Red Light

This morning on my commute to work, I got cited for running a red light downtown.

The police officer's story was that I went through just after the light had changed from yellow to red. That's not out of the question; I have misjudged yellow lights before.

However, I have no memory at all of doing so today. I don't remember hoping that I would make it through before the light changed; I don't remember any yellow light at all.

I've spotted three possible explanations for this discrepancy:
1. The officer was wrong or lying.
2. I sailed through a yellow light without noticing.
3. Something about the light made the officer see it very differently from me.

All of these alternatives are concerning. #2 and #3 have serious implications for public safety. #1 has serious implications of its own.

I don't know how to disambiguate those explanations or what to do about the ticket.
This is my first incident in over ten years, so the consequences of pleading guilty are not that big a deal right now.

Pandemic: Virulent Strain

In February, I posted about my preliminary results with Virulent Strain. After 100 games with four players and five Epidemics with Virulent Strain, my win rate was nearly the same as without Virulent Strain. Was this a lucky streak, or a sign of something else?

I've now played 500 games of 4P5EV. My win rate for 500 games has been 84.0% +/- 3.2%; my win rate for 586 games of 4P5E without Virulent Strain was 84.1% +/- 3.0%.
Some times I look at stats and think that with some more games to narrow the confidence intervals, it might develop into a statistically significant difference. This is not one of those times. To my eye, these stats give no basis for any belief that I win less often with Virulent Strain than without.

But it's obvious that Virulent Strain is harder. (Obvious does not necessarily mean true.) The Virulent Epidemics add ways to fail and don't add ways to succeed.

So maybe Virulent Strain turns easy games into hard games? Not really.
Percentage of easy games: 37.5% +/- 3.9% without Virulent Strain vs. 39.2% +/- 4.3% with Virulent Strain.

Maybe Virulent Strain makes it harder to get Eradications?
For Eradications per successful game: 0.52 +/- 0.06 for 4P5E vs. 0.83 +/- 0.08 for 4P5EV. That's a statistically significant difference of more Eradications with Virulent Strain.

Down at the nigh-anecdotal end of the scale, I got 4 four-Eradication games in 500 games of 4P5EV, compared to none in 586 games of 4P5E.

In my last post about Virulent Strain, I described three possible explanations:
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.

The 'lucky streak' hypothesis is less plausible now after 500 games.

The 'I've improved my skills' hypothesis has some appeal. I'd like to think that I could improve my skills incrementally over a thousand games, and I can think of ways that I've improved my skills.

And there's a point in favor that Virulent Strain does cause me to lose some games, so I must be making it up somehow. Here's some additional data about how much difficulty Virulent Strain adds:
After the first 100 games, I started recording games in which I felt afterward that I had lost because of Virulent Strain. This is necessarily subjective, and some of the games that I lost because of Virulent Strain would have turned out to be losses even if I had not been playing with Virulent Strain. But with those qualifications, I recorded 21 games out of 400 lost due to Virulent Strain, or about 5.25% of those games. In 3 of those games, I recorded that I thought I would have lost anyway. But still, that suggests that Virulent Strain was the difference between failure and victory in at least 2 or 3% of my games.
But the final victory percentage was almost identical, so I must be making up those games - which seems to suggest an improved skill.

But here's the counterargument: if we hypothesize that I improved my Pandemic skills while playing 500 games of 3P5E and 700 games of 5P5E. It seems obvious (again, not the same as true) that if I improved while playing 5P5E, I would particularly improve at 5P5E. Although I have not done a rigorous analysis, I did not notice any improvement at my win rate with 5P5E over the course of those games - my overall win rate drifted slightly down as I played.

The data shows pretty clearly that with four players and five Epidemics, I win as often with Virulent Strain as without. It's very perplexing, and I don't have a good explanation.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

(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.)

Read more...Collapse )

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.



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.

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 . 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, ). 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.

Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Hand

Last weekend, Lori and I went to Ravenwood Castle for a murder mystery weekend: . 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.