Category Archives: travel

It’s right by the airport

I went to California last week to talk math and machine learning with Ben Recht (have you read his awesome blogstravaganza about reinforcement learning and control?) My first time on the brand-new Madison – San Francisco direct flight (the long-time wish of Silicon Isthmus finally realized!) That flight only goes once a day, which means I landed at SFO at 6:15, in the middle of rush hour, which meant getting to Berkeley by car was going to take almost an hour and a half.  So maybe it made more sense to have dinner near SFO and then go to the East Bay.  But where can you have dinner near SFO?

Well, here’s what I learned.  When I was at MSRI for the Galois Groups and Fundamental Groups semester in 1999, there was an amazing Chinese restaurant in Albany, CA called China Village.  I learned about it from my favorite website at the time, Chowhound.com.  China Village is still there and apparently still great, but the original chef, Zongyi Liu, left long ago.  Chowhound, too, is still there, but a thin shadow of its old self.  When I checked Chowhound this week, though, I learned something fantastic — Liu is back and cooking in Millbrae!  At Royal Feast, a 10-minute drive from SFO.  So what started as a plan to dodge traffic turned into the best Chinese meal I’ve eaten in forever.  Now I’m thinking I’ll probably stop there every time I fly to San Francisco!  And it’s right by the Millbrae BART station, so if you’re going into the city, it’s as convenient as being at the airport.

So that got me thinking:  what are good things to know about that are right near the airport in other cities?  The neighborhood around the airport is often kind of unpromising, so it’s good to have some prior knowledge of places worth stopping.  And I actually have a pretty decent list!

LAX:  This is easy — you can go to the beach!  Dockweiler State Beach is maybe 5 minutes from the airport.  It’s a state park, not developed, so there’s no boardwalk, no snack stand, and, when I went there, no people.  You just walk down to the ocean and look at the waves and every thirty seconds or so a jumbo jet blasts by overhead on its way to Asia because did I mention 5 minutes from the airport?  You’re right under the takeoff path.  And it’s great.  A sensory experience like no other beach there is.  I just stood there for an hour thinking about math.

BOSTON:  There is lots of great pizza in Boston, of course, but Santarpio’s in East Boston might be the very best I’ve had, and it’s only 7 minutes from Logan airport.  Stop there and get takeout on your way unless you want to bring yet another $13 cup of Legal Seafood chowder on your flight.

MILWAUKEE:  I have already blogged about the unexpectedly excellent Jalapeño Loco, literally across the street from the airport.  Best chile en nogada in the great state of Wisconsin.

SEATTLE:  The Museum of Flight isn’t quite as close to Sea-Tac as some of these other attractions are to their airports — 12 minutes away per Google Maps.  But it’s very worth seeing, especially if you happen to be landing in Seattle with an aircraft-mad 11-year-old in tow.

MADISON:  “The best barbecue in Madison, Wisconsin” is not going to impress my friends south of the Mason-Dixon line, or even my friends south of the Beloit-Rockford line, but Smoky Jon’s, just north of the airport on Packers Avenue (not named for the football team, but for the actual packers who worked at the Oscar Mayer plant that stood on this road until 2017) is the real thing, good enough for out of town visitors and definitely better than what’s on offer at MSN.

CHICAGO:  No, O’Hare is terrible in this way as in every other way.  I once got stuck there for the night and tried to find something exciting in the area to do or eat.  I didn’t succeed.

You guys travel a lot — you must have some good ones!  Put them in the comments.

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American Revolution

I was in Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago with AB and we went to the brand-new Museum of the American Revolution.  It’s a great work of public history.  Every American, and everybody else who cares about America, should see it.

The museum scrapes away the layer of inevitability and myth around our founding.  Its Revolution is something that might easily not have succeeded.  Or that might have succeeded but with different aims.  There were deep contemporary disagreements about what kind of nation we should be.  The museum puts you face to face with them.

E Pluribus Unum was an aspiration, not a fact.  There was a lot of pluribus.  The gentility in Massachusetts and the Oneida and frontierspeople in Maryland and the French and the enslaved Africans and their American slavemasters were different people with different interests and each had their own revolution in mind.

Somehow it came together.  George Washington gets his due.  The museum presents him as a real person, not just a face on the money.  A person who knew that the decisions he made, in a hurry and under duress, would reverberate through the lifespan of the new country.  We were lucky to have him.  And yes, I choked up, seeing his tent, fragile and beaten-up and confined to a climate-controlled chamber, but somehow still here and standing.

The Haggadah tells us that every generation of Jews has to read the story of Exodus as if we, ourselves, personally, were among those brought out from Egypt.  The museum reminded me of that commandment.  It demands that we find the General Washington in ourselves.  In each generation we have to tell the story of the American Revolution as if we, ourselves, personally, are fighting for our freedom, and are responsible for what America will be.

Because we are!  We are still in the course of human events.  The American Revolution isn’t over.  It won’t ever be over.  It’s right that we call it a “revolution” and not an “overthrow” or a “liberation.”  We’re still revolving, still turning this place over, we’re still plural, we’re still arguing.  We still have the chance, and so we still have the obligation, to make the lives of our children more free than our own.

Happy Independence Day.

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Brewers 6, Marlins 5 / Bucks 104, Celtics 102 / Orioles 6, Tigers 0

I’ve lived in Madison for 13 years and this is the first time I’ve noticed anybody caring about the Milwaukee Bucks.  It’s definitely the first time I’ve cared about the Milwaukee Bucks.  But now the Bucks have a legitimate superstar in Giannis Antetokoumnpo  and a likeable cast of supporting characters like 19-year-old former refugee and skinny blockmaster Thon Maker.  The kids had a rare unscheduled day on Sunday and the Bucks were in the playoffs against the Celtics and there were nosebleed tickets on Stubhub for $40 apiece so why not?

You may know that I kind of hate driving so if I’m gonna drive all the way to Milwaukee it’s got to be for more than a Bucks game.  When I thought about what the kids would really want to do it was pretty clear — see the Brewers, stay over, then see the Bucks.  So that’s what we did!

Notes on the Brewers:

  • I got lost in the impossible off-ramp spaghetti surrounding Miller Park and we ended up not getting into the ballpark until the second inning.  The Brewers were already down 4-0.  4-0!  To the sad Miami Marlins, the team Derek Jeter is using as a tax dodge, the team so bad Marlins Man cancelled his season tickets!
  • But as soon as we sat down, Travis Shaw muscled a huge home run to left center.  Didn’t even look like he got all of it, he kind of sliced it.  But Travis Shaw is a big strong man.
  • Brewers just keep creeping back.  Crowd stays in the game, at no point do you really feel the Brewers are out of it.  Three straight Brewers hit what look like go-ahead home runs but each dies at the wall.  (Ryan Braun at least gets a sacrifice fly out of it.)   In the 8th, Derek Dietrich loses an Eric Sogard fly ball in the, I dunno, the lights?  The roof?  He plays for the Marlins and he just doesn’t care?  Anyway the ball plunked down right next to him, Shaw hustles in from second to tie it, Eric Thames, who starts the play on first, tries to get in behind with the go-ahead run but is tagged out at or rather substantially before the plate because Eric Thames made a bad decision.
  • Josh Hader looks like he should be playing bass in Styx.
  • Then comes the bottom of the 9th and the play you might have read about.  Still tied 5-5.  Jesus Aguilar, who’s already warmed up twice in the on-deck circle, finally gets his chance to pinch-hit against Junichi Tazawa.  Gets behind 0-2.  And then just starts fouling, fouling, fouling.  Takes a few pitches here and there.  Full count.  Foul, foul, foul.  And on the 13th pitch, Aguilar launches it to center field.  I thought it was gonna be one more death on the warning track.  But nope; ball gets out, game over, fireworks.  I felt like my kids got to see true baseball.

On to Milwaukee.  Bucks play the Celtics at noon, in what, if they lose, could be the last ever game played at Bradley Center.  (This is a bit of a sore point for UW folks, who absorbed as a budget cut the $250m state contribution to the arena’s cost.)  We have breakfast at the hotel and chat with a nice older couple in Packers/Celtics gear — what?  — who turn out to be Boston forward Al Horford’s aunt and uncle from Green Bay.

This is only the third NBA game I’ve been to, CJ’s second, AB’s first.  We wander around inside the arena for a bit.  Two separate groups of Bucks cheerleaders come up to AB and applaud her curly hair.  I think people are especially struck by it when they see us together, because I don’t have curly hair, except here’s a little-known fact:  I do have curly hair!  I just keep it short so it doesn’t curl.  In 1995 or so it looked like this:

Anyway.  The atmosphere, as I have promised AB, is more intense than baseball.  Bucks build up a 19-point lead and seem poised to coast but the Celtics come back, and back, and back, and finally go ahead with 52 seconds left.  Jaylen Brown plainly capable of taking over a game.  Aron Baynes has a very dumb-looking haircut.  Milwaukee’s Thon Maker is ridiculously skinny and has very long arms.  He’s just 21, a former refugee from South Sudan.  We saw his first game as a Buck, an exhibition against the Mavericks at Kohl Center.  Those long skinny arms can block a shot.

Game tied at 102, 5 seconds left, Malcom Brogdon (called “The President” — why?) misses a layup, and there, rising like a Greek column above the scene, is the Greek arm of Giannis Antetokounmpo — the tip-in is good, Celtics miss the desperation last shot, Bucks win 104-102, crowd goes berserk.

 

I was going to blog about this last week but got busy so let’s throw in more sports.  Bucks eventually lose this series in 7, home team winning every game a la Twins-Braves 1991.  The next Friday, I’m giving a talk at Maryland, and the Orioles are playing that night.  It’s been five years since I’ve seen OPACY.  I brought CJ along this time, too.  The Orioles are not in a good way; they’ve won 6 and lost 19, though 3 of those 6 were against New York at least.  Attendance at the game, on a beautiful Friday night, was just over 14,000.  The last baseball game I went to that felt this empty and mellow was the AAA Tucson Toros, several months before they moved to El Paso and became the Chihuahuas.  Chris Tillman, tonight’s starter, was the Orioles’ ace five years ago.  Now he’s coming off a 1-7 season and has an ERA over 9.

So who would have thought he’d toss seven shutout innings and take a no-hitter into the fifth?  Never looked overpowering but kept missing bats.  His first win in almost a year.  Manny Machado, surely now in his last year as an Oriole, strokes a home run to dead center to get things started.  It’s a beautiful thing.  It doesn’t even look like he’s working hard.  It’s like he’s just saying “Out there. Out there is where this ball should be.”  Pedro Alvarez homers twice, in exactly the opposite manner, smashing the ball with eye-popping force.  Jace Peterson, who the Orioles picked up off the Yankees’ scrap heap, steals third on the shift when the Tigers third baseman forgets to pay attention to him.  He did the same thing against the Rays the night before.  I am already starting to love him the way I love Carlos Gomez.  Maybe now the Orioles are going to go back to being a bad team that makes good use of players nobody else wants, like Melvin Mora and Rodrigo López.

Besides me and CJ, this guy was at the game:

Never get tired of that flag.

 

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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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