Category Archives: travel

Road trip to totality

My kids both wanted to see the eclipse and I said “that sounds fun but it’s too far” and I kept thinking about it and thinking about it and finally, Saturday night, I looked inward and asked myself is there really a reason we can’t do this? And the answer was no.  Or rather the answer was “it might be the case that it’s totally impossible to find a place to sleep in the totality zone within 24 hours for a non-insane amount of money, and that would be a reason” so I said, if I can get a room, we’re going.  Hotel Tonight did the rest.  (Not the first time this last-minute hotel app has saved my bacon, by the way.  I don’t use it a lot, but when I need it, it gets the job done.)

Notes on the trip:

  • We got to St. Louis Sunday night; the only sight still open was my favorite one, the Gateway Arch.  The arch is one of those things whose size and physical strangeness a photo really doesn’t capture, like Mt. Rushmore.  It works for me in the same way a Richard Serra sculpture works; it cuts the sky up in a way that doesn’t quite make sense.
  • I thought I was doing this to be a good dad, but in fact the total eclipse was more spectacular than I’d imagined, worth it in its own right.  From the photos I imagined the whole sky going nighttime dark.  But no, it’s more like twilight. That makes it better.  A dark blue sky with a flaming hole in it.
  • Underrated aspect:  the communality of it all.  An experience now rare in everyday life.  You’re in a field with thousands of other people there for the same reason as you, watching the same thing you’re watching.  Like a baseball game!  No radio call can compare with the feeling of jumping up with the crowd for a home run.  You’re just one in an array of sensors, all focused on a sphere briefly suspended in the sky.
  • People thought it was going to be cloudy.  I never read so many weather blogs as I did Monday morning.  Our Hotel Tonight room was in O’Fallon, MO, right at the edge of the totality.  Our original plan was to meet Patrick LaVictoire in Hermann, west of where we were.  But the weather blogs said south, go south, as far as you can.  That was a problem, because at the end of the day we had to drive back north.  We got as far as Festus.  There were still three hours to totality and we thought it might be smart to drive further, maybe even all the way to southern Illinois.  But a guy outside the Comfort Inn with a telescope, who seemed to know what he was doing, told us not to bother, it was a crapshoot either way and we weren’t any better off there than here.  I always trust a man with a telescope.
  • Google Maps (or the Waze buried within Google Maps) not really adequate to handle the surge of traffic after a one-time event.  Its estimates for how long it would take us to traverse I-55 through southern Illinois were … unduly optimistic.  Google sent us off the highway onto back roads, but here’s the thing — it sent the same suggestion to everyone else, which meant that instead of being in a traffic jam on the interstate we were in a traffic jam on a gravel road in the middle of a cornfield.  When Google says “switch to this road, it’ll save you ten minutes,” does it take into account the effect of its own suggestion, broadcast to thousands of cars in the same jam?  My optimization friends tell me this kind of secondary prediction is really hard.  It would have been much better, in retrospect, for us to have chosen a back road at random; if everybody injected stochasticity that way, the traffic would have been better-distributed, you have to figure.  Should Google build that stochasticity into its route suggestions?
  • It became clear around Springfield we weren’t going to get home until well after midnight, so we stopped for the night in David Foster Wallace’s hometown, Normal, IL, fitting, considering we did a supposedly fun thing that turned out to be an actual fun thing which we will hardly ever have the chance to, and thus may never, do again.

 

 

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Driftless Father’s Day

This Father’s Day I found that, by some kind of unanticipated-gap-in-the-Red-Sea-level miracle, neither of my children had any events scheduled, so I gave myself a present and did something I’d been meaning to do for a year; take them to Dubuque.

It’s not far from Madison.  You drive southwest through the Driftless Zone, where the glaciers somehow looped around and missed a spot while they were grinding the rest of the Midwest flat.

At the exit to Platteville there was a sign for a “Mining Museum.”  We had about six seconds to decide whether we all wanted to go to a mining museum but that was plenty of time because obviously we all totally wanted to go to a mining museum.  And it was great!  Almost the platonic ideal of a small-town museum.  Our guide took us down into the old lead mine from the 1850s, now with electric lights and a lot of mannequins caught in the act of blasting holes in the rock.  (One of the mannequins was black; our guide told us that there were African-American miners in southwestern Wisconsin, but not that some of them were enslaved.)

This museum did a great job of conveying the working conditions of those miners; ankle-deep in water, darkness broken only by the candle wired to the front of their hat, the hammers on the rock so loud you couldn’t talk, and had to communicate by hand signals.  Riding up and down to the surface with one leg in the bucket and one leg out so more men could fit in one load, just hoping the bucket didn’t swing wrong and crush your leg against the rock wall.  There’s nothing like an industrial museum to remind you that everything you buy in a store has hours of difficult, dangerous labor built into it.  But it was also labor people traveled miles to get the chance to do!

Only twenty miles further to the Mississippi, my daughter’s first time seeing the river, and across it Dubuque.  Which has a pretty great Op-Art flag:

 

 

Our main goal was the National Mississippi River Museum; slick where the Platteville museum was homespun, up-to-date where the Plateville Museum was old-fashioned.  The kids really liked both.  I wanted fewer interactive screens, more actual weird river creatures.

The museum is on the Riverwalk; Dubuque, like just about every city on a body of water, is reinventing its shoreline as a tourist hub.  Every harbor a Harborplace.  OK, I snark, but it was a lovely walk; lots of handsome bridges in view, all different, an old-timey band playing in the gazebo, Illinois and Wisconsin and Iowa invisibly meeting across the water….

Only disappointment of the afternoon; the famous funicular railway was closed.  Maybe they could have posted that on their website or something.  But in a way it’s good they didn’t; if I’d known it was closed, I probably would have decided to put off the trip, and who knows if we’d ever have gone?

On the way back we stopped in Dickeyville to get gas but missed the Dickeyville Grotto; would have stopped there for sure if I’d known about it.  Dinner in Dodgeville at Culver’s, the Midwest’s superior version of In-N-Out, where I got my free Father’s Day turtle.   I like cheese curds and brats as much as the next guy, but I gotta say, I think the turtle is my favorite of the many foods I’d never heard of before I moved to Wisconsin.

 

 

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What I ate in Toronto

A hamburger, black sesame gelato, breakfast (incl. baked beans) at a diner from the 1940s, hand-pulled noodles, poutine.

Update:  “Related posts” reminds me that the last time I went to a conference in Toronto, I learned a lot of interesting math from Julia Wolf, and the same was true this time!

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Israel

The main part of our trip was to Jerusalem, where I met my new nephew and organized a workshop about new developments in the polynomial method.

  • The vote on UN resolution 2334 was held while I was there but nobody I talked to seemed really focused on it.  One Israeli businessman told me “the Arabs won’t destroy Israel, Netanyahu won’t destroy Israel, the only thing that can destroy Israel is the residue of Bolshevism.”  Then he told me things about taxes that curled my hair.  Apparently if you do work for person X, and bill them for 100,000 shekels, you owe taxes on the 100,000 shekels, whether or not person X pays you!   They go bankrupt or just stiff you, you’re screwed.  If you go to the tax agency to say “how can I pay taxes on income I didn’t get” they say “the problem is between you and person X, go sue them if you need that money.”
  • Tomer Schlank told me my accent was really good!  I don’t speak Hebrew, by the way.  But I’m actually very good at imitating accents, which is a problem, because when I carefully think about what I’m going to say (in Spanish, French, German, Hebrew, whatever) and then say it, I can sometimes fool the person I’m talking to into thinking I’m going to understand their response.  Fortunately, I’m also very good at the blank look.
  • My kids really wanted to go to the science museum and I was reluctant — there are science museums all over the world! — but I relented and actually it was kind of great.  Culturally interesting, first of all, because the place was completely packed with Orthodox families; it was Hanukkah, a rare time when kids are off school but it’s not chag, which makes it massive go time for kid-oriented activities in Jerusalem.  I was happy for my kids to experience that feeling of immersion in a crowd that was on the one hand Jewish but on the other hand quite culturally alien, in a way that secular cosmopolitan schwarma Israel really isn’t.  As for the museum itself:   “Games in Light and Shadow” was a really charming exhibit, sort of a cross between interactive science and a walk-through art space a la Meow Wolf.
  • Sadly, we didn’t make it back to Cafe Itamar this time.  But we did return to Morduch.  I know it’s a tourist destination but in this case the tourists have it right, the Iraqi Jewish food there is incredible.  Get the kubbe soup, get the hummus basar.  This would be the best food I ate in Israel were it not for my Mizrachi machetunim in Afula.  So it might be the best food you can eat in Israel.
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Greece

Back from family vacation in Greece.  Tiny notes/memories:

  • I have a heuristic that Americans fly the national flag much more than Europeans do, but in Greece, the Greek flag is all over the place.
  • Greeks really like, or Greeks think people in hotels and restaurants really like, soft-rock covers of hits from the 80s.  Maybe both!  We heard this mix CD everywhere.

    If you don’t feel like an hour and a half of this, at least treat yourself to James Farelli’s inexplicably fascinating acoustic take on “Owner of a Lonely Heart.”

  • The city of Akrotiri in the Aegean islands, a thousand years older than classical Greece, was buried under 200 feet of ash by the massive eruption of Santorini. They’ve only just started to dig it out. There are wall frescoes whose paint is still colorful and fresh. But these wall frescoes aren’t on the walls anymore; they fell during the earthquake preceding the eruption and lie in fragments on the floors. Our guide told us that they don’t try to reconstruct these using computers; archeologists put the pieces together by hand. I was perplexed by this: why don’t they digitize the images and try to find matches? It seemed to me like exactly the sort of thing we now know how to do. But no: it turns out this is a problem CS people are already thinking about, and it’s hard. Putting together pottery turns out to be a computationally much easier problem. Why? Because pots are surfaces of revolution and so their geometry is much more constrained!
  • The 2-star Michelin molecular gastronomy restaurant Funky Gourmet, run by a member of the El Bulli disapora, is just as great as advertised. But how can you run a molecular gastronomy restaurant in Athens and not call it Grecian Formula…?

More Disney

More notes from Walt Disney World:

  • I felt bad for Cinderella.  The wait to see her and Rapunzel was only 10 minutes; if you wanted Elsa and Anna, the line was an hour and a half.  If I were Cinderella I’d be pissed.  “Enjoy it while you’ve got it, Flavor-of-the-Month, but in ten years, I’m still here, and you’re Mulan.”
  • Speaking of deprecated Disney Princesses, you know who’s totally absent from Disney World?  Pocahantas.  That was a pretty big movie!  Is Pocahantas absent because of newfound cultural sensitivity about depictions of Native Americans?  Highly doubtful, given the fact that the heap racist Indian Chief is still front and center in the Peter Pan ride.  Also, a little digging reveals that Pocahantas can indeed be seen at WDW, in the Animal Kingdom park.  Because, you know, state of nature!
  • Disney World at Christmastime is very, very Christmasy but not at all Christian.  This is a delicate tightrope to walk and I think they do a nice job.  No cross, very little use of the word “Christmas.”  Lots of trees, lots of secular carols.  One small nativity scene tucked away at the back of Hollywood Studios.
  • Most underrated attraction:  The Hall of Presidents.  Animatronic Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg address is authentically moving.  And it seems a nod to modern ways of doing history that Andrew Jackson is singled out in the movie as one of the most important Presidents, by virtue of being the first non-aristocrat to hold the office.  (Though not much is said about Andrew Jackson’s record in office, which brings us back to the “sensitivity to Native Americans” issue.)
  • Epcot was the weakest of the three parks we went to.  Too much shopping, not enough riding.  It would be improved by having fewer massively packed sit-down restaurants and more snack stands of all nations.
  • Speaking of the future:  it’s weird that the cars on the Tomorrowland Speedway aren’t futuristic at all, but rather big gas-guzzling go-carts.  Why not go electric?  In general, Disney seems content to let Tomorrowland rest in a nostalgic “what the future used to look like” mode.  In 2014, could they really build something that felt like the future and also felt like Disney?
  • Finally:  lost in all these words is the fact that Disney World is actually pretty fun.  Especially if you go with somebody like my brother-in-law, who knows the place inside and out and can dodge lines with expert efficiency.  We spent 16 straight hours in Magic Kingdom on the first day and it didn’t feel like too much.  I wouldn’t be inclined to go again, but I’m not at all sorry that we went.  And my kids, by no means Disney freaks, loved it.  CJ is still talking about the roller coasters and the tech of Soarin’.  And AB was just happy she got to see Olaf and R2D2 and bring home a stuffed Mickey.
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Trader Joe’s is the Disney World of grocery stores

We’re back in Madison after three days at Walt Disney World.  CJ and I went to Trader Joe’s to pick up stuff for dinner and realized:  Trader Joe’s is Disney World.

Reasons:

  • Part of what you’re paying for is a sense of, well, “fun.”  WDW employees — who are called “cast members” — wear costumes.  Trader Joe’s employees — who are called “crew members” — wear Hawaiian shirts.  It is part of their job, not just to be pleasant to customers, but to appear actively happy to be talking to customers.  And maybe they are!  You can imagine that if you were the kind of person who likes chatting with strangers you’d be drawn to working at WDW or TJ.
  • Iron-clad branding.  Just about every single thing you can buy, see, or eat at Disney is Disney-branded.  Same for Trader Joe’s (even if the product is surplus Sabra hummus repackaged in Trader Joe’s tubs.)
  • Limited selection.  Disney World restaurants have short menus; they need to get thousands of people in and out fast.  There aren’t twelve roller coasters like at Six Flags, there are two.  At Trader Joe’s there aren’t a hundred different kinds of Cheerios.  Just the Trader Joe’s kind.  The problems of choice are taken away from you and this release is itself a kind of fun.

Unfinished thought:  both Disney and Trader Joe’s are trying to project a spirit of California.

 

 

 

 

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What’s so great about JetBlue?

JetBlue is changing its practices to run more like other airlines, and people are going nuts.

While all other airlines save Southwest switched to charging for checked bags, JetBlue made a free bag part of its unique selling proposition

What does United charge for checked bags?  $25, I think.  According to Google Flights, and a NYC-Chicago round trip costs $303 on JetBlue, $250 on United.  So you get your choice — pay your fifty bucks in extra airfare, or pay it in bag fees.  I’m not sure why the former is more customer-friendly.  It’s certainly not more friendly to me, since I rarely check.

Then there’s the seat issue:

Starting in 2016, JetBlue will stuff 15 more chairs on its Airbus A320s, bringing the seat count per aircraft to 165 from 150. That means JetBlue will fly its A320 at a higher seating density than many major competitors, including United Airlines (138-150 seats), US Airways (150) and Virgin America (146-149).

In other words:  customer-friendly JetBlue is now operating at the same density as USAir and a higher density than United and Virgin Atlantic!

I sympathize with JetBlue here.  People seem to want to pay a low base fare and then pay for things a la carte.  Food in the airport is much better than it used to be and people would rather pay 10 bucks for a sandwich (or bring food from home) than buy a more expensive ticket and eat airline food.  People would rather watch their own stuff on a tablet than buy a more expensive ticket and watch the airline’s stuff on a seatback.  And etc. and etc.  I think the one thing people do want is more room to sit.  But if you want to pay $50 extra for that, you can do it on the big three by buying a premium coach seat at checkin.

OK, to be fair, this actually costs more like $50 each way.  On the other hand, United Economy Plus gives you 37 inches of seat pitch; a standard JetBlue seat is 34, and a standard United seat 33.

 

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Let us now praise Delta Airlines

I flew home from Montreal yesterday via Minneapolis.  MSP was still kind of messy, recovering from a snowstorm, and my Montreal-Minneapolis leg was delayed.  Delta told me I wasn’t going to make the last flight back to Madison, gave me a hotel voucher for Minneapolis, and rebooked me for the first flight the next morning.  But when we landed in Minneapolis, there were still 5 minutes left until the Madison flight was departing.  The gate agent got a guy in a motorized cart to take me all the way from the end of concourse C to the beginning of concourse F.  Those things can go pretty fast when there’s nobody in the airport!  Even so, we got there two minutes after departure time and the gate was shut.  But I could see the plane still parked at the end of the jetway.  So the agent opened the gate back up, took me down, and got the pilot to re-open the main boarding door so I could get on the plane.  The whole thing was awesome, I was extremely happy to sleep at home, and I’m feeling very warm towards the people at Delta for making it happen.

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Food I ate

Of course the really important thing about traveling isn’t seeing old friends or selling books, it’s eating things you can’t eat at home.  So here’s my list of some notable things I ate.

The Koji Uehara burger at Mr. Bartley’s.  A new one, very good.  With onion rings, of course.

Peking ravs at the Hong Kong. Traditional.

A double cheeseburger at Charlie’s Kitchen.

Big sub at the amazing Bub and Pop’s.

Green curry from Regional Thai, which 15 years ago was my favorite place to eat in Chelsea (maybe tied with Rocking Horse Cafe.)  Still good.

A crottin, taken to go at Murray’s Cheese Shop and eaten while walking.

Schnitzel and bright-pink Berliner Weissbier at Lederhosen deep in the West Village.

My Ferry Terminal usual:  salami cone from Boccalone and mac and cheese at the Cowgirl Sidekick.  This mac and cheese possibly my national favorite apart from the one at Miss Mamie’s Spoonbread Too, which was farther uptown than I got this NYC swing.  (This also explains why no belly lox this time.  Though now that I think of is, this could have been my chance to try Russ and Daughters.)

I’m over Mission burritos.  Sorry.  So this time I had Mission pierogi at Stuffed.  Dumb name, decent pierogi, but surprisingly awesome sauerkraut, more like halbsauerkraut with a jolt of I think caraway?  My recommendation: just buy their sauerkraut, buy a taco somewhere else, put the sauerkraut on the taco, resell it at your popup fusion cart.  Become wealthy beyond human ability to imagine.

BBQ sampler, including kalua pig, from the 808 Grinds Hawaiian cart in Portland’s city of food carts.  The fried chicken, surprisingly, was the standout.  But if it doesn’t move, Portland, it’s not a cart.  You must accept this, Portland.  You’ll feel better when you do.

Four-chowder sampler at Pike Place Chowder.  Long line?  Tourists?  Yes and yes (though shorter lines, and fewer tourists, than at the Original Starbucks down the block.)  But really, really good chowder.  And eating chowders in a flight formation is, I think, the right way.

Terrific black fideus at Aragona.

 

 

 

 

 

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