as onions and garlic) and then blending the mixture together and straining. The sauce developed great flavor and couldn't be easier to make. We also dried some of the Marzano's; we would have dried more of them if they had been larger.

After last year's cantaloupe adventure (they really do need a lot of room!) we scaled back our cantaloupe planting to just a few plants. They produced softball-sized cantaloupe… small but still full of flavor. And the second round of plants were put in too late, not producing much before the cold and lack of sun shut them down.

I planted some "Alibi" cucumbers in a barrel planter at my house, wanting to make home-made dill pickles. Late planting and a lack of sun (the barrel is on the North side of the house) meant that the plants went a long time without producing anything. And then one day I was surprised to find a cucumber hiding under one of the plant leaves. I did manage to get enough cucumbers to make a batch of dill pickles (from an Andrew Zimmern recipe), that are delicious.

Cheryl planted strawberries, which took a while to establish. We kept them netted to keep the birds out, but they ended up growing through the netting (as did the weeds) which was a mess. As we move into winter, they've established themselves nicely and I'm expecting a better crop next year. We put down solar mulch to warm them up, but now that they're sending out "volunteers" I want to pull up the mulch so the plants can spread throughout the box.

Lettuce and garden greens did OK. The pelleted lettuce seeds a neighbor gave us didn't produce at all; either they were old or not adequately watered. We did manage to grow arugula (one of my favorites), as well as a couple kinds of lettuce and some Asian greens (mizuno, among other types). Again, the secret is daily harvesting, so that the plants don't go to seed while we're not looking.


I had high hopes for beans this season… which is all I got. We planted two types of shell beans and a dry bean, and had almost nothing to harvest. I got a handful of "Tongue of Fire" beans and no Flageolet. I think inoculating the beans, together with more consistent watering, will help for next year.

Hot peppers (Scotch Bonnet, Bhutan, Hawaiian, Thai) got off to a bad start and never recovered. The transplants were a bit scrawny, likely due to insufficient heat during the seed starting phase. I happened to plant them without solar mulch, which further slowed down their growth. I actually got a couple of Scotch Bonnets in November as I was pulling summer plants, but that was it. Next year, I may try starting these types of peppers in the greenhouse, as it will be nice and warm in there by late spring.

Like beans, the peas we planted grew but never produced much. I think inoculants will help here as well.

I tried planting a little dill to use in pickling, and got one or two snips but that was all. I need to choose a sunnier location next time!

Likewise, I tossed a few beet seeds in one of the tomato containers, but they were always too shaded to really get started.

Some Lessons

Feed Your Soil

While the weather this year was more in line with normal patterns of cold and warmth, many of our plants didn't grow as well as we had expected. Some of this might have been due to irregular watering, but I'm betting that our soil was just tired. At my garden on Canada Road, it was easy to keep the soil fertilized: I had an active horse manure composting operation going and needed to do something with the compost about every three months. This year, the garden at Hubner Hallow didn't get the benefit of horse manure compost, and the impact was evident. Many of the tomatoes, despite being in half-barrels with ample water, were just not as lush and full as I have seen in other years. To further back this up, the tomatoes that I did plant in one of the original beds—which came with composted soil from Canada Road—grew like mad, and had well-developed root systems.

Help the Bugs

The good bugs, that is. This was the first year where we had a deer fence around the entire garden area, vs. fencing off each bed. One of the unexpected side effects of that seems to have been an increase in the number of lizards in the garden area. We also made an effort to grow plants that would attract beneficial insects (such as basil) and/or discourage the bad bugs. I noticed a marked decrease in bug infestations, especially aphids and flea beetles. All of the produce looked a lot better!

2013 Focus

Thanks to my friend Cory at Neuscapes, we now have a reliable basis for irrigation in the garden. It's time to set up separate irrigation zones, and also to figure out watering frequency and duration given the kind of drainage the soil has.

We've also started addressing the soil fertility issue, planting green manures in the beds. The green manures will grow into the spring, at which time we'll cut them and plow them back into the soil. We're also working on horse manure compost.

We're already looking at what we want to feature in next year's garden, what's new that we want to try, and what we can't live without. Time to review seed catalogs and get ready for seed-starting early in 2013!

Product Managers on the Road, Hollywood Edition

I recently had to make an emergency visit to a customer in Los Angeles. They were having some messaging problems and we decided that it would be best to observe the issues first-hand so that we could resolve them. Here, in short form, are my highlights from this one-day trip.

  • It's 4 AM and I'm getting up so I can leave at 4:45 AM for the airport… Why do Product Managers always get the sucky travel assignments?
  • 4:45 AM: "Hi I'm Josh, I'll be your driver." Thanks Josh. Don't think I'm rude as I try to get a little sleep on the way to San Jose airport.
  • In the security line. Some people carry an awful lot of gadgets with them.
  • The one redeeming virtue of traveling out of SJC this early is that I get to go to the Illy Espressamente coffee bar. My body needs that cup of coffee, even if it is decaffeinated (don't ask me how that works).
  • At 6:20 AM passengers are getting anxious, as the flight leaves in 15 minutes and there have been no boarding announcements. The Southwest gate agent comes on and announces that, as there are only 20 people on the flight, we will be boarding en masse. Looks like paying for that "go to the front of the line" privilege wasn't such a great idea.
  • We arrive at the customer's site a little before 8 AM. Perfect! Except that the receptionist isn't in yet, the company contact we thought we were meeting took the day off, and most of the people we want to meet will be in an all-morning meeting starting at 9 AM.
  • It's now about 4 PM and we need to get to Burbank airport. On my way out the door I see a sign above a printer: "This printer is named Bob Marley, because it's always jammin'!"
  • Now to find a taxi. News flash: this is LA, home of "if you don't have a car, you don't deserve to be here." Luckily, we're a short walk from Hollywood and Vine, and where there are tourists there will be taxis.
  • Our cabbie swears off taking the freeway to the airport (he can't be from around here)… Turns out, he knows what he's talking about: we get to the airport in half the time it took to go the other direction this morning.
  • Our cabbie likes to talk. A lot. We don't mind, because he seems to know where he's going (unlike cabbies in DC). And he punctuates stories he's particularly proud of by giving me a thumbs-up in the rear-view mirror. OK!
  • Among other topics of conversation in our cab:
    • His solution for handling Chinese drivers
    • What it takes to sell jewelry
    • Why he doesn't allow passengers to have sex in his cab
    • The joke about the white guy, the Jew and the Armenian
  • And—naturally—he's an agent for a singer. Check her out here.

Product Management may be many things, but "dull" is never one of them!

Hot Tip: A Discontinuity in...

... the Toaster market.

This has been bugging me for a while, which should tell you all you need to know about my bizarre mind:  what's up with electric toasters?  As I popped the bread out of our toaster this morning, I realized that I've been putting up with its state of non-functionality for maybe three years now.  To be honest, I'm just happy it doesn't catch on fire while toasting my English muffins.

We have one of those low-priced toasters (I won't mention which one, but it's on the chart below).  All we ask is that it toast the bread adequately, pop it up when it's done, and not catch on fire in the process.  You might say we've set the bar rather low in the requirements department.  Heck, we were delighted that it had a "bagel mode".

Of course, within about a year of buying the toaster, the dial that controls how light or dark you want your toast stopped working.  You can set it to whatever  you like, but the toaster will toast your bread to whatever level it deems appropriate.  It's kind of French that way: "No, monsieur, I will bring your croque-monsieur like so."

Fast forward to today.  I was on a culinary parts website, ordering replacement parts for our Cuisinart food processor.  Once I finished up my ordering, I thought I'd see what they had to offer for toasters.  I searched for two-slice toasters.  I didn't get any fancier than that--four-slice models just encourage overnight guests, and we haven't had a toaster oven since we got married.  What I found is in the chart below.

Toaster Prices

What you see is that there are a number of manufacturers and models to choose from in the sub-$50 price range.  And there a couple of choices in the (incredible) $250 price range. (Side note: are the super-expensive ones really that good? Or should I just buy five of the cheap models and replace one every year?)

But, except for one Krups model, there is nothing in between the $50 and $250 price points!  Clearly there's a gap in the market here, ready to be exploited by some socially-networked, ad-supported, iPad-enabled product.  I'm calling on entrepreneurs everywhere to address this gap in the market.  Take my idea and run with it, I ask for nothing in return... except for a working toaster. Or five.