New York/New Jersey Trip: Day 5 (or, Spamalot, coconuts, and not much more)

My plan for the day centered around Spamalot, another item on my reasons to visit New York list. As the show is really popular, the only ticket I could get was for the Wednesday matinee. (Spamalot apparently has inexpensive standing room only tickets for sale the day of the show, complete with little plaques on the floor about where to stand, but even these tickets usually sell promptly bright and early in the morning. I didn't want to risk not going.)

Before the show, I planned to eat at Barney Greengrass, a jewish brunch place on the upper west side that I'd tried and failed to go to when I lived in Manhattan. (It was closed the day I went.) Barney Greengrass, nearly a century old, is a New York institution, a combination retail market and restaurant. It's subtitled "The Sturgeon King" and famous for salmon and (not surprisingly) sturgeon.

I ordered one of its most famous dishes, salmon scrambled with eggs and onions ($13). It was quite good with ample pieces of salmon (not skimping on the salmon as most salmon and egg scrambles seem to do) but was poorly presented, simply thrown onto a white plate with no decorations or sides. It came with a bagel or bialy and I, having eaten a number of bagels recently, ordered the (onion) bialy. Definitely eh. In all, the scramble was good enough to be worth the money, but I'd really expect more attention to the presentation given the $10+ price tag.

I left over an hour to get from the upper west side to the theater district for my show. This was way more than necessary -in fact I could probably walk there in forty minutes-, but it turned out to be a good thing. At the subway station, they announced that there was "an incident" on a southbound train at the 125th St station and all southbound trains were running express until 59th St. That meant the train would skip me, at 86th St. After some confusion -the station operator was confused and kept telling us the trains were running and would stop and we only learned not to listen to her after a few trains went by on the express track- I grabbed a northbound train to 125th and then transferred to a southbound one. I arrived at the Spamalot theater with more than fifteen minutes to spare and was greeted by a massive line. (They were very inefficient at letting people in.)

Looking at signs while in line I realized that Spamalot was the 2005 Best Musical Tony award winner. Two best musicals in two days!

My seats at Spamalot were poor. Like Avenue Q, I decided to be cheap and buy nose-bleed tickets, this time in part of the theater that said "partial view" but claimed it only matters in two scenes for a total of fifteen minutes. But these tickets were worse than that. They were in the balcony in the last row ten seats from the side, and the curvature of the ceiling restricted by view of things high on the stage. Admittedly I could see the main action in most scenes but I found myself repeatedly slouching to try to get the full effect of events on stages, including actors on castle walls, the really tall Knights Who Say "Ni" (on stilts), and the atmosphere conveyed by the scenery.

Spamalot was pretty good, but nowhere near as good as Avenue Q. Much of Spamalot's quality came from the scenes lifted entirely from the movie; most of these were simply re-enacted (without music). I didn't like that a sizable fraction of the show was devoted to broadway mockery with songs like The Song That Goes Like This ("Once in every show / There comes a song like this /It starts off soft and low / And ends up with a kiss"), You Won't Succeed On Broadway, Diva's Lament ("What ever happened to my part? / It was exciting at the start. / Now we're halfway through Act 2 / And I've had nothing yet to do."), and Twice In Every Show. It's not that these songs were bad -they weren't- it's just that they felt like a crutch to fill up time because the writers couldn't figure out how to make the show long enough just by using traditional Monty Python and The Holy Grail material.

They did have at least one case of very Monty-Python-esque humor (certainly more Monty Python than the broadway parody). For instance, the show started off with a song and dance about Finland that lasted until the narrator interrupted and corrected the actors about the topic of the musical. Going along with this theme, the playbill even had a few fake and very funny pages about the Finland musical that included amusing actors' names and humorous titles for songs.

Some scenes did stand out. The choreography in the I'm Not Dead Yet song and dance was great. I'm also impressed by the audience involvement. In particular, they had a member of the audience find the grail and bring it onstage near the last scene. In addition, at the end they had the whole audience stand up and sing and dance to Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.

Spamalot clearly knew its audience was much more male-dominated than most broadway ones -- there were lots of women singing and dancing throughout the show.

But perhaps the most interesting event of the day was not Spamalot or the subway incident (which I can't find any news about on the web -- there isn't enough local neighborhood-level reporting) was the coconut orchestra. Spamalot invited the whole audience to move to the courtyard by the theatre, gave them coconuts, and planned to (and did) set the Guinness World Record for the world's largest coconut orchestra.

I got my own set of coconuts (for free) (according to Spamalot's web site, a $15 value) and participated! It fun and fast. I'm surprised how easy it was to learn to play; I guess using percussion instruments to do a tune I've heard many times before isn't that hard. The whole event made minor news:,

Before heading home to Metuchen, I decided to spend a little time looking at coats at Macy's. Macy's, like Bloomingdale's, was also amazingly large: seven floors the size of city blocks. But the selection of coats of the type I desired was much smaller (although also cheaper). Of course, by charging $150 for a pair of stylishly ripped jeans, one can't claim Macy's is inexpensive as a whole.

Once back in Metuchen, I believe Bryson, Catherine, and I had dinner and played more settlers.

P.S. I took three sad pictures and one movie this day: one of the brunch place, and the rest of breaking the coconut orchestra record.

New York/New Jersey Trip: Day 4 (or, museum messes, strudel, Japanese grill, and Avenue Q)

Once again I started the day off with a bagel and cream cheese. (This time, though, I'd planned ahead so I wouldn't be flustered and decided on a sesame bagel with low fat vegetable cream cheese.)

The day's plan was to go to the city and kill some time before the 8:00pm show of Avenue Q. Avenue Q was on the list of reasons to go to New York; I tried getting half-price tickets a few times while I lived there in 2004, but since the show had just won the Best Musical Tony Award for 2004, tickets weren't available. (And I wasn't willing at that time to pay full price.) This time, however, I wasn't going to risk the unlikelihood of getting half-price tickets and instead purchased some (after much debate about the quality of the seats I wanted and how much I was willing to pay) in advance.

One other activity I missed during my time in NYC was the Museum of Modern Art. Its Manhattan location was under renovation then and so it moved to Queens, and I never made it out to Queens. Well, the renovation had been completed so I planned to spent the day at Moma.

Getting to the city involved the simple purchase of a NJ transit ticket. Well, I almost managed to screw it up -- I was waiting for the train on the same side of the platform as when I went to Princeton. But NYC is the other direction! Happily I realized my mistake before the train came.

After arriving at the endpoint of the rail journey -Penn Station-, I hiked the twenty-something minutes northward to Moma and breathed in the essence of the city. I was back!

And then I found that Moma is closed on Tuesdays. Oops.

My mind was already in the museum mind-set. The only other famous NYC museum I'd missed during my journey was the Pierpont Morgan Library; it was also closed for renovation during my time in the city. While planning my week, I noticed it was still closed for renovation (it's been years!) and due to reopen within the next month of two. But that meant it was out for a destination.

I thought about returning to the Museum of New York, which I'd enjoyed on my previous visit and didn't manage to finish. I'd arrived within an hour of closing; feeling guilty for making me pay, they gave me free tickets to return some other time. However, I'd left my free tickets at home. I believed that fact was a message from fate that today was not the day to return.

Thinking harder, I decided to go to the Design Museum. It was the only museum I could remember not visiting and even feeling remotely bad about. (Most museums I skipped I felt no qualms about.)

After walking north and east in the general direction of the museum for a while, I finally stumbled upon a subway entrance. I felt silly that I'd forgotten where all the stops were in the measly two years since I lived nearby. (This feeling of embarrassment will return again.)

Arriving in the upper east side but before walking to the museum, I decided to head over to someplace on my places to eat in NYC list. The place was Andre's Cafe, an eastern European bakery and restaurant that had been on my list ever since reading the article, The Lost Strudel (New York Times), profiling its production of this hard-to-find item.

The menu portrays itself partially as Hungarian but also offers some ordinary diner-type fare like hamburgers and eggs. But I didn't hover over the menu much other than to choose my flavor of strudel: apple -- fairly traditional, though not quite as traditional as cabbage and not as odd as cherry or potato and ham. My strudel was good, with sizable chunks of apples wrapped in layers of phyllo dough, sweet enough to be a dessert after my bagel but filling enough to complete the meal.

Speaking of bakery items, why is it one can find rugalach at nearly every bakery, deli, and coffee shop in New York but I never see it anywhere in California?

Happily satiated, I went to the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. It was thoroughly disappointing. They had a vaguely interesting exhibit on "fashion in color," showing how different colors were used in fashion in different times and the affect they portrayed. And they had a small (sad) exhibit on "designs from Israel" which had a neat chair made of straws melted together. (Yes, the plastic ones you drink from.) That is all that is worth mentioning, in both the special exhibits and the museum itself. Despite listening often to the audio tour, I was still out of the museum in less than 90 minutes and promptly wrote in my notes "small and boring."

Now I had lots of time to kill before the show. I took the train back south to check out the menu of another restaurant I recently heard about. (I thought perhaps I could meet some friends there for dinner later in the week.) Then I checked out another such restaurant. (Ah, text messages to Google local is great for addresses of places you know the names of.) I called my parents. (It's the middle of the workday so the people I could call were limited, and I figured they'd love to hear from me while I was on vacation.) Eventually I took the subway and went shopping at Bloomingdale's, looking for a nice professional looking jacket. (You know, those three-quarter length ones that business-people and other professionals wear outdoors.) I browsed for a while, amazed at the size of Bloomingdale's selection, but, despite the late-season sales making the horrendous prices more reasonable, didn't buy anything. (I can't buy important pieces of clothing like that without a second opinion on how it looks.)

For dinner I grabbed the subway to the east village to head to Yakitori Taisho, a Japanese grill place recommended by a friend of mine. I arrived before 6pm and was told to come back after they open. (New Yorkers as a whole eat late.) So instead I killed some time and scouted out another restaurant I heard about in the area, a restaurant that I'd actually return to later in the week (see the post for Friday - Day 6). When I returned, it was after 6pm and they seated me.

I had really good grilled items and excellent french fries at Yakitori Taisho. (The menu offered a lot of different types of choices (mostly Japanese food with some Korean), so I tried to judge what to order based upon which items had the largest pictures and more prominent placement. That got me to the grilled items. And this seemed right, because as other people arrived, that's what they were ordering too. But they could have been using the same strategy as me... The french fries, however, I ordered because a number of yelpers recommended them.)
* One grilled item I got was a very good skewer of chicken meatballs. The meatballs were light, a mix of ground chicken, peas, and corn, and moist.
* The beef skewer, with a tasty juice marinate, was also quite good (but not as good) because the meat was slightly rubbery / hard to rip meat with one's teeth.
* The green onion skewer was very good. (I'd never had grilled green onions before.)
* The french fries with spicy salmon roe mayonnaise were excellent. The french fries came right out of the frier and started out too hot to eat. This caused me a few burns because they were good, dense from potatoes and fatty but not too much so. But the roe mayonnaise made this dish -- a wonderful creamy cool dipping sauce with a unique flavor.
* Still slightly hungry and wanting to try something besides a skewer to further evaluate the restaurant, I ordered one more item: a grilled rice ball with salmon. This was exactly as described: boring. They coated the ball with a sauce that allowed the outside to blacken without burning on the grill -I saw because I was sitting at the counter- but what I ended up with was a dull ball of rice with small overcooked dry salmon chunks inside. Disappointed with this item, already full, and feeling guilty from all the meat and carbs (especially the whole bowl of french fries), I left some of the rice ball uneaten.

Then, yet another subway ride later, I was in the theater district for Avenue Q.

Avenue Q was great! And my nose-bleed seats -in the balcony along the wall, third row from last- still gave me a perfectly good view of the stage. Perhaps the most mesmerizing feature of Avenue Q was that it seemed as if it was being performed simultaneously by two separate casts: the puppets and the actors holding the puppets. Both were on stage and both "acted" -- I kept going back and forth from watching the expressions on the puppets to watching the expressions on the people.

Avenue Q was clearly targeted at people in my age bracket recently out of college and looking for a PURPOSE. And while it dealt with this issue well with songs like Purpose and I Wish I Could Go Back To College, the concluding song to this theme felt a bit like cheating. Basically the message was wait, and everything will get better.

Avenue Q was filled with catchy songs with funny (and likely true) messages such as The Internet is for Porn, Everybody's a Little bit Racist, and even What Do You Do with a BA in English?. Yet the songs that touched me the most were slower: There's a Fine, Fine Line ("between love and a waste of your time") and There Is Life Outside Your Apartment.

In addition to lessons based on the morale and the theme, I learned something else from Avenue Q; I learned through the song Schadenfreude that I'd always been mispronouncing this word.

The only complaint I have about Avenue Q is that they had Gary Coleman as a character. This felt unnecessary, like a source for humor that wasn't relevant to the theme.

After the show I walked straight to Penn Station and arrived back "home" around midnight. One of the most striking features of the day was the number of familiar sights, especially so during my walk to Penn Station as the route was the one I usually used to walk to work during the time I lived in the city.

P.S. I took this small selection of photographs today. (The previous day's Afghan Kebab House #7, today and yesterday's Bagels-4-U, today's Andre's Cafe, today's Yakitori, plus one more photograph...)

New York/New Jersey Trip: Day 3 (Metuchen and Princeton)

I took a smattering of pictures during this day; these pictures serve as accompaniment and supplement to this entry.

On Monday I explored Princeton. On Sunday I'd realized I knew a number of people attending graduate school at Princeton (besides the friend I was staying with) and coordinated meeting for lunch with one of them.

Since Bryson went to lab early and Catherine had work, when I woke up I was on my own. After learning about train schedules, I figured I'd explore downtown Metuchen for a while, catch the train to Princeton, explore it a bit, eat lunch with Scott and Bryson, and then likely explore Princeton more.

Freshly showered, I dressed as warmly as I could and headed out. Downtown Metuchen is cute. There are occasional plaques denoting historic buildings and describing historical incidents; this give the town a lot of character and credit in my book. It's clear Metuchen is also mostly a commuter town -- many store open bright and early at 6am so people can stop by before they catch a train. It was quite empty when I explored around nine and ten am. Besides the nice traditional main street (literally named main street) with its assortment of small stores of virtually every type, the only thing I recall about the street is the surprising number of beauty salons / hair cutting places. I asked Bryson about this in the evening and he suggested that there were many stay-at-home mothers in the area and they frequented such establishments.

During the course of my wandering, I grabbed breakfast at a good place: Bagels-4-U. I spent a while mesmerized by their assortment of cream cheeses that they appeared to make themselves and paralyzed by the decision of which bagel with which cream cheese, that I, not having noticed all the bagel bins, when the counter-woman asked me for the third time what I wanted -ah, "New York" impatience-, panicked and said pumpernickel. And even that bagel was good. (Why oh why can't I get good bagels on the west coast?)

On the train to Princeton, I stared out the window and contemplated the land as we passed. It's nice seeing such a high density of trees -quite different from the CalTrain or BART-, although it did surprise me that there was so much undeveloped land in New Jersey (especially so close to a commuter rail line). And some people claim real estate prices will inevitably rise because land is in short supply...

In Princeton first I wandered along the perimeter of the campus, examining downtown Princeton and the university. I found a neat park downtown; view the pictures. The university itself was gothic, filled with elaborate dark gray brick buildings (with gargoyles) giving the impression of timelessness. (They did have a few newer buildings in a different style, but those really felt out of place.) The campus appearance seemed appropriate for the weather, which stayed around freezing the whole day. Together, the university and the town felt like (old) money, similar to what Stanford would feel like if Palo Alto and the campus were actually adjacent. (But Stanford would feel like new money.)

In the middle of my wandering, I stopped to meet Scott and Bryson for lunch. We decided on an innocuous choice: Panera Bread. Panera Bread is my favorite sandwich chain -- other chains do individual items better but Panera Bread is fairly consistently good. It always leaves me filled, probably from the whole grain baguette I get on the side at every meal there. (Conversely, Bryson complained it always leaves him hungry. But he doesn't order the baguette.)

It was good to see that Scott seems to be doing well and is happily excited by his research. He's living the devoted graduate student life, working hard and wearing a jacket in honor of meetings with his professor. (I guess economists are more formal than computer scientists?)

After lunch I looked around campus more. As you'll notice from my pictures, I found a number of weird statues around campus. Later I found an list of all these sculptures.

I also took an incredibly poor campus tour. The guide clearly had her lines memorized and we didn't go anywhere interesting. By interesting, I mean places I hadn't already stumbled upon during my wanderings. And it felt artificial: for instance, many times when the tour guide was talking about a particular department or activity, she cited a roommate that participated in it. I swear I counted at least half a dozen roommates.

I took the online tour afterward and found it faster and more interesting. But I did learn that some dorm rooms have 11 people so I suppose her claims can be true (though I doubt it). Also, on the online tour I found a picture of an unusual gargoyle I wish I saw in person!

All the same, on the campus tour, I did learn:
* Princeton was the capitol of the United States for a while; a fact I verified online.
* Princeton originally was called the "College of New Jersey" and changed its name a few times, becoming Princeton University in 1896.
* A cute superstition involving the main gate to the campus. I wonder how many students listen to it?
* Princeton's mascot is the tiger but was originally the lion. Like me, when I don't think too deeply, I can mix them up. And indeed students and alumni did mix them up over time, donating tiger statues when the lion was still the mascot and vice versa. Eventually, so the story goes, the tiger became the official mascot because the colors -orange and black- look better than whatever they were doing before with lions and manes.

Because of my prior exploration, by the end of the tour I'd been outside for a number of hours and was quite frigid, so I called Bryson and we headed back to Metuchen. On the way Bryson showed me a neat feature of the train seats -- all the rows are on sliders and can reverse to make them face the same direction or face the adjacent seats. California trains should be built like this! It's convenient: face the way you want and/or restructure the train to better accommodate large groups!

Upon returning to Metuchen we hung around the apartment for a while (partially to warm up a bit). When Catherine told us she wouldn't be back for dinner, we debated where to eat for a while, generated a short list of ideas, and headed out to downtown Metuchen. It being a Monday, our first choice was closed, so we took the opportunity to further wander around Metuchen and see what else was open. I got my chance to see the one street besides Main Street that had significant retail. (Main Street is better.) We also learned (or I learned and Bryson remembered) that most decent restaurants in Metuchen are closed Monday nights. Our second choice was one of these.

We ended up at Afghan Kebab House #7. The first food item to arrive after ordering was the salad that comes with the entrees: a small lettuce salad with tomato slices, green peppers, lemon slices (!), and lots of ranch dressing -I like ranch dressing but this was a lot for me and way more than Bryson would put up with-. In short, one of those lettuce and ranch salads some ethnic places serve to make unadventurous dinners more comfortable by showing not all their food is strange.

We also got bread with the standard two Indian sauces (red and green); the bread had a little oil flavor and a slightly more crunchy exterior on one side than I'd like, but wasn't bad in the least.

For an appetizer we tried the aushuk and were served a few thin dumplings well hidden in a dish mostly filled with yogurt and spices. While the yogurt was fine, the dish was disappointing because of the effective lack of meaningfully sized/filled/flavored dumplings.

Our entrees, however, were good. One was a mix of chicken, brown rice, pine nuts, peas, and orange rind. The orange rind was a fairly prominent (good) flavor and worked well with all the other ingredients. The other was a lamb steak -juicy though not particularly Afghani or Indian-, much like (very good) lamb chops my parents used to make.

Although the restaurant was very slow, we still had the rest of the evening to kill and so we watched Annie Hall. I had a general negative impression of Woody Allen from other movies so I figured it would be good for my edification to watch one of his classics. I found, to my surprise, I liked it: it feels funny, witty, sad, and true. And now my opinion of Woody Allen is more nuanced.

Interesting Articles: April 18th-24th 2006

* XXL from Too Few Zs? Skimping on sleep might cause obesity, diabetes (Science News). Get a full night's sleep.
* How Much Do Chefs Really Make? (Washington Post). Posted in case I ever need a reference on chef and cook financial compensation.

Interesting Articles: April 11th-17th 2006

Food & Health:
* Dinner: An Author Considers the Source (Fresh Air with Terry Gross). An audio discussion on food and food production. The part beginning at minute 20.5 deals with organic foods, which I found more interesting than the earlier section with dealing more with environmental and economic policy and government incentives.
* Does Eating Salmon Lower the Murder Rate? (New York Times). Using prisons as testing grounds for nutrition studies is a creative idea. This article explores the research connecting nutrition to aggressive behavior.

* Out of the Shadows: Not all early mammals were shy and retiring (Science News). Only posted because I love this quote:

Until recently, most known fossils of early mammals consisted only of teeth or fragments of teeth. Indeed, paleontologists sometimes joke that many early mammals were nothing but teeth, which mated with other teeth to produce yet more teeth.

* No Fooling (Science News). Check out the blurbs for the first four articles in the "Notes" section -- it's all strange but true news. (And although you can't read the articles directly, you can read the sources they used, which is just as good (but written with a more serious tone).)

* Taking the Least of You (New York Times). A complex narrative weaving together the issues of donating tissue for research, profiting from such tissues, and patenting techniques derived from tissues. In short, a set of stories exploring medical ethics, capitalism, and legal consent.

* Pro-Life Nation (New York Times). In El Salvador, all abortions are illegal. This long article explores the law, the enforcement, and the underground market for abortion. Vaguely interesting, but sadly doesn't really explore the larger social, cultural, or economic changes that resulted from these legal changes.

New York/New Jersey Trip: Day 2 (or, Indian food and puzzles: a relaxing weekend day)

On my first full day in New Jersey, I started my vacation on the right foot and didn't do much. I thought a bit about my plans for the upcoming week and e-mailed a few people to coordinate schedules, but mostly just hang out at my friends' place.

The only real event of note was our lunch-time journey to Moghul Indian in Edison, NJ. A quite good Indian buffet, heads above most other such buffets I've had.

Incidentally, en route to Moghul I got the feel of Metuchen. (It had a middle/middle-upper class feel with mostly single-family brick houses.) We passed one house with what I thought was an interesting piece of art on the lawn: what appeared to be black columns at odd (though mostly vertical) angles with trash cans as heads. When returning, someone suggested, rightly so, that it was likely trees wrapped with plastic bags and covered for the winter. But I still like thinking about it as artwork.

Anyway, Moghul Indian's buffer was surprising because in addition to the standard fare they had some chinese stuff (singapore noodles and a chinese stir-fry), imperial rolls (technically vietnamese but theirs looked more like egg rolls), and even continental (like potato skins or tomatoes stuffed with mashed potatoes, and fresh fruit). I thought perhaps this is what an Indian restaurant has to do to attract enough customers in an as unadventurous places as this area of New Jersey. (Clearly my stereotype of New Jersey is coming into play here.) But I realized later this rationale doesn't hold water when Bryson and Catherine drove me down Oak Tree Road in Edison, a quaint downtown with countless Indian places and clearly a strong community. (Thus, Moghul shouldn't need to attract white customers with this type of non-Indian fare; I suppose some Indian customers must appreciate the continental cuisine. Although frankly I'm not sure why they would -- I tried one tomato-wrapped item and it was bad.)

Digressions aside, Moghul was quite tasty. They had good staples like butter chicken, chicken curry, and saag paneer to more unusual dishes like an okra dish and something I've never seen that included crispy flakes (almost like rice crispies) and vegetables and spices that was made on the spot by a server. And every time I got naan at the buffet line, it tasted as if I'd just ordered it. Amazing! I was also happy I tried the dessert they had, a custardy cinnamon rice pudding dish.

The afternoon consisted simply of Bryson and I doing puzzles and such with Catherine's intermittent help. (She mostly had something work related to do.) We mostly did a set of hard word-play puzzles called "Scare Tactics" the New York Times published one recent Halloween. (Sadly, I can't link to it; the New York Times themselves has eliminated the page from its database. I do have a saved copy. If you want it, mail me.)

Dinner was, like the previous night, cooked at home. I helped contribute to dinner (by trimming snap peas) about as much as the night before. Bryson and Catherine used their wok magic to make a tasty Chinese spicy shrimp stir-fry with snap peas. (And I love snap peas.)

Later in the evening, -I'm not sure what incited this- Catherine decided she was in the mood for corn bread. And so she made some. Spur of moment corn bread, from a recipe that she's never tried before. I become instantly even more impressed with the food tendencies of Bryson and Catherine -- choosing good restaurants, cooking well, and doing neat spontaneous food ideas. (I don't do much spontaneous cooking.) And, yes, the corn bread muffins turned out well.

(Incidentally, a week after I returned, inspired by their memory I cooked my own corn bread. It turned out decently, though I don't think as well -- it had less structural integrity and was a little drier. But then my recipe in fact was simple and didn't use buttermilk or sour cream or any diary product.)

New York/New Jersey Trip: Day 1 (or, flying, food, and settlers)

From Saturday March 18th 2006 to the 25th (also a Saturday), I took a vacation and visited some friends in New Jersey and New York. It was a great vacation! I got to hang out with people I hadn't seen in ages; I got to explore some places I never previously visited; I got to see some shows that I've been meaning to see for a while; I ate some food I'd never previously tried. And I also achieved my goal of spending some time relaxing and doing nothing, making it a true vacation. This and the following blog posts will document what I did -- effectively a series of diary entries reconstructed from my memories of the week and the little piles of notes and ticket stubs I have.

Since this was to be a vacation, I decided to pay a little extra and get a direct flight leaving the bay area at a reasonable time and arriving at the most convenient airport (Newark) to the friends I'd be staying with for most of the trip. My BART trip and flight were fairly uneventful. (Although I had a middle seat on a packed flight, it didn't bother me. I spent most of the flight watching television shows and reading news articles I'd downloaded to my computer.)

Flying on United and feeling hungry, I spent the extra five dollars to spring for their turkey and cheddar wrap. It was a sad item, with more cheese than turkey -I ended up removing most of it- and fairly sad processed turkey. Still edible enough. And the perfect size, it was small enough to leave me hungry for dinner when I landed, and this turned out to be quite a good thing.

Indeed, after Bryson kindly picked me up from the Newark airport, we arrived at his apartment to find his fiance, Catherine cooking -another friend of mine, of course- and dinner almost ready. It was great; I was hungry from the flight and steak fajitas with red peppers, onion, fresh cheese (I offered to help whatever was left to do, so I got to grate the cheese :> ), and fresh avocado. Fajitas: such a simple but good food.

Not surprisingly, since moving east Bryson and Catherine have missed being in close proximity to Settlers of Catan players. And I don't play it enough anyway to satisfy my craving. As I write this now, it seems like fajitas: Settlers is simple strategy game, yet interesting and social and good every time. Thus, we played. I lost both games -not that surprising- but I came close once (and had fun). And hanging out was nice. I was glad that I had started to fulfill the promise I'd made last fall when they moved east that I'd visit them.

Interesting Articles: April 4th-10th 2006

Food & Health:
* Low-Calorie Diet May Lead to Longer Life (New York Times). Covers the latest studies on calorie restriction and its effects.
* Now Google's cooking: Internet giant's free, gourmet global cuisine powers its workforce while offering chefs and producers a place to shine (SF Chronicle). Profiles of Google's cafes.

* First Bladders Grown in Lab Transplanted (Washington Post). Quite an accomplishment.

* The Wall That Keeps Illegal Workers In (New York Times). An interesting op-ed piece about how the immigration debate has been influenced strongly by public perception, not necessary changes in the underlying immigration rates. But note that the facts he cites seem to be contradicted by some of the statistics in the sidebar of this article: Immigrants and the Economics of Hard Work (New York Times).

* Death by Smiley Face: When Rivals Disdain Profit (New York Times). Or, it's all about the customer. Posted mainly because I'm surprised to see Google and Chowhound mentioned in the same article.

All Hail Ultimate Frisbee!

As anyone who lives in California knows, this has been the wettest March in a century We've had so much rain it's made national news (e.g., Northern California sees record rain (Associated Press via USA Today)). And this has inspired me to document one adventure I had playing pick-up ultimate frisbee on a day at the beginning of March.

Our regular fields were closed due to sogginess, so we met at the Stanford oval to play (which never officially closes). It was overcast and bit chilly (upper 40s) and the forecast said rain was likely. But since water wasn't falling from the sky at the moment, we started playing.

And then it began to drizzle. But we were already playing, and a little rain never troubles anyone.

And then it started raining a bit harder. But we were already wet, so a little more water isn't going to disrupt play more.

Then someone said he thought it was hailing. I laughed. "It's just bigger, heavier raindrops," I said. But then I looked at my arm. And I saw little pellets occasionally bouncing off. And I apologized.

But we were already soaked and cold, so the hardened ultimate veterans that we were, we didn't see a need to stop now.

Soon enough, it switched back to rain. And then back to sporadic hail. And then rain. And the continuum in between. And we kept playing. Playing despite frozen hands making it difficult to throw a disc. (Amazingly, some people kept throwing fairly well during this. But I was not "some people." :> )

At around this point I realized I left my regular shoes not in the car but uncovered on the sidelines. I checked on them and found I had a nice pair of puddles, flipped them over, covered them with a spare shirt, and continued playing.

Sometime it started hailing harder. At this point I decided I should've brought goggles. It hurt looking in a particular direction. Luckily, it went back to regular mild hail soon enough.

We called a game to five a bit earlier than usual and ended our pickup 75 minutes after starting, quite a bit earlier than usual. It was a good time to stop. My hands were cold. Really cold. When I made it back to my car, I couldn't bend my fingers with enough force to start it. (Instead I put the key between my palms and rotated my hands.) The car thermostat said it was still upper 40s outside. I took my shoes and put them beneath the floor heating vent, which I turned on full. Within the twenty minutes it took me to get where I was going -I drove in my socks-, they were dry. Meanwhile, the towel I kept in my trunk (Hitchhiker's Guide advice) happily dried me off well.

The bottom line? Playing ultimate frisbee in the hail isn't so bad, so long as it sneaks up gradually on you. And the camaraderie you get with fellow players is great. And it makes a good story. And if you have appropriate clothing like a synthetic waterproof long-sleeve shirt (as I did) and similar pants (as I didn't, but I did have shorts), the core of your body doesn't get cold.

The Displeasure of the Snow Gods

I was in Tahoe the weekend of April 1st and 2nd, and a sequence of events made me think the snow gods were frowning on us.

The first incident was daylight savings time. Saturday night we realized we lost an hour of sleep. While this made us sad, we didn't change our planned schedule. We set two alarms on our cell phones for around 8:00am, planning to get to the slopes by 8:30am or at least 9:00am. One person's alarm went off on time and he turned it off without telling us. My alarm -set for a few minutes after eight- went off. I looked at it, pressed the button to acknowledge it, and after I did so, my phone changed the time to 9-something. Apparently it only changed the time to reflect daylight savings after a user event. grrr... The lifts were running, and all of us were still in our beds.

En route to Sugar Bowl, we stopped at a store to rent quality snowboards. But they didn't have good quality snowboards. And worse, my car got stuck in the snow and ice outside the store. Luckily I was with two people who grew up in the northeast and dealt with these issues frequently. So after some gunning the engine, pushing, rotating tires, and rocking the car, we got free. Well, free but further delayed.

Finally, we headed to a different rental spot the previous shopkeepers said had performance snowboards. As we filled out forms and went to rent, we found the store was out of boots in the size one person needed. We gave up and rather than rent separately decided to rent at Sugar Bowl itself.

Incidentally, on Saturday we also arrived at the slopes late. The weather was slightly inclement so CalTrans was putting in delays to spread out traffic. And since the highway was closed the previous night due to a heavy storm, a lot of people were coming up Saturday morning like us.

I have at least one friend who will blame our bad luck on the fact that we were snowboarding. But whatever the cause, it was a series of unfortunate events.

Still, the trip was great! Very few lift lines. And lots of powder -- great for snowboarding (which is what I chose to do). Tumbles didn't hurt. And the powder is forgiving, letting you make mistakes without falling. And it kept flurrying on and off during the day, which kept the powder fairly fresh in most places. I was surprised how comfortable I was: with a face mask, a down jacket (rather than my usual thin skiing jacket), goggles, and good gloves, I was entirely warm and happy the whole day. At the end of one day I just sat in the snow, laid back and watched the clouds and the lake, and felt very at peace.

Interesting Articles: March 28th-April 3rd 2006

Food and Health:
* Cloning May Lead to Healthy Pork (New York Times). Pork with omega-3. Or, taking genetic engineering further than it occurred it me was possible.
* Eat Smart: Foods may affect the brain as well as the body (Science News). In short, eat fish, tumeric, and in general balanced diets with minimal calories and your brain will be happy and healthy for years to come.
* Report raises flag on fluoride (USA Today). I always thought flouride in water was good (for preventing cavities), but it seems like there is now too much in water in many places.

* Long-Awaited Medical Study Questions the Power of Prayer (New York Times). I'm glad the authors of the study intended it as a legitimate test, not as a way of mocking religion. But I can definitely see where the sentiments in the following quote come from.

"The problem with studying religion scientifically is that you do violence to the phenomenon by reducing it to basic elements that can be quantified, and that makes for bad science and bad religion," said Dr. Richard Sloan.

* O.K., Knockoffs, This Is War (New York Times). On the movement for copyright protections for clothing designs. I'm not sure where I stand on it, but I found the last half the article -the part about the existing legal framework- most interesting.

* Time to Think (New York Times). An op-ed piece suggesting easing time pressure on the SAT. (I'm generally in favor of eliminating time pressure on exams, but this obviously depends on what the exam is trying to measure.)

* Puzzles, Origami and Other Mind-Twisters (New York Times). A cute short article about puzzles, the Gathering for Gardner, magic, and mathematics. Mentions two people I know. :)

* Keeping It Secret as the Family Car Becomes a Home (New York Times). A touching story about how people that become homeless and decide to live in their car hide and try to keep the appearance of a normal life. (The audio interviews with some of the people is also revealing about why and how people do this.)
* The Modern Hunter-Gatherer (New York Times). A detailed description of the author's experience hunting, and its social and cultural implications. You can tell he's struggling with finding the right words to describe his experience, but he does a good job and includes many striking turns of phrase like:

In general, experiences that banish irony are much better for living than for writing.
And I had long felt that, as a meat eater, I should, at least once, take responsibility for the killing that eating meat entails. I wanted, for once in my life, to pay the full karmic price of a meal.
Later, when I reread Ortega y Gasset's description of the experience, I decided maybe he wasn't so crazy after all, not even when he asserted that hunting offers us our last best chance to leave behind history and return to the state of nature, if only for a time — for what he called a "vacation from the human condition."
All the various techniques humans have devised for transforming the raw into the cooked — nature into culture — do a lot more for us than make food tastier and easier to digest; they interpose a welcome distance too. It might be enough for other species that their food be good to eat, but for us, as Claude Lévi-Strauss famously put it, food has to be "good to think" as well; the alchemies of the kitchen help get us there, by giving new, more human forms and flavors to the plants and fungi and animals we bring out of nature.

It's worth reading to the end; the story does build and actually comes to some conclusions.