The Mercedes SL55 AMG – Best Car Ever?

If I told you that you could buy a 200+ mph supercar for less than the price of a new Camry, would you believe me? Well, it’s possible.

TL;DR: I bought a 2003 Mercedes SL55 AMG and it is the most amazing car I’ve ever owned. Capable of 208 mph yet still affordable, it represents the pinnacle of performance, luxury and value.

Probably the most iconic Mercedes ever made was the first generation SL, specifically the 300SL “Gullwing”, although there is a 300SL and a 190SL roadster that are also in high demand. Since then there have been six generations of Super-Leicht (Super Light) SL models, and the one I want to talk about is the fifth generation, the R230, introduced in 2002.

The first car I ever bought with my own money was a 1978 MGB convertible. I put tens of thousands of miles on that car and ever since I’ve loved top-down driving. I used to ride motorcycles but the necessity to wear a helmet and other gear kind of offsets the freedom of being on a bike, so to me the safest open air experience one can have is in a convertible.

However, my lovely bride doesn’t really care for convertibles, and most convertibles look like crap with the top up (I pretty much have a rule that the top is down unless it is raining). Enter the hard top convertible. A number of car manufacturers offer the option to own a convertible, but instead of the a soft top you get a retractable hard top. Thus when the top is up it looks like a normal coupe, complete with the extra quiet you get with a hard top and a glass rear window. I figured if I could find a model I liked then it would still look okay with the top up and also satisfy my discerning partner.

SL55 with the hardtop up

During the COVID-19 quarantine, a friend introduced me to a website called Bring a Trailer (BaT). It is my understanding that this website started out as a blog detailing interesting cars for sale and eventually morphed into its own auction site. They usually have around 300 or so cars for sale each week, sold in an auction format.

It has provided me with hours of entertainment. They have an anti-sniping feature where any bid within the last two minutes of the auction results in the auction being extended for two more minutes, and I have seen auctions go on for over an hour past their scheduled end time as bidders keep increasing their offers. There is also a well run comments section. I’ve learned a tremendous amount about various cars from the knowledgeable community that follow these auctions, and I also like the fact that for a few minutes after you post you can edit your comment for typos, etc.

In order to comment and bid you must set up an account backed with a credit card. BaT charges a 5% buyers premium on the sale price of the car (up to a price of $100,000 for a maximum commission of $5000) which gets charged to your credit card, and winning bidders then work out payment directly with the sellers.

[Unfortunately, BaT made the decision to sell a piece of the Porsche 550 that killed James Dean, and since then I have soured on the site. Although they made $5000 on the deal, it still struck me as being in very poor taste. I have since closed my account, but I may one day rejoin as I haven’t really found a better site]

I’ve owned a large number of cars, and while I have fond memories of most of them (my Nissan Leaf POS notwithstanding) I’ve always been a fan of Mercedes. I owned a number of sedans, including a 1970 250, a 1972 220 and a euro-spec 1968 280SE that I wish I’d never sold. My most recent Mercedes was a 2004 C230 Sport that some friends sold to me and they liked it so much that I sold it back to them when I got another car. When I would take the C230 to the dealer I always lusted after the AMG cars in the showroom, and being exposed to BaT rekindled my love for the marque.

While I still love the old sedans, a bad car accident in July of 2019 has made me very safety conscious. Due to the accident my left ankle is busted, which rules out manual transmission cars, and I doubt I’ll be on a motorcycle again in my lifetime. So I started looking for a more modern Mercedes that was safe but also featured a hard top convertible.

Enter the Mercedes R230. Produced from 2002 through 2012, this was the first SL to sport a retractable hard top. There were three main phases in the R230 production: 2002-2006, 2006-2008, and 2008-2012. I was really drawn to the first two because they featured the same round headlights that were on my C230, and I have a slight preference for them over the more rectangular lenses introduced in later models.

In learning about the model I came across the sixth episode of the first season of Top Gear, where it turns out that presenter Jeremy Clarkson owned one of the first year SL55 AMG models and they did a rather great review of the car. He had sold a Ferrari F355 in order to buy the car, which was probably a bad decision based on current values, but I loved how he summarized the SL:

The Ferrari is like a stiletto: sleek, accurate, deadly.

This, on the other hand, is more like a hammer. Big, a bit clumsy, but it’ll still kill you. Actually, not a hammer. It’s more like a Swiss Army Knife. It’s a top-down funster, a long distance cruiser, a muscle car, a Messerschmidt ME109, a pose-mobile, and if your horse gets a stone in its shoe, it can deal with that, too.

It’s definitely worth checking out if you can find the episode on the streaming platform of your choice, especially for the surprise ending (it’s the last segment in the show).

I decided I wanted an SL55, and I started looking for one to buy. The 2002-2008 model years used the M113 V8 engine coupled with a supercharger, and enthusiasts often list the M113 as one of the best engines Mercedes ever made. The M113K came from the factory at just under 500 bhp, and I’ve seen some tuned to produce more than 700 bhp. Even though SL stands for “Super Light”, the SL55 weighs in at 4400 pounds, and also comes with a crash actuated roll bar and multiple airbags, including a knee bag for the driver. These safety features appealed to me, post accident.

When I told Andrea about BaT she asked “how do you know you are getting a good car?” Well, the answer is, you don’t. Unless you happen to live near the person selling the car, you are likely to be buying it sight unseen and with no warranty. To offset this, most auctions come with a huge number of photos (usually over 100 and often twice that or more) and videos. Sellers will post the results of a Carfax report so you can see if there have been any accidents, and the better sellers will include service records as well as being available to quickly respond to questions in the comments section. Also, BaT draws in marque enthusiasts who will weigh in (for better or worse) and point out things the average person might have missed. Plus, some sellers develop good reputations through multiple auctions.

Once I decided that I wanted an SL, I set a budget and started watching the auctions. Outside of looking for a good car based on its history, there were a few other things I wanted. I’ve been told that 50% of the Mercedes cars that are sold are black, and 45% are silver. I didn’t want a black car. Don’t get me wrong, black cars are beautiful but having owned a black car in the past I just remember how hard it was to keep clean. I’ve always liked silver on a Mercedes, but I also think the SL looks wonderful in other colors as well, although those always demand a premium at auction.

Just like green is associated with British cars and red with Italian, silver is the German racing color (it used to be white, although the story about how silver came about is apparently a myth). My C230 was silver, so when looking at SLs I figured I’d end up with a silver one considering my budget.

The next thing I was looking for was adaptive cruise control. I have a 2015 Toyota Highlander that was the first car I ever drove with adaptive cruise control, and I simply love it. It makes traveling so much less stressful. I was surprised to find out that a number of high end manufactures, like Mercedes and Jaguar, offered adaptive cruise as an option in the early 2000s. It wasn’t cheap – the Mercedes version, “Distronic” cruise control, cost $3000.

It was my friend Nick who called my attention to the auction I ended up winning. The car was a 2003 SL55 with 18,000 miles on it. It had a clean Carfax and two previous owners, with the initial buyer owning it for most of its life. He was a doctor who split his time between New Jersey and Florida, and he had ordered the car with every available option as well as taken delivery in Germany. While 2003 was the first year the car was available in the US, and I’m a bit skittish about buying cars early in their lifecycle, it was the second year for the fifth generation overall so I assumed most of the serious kinks had been worked out. With a sticker price of over $128K (or over $183K in 2020 dollars) it seemed like a deal if I could get it within my budget.

The sticker didn’t include the Kleemann modifications that had also been done to the car. Kleemann is a Danish company that provides aftermarket performance upgrades for Mercedes, and this one included high performance air filters, a smaller supercharger pulley (to increase boost) as well as an ECU and TCU remap to increase the brake horsepower by up to 20% (pushing the car well over 500bhp). The remap also removed the 155mph speed limitation imposed from the factory, and Mercedes has reported a top speed for this car of 208 mph. That added several thousand dollars to its value.

When the auction got close to ending, I made sure to shut down all other applications on my computer (and on my network) to make sure there would be no issues bidding (my Internet connection is provided by CenturyStink DSL). As I mentioned before, if a bid is made in the last two minutes of the auction, the timer will reset to two minutes, thus no one can “snipe” an auction. I always go into auctions with a strong idea of my upper limit, and so my bidding method was simple: bid the minimum bid increment (which at this level is around $250) unless someone else jumped, and then I would bid their jump. Stop when you hit the limit or you win. There were three of us bidding on this car, but at the end I won with a bid of $30,500 (and I can tell you that those last 30 seconds seem like forever).

So, yay, I won. What next? BaT takes their cut right off your credit card, but you pay the seller directly. They offer a pretty good list of steps to take, so I followed them to the letter. I had the seller send me a bill of sale and a copy of the title (just to make sure they did have the title in hand). Then I wired the money for payment, plus an extra $25 because I wanted them to overnight the title to me so I could get a plate from the North Carolina DMV as soon as possible. The next step was to arrange for shipping.

It looks like BaT has its own shipping system now, but back when I bought my car the company they partnered with couldn’t get around to it for a couple of weeks, so I ended up using Montway. I bought the car on a Tuesday, it was picked up in New York on Friday, and I got it Saturday afternoon via enclosed trailer.

It was lightly raining the day I got the car, so I really couldn’t try it out at the time. It came with everything promised, and the only disappointment was that the driver’s side mirror needed to be replaced. Mercedes often come with self-dimming mirrors and over time they degrade. The mirror on this SL was very dark, although it didn’t show that way in the pictures on the auction site. Luckily it is easy to replace and not that expensive (around $250).

The next day was beautiful and sunny, and I decided to take a long drive through the country. The top lowers in about 16 seconds, and I was on my way. It had been so long since I was in a convertible, and never one this nice, and there were literal tears of happiness coming out of my eyes.

The car is amazing. Insanely quick, with an exhaust note that is so musical you really don’t need the stereo, although that is pretty amazing as well. As my Italian friends say “La machina es la musica”. For a 4400 pound car it is incredibly responsive, and even at speed I don’t detect any oversteer or understeer. Although you can find yourself doing 120mph (yes, with the top down) it is very enjoyable at 60mph as well.

One thing I enjoy is the Active Body Control (ABC) feature. This complex system operates the suspension at all four corners independently, which provides for an extremely smooth ride. I also live on a gravel road, and ABC has a setting where you can raise the whole car up an inch, which is also useful when going over speed bumps. Mercedes produced a cool ad that kind of demonstrates how it works.

A possible downside to the car is the electronic braking system (SBC). No one I know likes it, and it is known to have problems as well. But Mercedes being Mercedes, they have warrantied the system for 25 years, so I have some time left. To me the brakes work well, but they aren’t exceptional.

Speaking of problems, while I have heard horror stories about SL maintenance, almost all of those involve the 12 cylinder version. The M113 V8 seems to be rock solid. If you are looking to buy any used car, especially something like an R230, it really does pay to look for one with service records as these cars, when well serviced, are very reliable. One thing I love about AMG cars is that the engine is assembled by a single craftsperson (not on an assembly line) and each engine comes with a plaque with that person’s name on it. Mine was built by Sabato de Luca.

AMG Builder's Signature for Sabato de Luca

I did have the car checked out head to toe. Everything came back fine, although they suggested (and performed) a flush the ABC system. I am very anal-retentive about my vehicles and one thing that bothered me was the Tele-Aid system. Similar to offerings from other manufacturers, this is supposed to connect you (for a fee) to someone using the mobile network for roadside assistance, but this car was so old that it used analog cellular which no longer exists. I do believe there may be an upgrade path, but as it was something I wasn’t interested in having I asked the mechanic to disable it (as it was throwing a malfunction alarm).

The only other expense I’ve had, except gasoline, was cosmetic. While the rims were in good shape, there were some scuffs so I had them refinished. I also had the brake calipers painted yellow (it was between that and red). While I love the silver color on the car, I wanted just a little bit of flair. With the color and the air intakes on the sides, it reminds me of a shark, so that’s what I named it – The Shark.

SL55 with the hardtop down

Another thing I like about this car is the luxury. The other convertibles I’ve owned, an MGB and an Alfa Romeo Spider, were fun but no one would describe them as luxurious. For Mercedes the “SL” is in the same class as the top of the line “S”. For example, the SL has seat memory – three positions. Big deal, right? That is common in today’s cars. But what about on the passenger side? Seriously, the passenger seat gets as many options as the driver, including a massage function and memory.

The interior is leather, wood and Alcantara. For the exterior you get headlamp washers and a soft-close trunk. Plus you get the safety of a heavy car coupled with a roll bar that will automatically deploy in the case of an accident, and front and side airbags. The driver also gets a knee air bag.

To take the luxury even farther, the US version of the 2003 SL55 had nine options – all of which were equipped on the car I bought.

SL55 Options

  • Bi-Xenon Headlights: The standard SL already came with Xenon headlights, so what the heck is “Bi-Xenon”? In the normal Xenon configuration, a Xenon bulb is used for the low beams and a halogen bulb is used for the high beams. With the Bi-Xenon option, over the Xenon bulb there is a shutter that directs the light in different directions depending on whether low beam or high beam is selected. Rather than move this shutter for “flashing” the headlights, there is an auxiliary halogen bulb that is used for that (Xenon bulbs don’t like to be switched off and on frequently). Since both bulbs come on with high beams I really don’t see much of a difference, but it was a $900 option.
  • Panorama Roof: While I almost never drive the car with the top up, occasionally I have to (like that one time I got caught in an unexpected rain storm). One cool option to help preserve that open air feel is a glass roof, similar to what you would find in a Tesla Model 3. I can’t say I’ve used it much but, unlike a Model 3, there is a retractable sun shade should you desire to block out more light. $1800 option.
  • AMG Multispoke Wheels: This is probably the most controversial design choice for the car: the Black Forest Alps Rally wheels. A $1200 option, most people commenting on the looks of the SL55 are split over them. I haven’t met anyone, myself include, who loves them (there is a wheel from later models that I really like) but they have grown on me. Some people hate them outright. Once I got mine polished up I think they look great with the painted calipers.
  • Distronic: I don’t know if it is a language thing, but I am not fond of some of the names Mercedes gives to various options. Since they are “electronic” someone obviously thought it would be cool to add “tronic” to the end of everything. Distronic is the adaptive cruise control feature, and it is hard to find since it was a $2950 option back in 2003 and even people who could afford these cars new balked at the price. I’m even surprised it was available back then, and its novelty shows. I use adaptive cruise control all of the time when I can, and I found that the Distronic will often cut out with the error “External Fault! Reactivate”. It really confused me until a local mechanic explained that the error is just Distronic’s way of telling you something is weird and it would rather turn off than cause an accident. I usually see this on two lane roads when a large truck or something similar is coming the other way, but sometimes it turns off for less obvious reasons. It’s a little annoying and I plan to have it checked out during my next service, but on multi-lane highways (where the feature is most useful) it tends to work fine.
  • Parktronic: Yet another “tronic” this feature is more commonly called “park assist” or something like that. Sensors in the front and rear of the car will alert when they detect the car is getting close to other objects, such as another car or the wall of a garage. Fairly common on cars now, it was relatively new back in 2003 at a cost of $1035. It works well, but sometimes too well. I have an issue where the left side alert will go on full blast for no apparently reason (usually after the car has been driven for awhile and you stop at a light). My mechanic says that can be addressed and it is another thing on the list for my next service.
  • Keyless-Go: Another unfortunately named feature, this enables keyless entry and push-button start common on modern cars. A $1015 option in 2003, this requires that you carry a little credit card-sized device which will unlock the doors with a touch and start the car by pressing a button on the gear selector. Outside of adaptive cruise control, this is one of my favorite convenience features, but the card is a little annoying. If there is a problem with the card, say a low battery, the doors won’t open. Later versions of Keyless-Go were built into the main key, and I’ve been told this is something that can be retrofitted to older cars, but since anything key related with Mercedes must run through the dealer, and my local dealer is clueless, I’m probably stuck with it. But so far it has worked well so fingers crossed.
  • Keyless Go Card

  • Tire Pressure Monitoring System: Like the name says, the TPMS reports the current tire pressure using wireless sensors at each wheel. For some reason when I got the car, the feature had been disabled. I had it re-enabled but noticed that the measurements are a little high. Note that this appears to have nothing to do with the standard low pressure warning, since on one cold winter morning I got a separate alert telling me to inflate the tires. The cheapest option at $630.
  • SL55 Tire Pressure Display

  • Ventilated Seats: Most people like the feel of leather but it can get a bit sticky in the heat of summer. Enter in ventilated seats. This feature (yours for an extra $1200) uses fans to blow air through the seats to keep you cooler. I have this on my Highlander and use it a lot, so it is nice to have on the SL, especially since I tend to always drive with the top down.
  • Digital Portable Phone: 2003 was a time before Bluetooth was common, so Mercedes offered the option of getting a mobile phone that integrated with your car. At $1995 it wasn’t inexpensive, but the idea was you could carry a phone with you when out of the car and plug it into a cradle, and use the built in integration, when driving. The phone I got, a Mercedes branded Motorola V60, still powers on, but will not work with any modern wireless network. Luckily, when Bluetooth did become available a few years later, Mercedes created an adapter that plugs into the cradle and allows you to pair up to two phones. It works well, and even works with digital assistants like Siri. The Bluetooth protocol implemented, however, does not do music so don’t expect to listen to your favorite tunes using this feature. For that I bought a little adapter that plugs into the auxiliary audio jack in the glove box.

In the Canadian market the SL could have a heated steering wheel as well, but otherwise this car was loaded.

As you might have noticed from my features description, the main issues I’ve experienced with the car involve the electronics. I really don’t mind, though, because I have a soft spot for older electronics and I love the fact that these things work without a connection to the Internet. Around 2000 is when cars really started to become integrated with computers, and in modern cars those computers are constantly talking to some third party over the wireless network. I don’t really like that. It is one of the reasons I don’t own a Tesla, but even Toyota and other manufacturers are jumping on the bandwagon of having cars always “phone home”.

One extreme example of the technological age of this car is the navigation system. It is based on compact disks, this was before even DVDs, and thus to cover the United States I need a small wallet full of CDs. The resolution is pretty minimal, especially compared to modern maps.

SL55 Map vs. Apple Maps

But I face the same problem with the Navigation system on my Highlander. Trying to get an update to that map is both a challenge and expensive. It was out of date the moment I bought the car, which is why I (and most people) rely on our phones for map guidance. It was a lot cheaper to buy a phone holder that mounts in the CD slot and just use it for trips than to worry about the built in system, but I still sometimes turn it on so I can watch my car travel through great empty sections of the map.

All of these electronics require more electricity than normal, so the SL comes with a second battery for the auxiliary systems in the trunk. If the car sits for awhile that battery will drain a bit, and thus you won’t be able to operate things the hardtop or the heated/ventilated seats until you run the engine for a minute or two. To prevent this I bought a CTEK Battery Tender. It’s mounted in the trunk and if I know I’m not going to be using the car, I’ll plug it in so it’s ready to go when I am.

The only downside to the SL55 is the fuel economy. While the built in calculator often reports my trips to town running about 13mpg, the actual numbers are much better, with an average of 15mpg and more like 18mpg on the few long trips I’ve taken. That isn’t much worse than the Highlander, but I still wish it were better.

SL55 Display Showing Trip Mileage

Overall, this has been my favorite car, and it is an utter joy to drive. I work from home and some days I just have to hop in, drop the top and take a spin through some twisty country roads to improve my mood. Through my informal observations of prices on websites like BaT and others, I think the R230 depreciation has hit bottom. People are finding out what deals these cars can be and are willing to pay for them.

If you are in the market for an R230, the first thing to decide is if you want the extra horsepower of an AMG version or if you are more into the creature comforts. The SL500 comes with a seven-speed transmission, versus a five-speed for the AMG, and that can make for a smoother driving experience.

I really, really, really love the M113 V8 engine, and unless you are confident in your ability to maintain a car (either by yourself or through a qualified local mechanic) I would stick with R230s with that engine. This limits you to the 2002-2006 model years for the SL500 and 2003-2008 for the SL55. The later models will get you more refined features, such as Distronic Plus, but they also cost more. For many the sweet spot is the 2007-2008 SL55, but I’m pretty happy with my launch edition 2003.

Another issue that will affect price is the color. For the 2003 models there were 14 different color options. Funny enough, three of them were various shades of black and four of them were shades of silver. Non-black, non-silver cars draw a premium (the most expensive R230 I saw on BaT was red on red and went for $66K), and some of the other colors are stunning. But also note that you can get a full wrap for around $4500. So if you don’t mind that the inside of your engine bay will be a different color than the outside, you can change the exterior to any color you like. Originally clear and designed for paint protection, wraps can both protect the paint and let you express your individuality. Also, while not easy, they can be carefully removed and the car returned to its original configuration.

As always with any used car, take the time to find one that has obviously been cared for and comes with a clean Carfax and service records. If you are on BaT look at the seller’s other auctions and at the feedback (just click on the seller’s name). Some sellers spend a lot of time and care bringing cars to auction and it is reflected in the comments, whereas others buy cars wholesale, just change the oil, and you can’t be as sure about the quality. The car I bought was the first auction by my seller, and overall I’m pretty happy with the experience.

The last new car I drove was a leased Nissan Leaf and it was the worst car experience I’ve ever had. By comparison the purchase of this SL55 was a walk in the park, and it just goes to demonstrate that real deals can be had in the used car market if you do your research. If you have ever wanted to own a classic Mercedes, Porsche, Aston Martin, Bentley, whatever, there has never been more options at your fingertips. My purchase has provided more smiles per mile than anything else I’ve ever driven, much less owned.

While electric cars are obviously the future, for both average transportation and sports cars, I still have a fondness for the internal combustion engine. I like the fact that there are explosions happening inches away from my feet. I love the roar of the engine as you engage the throttle – it’s almost like there is an angry, fire breathing dragon under the hood – and I am the Dragon Master! (grin)

Science as Truth

Recently Neil deGrasse Tyson posted the following on Twitter.

Neil deGrasse Tyson Twitter Quote

I don’t follow him, but this was brought to my attention by a frozen meat company who did, as usual, an excellent job of invalidating his premise, and I do follow them. As someone who loves science, the idea that it equates to truth has bothered me so much that I wanted to put down some of my thoughts. Now NGT has over 14 million followers and I have about three readers so I understand that this represents extreme navel-gazing, but there is so much wrong with this tweet I had to say something and it won’t fit into 280 characters.

One of the most formative experiences in my life was that I was able to attend the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics for my last two years of high school. I had a number of influential instructors, and high on the list was Dr. John Kolena. He would never say something like “Science is Truth” but might have said that science is the constant pursuit of truth.

I can remember my first real physics class with Doc John, where he stood at the front of the room and stated “everything I’m going to teach you this semestre is wrong”. He was referring to Newtonian physics, which for the longest time was considered “the truth” until it was replaced with Einsteinian physics. Newton’s theories resulted in the ability to predict amazing things, until they didn’t. Einstein’s theories both matched Newton’s predictions and extended them, being able to correctly predict things that Newton couldn’t, but even now scientists believe Einstein’s work is incomplete.

So how is this “truth”? NGT doubled down with a tweet pointing to a post of his from 2016 where he states:

Once an objective truth is established by these methods, it is not later found to be false. We will not be revisiting the question of whether Earth is round; whether the sun is hot; whether humans and chimps share more than 98 percent identical DNA; or whether the air we breathe is 78 percent nitrogen.

Without devolving into solipsism, I find it amusing that he illustrates “objective truth” with a list of “subjective” examples. Yes, the Earth is round, but compared to what? The ideal of “roundness” is a sphere but the Earth is definitely not that. The sun is hot compared to the surface of the Earth but it is downright chilly compared to blue stars and nearly frozen compared to quasars. The Earth’s atmosphere is 78% nitrogen but is that 78.0% or 78.5%?

Now, more than ever, we need to get people to understand that science comes with a healthy dose of doubt, but that is normal and we shouldn’t be afraid of it. The power of science is not in its exactness but in its ability to predict, and to get things done.

We obviously don’t fully understand how sub-atomic particles work, but that doesn’t prevent us from making electronics that allow me to type this blog post. With the recent pause in the distribution of the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine in the US due to the potential for blood clots doesn’t mean people shouldn’t get the shot. Science is working to understand “the truth” and sometimes this takes time.

I had a friend who was a nuclear physicist and he pointed out that in the 1940s it was considered “safe” for workers to be exposed to 25,000 millrems of radiation per year. That was the “objective truth” as determined by the science at the time. This “truth” was corrected to 15,000 millirems per year in the 1950s, and in 1957 was lowered even farther to 5,000 millirems, where it remains today.

All of these “truths” are approximations, and what I love about science is that real scientists not only know this, they embrace it. The beauty of science, the science I love, is the quest for truth and not this smug, elitist attitude that we’ve found it.

The Cheesecake Recipe

Recently I posted on Twitter a picture of a cheesecake that I made. A couple of people asked me for the recipe, and since Twitter is not the best way to present that information I figured I’d post it here.

Chocolate Bourbon Pecan Cheesecake

I’ve been making cheesecakes for over two decades now, so this recipe is actually an amalgam of a bunch of ones I’ve tried over the years. The cheesecake in the picture is a “Chocolate Bourbon Pecan” cheesecake but I use the same base for every one I make, so I’ll go over that here and then post the differences. I plan to update this post as I make other flavors, although this one is a favorite.

I love to cook but I don’t bake much, mainly because I am not very good with precision recipes. I tend to “guesstimate” the amount of ingredients and I also like to change things up a bit. Since most baking is more like chemistry it isn’t very tolerant of improvisation, but cheesecakes seem to be an exception.

So that is the first caveat: the recipe I’m presenting is approximate. Feel free to play with it. Also note that some cheesecake purist don’t like my cheesecake because it is too light. The consistency tends to lean more mousse than cake. I like it that way but if you don’t de gustibus non est disputandum. (grin)

The second caveat concerns the oven. When we moved to the farm the house came with a Kitchen Aid double oven, and the top oven was also convection. That oven eventually stopped working so we replaced it with another Kitchen Aid, also convection. The temperatures and cooking times I use work well for my oven but may not work the same for yours. You’ll need to experiment, which I know can be a pain making things like cheesecakes. Apologies in advance.

I start every cheesecake with the crust. Heat the oven to 325˚F. You’ll need a springform pan. Mine is approximately 9 inches in diameter and 2.5 inches deep.

Cut a square piece of either parchment paper or non-stick aluminum foil, place it over the bottom of the pan (make sure the non-stick side is up if using the foil) and lock the ring in place. This will help when removing the cake from the pan. Since it tends to be lighter than a traditional cheesecake you can’t just flip it out easily.

Cheesecake Crust Base

  • 1 Cup Graham Cracker Crumbs
  • 1/4 Cup Light Brown Sugar
  • 1/4 Cup (one half stick) unsalted butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Melt the butter over low heat on the stove or in the microwave. Let it cool slightly. Mix the other ingredients in a bowl, then add the butter. Pour everything into the springform pan and distribute across the bottom, pressing down using your fingers until you’ve created a compact crust that covers the bottom of the pan evenly.

You can use gluten-free graham cracker “style” crumbs to make this suitable for people with gluten intolerance.

Place in the heated oven for 12-15 minutes until lightly browned. Remove and let cool, reducing the oven temperature to 270˚F.

Note that this is just where I start. We will add some things to the crust for the Chocolate Bourbon Pecan variation.

Next you’ll need the ingredients for the cheesecake itself:

Cheesecake Batter Base

  • Two pounds (four packages) cream cheese
  • Two Cups granulated (white) sugar
  • 5 Eggs
  • Two teaspoons vanilla
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 Cup sour cream

A couple of things about ingredients. You want everything to be at room temperature. I also tend to use particular brands, such a Philadelphia cream cheese, Breakstone sour cream, and Land-o-Lakes butter. I know that all salt is basically sea salt, but I like to use a finer salt than, say, kosher. I also use a high grade pure vanilla. We raise chickens so the eggs are farm fresh, and I like the fact that I don’t have to wait for them to come to room temperature, but store bought eggs work fine too.

These are just my preferences, feel free to experiment with your own.

A good stand mixer makes this recipe a lot easier. I have an older Kitchen Aid mixer that I’ll probably hand down to two more generations at least. They are expensive but worth it, especially if you make a lot of cheesecakes. I use the whisk attachment when making my cheesecakes, but I assume you could also use the standard beater.

Plop (yes that is a technical cooking term) the cream cheese into the mixing bowl and beat until soft (usually two to three minutes). Add the sugar one-half cup at a time, beating for a minute or two after each addition and scraping down the sides as needed.

Next add the eggs, one at a time and beating after each addition until well incorporated. In my mixer there is a little dead spot directly under the beater that I make sure to scrap after the third egg.

Now you are at the point where you can add your special ingredients if making a variation on this cake. I always add the vanilla except when I am making one that I want to be Halal. The jury is still out on whether or not the alcohol used in processing vanilla is Haram or not, especially after it cooks out, but I don’t like to take chances with peoples’ food preferences.

Finally add in the sour cream and mix well, about three minutes. I think my cheesecakes are “fluffy” because I use the whisk and sour cream instead of butter. I put “one cup” but usually I just dump in one of the small containers of sour cream if I have one on hand.

There is one final step before baking. I take three (3) sheets of heavy duty aluminum foil and wrap it around the bottom and sides of the springform pan. This is because, and I think it is very important, I bake my cheesecakes in a water bath. If the springform pan is wrapped in foil it tends not to leak. You don’t want a soggy cheesecake.

I place the wrapped springform pan in a large roasting pan, pour in the batter on top of the crust, and then fill the roasting pan until the water is roughly halfway up the sides of the springform pan.

I then place it into the 270˚F convection oven and I let it cook for 100 minutes (1 hour, 40 minutes on the timer). After it cooks, without opening the oven door, I turn the oven off and let it “coast” for 30 minutes.

Once it is done cooking, I remove it from the oven. I take out the springform pan and remove the heavy duty foil, and I place it on a rack to let cool for one hour. It then goes into the refrigerator to cool overnight (at least eight hours).

When it is cold and set, I take a knife and run it around the edges of the springform pan, and then I release the ring. It usually lifts out cleanly but leaving just enough on the ring that I can scoop it up with my finger and taste how well it came out. (grin)

I then lift up the parchment paper or non-stick aluminum foil to remove the bottom of the springform pan, and then I can gently transfer the cake to a serving plate. That, to be honest, is the hardest part of the whole process.

This usually results in a cake that doesn’t crack and has a uniform texture throughout. I occasionally experiment with ingredients that are a little more liquid and sometimes the center doesn’t set fully, but most of the time it works well.

Now, for this variation:

Chocolate Bourbon Pecan

To the crust add one tablespoon of Cocoa Powder and one quarter cup of finely chopped pecans.

To the batter (after the eggs have been beaten in) add one and one half ounces of good Bourbon, and four ounces of melted and cooled unsweetened chocolate. Top with a quarter cup of roughly chopped pecans.

I hope folks find this useful and yummy.

Review: The Apple Credit Card

I recently got the Apple Card credit card. I no longer have it.

TL;DR; I signed up for the Apple Card because a number of articles implied that you could generate “single use” or virtual account numbers with it. This isn’t the case. Because I had some issues getting even deeper into the Apple ecosystem, and the fact that the card is somewhat “meh”, I thought about cancelling it. When I ran into an issue getting my physical card, that pushed me over the edge and I did get rid it.

For years I’ve used the Citi American Airlines Executive Card. With the exception of last year when a bad car accident put me out of commission for most of the year, and this year due to COVID-19, I spend a lot of time in American planes. The Executive Card is expensive, $450/year, but it includes a membership to the Admiral’s Club lounges, which cost $650/year and includes Admiral’s Club access for anyone else on your card, for another $650 in savings. Plus you get a lot of good benefits if you are an American frequent flyer.

One other feature I used a lot was the ability to make “virtual” account numbers. Almost anything I bought on-line was done using these somewhat single-use numbers. You could set limits on the amount that could be charged on the card as well as an expiration date up to one year in the future. It was awesome and gave me a lot of piece of mind. It didn’t matter if the card number was somehow stolen as it wasn’t very useful with those limits in place.

Recently I was told my Citi card, which still had several years left before it expired, would be replaced with a new card (and number) that implemented “contact-less” payments. I already used Apple Pay on my Apple Watch for contact-less, but, cool.

Unfortunately when they did that, they removed the option to use virtual numbers. I cared enough about it to spend a lot of time in the queue of the Citi help desk, and I nice man named Ben informed me that, yes, that feature was being removed. (sigh)

Not cool, Citi.

I started searching around and I found some references that the new, fancy, Apple Card supported virtual numbers, so I ordered one.

Virtual Account Numbers Headline

First, I removed the credit freeze I placed at the three main credit reporting agencies. I strongly recommend that everyone does this. Yes, if you want new credit it is a pain to go a temporarily lift the freeze, but it is the easiest way to prevent unauthorized use of your credit.

Second, I completed the application process through the Wallet app on my iPhone. Easy peasy. Soon I had a new card in my Wallet and a new payment option for Apple Pay on my watch. I also requested a physical card (apparently made of titanium) for those purchases that require a card with a chip.

Pretty painless, and it was the first time I had ever applied for a credit card where I could use it almost immediately. The credit limit was somewhat low, about a third of what I have on my other cards, but I don’t carry a balance on my cards since I’m lucky enough to have better options for credit when I need it. Thus the lower limit wasn’t really a problem.

The main criteria I use for shopping for credit cards is the benefits you get in addition to the ability to by things on credit. The Apple Card charges no fees for having the card, and you get back 1% on all purchases, 2% on all Apple Pay purchases, and 3% on certain Apple and Apple affiliated products bought with Apple Pay. This money is available within 24 hours on another “card” in your Wallet called “Apple Cash”.

Compare this to the Citi card where you get an airline mile for every dollar spent, and two miles for certain purchases. For many, getting cash back is a better deal.

The way I look at it is different. If I want to fly from my home to Australia, business class, that costs 80,000 miles each way, or 160,000 miles total. If I got that entirely off the credit card I would have to spend $160,000. If I spent the same on the Apple Card, I would get $1600 to $3200 in cash back.

But in the past I’ve seen a business class ticket to Australia run anywhere from $8000 to $16,000. I just checked and even now a ticket for June in business class is $4500. If you can earn enough miles and like to travel overseas it is really hard to beat the benefit you get from miles. Plus you can earn them outside of using your card. Sometimes it is even better to buy an economy class ticket and use miles to upgrade. Heh, there is even a bank that pays interest in American Airlines miles instead of cash.

In addition to the other benefits you get with an airline card, the financial benefits can be very compelling if you travel. If you don’t, the immediate cash back from the Apple Card seems comparable to other cards with the exception that you get it almost immediately versus, say, once a month.

Anyway, I was willing to give up all the benefits of the Citi card and switch to the Apple Card just to get virtual account numbers back. Unfortunately, they don’t exist on the Apple Card.

I believe people are confusing a feature of the Apple Card that lets you reset your card number in case of fraud with these one-time use numbers. If you suspect that your card number has been compromised, you can generate a new number, but I believe that makes the old number immediately invalid. It’s not the same thing.

At this point I’ve owned the card for a couple of days and I’m on the fence about keeping it. Of course it integrates well with the iPhone and you get notifications for each purchase, but it is also limited to just one user (Andrea and I tend to share a single credit card account but you can’t add additional users to the Apple Card). What caused me to cancel it had to do with the delivery of the physical “titanium” card.

One thing Apple promotes with its Card is security. There is a number tied to your Apple Wallet that you have to go through several steps to reveal, although for online purchases made using the Safari web browser that number can be auto-filled. If you use Apple Pay on your Watch the number associated with that process is different that the one on your phone, and the physical card doesn’t even display a number at all (and the number encoded on the chip is yet a different number). I was eagerly awaiting the delivery of my card via UPS, but it never showed up.

I live on a rural farm ten miles from the nearest gas station. My property is fenced and gated (not from any bourgeois sensibilities but to keep our dogs on the property) and I rarely see or hear the delivery trucks when they come by. Instead we have a large plastic box where they can put things out of the rain, and once we get notified that things have been delivered we go and fetch them from the box.

This delivery was met with a note that said someone over the age of 21 had to be present to sign for the card.

UPS Apple Card Delivery Notice

What?

Think about it. Even if we weren’t social distancing in the face of a global pandemic, why the need for the extra security? You could literally throw these cards along the side of the road and they would be useless to the majority of people who found them since they lack any easy to read number, and since you have to have your iPhone in hand to activate the card even if they could guess things about the account they wouldn’t be able to active it without the device. All of my other credit cards come by US Mail, with the exception being a lost or stolen card which is usually replaced via two-day delivery but even then a signature isn’t required. Heck, I didn’t even have the option to sign the little note the UPS guy left so he could avoid having to interact with me to get a signature.

I believe that Apple did this to make the Apple Card seem extra special, but it was totally unnecessary and caused me inconvenience. I know this will seem petty to most Apple fans reading this, but since I was already on the fence about the card in the first place, this pushed me over the edge to cancel it.

The cancellation process was pretty unique as well. You have to cancel the card via text message. Seriously.

Cancelling My Apple Card

Before I started the process I made sure to pay off my outstanding balance. I was able to use the $5 or so I’d earned in cash back first, and then I paid off the rest by entering in my banking details.

In summary, if you need a credit card, don’t need a large line of credit, and you have an iPhone, the Apple Card is worth checking out. If, however, you travel a lot and like to take long trips overseas, an airline card is probably a better bet. Please check out The Wirecutter for their recommendations as well, including the Apple Card.

Oh, what about those virtual account numbers? I found a service called Privacy that kinda, sorta does what I want. They allow you to create cards that are either one use or tied to a particular merchant, but you link it to your debit card. The reason is obvious, they make money by acting as a credit card processor and they can’t do that if they also have to get paid via credit card, but I’ve always been hesitant to set up debit card payments because they are harder to deal with in case of fraud (the money is already gone from your account versus having to send in a credit card payment). The free version also has some limitations but until Citi gets their act together and brings back my beloved virtual account feature, it will have to do.

Low Bandwidth Camera Solution

My neighbor recently asked me for advice on security cameras. Lately when anyone asks me for tech recommendations, I just send them to The Wirecutter. However, in this case their suggestions won’t work because every option they recommend requires decent Internet access.

I live on a 21 acre farm 10 miles from the nearest gas station. I love where I live but it does suffer from a lack of Internet access options. Basically, there is satellite, which is expensive with high latency, or Centurylink DSL. I have the latter and get to bask in 10 Mbps down and about 750Kbps up.

Envy me.

Unfortunately, with limited upstream all of The Wirecutter’s options are out. I found a bandwidth calculator that estimates a 1 megapixel camera encoding video using H.264 at 24 fps in low quality would still require nearly 2Mbps and over 5Mbps for high quality. Just not gonna happen with a 750Kbps circuit. In addition, I have issues sending video to some third party server. Sure, it is easy but I’m not comfortable with it.

I get around this by using an application called Surveillance Station that is included on my Synology DS415+. Surveillance Station supports a huge number of camera manufacturers and all of the information is stored locally, so no need to send information to “the cloud”. There is also an available camera application called “DS-cam” that can allow you to access your live cameras and recordings remotely. Due the the aforementioned bandwidth limitations, it isn’t a great experience but it can be useful. I use it, for example, to see if a package I’m expecting has been delivered.

Surveillance Station is not free software, and you only get two cameras for free. If you want more there is a pretty hefty license fee. Still, it was useful enough to me that I paid it in order to have two more cameras (for a total of four).

I have the cameras set to record on motion, and it will store up to 10GB of video, per camera, on the Synology. For cameras that stay inside I’m partial to Netgear devices, but for outdoor cameras I use Wansview mainly due to price. Since these types of devices have been know to be easily hackable, I set up firewall rules to block them from accessing the Internet unless I expressly allow it (mainly for software updates). The Netgear cameras move which is cool, but I haven’t found an outdoor camera with the same features.

The main thing that prevented me from recommending my solution to my neighbor is that the DS415+ loaded with four drives was not inexpensive. But then it dawned on me that Synology has a number of smaller products that still support Surveillance View. He could get one of those plus a camera like the Wansview for a little more than one of the cameras recommended by The Wirecutter.

The bargain basement choice would be the Synology DS118. It cost less than $200 but would still require a hard drive. I use WD RED drives which run around $50 for 1TB and $100 for 4TB. Throw in a $50 camera and you are looking at about $300 for a one camera solution.

However, if you are going to get a Synology I would strongly recommend at least a 2-bay solution, like the DS218. It’s about $70 more than the DS118 and you also would need to get another hard drive, but now you will have a Network Attached Storage (NAS) solution in addition to security cameras. I’ve been extremely happy with my DS415+ and I use it to centralize all of my music, video and other data across all my devices.

WRAL Goes to the Dark Side

I’m a fan, or was, of WRAL news. I’m especially fond of their meteorological team headed up by Greg Fishel, and I often access the weather using the Firefox browser on my iPhone.

Over the past week, however, when I visit the Weather page I get the following pop-up:

WRAL Support Us Pop-Up

What struck me as odd about the pop-up is that I don’t use ad-blockers. I realize that WRAL has to make money and that they do this by serving advertisements, and I’m okay with it. So why was their website telling me I had an ad-blocker installed?

I decided to follow the link to “disable” my ad-blocker, and came across this section:

WRAL Privacy Blocker Pop-Up

Oh, so what is causing the problem has nothing to do with advertisements. WRAL is upset that I don’t want them to be able to follow my browsing habits once I leave their site.

That is not acceptable.

No reputable website should demand that they get to infringe on your right to privacy by tracking your online habits. Online tracking is pretty sophisticated but Firefox includes ways to block that by default. Apparently the software being used by WRAL requires that this feature be disabled before you can visit their site, which points to even more nefarious problems.

WRAL Admiral Logo

Apparently this software is being provided by a company called Admiral. Looking at their website, I’m certain someone at WRAL got a call and was told that they were “losing money” because they weren’t forcing their users to disable ad-blocking and privacy measures. Without thinking too much about it, they went ahead and installed the software.

Which is a pretty crappy move for a news organization. They should have at least spent some time investigating the impact of what they were installing.

When I use Firefox on my desktop, I use a plug-in call “NoScript” that lets me control what software is executed on my browser. I wish I could say I was surprised when I saw all of the third-party software running on WRAL.com.

WRAL Third Party Javascript

Now there is no way that WRAL is aware of where all the data they are collecting on their visitors is going. They have no idea who gets access to your personal, private browsing data along with whatever else is being collected, but someone convinced them that this was a good thing in terms of revenue.

This whole experience has soured me on WRAL as a reliable site for news, so I’ve switched to CBS 17. At the moment I do not get a demand to turn of privacy controls when visiting their website. But I will miss Greg Fishel and the team.

Perhaps I should report this to “Five On Your Side“?

Review: Always Look on the Bright Side of Life by Eric Idle

TL;DR; If you like the humour of Monty Python, you’ll really enjoy this book. If, however, you are looking for a book about Monty Python, you’ll be disappointed. This is Eric Idle’s story, which wouldn’t be complete without Monty Python, but it is also much more than that. I came across this book by accident and what a happy accident it was.

The story of this book and my relationship with it would be incomplete without “the tweet”.

Eric Idle Calls Me a Cunt

Yes, Eric Idle called me a cunt.

I’m still not quite sure why. I mean, I am merrily reading along and he’s talking about his retreat in Provence. By this point in the book his fame has caused his orbit to cross paths with pretty much everyone who was anyone at the time, and he’s managed to make friends with a lot of famous people. He’s writing about his eccentric neighbor with a wheelbarrow that uses a ball instead of a wheel (ballbarrow?) who turns out to be James Dyson.

Of course he is.

So, as part mental exercise and part futile effort to show my friends how clever I am, I decide to guess a famous person one wouldn’t usually associate with Monty Python that Idle will inevitably meet. I chose Stephen Hawking (who, by the way, shows up on page 238).

I didn’t think much of it and went to bed, and when I woke up I saw his reply. In a way it was kind of funny. I imagine Idle at his home in LA, feeling a little lazy after having eaten dinner, pulling out his phone and taking offense, but that sneaky autocomplete jumped in and turned “cunt” to “count”.

Idle is English, so technically one would be an Earl and not a count, but for some reason the wife of an Earl is still a Countess, go figure. I decided to have some fun with it, so for the next 31 days I will be known as “Count Balog”, complete with the Eastern European pastiche accent (à la the character on Sesame Street). My tweets autodelete when they are 31 days old so this too shall pass.

I came across this book entirely by accident. Where I live in North Carolina we have seen an obscene amount of rain this year, nearly double the average, including two hurricanes. Hurricane Florence damaged the Biography section of the Wren Memorial Library in Siler City, and they asked for help replacing the damaged books through an Amazon wishlist. Near the top of that list was this book.

Now Siler City has seen better times, and it is best known for being the final home of Frances Bavier, Aunt Bee from The Andy Griffith Show (after she died Andrea was involved in rescuing the cats she left behind, but that’s another story). It is also home to a bunch of hard working people who have been duped into voting against their own self interest. I found it a moral imperative to replace this book, even though I had not read it, because I knew the viewpoints expressed would be counter to, say, Fox News. I bought it and sent out a tweet, and Eric Idle was kind enough to comment on it (without elevating me to royalty) and I believe that caused a few more people to contribute. I am grateful for that.

About a month later I found myself at Flyleaf Books, which is my favorite local independent bookstore, when I saw a copy of Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. I bought it and put it in the queue of things to read.

Now I have been a Python fan since the late seventies. I can’t remember who introduced me to their work, but I believe it started when the DM for the Dungeons and Dragons group I was in started talking in a Pepperpot voice as one of his characters (yes, I liked Monty Python and D&D in the South. Oh how the young ladies flocked to me). We devoured all things Python and Python adjacent. When cable television arrived I recorded The Rutles onto VHS and wore the tape out. We made cassette copies of all the albums, having to struggle a bit with the second side of Matching Tie and Handkerchief to get both sides recorded. In high school, when my friend David and I were cutting up in social studies class, the teacher Jackye Meadows called us on it so we immediately launched into singing “Sit on My Face”. She didn’t know what to think of it, but being very cool she let us slide.

Well, enough foreplay, let’s talk about the book.

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life Book

Billed as a “sortabiography” the book begins and ends with a song, namely “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” which was the closing tune of The Life of Brian. I can remember seeing the movie in the theatre, and the song gave me an earworm for weeks. Monty Python was known for not finishing things. Skits would abruptly end, and even Monty Python and the Holy Grail just ends with everyone getting arrested. It was surprising to actually have some sort of ending to a Python movie, and a rather good one at that. This song is the thread that holds the book together.

There are several arcs within this book. Like any autobiography it starts when the author is young and, in this case, comes pretty close to present day by the end. One arc involves Monty Python, of course. One follows the numerous friendships he made over the years and their impact on his life, and still another follows his relationship to his family. The three combine to show how Idle grew as both a person and an entertainer over decades.

Idle’s childhood was far from idyllic, but he managed to cope. I really identified with his story about leaving boarding school to see movies in town by simply walking out the front door like he had every right. It’s how I find clean toilets in Europe. I pick the fanciest hotel nearby and walk in like I own the place. I’ve never been stopped or even questioned, and often someone will even hold the door to the hotel open for you.

In trying to understand why my tweet pissed him off, I read some reviews. The second most critical comment is that the book doesn’t contain enough Python. Well, right there on page 39, at the start of Chapter 7, is a whole paragraph about how so much stuff has already been written about Monty Python. What more needs to be said? This book is more about how Python played a role in Idle’s life versus a history of that show. And what it did was make him a celebrity.

The number one complaint, and I believe the source of his ire toward me, is that he mentions a lot of celebrity names. Apparently it bothered some people. It didn’t really bother me, because, seriously, who do celebrities hang out with outside of other celebrities? They are the only ones who can understand how celebrity affects one’s life, regardless of if it comes from music, acting, art, or even comedy. I found the rapid-fire stories of meeting famous people, ingesting various substances, jetting off to amazing places and shagging models kind of gave me a glimpse of what his life must have been like, especially in his younger days.

I couldn’t help but think as he was talking about all the temptations he yielded to, which often involved intimacy with beautiful young women, “What about his wife? Isn’t he married at this point?”

He soon addressed that. His son Carey was born in 1973 just before Grail and before The Rutles. In a chapter entitled “The Divorce Fairy” he owns up that his marriage to Lyn was ending just as 1976 was arriving and that it was primarily his fault. While he never really alludes to his current relationship with her, he does obviously care for his son who remains a fixture throughout the book. By the next chapter his talks about “growing up” at age 33 and meeting his second (and current) wife Tania. From what I read in the book Tania’s only flaw seems to be poor taste in men (much like my wife Andrea) and she even likes German Shepards.

Things seem to settle down a bit after he meets Tania. Sure, there are still stories of hanging out with celebrities but we also start to see him develop as a performer. While the Monty Python television series was long over, the troupe found new life in movies. He talks about the Python movies Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life as well as his very funny yet underrated Nuns on the Run (hurray for cable television in the South).

One of my favorite parts of the book is when he talks about the uproar over Life of Brian being sacrilegious. I can’t do it justice, so here is the quote:

We agreed early on, you couldn’t knock Christ. How can you attack a man who professes peace to all people, speaks out for the meek, heals the poor and cures the sick? You can’t. Comedy’s business is some kind of search for the truth. Clearly this was a very great man, leaving aside for a minute his potential divinity. No, the problem with Christianity was the followers, who would happily put each other to death at the drop of a dogma.

After The Meaning of Life and the death of Graham Chapman, Idle gets involved with stage plays and musical theatre. This eventually results in the mega-hit Spamlot which won the Tony for best Musical in 2005. Toward the end of the book there are stories about the famous Monty Python Live (Mostly) show at O2 arena. I watched a recording of this show and was pretty amazed at the rather lavish and professional production that included huge musical numbers complete with chorus lines, etc. It didn’t surprised me that Idle was the driving force behind it. After all, it is what he had been training for for years.

It was also then that I remembered the gag at the end of the “Galaxy Song” involving Stephen Hawking, so maybe I cheated, albeit subconsciously, in my guess that they would eventually meet.

I also enjoyed the stories of his friendships, especially with George Harrison and Robin Williams. I was horrified when I read his description of the attack on the Harrison home by a mentally deranged man, and I shed several tears reading about George Harrison’s death. I didn’t know that it was George Harrison who provided the financing for Brian, mortgaging his home to do it, simply because he believed in them and wanted to see the movie.

I also got a little verklempt reading about Robin William’s suicide. Of all the recent celebrity deaths, that one bothered me the most. Robin was kind of a geek idol: someone who showed it was okay to be weird, to be funny. I adored that man, although I never met him.

I remember two things about his death. On the news that night they led with his story, but later in the broadcast they mentioned that Kim Kardashian had produced a book of selfies that had immediately sold out. Now I have nothing against Ms. Kardashian making a buck, but I thought it was sad to live in a world where Robin was dead and selfies were trying to take his place.

That night I had a very realistic dream that I was able to stop him from committing suicide. For some reason I ended up at his house, and when he came to the door I could tell something was wrong. We talked for hours and when I finally left he was feeling better. We know now from the autopsy that his depression was caused by Lewy body dementia so no amount of talking would have helped, but it was a nice dream in any case.

The book ends with stories about a tour Idle did with John Cleese. I remember reading an interview with Cleese about that tour where a woman in Florida asked, in all seriousness, “Did the Queen kill Princess Diana”.

Cleese replied, “Certainly not with her hands”.

Although I can’t find an authoritative reference, Thoreau is credited with saying “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation, and go to their grave with the song still in them”. This is definitely not the case with Eric Idle. He is still living an amazing life and, it is hoped, still singing.

Harlan Ellison (1934-2018)

I have a Harlan Ellison story.

Ellison, who passed away last week at 84, was one of my favorite authors. While I had read a few of his stories growing up, it wasn’t until my friend Craig made a reference to “The Deathbird” that went over my head that I got into Ellison in a big way. This was probably around 1985, and Craig loaned me the Deathbird Stories and I was hooked.

Harlan Ellison was a polarizing person, but as this was before social media was ubiquitous I remained pretty much isolated from the more negative aspects of his personality. Ellison was also the first author who demonstrated to me that being a writer was a job. When I was younger writing seemed like something you did on the side. I knew a number of people who were like “when I retire, I think I’ll become a writer”. Ellison simply went to work, and nothing demonstrated that more than his habit of self-promotion that involved writing a short story, in public, in a day.

It worked like this: he would show up at a book store when they opened. Someone, usually a local celebrity, would give him a “seed” for a story. It could be a word, a phrase or a short paragraph. He would then sit down in the window of the shop and type out a short story during the course of the day, on a manual typewriter, taping each page to the window as he progressed. You could come to the store to meet him, and if you purchased a certain amount you would get a copy of the story. Considering the time pressure and the minimal ability to make edits, it is quite an accomplishment when you think about it.

Anyway, in the spring of 1991 I was finishing up my fourth and final senior year in college when the Engineering department announced a bus trip to the IEEE conference in New Orleans. I had little interest in attending the conference, but “cheap trip to New Orleans” resonated with me so I signed up. As it involved a 12 hour bus trip and sharing a room with three other guys it wasn’t my dream trip, but the price was right.

We rode overnight from Charlotte to New Orleans, arriving in the morning. A group of us immediately made our way to Pat O’Brien’s for our morning Hurricanes on the large patio.

Along the way I saw a flier for Harlan Ellison coming to the Bookstar on Tchoupitoulas Street (which doesn’t appear to be there anymore). He was doing his short story thing, and I was very excited at the prospect of meeting the man in person.

As advertised, he was set up on a little platform near the front window. There were only three or four people around him, but for once I developed a bit of shyness and I didn’t walk over, choosing instead to hover around the display near the cash register with the pencils and erasers. To my surprise, a few minutes after I arrived he walked right over next to me to get a pencil. I used the opportunity to introduce myself and he immediately grabbed on to my name, going as far as to ask me if he could use it in a story sometime. I was so flattered and shocked that I didn’t even request that the character not be an asshole (to my knowledge he never went through with it, but it was cool to consider).

Emboldened, I followed him back to the typewriter and kind of hovered. Most of his conversation was with a bearded gentleman next to him who was obviously a local. He would ask things like “If I were to leave New Orleans, heading north, what highway would I take?” etc. Turns out that man was George Alec Effinger. While this would be my only interaction with Harlan Ellison, I carried on a pen-pal relationship with Effinger for several years after meeting him here.

Ellison was writing the story that would become “Jane Doe #112”. The main character, Ben Laborde, needed to leave New Orleans which was why he’d asked about highways. His writing process was done out loud, and he said he needed Laborde to be in some sort of “everyman car” and came up with a 1978 Toyota Corolla. Unable to help myself, I interjected that my Dad had a blue 1977 Corolla and that the air conditioning was crap. He loved it. Encouraged, when he ask out loud that he needed Laborde to have some sort of job that caused him to travel, I suggested “ATM repairman”.

If you grab a copy of 1997’s story collection Slippage and turn to page 232, you’ll read at the bottom about Ben Laborde’s complaints about the air conditioning in his blue 1978 Corolla, and on page 233 you’ll learn that he was a “repairman for ATMs”.

Go me. That is the sum total of my contribution to my first and only collaboration with Harlan Ellison.

Harlan Ellison note

For once I didn’t overstay my welcome. I bought a few books, including his latest Angry Candy, and he was kind enough to autograph them.

I never talked with Harlan Ellison again, although I did hold out hope that my name would show up somewhere in his work. Even if I was an asshole.

Morocco (Country 41)

I recently got to visit Morocco for the first time. It marks the 41st country I’ve visited and my first time in Africa.

I was on my way to teach a class at the African Internet Summit, which this year in being held in Dakar, Senegal. Now I usually fly American Airlines but their website wouldn’t book a flight to Dakar, so I started searching on-line. I did see that Iberian Airlines (a partner of American) had a flight from Madrid, but in the process of searching I discovered Royal Air Maroc. They had a business class fare on a Boeing 787 (one of my favorite planes) for about the same price as economy, so I decided to give them a try. Plus, I would transfer through Casablanca. Having never been to Morocco before, I decided on a one day layover so that I could see some of the city.

I flew American to JFK and then had to switch terminals from Terminal 8 to Terminal 1. This is a little frustrating because you have to exit and re-enter security. I did figure it out and even got there before the check-in desk opened (you can’t check in on-line on RAM from the US).

While I was waiting in line, I struck up a conversation with a man named Tommy. Tommy is an American born in Lebanon, and he travels a lot for his business just like I do. Having spent a month in Syria many years ago, I did have some knowledge of the area, and we talked about the tensions between Syrians and Lebanese. I did confirm that “Syrian Checkpoint Jokes” are a thing, and he’d knew the one about the Volkswagen.

He has an apartment in Casablanca and offered to both drive me to my hotel once we landed and show me around. We got our tickets and headed for the gate.

I had an incredibly frustrating experience with the TSA at Terminal 1. They wouldn’t recognize my Pre-Check status, and when I was asked to get in the box for a scan I politely asked to opt-out for a pat down instead. The screener immediately barked “Why?”. Again, being polite, I asked if he really wanted to have this discussion. Apparently he did. When I brought up that these types of searches violated both the 4th Amendment and Freedom of Movement he didn’t take it well, hand-waving it away with the nonsensical “this is administrative”. In any case he made me wait for about 30 minutes for my pat down, and I’d still be there if another screener hadn’t asked why my bags had been sitting there for a half an hour and did the pat down himself.

It was enough to make me avoid any flight through Terminal 1 in the future.

RAM Business Class

The rest of the trip went smoothly. When I fly on a 787 with American, the seat arrangement is 1-2-1. RAM uses a 2-2-2 arrangement which means the seats are slightly smaller. The entertainment options were also just okay, and while the little handout listing the movies was for “May-June” the actual content hadn’t been updated, so they mainly had movies I’d seen. I always bring my own entertainment so that wasn’t an issue, and the food was amazing.

We landed and getting through customs was a breeze. I swear Morocco has the friendliest customs agents I’ve ever met. They even smile. Crazy, I know.

Tommy and I met up at baggage claim, and after getting his bags we went outside to pick up his rental car. He has an arrangement where they meet him at the airport, so there was no counter like in the US, we just met his contact, waited a few minutes while they got the car, and then headed into town.

Sign for Casablanca

The airport is some distance from the city center, and as Casablanca is the largest city in the country it did start to get crowded as we got closer. Tommy dropped me off and we agreed to meet later in the evening.

Casablanca from My Hotel Room

I checked in, slept for a bit and showered, and Tommy came by around 7pm. I wanted to shop for a present for Andrea, and he had some friends who ran a jewelry store in a local mall so we went there. On the way we passed the famous Hassan II Mosque.

Hassan II Mosque

Morocco has been experiencing a lot of growth recently, and construction was everywhere. The Morocco Mall is similar to other high-end western-style shopping malls, and while not as outrageous as the malls in, say, Dubai, they did have a big aquarium.

Morocco Mall Aquarium

They were setting up for what I assumed would be a fashion show over the weekend, with the aquarium as the backdrop.

Tommy had a late evening business meeting and offered to drop me back at my hotel before going to dinner. His meeting was in the Kenzi Tower Hotel, which is also home to Sky 28. Sky 28 was suggested as a place to visit for cocktails so I offered to wait at the bar until his meeting was over, which would save some time (always willing to take one for team I am).

Sky 28

There are amazing views from up there, but I struggled to get a good picture. The drinks were just okay. I started off with a “Mai Tai” which was tasty, but isn’t wasn’t quite a Mai Tai and it was missing the signature lime. When the bartender identified me as an American he offered to make me a Manhattan and I thought it would be rude to refuse, and as he made it with Jack Daniels I probably should have, but it was nice even if it wasn’t quite a Manhattan.

Once Tommy’s meeting was over he took me to a place called Loubnane. Featuring Lebanese food and entertainment, Tommy was greeted as if he lived there. Needless to say we received excellent service.

Tommy and I

The place was packed and everyone seemed to be having a good time. It is loud and people were really into the man singing. Tommy ordered for us and it wasn’t long before our table was literally covered with small plates.

Round One of Food

The food was amazing and since it was now after 10pm I was very hungry. I was working my way through each dish when Tommy pointed out that this was just the first round of “cold” plates – there would end up being three more – two sets of hot dishes and one of desserts.

I was stuffed, and I didn’t eat another meal for about twenty hours.

Anyway, I learned that having a big mouth and talking to random strangers does have its benefits. Tommy lives in Miami most of the time and I hope to see him again and meet his family when I’m there in October. He dropped me off at the hotel with promises to see each other again, and I slept very well.

He gave me one other piece of advice which was to take the train to the airport in the morning. There was a train station less than a five minute walk from my hotel and the cost was US$6 versus about US$40 for a cab.

Colorful Tent

Plus I got to see a colorful tent that reminded me of Cirque du Soleil, although I don’t think they are in Morocco at the moment.

While the trip was too short to say I’ve seen much of Casablanca (much less Morocco) we did cram a lot in and it was so much fun.

Explaining Cricket to Americans

I recently got to visit Perth, Australia. While I’ve been to Australia before, this was my first time in Western Australia, and it turns out that Perth has a brand new cricket stadium. I wasn’t able to get tickets, but my host Chris was kind enough to spend the afternoon with me in a bar watching a match between England and Australia. I thought, as a public service, I would share what I learned about the game of cricket. Where possible I’ll make comparisons to baseball.

[Note: I plan to use the masculine pronoun in this story because I saw a men’s match, but it is in no way meant to imply women can’t play the sport].

First, watching cricket seems to involve a lot of beer. I think that can be said for most Australian activities, but cricket in particular. I spent part of the afternoon working my way through all of the draft beers with the word “cricket” in them.

List of Draft Beers

Cricket is played on an oval field. In the middle of this field is a rectangle of dirt known as the “pitch”. Most of the action occurs here. Think of it as if the baseline in baseball only extended from the pitcher’s mound to home plate.

On each end of the pitch are three upright pieces of wood called the “stickies”. Placed on them are two blocks called the “toppers”. They used to be made of wood but now they have sensors in them that light up if disturbed.

At this point I need to mention that I was watching one day cricket. In the beginning of the sport they envisioned it to be “the eternal game” so it never ended. New players were actually conceived during breaks in the action and raised to continue the tradition. Over time they decided to shorten the game to five days, known as “test” cricket, as a test of the patience of the spectators.

In 1979 a media mogul named Kerry Packer popularized “one day cricket”. Instead of lasting five days, it was designed to be played in one. To make a comparison to baseball, this is a game with one inning with ten outs per team, with the added restriction of a maximum of 300 pitches.

But getting back to the basics. So, we have the pitch, the stickies and the toppers. It is the job of the fielding team to try and knock the toppers off the stickies. The other team attempts to prevent this from happening by the use of paddles. The “paddlers” stand in front of the stickies on each end. From one end of the pitch a “flinger” runs up and then flings a ball toward one of the paddlers. I say “flings” because it isn’t a throw, per se, as the flinger’s arm must stay straight (unlike a pitch in American baseball).

The ball bounces in front of the paddler and toward the stickies, and the paddler tries to hit it. At this point three things can happen: he can hit the ball with the paddle, he can hit the ball with his body, or he can miss.

Cricket Diagram

If he hits the ball, he has the option to run, which means heading toward the other side of the pitch while the other paddler changes sides. They can do this as many times as they want, and each exchange scores a “run”. A run is scored when the paddler or part of the paddle crosses a white line in front of the stickies. Depending on where the paddlers end up, they may paddle again or it may switch to the other one (the flinger only throws in one direction).

If, however, the fielding team can catch the ball in the air, the paddler is out. Also, if they can throw the ball and knock off the toppers before the paddler crosses the white line, he is also out. It is rare that the ball is hit and more than one or two runs are scored.

Around the edge of the field is a marked area, probably about three meters from the wall. If the paddler hits the ball and it lands in this area, or hits the wall, or goes over the wall into the stands, that scores six runs and is known as a “six”. If the ball managed to hit the ground outside of this area but rolls into it, that scores four runs and is known as, you guessed it, a “four”.

Now the player can also hit the ball with his body. This is not good. Unlike baseball, the ball bounces at least once in front of the player, so there is no “hit by pitch” rule. The paddlers wear leg protection and helmets, but I saw one player get hit in the chest with the ball and it didn’t look fun (the balls go around 100kph/62mph). Outside of the addition considerable pain, it doesn’t affect the game much unless he hits it with his leg. If it is determined that the ball would have struck the stickies had he not blocked it, the paddler is out.

The final option is that the paddler misses the ball. If it hits the stickies hard enough to drop the toppers, he’s out. Behind the set of stickies near the active paddler is the “stickler”, kind of like the catcher in baseball. If the stickler can grab the ball and hit the toppers off while the paddler is over the line, he’s out. In order to get a better strike on the ball, many paddlers will step towards the fling, but this adds the risk of getting out if they miss.

If the ball just goes out into the field, usually nothing happens. Depending on how far out, the paddlers may choose to run. The signal to run is usually done by the paddler not actively paddling as they can keep an eye on what is going on in the rest of the field.

And those are the basics. There are eleven players on each team, and since you have to have two paddlers the inning ends when ten are out. Then the fielding and paddling teams switch and the process starts all over. The flingers change after every six flings, called an “over” (as in “thank God that’s over”), and in one day cricket there are usually 50 overs for each team. In the match I saw neither team lasted all 300 possible flings as the paddlers were out before that point.

Then you just add up the runs and the team with the most runs wins.

I am not really covering all of the strategy and subtleties of the game. One thing became clear is that most teams start with their best paddlers. In the match I watched, England paddled first and when Australia took over it looked like they were going to run away (get it?) with it, but after some unfortunate outs it became obvious England was going to win.

I also learned that if you get out without scoring a run, that is called a “duck”, and if you are out at your first attempt to paddle that is a “golden duck”. Not sure why we have all of the avian terms in sports but we do.

I really enjoyed watching the game and found myself cheering when Oz scored a four or six, or got someone out. I don’t think I’m up for test cricket, but they have something called a twenty20, which apparently involves force feeding the players methamphetamine and motivating them with explosive fireworks.

Streaker at Cricket Match

Oh, cricket apparently involves streaking, too. The wonderful security officials escort you off the field and there is a large fine.

Beer and Cricket on TV

Good times.