Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Is That A Lightsaber???

These aren't the Weapons of Mass Destruction you're looking for.

I don't know how long it's going to be there, but on CNN.com
today is a photo captioned "Trouble In The Land Of Morning Calm" with silhouettes of three soldiers, one carrying what looks to be a lightsaber.

The Empire Has Landed?

You decide.

The Sound of Silence

For such a long time, there's been a low humming sound that has slowly been driving me crazy. And last night it finally got to me.

Unlike most people who simply go out and buy some sort of sound system for their computer, I've cobbled mine together from years of leftover equipment. From the computer (a ten year old Mac G4/500 dual processor) into a Numark PPD mixer that feeds to an Audio Source graphic equalizer to a Furman crossover that splits the signal into multiple amps that feed either a Toa concert subwoofer and Tannoy near-field reference studio monitors.

For such a simple setup, the sound is quite clean and the performance impressive. House shaking decibel levels are possible and when I pump up Nuttin' But A G Thang by Dr. Dre you can feel the bass hit your eardrums like a slug to your head...

The problem has been this incessant humming that I've noticed recently. Like most professionals I know, the home rig is always fraught with little bugs that never get resolved because most of the work is done in the real world and the home world is just a little less than perfect.

So rather than go through the system and debug, I've simply lived with it. Until this morning.

When it finally got to me and I started trying to isolate the source of the hum. Off went the Tannoys, off went the amp and the hum remained. Shut down the entire audio system and the hum remained. Now, it's getting irritating.

In the end, I discovered the incessant hum wasn't from the audio system - surprisingly, the system runs clean, it was from the ten year old Mac G4/500MP.

Unbelievable how loud that machine is. Time for a new one.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Miracle on 34th

Every year the denizens of 34th Street in Hampden join together to create Baltimore's Tour de Force in Christmas lighting. Every night from the Saturday following Thanksgiving through Christmas, the street is filled with lights and packed with people from all over the region coming to see what has been dubbed the "Miracle on 34th Street."

On the weekends, Hampden is crazy busy and parking gets a bit difficult. Luckily since Spro is just down the street, I'm already here, I've got a great parking spot and we can stroll along at our leisure.

Of course, it's blustery cold and by the time we've walked back I'm chilled to the core...

Alchemy on 36th

Molly with the mozzarella and tomato salad.

After many months of delays and frustrations, Debi finally opened her new restaurant on The Avenue: Alchemy. It's a cool space that I had toured during the buildout and now that it's finished it looks even better - especially the white ostrich leather banquettes - very sexy.

And after many days of waiting, Molly and I finally made it down to give it a try. I won't write much but the food was good, Nick our server was enthusiastic, the staff was friendly and everything went smoothly and tastily on a Friday night right before Christmas.

I'll let the pics do the talking.

Mojito Mussels - strange at first, then good. Very good - especially with the bread and butter.

Angelfire Chicken - spicy chicken perfectly cooked with a corn and tomato sauce.

Chicken and dumplings.

Alchemy on 36th
1011 West 36th Street
Baltimore, MD 21211

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Intelligent v60???

Head-to-Head brewing: Intelli on the left, Spro on the right.

From what I've been told, the Fabulous LaTourell was in the house last Sunday while I was in Italy. He came by for a visit and brought along some lovely coffees from Intelligentsia and Coffee Collective for us to sample, and he offered a tutorial in v60 brewing: Intelli Style.

I've been a little critical lately of the way the v60 drip brewer has been implemented industry wide and I'm sure there's a little bit of a challenge to that position with David's visit. It's all good.

Spro Method grinds.

I'm not the sort of chap who really believes too much in his own dogma, so I'm willing to try other methodologies to see what kind of improvements to our product line we can deliver to our customers. Jeremy was working that day and was the beneficiary of the Intelligentsia tutorial.

With that in mind, we set off to do side-by-side brews with the v60 and see if one method was indeed "better" than the other. For this brew test, we used Stumptown's Colombia El Jordan, roasted on November 30, 2010 in New York City.

According to Stumptown's card: "Warm aromatics of nutmeg and cinnamon segue into mouth-watering flavors of satsuma orange and ripe blackberry which finish with notes of honey and brown sugar."

For this brew test, the coffee was ground using a Compak R80 grinder at the "30" grind setting and we used 24 grams of coffee to make a 12z cup.

According to Jeremy, the method prescribed by Intelligentsia is a finer grind with a 2z initial pour of water for a one minute bloom before adding an additional 12z of water and allowing it to flow naturally through the brewer. Total brew time for our test: two minutes and thirty seconds. Jeremy used a scale to measure the water volume.

On my side of the bar, I used the TruBru brewing stand and free poured the water. Starting off with roughly two ounces of water and a bloom time of 45 seconds, I then slow poured the water into the v60 brewer to control the flow rate with a target time betweem 3:30 and 4:00. Actual brew flow time for this test: 4:53 - I ended up pouring a bit slower than my target.

Intelli Method grinds.

In a side-by-side comparison, the Intelli Method produced a cup that was brighter and highlighted with bitter notes. The Spro Method demonstrated a cup with strong cocoa notes and no bitter/bright tones. For these variations, we preferred the Spro Method over the Intelli Method.

But David had told Jeremy that their method performed best at grinds finer than the typical drip setting, so we readjusted the grind to "25" and used up the last of the El Jordan to make an 8z cup, using the same Intelli Methodology and a finish brew time of two minutes.

Where the "30" cup of Intelli was bitter and acidic, the "25" setting dropped the bitters and really punched through with a nice acidity that was very reminiscent of citrus fruits. A nice cup but also a drastically different cup than the Spro Method.

The Three Finished Brews: Intelli "25", Intelli "30" and Spro "30".

Being someone who prefers chocolate and fruit toned coffees, I would prefer the Spro Method cup of the El Jordan, but this in no way dismisses the Intelli "25" brew. The Intelli "30" was definitely the least liked of the three, the remaining two were both good but quite different.

Here I think it is the difference that introduces the conundrum. So many of us in the business are hell-bent on demonstrating who/which is "right" and that others are "wrong." These two methods produced dramatically different results from exactly the same coffee. Both were tasty cups of coffee, so can either of them be truly "wrong"? I don't think so.

For me, this highlights something I've been thinking more about with the latest push in the industry for conformity and adherence to "acceptably right" brewing methods and refractometer readings - and that is, I want to find differences when I go to different coffee places. The fact that the Intelli Method and Spro Method produce dramatically different results in the cup from the same coffee is a desirable condition.

Both coffees were good and tasty, but were very different. This is to be celebrated because I would hope that our interpretation of the coffee is different than Intelligentsia's interpretation. I would find it a sad condition to travel all the way to Chicago or Los Angeles just to have a cup of the same old, same old coffee I can have at home. That would mean there is little to no difference between shops and that we have homogenous products. That would suck.

There's still more testing that can be done before anyone can draw any sort of conclusion but I'm enjoying drinking my rethinking on v60 brewing methods.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Sexy Coffee

Rose and Liesbeth know how to sell coffee.

A little while ago, I wrote about how some people were "upset" that the photos on The Spro's website didn't look like they were related to coffee. I guess these people think that we should only have photos of coffee. Maybe pics of coffee cherries on trees or underpaid farm workers picking cherries off those trees, or photos of baristas curiously pondering the existential meaning of the coffees they're tasting.

Honestly, I really don't know what "coffee shop photos" are supposed to look like, but I came across the above image recently from Cocoon Coffee in Holland.

The images are fun, stylish and even sexy - and have absolutely nothing to do with coffee.

And I like it!

Monday, December 06, 2010

Red Light Special

Brussels Red Light District

After such a nice dinner, I asked the taxi driver to take me back to Bruxelles Nord train station. He dropped me off at the Aarschotstraat entrance, smack dab in the middle of Brussels Red Light District. I couldn't help but to have a look!

Like Antwerpen and Amsterdam, the windows have red lights indicating that a girl is available. The windows are big, making it easy to peruse the merchandise and figure out just what you'd like to have on the menu before committing. I only checked out the few in front of the station entrance so I don't know how big the district is or what else is available. I presume that it's like the other cities where there's something for every taste.

The girls ranged from decent to Wow on my own personal hotness scale. One girl in particular was especially tempting: brunette, European, amazing body. Unbelievable. Like the girl you wished you could land in high school.

I'll admit, I was tempted. I had some leftover Euros in my pocket that will just sit in an envelope at home until my next European adventure. Part of me thought what a shame it would be to let those Euros sit in an envelope and go to waste.

Then there's the El Cheapo part of me: I don't like to part with my money. Don't get me wrong, I have no ethical or moral dilemma about paying for sex - the truth is: we ALWAYS pay for sex. Some people pay simply with cash at places like this. Typically, the ones who say "I never pay for sex" are the ones who pay the most: with gifts, dinners, drinks, cars, houses, children and more.

In fact, when you break it down to a Sex versus Money Spent calculus, you'll find that "paying for it" is always cheaper. It is the oddity of life.

Even with that calculus in mind, and the near unbearable hotness of the girl, I still couldn't bear to part with my hard-earned Euros. It's got to be pretty damn freaky sex for that to happen.

And a good thing too. Upon returning to my hotel, I asked the concierge to give me a thorough rundown of the costs in the Red Light District. The prices were similar to Antwerpen. Fifty Euros for basic sex and maybe a blowjob, covered. And that's for like fifteen minutes. Anything more can be open to negotiation but the costs go up from there.

Hmmm, fifteen minutes for fifty Euros. Sounds like a lot, but so too is that mortgage that lasts thirty years...

La Bonne Humeur

La Bonne Humeur

Brussels is supposedly known for its Moules Frites, or Mussels and French Fries. Supposedly, these people are masters of the art of mussels and I'm determined to find "the best."

After consulting numerous online resources who said to avoid the touristy streets and the "known" mussel joints, I was directed to a small and simple restaurant called La Bonne Humeur or The Good Humor. Growing up with Good Humor Ice Cream, the name is instantly appealing and I'm determined to make it out there.

The inside.

According to the maps, La Bonne Humeur is not easy to get to. I ask the concierge about a taxi to the restaurant. Google Maps says it's an eleven minute drive. The concierge tells me forty five Euros. Forget that.

Instead, I look to transit. I can take the metro to Brussels North Station and then the tram - all for under 15 euros round trip. But that includes a 750 meter (3/4 kilometer) walk in the bitter and freezing cold with clothing ill-equipped to handle the weather. I opt for a taxi from the station.

My 1,5Kg of moules.

Twelve Euros and ten minutes later, I'm in the restaurant. The wood paneled walls and formica tabletops remind me of the 70s/80s era of interior decorating. The fifty seat restaurant is about 75% full and filled with patrons sitting at tables with steaming cauldrons of mussels in front of them. I think I'm in the right place.

The owner is a relatively young-looking guy, maybe late 20s or early 30s. He's friendly and welcoming and hands me their menu. It's a few pages long and filled with grilled meats and other stuff that seem superfluous when coming to a mussels restaurant. I just want mussels and there are six options to choose from ranging from the simple white wine to garlic to curry and more, with or without cream.

The mussels come in two sizes: 1 kilo and 1.5 kilos. I opt for the 1.5 kilo size not even thinking that this really means roughly three pounds of mussels.

The Curry Sauce.

Ever since I had the curry Moules Mouclade at Les Halles years ago, I've always been a fan. Problem is, most places offering mussels do not offer it with a curry flavored sauce. However, La Bonne Humeur does and I'm waiting on 1.5 kilos of curried mussel goodness - with a side of frites.

After what seems an interminable wait (I was pretty darn hungry when I walked in), my own searingly hot cauldron of mussels arrives and the pot is jam-packed with mussels. Oh gosh, so this is what three pounds of mussels looks like: completely off the hook.

I start into them and they're blazing hot. I must slow my roll and wait a moment for the top layer to cool.


To be honest, I'm expecting Mussels in Brussels to be transcendental. I'm expecting them to be amazing, or at least as good as the mouclade that I've grown to love. In other words, I'm expecting a lot.

In the end, the mussels were good, but not transcendental. The mussels were a different variety than the ones I see at home. These are not orange colored, these are cream-colored mussels and they're slightly mushy in texture rather than springy. The serving was plentiful but I really didn't like the curry sauce. The curry flavor was quite mild but it was the combination of ingredients that didn't sit well with me. A major ingredient here was celery and I now know that I am no fan of celery in a mussel broth. It just doesn't lend a complimentary flavor.

I leave filled with steaming hot mussels but I wasn't blown away. I just didn't agree with the sauce. I'm a little bit disappointed but only because I was expecting so much.

And the frites? They were decent, but I'm still holding fast to my previous statement that I have yet to find frites in France or Belgium that truly rival those I can get in America.

La Bonne Humeur
Chaussée de Louvain 244
1000 Brussels
02 230 71 69

Sheraton Brussels Airport

You can see my hotel from the terminal.

I've always been fascinated by airport hotels. You know, the ones that are right on the airport grounds - no shuttle bus necessary because it's right across the ramp. Like the Hyatt at O'Hare in Chicago, I've always been interested in staying there.

When I made my bid through Priceline and landed the Sheraton Brussels Airport, I figured it was like the other airport hotels. I'd have to go outside, in the freezing cold, and wait for a shuttle bus to take me on a fifteen minute drive to the hotel.

So it was to my pleasant surprised when I landed in Brussels to find out that the Sheraton was one of those airport hotels I'd always wanted to stay - directly across from the terminal.

Lucky thing too, because my wardrobe is ill-prepared to handle the recent freezing and snowy weather blowing across Europe and I'm looking forward to sleeping in as late as possible, then walking across the roadway to check-in for my flight back to the United States.

Gotta Get Outta Here!

Stranded passengers waiting in line.

Florence Airport is a small airport. The terminal is surprisingly small and everything feels very smalltown. I arrive a little bit early and the kind girl at the check-in wants to help me out by getting me a seat on the earlier flight. That's very kind and I'm grateful.

As I'm waiting by the gate, amongst a throng of Chinese tourists, cloud cover rolls over the airport. Which is exactly the same time that the captain of our Lufthansa flight coming in from Frankfurt.

Since Florence is a small airport with a short runway that they use not only for takeoffs/landings but for taxiing as well, it's probably short on IFR operations and the pilot decides to abort his landing and divert to Bologna, leaving us stranded at the airport in the dense cover.

Now comes the mad scramble to reschedule everyone on this flight to the next. Rather than handle it all at the gate, they make everyone board the bus, go to baggage claim, pick up our bags and go back out to the check-in lobby to fall in line and do it all over again.

I've been here before, so rather than wait in the line for things to be handled, I make a quick call to Lufthansa reservations and speak to an agent who promptly changes my reservation back to my original flight at 1445. Quick, simple and easy. I do all of this during the bus ride to baggage claim and I no longer have any worries.

When I return to the check-in lobby, there's a long line (as expected), an agent asks me which flight I am on and I tell her the 1445 flight since it is my flight. She pulls me out and escorts me to a different queue and tells me to wait a moment. After a few moments, she motions me to come up to the counter to check in.

Another not-so-very-tasty chicken sandwich.

This is where it took a turn for the odd. As she's checking me in, she notices the baggage tags from the previous flight then attempts to lecture me how rude it is to jump the queue while everyone else has to wait. I'm not one to be lectured - especially when I've done the work for her and promptly tell her: "Madame, I think you ought to inspect my reservation before speaking."

I guess she must be thinking that she can shame me for jumping the line. I remind her that she was the one who pulled me out of the line and brought me to the front. I didn't ask her to do it, she did it of her own volition. I further reminded her that I've saved her time and effort by taking the time to call reservations and make the necessary arrangements. She wasn't too happy about my response. Guess she thought better.

She then tells me that it looks like a close connection in Frankfurt but the machine won't print the boarding pass for the second leg. I tell her no worries. I'm positive that the lady was trying to screw with me regarding the boarding pass since she wrote down some sort of non-existent gate number in Frankfurt and said that it wouldn't print the boarding pass, thinking that she would screw up my travel in the end.

Unbeknownst to her, I still had my original two boarding passes from the first flight - including the second leg boarding pass.

Doom on you, Female Italian Agent!

The Terrible Tourist

In Florence. Somewhere behind me is The Arno.

My parents like to travel. And when they travel they like to go with their friends and take tours. Organized tours that show them the best spots that country or city has to offer.

It's because of this that I don't usually travel with my parents. That and it tends to cramp my style with the ladies...

The thing is, I'm definitely not the Tourist kind of tourist. I'm not big on formal tours where we're driven in a bus to the important "must see" sights. I'm much more the kind of tourist that likes to go to cities and just hang. Soak up the local culture and not do too much of anything in particular. Heck, I didn't go and see the Eiffel Tower until this summer - and I had been to Paris twice before. Three trips to Paris and I still haven't seen The Louvre.

But I've had a great time there without it.

Narrow streets.

I thought about this as I quickly drove the streets of Florence. He's a beautiful city filled with history and great architecture, yet I couldn't wait to get out of there. The city was crowded, parking was difficult and it was just packed in. I had spent the last few days away from the cities in small towns where getting around was quick and simple. I didn't want that urban experience of "must see" places.

I'm the Terrible Tourist.

Give me my time in the town to hang out, walk around, visit shops, eat new cuisine and maybe even a nice place to smoke a cigar and I'm quite happy. Maybe I'll spend a week in Rome and never see the Colosseum. Or London and never make it to Big Ben. But I will have had a great time in those places anyway.

Road Without A View

Of all the cars that zoom past me on the A1 Autostrade, the Audi is the most populous.

Look Mom - It's like Gran Turismo 3!!!

Descending into the cloud-covered mountains of Tuscany.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

The Monster Ball

On the A1 Autostrade to see Lady Gaga.

Make no mistake about it, the only reason I'm here in Italy is to see Lady Gaga.

Yes, I've always wanted to visit La Marzocco. Yes, I've always wanted to see Ferrari, Maranello and stand at the main gate. And yes, I've been meaning to try real, Italian espresso.

But I never would have come here had it not been for Lady Gaga.

The vendors line outside the Forum.

After setting in to my hotel in Piacenza, about an hour away from Milan, I got myself ready and started making the journey north to Assago, the Milan suburb where the Mediolanum Forum is located.

When I was initially planning this trip, I couldn't really tell how I would get to Assago and the Forum if I was staying in Milan and using public transportation. Somehow you can take the metro and then a bus, but I just didn't want to bother. A car would be much easier and more convenient - and I could stay outside of the city in affordable digs and tour around the country as I pleased.

A sausage sandwich to tide me over.

It's been a long time since I've been to a concert. At least three years since I saw Les Nubians at the Recher Theater in Towson, and ten years since Duran Duran at the Nissan Pavilion in Virginia. With a 7:30pm start time, I figured I'd cruise over just before then, find parking and walk in. No deal, Daddy-O.

The Mediolanum Forum seats something like 20,000 people and this is a sold-out concert. Which means that everyone and their mother is going and the traffic is crazy and backed up all the way to the freeway. Not to mention parking the car way out in Timbuktu. And did I mention that it's been freezing cold and starting to flurry?

The Mediolanum Forum in Assago, Italy.

Before leaving, I had been thinking about my ensemble. Should I wear something nice or just comfortable and casual? I decided somewhere in-between and realized upon arrival that that was a mistake. Nice leather shoes on a slushy and wet walk from the far side of the moon? Luckily, I had my scarf and that really helped.

Italian concerts are interesting because there's a line of panini vendors with their trailers, lights and speakers blaring Lady Gaga's music. It was just past seven and I knew we'd be here for awhile, so I went up and got me a sausage grilled panini and a Coke Zero.

Waiting for Gaga.

By the time I made it inside the opening act, Semi Precious Weapons, had just taken the stage. I watched them play their 45 minute set with great enthusiasm. Their style is very rock and roll and they did a great job engaging the audience and rocking it out.

A good opening act sets the tone for the night and hypes the audience. Of course, if it takes an hour for the main act to come on, then any kind of hype the opening band has set is now gone. Then playing an entire Michael Jackson Hits CD doesn't help because by the end of the CD everyone is getting antsy and irritated that they've been waiting so long.

Is that Stefani or just another fan in the stands?

But whatever misgivings and irritations that may have formed in your mind over the last hour, when Lady Gaga actually takes to the stage in an explosive mix of music, dance, show and fashion, all is forgiven and forgotten.

Quite simply, there is nothing like Lady Gaga. Her show is just like her persona: over the top. Yes, she does talk from time to time about being yourself and accepting you for who you are, and while some music critics may criticize her for saying it, it does need to be said - over and over again until people make it their own.

When these guys get serious, you know it's time to start.

For nearly two hours, Lady Gaga and crew rocked it out with costume changes, set changes, video breaks and a whole world of Gaga that had been orchestrated for our enjoyment. It was well worth the 90 Euro price.

Honestly, I can't say enough about the experience. Well worth it. I would like to go again when she plays America next year, but with her increasing popularity it becomes harder and harder to get tickets. Best bet? Wait till she plays Australia again. Box office reports indicate they only sold 67% of the tickets in Melbourne. Suckers, they don't know what they're missing out on.

Lady Gaga begins.

But the world of concert-going has changed. Back in the 80s, during Madonna's Like A Virgin Tour, we had to smuggle cameras and recorders into the venue - and if we were caught, we would get tossed out. So much for the $28 you spend on a ticket!

Today, cell phones and cameras abound in the audience. So much so that Gaga even told her fans to put them down for awhile and dance. I guess the organizers just gave up because everyone has a cell phone and every phone now has a camera - it's just useless to try to stop it.

There's a keyboard in her jalopy.

And the cameras today take impressively high quality video so some of the footage you find on YouTube is quite good indeed.

Then there is Gaga's video system. I know it's been a long time since I've gone to a proper concert but their video system was impressive. Super crisp and detailed high definition. I was astonished at how good a quality video the projectors displayed - especially the nuanced detail of Gaga's eyes under the hat's shadow. From a old time video technician's point of view, THAT was impressive. I took a photo of it and you can see her eyes.

A New York Subway train car.

Roughly ninety minutes later, Gaga took to the stage with her rousing rendition of Bad Romance, truly the most popular of her songs and the highlight of the show. Too bad it was the encore.

And then it was all over.

Gaga tries to crush a stuffed animal.

Leaving the Forum, I noticed that it had gotten slightly colder and the flurries I had seen earlier were now fluffy snowflakes threatening to pile on the ground. Icy, snowy conditions on the Autostrade did not sound like a good idea. Nor did 20,000 people leaving at once. Traffic was snarled, so I grabbed another panini from a vendor and waited until the crowds dissipated.

The ride home wasn't bad. Nothing more exhilarating than doing 130 Kph on a snowy Autostrade in a tiny car.

Look at all those cellphones.

Lady Gaga sings at her piano.

The piano catches fire.

The glittering thing descends upon Gaga.

It engulfs her.

Then, she emerges looking like this. The dress moves and changes shapes.

And she rises above the audience.

Gaga changes into this hairy thing.

And laments.

Then plays to the audience.

Getting chased by the Monster.

Gaga's tits come alive!

Tearing down the stage.

Buy Gaga Gear!

Arrivederci Mediolanum Forum!

In the vendors tunnel.

A chicken panino sandwich.

A lonely 500.

It's snowing, really.

Racing back in the snow.

Can't really see much out there.