Sexually Assasulted by the TSA

I just passed through TSA security at Logan Airport, terminal C, in Boston.

There has been much hullabaloo about the backscatter X-ray machines now being widely deployed, including right here at Logan. There are multiple reasons to be concerned. If you have seen the images that result then you know they effectively show you naked (albeit with your junk squashed by your clothing). Despite reassurances from the TSA, there is no doubt that these images can be saved, nor any doubt that they will be shared at some point.

Furthermore, there is a fundamental difference between the old metal detectors (magnetometers) and this new technology, which uses ionizing radiation. In other words you are now getting a small dose of something that is quite clearly adding to your risk of cancer.

Various people have estimated the risk and of course the TSA says they are safe. However the amount, it cannot be debated that they do add risk. Physicists I trust estimate its about the same as the chance of being hit by lightning.  Here’s the thing…that’s also the same as the chance of being killed in a terrorist attack. So we are not doing anything at all to increase overall safety; at best we’re shifting risk.

We can be absolutely certain that people WILL die as a result of X-rays from these devices. “So what?”, you may think. As you may be aware, you have the choice to opt out.

That is what I just did minutes ago.

I was sexually assaulted by a TSA agent.

I am not being hyperbolic. My scrotum was, four times, touched very vigorously by another man against my will.

It was explained beforehand to me that my upper thigh and everywhere else on my body would be touched. I expected what I have experienced dozens, perhaps hundred of other times, when I have been searched before, at airports and concert venues and elsewhere.

This was something altogether different. This was repeated strong touching of my groin and other areas that have been explored by no other person in my life… at least without at least dinner and a movie beforehand.

In any other context, I kid you not, this would definitely be classified as sexually assault.

The supporters of this security theater will say I had a choice, but I did not in any real way. I am traveling for work. I could choose not to work, but isn’t that like saying I could choose not to eat? I could chose not to feed my family?

I could choose to let them photograph me naked while subjecting myself to cancer risk…

..or I can be sexually assaulted.

This is no choice at all.

It it clear to me after experiencing it that this “pat down” procedure is meant to be punitive. They want to make damn sure if you opt out once, you will never do it again.

Just as I give my two year old son the false choice between “walking up by yourself to go to bed” or “having daddy help you”, the TSA is giving us the choice between naked cancer pictures and full-on sexually assault.

The government thinks we are stupid, and frankly, they are right if we keep accepting this along with the rest of the idiocy (like shoe removal) that seems to have been completely accepted by the flying public.

If I were planning to blow up an airplane then I would simply pack a bunch of explosives up my pooper and it would be undetectable by backscatter X-rays, metal detectors, and vigorous pat-downs. What will the TSA procedure be once the first terrorist does this?

This is all such obvious security theater and we all seem to know it yet we all seem to accept it.

Benjamin Franklin:

“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

He was right. We deserve neither.

Edit: This is an excellent summary of the various articles and information about the situation as it sits now from security guru Bruce Schneier:

http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2010/11/tsa_backscatter.html

Edit 2: This is an article from a molecular biologist how the risks could be much, much worse than the TSA is saying:

http://myhelicaltryst.blogspot.com/2010/11/tsa-x-ray-backscatter-body-scanner.html

Edit 3: On the constitutionality of the scanners, and enhanced searches for those opting out:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/26/AR2010112604290.html

Alinea

This blog post was written by both Susanna and John. In paragraphs where we speak in individual voices, we have preceded them with (John) or (Suz).

Two Christmases ago, right in the thick of our obsession with Top Chef, John was given the book Alinea, from the restaurant of the same name. Alinea (pronounced ah-LIN-ee-ah) is the brainchild of chef Grant Achatz, who is one of the best-known practicioners of what used to be called “molecular gastronomy” (though we’ve heard it’s no longer cool to call it that) — others are Wylie DuFresne and Ferran Adrià, whose restaurant El Bulli in Spain is open only eight months a year, with reservations made on a lottery system (8,000 spots for a reported 300,000 people who want to eat there).

Molecular gastronomy is really a misnomer because it only describes one aspect of the cuisine, which includes the use of various chemicals (molecules) to modify textures in food. To apply modern chemicals and techniques to food preparation is something that would be a cardinal sin in most traditional high cuisine.

The real essence of molecular gastronomy is not just the use of chemicals, but is the idea that cooking can be done without any limits at all. It borrows from the best of traditional methods, while applying new ideas, techniques, and technology to make new tastes, textures, and sensations part of the eating experience.

It is food without limits.

IMG_7132.JPGWe planned our trip to Chicago, and Alinea, to celebrate our 5th wedding anniversary. As it turns out, Alinea also is 5 this year – it opened in May of 2005.

Alinea offers two menus — a tasting menu (wimps!) and a Chef’s Tour. We of course chose the Tour. The Tour is 23 courses, and we chose the wine pairing with 12 different wines (including a champagne cocktail to start– yum!). We were there for five full hours, from 7:30 to 12:30, and the kitchen was still bustling when we left.

The black wooden tables were bare of linens except for white napkins; the light was not too dim; the windows were covered. Once we were inside, we had no sense of time passing, which added to the experience of the meal since it has a neverending quality to it (not only because there are so many courses, but because it moves in taste from savory to sweet to savory to sweet again, so until the final dish it seems as if it could go on and on).

The restaurant seats roughly 60 people — upstairs there are 10 tables, and IMG_7184.JPGdownstairs there are 5. We were downstairs, at a four-top between two two-tops. There was plenty of room, which was nice because over the course of five hours, Susanna got up five times and John got up three. (Needless to say, it was a very nice restroom!) Otherwise, the decor was simple and comfortable.

The service — we had five people serving in our room, including a head waiter and a sommelier. These two were funny, informal, and of course informative. They swept up the table between every course and gave us specific instructions about how each dish was meant to be eaten — literally, whether to eat it in one bite, or how to remove it from its serving dish. We asked a lot of questions about the food, wine, preparation, serve-ware, and the staff was happy to answer and always well-informed.

Since the food is so unusual, both in recipe and in presentation, the serving dishes are often made uniquely for each dish. For example: a piece of bacon hanging from a wire strung like a bow, or a three-part sphere that breaks apart IMG_7304.JPGso you can eat the dish in parts. One dish was served on a charred fire log, and another was served on a pillow filled with earl grey infused air, which slowly released as the plate deflated the pillow beneath it.

To sum up: All in all, the service and plating of the food was as interesting and compelling as the taste of the food itself. Unlike many restraurants of this caliber/price range, the service and ambience was relaxed and informal — much more our style, needless to say.

A Note on the Photos

(John) When we made reservations, we confirmed that photography was allowed, so I was determined to photograph each of the courses.

At first, I felt awkward and self-conscious each time I reached for the camera (which I just left sitting on the table as we ate, ready to shoot). After all, here we were paying for a fancy meal — jackets were required for men — how could I have the nerve to whip out, and leave out, the camera?

As the night wore on, I became less and less concerned. The informality of the service put me at ease, and it was clear everyone else there was having as much of an adventure as we were, and probably wished they had done the same.

I shot the food using a Canon T1i/500D with a friend’s prime 50mm lens, shot at ISO 3200. This allowed me to shoot freehand, but the long focal length of the lens (equivalent to a 70mm on my digital sensor) meant I had to occasionally stand up to get the full dish in frame, and sometimes I didn’t do a great job with it. Overall, though, a lot of the shots came out well.

23 Courses

7:25pm We arrived a little early for our 7:30 reservations.

There was no exterior signage; only the address was displayed on the building. When we got out of the cab, there was a maitre’d waiting to direct us to the front door. Upon entering, we were led down a long, dark hallway at the end of which was essentially a bright pink art installation — the hallway diminished in width as we walked, and at the end, a side door opened to reveal the foyer of the restaurant itself, and another maitre’d welcomed us in.

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7:40pm The evening began in earnest. After discussing our wine options (we went for the full pairing, 12 wines in total — though not 12 full glasses, of course), our first arrived, a sparkling wine cocktail - Cocktail of L/Aubry Brut with Lillet, St. Germain and Hollerblutensirup.

Along with the cocktail, the first edible adornment to our table arrived. We were informed this would be a part of our dinner later in the evening, these spring roll wrappers containing beautiful flowers and herbs, hanging like flags from wooden stands.

IMG_7158.JPG Steelhead Roe – plaintain, ginger, papaya

7:46pm The first of our 23 courses arrived. The roe was encased in “glass” made from nutmeg. The waiter instructed us to break the glass with the back of our spoon to break it up and give the dish texture. Delicious.

IMG_7159.JPG Yuba – shrimp, miso, togarashi

IMG_7160.JPG Tom – sugar cane, shrimp, mint

7:57pm The next two courses arrived as a pair. Yuba is dried soy curd. It was rolled and propped in an inkwell filled with a miso sauce. We were told not to be shy about double-dipping.

We were instructed to chew the bite of cane to extract the flavor, then discard the cane itself onto a towel.

IMG_7169.JPG Distillation of Thai Flavors

8:10pm This was essentially an non-alcoholic shot, served in a small glass. It looked exactly like a shot of vodka, but was rich and delicious–just the essence of Thai flavors without the food. Lemongrass and fish sauce dominated the mix, and it was clear we would be continuing our exploration into Thai flavors.

IMG_7178.JPG Pork Belly – curry, cucumber, lime

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8:16pm This was our first of the few larger dishes, and the most interactive in terms of plating. First we were instructed to remove a glass lid from on top of a rectangular piece of wood. This glass displayed a variety of tiny condiments: cucumber spheres, banana slices dipped in curry, a lens filled with sesame-lime sauce, cashews, a red pepper sauce, cilantro, and a few others.

Then we were instructed to erect a little easel-like contraption out of two pieces of curved metal embedded in the wood mat. (This, John said, resembled an erector set, though Susanna didn’t know what that was.)IMG_7175.JPG

Finally, our table’s centerpieces fulfilled their destinies. Our waiter took each of them, using the stands they had been hung from when we arrived as chopsticks, and laid them upon the frames we had built.

He then spooned a small heap of coconut pork belly in the center of each wrap. We portioned the condiments as we wanted, and wrapped the pork — then, voila, a delicious mini-burrito. This was one of our favorite dishes.

The wine pairing that arrived with this course was Abbazia di Novacella Kerner, Valle Isarco Alto Adige 2008.


IMG_7182.JPG Octopus – green garbanzo, mint, dill

8:34pm This was served with a fork full of the octopus balanced over a round-bottomed bowl of garbanzo soup (yum yum yum) which we were told not to put down until the soup was finished. Once it was empty, the bowl would balance itself.

IMG_7191.JPG parfait
IMG_7194.JPG salad
IMG_7201.JPG soup

Lobster – parfait, salad, soup

IMG_7192.JPG8:42pm This was a very elaborate plating. The dish arrived, a sphere topped a bowl inset on the top. Only the first part of the dish was visible — the parfait — and IMG_7197.JPGwe were instructed to save the rest of the surprise for the waiter to reveal.

The foam-topped parfait was, indeed, sweet, weird, and yet still quite delicious.

Once we finished the parfait, the waiter swooped in to reveal a lobster salad. He poured a lobster bisque over it, warming the salad and dripping below into the lower chamber.

Finally, after we finished the salad, he removed the final piece of the dish, revealing that the bisque had infused with a chai tea mixture that was waiting below. He strained each into glass for us.

The parfait and salad were good — but the bisque was divine. Lobster chai bisque — again, not the most obvious pairing, but perfect.

The wine paired with this dish was Melville ‘Verna’s’ Estate Viognier, Santa Barbara County 2008 ((Suz) I want to buy some of this wine)

IMG_7214.JPG Duck - morels, English peas, chamomile

9:07pm The first English peas of the season in a sort of stew, along with duck three ways, including foie gras (a first for both of us). Paired with Bodegas Peique ‘Seleccion Familiar,’ Bierzo, Spain 2003.

IMG_7221.JPG Black Truffle – explosion, romaine, parmesean

9:21pm The Black Truffle Explosion is one of the dishes Alinea is famous for. It comes served on another unique dish — the table can be seen through a ring, on which sits one spoon, and one ravioli.

We were instructed to eat in one bite, since the explosion lives up to its name — and it did. This was one of Susanna’s favorites.

IMG_7228.JPG Kumquat – rye, peychaud’s, demerara
IMG_7229.JPG Bacon – butterscotch, apple, thyme
IMG_7230.JPG Burrata – honey granules, olive oil jam, black pepper

9:32pm Either we mixed up the order of this, or our server did, as a couple next to us later were instructed to eat it burrata-bacon-kumquat, as opposed to our kumquat-bacon-burrata arrangement.

The kumquat was intensely flavored, sour, and had a real whiskey kick. This was one of John’s favorites in thinking back; another surprise in a night already full of them.

This perfect bite of sweet bacon was served suspended on a wire balanced on a semi-circle. To eat it, we were told to hold the wire with one hand and pull the bacon down with the other.

The burrata was also an amazing single bite, the honey flavor lingering.

The wine pairing took a turn to a sweet port,Vinhos Barbeito/Rare Wine Co. ‘Charleston Sercial’ Reserve Madiera ((Suz) I want to buy some of this wine).

IMG_7241.JPG Foie Gras – pear, white wine, allspice

9:43pm Another daring combination of flavors and senses. We were instructed to break up the crisp pear into the soft foie gras below. Wine – Reinhold Haart ‘Piesporter Goldtropfchen’ Riesling Auslese, Mosel 2002 (excellent).

IMG_7253.JPG IMG_7252.JPG Sturgeon – potato, leek, smoke

9:58pm Sturgeon three ways, paired with Avanthia Godello, Valderras, Spain 2008

IMG_7256.JPG Shad Roe – shallot, mustard, bay aroma

10:12pm A roe tempura of sorts, served in yet another custom piece of serve ware.

IMG_7255.JPG IMG_7259.JPG Filet de Boeuf – godard

10:20pm This was an “antique concept dish”, an homage to Auguste Escoffier, a giant of French cooking, and is, or is based on, his recipe.

In the center was wagyu tenderloin, orbited by bites of mushroom, truffle, tongue, and cockscomb. It was all served on antique ornate gold-rimmed China, with etched crystal stemware. The wine was Domaine Saint Martin Fixin-Hervelets Ler Cru, Cote de Nuits 2005

IMG_7262.JPG Hot Potato – cold potato, black truffle, butter

10:32pm The different elements of this dish were arranged on a pin, which was laced through a small saucer made out of wax. When we pulled the pin from the saucer, the ingredients dropped into the bowl, and we drank the whole dish from the bowl itself, in one drink.

IMG_7263.JPG Venison – fireplace log, pumpernickel, licorice

10:45pm A platter of venison and vegetables, salad, gels, and a sauce served on a freshly charred white bitch log, set upon a bed of salt. By this time, we still boggled at the ingenuity, but we were becoming full and it was harder to appreciate the construction of flavors.

This fatigue is one reason Achatz varies the tour as the night goes on, from savory to sweet, from intense to mild, and from large to small.

The wine pairing was Cesari ‘Ripasso Bosan’ Valpolicella Superiore, Veneto 2006

IMG_7267.JPG Lemon Soda – one bite

11:01pm Fittingly, the smallest dish of the night arrived, beginning our trek into dessert. The clear packets contained a white power. When the packet dissolved on a wet tongue, the power released a powerful, refreshing, sour lemon flavour.

IMG_7268.JPG Bubble Gum – long pepper, hibiscus, creme fraiche

IMG_7269.JPG Transparency – of raspberry, yogurt

11:02pm The next two dishes arrived as a pair. The bubble gum was served in an open-ended cylinder, from which were instructed to suck it in as one bite. It did, indeed, taste just like bubble gum, with a slightly lingering soft gummy texture. The transparency was light and delicous.

The wine was Elio Perrone ‘Bigaro,’ Piedmonte 2009.

IMG_7276.JPG IMG_7280.JPG

Earl Grey – lemon, pine but, carmelized white chocolate

11:14pm – This dish was served using a pillow, as we had read about in the Alinea cookbook. The essence of earl grey was vaporized into a pillow, upon which the dish of lemony white chocolate goodness was put. The idea was that as you ate, the essence of earl grey would leak from pinholes in the pillow and infuse the air with earl grey.

Unfortunately, the scent was extremely mild, and we didn’t feel it added much to the dish. Also, we were eating quite slowly by now, so the pillow leaked completely long before we were able to finish.

The wine was De Bartole ‘Noble One,’ New South Wales, Australia 2006.

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IMG_7292.JPG IMG_7293.JPG

Chocolate – coconut, menthol, hyssop

11:37pm We had seen the grand finale on an adjacent table earlier in our meal, so we knew something special was coming. It was unique among the dishes in being constructed at the table, by a chef, rather than served premade from the kitchen.

The server first asked us to hold onto our single remaining drink. Upon the now empty table, he rolled out a silicone tablecloth. They brought out a number of bowls with various ingredients and toppings.

(John) When our chef approached, I saw it was Chef Achatz himself. However, I left Susanna oblivious to this as I was mortified, and certain, I would mispronounce his name.

He began by spooning pools of droplets of white sauce around the table, then put down two open cylinders on each end of the arrangement. Into this he poured some liquid chocolate.IMG_7300.JPG

He then placed a loaf of deeply cold frozen chocolate mousse in the center of this all, and the shattered it, filling the table with the cold nitrogen gas. Upon the ruins he placed garnish, then removed the cylinders.

The chocolate inside had cooled enough to keep their perfect disc shaped. Over the next ten minutes, both our spoons and the heat of the room slowly destroyed his art.

Delicious and beautiful.

IMG_7302.JPG IMG_7303.JPG

12:15pm After finishing our meal, the maitre’d invited us to stand in the corner of the kitchen and watch the bustle, and then Chef Achatz came out to shake hands and make small talk. We left thoroughly satisfied with the whole experience.

When we began the meal, we had expected it would be a once in a lifetime event. However, as the night progressed we began to discuss upcoming events we could use as an excuse to return.

Peninsula State Park

This past weekend, we crammed bikes, a trailer for the boy, and camping gear into our station wagon and headed to Peninsula State Park for three nights in Door County.

Here’s the photo album:

And some video:
[youtube width=”480″ height=”270″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pLnZI1gkQMw[/youtube]

Thanksgiving 2008

(Post by Susanna) This Thanksgiving, we continued the years-long tradition of traveling to Dallas to be with Susanna’s aunts, father, brother, grandmother, and cousins for the holiday — but this time, because we had an infant and because airfare was sky-high when we checked it, we decided to drive. And since we were driving, we decided we might as well add a stop on the way there and on the way back to visit other family and friends. Augie was 5.5 weeks old when we left.

On the way to Dallas, we spent two nights in Kansas City to visit with John’s aunt Pat and Uncle Tom and cousins Ryan and Beth, and his maternal grandfather Mo. It was fun introducing Augie to the family — and Pat and Tom doted on him. They gave him a bath, and Tom brushed his hair, and they looked after him from 5:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. one morning, which meant John and Susanna slept a longer stretch than they had in 5.5 weeks.

The second night in Kansas City, we visited with family from John’s father’s side, including his aunt Rhita and Uncle Phil, and almost all his cousins. August met the newest member of the Zaroor family, Aixa, who was only 2.5 weeks older than he was.

The drive from Madison to KC was about eight hours, and it was another eight hours to Dallas. In Dallas, August met his great-grandmother, Nana, his uncle and maternal grandfather and step-grandmother, and both of his great-aunts. He spent a lot of time sleeping in the arms of his extended family (and a ltitle time sleeping in the arms of a waitress at a barbecue restaurant). We spent four nights in Dallas, including Thanksgiving day.

The longest leg of the trip was from Dallas to St. Louis, to see our friends Curtis and Matt. They gave us Vietnamese food and beers and made us waffles and held Augie and laughed at his funny faces and compared him to a billiken, the SLU mascot. We have since called him Little Billiken.

The full photo gallery is here:

Vegas Trip Report

Thursday

My dad ("Pops"), bro-in-law ("Nickles") and I headed to Vegas for the weekend, heading out at noon on Thursday.

We got flights on Allegiant out of Rockford for $220 round trip, direct. Not bad. The Rockford airport was just as easy to get to from Madison as is Milwaukee, and has free parking to boot. Definitely a thumbs up there. On the flight over, the flight attendants run a "dollar game". Everyone writes their seat number down on a dollar bill (or more), puts it in a bag, and whichever one they draw wins the bagful. They ran it again with fives. Down $9 and I hadn’t yet set foot in Vegas. It was a harbinger of things to come.

We got checked into the Flamingo. It’s got a nice central location on the strip, but the ol’ Dirty Bird has definitely seen its prime many years ago. Still, for $100 a night average, who cares if the hotel room doesn’t smell quite right?

After dropping off our bags, we headed down to the poker room, which had a new 1-2 NL table opening up. Nickles and I had finally convinced the old man that poker was the way to go in Vegas; you at least aren’t guaranteed to lose in the long run, like every other game available. So we all sat down and played, and the Stewarts started drinking. They at least had Sam Adams on tap; a step above some of the crappier casinos.

Apparently all Harrah’s properties now charge a $5 max rake on their poker tables, which I find ridiculous. I’d never seen any more expensive than a $4 max, ever. Apparently some part of it goes towards a bad beat jackpot, but it wasn’t clear how much of that extra $1 did (as do most bad beat jackpots). Anyway, screw that noise. I’m there to play poker, not play the damn lottery.

After 5 hours at the table, Pops and Nickles were up a bit, and I was down $350 or so… the worst night of poker in my entire life. About $100 I could attribute to a half-drunk, stupid hand where I chipped off my stack with top pair, second kicker with AQ. I’d read my opponent as not having AK, which turned out to be correct. What I hadn’t noticed is the three diamonds on the board; whoops! As for the rest of my losses, I was just getting cold decked (and probably chasing my losses with a little too much investment in crappy starting hands and marginal flops).

Nickles called it a night, and Pops and I headed next door to find $5 single deck blackjack running on a couple of tables at Bill’s Gambling Hall (formerly the Barbary Coast), an old little casino which would look more at home on Fremont Street downtown than the middle of the strip. I somehow don’t think it’s long for this world, and the cheap blackjack allowed us to get proper drunk without having to think about how to play poker. They also had a live band, which wasn’t too hard on the ears, despite their repertoire consisting of Lynyrd Skynyrd covers.

The dealer gave out beads every time you hit blackjack, yet I couldn’t convince the ladies at the table that they also were by rights supposed to flash their boobies to get beads. I think I pretty much broke even at blackjack, which always counts as a victory.

Friday

The next morning, Nickles and Pops went off to golf at an ungodly early hour. They said it was the nicest course they’d ever played. After sleeping in and some breakfast (using my $5 in comps at the Flamingo diner… yay; 1.5% of my money back!), I monorailed it down to my favorite Vegas card room at the MGM Grand. A nice big room (not cramped and in a corner like most casinos) with nice tables and an endless stream of tourists.

The rodeo was in town over the weekend, so there were more cowboy hats and flannel in Vegas than I have ever seen. I knew something was up because on our flight out the person I sat next to waiting in the airport, I kid you not, smelled like horse shit. I wonder if it comes in cologne form?

My memory is hazy, but from my comps I know I spent 17 hours at the MGM the next couple of days, and I won back what I’d lost at the Dirty Bird. Thankfully so, because I was nearly out of cash and really didn’t want to hit an ATM… all of which on the strip have a FIVE fucking dollar surcharge.

One recollection I had of my MGM sesssion was this cowboy sitting down immediately to my left and just going apeshit maniac. In the two hours he was there, if it came to him preflop unraised, he bumped it up to $10… quite literally every single hand. He also called most raises and was a maniac on every street. He was tossing $4 tips at the dealer after looking at his hole cards (he tipped probably $75 in his two hours there). It worked for him, for a while. He chipped off a couple of people betting into him when his crap hands would spike a straight card or something. I waited and waited, hoping for premium cards to go to war, but never got my opportunity. I was sad to see him leave; he pissed off a lot of players (especially the couple he busted out), but I was damn entertained.

Hit a 200-1 quinella on the Sigma Derby at the MGM. It’s this ancient horse racing game… 10 people can play. You put in quarters and bet which two horses are going to finish 1-2 of the five in the race. Each pair has an associated payout. It’s a great way to kill some time cheaply and get free drinks. I only had one quarter on the 200-1 horses; but $50 ain’t bad. It’s near the poker room; definitely check it out if you’re ever there. Who knows how long it’ll live. One crusty old blackjack dealer at the Tropicana said he remembered playing that machine in the 70’s… they used to be all over Vegas.

The Tropicana is the place to play blackjack on the strip, especially if you need a break from the poker at MGM… the stairs right next to the poker room will lead you across the footbridge to the Trop (not that the have any signage to this effect, of course). The Trop allows doubling after splits and surrenders, and $5 games all the time, so it’s pretty much the best you can do odds-wise if you’re not counting cards.

I always, always, pull out my blackjack strategy card when I’m at a table. Even experienced players are usually making mistakes on the marginal calls, giving the house a huge edge instead of the 1% or so you’re giving if you’re doing everything right. I printed one out years ago from some website. Wikipedia has a table you can print out, but you can buy these in pretty much any gift shop in vegas. Best $2 you’ll spend if you play blackjack.

One of the plays I always do when I’m supposed to is a surrender (you get half your bet back). You’re supposed to do this with a 15 versus a 10, and a 16 versus 9, 10, or A. I was even taking shit from one dealer at the Trop who’d never seen it before, but hell if I’m going to give my money away for free, dammit! People would be curious about the card when I pulled it out, but it would not take long until people were asking me what to do and praising the wisdom of the card.

Saturday

On Saturday morning, Pops and I headed out to the Gun Store. I’d been meaning to go the last few times I’d been there, but since we had a rental car this time, it was easy to do. I sort of expected a half-assed operation, but these guys were fast-food efficient. We walked in, they called out "You guys here to shoot?" "Yes." "Sign that waiver and come pick out your weapons."

It was like a Taco Bell menu, except with lethal metal instead of lethal burritos. We each picked out 100 rounds with an HK MP5 and 25 rounds with an AK-47. With our ears and eyes covered in safety gear, we were on the range within ten minutes of walking in and shooting bad guys on paper seconds later. You gotta love Vegas.

[youtube]Y2vLoF8_DyA[/youtube]

I was pleasantly surprised at the accuracy of the AK. Despite its erratic behaviour in Counter-Strike, it performed very well. The high velocity, low caliber rounds left neat little holes in the target, as opposed to the 9mm rounds of the MP5, which tore ugly patches of the paper away. You can see why the weapon is used by armies and thugs all over the world. Reliable, powerful, and cheap.

AK-47 MP5

The last night, Pops kicked off early and Nickles and I went to the Wolfgang Puck restaurant to use up our MGM comps. Neither of us was very impressed, alas. We played some more blackjack at the Trop, then he went off to bed around 9:30. We had to leave from the hotel at 3:30 the next morning to make our flight back, so my plan was to just stay the hell up.

I headed across the street to the Caesar’s card room and played some 1-3 NL (their lowest stakes game). The place is a lot nicer since the last time I played a couple of years ago (just after they’d opened it). Previously, it was pretty much just like the inside of a mid-quality hotel conference room. They’ve since really decked it out with a lot of awesome, huge, sports photos (including one of Vince Lombardo and Bart Starr cheering a victory), nice fixtures, and all around nice furnishings. They also bumped up their low stakes game from 1-2 to 1-3 and reduced the seats per table to 9 from 10. All in all, very nice.

They still have a $5 max rake since it’s a Harrah’s properly, but unlike the rest of the Harrah’s card rooms, that extra buck goes to a high hand jackpot instead of a bad beat jackpot. Either way, I’d prefer to be paying $4 like at MGM, but at least I felt like I was playing at a nice place instead of a shithole like the Flamingo. Plus it’s a totally separate room from the rest of the casino, so you’re not getting all the smoke coming in like at most of the card rooms in Vegas.

I was happy enough to be even in my poker at that point, having battled back from my hideous night at the Dirty Bird on the first night. My goal was mostly to just stay even and stay awake for the next five hours and bought in for my usual $100. Instead, within 15 minutes, I was all-in three times.

The first came against a French dude, playing the maniac. There were a couple of callers around to me, and I looked down to QQ. I popped it up to my usual raise of $10. It came around to him and he raised me all-in for the rest of my stack in a $20 pot. I figured no one with AA or KK would be looking to scare away action that much, and called. The queeens held.

I know another called all-in held up soon thereafter (forgetting the hand now) and I was up $350 or so, enough to pay for the trip. I could have taken it and gone to bed happy, but I didn’t want to hit the sack at 10pm on the last night in Vegas.

A few minutes later, I popped it up with AK, and French maniac pushed on me again. I let him goad me into a call, and he showed AA. Ouch. I was back down to $80 or so after that; a painful swing.

After playing with the crazy French dude (and his brother, also at the table), it became clear that they were both solid players, but acted a good aura of craziness for the benefits to their action. A few hours in with money shifting in small amounts, it had gotten pretty tight.

About 2am, up hundred and change, I limped with 66 in the small blind. A dude from Southern California to my left in the big blind checked it, and three of us saw the flop. The flop came 10 6 X, me hitting my set. I checked and SoCal bet $20. The other player folded, and I made a call.

The turn brought the second diamond, and I checked again. SoCal bet again, something like $35, and I made a call saying "Well, I came to gamble."

With a blank on the river, I pushed for another $100 or so. SoCal tanked and I tried to act like I was bluffing on a blown flush draw. He was definitely leaning towards folding. He showed me his hole cards, Q 10, asking if he should call. Upon seeing his cards, I made an Oscar-caliber comment, "Oh, you’ve got TOP pair.", which pushed him to call, and I showed my set.

I was up $350 or so after a five hour fight, and with a plane to catch, I soon departed for the hotel to toss my shit in my bag.

North Central Rally 2007

This is, I guess, the 5th Triples Rally I’ve been to. And I never even made it with a Triple. The first time was in 2003, and that was my first big trip on a bike. It was unbelievably cool to hit the cow roads of western Wisconsin. A little gravel here and there, but it definitely got me hooked.

In 2004 Greg and I hit it again, this time in West Salem, where it has been since.

Alas, I seem to have not put up pictures in the intervening years, but I’m pretty damn sure I’ve not missed one since… the last two with Tim.

This year, I actually planned the route for Saturday’s group ride; quite an honor!

Google Maps version is here and a better hard-copy version (constructed from the Wisconsin Gazetteer) is here. I ended up modifying this route… we ran a great road at the beginning that we’d hit coming in (and loved), and then on the south leg we ended up hitting gravel and had to detour south.

This, to the best of my knowledge, is the route we actually took on Saturday.

I was damn nervous to make sure we didn’t do anything too gnarly (sadly, a year before I first hit the NCR, someone actually died), but really wanted to show off the incredible scenery and roads in the Driftless Area up southeast of La Crosse. I think it turned out pretty well, despite the unbelievable heat (in the mid 90’s each day).

Holy crap… I’m not sure if this was a bug or a frickin’ hummingbird, but look at the bloody pulp he left on my helmet on the way home.

I didn’t take many pictures this year, but here’s what I have:

Bonnaroo 2007

Bonnaroo. The word elicits in me both terror and delight.

There is no place like it in the world. Think about the freakiest part of the freakiest city you know. Now go freakier. It’s an amazing amalgam of 80,000 dirty stinking hippies, dozens and dozens of great bands, lots of illicit drugs, and a strong dollop of Tennessee June heat and copious amounts of choking dust or mucky smelly mud, depending on the year.

This year was my third. I’m a glutton for punishment.

A buddy of mine and I drove down together (his second ‘Roo) and hooked up with some of his brothers-in-law and assorted friends, seven cars in total. It was a superb group of folks to hang out with and get funky.

We scored a most excellent campsite (for those who were there, right by pod 3 and not far from 3rd Avenue and 3rd Street). We could hear both of the big stages very well from the campsite, which was helpful for pacing myself (a key to survival in the Tennessee sun).

Music I checked out (in addition to dozens of other tents I wandered into and out of at random, one of the awesome things about ‘Roo):

Xavier Rudd
Very pleasantly surprised. I’ve never seen him before, and this dude can play. It was mostly just him, sometimes with a drummer, playing guitar, didgeridoo, and harmonica, amongst others. Definitely a great show.

Ween
These guys simply rock. Dean Ween on guitar engages in musical masturbation on stage (and I mean that in the best way possible). Gene is a great showman. They were tight, and they rocked the house. It was at my first Bonnaroo in 2005 that I first saw these guys playing a midnight show, and it made me into an instant Ween fan. This show didn’t disappoint… except that it was during the afternoon, and I had to leave early to make sure to acquire an excellent vantage point for the next band I would see that night…

Two awesome musicians and a wanker in the middleThe Police
I love these guys. I think they are hugely influential and made some of the best music ever, mixing up styles and genres masterfully. It was these guys headlining at Bonnaroo this year that made me definitely want to go. Too bad they fucking sucked.

Stewart Copeland was great on drums, coming out with an infectious energy. Andy Summers was more than adequate. Sting, however, was a total wanker. In the 30-45 minutes before I left the show, he was completely forgetting lyrics, missing cues, and generally fucking up. They also had an annoying habit of extending the song with the same melody droning on and on. Jamming is great when someone is changing a familiar riff into a series of jazzy interpretations. It is pathetic when you simply play the same notes over and over again.

Also annoying was when Sting tried to get the crowd to all clap in unison. There were eighty thousand people there. The main stage is massive. A little googling on the speed of sound will tell you this shit just won’t work in that venue. Go back to your VH1 easy listening crap and get off the stage.

If this had been their first show since breaking up, that would have been one thing. This looks to have been the 11th date on their tour. No excuses for this. These guys may have been an incredible live act in 1979. Thirty years later they are not. Save your money if you’re planning on shelling out $200 for tickets.

(I probably wouldn’t follow that advice, myself. I would have to take the opportunity to see them.)

Fortunately, I was able to hear them very well from the campsite (and actually, they weren’t bad from there), where I spent a couple of hours resting up for the midnight shows.

The Flaming Lips
Another band I knew bupkus about until I walked into their show. They’re known for one catchy hit in 1993, She Don’t Use Jelly, and that’s all I knew of them.

Musically, the show was not always very accessible and sometimes droned on too long. However, they put on an incredible show to go along with the music. Their stage includes a UFO into which the band ascended to end the show. The show also apparently started (I missed it) with the lead singer being passed around the crowd in a giant gerbil ball. They also passed out thousands of laser pointers and later had the crowd light up a giant balloon with them, which was pretty freaking cool. I’ll definitely check these guys out again if I can.

Wilco
Just fucking great musicians. They showed how a band can play a big venue well (unlike The Police). They simply got up and played their asses of, competently. Just really a very good performance.

The White Stripes
A very popular show on the last night, on the second largest stage. The place was packed, and they played a good show. Meg White is an adequate drummer… perfectly appropriate for the sparse, simple, rock they play. Jack White is a great guitar player. No one was up there but those two, and they did a great job making enough noise.

Photos / Video
As for media I gathered, here is a very small slice of some of the Bonnaroo scene. Unfortunately, I ventured out armed with the camera only during the day and only for short jaunts, so the pure wonderful weirdness and orgy of music is hardly captured herein.

The photo album of my snapshots is here:

This is a hastily-edited cut of some shots on the way there, the campsite, and inside:
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And this is a clip of a grifter running the shell game. I’m pretty sure I saw this same guy back in 2005 as well. Notice the earpiece he’s wearing; I’m sure he had lookouts around keeping an eye out for the man.
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Hey, if you’re one of the folks I met down there, send me an email (and/or leave a comment!)