City and Suburb

So Bats, after blogging ad nauseum about the train ride, what the heck did you do once you got to New York City? Well...

Unfortunately, I really got to spend one day in the City before heading to the burbs. But it was a pretty good day.

Perlick was celebrating being done with this semester of classes, so we went out to a cocktail bar in SoHo that he learned about from Thug--once again, it's awesome knowing people more hip than you are. It was called Pegu Club--fantastic on all counts (warning: flash-a-riffic website). A series of reviews captures a lot of what I thought of the place. Fantastic atmosphere, a great hidden away feel, and fabulous drinks.

We were soon joined by Probe--yay! He (and 'Becca and Sophia) were in town for the holidays, visiting Probe's mom. It was wonderful to see him... plus they'll be at Bradley & Janie's wedding in the Bay Area.

But back to the drinks. The first one I had was great--a "Harry Palmer," which was a Manhattan-like cocktail (rye whiskey, antique sweet vermouth, and a French aperitif called Suze). My kind of drink--has some sweetness, but definitely leaves no doubt that there's booze involved. In case you're wondering about the name, Wikipedia to the rescue--it's named after a fictional spy written in a very different direction than James Bond. In November 1962, soon after the release of the first James Bond film Dr. No, The IPCRESS File was published. Unlike Ian Fleming's Bond, Deighton's spy is hindered by bureaucracy, wears glasses, shops in supermarkets, lives in back street flats and seedy hotels, and is in need of a pay rise. He is a lowly army sergeant who was forcibly recruited to secret work, first for Army Intelligence and then for the Foreign Office, in order to work off a sentence for black market activities.

I asked the waitress what type of rye they use... gaffe!... "For your drink, we used Michter's, but we use other rye for the other drinks..." Duh... obviously... my bad [blush].

The second drink was a "Fiddy-fiddy"--a martini, but made 50% gin/50% vermouth (with a twist of lemon). I thought it was worth trying, for no other reason. Disappointingly, I have to say that a martini works better with the vermouth as an accent, as opposed to a main ingredient. However, I still think that vermouth belongs in a martini--I'm not one to "forgo vermouth completely and instead bow, drink in hand, in the direction of France." That line, and a variety of other descriptions of ultra-dry martinis, were found on this website.

We got there early (~5 PM on a Saturday night) so we could actually get a seat, so after a few rounds, we headed out to grab some dinner. Sushi ended up being the plan:

I was delighted to find that it was another place that makes tempura-fried shrimp heads when your order the amaebi!

Unfortunately, I couldn't convince Probe or Perlick to partake of crunchy shrimp ("If we took the shell of, it wouldn't be crunchy!"). Ah well.

The next day was The Moscow Cat Theater in TriBeCa with the family--my sister's idea. It was kinda fun (cats that balance on balls, do daring leaps, ride around on cars, hit switches), but half of it was just old-fashioned circus acts (clowning, juggling, balloon animals, slapstick, etc.)--not too inspired, although it worked pretty well for little kids, I think.

We then headed back to Long Island--I'm now going through my list, trying to keep myself busy:
  • Replacing the water filters
  • Flushing the hot water tank
  • Doing a Home Depot run, and installing replacement CFLs
  • Replacing a broken outdoor light
  • Checking out the damage to the garage door, after dad tried to drive the car through it
  • Figuring out if a broken chair is repairable or not (nope)

Note that my repairs are hampered by the fact I'm using whatever tools are around the house and my pocketknife.

Well, family togetherness tomorrow for Christmas, one day after that, and then the Bay Area! But in the meanwhile, my mom's cooking rocks. Check out the sushi dinner she put together for the family.

Oh yeah--merry Christmas, for any of you celebrating it!

A Civilized Way to Travel

I realize that blogging about trains is up there in dorky boringness with, say, expounding on coin collecting or a collection of photos of Boston from the air. Um. Anyway. A long travelogue of the Boston-to-New York Acela journey follows. Incidentally, I might be accused of ripping off the title of this post from this blogger, but I did actually think of it independently.

This was actually the first time I have ridden the Acela Express (i.e., the real, high-speed Acela, as opposed to a rebadged "normal" Amtrak). I wasn't really in a rush, but the ticket price difference was pretty small, so I said, "Hell, I have to try it out!" It was $79 for the 11:10 AM - 2:45 PM (2:35 trip time) Boston South Station to New York Penn Station train (one way).

Speaking as an experienced air traveller, I have to say that this was the thoroughly civilized, practically luxurious, way to get from Boston to New York. Nice roomy seats, lots of cargo bin space--and that's even with a full train (filled up at New Haven). The chance to get up and wander up and down the aisles; no need to check luggage or take off your shoes going through security. Hell, no metal detectors at all--a plus for a guy like me, who carries around a pocketknife all the time. Electric power for my laptop, no need to turn off cell phones. No worries about how bad road traffic is on the weekend before Christmas. A ride that was dead-bang on schedule (I believe that Amtrak has their shit together on this run, unlike the rest of their system). The fact that you start and end the journey right in the middle of town, as opposed to having to haul ass out to the airport. The fit and finish of the cars were great--as nice as what I have ridden in Japan and Europe. I found it pretty noticeable that they had upgraded to all-welded rails: no ca-click, ca-clack, ca-click, ca-clac--just a smooth ride. Nice big windows to enjoy the view.

The scenery included a few hundred miles of the backs of decrepit industrial buildings & big box stores, highway underpasses, and building supply yards. The tracks usually went through the parts of the city with rollup steel doors or grates on every opening. While some might consider the neighborhoods that the tracks pass through unpleasant, I find a certain charm to the hidden infrastructure that makes the rest of life possible.

But the ride was also interspersed with views of quiet neighborhoods, snowy open fields, and the Connecticut coastline, while periodically passing through city centers.

We got to get a few bursts of the vaunted Acela high speed (125 mph); however, a lot of the ride felt like an unfortunate klunk through the older and winding sections of track in cities (e.g., New London). But getting to experience the car tilting mechanism was pretty cool, when it got to open up the pipes on some parts of the ride. You almost felt the train impatiently wanting to unleash its speed at times. The Times article below described the track modernization work: To reach that goal, Amtrak repaired bridges, replaced wooden ties with concrete ones and electrified the track from New Haven to Boston. But it did not have the billions of dollars required for changes that would allow trains to travel over 150 miles an hour consistently: constructing straighter tracks and replacing aging overhead electric lines.

Coming in to New York, I really love seeing the Hell Gate Bridge--a spectacular, 1916 railroad arch bridge from the north into Queens. According to the Wikipedia article, it would be the last New York City bridge to collapse if humans disappeared, taking a least a millennium to do so, according to the February 2005 issue of Discover magazine. Most other bridges would fall in about 300 years.

Incidentally, despite this good experience, I am by no means a knee-jerk defender or even a fan of Amtrak—they seem to have incompetence as almost an institutional pillar. I love the concept of high speed rail network (in areas that are dense enough to support it)... but I don't know if Amtrak is up to the job. Many of the growing pains of Acela are detailed in a New York Times article from 2005: “The Acela, Built to Be a Savior, Bedevils Amtrak at Every Turn”. The article details the development of the train--they took parts of the Alstom TGV, but then had to re-engineer them to meet US crash standards (because passenger rail runs on the same beds as freight... ugh)--thus doubling the weight. This likely contributed to the many problems with cracking of moving parts that shut down the entire fleet for a while around 2002. Holy crapbuckets--what a difference in speed too--TGV has reached 357 mph, and normally run at 200 mph. In addition, somebody seriously misengineered the tilt mechanism: During construction, Amtrak also discovered that the coaches were four inches too wide to use their full tilting mechanisms, which allowed the trains to speed around curves. As a result, trip times were slower. Also, I have doubts about the profitable portions of Amtrak (i.e., Acela accounted for a quarter of Amtrak's ticket revenue last year) being weighed down by the lovely-but-dead-unprofitable touristy trains out West (e.g., Sunset Limited--pretty views, but don't ride it if you need to be anywhere on time).

Anyway, a nice ride... I'd recommend it to anyone doing the New York to Boston trip, if cost is not the top priority.


Holiday Travel Plans

For those of you are interested, here are my travel plans for the holidays. For those of you who will be in New York or the Bay Area, hope to see you there! If any of you don't have my current mobile number, let me know.

I'm taking off on Saturday for New York, spending Christmas with the folks. Then, on the morning of the 27th, flying to the Bay Area for Bradley and Janie's wedding. I'll probably be crashing on Paramecium Woman's airbed, although I might also make use of the short couch at Isla de Tortuga. I'm celebrating New Year's out in the Bay Area (what parties do people have planned?). Then, I'm using a Southwest frequent flyer ticket to get back to the east coast (MHT), hanging out with Bird & Jen for a day, and hopping a train back down to Boston.

Whew! One more week to go. Yeah.

Boston - South Station, MA (BOS) to New York - Penn Station, NY (NYP)
22-DEC-07; 11:10 am - 22-DEC-07; 2:45 pm

27-Dec-2007 VX 238 NEW YORK, NY (JFK) 07:00AM SAN FRANCISCO, CA (SFO) 10:40 AM


Thu Jan 03 324 Depart SAN JOSE CA (SJC) at 9:30 AM
Arrive in CHICAGO-MIDWAY (MDW) at 4:40 PM
1951 Change planes in CHICAGO-MIDWAY (MDW) departing at 6:05 PM
Arrive in MANCHESTER NH (MHT) at 9:10 PM

Dover, NH (DOV) to Boston - North Station Maine Service, MA (BON)
05-JAN-08; 9:14 am - 05-JAN-08; 10:40 am


Oh, No, Not Memage..

A meme stolen from Jenn and Perlick--some questions I just couldn't resist responding to, so I filled out the whole thing...

1. Elaborate on your default icon.
[Note--on LJ]--it's a photo from my 2005 Alaska trip ("Next on Fox: When Glaciers Attack!").
2. What's your current relationship status?
Pathologically single. ("Yes I'm straight... I'm just incredibly bad at it.")
3. Ever have a near-death experience?
Enh.. almost hit by a car when biking as a teenager... that's about it.
4. Name an obvious quality you have.
Short. Or specifically, short and round.
5. What's the name of the song that's stuck in your head right now?
Jonathan Coulton, Code Monkey
6. Any celeb you would marry?
Terry Gross.
7. Who will cut and paste this first?
Huh.. not sure... c'mon somebody, join in too! AJFBS, where have you been lately?
8. Has anyone ever said you look like a celebrity?
While living in Canada, a few people thought I looked like a young David Suzuki. On the other hand, I'm starting to (ew) grow back hair, so I'm worried I'm going to look like Ron Jeremy, but without the horse schlong (sorry, ew again)
9. Do you wear a watch? What kind?
I normally wear the cheapest digital watch I've ever found on a nylon strap designed for surfers, assuming I'm going to beat the hell out of what I wear. But on nicer occasions, I have a gorgeous Seiko self-winding watch that was a high school graduation present from my aunt.
10. Do you have anything pierced?
11. Do you have any tattoos?
No--I'm afraid that James Howard Kunstler has articulated why I probably won't be interested in getting one.
12. Do you like pain?
No, unless it is intense quick pain to relieve slow nagging pain (self-surgery on splinters, removal of ingrown hairs, etc.)
13. Do you like to shop?
14. What was the last thing you paid for with cash?
Lunch with a work colleague, at a nearby cafe.
15. What was the last thing you paid for with your credit card?
C batteries, so I could get home with a functioning bike headlight tonight.
16. Who was the last person you spoke to on the phone?
Paramecium woman!
17. What is on your desktop background?
The Queensboro Bridge at night, shot from Roosevelt Island (the island in the middle of the East River).
18. What is the background on your cell phone?
The lame-ass default image.
19. Do you like redheads?
Yes, but it's not worth it. ;)
20. Do you know any twins?
21. Do you have any weird relatives?
Oh yeah... my sister... oh, check out this one. She provides good material, at least.
22. What was the last movie you watched?
Michael Clayton--strong recommend.
23. What was the last book you read?
Divorce Your Car! : Ending the Love Affair with the Automobile--thanks Jessie!
24. Is there such a thing as love at first sight, or it is more likely to be "lust at first sight"?
Enh... I'd vote for the latter.
25. What's your favourite book?
Holy cats... hard to answer. Best lame answer might be my Harlan Ellison anthology. (Parody idea: "I have no Nose, and I Must Sneeze.")
26. When was the last time you visited the street where you first lived?
Probably around 2000 or a bit before--Park Slope, near Prospect Park.
27. When was the last time you googled your own name?
Maybe a month ago... just wondering if my real name ends up getting linked to my blog.
28. What was/is your favourite subject at school?
In high school, maybe chemistry or physics.
29. What was/is your least favourite subject at school?
A specific American History class taught by a godawful teacher.
30. Do you like having your photograph taken?
I don't mind too much--I have some good ones, and many horrible ones.. I can deal.
31. What time were you born?
9:18 AM
32. Ever seriously questioned your sanity?
General psychological stability, yes. Outright sanity, probably not.
33. How many phone numbers do you have remembered and can say off the top of your head?
Probably 10... but half of them are from high school.
34. Can you Limbo?
A bit, but it probably looks like one of those battery-operated dancing Santas ("Ho, ho, ho..").
35. Have you ever killed your own dinner?
If lobster or fish count.
36. How long have you been living at your current residence?
312 days (that's Excel plus using JPEG datestamps).
37. What phobias do you have?
Noticeable fear of heights--annoying, given my chosen profession.
38. What's your ideal breakfast?
Coffee, home fries, and corned beef hash with a poached egg on top.
39. Where are you right now?
At the kitchen table.
40. Why do you blog?
One part to keep my friends updated, one part to try to keep them entertained, and one part narcissism.
41. What would you call your autobiography?
Not Much of a Difference.
42. What's the longest time you've stayed out of the country/where?
About two and a half years living in Canada (unless you count all the jaunts back to the US while I was living there).
43. Do you use ICQ, AOL Buddy list etc.?
AIM (GAIM client).
44. Do you have nightmares frequently?
Not that I know of.. used to, when I was younger.
45. If you were another person, would you be friends with you?
Probably. Would be useful for hanging sheets of drywall.
46. Which TV character could you be friends with?
John Munch from Homicide. And I'd probably have a serious crush on Kaylee from Firefly (and then get told that I'm a "really nice guy, but I think of you as a friend," so I figure that counts).
47. What's on your mouse pad?
No mouse pad (optical mouse at home, trackball at work).
48. What is your ring tone?
A lame BlackBerry built-in one.
49. What did you watch on TV last night?
Didn't have time for anything last night.
50. Scary movies or happy endings?

Um, probably happy endings by default. I don't mind gore, but I dislike the jump-out-at-you suspense genre.


Just in Time for the Holidays...

A friend of mine forwarded me a link to this web site, with a 20-minute movie on consumerism, environmental degradation, and sustainability. Nothing too new or earth-shattering (at least I hope this information is all obvious to my friends), but it was a nicely put-together presentation of the basics--worth watching.

The Story of Stuff is a 20-minute, fast-paced, fact-filled look at the underside of our production and consumption patterns. [It] exposes the connections between a huge number of environmental and social issues, and calls us together to create a more sustainable and just world. It'll teach you something, it'll make you laugh, and it just may change the way you look at all the stuff in your life forever.

Yes, I know--if I were the average American consumer, the economy would have haltingly ground into a recession long ago. Bad consumer! Bad American! You're hurting growth! [smile].

EDIT: A New York Times op-ed ("You Can Almost Hear It Pop") that I wanted to record with a citation here:

This recession will be deeper than the shallow contraction earlier in this decade. The dot-com-led downturn was set off by a collapse in business capital spending, which at its peak in 2000 accounted for only 13 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. The current recession is all about the coming capitulation of the American consumer — whose spending now accounts for a record 72 percent of G.D.P.

I drive a car built in 1992, and ride a bike of a similar vintage (albeit made mostly of replacement parts). The car gets out of the driveway maybe once a month... less money to the House of Saud, yay. Also (a somewhat lame argument) my iPod is a 2002-era second generation 10 GB model... as Leper once put it, "...man, I think Dennis Hopper had a newer one on his motorcycle in Easy Rider." (yes, it would be more convincing not to own an MP3 player at all). I live in a 900 sf apartment with one roommate. I actually don't own a TV now (the set is JMD's, and I sent my TV to live at my parents' place). I still wear some clothing from high school (black Levi's 505s, in case you had images of Back-to-the-80's-Bats).

So it amazes me just how much useless crap people do buy, I guess. I don't feel particularly deprived, or like I'm living any type of ascetic existence. It just pains me to see what goods people buy, and think, as they wheel it out the door of the big box store, "How long is it going to be before that piece of plastic and sheetmetal gets landfilled?" Like, say, these things.

Now please, I'm not trying to hold myself up as any type of anticonsumerist, antimaterialist paragon. I love power tools, and think little about dropping big bucks on them. My motives for buying new glasses were both to update my prescription and for vanity (semi-rimless frames). I have enough income to support a Calphalon habit, and have succumbed. And I shudder to think about all the energy that went into distilling and shipping my single malt collection (although a friend of mine promotes his taste in beer as, "drink local!").

But stuff (or lack thereof) has been of a particular interest to me since returning from Canada. I only took a subset of my possessions (maybe half) with me when I moved up there in 2004. Since moving back in early 2007, most of it has been in storage, so it's surprising to realize that the essentials are pretty sparse. I've become a big subscriber to the "bits, not stuff" way of life. It's an experience I'd recommend to everyone--perhaps a little bit freeing (although Chuck has me beat by a mile on that front).

EDIT: Another experience that informs my attitude towards stuff was cleaning out Fred Fenning's house after he died in a plane crash in 1997.

He was 44 when he died--not too far from my current age, and he had set up a life that is similar to where I see mine going. A small house, not far outside of town, living alone, with a great and organized electronics/machining/woodworking shop in the basement. So dealing with his estate was a bit like seeing what it would be like after I check out. It makes all the organizing, collecting, acquiring seem a bit pointless. Hence a bit of my "bits not stuff" attitude (nobody feels bad about just chucking out a hard drive... or it might just end up being archived anyway). Or as an NPR commentator put it, “You live, you die, your stuff goes out to the curb.”

As a last discussion before heading to bed, one segment of the video covered the "life treadmill" folks get onto. I.e., gotta go to work, to buy more stuff, then come home wiped out, sit in front of the TV, and get brainwashed into thinking our lives suck, but that buying more stuff would fix it... so off to work again, repeating the cycle. One soundbite was that people now have the least amount of free time since feudal days (fact check, anyone? I'm curious). In contrast, I don't have a mortgage (or even a lease), or dependents (heck, the cats are JMD's, not mine), or debt--so it's not like I'm scrambling to keep up. But I still work a fair amount (and stress myself out disproportionately), even though I don't particularly want to. Perhaps I do need to see if I can put the "half the pay for half the work" plan into action. Ambition? Feh.


Okay, Maybe I Have a Problem

Yeah, maybe I'm going a bit overboard on that CFLs for a buck each deal at Tag's:

This is actually my uninstalled stockpile--six are already installed, for a total of 24 bulbs (four trips to the hardware store). But $1 each! Woo!

JMD pointed out that at a five year guaranteed lifetime, I would have enough bulbs to keep a single fixture supplied with CFLs for 120 years. Yeah.

What's worse is that I'm getting my work colleagues hooked too--after I let them know, four different coworkers also bought their six bulbs each--including one who is bringing them back home with him to Toronto.

I don't know if any locals are still interested in the sale, but it's still going on (and still in stock) as of Saturday afternoon. However, the clerk said that they're flying out the door, even though they're not even advertising the sale (um, except for energy geeks who do that as a matter of course). It's bad enough they just have piles of the empty boxes by the stand now.