The Underground Culinary Tour is out today!

A book I recently co-authored is out today in all bookstores. It's a book about the numbers and cutting-edge trends in the restaurant industry. Think Moneyball—only for foodies. 

It’s a book that pulls together some topics I’ve covered in the past in my journalistic work such as math, science, and statistics—combined with a delicious helping of food writing.

Entrepreneur Damian Mogavero created the software that makes restaurants tick. He counts among his clients some of the world's greatest chefs. People like Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongrichten, Wolfgang Puck, Tom Clicchio, Giada DeLaurentiis, and countless others. In this book, we take readers inside the kitchens and dining palaces to show us how data and statistics are helping restaurants stay profitable and are changing the way we eat.

From our publisher, Crown/Random House:

In the bestselling vein of Moneyball comes an entertaining, behind-the-scenes narrative about how the restaurant business is being transformed by the use of data, in an industry historically run by gut and intuition. From celebrity-run restaurants to today’s cutting-edge culinary trendsetters, The Underground Culinary Tour looks at how the use of data is revolutionizing how restaurants are run, from hiring chefs and training staff to pioneering new recipes, reengineering menus, and transforming the dining experience from the inside out, so that no restaurant is out of anything you want, ever.

If you know anyone who works in the restaurant industry, they need to read this book to catch a glimpse of the future. And if you love food, cook at home, dine out often, can't resist snapping photos of the food on your plate, and enjoy game-changing books by Malcolm Gladwell or Michael Lewis, you maybe ought to check it out.

The Underground Culinary Tour is available at all the usual book venues—online or otherwise. If you want a copy signed by me, order via Malaprops, my local bookstore. Link below. 

ORDER THE UNDERGROUND CULINARY TOUR

My Unpublished Interview with Astronomer Vera Rubin

 

In 1999, I wrote an article for Discover magazine about Ralph Alpher, one of a trio of scientists responsible for conceiving the Big Bang Theory. During the course of reporting that article,* I had occasion to interview Vera Rubin, the celebrated dark matter astronomer who died at the age of 88 on December 25, 2016. Articles (like these here and here and here) covering her passing noted that she ought to have received the Nobel Prize but never did, no doubt because she was a woman working in a field at a time when men dominated.

As it happens, my interview with Dr. Rubin touched on the painful topic of those who deserve but do not win Nobels. We were talking not about her work per se, but about Alpher and other male colleagues of hers. Her comments were insightful but I didn’t have room in the final story to share everything she told me. I’m releasing the brief transcript now because I think they shed light on Rubin's thinking on the matter, and because she and the three cosmologists at the center of the Big Bang story are no longer with us. (Gamow died in 1968, Herman in 1997, and Alpher in 2007.)

Back in the 1940s, along with his thesis advisor, George Gamow, Ralph Alpher wrote the first paper on the origin of elements in the universe. Later, he wrote a second paper with his colleague Robert Herman that theorized that the radiation of that first bang should still be bathing the universe. The men actually predicted how that 14 billion-year-old relic—called cosmic background radiation—could be found. At the time, radio astronomy was in its infancy and Alpher and Herman could not find scientists willing to gamble on their idea. But in the 1960s, they were proved right when a team at Princeton found proof of the Big Bang in exactly the way Apher and Herman had predicted.

The Princeton team received the Nobel Prize in 1978 for their work, yet the work of the earlier scientists was seemingly ignored. To make matters worse, later books and academic journal articles perpetuated the error by either incorrectly attributing Gamow, Alpher and Herman’s work, or ignoring it entirely. By then Gamow had died, but Alpher and Herman, who had left academic for industry during much of the ensuing years, devoted nearly 30 years of their lives trying to set the record straight.

Here’s what Dr. Rubin told me about how that miscarriage of scientific justice impacted the lives of the two men she called friends.


How were they affected by the whole thing?

I don’t think either of them put it behind them. It was a major factor in their lives. I think they both felt that they had been unfairly treated by the entire field. [My husband mathematician-physicist] Bob [Rubin] and I used to tell Bob Herman that we really thought they should just forget about it.

The fact that neither one of them were doing a lot of cosmology or astronomy really meant that their work just wasn’t in the forefront of astronomy. One way people learn about what you’re doing is by your continuing to do it. Your current work is always kind of a reference to your past work. But in their case, they both went off and did something very different, so there was no one to bring their early work to the attention of the community except them themselves. It was just an unfortunate circumstance, I guess.

But I think it bothered [and] continues to bother Ralph. I think it bothered Bob [Herman] too. There were constantly books written about the history that they didn’t think was correct, and they continued to write authors to make corrections. That’s probably what they should have done, but it meant it wouldn’t be something they could really put behind them. So I think these things were always continually being in the forefront. It’s been 33, 34 years.

 

Dr. Alpher says he’s writing a book to set the record straight once and for all.

I suspect that it will be a very bitter book. He and Bob Herman are very, very dear to us and it was a horrible injustice, but I don’t know what you do in such a circumstance. It would have been nice if he had had a happier life. They could have known that they did something very, very valuable and they could have been happy with this. I think perhaps injustices are in the eye of the beholder, unfortunately. But they were still the first people to do it and they did get a wide variety of enormously prestigious awards. Perhaps they could have asked themselves the alternative. It could have not been discovered during their lifetime. Wouldn’t that have maybe been worse? There’s no doubt that they could have been and should have been treated nicer by the community. They really do have a legitimate complaint. But they could have responded a little differently.

I think the truth is that in science, when I was very young a very wise man said to me, “In science most of your satisfactions have to be internal ones.” I think that that in a sense is correct; you have to be happy. They should have been exuberant with the work that they did. It was rediscovered. It was great. They had not gotten the recognition they deserved, but if their personalities had been different they could have been happy with the knowledge of this great thing they had figured out. And they perhaps could have even been treated better by the community if they had not just been so obviously angry.

I think they are remarkable, wonderful people, and they did something that was wonderful. It would have been very nice if that could have been such a joy that they could have embraced the community and which in turn might have embraced them. But none of that happened. 

They never forgot it, in ways that I can’t even repeat. But they could tell you who said something a little bit better and who said something a little bit worse. Sentences were examined in a way that I think the poor authors never intended them to be.

Bob [Herman] and Ralph have been very dear friends for a long time. With Bob [Herman] I or my husband have actually said, “Why don’t you, you know, talk him out of going on with this?” It never worked. It really affected them.

I don’t know if the Nobel Prize complicated things. If Penzias and Wilson had not gotten the Nobel Prize… But there too, and now I will say some things that are truly awful but this is how the establishment behaves. Someone has to nominate you for the Nobel Prize.

 

I didn’t know that.

Yes, yes, yes. [Nobel Prize-winning chemist] Harold Urey used to brag—I knew him and he used to brag that that 11 of the people he’d nominated had gotten Nobel Prizes. If you’re outside the establishment, you stand a much poorer chance of having these good things happen to you. If they really had not left the academic world, things may have been different. I really think there lies the explanation. Their lives might have been very different if they had remained in the academic world.


* The article is collected in my book, The Scientist and the Sociopath.

Advent Ghosts 2016

Today I’m participating in the 100-word #adventghosts2016 flash fiction event run by writer Loren Eaton. You'll find links to all the stories at his blog, I Saw Lightning Fall. Here’s my piece.

Christmas Eve at the Tree Farm, Candler, North Carolina

Every year this night I wait for her, bed down in our fields with my fleece, my flask, my fire, my gun.

Takes twelve years to grow a Fraser to a size you can sell. Takes that long to raise three children right, but only one to lose a wife.

Midnight she picks her footless path through the snow. Nothing but mist pulled together into the shape I once knew.

My heart speaks: I love thee, I love thee, I love thee.

She turns amid the firs with a look only the dead can wear, and whispers, Who are you?

Copyright 2016 Joseph D’Agnese

My previous contributions to the Advent Ghosts events are here.

Pre-order my next book, The Underground Culinary Tour

I recently co-authored a book about the numbers and cutting-edge trends in the restaurant industry. Think Moneyball—only for foodies. 

It’s a book that pulls together some topics I’ve covered in the past in my journalistic work such as math, science, and statistics—combined with a delicious helping of food writing.

Entrepreneur Damian Mogavero created the software that makes restaurants tick. He counts among his clients some of the world's greatest chefs. People like Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongrichten, Wolfgang Puck, Tom Clicchio, Giada DeLaurentiis, and countless others. In this book, we take readers inside the kitchens and dining palaces to show us how data and statistics are helping restaurants stay profitable and are changing the way we eat.

From our publisher, Crown/Random House:

In the bestselling vein of Moneyball comes an entertaining, behind-the-scenes narrative about how the restaurant business is being transformed by the use of data, in an industry historically run by gut and intuition. From celebrity-run restaurants to today’s cutting-edge culinary trendsetters, The Underground Culinary Tour looks at how the use of data is revolutionizing how restaurants are run, from hiring chefs and training staff to pioneering new recipes, reengineering menus, and transforming the dining experience from the inside out, so that no restaurant is out of anything you want, ever.

If you know anyone who works in the restaurant industry, they need to read this book to catch a glimpse of the future. And if you love food, cook at home, dine out often, can't resist snapping photos of the food on your plate, and enjoy game-changing books by Malcolm Gladwell or Michael Lewis, you maybe ought to check it out.

The Underground Culinary Tour pubs January 24, 2017, but a few stores are accepting pre-orders now. My local bookstore put up a special link, which you'll find below. 

PRE-ORDER THE UNDERGROUND CULINARY TOUR

My New Obsession: Fancy Notebooks

From top, left to right: Field Notes Byline Reporter's Notebook, Leuchtturm 1917 Jottbook, Clairefontaine, Apica CD Notebook, Life Notebook, Rhodia Meeting Book, Nanami Paper's A5 The Writer Notebook, Midori MD Notebook, and the Maruman Mnemosyne 196 A5 Notebook.

From top, left to right: Field Notes Byline Reporter's Notebook, Leuchtturm 1917 Jottbook, Clairefontaine, Apica CD Notebook, Life Notebook, Rhodia Meeting Book, Nanami Paper's A5 The Writer Notebook, Midori MD Notebook, and the Maruman Mnemosyne 196 A5 Notebook.

Back in the day, I took tai chi classes from an older instructor, or sifu, in Hoboken, New Jersey, who, among other things, also gave me a short course on firearms. He invited me and my then-girlfriend out to his house in the country, where we spent time shooting all kinds of handgun and rifles at targets.

Once I happened to mention that I had bought a fountain pen. He was immediately intrigued, and showed me that he carried one every day. He preferred them over all other writing instruments. "If you have even one," he said, "you should write with it every day."

Well, I didn't. I tried, I really did. But I found that pen to be too fussy to be an everyday writing tool. Eventually the nib of the pen would stop writing and I'd try to get it to start up again. It worked for a little while, then stopped. I was forever setting it aside in favor of a handy ballpoint, and the ink would proceed to dry in the fountain pen and need to be cleaned out laboriously at a later date. Disgusted, I'd move on, leaving the ink blotches and ink-stained fingers behind me. A year or so later, I'd buy a new fountain pen, get fired up to use it, and I'd have the same crappy experience.

Hence my love/hate relationship with fountain pens.

Not long ago, I was telling another friend why I'd given up on the lovely pens I'd bought over the years. (This guy was not a tai chi instructor, just an ordinary pen geek.) He said, "Well, what kind of paper are you using to write on?"

That blew my mind. Turns out paper quality strongly impacts fountain pen use. If the paper's crappy, the fountain pen tears it up as it writes, and the paper fibers clog the pen nib. Or the paper just gets soaked with the ink and bleeds through. And in some rare cases, the pen nib just needs to be tuned up by someone who knows what the hell they're doing.

Which led me to research better quality paper and notebooks. I figure I could spring for this kind of luxury since it's ostensibly related to my profession. I'm currently writing my way through a lot of different notebooks. Suffice to say that the paper in these books is smoother and stronger. They don't shred under the pens, and they don't bleed. In the parlance of stationery geekdom, these notebooks are "fountain pen friendly." Well, wouldn't you know, these old pens of mine are behaving like totally different instruments. It's amazing.

I'll share more about this development soon enough, but the current batch of notebooks are shown above. Most are destined to be the daily notebook I keep on my desk. Some are already dedicated to one specific project or client. Most are A5-sized notebooks, which is the size I like best for my desk and which is roughly 6 X 8.25 inches in size. I've bought them variously at Amazon, Nanami Paper, and Goulet Pens. More on the latter two indie businesses one of these days.

 

 

New Bookplates for My Fibonacci Book!

Two different styles...

Two different styles...

A friend recently returned from a trip to Tampa-St. Pete with the news that my Fibonacci book was being sold in the gift shop of the Salvador Dali Museum. I confess I had to research the venue, since I was unaware that the flamboyant surrealist had anything to do with Florida.

Turns out his work was eagerly collected by a pair of philanthropists who launched the museum in their home state of Ohio in 1971. The collection, which contains the largest grouping of Dali’s work outside Europe, moved to St. Pete in 1982. It took me a while to grasp that the gift shop was carrying my book because of its association with the so-called golden ratio, which Dali supposedly used in his work.

Shops like this are known as special-sales venues in the traditional book business. They sell books, but they’re not bookstores. And that’s usually a good thing for authors because within those four walls competition from other books is limited, and gift shop buyers have an almost moral imperative to buy something.

I wrote the gift shop asking them if they were interested in signed bookplates. They said they could use all I could send. The book apparently does well there.

Thing was, I didn’t have any bookplates. I’d tried to design some via Vistaprint a few years ago, but their template and online designer was too complicated for my limited skills. The one on Moo.com worked really well, and I was ordering not one design, but two, in less than hour.

The order took a few weeks to get here. (All print jobs take forever unless you spring for rush shipping.) The resulting bookplates are pretty nice. The image of the book cover is reproduced crisply, and the paper is suitably sticky.

The only cons: I was expecting stickers about the size of those “Hi, My Name Is…” stickers, but at 3.30-by-2.15 inches, these are just slightly larger than a business card. I foolishly didn’t use a ruler to check the size before I ordered, so that’s on me, not that it would have mattered much. These are the only rectangular sized stickers Moo offers, so if I wanted to use their design engine, this size came with the territory.

Because of their size, I thought about signing my name with a Sakura Pigma Micron, which has a very fine tip. But the stickers’ waxy coating wouldn’t take the ink. So I went with a plain ol’ Sharpie instead. I think the results are pretty nice, but I prefer the horizontal design over the vertical.

Would I order these again? If I can figure out how to work with Vistaprint, probably not. I’m probably still unreasonably attached to creating a 4-by-3-inch sticker. But these designs are saved now to my Moo account, so it would be ridiculously easy to order more if the Dali Museum—or any other venue—wanted some more. And the price is $17 per 50, even less if I were to order in bulk. It’s hard to argue with the easy thing.

I may get some just to carry with my business cards. I have noticed that whenever Denise hands out bookplates to strangers, they seem genuinely excited. Bookplates drive action in a way bookmarks never can. Armed with a signed plate, you have a collectible in the making. All you need to do is buy that darn book.