Category Archives: travel


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.


  • 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.






People I saw

Another post for my own records, just to keep track of all the old friends and new acquaintances I was happy to see while traveling for How Not To Be Wrong.  Ordered roughly chronologically and from memory:

Paula and Jay Gitles, Aleeza Strubel, Daniel Biss, Stephen Burt, Jessie Bennett, Jay Pottharst, Bob and Donna Friedman, Vineeta Vijayaraghavan, Larry Hardesty, Moon Duchin, Mira Bernstein, Jerry and Cynthia and Rachel Frenkil, Audrey and Scott Zunick, Joe Schlam, Dick Gross, Noam Elkies, Ben and Elishe Wittes, Eric Walstein, Larry Washington, Manil Suri, Ivars Peterson, Tina Hsu, David Plotz, Josh Levin, Amy Eisner, Deane Yang, Michelle Shih, Warren Bass, Meredith Broussard, Jon Hanke, Tom Scocca, Cathy O’Neil, John Swansburg, Mike Pesca, Kardyhm Kelly, Charlie Jane Anders, Mimi Lipson, Annalee Newitz, Ken Katz, Jill Himmelfarb, The Invisible Cities, Patrick LaVictoire, Akshay Venkatesh, Ravi Vakil, Gary Antonick, David Carlton, Liesl Bross, Miranda Bross, Mark Lucianovic, Tom Church, Yuran Lu, Daniel Kane, Leslie Rappoport, Douglas Wolk, Derek Garton, Matt Haughey, Josh Millard, Brian LaMacchia, Lionel Levine, Ana Crossman (and her mom), Heather Evans (and her mom), Bianca Viray.


It was very social!  And sorry to the people I’ve inevitably skipped.


Land of Milk and Honey and Hummus and Beet Ballerinas

I visited Hebrew University for a week in January, and Peter Sarnak, no doubt thinking of my sadly out-of-date How To Eat Dinner in Princeton page, asked me if I was going to blog the restaurants of Jerusalem.  OK, so here’s a go.  Let’s start with the best thing I ate in Israel:

Beet Ballerina

This is beet ballerina with goat cheese at Cafe Itamar, on Moshav Ora just west of Jerusalem.  (Here’s an English writeup.)  “Ballerina” is a kind of pasta I saw on several menus in Jerusalem; I think it’s more or less campanelle?  Simple dish, but really well-made.  The pasta looks beautiful and tastes kind of rooty without really aggressively beeting at you, if you know what I mean.  And the rest of the meal was almost as good.  Cafe Itamar was a casual place, concentrating on the produce from the moshav’s collective farm, somehow very Israeli indeed despite having a fairly straight European menu of pastas, pizzas, and salads.  Worth the trip from town.

We spent one morning in the shuk at Mahane Yehuda — burekas and sweet, gelatinous sachlav at Gveret Burekas, kanafeh somewhere in the market, and then a terrific lunch at Mordoch, where a woman sits in at a back table speedily rolling kubbeh, which then appear in an awesomely sour yellow vegetable soup.  And there’s hummus, lots of hummus.

And more hummus at Hummus Asli in Tel Aviv, where we had the best malawech we ate in Israel, much flakier and lighter than the one we got at the the Yemenite Jewish restaurant Tamani in Jerusalem.  And the only falafel I ate while I was there, because I don’t think of myself as liking falafel, but Asli falafel changed my mind.  I didn’t eat any more falafel because I wanted to leave the toggle switched to “yes.”

As for Tamani, it was heavy and rich, a kind of soul food — good, but what I was really hoping for was something more refined, specifically the honey-rosemary chicken I remembered eating at the Yemenite Step twenty years ago.  There’s no more Yemenite Step and I guess no more honey-rosemary chicken either.  Was that all the hummus?  That was not all the hummus.  Because there’s also the Lebanese Restaurant — which my brother-in-law tells me isn’t Lebanese, but that’s the name, the Lebanese Restaurant — in Abu Ghosh.  Hummus, hummus basar (i.e with spiced meat), more kubbeh, this time fried, all served family style on long wooden tables in an immense, crowded, punishingly loud room.

Only one shawarma, but it was a shawarma laffa, or as Americans might call it, “burrito-style.”  Why don’t we eat it that way here?  I guess we do — here’s a picture of one from Illinois, which gives the general idea.  A burrito place has a sidebar where you can get salsa, and a shawarma laffa place — or at least Hashamen, the place my brother-in-law likes —  has a sidebar where you can get amba, which, wow.



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Why does United want to charge me $800 for premier status?

I flew a lot (by my standards) on United last year, including a trip to Israel, and came about 5,000 miles short of qualifying for their lowest tier of premier status.  I got a flyer from them in the mail saying I could make up the difference with cash — but it turns out the cash cost of making up the 5,000 mile gap is $800.  This is not an attractive offer.  I’ve had premier status on United before, and it was pleasant, but not $800 pleasant; I think I was upgraded maybe a couple of times over the course of the year, and I’m not sure what real benefit I got from getting to board first.

Still, those benefits would be enough to make me more likely to choose United, especially for longer trips when the chance of upgrade and access to the Economy Plus seats means more.  So why are they asking for so much money, I wonder? Wouldn’t just giving me premier status be a good value for United?

The threshold has to be somewhere:  somehow they’ve calculated that the people who fly 25,000 miles a year are the ones whose business they want to attract with premier.  But of course I did fly that much last year; just not all with United.  So my question is:  doesn’t United know this?  I am not the kind of guy who’s careful to log out of Facebook and Google before buying a plane ticket, so lots of data vendors know which plane tickets I’ve bought.  I would guess United knows that I spend money with other airlines, which is foregone revenue for them.  Or do they not actually know this?

It’s also possible that premier is a money-loser for United, and they don’t want so many people to have the status.  (Maybe they make enough money selling those Economy Plus seats a la carte that it doesn’t make sense to let a lot of people claim them free?)  Evidence for that:  they’re making premier status harder to get.

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I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a smørrebrød today

Back from this very interesting conference on homological stability at the University of Copenhagen.  First time in Denmark.

Two things that struck me — or rather, in a sense, one thing that struck me twice — a kind of relaxedness about money.  I wanted to rent a bike to see the city a bit on the conference half-day, but ended up only having an hour or so free.  I found a bike shop that offered daily bike rentals and asked if they rented by the hour; the proprietor said, don’t worry about it, just leave your driver’s license here and take the bike and we won’t charge you.

The next day, I stopped at the smørrebrød shop to get my morning smørrebrød, but was out of Danish cash, and found that my PIN-less US credit card was no good there.  And again, I got “don’t worry about it” — just take your smørrebrød now, said the smørrebrød-maker, and come back and pay me tomorrow.  Which is what I did.

Unthinkable behavior for a shop in the United States, or am I wrong?

Re bikes and smørrebrød:

  • Copenhagen is the only place I’ve ever seen where the dream of bikes as an equal part of traffic seems to be a reality.  It’s a true pleasure.  Also, my stereotype that Europeans don’t wear helmets isn’t quite right; I’d say about a quarter of the riders were helmeted, including lots of young, hip-looking people.
  • Smørrebrød!   They are little open-faced sandwiches on which you can put almost anything.  I got them for breakfast every morning and ate them as I walked to the university, even though I think eating smørrebrød at 8am and eating while walking in general are somewhat non-Danish things to do.  They served raw beef smørrebrød at the conference reception but for breakfast I didn’t go so wild; my favorite was the frikadeller, a meatball with a kind of creamy dill sauce on it.  There is a very enthusiastic smørrebrød blog  where you can learn more.  Also, Copenhagen’s most famous smørrebrød house now has an outpost in New York.

Update:  Hey, I should at least give the generous Danish shopkeepers credit by name!  The excellent smørrebrød I ate every morning were from Madmanden on Classensgade.  And the folks who let me borrow their bike free were at Cykelsmeden on Nørregade.

Via NPR, some smørrebrød:

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