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Einstein, wine quality and a great San Francisco day



After 1918, when the General Theory of Relativity made headlines all over the world, and Albert Einstein was the most famous scientist in history, the theory became the basis, in the popular mind, for a singular misconception.

“The phrase ‘everything is relative’ became very popular. It was thought to mean that nothing is better than anything else,” writes Robert Cwiklik, in his little volume, Albert Einstein and the Theory of Relativity.

Under this misunderstanding of what the theory actually meant, people assumed that no opinion, idea, style or solution to any problem was better than any other. This certainly had nothing to do with Einstein’s own beliefs—he always stuck to his view of fixed, immutable truths in the Universe, and spent his life, futilely at the end, searching for them. But it did enable the masses to argue that, since everything is relative, one’s own views were as valid as those of any expert.

This strain of thinking has always been nascent in humans—it is the basis of the anti-intellectualism that runs through American history–but it has acquired particular force in the age of the Internet and social media. This is because anyone can, indeed, formulate an opinion and then promulgate it, instantaneously and universally, with the push of a keystroke. This had led to the notion that expertise is no longer valid—is, in fact, elitist—a notion that has particular traction in wine reviewing, which has always been viewed skeptically and even hostilely by certain segments of the public.

However, as Einstein would be the first to aver, this is simply not the case. As one who has repeatedly suggested that people drink what they want, with whatever they want, I defer to no one in my democratic [small “d”] beliefs. But the fact is, there is such a thing as quality in wine. Some wines simply are better than others, and this is always due to two factors: the excellence of the vineyard, and the diligence of the winemaking team.

Have I said anything earthshaking, or that you didn’t know? No. But I’m reading the Einstein book, and that quote led me to these thoughts, which you’re reading now. Of more pertinence, perhaps, to me anyhow, was my day in San Francisco. A picture-postcard day, Spring-like and sunny, with the beauty that S.F. is famous for. Maxine, Keith and I had planned to have oysters at Waterbar during Christmas week, but the flu hit all three of us, hard, and we had to postpone. Marilyn joined us at the last minute, largely because after Waterbar, we planned to walk over to Trou Normand, in the old Pacific Telephone Building,


South of Market. Marilyn worked there, long ago, as a secretary, and wanted to reminisce. Besides, Trou Normand was just chosen as one of Michael Bauer’s top ten new restaurants of 2014, and one of the chefs, Seth, is married to my friend Danielle, who’s the receptionist at Old Crow Tattoo. Trou Normand specializes in charcuterie—who could say no to that, except a vegan?—and, rare for downtown, they’re open all afternoon. So we had our oysters (a dozen each) at beautiful Waterbar, with a bottle of Domaine Chandon L’Etoile (a great wine), then walked over to Trou Normand and gorged on charcuterie and salumi. Here’s a photo essay.


It was clear and blue-skied downtown


The Ferry Building gleamed white


And the water was blue beneath the Bay Bridge


Mr. Gull was relaxing on an old piling


Waterbar looked warm and inviting


with its outdoor area by the bridge


The shellfish beckoned

Then it was off to Trou Normand


Located in a high-ceilinged former lobby of the telephone building


I wanted everything on the menu



Our server was very helpful!

  1. “This had led to the notion that EXPERTISE is no longer valid — is, in fact, elitist . . .”

    Malcolm Gladwell’s book titled “Outliers” forcefully asserts (based on cited social science studies) that expertise comes from 10 years or 10,000 hours of intense study and deliberate practice.

    And Seth Godin in his book titled “The Dip” forcefully asserts that if you can put up with the hardships and privations and postponed gratifications (the so-called “Dip”) during those 10 years or 10,000 hours of study and practice, you will come out on the other side as a world-class talent.

    The questions you have to ask yourself are: Is it worth it? And do you have the “grit” to persist?

    Excerpt from Forbes Magazine Online
    (October 29, 2013):

    “5 Characteristics Of Grit — How Many Do You Have?”


    By Margaret M. Perlis
    “Leadership” Column

    Recently some close friends visited, both of whom have worked in education with adolescents for over 40 years. We were talking about students in general and when I asked what has changed with regards to the character of kids, in unison they said “grit” – or more specifically, lack thereof. There seems to be growing concern among teachers that kids these days are growing soft.

    When I took a deeper dive, I found that what my friends have been observing in-the-field, researchers have been measuring in the lab. The role grit plays in success has become a topic du jour, spearheaded by Angela Duckworth, who was catapulted to the forefront of the field after delivering a TED talk which has since been viewed well over a million times. Additionally, in the last month, Duckworth received a $650,000 MacArthur fellowship, otherwise known as the “Genius Grant,” to continue her work. And, while Duckworth has made tremendous leaps in the field, she stands on the shoulders of giants including William James, K.E Ericson, and Aristotle, who believed tenacity was one of the most valued virtues.

    According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, grit in the context of behavior is defined as “firmness of character; indomitable spirit.” Duckworth, based on her studies, tweaked this definition to be “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” While I recognize that she is the expert, I questioned her modification…in particular the “long-term goals” part. Some of the grittiest people I’ve known lack the luxury to consider the big picture and instead must react to immediate needs. This doesn’t diminish the value of their fortitude, but rather underscores that grit perhaps is more about attitude than an end game.

    But Duckworth’s research is conducted in the context of exceptional performance and success in the traditional sense, so requires it be measured by test scores, degrees, and medals over an extended period of time. Specifically, she explores this question, talent and intelligence/ IQ being equal: why do some individuals accomplish more than others? It is that distinction which allows her the liberty to evolve the definition, but underscores the importance of defining her context.

    . . .

  2. Bob Henry says:

    On developing one’s expertise: it starts with a commitment to lifelong learning.

    Excerpts from The Wall Street Journal “Main News” Section
    (January 17-18, 2015, Page A5):

    “Skills Gap Found in College Students”


    By Douglas Belkin
    Staff Reporter

    Four in 10 U.S. college students graduate without the complex reasoning skills to manage white-collar work, according to the results of a test of nearly 32,000 students.

    The test, administered at 169 colleges and universities in 2013 and 2014 and released Thursday, reveals broad variation in the intellectual development of students depending on the type and even location of the school.

    . . .

    The test . . . assesses things like critical thinking, analytical reasoning, document literacy, writing and communication—essentially mimicking the baseline demands for professionals.

    . . .

    A survey of business owners to be released next week by the American Association of Colleges and Universities also found that nine out of 10 employers judge recent college graduates as poorly prepared for the workforce in such areas as critical thinking, communication and problem solving.

    This dour situation is underscored by grade inflation in college.

    Factoids (articles proffered without links to bypass “moderation”):

    Excerpts from The Wall Street Journal “Opinion” Section
    (December 20, 2001, Page Unknown):

    “To B or Not to B?”

    By Harvey Mansfield

    Harvard is now considering what to do about grade inflation. Having at last awakened to the scandal of giving its students 51% A’s and A-minuses and graduating 91% of them with honors. . . .

    Excerpt from The Boston Globe
    (October 7-8, 2001, Pages Unknown):

    “Matters of Honor:
    Harvard’s Quiet Secret: Rampant Grade Inflation”

    [“Three Story Package”]

    By Patrick Healy
    Staff Reporter

    . . .

    Last June, a record 91 percent of Harvard students graduated summa, magna, or cum laude, far more than at Yale (51 percent), Princeton (44 percent), and other elite universities, a Globe study has found.

    . . .

    “Honors at Harvard has just lost all meaning,” said Henry Rosovsky, a top dean and acting president at Harvard in the 1970s and ’80s. “The bad honors is spoiling the good.”

    . . .

    . . . As at many schools, at Harvard, the A to F grading range has unofficially turned to an A to B-minus range.

    As a result, the university’s current honors requirements make Harvard unique: It inevitably rewards grade inflation with honors.

    “A Harvard graduating class with 91 percent honors is the most impressive indicator of grade inflation I’ve seen in a long time,” said Arthur Levine, president of Columbia University’s Teachers College and an authority on grading. “Rather than singling out who performs best, they’re singling the 9 percent who perform the worst. Harvard has done away with true honors.”

    . . .

    Yet some academic insiders say that when 91 percent of Harvard graduates can claim honors, it becomes more like a reward for good attendance than for excellence.

    . . .

    . . . Today, one-quarter of all honors go to these students who do not earn honors in their major. It requires only a B average overall, and not everyone needs a thesis.

    . . .

    Excerpt from Newsweek “Education” Section
    (March 3, 1997, Page 64):

    “When an A is Average;
    Duke takes on grade inflation”

    By Daniel Pedersen
    Staff Writer

    . . . The average grade in the average course at Duke is now approaching A-minus — and, if anything, rising. When A stands for average, some faculty members are now asking, do grades mean anything at all?

    . . .

    Excerpt from The Wall Street Journal “Weekend Jounal” Section
    (October 27, 2000, Page W17):

    “An Excess of Excellence;
    These days, it seems, all must have prizes.”

    By John Allen Paulos

    . . .

    Average Isn’t Good Enough

    These [examples cited above] are only the most recent manifestations of the infamous Lake Wobegon syndrome, whereby everybody, or almost everybody, is deemed to be above average. . . .

  3. Two concordant views on “elitism.”

    Proffered without links to avoid the posting delay of “moderation.”

    (The full text of these articles can be Googled . . .)

    Excerpts from the Los Angeles Times “Calendar” Section
    (October 7, 2008, Page E5)

    “Goldman Sachs’ survival in Wall Street jungle;
    The corporate philosophy has enabled the financial giant
    to weather turbulence.”

    Book review by J. Bradford DeLong

    [DeLong is a former deputy assistant U.S. Treasury secretary, is a professor of economics at UC Berkeley.]

    “The Partnership:
    The Making of Goldman Sachs”
    By Charles D. Ellis
    (Penguin Press, 752 pages, $37.95)

    For the last two generations, Goldman Sachs has been the rising firm to watch on Wall Street. For at least the last generation, the consensus judgment of those who work in the financial system has been that Goldman Sachs is the “best” large-scale Wall Street firm. . . .

    The saying is that B-grade people hire C-grade people to work for them, and A-grade people hire A-grade people to work for them. The Goldman Sachs mathematics, however, has been that A+-grade people hire A+++-grade people — the best in the world — to work for them. That is many things, but it is not “modesty.”

    — AND —

    Excerpts from The Wall Street Journal “Opinion” Section
    (April 26, 2006, Page A16):

    “Management à la Google”

    By Gary Hamel

    [Hamel is visiting professor at London Business School, and director of the Woodside Institute]

    The ultimate test of any management team is not how fast it can grow its company in the short-term, but how consistently it can grow it over the long-term. . . . In many cases, companies haven’t been changing as fast as the world around them. What the laggards have failed to grasp is that what matters most today is not a company’s competitive advantage at a point in time, but its evolutionary advantage over time. Google gets this.

    . . . its novel management system seems to have been designed to guard against the risk factors that so often erode an organization’s evolutionary potential:

    Evolutionary risk factor # 1: A narrow or orthodox business definition that limits the scope of innovation. Google’s response: An expansive sense of purpose.

    Evolutionary risk factor # 2: A hierarchical organization that over-weights the views of those who have a stake in perpetuating the status quo. Google’s response: An organization that is flat, transparent, and non-hierarchical.

    Evolutionary risk factor # 3: A tendency to overinvest in “what is” at the expense of “what could be.” Google’s response: A company-wide rule that allows developers to devote 20% of their time to any project they choose.

    Evolutionary risk factor # 4: Creeping mediocrity. Google’s response: Keep the bozos out and reward people who make a difference.

    Elitism may be out of fashion, but Google is famously elitist when it comes to hiring. It understands that companies begin to slide into mediocrity when they start to hire mediocre people. A-level people want to work with A-level people. B-level people are threatened by class-A talent. So if you let a B-lister in the door, he or she will hire equally unremarkable colleagues. As the ranks of the mediocre expand, it becomes harder to attract and retain the exceptional. The process of dumbing down becomes irreversible.

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