Maybe Real Men Eat Quiche After All

I’ve said before, cooking shows never shout at you. What about a cooking show that scares the bejeesus out of you? I caught part of PBS’s “New Scandinavian Cooking With Andreas Viestad.” Our host is apparently both a chef and outdoorsman; the show is apparently both cooking show and travelogue. In the first segment, Cooking host Andreas prepares his vinaigrette salad. He has a cutting table set up on a flat stone slab about the size of a large living room floor. Disturbingly, we discover the slab is actually the very top of a thousand foot high basaltic granite stone monolith, projecting up into the sky from out of the depths of a Norwegian fjord. The work table is set up about eight feet from the edge, a sheer drop. Due to some unnecessarily foolish experiments with great heights in my youth, I’m already getting the creeps.

Chef Viestad is chopping tomatoes to add to the coarsely shredded lettuce and fresh dill. He says, “this tomato is bad,” and throws it over the edge to the ocean waiting far below. He adds cheerily, “in a few seconds, it will be catsup!”

The salad is done. Viestad enlists a friend to help him eat this masterpiece. They both sit down very carefully at the cliff edge, feet dangling over a sheer drop to certain death, and enjoy a very fresh salad with vinaigrette dressing.

Later, Chef Andreas prepares a Brisling Sardine quiche on a manicured green lawn at the edge of another fjord. Maybe real men eat quiche after all.

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Michelin Tires Saved My Bacon

I’d just bought a brand-new set of four Michelin Energy 205/60/16 tires for my ’99 Camry Solara on October 4.¬† This isn’t a review of the tires – see a typical review here – but if you wanted to know what brand tires I’d recommend, more than ever, my answer would be “Michelin.”

On October 19 I set off on the return leg of my monthly road trip from Phoenix to the Bay Area. There was a freeway-speed road incident on Interstate 5 — yes, yes, I and the car are fine. As far as I’m concerned, Michelin saved my bacon. As I wrote a friend,

“Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride”

A pickup swerved violently into my lane. I swerved to avoid collision. Hit the sand and gravel highway shoulder, started to spin out, careened across the other lane and into the median strip trying to recover, did a slow horizontal 180 without rolling (like a high-speed dodgem car), tires screaming and howling, and ended up stopped on the right shoulder – facing backwards. Not a scratch, dent, not hurt, glad to be alive. Brand new Michelins just paid for themselves.

Michelin Energy (after)

Inspecting For Damage

A big-rig pulled over to see if he could help, as did several passenger cars. Cal-Trans joined us. Witnesses said the black pick-up pulled over but then left the scene. I saw nothing else outside my own immediate situation; I was busy at the time. ūüôā

On closer inspection of the tires, the left-front had trapped roadside shoulder “straw” between the tire bead and the rim, but the bead didn’t break loose and I was able to drive the rest of the way home. The tread near the sidewall is well-scrubbed. See below for a detail photo. I have an appointment for a tire check.

Straw still stuck between bead and rim after 200 freeway miles

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Golden Age of Rail

Is the Golden Age of Rail really over for good? If the air passenger industry doesn’t reinvent itself soon, might rail again be the next really big thing?

I saw one of those grand old railroad nostalgia specials on PBS earlier this week. This one was America and the Passenger Train (Producer: Richard W. Luckin):

“This program traces the development of America’s passenger trains from 1830 to 2008 through interviews and vintage footage. Many leading experts from the railroad industry and railroad museums are interviewed – along with people who rode the 20th Century Limited, Super Chief, California Zephyr and the Daylight. Hosted by Tia Marier.”

I grew up right at the tilting-point of those great railroad days. The elegant 1920’s dining-car experiences you can watch on “Poirot” had already mostly disappeared. American rail still offered a luxury service for the well-heeled traveler right up to about 1970. And I was never “well-heeled” anyway.

But by 1970, the automobile and commercial air travel had cut so heavily into rail passenger revenues that many railroads just tossed in the towel. Some railroads hung in there for a while, feeling that even as a “loss leader” the elegance and leisure of rail travel was a great public relations boon.

It was, but it wasn’t enough. The glamor and excitement of air travel, coupled with half-day coast-to-coast travel, spelled doom for long-distance rail travel. People no longer had time to travel by train. Today, it’s theoretically possible for an executive to jet from San Francisco to New York, attend a short conference or board meeting, and jet home to San Francisco in time for dinner.

Theoretically possible, but dehumanizing. There are new barriers and obstacle courses for air travel that didn’t exist two decades ago. Add an extra hour of wait time at each airport, security checks, baggage delays, penurious overhead luggage storage, hidden extra fees for pillows, blankets, soft drinks and suitcases, a generally indifferent and sometimes hostile airline service bureaucracy, and unscheduled flight delays and cancellations. What you have is a disenchanted public and a formula for the next great revolution in travel, whatever that may be.

There’s no question airlines are feeling the pinch of fuel costs. We all are, But the industry’s troubles started way back when oil was well below $60 a barrel, not $100+ as it is today. “The economy” or not, airlines manufactured most of their own problems.

I shuttled back and forth from my Bay Area to Phoenix for over two decades. Apart from infrequent “frequent flyer” upgrades to First Class, I traveled in Steerage, or whatever euphemism they were currently applying to the cattle-car section of the main cabin. I’m only 5’8″ and 150 pounds, yet economy air seats were uncomfortably cramped even for me. I found the last several years of this to be really quite dreadful. One thing all we passengers loved to talk about was the deterioration of air service.

My long-distance rail travel was limited to an aged troop train during the Cuban Crisis, hardly illustrative of the Golden Age of rail travel. But I used and liked “light rail” a lot in the 1990’s; the SF Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) was a generally delightful experience. What I liked about it: you got on your train, traveled to your destination, and got off the train again. It’s that simple.

And who, desiring to hop BART from Oakland to San Francisco, has ever had to shop Travelocity to get the best price for a ticket? If you look at USAir quotes for a no-frills flight to Phoenix over the period of a few weeks, you’ll see what a shell game the ticket pricing racket really is. And we’re their “marks.”

Air travel has something in common with CostCo, apart from the difference that CostCo employees are polite. Sure, you can save money at a CostCo, particularly if you spend a lot there, but there’s one thing you cannot claim. No one has ever parked at a CostCo, dashed in to buy an item, and dashed back out again. That huge warehouse selection means endless corridors in a vast enclosed space, pushing carts for miles and miles “just looking” for your shopping list, and long lines at the check-outs. Airports are designed for compartmentalized efficiency. Think of a REALLY huge warehouse containing a Home Depot, CostCo, Safeway, and a Fry’s Electronics, and you have an idea of what the modern airport is really about. It is NOT designed for passenger convenience.

Call me disenchanted, disaffected, or disgruntled. For my money, the commercial airline industry can abandon interstate air passenger traffic – something it hasn’t been very good at for over 20 years – leaving it free to concentrate on air freight, the more lucrative and uncomplaining cash cow.

This is exactly what the railroads had to do half a century ago, though for different reasons. Is it too much to hope we’ve come full circle?

Would the next big thing be high-speed rail? At 220-360 mph, a bullet train will never beat a 600 mph jetliner to the destination, but when you factor in terminal delays and flight cancellations, it comes close. There are more security options, too, including disconnecting the locomotive entirely. A terrorist can’t just hijack a railroad train and crash it into a World Trade Center. If someone pulls the emergency cord, all the passengers can just get off: what are terrorists supposed to do about that? “Take me to Cuba”: not spoken on the rail lines.

You can also electrify rail lines and run them on clean renewable energy. Air traffic consumes tanker-loads of fossil fuels. Aviation will be the last  sector of the energy economy to be switched over, if ever.

Think about rail. There is just something really dangerously attractive about getting on, traveling to your destination, and just getting off again.

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Notes From All Over – or Not

I was reading a New Yorker article about Afghanistan. A successful independent radio and TV network there was said to receive grants from foreign governments and N.G.O.’s. All right, I’ve seen the abbreviation before, but could only guess it meant “non-government organization”. So I was goaded into looking it up on Wikipedia:

A non-governmental organization (NGO) is a legally constituted organization created by natural or legal persons that operates independently from any

There you go. Too bad we can’t Google magazine pages directly. No, I am not getting an iPad.

Getting to “or Not”, I’m always on the lookout for new gas stations on my road trips. I like to get in and out fast, so am willing to try stations a bit to the left of “off the beaten track”. That means making some mistakes, too.

NOT: Shell station, Lebec, California (I-5, on the grade up to Gorman). They boast two stations, a Shell and a Chevron. I tried Shell first. Red flags on all the credit card scanners: “Out of Order. Please prepay at cashier’s.” You know what that means: underpay, and you resume your trip with less than a full tank. Overpay, and you get to make another trip inside, stand in line again, and watch them figure out how to give you your change or modify a debit or charge. SO: I crossed the road to the other station.

NOT: Chevron station, Lebec, California. This one was cleaner and friendlier, but the pump LCD displays were absolutely illegible. I couldn’t get the pump to dispense. I had to go in and see the clerk. This is kind of rare, because I’ve been doing this for over forty years. She asked me if I hit the CANCEL button on my debit transaction when I couldn’t get the gas to pump. No. I had never had to do that before. She asked me if I lifted up the lever under the nozzle handle. Sheepishly: No. The newer pumps do this automatically, and I had gotten out of that habit.

The nozzle still didn’t pump well. I had to milk the handle trigger to get something approximating a full tank. The clerk had been very polite, but it’s not likely I’ll stop in Lebec again.

NOT: Lamont, California (about 10 miles north of Lebec, June trip). This town has one gas station that I could find. All I remember about it (or want to) was that the parking was practically non-existent, and you have to get a key to use the one tiny restroom. I think they were charging about $3.89 a gallon, too. Far be it from me to inconvenience them again.

NOT: Blythe, California (1st offramp).¬† It seems that I had been to BB Travel Center before, but something had changed, and it was in the air that you breath (or not), not the air in your tires. There are better stations in Blythe for those who can wait the extra few minutes to take the second or third offramp (or just drive across the Colorado River into Arizona and save over 20 cents a gallon). But I had to, well, I was anxious to make a stop as soon as possible. Something wasn’t right about this place. As soon as I opened the door to the “Travel Center”, I was hit with a heavy whiff of the problem. I surmised a pipe must have broken, specifically the one that empties into the sewer system or septic tank.¬† To my immense relief, it wasn’t in the restroom. There was an old gent eating lunch at a table near the door. The smell was still enough to gag a maggot. The old gent appeared not to notice. That doesn’t speak too highly for the quality of the food fare.

YES: I’m a fan of the PBS’s Poirot series, originally dramatized in Agatha Christie’s mystery novels, which I have never read, but now surely intend to. The PBS TV series stars David Suchet as Hercule Poirot. Suchet does such a delightful job in this unique role, and I never miss a showing if I can possibly help it. Tonight Suchet did a one-hour PBS “Masterpiece” special as himself, not as Poirot: David Suchet on the Orient Express. The Orient Express has been in service for about a hundred years, and ran for most of those years from Paris to Istanbul. Service was extended from the UK after completion of the “chunnel”. It rode for the last time in 2009. The TV show explained how the elegantly restored old railcars corresponded exactly to the passenger seating and sleeping compartments on Agatha Christie’s actual train trip. She got the details down exactly for the famous thriller novel. And David Suchet was as refined and personable as the Poirot character he plays, if not more so. A perfect TV special for train buffs, Christie fans, history hounds and anyone looking for one hour of very solid and informative entertainment.

YES: In that vein, I also enjoy Martin Clunes in Doc Martin, and he did a one hour special last month, in which we again get to be introduced to the actor as a person. Clunes toured countryside and oceanside¬† settings of England and Scotland, offering a thoroughly delightful hour of personality and travelogue. If you know the TV series, “Doc Martin” is a brilliant physician and means well, bringing to the show a monomaniacal devotion to the arts of healing and diagnostics, and a TV personality as thoroughly and insensitively abrasive as you might have the good fortune, in real life, to be exposed to only once in a lifetime. One desperately wants to like Doc Martin, but his embarrassing behavior is suspiciously like Asperger’s syndrome as one character in the show finally suggested. Somehow, he always gets past that to do the right thing, which is why I like the show. Martin Clunes (actor as a person) is winningly likable and personable. Like Suchet, it makes one appreciate how much real acting skill has been required to deliver to the audience such convincingly eccentric yet brilliant roles.

THE WEATHER here in Phoenix, officially 106F today, “about average” for this day and month. I arrived yesterday afternoon. The shock of walking from the air conditioned car into a 100-degree house is just wilting. A dip in the pool helped, but I felt like I was in shock for most of the evening. What you do, down here, is turn on the AC and let it cool down to 78-84 (78 the first day, to get used to it, and gradually adjust it up during the course of the week). If you shoot for much more than a 25 degree indoor/outdoor differential, the AC will run pretty much continuously, and you’ll pay for that in the utility bill, if not a huge repair bill. What I still can’t wrap my mind around: I can afford to cool the house down to about 80, in the summer, which is warmer than I can afford to heat the northern California apartment up to, in the winter.

Monsoon season is almost here. 10% chance of T-showers this weekend. Yippee!

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Speeding Photo Enforcement

The ticket arrived in my California mailbox yesterday, from the Arizona automated traffic enforcement folks.

At first, I thought this must be some kind of bizarre mistake.

But it wasn’t. At the bottom of the citation was a front-view photo of me driving (photo arguable), and rear-view of my license plate (unquestionably me). The date and time exactly matched my California-bound departure from Phoenix. I left the house at 6:01AM on the 4th, and the picture was taken at 6:21AM, vicinity of the 10 mile post at 59th Avenue.

I do remember seeing a photo enforcement warning sign. Even though there is hardly anyone on the road that early in the morning, I figured I was driving 3mph over the limit and should be OK. The AZ limit on Interstate 10 is 75. I looked for patrol cars in the rear view mirror. Seeing none, I again assumed I was OK.

Welcome to the wonderful world of fully automated enforcement. I had read about it, but didn’t quite “get it” – this was my first encounter.

The fine was $181.50. The trouble was, this close to town, the limit was still 65.

Speeders never prosper (still image)

Speeders never prosper

There’s a web page where I was able to pay the fine and view a video of my infraction. I wasn’t able to save the video to my PC, so got a screen capture. Other vehicles in the video appeared to be traveling roughly the same speed. Recession or not, Arizona should be making a tidy little bundle on this stretch of road.

But no matter. I should have known better. Now, you can bet I will never forget this stretch of highway – which is what the fines are designed to do anyway.

And, if one were thinking of contesting the speed, it’s not measured by photometrics, or even by radar. The camera is connected to physical in-road sensors. The images are encrypted and tamper-proof. For fixing vehicular speed, it’s really a lot cheaper and more scientifically objective than a traffic cop’s citation. I don’t think one could argue successfully there was any mistake at all.

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2008 Drive to Phoenix

Drive-by shootingThis is what you get when, driving solo, you stick a point-and-shoot out the window, keeping your eyes on the road, and point, and shoot.

Eastbound on the I-210 Pasadena Freeway headed for Riverside CA and the junction of I-10, I missed a fine shot of Mt. Baldy and finally settled on these snow-capped peaks. Soon we will begin the ascent of the Tehachapis and the long descent back down into the Mojave, which is quite cool (about 79-81 degrees) this time of year.

The trip began when I departed Castro Valley at 6AM. I was going to top off the tank before getting onto the freeway, but somebody had run over a skunk by the gas station, and I thought better of stopping. It is dark this time of the morning, but you could see the faint glow of twilight off in the east. By Crow’s Landing on I-5, the sun was one solar diameter above the horizon of the San Joaquin Valley, a dark crimson orb pushing through light fog and haze.

By anyone’s accounting, the north-south I-5 through¬†California’s great¬†Central Valley is a stark, barren drive, with the highlights being the occasional vast feedstock lots, and, as you approach Bakersfield, the alkali deposits that leach out of the fields from decades of heavy fertilization and hard water irrigation. But I like it, except for the smell of the feedlots (which was oddly absent this year). To look at the land,¬†with its white-laced¬†powdery ashen sandy soil, you would never suspect that this state manages to grow enough food to supply the state and most of the nation with an unimaginable abundance of fruit, vegetable, and beef.

Further on around Bakersfield, the land¬†projected an eery, otherworldly appearance as the “fog” thickened. Visibility was still several miles, but faded rapidly. Nearby objects appeared hazy, while distant objects revealed ghosts of disembodied appartions floating on the gloom. The fog revealed a faint trace of dirty reddish gray-brown, proof that a large component of the poor visibility was really just smog. Backlit by the¬†low winter morning¬†sun, this soup made for poor visibility and challenging driving.

A glimpse of the sky ahead of the horizon offered a truly jolting sight.¬†The gray silhouette of a¬†huge mountainscape¬†towered over the highway¬†for an instant through the haze: gray on gray. Then it disappeared, then¬†loomed above once¬†again, with hints of snow on the peaks. Signs announced “Grapevine” and “trucks use weigh station”. We began the mighty ascent to Gorman Pass. This is roughly the halfway point on the trip from the SF Bay Area to Phoenix.

I always underestimate the vastness of the LA basin, the intimidating traffic and the confusing, last-minute highway signing. I take the Pasadena Freeway at Sylmar to bypass as much of LA as possible. These freeways are engineered for commute traffic, not interstate traffic. Most people are afraid to use the HOV lanes (2 or more passengers) even on a Saturday. Traffic is skittish and can go from 75mph to a full stop in fifteen seconds. Honking motorists pass a lady on a cellphone crawling along at 35 mph in the fast lane in a brand-new SUV. I can hardly WAIT to get out of here.

You break loose of all this past Riverside. The¬†Interstate-10 reduces to two good lanes in each direction.¬†From here on out to Phoenix, truckers own the road. It’s trucks passing trucks passing trucks. With a¬†little patience, a V-6 or V-8 can zip through¬†this when breaks of¬†clear lane¬†are offered, though it’s divided freeway all the way, a smart move in my opinion. The days of¬†pulling out into the oncoming lanes and stomping it into passing gear are long gone.

The other thing I always underestimate is the vastness of the desert. There’s over 100 miles of Mojave between Riverside and Blythe, on the Colorado River. Breaking through to the “Welcome to Arizona” sign on the bridge is always cause for cheering. “Phoenix: 196 miles” seems like it’s all downhill.¬†

At 100 miles outside of Phoenix, you can see the Superstition Mountains far away on the horizon, though dimly. You can also see an obvious white hemisphere of smog enveloping Phoenix, like a geodesic dome. As you approach mile 36, you realize the traffic and the atmosphere is not that much different from the LA basin you just fled.

Two-car garageFrom this point, the commute to the garage at the house in Phoenix took as long as the trip from Blythe to the outskirts of metro Phoenix.

But it is always good to get home. Pictured in the garage are the California car (backed in) and the Arizona car. It is the only other photo I was able to take.

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Return from Phoenix


Here are the kind of personal stats the whole world could give a rat about: Our return trip to the Bay Area was via LA and the infamous I-210 and Grapevine, considerably shorter on the return trip, at 10.6 hours and 710 miles.

We didn’t measure the longer route via Flagstaff on the way down, but I am guessing it added about 80 miles to the round trip. Calling that 1500 miles round trip, we spent $158.63 on 62.393G gasoline, for a both-way fuel economy of 24.04 mpg. The car is a 1999 Toyota Camry Solara.

Average price of gasoline was $2.542 overall, with the cheapest gas being in Phoenix itself (Circle K, $2.339), and the most expensive $2.999 (Shell, Needles).

Leaving Phoenix at 6AM Saturday morning got us across the desert by 10AM, out of weekday LA traffic, and in front door at 4:40. Various freeway splits and mergers between I-210 and other major freeways are poorly marked out and little time is available to prepare. If you don’t already know you need to be in the right hand lanes of 10 to end up on the 210, and then the left hand lanes to not end up going to Riverside, and then in the right 3 lanes to merge to I-5 (say, have I got all that right for sure?): you’ll never get there. We always make it somehow.

But it can be exciting when 400 speeding cars jam on their brakes and switch 3 or 4 lanes of braking traffic at the last minute before hitting the Y in the freeway.

With generous stops for stretch breaks, fuel and even a sandwich, and a driver rotation, we found the return trip overall less draining and more pleasant, though not of course as post-card scenic. At least we saw proper real pine trees in Flagstaff.

In the roughly 200 miles from mountain pass to mountain pass that is the LA basin, once you descend into the smog from the San Bernardino Pass, you are engulfed in it until you reach Gorman and swoop down into the dry clear agricultural valley of I-5. You always drive by beautiful landmark Mt. Baldy approaching Sylmar and the San Fernando Valley, but we never saw that mountain this trip.

All in all, then, we surprised ourselves with the discovery that the drive could be fairly pleasant and reasonably quick if the LA route is taken yet planned and timed carefully. I like the desert and barren open spaces, so am at no loss of things to look at through Arizona, the Mojave and the continuous long, irrigated, dusty farming corridor between LA and the Bay Area.

The photo was taken on I-10 about an hour or so west of Phoenix.

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Driving to Phoenix

We loaded some stuff in the car that’s too big or otherwise inappropriate for airport security. Included is a 10″ reflector telescope and mount that just barely fits in the car at all. Also, a sharp new pair of Long’s Drugs 4″ barbershop scissors I wanted for trimming.

The drive is from the SF Bay Area to Phoenix. Our best time is 9 hours; our longest, about 12. This time we tried a new “long route”. Total time was about 13.5 hours but this included a 1-hour delay on account of a traffic accident that backed up traffic in highway 17 north of Phoenix for 20 miles.
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