The End of an Era

This weekend marked the end of an era. Oh sure, Michael Jackson died and that's really too bad. Although I was aware of Michael Jackson throughout my childhood, I didn't really get into him until my senior year in high school. That's when JEB brought in the MJ HIStory album to play while we were announcing for women's lacrosse games. I recall thinking, "OMG, this music is amazing--what a fool I've been not to have enjoyed it for the previous 18 years of my life!"

Yes, the King of Pop has died. And the King of Rock n' Roll has been dead for 30 years. How many more "King of"s will there be before we have to search for new regal titles. The Emperor of Rap? The Arch Duke of Hip Hop? The Sultans of Swing--wait, that's already taken. I also wonder if references to body parts of musical genres are related to those genres' regality. For example, when Huey Lewis sings that "the heart of rock n' roll is still beatin'," is he arguing that Elvis is still alive?

No matter, this is not the end of the era to which this blog post refers. In fact, I am referring to the fact that finally, after almost six months of daily reading, I have finished the IMD MBA Class of 2008 Yearbook! What a labor of love! It is amazing that such a small group of my classmates were able to put together such a high-quality product with such little time and so many distractions (ICP, job search, etc.). It's an outstanding example of crowd-sourcing and of leadership. I've always held that the test of true leadership is when your followers don't have to do what you say. You can't fire them or penalize their salaries. In this case the Yearbook Committee was able to assemble hundreds of articles and pictures through sheer determination and creating a coherent vision that the rest of us bought into. Bravo!

And speaking of the Yearbook Committee, I visited one of its members (everyone's favorite German Engineer) this weekend in Cham, just outside of Zug. He and his wife and 8-month-old son have really set up a good life for themselves out there. We went for a walk along Lake Zug and dined al fresco with fresh pasta and homemade sauce. La dolce vita!

The real treat of course was getting to know their son, who was in utero during my first group with the German Engineer and who arrived during my ICP with him. Their son was very well behaved and showed his father's curiosity combined with his mother's kind expressions. I spend so much of my life focusing on what's wrong (with Poken's business processes, with the world's energy consumption, etc.) that it's just really heart warming to see that, in some parts of the world, good people are starting families and living good lives. Note that I don't mean to imply that they live glutonous lives--quite the contrary given that they focus on recycling and buying local produce--simply good lives. Many thanks to this burgeoning family for being great hosts and I hope all continues to go well for them in an era that does not end!


Mixed Media

Last week marked several milestones for me regarding different forms of media:

1. I finished listening to the entire Jimmy Buffett discography chronologically and am now well prepared for the July 5th concert in London. Speaking of which, I still have an extra ticket for that show if any Parrot Heads are looking to join.

I've made my way through the "K"s and I'm now in Led Zeppelin, having just finished I and II. What a strong start they made onto the music scene!

2. I beat all the Military Madness levels as both the good Allies and as the evil Axis, so I now hold the title of Grand Strategy Pooba--at least by 1989 video game standards! If history is any evidence I probably won't play any video games again for a long time but this was a fun diversion for the last few weeks.

3. I watched The Kite Runner in lieu of reading the book. I'm sure the book was better but most reviews I read indicated that movie was pretty faithful to it. It was interesting--pretty well done.

4. I finished Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, his third in a string of engaging, thought-provoking books. I question some of the causality in the cases he makes but they are interesting nonetheless and I would recommend this book. Reading it gave me pause for thought about the opportunities I have had and especially about the unique high school environment created for us at TJ. Fortune has definitely smiled on me throughout much of my life and I'm not sure I deserve it. All I can do is my best and hope that I live up to the extraordinary opportunities with which I have been blessed.

On another note, things are absolutely crazy at the Poken office these days. We have flown in our new Web interface development team for "war room" style productivity. This has effectively doubled our headcount--but of course we haven't increased our office space at all. Result: high entropy! "Chaos" might be a better word, but it seems to be productive. The new team members are nice and smart and a good addition to our existing uberteam.


Bella Firenze

Lausanne . . . Heidelberg . . . this weekend it was time for me to visit another old European town of a few hundred thousand population: Florence! My favorite Wingman was going to be in Tuscany anyway for a wedding (Not his!) so he came in a few days early, giving us a chance to do things up right.

Cox arrived early Sunday morning and brought perfect weather--the natural precursor to the Perfect Storm--with him. I had originally thought that we would leave immediately for Florence, but flight schedules changed such that we had some time for him to get to know Lausanne. We walked around the old part of the city, nourished ourselves, and listened to Jimmy Buffett throughout the morning.

Then we headed down to Vidy for some beach volley. Cox and I have a long history of playing beach volley together. We've done very well at several tournaments in Houston and Galveston and we've played together in five different countries. What's more important is that we're always Team Having More Fun Than The Other Guys and Sunday was no exception. We played for a full three hours, going 5-1, losing 21-15 to two very strong open players--not bad for two guys who haven't played together since Marseille last July. After a refreshing dip in the lake and hurried showers, we were off to the airport for a quick flight to Florence.

Arriving in Florence around sunset we went to pick up our rental car. When the woman at Avis advised us that she had no reservation for us, Cox pulled out his mobile phone and triumphantly showed here his email confirmation. She had the last laugh, though, when she informed him that she found his rental car reservation in the system . . . for Florence, ALABAMA!!! Thank goodness this was the only task I had given Cox for trip preparation--sheesh, consultants . . .

Fortunately Avis had plenty of cars so we picked up a Fiat 500 and made our way into town to find our hotel. This was easier said than done as Florence's narrow alleyways blocked our GPS satellites and Italy's soccer match meant that many people were partying in the streets, blocking our passage. However, between the GPS, Google Maps on my phone, Cox's great driving, and some blind luck, we circled in on our hotel, the Bernini Palace, which I had booked on hotels.com.

Once we arrived at the hotel, we were thrilled to find that it was located only a block away from the Piazza della Signoria. Furthermore, the hotel itself was really nice. In Italy I've found that hotel ratings rarely correspond with reality but this place was very deserving of its four stelle. Add to that the fact that it's bar/restaurant was named Brunello and we were off to a good start!

After checking in with the office (Just because it's a Sunday night and I'm on vacation is no reason not to be working, of course!) Cox and I headed out to destination number one: Salamanca. Salamanca was one of my favorite bars when I lived in Florence and it has the distinction of being the place where I first tried sangria. If only I had known back then what a profound impact that would have on the subsequent several years of my life!

Salamanca was still great. Cox and I shared some tapas and a pitcher of sangria while I regaled him with stories from my time there. A man at the bar was falling asleep--presumably due to sangria consumption--so the bartender shot him with the water gun. The bartender was either a bad shot or was interested in us because the stream of water went right over the sleeping man and hit Cox. Given the heat, though, and lack of A/C in the bar, Cox didn't seem to mind the cold water. With an early rise the next day and an aggressive wine tasting agenda, we called it a night and were asleep before 2.

Monday we woke up and struck out for Montalcino. After two hours of driving through the beautiful Tuscan countryside, we arrived at our first stop: Valdicava. Valdicava was the quintessential Brunello di Montalcino producer: small, natural, and 100% committed to their wine. The philosophy there is to make do with what nature gives them. No pesticides are used and the soil is not tilled because they believe the herbs and wild plants imbue their flavors to the grapes. Then vinification is very simple. There are two fermentations (separated by a pressing) over seven months but, after that, they basically leave the wine alone in large wooden casks. It seems very Italian to me: simple, natural, and accepting that good things take time--four years of aging for their standard Brunello, five for the riserva. We tasted two vintages of each straight from the barrel. They were still very raw but their potential was clear. Just as clear was the difference a year of aging made between each. Valdicava: I'm a fan.

After a lovely lunch in a villa overlooking the vineyards, we moved on to Casanova di Neri. We received a nice tour of a facility that clearly had a different philosophy. As opposed to Valdicava's 17,000 bottles/year from a small plot of land, Neri produced 200,000 bottles from several vineyards around Montalcino. They also used much more sophisticated technology for vinification. The result: good wines in a modern Brunello style but I preferred Valdicava.

After a long drive to the opposite end of the commune of Montalcino, Castelgiocondo was a huge disappointment. Their PR director had screwed up our reservation so she was able to provide a quick tour but no tasting. She claimed that their grapes were picked by hand but we called her out on the mechanized grape-harvesting equipment we had seen during our drive through the estate. At 1,000,000 bottles per year of production and as part of a large Italian label (Marchesi di Fresobaldi) they were an order of magnitude larger than most Brunello estates. I can't speak to the quality of their wine but, given what we experienced, I'm not a fan of the organization.

The bright side of a short appointment at Castelgiocondo is that it gave us enough time to swing by nearby Castello Banfi, the iconic producer that is responsible for something like 20% of all Brunello production by volume. Banfi is as close to a Napa estate as you will find in Montalcino; it is set up for a high volume of tourists to its beautiful castle estate. They have a large cantina with tasting flights and wines by the glass; we skipped the tour and made our way immediately there.

First off, the 2007 Rosso di Montalcino (sangiovese table wine) was excellent. This could make for an excellent Hassin house wine. Next we tasted the 2004 Brunello di Montalcino against the 2004 single vineyard Brunello di Montalcino Poggio alle Mure. Both were way too young, of course, but they tasted like quintessential Brunello to me. We ended by tasting the 1999 Brunello di Montalcino against the 1999 Brunello di Montalcino Poggio all'Oro Riserva. The basic 1999 Brunello was excellent and was drinking well. I had had this once before at Gargoyles in Boston and I remain a huge fan. The riserva, though, was positively sublime: rich, complex, and with a texture that made me want to carry it around in my mouth for the rest of the day. This was my favorite wine of the trip.

It's amazing that Banfi keeps the quality so high given the millions of bottles they produce each year. Clearly quality and quantity are not mutually exclusive. Although I prefer the philosophy and style of the old boutique vineyards, it is great to know that modern, smart vineyards can produce a great product as well.

Back in Florence we found a restaurant with local fare that set us right for the evening. We then found another old haunt of mine: Art Bar down by the Arno. We bar hopped a little, eventually settling in a pub with very personable bartenders. As is our tradition, much Guinness was consumed. As is our tradition, many shots were taken. When the bartender asked what we wanted for our first shot, I told her "qualcosa interesante," something interesting. She seemed to take that as a challenge and prepared for each of us a "scaldino."

It was a base layer of cointreau with a top layer of sambuca. The sambuca was lit on fire then the drinker was to cover the glass with his hand, snuffing out the flame and creating a crazy suction effect on his palm. Then the shot was taken and the glass was immediately recovered by the drinker's hand. Finally, with a straw poking through his fingers, the drinker breathed in the air trapped in the glass. I still don't quite understand it all but hey, it was weird and cool. After watching the US go ahead of Italy 1-0 in soccer and then lose 3-1, we closed down the bar and called it a night.

Tuesday was nice; we just walked around Florence all day. We began with breakfast at Vivoli, the world famous gelateria. Cox had raspberry; I had dark chocolate and hazelnut. We visted the leather school at Santa Croce, the Duomo, and then walked all the way up to Villa La Pietra, where I used to live. Unfortunately after the hour-long hike uphill we were disappointed to learn that the grounds are now closed without appointment. After 9/11, apparently they tightened security significantly. Oh well, next time! At least the little sandwich shop across the street as still open (and air conditioned!) so we had a nice respite before our trek back down into the city.

We walked through the market and refreshed ourselves with sparkling white wine (that came out of a tap!!!) before heading into the Accademia di Belle Arti to stand before the awe-inspiring David by Michelangelo Buonarotti. He completed it before he was 30--what the heck have I done with my life?? After that we cafe-hopped a bit and just people watched while sipping on local wines before departing for our respective desinations--Cox to the wedding and I back to Lausanne.

It was only a short trip but it was great to spend some time with my good friend in such a wonderful location. Mi manchi, firenze!

Pics are in my facebook album.



Last week was pretty spectacular. Katie was in town for the week so it didn't need much to make it great to begin with. Still, the week "overperformed."

Katie arrived on Sunday and we spent the afternoon walking around the lake in the gorgeous weather. Lausanne in the summer really is paradise: highs in the 70s (F), lows in the 60s, and clear, sunny days. I had to ignore this fact purposefully last year while I was stuck in the IMD dungeons but this year I can take advantage.

Monday was a holiday so we played some beach volleyball and it was fun to play with my favorite coed 2s partner again! After a refreshing, cleansing dip in the lake, we and one of my coworkers went to a lakeside restaurant for nourishment and sangria--what a way to pass the afternoon!

Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday I worked but Friday too was a holiday so Katie and I left Thursday evening for Heidelberg, Germany, where her aunt lives. Heidelberg was great; although we only spent about 36 hours there, I found it to be really charming and certainly worth a return trip.

Heidelberg's most prominent attraction is its castle. As many of you know, I love castles, so I was very excited to check it out. We spent much of the day Friday just walking around the castle grounds, enjoying the lovely day, and scheming about ways to have a castle of our own!

In the evening we met up with Katie's aunt for dinner. We went to a local brewpub where I was delighted to discover that we were right in the middle of Germany's white asparagus season! Naturally we took advantage of this fact in each course and accompanied it with dark, dark German beer.

After dinner we paid a visit to Schwetzingen Castle, a much more modern palace than Heidelberger Schloss, but no less impressive. We arrived too late to walk the expansive grounds so we will just have to return some day.

Saturday we returned to Lausanne and attended an IMD MBA mini-reunion. Well technically it was supposed to be a networking event for the class of 2009. However, so many of my classmates were there that it was difficult to do much more than excitedly catch up with them. I'm not complaining!

Katie took off early on Sunday--far too soon--but it was a great week. Pictures are in my facebook album.