|Thursday, May 19th, 2016|
5:06 pm - Fitness Tracking
The Apple Watch works as a fitness tracker. Each day it urges me to burn a certain (adjustable) number of calories, get thirty minutes of more vigorous exercise, and stand and move around for at least a minute in twelve different hours.|
I am on a nine-week streak of achieving all three of those goals every day for a week. I'm on a 69-day streak of achieving my calorie goal every day.
Other people - even other people on my friends list - will have higher goals and longer streaks. But these are the records I want to compare this to:
- My previous record for perfect weeks is one. Not a one-week streak achieved multiple times, but one single perfect week in the ten months before I began this streak.
- My previous streak for the calorie goal was twenty days.
I do not expect that I will be able to maintain this streak indefinitely. When I had the kidney stone, I didn't exercise much and missed my calorie goal. And there have been days when the watch ran out of charge early and didn't record the exercise I might have done. I suspect that I have at least a 2% chance of failing to meet my calorie goal on a particular day - which means that this streak is already longer than my expected duration.
There are a couple of sneaky psychological effects at work with the watch that have been particularly motivating:
- One is the effect of the streak itself. I know that this streak is continuing only because I've been striving to continue it, and it's longer than I'd expect to maintain normally. So once I break my streak, it's very possible that I may never get such a long streak again. So yesterday, when I did not feel like taking an evening walk, I thought "this is my best chance to ever get a sixty-nine day streak," and that helped me get moving to walk that evening.
- The other effect is the way the watch encourages me to ramp up my activity. Here's how it works:
Last week, my calorie goal was 420 calories. So when I looked in the evening and saw that I had burned, say, 380 calories, I was very tempted to go take a walk and burn 40 more calories. But it's hard to be precise about my calorie burn, so I am likely to burn 20 or 30 calories more than I need to. In fact, because I was aiming to burn 420 calories every day, I burned at least 437 calories every day.
So, at the beginning of this week, the watch suggested "why not raise your calorie goal?" And it looks so easy to raise it to 430 calories, because that's what I've been doing already last week.
I think that this is a very cunning way of inching my goal up to the maximum level at which I will still find it motivational.
However, I cannot say that I'm enjoying my exercise every night. Sometimes while I'm out walking, I find myself eagerly anticipating the day after I break my streak, because on that day I'll feel much less self-imposed pressure. My hope is that this will settle into a happy habit before that time, so that it's easy to resume healthy exercise once my streak inevitably ends.
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|Friday, February 19th, 2016|
11:11 pm - Pandemic: Virulent Strain - the results may surprise you!
After posting my results about 2000 recorded games of Pandemic, I've now recorded 100 games of the Virulent Strain challenge.|
For those who know Pandemic but don't know the On the Brink Expansion, the Virulent Strain challenge replaces the Epidemic cards with Virulent Epidemics that each make one of the diseases progressively worse. For example, the Complex Molecular Structure card has the effects of a normal Epidemic, but adds the additional effect that it requires one more card than usual to discover a cure for the Virulent Strain disease.
It is obvious that this makes the game more challenging. When I started experimenting with this challenge, I wasn't trying to determine whether a Virulent game was harder than a non-Virulent game; I was only trying to determine how much harder it would be. I expected that adding Virulent would add about as much difficulty as adding an extra Epidemic, and I thought that would be a more interesting comparison.
My results surprised me. My win rate for four players, five Epidemics, without Virulent Strain (4P5E) was 84.2% +/- 3.0% (p <.05, n = 582). My win rate for six Epidemics (4P6E) was 58.1% +/- 17.4% (n = 31). My win rate for five Epidemics with Virulent Strain (4P5EV) has been 84.0 +/- 7.2% (n = 100). This is a statistically significant difference between 4P6E and 4P5EV, but so far, 4P5E and 4P5EV look practically the same.
These results are consistent with some of my other measures. The percentage of easy wins is nearly the same, and the average number of Eradications is actually higher with Virulent Strain (though not to a statistically significant degree).
What's going on here? I know there have been games that I lost due to Virulent Strain. I see three non-exclusive possibilities:
1. I've been having a lucky streak, and am likely to get slapped down soon. This is the most likely possibility.
2. Over the thousand-plus games I've played since my 4P5E games, I've honed my Pandemic skills a bit.
3. The actual increase in difficulty from Virulent Strain is much smaller than it seems.
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|Monday, February 8th, 2016|
11:42 pm - 2016 Reading #6: The Food of a Younger Land
#6: The Food of a Younger Land, by Mark Kurlansky|
During the Great Depression, one branch of the WPA was the Federal Writers Project, making work for young writers. One of the FWP's projects was America Eats, a compendium of writings on local food from around the USA. World War II interrupted, and the project was never completed. Many of the pieces were lost, but Mark Kurlansky found a big collection of the source material in the Library of Congress and did his own job of selecting and compiling that into a book that's a collection of snapshots of a culinary world before chain restaurants and interstates.
Kurlansky's role in that was one of selection more than editing. As such, it is an extremely uneven book - and perhaps that's part of its charm. Some of the pieces are dry, some are written in an imitation of dialect that would grow boring to read in a whole book, and some of them are hilarious. I particularly recommend the passionate rant "An Oregon Protest Against Mashed Potatoes", and the humorous tale "Arkansas Footwashing at Lonely Dale".
A couple of quotes from "Kansas Beef Tour":
"If he samples Barbecue on the highway, he has eaten it at its worst. True Barbecue is seldom to be had, and is worth driving many miles to eat. In the strict definition of the term, Barbecue is any four footed animal—be it mouse or mastodon—whose dressed carcass is roasted whole. Occasionally it is a hog, often it is a fat sheep, but usually and at its best it is a fat steer, and it must be eaten within an hour of when it was cooked. For if ever the sun rises upon Barbecue its flavor vanishes like Cinderella's silks and it becomes cold baked beef—staler in the chill dawn than illicit love.
"This is why it can never be commercialized, for no roadside stand could cook and sell a whole steer in a day. This is why true Barbecue, like true love, cannot be bought but must always be given, and so is found only as a part of lavish hospitality in the cow country.
"While Barbecue has covered half a continent, Son of a Bitch, its companion dish, has not, and I therefore offer its recipe for the benefit of the dainty city bride, who is constantly straining the resources of her apartment kitchen to tempt her husband with new plats du jour after a weary day in the office.
"First milady will take the entrails of two medium sized steers, but she will extract from them only the heart, liver, kidneys and intestines, which she will carefully clean. This done, she will cut them into chunks the size of her fist and toss them into a medium sized copper wash-boiler on her enameled stove. To this she will add a soupçon of potatoes (say a peck of peeled ones), about the same amount of unpeeled tomatoes and a quart can of hot green Mexican chili peppers. This is allowed to simmer for about three ours, without ever coming to a boil. After it has been thickened with a 5-pound sack of corn meal and salted to taste, then her Son of a Bitch is done and there will be enough for all, particularly if a dozen of her husband's old college chums, a company of U.S. Marines and a few taxi-drivers happen to drop in unexpectedly for dinner.
"While the recipe is substantially the same all along the north bank of the Rio Grande, the name occasionally varies, and in New Mexico the dish is called Prosecuting Attorney.
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|Sunday, February 7th, 2016|
9:03 pm - 2016 Reading
I've envied my friends with a record of their reading, but I've had trouble getting started with it.|
#1. My Tesla: A love story of a mouse and her car, by Joan C. Gratz
A children's book of one woman's story of Tesla ownership. (It was a stocking stuffer.) It was cute, but the protagonist is not always gracious about her Tesla ownership.
#2. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, by Dorothy Sayers
This was a reread. I'm terribly fond of Dorothy Sayers; she may well be my favorite mystery author. This is a great example of why; Lord Peter Wimsey deftly manipulates the situation to expose a secret murder, then teases out the thread of the crime with a subtle understanding of human relations. One thing I like about the Wimsey stories: the story doesn't end with the solution of the crime, but carries through to the resolution of the situation. I'm not totally convinced that the murderer would show the ethics after confrontation that this murderer did - but perhaps that's part of the book's interwar charm.
#3. Tesla Model S: Best Car Ever, by Frank von Gilluwe and Kim Rogers
Another Christmas gift, this one is a Tesla fan book for adults. I enjoyed reading it and learned a few things about the Tesla that I didn't know. Even though its copyright is 2014, much of the information about options and software is now outdated.
#4. Bone, by Jeff Smith.
at Stromberg recommended this to me when I asked for recommendations for graphic novels. Three Bone cousins leave Boneville to avoid troubles with a misguided mayoral campaign party and stumble into a heroic fantasy struggle.
I particularly liked the running thread of humor in the heroic fantasy (as with the quiche-eating rat-man), and the touch of heroism in the humor (such as the reason that Phoney Bone is a greedy scoundrel).
This was published over the course of 9 years. When I read such long-running serial works, I always wonder how much of the story was planned in advance and how much developed during the years of publication. One of the big constraints of a serial work is that you can't revise the beginning once you figure out the end.
Reviews of Bone I've read describe the book as "Tolkienesque", but if this were really Tolkienesque there would be much more backstory about the Bones as a race and culture.
#5. Something the Cat Dragged In, by Charlotte MacLeod
One in Charlotte McLeod's series of cozy mysteries featuring Peter Shandy, agronomy professor at Balaclava College.
I have a deeply ambivalent relationship with Charlotte MacLeod. I've read a dozen of her Sarah Kelling mysteries, and they feature both an engaging literate whimsy of characters and descriptions and appalling plot flaws that leave me fuming. (A warning to those reading the Sarah Kelling books: the first book is much much darker in tone than the rest of the books in the series. Liking one is not a predictor of liking the others.) This one is not terribly extreme in either direction, but it does presume a successful longstanding conspiracy among collaborators who seem ill-equipped to successfully organize a bake sale.
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|Saturday, January 2nd, 2016|
5:59 pm - 2000 Games of Pandemic
I have been an enthusiastic fan of the board game Pandemic since I first played it in 2008. I like it because it involves cooperation and careful planning, which makes it a good way to talk to people through a game. For several years, I’ve been playing a lunchtime game once a week with friends. In 2013, Z-Man Games came out with a version of Pandemic for the iPad. It doesn’t have networked multiplayer capabilities, but it works very well as a solitaire game in which one person controls all the players in the game. I’ve played the iPad version extensively, and I started recording my games as a little science project to see if I could use experiments to support our debates about which Roles were strongest. (In many years I judge science fair projects for the Pennsylvania Junior Academy of Science for the school where Lori taught; I think that investigating a game like would be a totally legitimate and interesting science fair project.)
From the first 2000 games I’ve recorded, I have discovered that the Roles in Pandemic and its expansion On the Brink are balanced better than I had expected.( Read more...Collapse )
(I wrote this in Pages, and then pasted it to LiveJournal - but LJ ate my tables. If you want to see the original version, ask me and I'll send you a PDF.)
Conclusions and Further Work
With over 500 games each of 3P5E, 4P5E, and 5P5E, I have found no evidence that any Role outperforms any other. This is a great surprise to me, because I felt certain that some Roles were excellent and some were weak. I salute the designers for balancing the Roles so well.
For future work, I’d like to measure the effects of playing with a Role that was obviously weaker. Consider a “Civilian” Role with no special abilities. This Role would obviously be inferior to any Role that did have special abilities; how many games would it take to prove statistically that it was inferior? I have considered trying to simulate this by marking one player as a Civilian and never using any special powers. But the Medic, Containment Specialist, and Quarantine Specialist have powers enforced by the game, so it would be hard to play one of those as a Civilian.
But in the immediate future, I’m more likely to investigate another path: The creators have just added the Virulent Strain Challenge to the game. I assume that I’m less likely to win with the Virulent Strain Challenge than without – but how much more difficult is it? In particular, how does the difficulty of a five-Epidemic game with Virulent Strain compare to the difficulty of a six-Epidemic game?
One final conclusion: I am still really enjoying playing Pandemic. And I have some numbers that shed a light on why. It comes down to the difference between victorious games and easy games. Even with my years of experience, over half of my games (with 5P5E) land in the zone where I win, but I feel I win only with cleverness and a bit of luck. That is my sweet spot for cooperative games, and Pandemic hits that sweet spot again and again.
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|Tuesday, October 27th, 2015|
11:36 pm - Tesla
We are planning to buy a Tesla Model S. This is so far out of my usual car-buying habit that I feel a need to justify it.|
Our car-buying way (for both my parents and Lori's parents) has been to buy modest, sensible cars, buy them used, and drive them until they are no longer drivable. We even take pride in doing it that way; we remind ourselves that a car takes a substantial hit in depreciation when it's first driven off the lot, for example.
We've done the "drive until no longer drivable" part, at least. Lori's car (a 2002 Honda Accord, bought in 2004) got rear-ended in August by a kid distracted by his cell phone. Lori's father advised us to take the insurance check and apply that to a new car instead of repairing that car. Then, in the month that we were shopping for a car to replace that, the transmission on my car (a 2001 Honda Accord, bought in 2003) went bad, and Lori's father advised us again that we should replace that car instead of repairing it.
My coworker Ryan suggested a Tesla as we started to shop for a car for Lori, because he has one and loves it. But it didn't work for us while we were replacing only one car. We want Lori's car to be higher off the ground, to give her every visibility advantage that we can. We want to have a car we can take road trips in, and the Tesla supercharger network is not yet built out enough to make it convenient to use it for the road trips we've done recently. And we want our road trip car to be a great car for Lori to drive, so if we're buying only one car, it should be a high road-trip car with great visibility.
In 2003, I'd been tempted by a hybrid car, but I didn't feel that the technology was quite ready yet. So when we were shopping in 2015, I had hoped to buy a hybrid – but the hybrid SUVs we found had very small benefits in gas mileage, such that they would take decades to pay for the increased cost of a hybrid drivetrain. We looked at a Honda Accord Hybrid which I rather liked, particularly because it had a right-side camera. But there is no 2016 Honda Accord Hybrid out, and supply of the 2015 model was pretty small. Lori ended up choosing a Subaru Forester, and we're pretty confident it will be a happy choice for her.
So when my car conked out, I was even more eager to try to buy an energy-efficient car. Throughout this, Ryan had been telling me about Tesla and other electric vehicles. (When I mentioned that the transmission had failed, he cheerfully pointed out that the Tesla had no transmission at all.)
The Tesla is very sporty, which is not at all what I've imagined myself driving. In an early conversation with Ryan, I quipped, "does the Tesla come with its own midlife crisis, or do I need to provide that myself?"
But the Tesla has a range of 240 miles, and no other electric car I found has a range above 100 miles or so. I don't have a long commute, so most of my days burn only 10-20 miles – but a range of 100 miles feels pretty limited to the Pittsburgh area, and Tesla's range (plus the network of superchargers, which can charge a Tesla halfway in 20-30 minutes) makes me feel that although it might not yet cover all of our road trip goals, it could take us quite a ways.
And despite being so sporty, the Tesla has a lot of features that are attractive to my staid, boring driving persona:
• I've come to care a lot about not using fossil fuels. This was exacerbated even more because the news of Volkswagen's clean-diesel deception broke while we were shopping. I've become convinced that the future equilibrium point has the world using only a trickle of fossil fuels, and the sooner we can get to that equilibrium, the happier we will be. Now that we've switched our home electricity generation to renewable energy, all of my miles can be powered by renewable energy. That's worth paying a premium to me.
• The Tesla has pretty nice cargo space. The seats fold down for a lot of cargo, and there's a front trunk where an engine would be that holds more stuff.
• I really like the traffic-aware cruise control. It happens often on our road trips that we'll be driving ever so slightly faster than the car in front of us, and we're not really eager to pass but we have to make some sort of manual adjustment. The traffic-aware cruise control can handle that automatically. (This is not Tesla-only, of course; Lori's Subaru has this too.)
• The Model S is very low-maintenance. There's no need to check oil or transmission fluid; the only fluid to add is windshield-wiper fluid.
• Tesla has gotten glowing scores for safety. In addition to complete five-star NHTSA ratings, there are stories like this: The Tesla Model S Is So Safe It Broke the Crash-Testing Gear. There have been some reports of the batteries catching fire, but the ones I've followed through on have been stories like this: "I drove over an L-shaped trailer hitch that stabbed up into the front of the car. The Tesla warned me that there were severe problems and that I should pull over and might not be able to start the car again. So I pulled off to the side of the road and got out. Five minutes later, the batteries caught fire, but I never lost control of the vehicle and the flames never reached the passenger compartment. Tesla then modified the design to add armor to the underside to prevent this from happening again." If you think about what could have happened to an internal-combustion engine in an accident that started with that first sentence, this story is really boring – splendidly, delightfully boring. I am willing to pay something for my accidents to be that boring.
• I like Tesla's reputation for software development. After reading Hackers Remotely Kill a Jeep on the Highway—With Me in It ..., I got concerned about how hackable vehicle computers might be, and I have read that many car manufacturers have an adversarial relationship with security researchers. According to what I've heard, Tesla invites security researchers to probe and pays a bounty for bugs found – and although that might sometimes lead to embarrassment, it's much better for the cybersecurity of the car.
But you and I should wonder whether I'm downplaying the appeal of the Tesla's raw performance. I'm not aware of that being a major attraction for me, but I am certainly capable of lying to myself about such things. I've certainly enjoyed reading stories of the Tesla effortlessly passing muscle cars. And on the day we ordered the Tesla, the showroom loaned us a Model S. The ostensible reason was to make sure that the suspension wouldn't bottom out in our driveway, but they loaned it to us for the whole afternoon. That car was equipped with "Insane Mode", a fierce acceleration that does 0-60mph in 3.1 seconds – and I made sure to try that out a few times. The first time I floored it, Lori said that it made her neck hurt from being snapped back. I'm glad to have tried it, but I ordered the less-powerful model. (Two other anecdotes from that afternoon: (1) In testing the traffic-aware cruise control, I was able to drive from the Parkway near our house almost to Ross Park Mall only using the pedals once. (2) While we were driving up to McConnells Mill State Park, I learned that when AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" plays, it is very hard to keep to a speed that's reasonable for country roads.)
For the staid driver I usually am, the better choice might be the Model 3 that Tesla has in the works. It's targeted at a price point much more in line with the Hondas and Subarus we were looking at. But it's not scheduled to come out until 2017, and that delay is a dealbreaker for that option.
So we've ordered a Model S. I chose a deep blue color that has the sleek sexiness of a movie actor wearing a well-tailored suit. (I said that I wanted a color that was a 6 on a 1-10 scale of eye-catching-ness, and I think I got exactly what I asked for.) It's scheduled for delivery in late November; I just learned yesterday that it's started production.
Lori's mother said that I seemed very happy to order it. I wasn't clear enough on my own feelings to be aware of such happiness, but I trust her judgment on such matters.
There's one more topic about the Tesla that I tiptoe around: the price. There's no denying that a Tesla costs much more than the other cars we would have considered. (There are three other Tesla owners in our office, and all of us are in the same situation of being habituated to a much cheaper car.) We are lucky enough that we can afford it, though we certainly can't afford such an expense often. But I know that many people, including many friends of ours, are not so wealthy, and I don't want to upset them. So far, that has not been an issue; people that I've worried might feel envious have just been excited for us. I hope that that continues.
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|Wednesday, September 30th, 2015|
10:27 pm - Post-Surgery Victory Lap 2015: June 28: New York City
This day was one of the days we were really looking forward to on this trip; this day we were to tour New York City with Bill (bullyboy on Roadfood) and Dayna. I had read Bill’s reports of leading visitors through the foods of New York with interest and desire, and I had become particularly eager after we met Bill and Dayna at Chris and Amy’s wedding. We had visited New York City only once, several years ago, and we had had a lot of difficulty knowing how to get around. So we were delighted at the prospect of seeing Bill and Dayna again and getting the benefit of their local expertise.|
(Because Bill is much more prompt about writing reports than I am, he posted a report at http://www.roadfood.com/Forums/This-is-New-York-with-Ralph-amp-Lori-m811559.aspx . This will be our take.)
We almost left the bed and breakfast without meeting the proprietor, but she returned home as we were finishing up a light breakfast. Her guidance for how to take the train to NYC was useful, but I think that if we were left to figure it out on our own, we might have been able to make an earlier train. It all worked out, though, because Bill was just as delayed as we were.
We realized on the train that this was this was the date of New York’s Pride March. Grand Central Terminal was thronged with every sort of rainbow outfit imaginable. We would have loved to see more of the Pride festivities, but we weren’t eager enough to try to change Bill’s thoughtfully-planned itinerary. And it may well be a blessing that we avoided those crowds. I certainly suspect that Pride made it even more of a good idea to leave our car in New Rochelle.
Bill made the suggestion that we meet at the clock at the center of Grand Central Terminal.
Lori was fascinated by the astrological mural on the ceiling of Grand Central Terminal. Unfortunately, I was not able to get a very good picture.
Our first food stop was Ess-a-Bagel. I was particularly keen to try a New York bagel, because Bill had once told me a mouth-watering story of coming home from a graveyard shift on a cold night and getting a hot bagel fresh from the oven. I wanted to experience what he had described so splendidly, and see how it compared to the expatriate bagels I’ve had in Pittsburgh.
The bagel suit certainly seems like a sign of a commitment to bageldom.
It was too crowded for comfort, but Bill spotted that there was a shorter line in the back available if you were only getting bagels to go.
We got a bagel each and went around the block to a tiny wet park named Greenacre Park.
My biggest surprise about these bagels was their size. They were hefty, doughy things larger than my fist, much larger than the bagels I’m used to. Had I known beforehand, I might have planned to eat half a bagel to pace myself for the day ahead - but with the warm crisp bagel in my hand, I ate the whole thing.
Dayna joined us as we headed towards Brooklyn.
A random picture of a rainy, foggy day.
Bill suggested that we walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. It was a good choice, because it’s a tourist thing that locals actually do. It was a longer walk than we were expecting, though, and Lori’s bum knee ended up hurting just about the time that it would be as long a walk to turn back as to continue on.
The Brooklyn Bridge was festooned with locks attached by couples in love, and we talked about the tradition of such locks at Paris’s Pont des Arts and how the locks needed to be removed from time to time (see, for example, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/02/world/europe/paris-bridges-locks-of-love-taken-down.html?_r=0 ). Now, I’m not exactly a cynic, but I do find it very easy to spot cynical interpretations. So when I see a lock on a bridge, I read it thus: “This lock adds strain to the constructs of civil society and will one day need to be destroyed for the sake of civil society – just like our love!” I understand that that is not exactly the stated intent of the people who attach the locks.
Our next stop was one that I had specifically requested: Grimaldi’s pizza. I had an impression of Grimaldi’s as a paragon of New York-style pizza, but I can no longer recall where I heard it praised so highly. I had assumed I had read it from Roadfood, but it is not currently Roadfood-listed. This may be because it had a change of ownership; Bill explained to us that Grimaldi’s had been purchased by new owners and moved down the street to a new location, but the previous owner had then bought the old location and opened it as a new pizzeria.
The four of us shared a small Margarita pizza with peppers on half. It was a good example of its type, with a crisp crust that was thin enough to be translucent in places. Bill’s recommendation of the roasted red peppers was excellent; they were particularly succulent and flavorful. The greatest novelty, though, was the cheese. This pizza was topped with discs of fresh mozzarella before baking, and I can’t recall the last time I had baked fresh mozzarella. It had a chewy texture that I don’t find with low-moisture mozzarella.
We walked a few blocks to a recommendation of Bill’s: Jacques Torres Chocolate, an artisan chocolatier.
Bill particularly praised their handmade ice cream sandwiches. My memory is fuzzy, but I believe that although they normally offer made-to-order ice cream sandwiches, they were not offering them at the moment. So we had a premade sandwich with strawberry ice cream between chocolate chip cookies. It was delicious, with a very bright, clear strawberry note.
Lori remembers ogling many of the chocolate delights in the shop, but feeling that buying them wouldn’t fit well into our big eating day.
Bill led us back towards the foot of the bridge to Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory.
The line was trailing out the door, but the view from the line was magnificent.
Lori got a simple dish of a very nice vanilla. (I had only a spoon or two of hers in order to save appetite for other restaurants.)
As Bill guided us to the Lower East Side, we passed another place not on our planned itinerary that was renowned to me: Russ and Daughters. Again, I assumed that I knew this from old Roadfood books, but I can’t easily confirm this. I might have read about it from Calvin Trillin’s books. I certainly was familiar with it before we watched the documentary The Sturgeon Queens about Russ and Daughters. (Spoiler: they are still in business after 100 years. It’s not the sort of movie for which spoilers are a big issue.)
Unfortunately, we didn’t get anything to eat there. There were multiple reasons: it was crowded enough that it was hard to talk with the workers about what might be good; none of us had much appetite; none of us were great fans of fish; and they didn’t seem to have much that was ready to eat. Lori bought some chocolate covered apricots, but I don’t think that gives us the real experience of appetizing.
Our destination in the Lower East Side was Katz’s Delicatessen. Katz’s had been one of the original stimuli for our going to New York. I had posted a picture of one of my attempts at smoking pastrami in my smoker, and Chris Ayers had made a comment about Katz’s, and that triggered conversations that led to “Let’s go to New York and eat around with Bill and Dayna”. (I am glossing over some of the intermediate steps.)
We didn’t seek this out, it just happened: when we were looking for a table after ordering, the only table available was marked with a sign as the table where Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan sat in the famous scene in When Harry Met Sally... But you can’t pass up such a gift-wrapped opportunity like that, so Lori did do her own (much less conspicuous) tribute to Meg Ryan’s performance.
Katz’s was one of the places where we really appreciated Bill’s guidance. He explained the ticket system that governs Katz's. You get a ticket on entering, and present that ticket when ordering at any station, and present that ticket to pay upon leaving.
He also gave us very good recommendations of what to order. We were fairly full and three sandwiches was too much for us to eat, but everything was well worth trying.
The corned beef sandwich is not quite as oversized as some we’ve had (such as the Carnegie Deli), but that’s probably a virtue. It was flavorful, but not quite as bold as I seek in my corned beef.
The pastrami soft and rich and succulent. Comparing it to my pastrami was an illuminating study in how far a recipe reconstruction can be from the original, because although the recipe I use says “Close to Katz’s”, what I’ve ended up with is fairly far from what we ate there.
Katz’s pastrami is very juicy, and it is tender, even soft; mine is firm and likely to crumble when sliced. I presume that the difference is that Katz’s steams their pastrami thoroughly before serving; I’m not well set up to steam a hunk of meat, so I do that step poorly or skip it entirely.
Katz’s pastrami has a gentler flavor than mine; my pastrami is fairly brash and bold in flavor.
My secret truth: although I’m extremely glad to have sampled Katz’s pastrami, and I’m certain that theirs is more authentic – I actually prefer my own.
Bill’s particular recommendation was the brisket on the club roll, which he described as an oft-overlooked Katz’s treat. This was a great recommendation, very tender and savory and meaty.
Bill also suggested a plate of half-sour pickles and pickled tomatoes, which I really enjoyed.
Everything we had at Katz’s was very good, but we left a lot on our table because we were too full.
As we were walking back from Katz’s, Bill spotted another shop of renown, Yonah Shimmel’s Knish Bakery. He suggested that we stop in and have an egg cream, because we had been talking about egg creams earlier in the day.
I would have liked to have a knish, because I’ve enjoyed them in the past and it’s become difficult to find a knish in Pittsburgh. But I was much too full to seriously consider ordering one now.
I was really only familiar with egg creams from Harriet the Spy. For those as unfamiliar as I was, an egg cream is made from milk, soda water, and chocolate syrup – but not egg. I am admittedly one of those literally-minded people who is excessively bothered by the fact that an egg cream has no egg.
This particular egg cream did little to convince me that this is a wonderful beverage, but I’m sure that this wasn’t the best way to judge either egg creams or Yonah Shimmel.
Our last stop was one that we had read about from Bill’s reports of other excursions though New York: Rice to Riches, which focuses almost entirely on rice pudding.
I wanted to read all of the signs and sample all the puddings. Fortunately, they seem not to be serious about the extra charge for indecision.
Lori and I got the “Category 5” Caramel topped with sour cherries. This was an incredible, luscious flavor bomb, simply out of this world. I think this was the single best thing we ate all day.
Bill and Dayna got two flavors: the key lime and the mango-tangerine. They were both quite good, nearly as tasty as ours, but much less photogenic.
We are tremendously grateful to Bill and Dayna for leading us around New York City. Without their help, we would have had much more trouble choosing a convenient set of restaurants, and we would have had far more trouble navigating the subways to get around. (This is borne out by experience; we visited NYC previously in 2007 and had a lot of trouble figuring out how best to get around.) We hope to return the favor in Pittsburgh at some point.
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|Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015|
12:51 am - Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Hand
Last weekend, Lori and I went to Ravenwood Castle for a murder mystery weekend: http://www.ravenwoodcastle.com/2015/06/16/sherlock-holmes-and-the-deadly-hand-sept-18th-19th . It was good fun, with several stories that I will deliberately retell out of order.|
My best story from the weekend could have come out of a mystery novel.
It was just before the breakfast at which all would be revealed. I was staring at the evidence table. (I had failed to identify one of the killers, but she had whispered to me that she was a killer. So I had gone down to the evidence table to try to figure out what clue I might have missed that would identify her.)
Mr. Denham (the organizer of the event) came by and saw me studying the table. He dropped a heavy hint that there were no coincidences at this table.
A few other players from other teams came down. It was time to share knowledge at this point, so I told them what I had found:
- the clue that said “The message is 1 - 98 - 7” had been moved to the evidence table.
- the evidence bag of random detritus from around the scene of the crime contained a 1987 quarter.
As we talked these over, we discovered that another bag contained a metal ring with an inner lip into which the quarter would just fit.
We puzzled over this for a while, and two of the other players left to go up to breakfast.
Then, as Chad was fiddling with the quarter and the ring, he dropped the quarter.
And he said, “that’s not a real quarter.”
Chad, it turns out, is an expert on the sounds of coins; he can hear the sound of a small handful of change dropping and identify all the coins. I am not nearly such an expert, but I had a quarter in my pocket and could do the comparison that showed that he was right.
(Really, how improbable is it that we should have accidentally dropped the quarter in earshot of someone who can recognize the sounds of coins?)
We found the narrow line around the edge of the inverse face of the coin.
We still couldn’t figure out how to get it open.
We tried pressing it through the metal ring.
(Cat said, “This is way more exciting than breakfast!”)
We tried prying it open with the lock picks.
At last, I suggested twisting it within the metal ring, and with a few twists, the coin came open revealing the tiny 500-point note within.
We made it to breakfast late but triumphant.
We got very lucky with our team.
In the buffet line at dinner on Friday evening, the couple just behind us was a pair of women dressed up as the Blues Brothers, and I introduced myself and started to chat. We hit it off well enough to sit together at dinner, knowing that the teams would be determined by who was at the same table. Beesting and Babycakes Blues were very fun and energetic, and Beesting particularly provided an energy that really helped us work together as a team. We were also delighted to team up with Elizabeth and Patricia, who wore beautiful Victorian outfits all week, and Leah and Missy, who were veterans and very helpful to us novices.
The breakdown into teams meant that instead of meeting forty people superficially over the weekend, we were working more closely with our eight-person team. We were able to really enjoy each others’ company and end up as new friends.
On Saturday afternoon, there was a scavenger hunt. (The ulterior motive was to get everyone out of the castle while the organizers rearranged clues). This was the most fun I’ve ever had with a scavenger hunt.
This was particularly a testament to how much one can achieve with a friendly smile and a polite request.
We decided to get the “picture in an action scene with firefighters” all in one group.
One of the castle staff kindly answered my request for guidance to the fire station, and suggested a station she thought was more likely to be staffed by pleasant firefighters.
The firefighters were bemused by our request, but willing to help us out. They even ran the lights on the fire engine for our dramatic shot.
We split up to pursue different parts of the list, but I set up a group text (with GroupMe). So we were able to stay in contact through text and share our triumphs and cheer each other on. It really worked well!
At lunch, we chatted with the owner of the diner (who looked like she might well be a biker), so when it was time to pay I mentioned the scavenger hunt and asked if she might have any John Adams dollar coins. She rummaged through her box of coins that didn’t fit into a convenient spot in the cash register, and as she was almost at the last coin in the box, she found a John Adams! We were terribly excited to tell our teammates about this.
On Saturday morning, after the eyeball toss, there was an egg toss, in which an egg was tossed back and forth while under fire from Nerf weapons. Kyle, an athletic man in his fifties, had previously tried to catch the grapes in his mouth when they were fired in the toy catapult demonstration. So Denham offered him two thousand points if he caught the egg in his mouth.
He caught the egg… but it didn’t stay intact.
The sight was well worth it.
We deciphered the starting clues for the location of the Great Oogle diamond to “INTHESTRAWBERRYJAM”, but the jam jar was no longer where it was. With some hints from Denham, we figured that it had been thrown away - but we thought the trash can was too real a trash can to be hiding a fictional treasure. It took encouragement from Denham to get us to root through nasty trash (with the most enthusiastic delving coming from Elizabeth in the Victorian dress), and then Beesting ended up reaching into the strawberry jam to find the diamond.
There were a lot of fun moments, but the least satisfying part was the murder mystery itself. I wanted to match wits with the detectives I read about in books (perhaps with enough hints that I could match wits), and this didn’t quite provide that experience.
In particular, I didn’t feel that there was a coherent story of the murder. At the final breakfast, the murderers were identified, and the modus operandi was hinted at a bit, but there wasn’t a clear story of how the murder happened. Clues had said that the victim “...was killed with a two-step poison. The two elements are administered in two different ways.” It’s not clear whether they meant that (a) there were two components of the poison that needed to both be administered to kill the victim, or (b) the unlucky victim got poisoned twice before dying. But either way, there’s a story there that wants more explanation. In the case of (a), there’s a needed story of conspiracy or accident; in the case of (b), there need to be two stories of motive and malice. And no story was provided. (And I keep having lots of Fridge Logic moments about evidence that should have been there. For example, since it was established that the cyanide was administered through paint on the cards that they were playing with, there should have been evidence that the dealer was wearing gloves.)
I think the problem came about with the decision that the killers were among the forty guests.
That made it hard to investigate the crime on the basis of motive, because the guests were equal with respect to the fictional story.
By the same token, there was no way to investigate on the basis of opportunity.
And an investigation on the basis of means was tricky, because in a narrative in which we were using salt to symbolize poison, it was difficult to tell who might have access to something that counted as a murder weapon.
And you couldn’t practically interrogate suspects or witnesses, and searching suspects would be too rude to do.
So the only avenues of investigation were the contents of the evidence table and the out-of-band clues we found.
We had an advantage; we observed suspicious behavior from one of our teammates (once she learned that she was the killer), and were able to find evidence on the table to implicate her. But we didn’t spot the other killer even though she was part of our team, and I think that it would have been very hard for people who weren’t in such contact to identify the killers.
Maybe the defects in the mystery are balanced out by the fact that solving the mystery was not worth very much in terms of points. I did a lot of puzzle-solving over the weekend, but I think that my individual score was much less than that of the guy who caught the egg in his mouth. I don’t begrudge him his points at all, but I wonder whether my strategy was right for the event.
Overall, it was a weekend I’ll remember for quite a while, with some great new friends and some marvelous moments.
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|Sunday, August 23rd, 2015|
10:44 pm - Post-Surgery Victory Lap 2015: June 27: Philadelphia and New Jersey
The destination in Philadelphia I was most excited about was Reading Terminal Market, which has a history as a public market going back to the 1800s.|
We missed an opportunity through lack of research: I discovered only the night before that there’s a tour of the market available on Saturdays. But by that time, all the tickets were sold.
For breakfast, we started with the Dutch Eating Place, staffed by efficient women in white bonnets.
Lori’s food was a disappointment. Though she had ordered blueberry pancakes, the pancakes she received were blueberry-free, and heavy and doughy to boot. The bacon was even more unpleasant; it was boiled and not at all crisp.
I ordered the creamed chipped beef over hashed browns. It was fairly heavy and gloppy, but tasty enough that I finished it anyway.
My favorite part of that meal, though, was the scrapple. I was not expecting this to be the case. This was my third try with scrapple, and the first two experiences were not pleasant at all. I had decided that scrapple was on probation; if my third try with scrapple was equally unpleasant, I was going to decide I was unlikely to ever enjoy it and stop trying. But this scrapple was excellent, with a very crisp crust and a smooth creamy interior that tasted of pork instead of grease. I think I will still be a bit picky about scrapple, but I now have proof that scrapple can be delicious.
We explored the rest of Reading Terminal Market; we sampled cheese, we admired local produce, we watched Caribbean dancing, Lori bought a cookbook, we bought cookies.
We joined our friend Sarah for lunch. We’ve heard Sarah scoff at the most famous cheesesteak places, so we asked for her favorite cheesesteaks. She mentioned John’s Roast Pork, and I seized upon that, because I’ve seen that widely praised on the Roadfood forums. It was certainly popular; we had to park blocks away and walk through the rain to get there.
Inside, the line was packed with a serpentine line of people. A counterman called for orders from everyone, and we felt that we were throwing grit in the gears for not being ready with an order before we’d seen the menu board.
I had the roast pork sandwich with sharp provolone and spinach. It was a delicious sandwich, full of juicy pork. I was surprised, though, at how gentle a sandwich it was. I had expected that the flavors of sharp provolone and spinach would contrast against each other, but they all melded into a very mild flavor.
We also ordered a cheesesteak.
This is only the second cheesesteak I’ve had in Philadelphia, but my experience with cheesesteaks has been different from most regional foods. Cheesesteaks have spread well beyond Philadelphia. You can get a cheesesteak (or at least some sort of steak and cheese in a sub roll) in Pittsburgh or Dallas - you can even get one at Subway restaurants. And I generally like all those cheesesteaks. So I assumed that local expertise and competition would mean that cheesesteaks in Philadelphia were the pinnacle of the cheesesteak art, the most delicious example of a food I already enjoy.
But – and I feel like a Roadfood heretic for saying this – I’ve found the two cheesesteaks I’ve had in Philadelphia much less pleasant than the cheesesteaks I’ve had elsewhere. The roll and the meat were both very tough, making this a sandwich to be gnawed and worried at instead of savored. (I was told that they use Amoroso rolls for the cheesesteaks, but Carangi rolls for the roast pork.)
It’s possible that I got unlucky with both cheesesteaks. I won’t put Philadelphia cheesesteaks on probation yet, because I’ve enjoyed cheesesteaks outside Philadelphia so much. But so far, I’ve enjoyed cheesesteaks more in the Philadelphia airport than at Roadfood-listed cheesesteak places.
From there, we led Sarah to RIM Cafe, a Philadelphia experience she had never encountered before. RIM Cafe is a coffee and chocolate shop with abundant character, recommended to us by The Travelin Man and cheesewit on a previous visit to Philadelphia. It may well be the best place to eat hot chocolate under the glowering visage of Rocky Balboa.
We got a few truffles and a chocolate-covered Oreo.
Lori also ordered a Chocolate Volcano. This is RIM Cafe’s signature hot chocolate, prepared on a handmade tower of three rotating disks accreted with years of chocolate deposits. It began with milk and cream...
and she added melted chocolate...
and grated espresso chocolate over it...
and black and white chocolate (and another chocolate I didn’t record in my notes)...
and pistachio chocolate, and blueberry & goat cheese chocolate (I believe the exotic chocolates are all made in-house)...
it all accumulated into an extraordinary chocolate drink:
Sarah is having a very busy time; she’s working full time and attending college full time, and she has just bought a house. When we discovered all this, we were even more glad that she’d made time to visit with us.
Rene didn’t come into RIM Cafe until we had been there a few hours; a new granddaughter has just been born, and that has been occupying much of his time and attention. He was delighted to show pictures to Lori and to see her pictures of our niece and nephew.
From there, we drove an hour through heavy rain to meet our friends Mike and Kate in New Brunswick, New Jersey for dinner at Stuff Yer Face. The food cognoscenti among you will have already inferred from the name that this is unlikely to be the sort of elegant restaurant in which tuxedo-clad waiters serve glamorous meals under silver domes. And that would be a correct inference. Indeed, hardly any elegant restaurants have theme songs to the tune of "Dem Bones". Stuff Yer Face is an eatery aimed towards students at Rutgers University, and has been a familiar part of Mike’s dining landscape for many years. Kate was slightly chagrined that they were bringing us to a place so lowbrow, but I assured her that I was glad to eat at a place with such significance to a friend.
The specialty of Stuff Yer Face is a stromboli, abbreviated here to boli. I chose the original boli, with mozzarella, salami, green pepper, onion, and cappicola. It was a hearty, satisfying sandwich, and much more wieldy than most strombolis of my experience. It was easy to eat with a hand, but a little grease leaked to require a napkin.
Lori had the pepperoni stromboli, which was also tasty.
We spent hours chatting with Mike and Kate until we left for New York. In this part of our itinerary, we had had one planning insight that served us very well: as we were making plans that led us from New Jersey to Massachusetts with a stop in New York City, we realized that if we stayed on the northwest side of New York City, we could be driving through New York City on Saturday night and hope for less traffic than on Monday morning. This worked well for us; traffic was light as we drove through to New Rochelle.
The minor complication was that we got a phone call from the B&B as we drove; she was called in to work (she’s a nurse), and wouldn’t be there to receive us. But she left a key for us on the doorstep, and we got in without trouble and were guided to our room by notes she had left for us.
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|Monday, August 3rd, 2015|
4:10 pm - Post-Surgery Victory Lap 2015: June 26: Delaware
We got off late on Friday, with intentions to get to Philadelphia and explore a bit there before eating dinner with friends. But I took it into my head that we should try to have brunch in Delaware.|
The Delaware diversion was a purely collector’s impulse. At one time, I dreamed of visiting all the restaurants listed in Roadfood, but after several years of fairly diligent Roadfooding, I’ve hit only a few hundred of those restaurants; I don’t think that goal is viable. But I still have a ‘collect them all’ mentality. So I’ve reduced my goals to smaller collections; I’m still trying to eat at all of the Roadfood honor roll (37/100), and I’m trying to eat Roadfood in every state (40/50).
But we hadn’t previously eaten in Delaware, and from Pittsburgh, Delaware is not really en route to anything but Delaware. So I was tempted into the detour because we were already so close.
We chose Dutch Country Cafe as our destination because the Roadfood review mentioned breakfast food and we thought we could get there in time for brunch. But the drive was slow, albeit pleasant, and they were no longer serving breakfast by the time we arrived.
The Dutch Country Cafe is in the Dutch Market, which appears to be a former big box store in a strip mall that’s been divided up into a bunch of small Amish stalls. The effect is very utilitarian and severe.
We sat at the counter, and this may have been a mistake. The service was extremely lackluster; we had to wait a long time to receive drinks, a long time to get our order taken, a very long time to receive our food, and a very long time to receive our bill. I never did receive the soup that I ordered. When I asked for the bill, I said in my best chilly tone, “please take the soup off the bill”. The waitress said, “Oh, did you still want that?”
We saw later that there was booth seating on the other side of the kitchen. Perhaps if we had chosen seats there, we would not have felt forgotten and forlorn.
The lunch menu did not seem to have much Pennsylvania Dutch character. The only thing that seemed out of the ordinary was the chicken and corn soup. Had I received the soup, I might have an opinion about that.
I got an American sub, with salami, white cheddar cheese, fresh juicy tomato, and pickled peppers, piled high enough on a sub roll that was necessary to eat it open-faced because the sandwich could not be closed. It was actually a very good sandwich, particularly because of the tomatoes.
Lori’s beef and bacon melt was much less nice. It tasted much more of grill and grease than beef or bacon.
Afterward, I got a very nice soft pretzel at the pretzel stand across the aisle.
With our late arrival, the excruciating slowness of the service, and traffic delays around Wilmington, we had no time to enjoy Philadelphia at all this day. It would be an error to judge the whole state by this bad experience, but nevertheless I was muttering “stupid Delaware” for most of the trip.
We had dinner with our friends Seth and Karen in Cherry Hill. Karen had prepared a beautiful feast, including four different types of quiches, a very fancy vegetable tart with cucumber and carrot rosettes, and a beautiful caramel apple tart. We were very impressed that she could do so much, particularly with four young children.
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4:05 pm - Post-Surgery Victory Lap 2015: June 25: Baltimore
So, we started our trip in Baltimore because the touring company of Pippin was there. There’s a bit of a story here. In December 2014, Ralph offered to take me to New York City to see the Broadway revival of Pippin, which I desperately wanted to see. I was most interested because they’d done a reimagined staging of the show that kept elements from the original Broadway production that have been watered down over the years and more importantly, it was done in cooperation with a circus troupe called Les 7 Doigts de la Main. So, it would be Pippin, a show I’ve always kind of loved, with Cirque du Soleil style acrobatics and stunts. I was so excited that we would go to NYC to see this show and have a lovely Christmas weekend with a slight tinge of “we’re doing this because January 2015 is unlikely to be much fun.” Our plane tickets were bought, we had a line on good seats for the show, and...I got diagnosed with a bad case of the flu on Christmas Eve. It stunk. We had to cancel Christmas Day dinner at our home, I missed my niece and nephew’s first Christmas, and we had to cancel our trip. So, this was finally my chance to see this show, and it did not disappoint! But, that was the end of the day...we did some other things too.
We started our day at The Breakfast Shoppe, a cute little place in a strip mall. Despite the inauspicious location, the “BS” had a cozy atmosphere, great food, and an impressive collection of chicken and rooster knickknacks.
Their food was great! Ralph had the Knapsacker, a hearty scramble of eggs, cheese, potatoes, mushrooms, and ham. I had a bite or two, and it was delicious, and certainly a breakfast that would keep you going for hours. (Ralph: the Knapsacker is the smaller version of the Backpacker, which would be enough of a meal to keep one going all day.)
I had their Cinnamon Roll Pancakes with a side order of excellent bacon. The Cinnamon Roll Pancakes were a decadent breakfast treat glistening with butter, cinnamon and sugar and I really enjoyed them. Ralph’s breakfast may have had more of the staying power of protein, but mine provided a sugar high to rival any illegal substance out there.
From there we did some shopping for supplies we either forgot or were low on when we packed. We’d planned to have a light lunch at G & M Restaurant, but there were two problems with that idea. One, we were still full from breakfast, and felt we would be for hours. Two, upon perusing their menu, we weren’t sure you could really have a light lunch there. I’d been wanting to eat dinner at a fancier place because we were going to the theater, but we decided that G & M was actually plenty fancy for dinner, and decided to return there later.
Our next stop was Charm City Cakes, which I really wanted to see because I was a fan of the Food Network show “Ace of Cakes,” and I think they do great work. Charm City Cakes is open to the public for certain hours each day and they have a small display area of their masterpiece cakes. They had cupcakes for sale and a variety of licensed gear (big surprise). Unfortunately, no one was visible who was working other than the cashier/receptionist in the front. We did buy a cupcake, and it was good, but I think their main appeal is the stunning design work they do. The cake we tasted was as good as any other high-end bakery we’ve tried, but not especially memorable. On the other hand, their giant “Virginia is for Lovers” rainbow-themed cake was a real show stopper! I’m glad we stopped by, it wasn’t as much fun as seeing Duff Goldman, the owner/chief cake artist do a demo here in Pittsburgh a couple years ago. He was just as funny in person as he was on the show!
(Ralph: The cupcake definitely made me feel that Charm City Cakes cared more about the appearance than about the taste. On the other hand, I did get an answer to my question of “how do you cut such an ornate cake?”: a buyer receives a diagram of where the supporting structures are with cutting guidelines.)
Next we went to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor with a plan of walking around and picking something to do. We first stopped at a Tourist Information spot and were overwhelmed with attractive options for spending a few hours before dinner and the show. We settled on a boat tour of the Inner Harbor. This turned out to be a lovely activity for the afternoon. It was slightly overcast but still pleasant outside, and we enjoyed cruising the harbor and seeing the sights. The narration on the boat was a bit hard to hear, but it was interesting. We heard about Baltimore’s history and current status. We also were made aware that like Pittsburgh, a lot of industry is being replaced by condos and shopping centers. We got some good pictures, too.
Then it was time for dinner at G & M. Ralph started with a cup of Maryland Crab Soup, which he said was fine but not particularly special.
I had a fairly ordinary house salad. Then the real stars of the meal arrived: my giant crab cake and Ralph’s amazing “stuffed shrimp,” which was shrimp piled high with crabmeat. Both our entrees were buttery and delicious, and full of the fresh flavors you really only get when you’re by the sea. We really enjoyed our meal there.
(Ralph: I should not have been so surprised by the stuffed shrimp. Michael Hoffman had told me that the shrimp was piled high with crab. I guess that despite the forewarning, I still thought that “stuffed” would imply that there would be crab on the inside and shrimp on the outside.)
We skipped dessert at G & M to try an Italian pastry shop, Vaccaro’s, recommended by our friend Alex Yeager as the finest in Little Italy. I don’t remember much about the creamy, lemony pastry because it turned into one of those things where we got stuck in traffic going to the pastry shop and then to the theater, and service in the pastry shop was disinterested and slow. The pastry was wolfed down in the theater parking lot, and while fine, was nothing special. I believe we didn’t experience this pastry shop at its’ finest, and would give it another chance some other time.
Despite the pastry shop snafu, we made it to our seats with 5 minutes to spare. First of all, we splurged on this and had amazing seats in the balcony that sat over the orchestra seats. We were close enough to see the actors’ facial expressions and high enough up to get the “full picture” of the dance and acrobatic numbers. I was a little nervous -- I’d waited so very long to see this show. I was hoping it was everything I’d dreamed it would be. I wasn’t disappointed!
The show began with no overture, just the strains of instruments tuning up and then the dreamy first chords of the opening number. The curtain looked like an circus tent in sepia tones, and as the chords began, a larger than life silhouette of the Leading Player appeared and gradually shrank down to the actresses’ shadow as she parted the curtain and began singing the opening number, “Magic to Do.” Perfect way to begin, as the Leading Player drives the whole show, much like the circus ringmaster she is dressed as in this version. I was optimistic -- the silhouette/shadow effect gave me a few chills, it was that perfect. Then the sepia curtain came up to reveal the rest of the cast singing and engaging in various circus performances. Oh, it was amazing! My one complaint was that there was so much going on that you couldn’t see it all. I’ll attach a video at the end to show so much I just can’t put into words.
The rest of the show unfolded in a similar vein. Under a dreamy, star-spangled big top tent, the “Life and Times of Prince Pippin” played out. Using the circus theme gave the company the right mix of alluring and subtly menacing, because this production brings out the underlying darkness of this musical that’s so often lost in revival productions of it. The show’s “theater company” makes a business of luring in impressionable young men and convincing them to do a circus trick that ends in their deaths. Despite the fun, seventies’-style score, there’s an element of darkness to the show, and this production had just the right touch of it. It also got the beautiful lesson of love that is the heart of the show just right. There was a genuine sweetness to the second act that I really enjoyed.
I can’t finish talking about Pippin without mentioning Adrienne Barbeau, who has the featured role of Berthe, Pippin’s grandmother. Folks, Ms. Barbeau is seventy years old now and absolutely fabulous. She can still carry off a corset way better than I could at 45, and she did a trapeze routine! It was one thing to see the young chorus/circus performers on the trapeze, and they were amazing. It was even more impressive to see her go up there with her two young men and perform. The whole cast was awesome, but she really owned every moment she was onstage in her brief role.
The other thing that I have to talk about with Pippin is just how sexy it was. This is a bit tricky for me. Sexy stuff often slips into being sordid and tawdry or into being coy and euphemistic; Pippin mostly did neither, and I want to do neither in my description.
It certainly touched the sordid in the scene where Pippin seeks fulfillment through casual sexual revelry. And it touched the euphemistic in the acrobatic pantomime that accompanied Pippin’s first night with Catherine.
But mostly it was just pure dazzling eyeballs-dry-out sexiness, with lots of lithe acrobats in fantastic performances.
I can name several super-sexy scenes from the show:
The first appearance of the Lead Player;
The pinup-flavored quick-change act of Fastrada;
But it’s possible that the big winner was Adrienne Barbeau’s fabulous trapeze routine as Berthe. She was super sexy - not just sexy for a septuagenarian, but sexy in a way that would draw stares at any age.
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|Tuesday, July 21st, 2015|
9:36 pm - Post-Surgery Victory Lap 2015: June 24
After visiting the British Isles in 2013 and 2014, we wanted to stay within road-trip distance of home this year. In June and July of 2015, we took a long road trip through Baltimore, New York, New England, New Brunswick, and Quebec.|
We set out for Baltimore on the evening of Wednesday, June 24. Now, the direct route from Pittsburgh to Baltimore goes straight down the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and the Turnpike makes it much more convenient to eat at its service plazas than to get off the road. But I have my own superstitions, and one of my superstitions is that it’s important to start an eating vacation with an interesting meal – and the service plazas hardly count as interesting. So we got off the turnpike to eat at Out of the Fire, a place we’ve enjoyed before just minutes from the Donegal exit.
We were able to sit on the deck with a lovely sunset view of the Laurel Highlands. (This turned out to be a great vacation for eating outdoors; we ended up with fourteen outdoor dinners.)
For an appetizer, we ordered the house-made fresh mozzarella with bruschetta.
Our first impression of it was that it was very tricky to eat neatly. It fiercely resisted forking out a bite-sized portion:
But once we overcame that, the mozzarella was very tasty, with a mild salty flavor and a very nice texture.
Lori had the smoked chicken breast and enjoyed it very much. I thought I tasted a touch of ash behind the smoke, but she did not.
Instead of a full entree, I chose two appetizers.
The first was an extraordinary grilled watermelon salad with cherries and blue cheese. The grilling made the watermelon super-sweet, but the sweetness was balanced very nicely by the funky tang of the blue cheese.
I had my doubts about ordering lobster mac and cheese so far from the water, but I ended up being glad. The lobster was very tender and flavorful, and it complemented the smoky gouda of the cheese sauce very nicely.
For dessert, Lori enticed me into the blackberry-cognac sorbet, which was a smooth, intense delight.
We had entirely succeeded at starting our trip off on the right culinary foot. Our dinner had taken long enough that we saw a beautiful sunset in the rearview mirror as we set off again. We made it to our hotel in Baltimore near midnight.
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|Sunday, July 19th, 2015|
2:25 pm - Torture in Warcraft
In World of Warcraft, my main character has gotten into a quest that involves torturing enemy combatants. (The quest is "The Power of Poison", on the quest chain that you get from choosing the Brewery option in the Spires of Arak.)|
I object to torture. I think that the CIA's use of torture is a national disgrace. I don't want to do this quest.
Unfortunately, this quest is required for the achievement that would unlock flying in Draenor. I would like to fly in Draenor.
I filed a ticket requesting to get my quest progress reset, so that I could choose the smuggler's den option instead of the brewery option. I got a reply from a GM that sympathized with my aversion to torture, but said that the GMs did not have the power to do such a reset for me.
So I have three options to choose from:
1. Do the torture quest.
2. Do all the substantial work for that achievement (i.e., most of the quests in the expansion) on another character.
3. Never fly in Draenor.
I won't say I'm not tempted by option #1. I am tempted. It would be a lot of work to do everything on another character, and I do want to fly.
I am tempted to rationalize #1 by saying that it's just characters in a video game. But the reward is just an advantage in a video game. If I want the CIA to have the honor to avoid torture when real lives are at stake, shouldn't I avoid fictional torture for a fictional convenience?
I keep thinking about the Milgram experiment. I would like to think that if I were one of the subjects in the Milgram experiment, I would have the courage to defy the experimenter's orders... but I don't feel any certainty.
This is not a post about how noble and good I am. This is a post about the temptations of evil, even if the evil is minor and easily rationalized. And I might yet succumb to that temptation.
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|Sunday, May 17th, 2015|
9:45 am - Remote Gaming
Last weekend, Dave, Kevin and I tried a couple of experiments with playing Pandemic with Dave in Florida. Neither was absolutely perfect, but both were successful enough to be better than not playing.|
For our first experiment, we tried video chat with Google Hangouts, with one camera pointing at our faces and one pointing at the board. We had Dave’s hand visible to the webcam pointing at the board, and we did all his moving and card drawing for him.
This worked pretty well. The down side was that since Dave had no way to change his focus, it was hard for him to read the names on cities, and sometimes hard for him to read the cards in his hand. But it was good enough to participate in strategy discussions with us.
This would be a bigger challenge with Eldritch Horror, where the fine print on the cards would be too hard to read. To make this work with Eldritch Horror, the remote user would have to take good notes.
Our second experiment was using Vassal (http://www.vassalengine.org/index.php), a Java program for a shared gameboard.
It wasn’t everything one would want from a Pandemic experience. It turns out that Vassal is really just providing a shared gameboard and not much else. For example, setting up the player deck is an eleven-step process whose only advantage over the physical game is that you can shuffle a deck with a right-click. And it was rather finicky in play; we had a couple of problems with cards getting flipped over or decks shuffled wrong until we figured out that we had to place things just so. (Voice chat of some sort would be very helpful for teaching each other how to play.)
But the positive side of it being such a basic implementation was that we had little trouble incorporating our house rules. Using our revised Special Orders was easy, for example. The one rule that might have been a bit tricky was our starting with a choice of two roles, and I have ideas about how we could do that next time.
Vassal is a modular game engine, and there have been a lot of game modules written for it. For example, there’s a module for Small World, which Andy has wanted to play with us. There’s not one for Eldritch Horror currently. There is one for Arkham Horror (and all the expansions), and one for Elder Sign, a dice game on the same theme. (But the download page says "As per FFG policy, all common item card texts are blank to ensure players own a copy. “)
We could imagine writing a module for Eldritch Horror. In practice, it would take me quite a while to scan everything and do the implementation. (The expression language used for writing conditions is pretty half-assed. Two examples of half-assery: (1) it doesn’t support grouping subexpressions with parentheses, and (2) because there’s an implicit dereference on the left-hand side of a comparison, ‘foo = bar’ is not equivalent to ‘bar = foo’.)
If we want to play Advanced Civilization again, Vassal might be a good option. It allows easy saving and restoring of games, and that might be really useful for such a long game.
Kevin said that Vassal would make a lunchtime game of Pandemic more appealing to him, because it would cut out the commuting costs. This has a definite appeal. Doing a videoconference from my office would be a bit awkward, just because of the risk that my manager might stop in - but I could overcome that. Another alternative might be to play a slower game over the course of a day, with text chat instead of live voice chat.
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|Saturday, July 12th, 2014|
1:47 pm - London and Ireland Trip, October 11: Return Home
We ate breakfast at Dromoland before leaving. I took a picture of the dining room that I had not been willing to take the previous evening.|
I saw a grilled kipper on the breakfast menu. I am usually only neutral on seafood, but this was something I'd heard of as a British breakfast dish and not yet tried. And I thought that I could be certain that it was prepared here as well as it might be anywhere, so I could be confident that I was judging it at its best. Well, now I've had a grilled kipper under good conditions, and I can feel confident when I choose something else in the future. It was intensely fishy, and the taste lingered for so long that I could still taste kipper when we landed in the US.
Where I tried for bold experimentation in my breakfast choice, Lori chose something she was confident she would like: lemon ricotta pancakes with raspberry coulis. They were delightful.
From that splendid finale at Dromoland, we plunged directly into mundanity.
Go to the airport. (Just a few miles away from Dromoland.)
Return the rental car and accept the charge for the broken side mirror.
Fly to Heathrow.
Fly to Washington, DC, arriving at midnight body time.
Wait in a series of very long lines for Customs. (They confiscated the Gubbeen salami that we had bought as a souvenir for Lori's father.)
Fly to Pittsburgh, arriving at 5am body time. (I am so glad that Paul was able to pick us up; I was definitely out of it after the long day of travel.)
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1:15 pm - London and Ireland Trip, October 10: Dromoland Castle
Lori’s pancakes at Marless House.|
On Friday, we were growing aware that our time in Ireland was ending soon.
We found a post office and mailed home all the books we’d bought, so that we could fit everything into our bags. We then parked near the Latin Quarter (in a parking garage with such small parking spaces that parking was a nerve-wracking process) to finish up our shopping.
We stumbled on a group of preteens doing a balloon release. Lori learned that this was honoring a classmate who had died.
We ate our last lunch at Griffin’s Bakery and Coffee Shop, because it had caught Lori’s fancy the previous day.
Unfortunately, it was not very satisfying; we were squeezed uncomfortably into a tight corner, and service was very slow.
My bacon and brie sandwich convinced me of two things: 1) brie is not the best cheese to accompany Irish bacon, and 2) if you’re going to cook the bacon and toast the bread, I think you really ought to melt the cheese as well.
Lori’s burger was so overcooked it was hard, and though it was not a very large burger, it was so tall that it was hard to eat. A friend of ours has a similar story of a burger in Ireland with a hard, round patty; he’s been told by his Irish coworkers that a burger in Ireland is typically eaten with a knife and fork. I am of course biased by my upbringing, but I prefer American burger style.
Lori had chosen the bakery more because of its promise of dessert, and after much deliberation over all the possibilities, she settled on an eclair.
It took us a while to finish our shopping, and then we hit a traffic jam leaving Galway. So it was late afternoon before we arrived at our final hotel. Had we known what we were getting, we would have struggled to have more time there.
I have mentioned before that the travel agent who had recommended Ballyseede Castle to us had been very cost-focused. But my belief is that if I’m going to splurge (and any castle stay is at least a bit of a splurge), I should splurge big enough that the sense of luxury overwhelms my penny-pinching, cost-compromising ways. I feel more splurged with an utter splurge rarely than with a partial splurge more frequently. So after we gave up on that travel agent, we asked a consultant at Rick Steves about options for a wondrous castle splurge. He too was very cost-conscious at first, but he realized what we wanted and adjusted, and his recommendation was Dromoland Castle.
Dromoland was another opportunity to briefly experience another culture - in this case, the culture of the landed gentry. And they did a marvelous job of making that culture accessible by gently managing the experience. I will explain with three stories:
- A porter brought our bags to our room for us. (We appreciated this; there were several sets of stairs.) As we started to consider a tip, he vanished, making it quite clear that no tip was expected.
- I realized that I had left my phone in the car. So I walked to the front desk to ask where the cars were parked, because valet parking had whisked them away. The desk clerk suggested, “why don’t you let the porter get it for you?” I returned to our room, and a few minutes later, the porter knocked, handed me my phone, and vanished again.
- At dinner, they changed the table settings with every course. This eliminated any anxiety over what fork to use - there was only one set of utensils available at any time.
Our room at Dromoland was actually not as eccentrically wonderful as our room at Lawcus Farm. But the view from our window was splendid.
We had a bit of time to tour the grounds.
They had their own folly, a petite Greek temple.
The Hermit’s Cottage was built about a century ago and has probably never sheltered an actual hermit.
The lily pond next to it achieves greater authenticity by hosting actual lilies.
We spent the last twilight in the Walled Garden.
I was impressed with what good roses they had in October.
We dressed as smartly as we could for dinner at the Earl of Thomond. I wished I had brought a tie; I still felt underdressed. But no one made us feel unwelcome. Dinner was superb, and again they made the luxury very accessible, with very helpful explanations for all of our questions and good suggestions of food and wine. (The wine list was the size of a telephone book. Part of that turned out to be because the pages were very thick, but even so there were many pages.)
I began with a wild mushroom and chorizo risotto. It was amazing, with sumptuous flavor and rich texture.
The spoon provided for the risotto was very shallow, with an asymmetric shape that I didn’t recognize. I posted a quip about it on Facebook, and my sister asked for a picture, which I had not taken. So at breakfast the next day, I asked them to bring out such a spoon for me to photograph.
Lori had a beautiful goat cheese appetizer.
A lovely champagne sorbet cleansed her palate before the entrees.
I had the fennel and star anise soup. It was much more delicious than it was photogenic.
Silver domes covered our entrees, and the staff would assemble around each table and lift all domes at the same time while exclaiming “voila!” This definitely gave a special feel to the experience, with the only fly in the ointment being the goon taking the picture.
Lori’s entree was roast chicken with etuvee of cabbage, mashed potatoes with scallions. This may not sound terribly exciting, but there’s something wonderful about fresh ingredients prepared well. Lori’s dinner was delicious, and the new potatoes with butter were especially good.
I chose the entree of Irish beef sirloin with shallot sauce. It was wonderful, sumptuous beef.
My dessert was caramel parfait, berry coulis, and house made ice cream. It might just be a matter of my own tastes, but I’d call it “quite good” instead of the “astounding” level of the previous dishes. But this may be like singling out the slowest runner at the Olympics.
Lori: pink meringue trio with mango sauce Lori was delighted by her sweet, pink dessert.
Because we were splurging, I asked the sommelier to recommend a nice port to finish the meal. He said he had an excellent 1988 port that he had just decanted, which he was offering at a special price. We had a moment of confusion when I thought the price he was quoting was for a whole bottle, not just a single glass. It was very good, but I think it was wasted on me; I think it would have been hard for me to distinguish it from a much cheaper port. Lori: Port and truffles were all incredibly lovely, and a rich finish to a sumptuous meal.
When staying at a nice hotel, nothing will take me out of that feeling of luxury more than nickel-and-diming with little charges. A minibar in the room will make me grumble, and paying for WiFi will make me sulk and snarl. Dromoland didn’t nickel-and-dime in that way, but did charge extra for some amenities - but when I discovered that falconry was available for an additional fee, my only reaction was regret that we had arrived too late for me to enjoy it.
Dromoland was certainly a mighty splurge, but we felt that we did get the splendidly luxurious experience that we had paid for. There were places like Lawcus Farm where we got much more value than what we paid for, but Dromoland was at least as good as its price. Lori repeatedly said that she didn’t want to leave, because pretending to be a princess was enchanting!
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|Thursday, July 10th, 2014|
12:58 am - Dungeon World
Our last GURPS campaign fizzled out a few years ago; it was too hard to get all the players together to play, and it was hard to get a lot done in a single session.|
I've been getting the itch to play some RPGs lately. But I'm looking for a source that avoids those problems. Here's what I want:
- play is fast enough that we can have a whole adventure in one session (ideally including learning to play).
- advancement is slow enough that characters with more playtime can play nicely with characters with less playtime.
Friends have suggested Dungeon World might qualify, so we've been testing it out.
I've played in four sessions so far:
#1 with Dave and Lori. I used a convention adventure "The Slave Pits of Drazhu" I found online. I replaced the big spider with a customized monster. It was pretty cool - including a very nifty bit where Lissani (Lori's character) stepped in front to intercept a spell meant for Willem.
#2 with Dave, Kevin, Andy, and Steve. I came up with a short custom adventure to meet Siggrun, a dwarf artificer had built a vehicle that could travel to the lands of the dead and return. It was decent, but I didn't delve into character backstories as much as I would have liked to, and action bogged down at times. (And players had different ideas about what RPGs ought to be.)
#3 with Kevin and Lori. I felt that I was not really grasping the improvisational style that Dungeon World offered, so I tried to overcorrect by going in with no preparation. It was very slow to start, but it ended up very nifty; we ended up with a coherent adventure in which the PCs discovered and thwarted an attempt by a pack of gnolls to summon a demon by creating a massive rune of destruction.
#4 with Dave and Lori. I meant to prepare something for this, but didn't make time to do so. It started slow and we didn't finish the adventure, but I really liked where it was going. We'll pick it up again next week, and I'm looking forward to it.
Dungeon World definitely favors a very improvisational style; there are many moments that call for the GM to come up with something on the spur of the moment - both things about the local action and the whole world. I have two wildly different feelings about this.
On the one hand, it feels like a sort of Potemkin village, in which the players just see a thin veneer of description without a coherent world underneath.
On the other hand, it feels like I as the GM am learning about the world during play along with the PCs, and that's feeling very exciting.
I am getting to the point that there are enough cool bits that I should be taking notes. I admit, I don't really like taking notes and wish I didn't have to - even if it's for such good reasons. Here's things I remember from our first few sessions:
- The lich Drazhu hired Willem when he was living, before he became a lich and enslaved everyone.
- When you bring back something from the land of the dead, you have to leave something behind. Siggrun brought back an amulet left to a dead woman by her lover, and left her hand (which she replaced with an artificial one).
- Nanukial's tribe of elves was driven out of the forest by a horrific evil and now resides in the frozen north.
- Nanukial and Lissani were following a game path through the forest when they realized that path was skillfully crafted to look like an natural path.
- Nanukial and Lissani met a small grove of dryads. Their grove is Caerlindel.
- Dryads are intelligent but grasp symbols with only the greatest effort.
- Far to the south is the vast necropolis Kereth-Ammon.
- Orcs are normally savage and brutal, but Lissani and Willem have seen evidence of an orc shaman gathering mushrooms for magic ritual and showing enough mastery of nature to summon savage gorilla-like nature spirits.
- Islith's Haven is an abbey devoted to Boccob, the god of magic and secret knowledge. Lissani and Willem had to pledge to keep the abbey's secrets to be allowed entrance, and Aethelna, the acolyte who welcomed them, has secrets that she holds to even more tightly. She has said that Willem will have to present the information to Cadeus, "who tends the Long Secrets", and she regards Cadeus with apprehension.
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|Saturday, July 5th, 2014|
9:04 pm - London and Ireland Trip, October 9: Galway
As we were coming to the end of the trip, we were getting second thoughts about eating the full Irish fry every morning, and we were staying in B&Bs that offered menus for breakfast. I ordered poached eggs on toast topped with cheddar cheese, because I hadn’t seen it on menus elsewhere. It was tasty, like a meatless eggs Benedict.|
Lori chose porridge, eggs and bacon, and a scone.
Plan A had been to walk to the corner and take a bus into Galway. But we were a few minutes late and the bus did not run that often. And it was a beautiful day, and it didn’t look that far on the B&B’s hand-drawn map. So I talked Lori into walking along the Promenade into Galway. We might not have walked it if we had known how long it would be, but it was a very pleasant walk. (And every time we raised our map to check our course, somebody stopped to offer help.)
Had we not walked, we might not have spent any time in Claddagh, the tiny village famous for Claddagh rings (and now a suburb of Galway). And it’s very likely that we might not have stopped for a snack at the Gourmet Tart Shop.
Galway’s Latin Quarter was a very good place for us to finish our shopping in Ireland. Every tourist chain of stores we had seen anywhere was represented there, and the Quarter was so compact that it was easy to find everything.
The King’s Head pub was so named because of its role in the beheading of King Charles I.
Lori with Oscar Wilde. I’m not quite sure what the Galway-Wilde connection is.
We ate a wonderful lunch at Sheridan’s Cheesemongers. We invited the cheesemonger to recommend meat and cheese and wine for us, and he was very enthusiastic and did a terrific job. He served us a lovely Valpolicella wine and a great platter of Irish meats and cheeses. At my request, he wrote down a list of everything - unfortunately, I can’t quite remember which one was which.
St. Tola goat cheese
Kileen young goat cheese
Boyne Valley Blue
Gubeen smoked cheese (from the cheese maker in Eyeries that we had failed to find on our drive through the Beara peninsula Monday)
Durrus farmhouse cheese
Gubeen black pepper salami
The Gubeen salami was so good that we bought some to bring home for ourselves and some as a gift for Lori’s father. Unfortunately, it was confiscated when we went through Customs.
For dessert, Lori had her last millionaire’s shortbread of the trip, a very good one.
We tried once more to find an Irish session. When we’d asked Mary, the innkeeper at our B&B, for recommendations for Irish music, she’d said “Irish people don’t listen to Irish music,” but despite that, she had suggested Taaffe’s as a place with a regular session. I think this was a reasonably authentic session - the folks playing were playing for each other, instead of for the audience, musicians joined the group from time to time, and no one offered CDs for sale.
Mary may have been exaggerating, but she was not wholly wrong; everyone in the audience appeared to be a tourist, including this particularly cute spectator.
Galway at dusk.
For dinner, we followed a Yelp tip to The Pie Maker, a little shop serving Australian pies. This was one of the finest Roadfood stops we’ve ever had, because we got into a great conversation with Stephanie, the woman making the pies.
It was a tiny shop, with just four booths and a counter.
We drank Australian beverages: Bundaberg ginger beer (very fiery) and Belvoir elderflower soda (somewhat bitter).
I had a chicken curry pie, Lori had a ham and cheese pie, and both were wonderful. After weeks of thick, heavy crust, it was a nice change to find that Australian pie crusts are light and flaky like pie crusts in the US. Its hard to tell from these pictures which pie is which. Stephanie can tell them apart by the garnishes on the pie crust, but I no longer remember which one was which.
For dessert, I had a splendid rhubarb tart and Lori had an outstanding banoffee pie. Stephanie was very firm on the claim that banoffee pie was an Irish creation, because so many bananas pass through Dublin on the way to other places. I didn’t argue too strongly with her, but there seems to be fairly clear evidence that banoffee pie was originated at the Hungry Monk pub in England. Stephanie very kindly gave us her recipe for banoffee pie, and we’ve made it ourselves with good results.
The food was all excellent, but the best thing about the meal was the conversation with Stephanie. For most of the evening, we were alone in the place with her, and we had a long, rambling, lovely conversation. (The conversation would have been long anyway, but it was made even longer because they only took cash and we were out. I left Lori there “as collateral” and went out walking to find an ATM, but the first ATM I found quit working at 6pm. I had to walk much further to find an ATM that would give us cash.)
She had grown up in the United States, and had been a social worker in New Mexico until she burned out. She had moved to Inishmor (one of the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland not far from Galway) because of a guy, and felt that she hadn’t been welcomed by the community there. But when that romance ended with a “psychotic” breakup, the whole community took care of her, and someone unexpected called the police.
She had moved to Kinsale for a while, and learned to cook through cultivating a recommendation for being available as a dishwasher, potato peeler, or whatever odd job was needed for a restaurant that might be short-handed for a day for a staff emergency until chefs started giving her tips and jobs.
Now she lives on Inishmor and goes to Galway for four days each week to work in the pie shop. She runs the Pie Maker herself most of the time she’s there, making all the pies, serving customers, and everything. The job makes her wonderfully happy.
She also told us about some of her romantic hopes, and invited our advice. I’m not going to write those details here, just in case the guy she was attracted to should happen to find this page in a Google search - but Stephanie, if you should ever read this, we have our fingers crossed for you, and we’d love to know how it works out. Best of luck!
We loved talking with Stephanie about life and pie, and we wish her and the shop the very best. This was one of our favorite stops in Ireland.
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|Tuesday, July 1st, 2014|
12:33 am - London and Ireland Trip, October 9: Cliffs of Moher and Galway
Breakfast at in the fine dining room at Ballyseede was very nice; I had eggs Benedict, and Lori had an omelet.|
This is the other dog of Ballyseede, a gentle Irish wolfhound (shown with a small child for scale). He (the dog, not the child) is named Mr. Kenny, after Enda Kenny, the current Taoiseach (prime minister of Ireland).
Some more pictures of Ballyseede and its gardens under less gloomy skies:
Our path this day took us northward along the coast to Galway. We took the car ferry across the Shannon river. The passenger door was obstructed enough that Lori had to sit inside for the whole ride, but I was able to get out and feel the wind and take in the scenery. It turns out that Lori didn’t miss that much in scenery:
I did get a chance to see the nearby Guinness plant:
Towns were few and far between on the coast of County Clare when we started thinking about lunch. I tried to use my Roadfood instincts, but we chose the Quilty Tavern more for location than from an instinct for quality.
It was one of our worst meals in Ireland. I ordered the seafood chowder because we were on the coast, and it was unpleasant, with a flavor that was strongly fishy and almost rancid. My ham and cheese sandwich was also a perfunctory assembly of cheap ingredients. Lori ordered the Quilty Club on the theory that the name of the town meant they took a particular pride in the sandwich - but although her sandwich was better than my food, this was not a sandwich that merited any pride. And the service that we received was so neglectful that it would have needed to improve a few notches to qualify as negligent. I was very glad that I had enough small currency to cover the bill I calculated and leave, because waiting for a bill and credit card processing might have taken another eon.
But note that Lori’s sandwich was served on fine china, and my tureen of soup came on a doily-lined plate. And the pub was a Victorian beauty with lots of polished old wood. Once again the beauty of the pub seems to have no connection to the quality of the food and service.
Quilty does not have the cliffs that mark the coast to the north and south.
We had other cliffs in plan, though - our scenic destination of the day was the Cliffs of Moher. They are one of the famous sights of Ireland, but also famous in the movies for roles like the Cliffs of Insanity in The Princess Bride.
Unfortunately, we arrived in late afternoon and the western sun made it hard to take good pictures - but we try not to be the type of tourists who insist that geography be rearranged to suit our schedule; it is both rude and ineffective.
Lori had visited the cliffs on a previous trip in 2001, but since her trip they have built a visitor’s centre. It’s quite a nice visitor’s center, actually, with some good exhibits on the history and geology and a dizzying movie from the perspective of a bird in flight - but the cliffs are far more of a stirring sight.
I was surprised to learn that O’Brien Tower was built as recently as 1805.
I don’t actually have something to say about each of these pictures. You can interpret a lack of text as “yet another picture of the cliffs."
I saw a coin-operated telescope that still had some time on it (actually, I didn’t realize that it was coin-operated until it shut off), and I decided to experiment with taking a picture through the telescope with my iPhone. I think the results are more “interesting” than “awesome”, but it’s kind of nifty.
This warning sign makes me laugh. I would have bought a t-shirt featuring this graphic if they had had it in my size. (The other sign we saw: every few yards we saw signs for suicide hotlines. We were told later that Ireland is having a big problem with suicide, so much so that 15% of deaths of young people are due to suicide.)
I walked a bit south of the visitor’s centre, and tried to get a picture that captured the scale of the cliffs. This is my best attempt. That’s O’Brien Tower again, and it is a modest tower but still probably three stories high or so. And this is not a perspective trick; the tower is on the cliffs it appears to be on. The cliffs are really much higher than the tower.
So I’ve shown all these pictures from the top of the cliffs, and they are imitations of the photos of the Cliffs that you see in guidebooks and and websites. But what do you see if you look east from the cliffs, towards the land? You see a stone fence and cows, just a dozen yards from the cliffs’ edge.
We drove through the very small town of Doolin because Lori had stayed there years before, but did little more than take pictures of the ocean under cloudy skies.
We got to Marless House, our B&B near Galway, a bit after dark after some navigation difficulty; the streets were complicated enough that I was able to pay attention to either the roads or the GPS, but not easily both.
For dinner, we went to Lohan’s in downtown Salthill at the recommendation of Mary, the innkeeper.
I ordered a Galway Hooker and it was a very nice beer. Lori won the alcoholic beverages of the evening, though, with a Kopparberg Fruit Cider.
The crab and salmon cakes were quite nice, with a very crisp exterior.
Lori had the chicken rolled with bacon and stuffing, possibly a little complicated but very savory and tasty.
My bacon and cabbage came with a light mustard sauce that made it much lighter than I expected.
The only thing I didn’t enjoy so much was our apple tart. It was very beautiful, but it had the cakelike crust that we’d encountered with most pies and tarts in the British Isles.
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|Saturday, June 28th, 2014|
12:22 am - London and Ireland Trip, October 8: Killarney National Park and Ballyseede Castle
This was Rockcrest House, our B&B in Kenmare.|
After leaving the B&B, we stopped in Kenmare for a bit of shopping and a visit to the KenmareLace and Design Centre, upstairs from the little town museum. Kenmare had been a great center for lacemaking, because in the 19th century Poor Clare nuns taught poor local girls to make lace as a way of making a little money. They had some fabulously intricate pieces on display, and a docent on hand who told us about the women who made them. We bought a marvelous delicate lace brooch for my mother, because she has tatted lace herself, and another for Lori just because it was beautiful. In a fit of optimism, Lori bought a kit that will enable her to make a small piece of the same lace. So far, she hasn’t started.
They didn’t allow pictures, but I recommend going to http://www.kenmarelace.ie and gawking at the pictures there.
I was finished before Lori was, so I took a few pictures of Kenmare.
This small round bridge is called Cromwell Bridge. The obvious conclusion is that it’s named for Oliver Cromwell, who brutally rampaged across Ireland during his time as Lord Protector of England. But the name was in used for a hundred years before he came along.
We drove off towards Killarney National Park, along the inland edge of the Ring of Kerry scenic route. Once again the roads were narrow and twisty, with steep drop-offs and no shoulders. Once or twice we went through a short tunnel that was barely wider than the car.
Another panorama from the Ring of Kerry:
One of the most famous sights in Killarney National Park is called Ladies’ View, so named because Queen Victoria’s handmaidens were delighted by the view on a visit here. Lori was pretty delighted with it too.
A panorama from Ladies’ View.
Just down the hill from Ladies’ View was this medieval ruin:
Our planned stop in Killarney National Park was Muckross House, for another tour of a fine estate. But first, we ate lunch at the Garden Restaurant at Muckross. This is not any sort of obscure local eatery; this is clearly impersonal food for tourists. But it was very tasty. Lori had the chicken and vegetables, I had the shepherd’s pie, and we shared a dessert of plum sponge.
Lori was keen on taking a jaunting car ride ever since we had read about it in tour books. (Tourist level: so very touristy.) Finding a jaunting car ride was easy; the process appears to be to stand near Muckross House and not aggressively reject the possibility of a ride. Using this process, we ended up on a ride to Torc Falls drawn by an old codger with a habit of repeating everything twice. “Three hundred sixty-five windows in the house,” he’d say. “Three hundred sixty-five windows.” But he carries some history of his own there - he’s been driving a jaunting car for decades, and his son is now driving a jaunting car of his own.
Muckross House was a grand house. Multiple gorgeous rooms were decorated in a variety of period styles. I think some furnishings we saw dated back to the 17th century, but I am not sure of this. The detail I remember most is that the family had hardly any social contact with the (non-noble) locals; their only social life came when they visited England or someone from England visited them. It seems a dismal lonely lifestyle - especially for the children. This was a theme we heard repeated in every grand house or castle we toured.
No pictures because they didn’t allow pictures, but we have some lovely pictures of the gardens.
On the other side of the parking lot from Muckross House is Muckross Traditional Farms, a collection of farms still being run as they were in 1930 or so, when horses provided most of the power and carrying water was a major part of daily life. I was particularly eager to tour these farms because I had read they are staffed by old farmers who can talk about the way things were back then. Unfortunately, we learned when we got there that during October, they are only open on weekends.
We stopped by Ross Castle on our way out of Killarney National Park, but the last tour was over.
We have a great many pictures of Ross Castle and Lough Leane under gloomy grey skies. These are some of our favorites:
Our destination that night was Ballyseede Castle. There’s a story in how we found Ballyseede. We were both eager to spend the night in a castle in our Ireland stay, and we mentioned that to a travel agent we were trying to work with. She immediately recommended Ballyseede, because it was so affordable. Now, I tend to be very thrifty or even stingy. But my castle stays are rare enough that I don’t want to choose a castle just because it’s cheap. But we could not persuade this travel agent that we had other priorities in our castle selection. That and chronic non-responsiveness led us to abandon that travel agent and arrange our trip entirely on our own. But we had her recommendation and other recommendations that Ballyseede was a good value in a castle stay, so we decided to spend one night there.
Our room was pretty, but bland compared the enthusiastic luxury of Lawcus Farm.
We ate in Ballyseede’s pub instead of the restaurant because I was having an attack of thrift. The woodwork in the pub was beautiful.
My steak and Guinness pie was excellent, with a very crisp puff pastry crust.
Lori had a nice but not particularly Irish pasta with tomato and spinach sauce and a very rich Bailey’s coffee.
One of the special features of the pub is the dog Einstein, who spends much of his time there. Einstein has a special trick: he has several stones that he considers his. He will carry them in his mouth, drop them at your feet, and implore you to toss them for him to fetch.
As we were finishing our meal, we overheard the manager offering a tour of the castle to another couple, and we inserted ourselves into the tour. He told some ghost stories, for which Lori will give a more sympathetic retelling than I. My clearest memory is that of Hilda, the last family resident of the Castle; as with the residents of Muckross House, she did not socialize with the locals, so the highlight of her day was when the postman arrived. The story is that she’s sometimes seen in her window, waiting for the postman to arrive.
Lori: The tour of Ballyseede gave information on the history of the castle, its present uses, and the ghost stories surrounding it. My memories have dimmed, but I’ll do my best.
The castle’s date of origin is uncertain. The history we heard dates back to 1584, when the land was granted to Robert Blennerhassett, after the defeat of the previous owners, the Fitzgeralds, the Earls of Desmond. The rent for the castle was to be a single red rose from the garden, to be presented on Midsummer’s Day each year. The descendants of Robert Blennerhassett occupied the castle until 1966. Hilda was the last of the family to live there, and it’s said her spirit makes itself known on March 24 each year, which was her birthday. It is also said, as Ralph commented above, that her spirit can be seen in the window of her bedroom, looking for the mailman or visitors who rarely came. There are some watermarks under said window that are said to spell out “R I P.” It may be a bit of wishful thinking to say that - we could see where they get the idea, but the letters (such as they are) are far from sharp and clear.
There is also a romantic tale that a woman in white roams the halls at night, carrying the single red rose used to pay rent. We didn’t see her, but she makes a great story.
The castle now does weddings in a banquet hall in the oldest part of the castle, and it is in this room the ghost stories were told. A woman on Trip Advisor claimed she could’t sleep because the stories were so scary. The stories were pretty tame…I’d hate to think of what happened to her after she saw “The Sixth Sense,” a ghost movie that had me looking over my shoulder for at least three weeks.
The guide did have some ghost photos. They aren’t available online, so you’ll have to take my word for it - they were creepy. One was a photo of several Irish ladies at a wedding a few years ago. They’d posed on the staircase with their arms around each other. What was creepy was that a skeletal hand showed up draped on one lady on the end’s shoulder…looks like the ghost wanted to join in the fun. The other was of the pet cemetery (yes, they have one for the castle dogs and horses). There was a ghostly image of a dog’s face in spectral blue that was certainly creepy. I have no idea how likely or unlikely it is that these were photoshopped.
I can say that I do believe in ghosts, I do think something’s probably there, and that we had no encounters of our own that night. We did enjoy Ballyseede, and would recommend it to anyone visiting Ireland who would like the castle experience for a modest price. The decor was lovely, and I enjoyed wandering around taking it all in.
For more information, here’s the castle website. http://ballyseedecastle.com/history.php
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