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Two new stamps

I was taking a taxi to the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), and the radio was playing sounds from the 70’s.  As the taxi driver (a 20-somthing) is jamming along to songs by America and the Doobie brothers, it got me to thinking.  I’m pretty sure, that in 1974, I could not have imagined that I would be in Singapore, 40 years later, listening to this music.  After all, Singapore is just a place on my school globe that I land on spinning it.

But, I’ve jumped into the middle of the story.

This is my first trip to India.  It’s never been on my radar screen as a destination.  Lorie broke the ice last year, and then I got involved in a multi-society effort to put on a show about the future of energy, and cyber-enabled energy distribution; something that I’ve become quite passionate about.  In for a penny, in for a pound, I created a series of panel sessions on Smart Living, one of our campus signature areas.  Now, how to populate sessions with 12 speakers, most of whom must be from India (where I don’t know anyone).  Fortunately, with a lot of help from my friends, some North American colleagues who don’t mind a 96 hour round trip, and the on-the-ground organizing committee, we put together some killer sessions.  Ah, but wait, does everyone share this vision, how to execute it, and, all of a sudden, I wrote to Lorie, “I think I’m going to India”  “That’s OK,” she responded, “I”m going too”.  “Excellent, let’s meet up”  And so, we were to overlap and go see the Taj Mahal,  and experience a bit of Mumbai together.

Alas, things are “agile” and I find myself with some days to kill in Mumbai, alone.   The first morning, this is the city, Mumbai.DSC04201

Undaunted, I hire a driver and we set out.  As everyone says, the traffic is crazy, there’s an unbelievable disparity between rich and poor with crumbling slums next to a 27 story house (no, that’s not a typo).  So, rather than focusing on this, I do what I always do, learn about the culture through its food.

At first glance, Indian food can be written off as brown glop, green glop, and maybe some red glop.  Alas, this is the steam table version of India – no cuisine shines there.  As you can see below, giant prawns done in a tandoori, served via french service, accompanied by Indian Sauvignon Blanc.  Clearly, this is not what everyone eats, but it’s a start.

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I’d invited my driver in, but he was quick to point out, “I have my tiffin.”  I didn’t press the point, and most likely he was happier to hang with his fellow drivers.  Still, the tab bothered me, $75 USD for a 4 course lunch with wine, probably more than he made in a week, or a month (the average yearly wage in India is $600).

IMG_0570Back to the hotel for day of rest before heading to Singapore, and rejoining our story.  Legroom, of course, always has to make the top ten pictures, and the exit row seat in the tail of an A380 was quite a pleasure.

Day 3, landing in Singapore was quite a sudden change from Mumbai, there was a distinct scent in the air, yes, it’s money. Singapore is really a giant financial district, with food from a multitude of cultures.  I had the most amazing Cantonese food ever, in the hotel of all places, an absolutely over-the-top foie-gras and poached duck foot in a luxurious sauce that reminder me of the french laundry in Napa.  IMG_0560

After a couple of very productive days at SUTD working on security attacks against power systems, I went along with the center director to a “big data summit”, put on by policy folks.  I was pretty much of an interloper, but did get invited to the executive lunch.  A four course banquet meal at lunch?  Ok.  With wine?  Maybe not, there’s still the entire afternoon, plus it’s probably hotel wine, you know, generic swill where the merlot is the best choice.  IMG_0563So, the wine sat, staring at me, finally, I could not resist a sip.

OMG, I asked to see the bottle.  Who serves wine like this, at a banquet, at lunch?  The date is obscured, but it’s a 1983 Grand Cru.  Anyway, one of the most amazing wine experiences ever.

After getting back out of this fantasy world, the workday was done and I did a bit of touring.  It’s the new year, the year of the goat, so the following little fellows in their climatron, were pretty funny.

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Day 6, back to Mumbai and the conference.    I was really heartened to see the traction the idea of “smart living” immediately got in a world-wide forum.  IMG_0578What makes this picture particularly interesting, was that the presenter is the VP of one of the largest construction companies in India, and he’s looking to build with an eye towards socio-technical aspects.

What happened next, though, was really something amazing. We had three speakers in a cross-cutting panel whose talks spanned a continuum of smart and green technology from the industrialized world to small scale agriculture.  Charles Despins of the IEEE Green ICT initiative discussed efforts to migrate data center tasks to geographic regions based on the current location of renewable intermittent energy sources.  Robin Podmore of IEEE’s smart village took the story of energy availability to the small towns, emphasizing the contribution of small renewable powered batteries and the significant impact even one light bulb can make in a household, and how having charging for cell phones keeps people informed.  Sumeet Srivastava of Monsanto carried small-scale energy and cell phone usage directly to the farmer,  describing a system that gives farmers immediate pricing to help them take their crops to market for better profits.  We talk about getting technology to people, but this, in my mind, really closed the gap – there was a tangible societal benefit to deploying technology, and this panel set the stage for the smart living track, showing how technology really is driven by societal needs.  Could this be a hook to open our STEM pipeline?

Day 8, the conference ended on a high note.  By this time I was ready to explore some more and enticed several of the IEEE staff to join the adventure.  So, 7:30 PM Saturday night, we’re bouncing along the roads to south Mumbai.  My goal, street food – the dire warning from everyone – do not do this!  But, why not?  We started with cocktails for 5 at the Taj Hotel, then wandering the back streets until we found Bade Miyan. IMG_2313

Of course, our driver had anticipated this and was waiting for us.  Americans are so predicable.  How did we find it? We “hired” a woman who was begging outside the Taj to lead us around the crowded streets.  This ended up being a story unto itself, when I tried to give her some money, she led us to a grocery store.  This played out in almost an amusing sort of way – clearly this was a set-up, but one of our party went in anyway, and entered into a long protracted negotiation on rice and condensed milk.  The prices were ridiculously high (special prices for tourists), but hopefully, by the end of it, everyone got something.   Still, we were clearly the only tourists on this balmy Saturday night.  This is definitely a stand-up affair, but, we got the royal treatment.

IMG_2317By royal treatment, I mean that they brought some chairs for us. This is a hand-formed, charcoal grilled, Kebab place.  From left to right are Veg, Lamb, and Chicken.  I have to comment on the flavors, they were very spicy, but the spice was integrated into the flavors of the meats to create almost an alchemy.  I’ve never quite tasted anything like it.

I had wanted to continue to the Mohammad Ali market, but through miscommunication, it was closed (only open late during Ramadan).  Another time, perhaps.  On the way back, we passed large-scale wedding after wedding, some taking up the space of entire American football fields, with bright lights, colors, music, and people dancing into the night.

Day 9, time for another high-end meal, this time in the hotel.  Alone, again, I ordered a selection of Veg and non-veg asking the waitstaff for selection on particular breads.  Many concerned comments: “Are you sure you don’t want both the meat with the veg, otherwise you’ll just have veg”  Egad, what kind of impression do Americans give? Don’t answer that.  This is clearly a peasant dish, but some of the most magical scents that I’ve really even experienced,  a simple dish of

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fenugreek and scallions in butter.  Suspicion gave way to interest.  By the end of the evening, I’d been visited by most of the wait and kitchen staff seemly wanting to know more about this American who took a real interest in their food.

2:30 AM, wheels up, next stop Paris, Detroit, then home.  Thoughts, conclusions, they’ve been expressed by so many.  Yes, I’m an interloper, poking my head into a culture, then retreating to a five-star hotel, as I so often do.  For a different view, Paul Theroux’s Great Railway Bazaar gives a very different view of the interloper.

I still spin that globe from my childhood,

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The Pimm’s cup

Work while on sabbatical has been productive; given the time difference, I can get an entire day in before most people in the states have started, leaving me an entire other day to do things here.  I’m not sure why this doesn’t work at home, but I’ll take advantage of it now.   The hardest part has been student meetings which are inherently face to face.

Work aside, we’ve been living more like locals.  Teatime in the afternoon, cheeses, biscuits, lavender cookies, and of course, loose leaf tea, and sometimes wine.  Intermix this with the occasional pub afternoon and you have a picture of a life of leisure in the big city.  Well, a life on sabbatical, anyway.

Pubs in central London, when you get away from the tourists, are business places of sort.  In the financial district, we mingled with the local financial wizards at the New Moon in Leadenhall market (where the Leaky Cauldron of Harry Potter fame is).  Great beer, “Old Speckled Hen”, with the best fish and chips I’d ever seen, along with picking at a “pig platter” of various sausages, deep fried pork belly, and  Scotch Egg ( this is a deep fried hard boiled egg – the Scottish do love their deep fryers).

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Beer is ordered simply, go to the bar, select from 20 different kinds and the transaction goes quite smoothly.  Until, that is, someone decides to order a Pimm’s cup – apparently the national summer drink here.  But a Pimm’s cup in a bar grinds everything to a halt and produces raised eyebrows from the bartender.

Let me explain the Pimms’ cup.  A glass of ice, layered carefully with strawberries, lemons and limes and cucumber artfully arranged with maybe a cherry and some mint leaves.  Pour in Pimm’s (it’s gin-based liquor) and then top with sparkling water.  Time to create?  5 minutes.  In a busy pub, an eternity.

Thursday night we went to the PROM (OK, this is actually a concert series put on by the BBC).  Among other pieces, we heard a fantastic rendition of La Mer, at the Royal Albert Hall.  We took the bus from our apartment, arriving in plenty of time to get seated, but there’s always that temptation to run and get a quick cocktail before the show.  A long line, but moving quickly, until the man in front of me orders, you guessed it, two Pimm’s cups.  Our #3 gin and tonics went quickly; the clock is ticking 2 minutes, 1 minute, dash through the door where Lorie is seated, and the conductor walks on stage.

Royal Albert Hall Panorama

Just around the corner from us is a small faux French Bistro, Foxtrot Oscar, a Gordon Ramsay outpost.  It’s more of a neighborhood joint and we were most certainly the only Americans there.  Foxtrot Oscar are the call signs for the letters FO.  FO?  Hmm, what does that mean?  Oh, putting it together, Gordon Ramsay, FO, == F*** Off.  Sigh.

Celebrity chefs.  Yes, I see that Gordon Ramsay is an identifiable name.  As his mentor, Marco Pierre White was once quoted “if the chef is on TV, who’s cooking your food?”  So I take it as more of a level of standard, than an actual cuisine.  Still, there are definitely Scottish influences in the menu, Loch Duart Salmon with fresh English pea mash.  The peas were really wonderful, I missed out on my English pea fix this year due to laziness in planting the garden; I’ve been indulging here.  Of course, in a relaxed setting I ordered, a Pimm’s cup.  Very pretty, quite sweet, now where’s my martini?

Salmon with English Peas
Salmon with English Peas

Friday night we went to Gordon Ramsay’s flagship restaurant (which is walking distance for us).  It’s really Clare Smythe’s show, a star chef with an excellent staff.  For starters, “would you like some Grand Cru Krug? “ “Why certainly, yes we would.”  A whole flotilla of amuses came out included, scotch quail egg (there’s still some Ramsay left in the menu).  Truly the best foie gras terrine I’ve ever had with perfectly matched wine.   A wonderful roast pigeon dish.   I wonder if they ran them down in Trafalgar square?  Best not to think about it.

The Maitre ’d, a large personality, identified himself as from Dijon, where of course we spill the beans that we’re spending 6 weeks there.  “Ah, you must speak French then” and began to converse entirely in French for the rest of the evening. My mind wasn’t quite ready for this, after all, this is an English restaurant, but we began to muster our language abilities.  Lorie is quick with a response through months of French practice as Aliance Francaise.  For me, it’s like shuffling through a Rolodex to formulate sentences, “clunk clunk clunk”.  I thought about telling him that “monsieur, c’est un restaurant anglais” but that’s the sort of thing that can turn a great restaurant experience into an off restaurant experience.  Instead, “ce poisson cuisine perfect” in a good Midwestern accent came out.  If you put this last phrase into google translate, you’ll see how awful I sound.  But, By the end of the evening he invited us back into the kitchen, as always, the effort in language is appreciated.   It was very elegant for Lorie and me, walking home together from a Michelin star restaurant – really felt like the city.

Saturday night we went to the theater district to see a Noel Coward play set in the 20s.  A romping farce staring Anna Chancellor (she played the vice president in Hitchhikers guide and Duckface in Four Weddings and a Funeral) and Toby Stephens.   That last name didn’t strike home, but when I saw him on stage, I’m thinking “where have I seen him before?”  Turns out he played the villain in a Bond movie.  Who’d have thought?

Theaters in London have a really great practice, you can pre-order your intermission cocktails and they’re waiting for you.  At intermission, Lorie took off for the bar and I took off for the bar, just different bars on different floors.  In keeping with the comedy of the stage performance I ran around with two glasses and a split of champagne looking for her.  We met up after a bit, but it was a really goofy moment.  I did notice that the lines at the bar were quite long; a lot of people waiting for … Pimm’s cups.

Sunday it was Downton Abbey and Stonehenge, but that will wait for another chapter.

Bruce McMillin, Chelsea, London, August 2013

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Packing for 3 Months

Having just returned from 12 days in Asia with just a roll-a-board, it seemed that packing for the sabbatical would be easy. Just add a few more things. But, wait, I probably need a few more shirts and a couple more pair of pants. But what if I eat too much – Alka Seltzer would be nice to reach for in the middle of the night. And bandaids – might cut myself, cold medicine, Tums… aw heck, how about a complete duplicate of our entire medicine chest? Yes, I know they have variants of all these, there, but …

Then there’s also the notion of packing for 3 seasons, summer, fall, and winter, sometimes all in the same week. Fine dining, picnicking, bistros, professional talks all require different clothes. Different shoes (well that’s Lorie), tripods, extra parts for electronics, flavored coffee creamer (it’s darn hard to find in Europe, they probably think we’re weird or something), a truffle shaver and an oyster knife (essentials!) all go in. And of course, the cat wants to help.

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Let’s see then, the luggage scale Heather and Hannah got us is extremely useful; United allows 70# luggage for free, Air France, 70# with baggage fees, SAS, nothing over 50# (darn Scandinavians), And then there’s rolling two 70# bags, two 40# roll-a-boards, and two backpacks up and down train platforms. Needless to say, some things are staying behind. But not the truffle shaver!

More from the road on the luggage adventure, particularly after visiting Dehillerin in Paris for copper cookware.

Bruce McMillin, Rolla MO, Août 2013 – 7 days to go

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To write the perfect sentence

This will be my second sabbatical at S&T in 25 years. The first was in NY back in the 90s and I stayed at one place. Now, it’s time to travel and meet people, get different perspectives on research, particularly in security of cyber-physical systems, make contacts, initiate joint work, and coalesce this into the written word. The Hemingwayesque theme reflects this and I hope to be inspired by writing in cafes, in our house in Burgundy, working in Gjovik, and working in Auckland. My darling wife, Lorie and I will be traveling together for the next 4 months. I expect she will blog about churches, fiords, perfume, and many other things. I may blog about work, but, for those of you that know me, comments about wine and food are not unexpected.

But, for now, off to Japan and Taiwan for the IEEE 2014 COMPSAC conference. I seem to have landed the position of Steering Committee chair for this long-running major IEEE forum. I look forward to working with a talented group of people. I have some pretty big shoes to fill in this role, following in the footsteps of Stephen Yau and Carl Chang.

Signing off as Mark Twain did..

Bruce McMillin, Rolla MO, July 2013