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.

2017 Havana, Cuba

There are no mobile phone zombies in Cuba. That was one of the things I noticed right away. I don’t think that Cubans have any special resistance to the lure of the Internet, it is just that Cuba is one of the least connected countries in the world. I’d have to agree, since I’ve connected from places as remote at the Night Market in Siam Reap, Cambodia, and the island of Espiritu Santo in Vanuatu, yet had a hard time getting on the Internet from Havana.

But I get ahead of myself.

Many years ago I set the goal of visiting 50 countries before I turned 50. I didn’t make it. Cuba was the 40th country I’ve been in, if you include the United States.

Even though Cuba is very close to the United States, it has always seemed a bit mysterious to me because of the embargo. I do have friends who have visited, mostly from Europe, but one American friend of mine was able to go via Mexico. He was kind of upset – he arrived the day after Fidel Castro resigned. Last year I decided I was going to visit Cuba, but I wanted to do so legally, and thus I set out to find the requirements.

It turns out that one of the allowed reasons an American can visit Cuba is for “professional meetings”. As I work in both telecommunications and with free and open source software, I started searching for a conference I could attend. I discovered CubaConf, but was disappointed to learn that the conference had already been held for 2016.

So, I kept my eye out to see if the conference was going to be held again in 2017. When they announced November dates, I submitted a paper and was happy when it was accepted. I decided to take along my friend and coworker Alejandro. He was born and raised in Venezuela and thus speaks fluent Spanish, and while my Spanish is good enough that I might have been able to get by, it was extremely handy to have Alejandro around (plus I think he enjoyed the trip as well). I had wanted to spend as much time as possible in Cuba, but I also wanted to make sure I adhered to the travel rules, and since those forbid tourism outside of a registered tour we went down on Monday and returned on Friday (the conference was Tuesday through Thursday).

Due to the embargo, American banks cannot do business in Cuba, thus credit cards don’t work. Luckily, the two most expensive parts of the trip, airfare and lodging, could be arranged and paid for in advance. American Airlines has a number of flights to Havana, and AirBnB has a large presence in Cuba due to the tradition of “casa particulares” or “private homes”. There are hotels in Cuba but many people stay in rented rooms, usually in peoples’ homes. This matched perfectly with the AirBnB service and I was able to book a wonderful, three bedroom apartment in the heart of old Havana.

American Airlines Sign for Havana

We flew from RDU to Miami, and then took the short flight to Havana. Entering the country was pretty easy. You had to have a visa, which I bought beforehand, and you needed to fill out a health card, but outside of that the longest wait was for luggage. They do perform a thorough search of luggage, looking mainly for wireless electronics and other contraband, but as I had none of that my bag arrived pretty much unmolested.

Yaima, who was renting us the apartment, had arranged for a driver, so we were met after we exited customs. While Alejandro talked with him I went to the Exchange to get Cuban Convertible Pesos, or CUCs (kooks). They map one to one with the US dollar, except they also charge an exchange fee (which doesn’t exists for euros or UK pounds). I had brought several hundred dollars in cash with me to cover expenses, and the whole process was pretty easy.

The airport is some distance outside of the city and so we got to see some of the area on our way to Old Havana. Our taxi was a later model car, I think it was a Nissan of some sort, and our driver was pretty quiet. We passed through the more modern section of Havana on our way to Havana Vieja (Old Havana) and you could tell when the buildings got older and the streets narrower.

When we arrived at the apartment building, the driver made a call and a large garage door came up. He drove in on the ground floor, which also served as the lobby, and we got out to check in to our room.

Our apartment was on the top floor, and it was very nice. It had three bedrooms. There was me and Alejandro but also my friend Elizabeth who I often see at open source conferences. She had heard about CubaConf from me and decided to attend as well, and so I offered up the last bedroom to her. There were two rooms with king-sized beds that shared a bathroom, and a smaller room next to the kitchen that Elizabeth took. On each end of the apartment was a balcony, and I spent a lot of time out on the front one enjoying the sights and sounds of Old Havana.

Our Apartment Balcony

Outside of the conference I had another objective. I wanted to visit three famous bars in Havana: El Floridita, Hotel Ambos Mundos and the Hotel Nacional. El Floridita was pretty close to our hotel, so as soon as we dropped off our bags, the three of us made our way there.

La Floridita

Old Havana is easy to walk, and we felt pretty safe for most of the trip, no matter how late it was. There were several “touts” trying to get you to go into a store or a restaurant, and one that kept coming up was “La Familia”. We were told by several people in the street, in both Spanish and English, that we should eat at La Familia. It was so prevalent that we made a group decision to never eat there.

El Floridita bar is known as the birthplace of the Daiquiri. I learned about it from Ted Haigh’s seminal book Vintage Spirit’s and Forgotten Cocktails and I had always wanted to visit. This is a place made famous by Ernest Hemingway, who used to drink there, so much so that they have a bronze statue of him in the corner of the bar.

Bronze Statue of Papa Hemingway

I have no idea what was going on with my hair in that picture.

The place was crowded but we managed to squeeze in right next to the statue. I wanted Hemingway’s signature drink, the Papa Doble, which is a Daiquiri with double the rum and the addition of grapefruit juice. The bartender told me, in Spanish, that due to the recent hurricane they couldn’t get toronja (grapefruit) and suggested a “Daiquiri Classico”. I figured it was the next best thing and had several (as did my companions).

I liked sitting there watching the bar. There is a sign announcing that this is “The Cradle of the Daiquiri”

La Cuna del Daiquiri

and I liked watching the bartenders (cantineros) prepare drinks. While they use shakers like most bartenders around the world, there is a style unique to Cuba where they pour the drink from one iced cup to another several times in order to mix it.

Cantinero Pouring a Drink

It takes skill and creates a nice airiness to the cocktail. We stayed there for some time, drinking, talking and listening to the band in the corner, and they we decided to get dinner there as well. It was good and a wonderful start to our trip.

The next day the three of us made our way to the conference. It just so happens that it was being held right across the street from the Hotel Ambos Mundos.

Hotel Ambos Mundos

The Ambos Mundos is where Hemingway lived when he was in Havana. It’s on the opposite end of O’Reilly street from El Floridita. As that street can get busy with traffic we usually walked down Obispo, which was a parallel pedestrian street lined with restaurants and shops. After the conference was over Alejandro and I went to have a couple of drinks at the hotel.

Ambos Mundos Bar

I don’t remember anything special about the cocktails, but I do remember enjoying sitting in the open air bar and watching the people. I could see why Hemingway got attached to the place.

That night we asked the guy at the apartment where to eat for dinner, and he suggested a place called Habana 61. While I didn’t have Internet connectivity, Elizabeth had thought ahead and bought a Digicel SIM card off of Amazon that worked in Cuba so she was able to help us from getting lost. In trying to link to it I can’t find it on Amazon anymore so perhaps it has been discontinued.

I really liked wandering the streets in the evening.

Street in Old Havana

We found the place and they were able to seat us. I told the waitress that I wanted that most macho of Cuban cocktails, the Mary Pickford.

Mary Pickford Cocktail

She laughed and made sure to get me a pink straw to go with my pink drink. Alejandro had a Mojito, which is something of the national drink of Cuba. I have never been a fan but the Mojitos in Cuba are extremely tasty. We talked about why and Alejandro suggested it was because of the mint. Whereas in the US and other parts of the world we use something like peppermint for the drink, Cubans use Yerba Buena which is similar but milder, so you don’t get that overwhelming mint taste. I am going to try to find some seed and grow it in the spring. The other bonus about Habana 61 is that while cocktails in Cuba tend to cost 6 CUC ($6) theirs were only 3 CUC ($3) and were some of the best drinks I had while I was there.

I also got to check something else of my list. I wanted to eat Ropa Vieja while in Cuba.

Ropa Vieja

While Ropa Vieja is sometimes considered the national dish of Cuba, the main ingredient, beef, is not readily available. You are much more likely to eat pork, chicken or fish, but I was happy to be able to eat it as least once while I was there. If you ever go to Havana, do your best to find this place.

On Wednesday I had to do some work. My hosts at the conference had learned about my cocktail hobby, and they asked me if I would be willing to do a presentation on cocktails to a group of students learning to become cantineros. In Havana they have a number of trade schools for young people, and they wanted me to address a group of them training to be bartenders.

While I had never done a formal presentation on cocktails before, those who know me know I would never pass up an opportunity to run my mouth, so I did a bunch of research and decided on a presentation on the grand history of Cuban cocktails. I think it turned out pretty well. I focused on four main drinks and their history. I started with the Cuba Libré, which includes Coca-Cola. I drank a lot of Coke (and Coke with rum) while there because Coke made with Cuban sugar is just superior to what we get in the States or even from Mexico.

Cuban Coke

I then talked about the Daiquiri, as well as one of my current favorite drinks, the Hotel Nacional Special (which I’ll discuss later). I finished up with a discussion of the Mojito and how Sir Francis Drake (El Draque) used it to combat upset stomachs and scurvy.

To get from the conference to the school (bar) where I would be giving my talk, we rode in a Lada.

Lada Automobile

I had never been in a Russian car before. It wasn’t in the best shape, and my host apologized but pointed out that it was extremely hard to get parts to fix things in Cuba. It was kind of a theme for my visit. The embargo does hurt the Cuban people, yet I’ve never met people more determined to improve their situation with so little to work with.

My presentation was held at a bar off of “Barber’s Alley” which is a pretty “hip” street near the water. There were a couple of cool murals along the way, such as this one about barbers:

Barbers Mural

and another one nearby by the same artist:

Mural with Scissors

We walked down the alley, went upstairs and set up for my presentation. I think it went well and I got a lot of good questions from the students afterward. I felt weird given a presentation that was a little out of my comfort zone, but they were very kind and seemed to like it.

Bartender Class

It was now about 11am and I figured I was ready to return to the conference, but I was told that the students would like to make a cocktail for me. Sure, I never turn down a cocktail, but then I learned that all 22 of them wanted to make me a cocktail.

Well, the one thing I strive for when traveling is to never be the rude American, so I sucked it up. (grin)

Of course I didn’t drink all of them, but I did taste each one, and Alejandro helped a lot as well. In addition to classics like the Daiquiri and the Mojito, I had one called the Canchanchara. It had honey in it and was very nice, and I hope to make it at home soon.

Afterward we walked back to the conference (not necessarily in a straight line). After the conference ended for the day we wandered around a bit. It is real easy to walk around Old Havana, although it can be jarring to go from an area of well maintained, brightly painted buildings

Street in Old Havana

and then in the next block see things turn residential and perhaps not nearly as well maintained.

At one point in time we stopped in a bookstore and I saw the following poster:

Bookstore Poster

I read the words

Nada tiene sentido cuando tú me miras con esos ojos que quieren decir no te conozco

and it hit me like a ton of bricks. The phrase translates to

Nothing makes sense when you look at me with those eyes that mean I do not know you.

and it was like I’d just read the saddest thing ever written. I was unable to find out more about it on the web, only other people talking about seeing it and how it affected them.

There is a lot of art in Havana. You have your usual “statues in parks” like this one of Simón Bolívar

Statue of Simón Bolívar

to just random installations on street corners.

Corner Sculpture

There was a mural depicting life in colonial Havana that took up a city block

Colonial Life Mural

as well a artistic graffiti.

Fidel 90 años

They even use old cannons to block the pedestrian streets which is artistic in its own way.

Cannon Barriers

There are also the old cars. One of the things many Americans associate with Cuba is the image of colorful, antique American cars still being used. They are, mainly as taxis

Old Car Taxis

although I did see a mid-1960s Mercedes as well.

Old Mercedes

By Wednesday evening the local cuisine was starting to take a toll on my system. Elizabeth had a much worse case of “Castro’s Revenge” and ended up resting in the apartment for the last half of the trip. I can remember telling Alejandro that I wish I could find something to settle my stomach when it dawned on me that the Mojito was invented as a medicinal beverage. The evening conference event was hosted at a bar so I decided to enjoy some 1 CUC mojitos that did help settle my stomach (although Vitamin I, Imodium, may have played a role as well).

Havana Club at the Bar

The weather in Havana was weird. One moment it would be sunny and blue skies, and a few minutes later it would be raining. We managed to keep dry and since it never rained for long we were still able to walk around. It added a nice touch to the scenery, such as a park

Park After the Rain

or the plaza in front of the Catedral de San Cristobal.

Catedral de San Cristobal

Thursday was the last day of the conference and our last full day in Cuba. I still had one place to mark of my list, the Hotel Nacional.

I learned about the Hotel Nacional from the Smuggler’s Cove cocktail book, specifically the recipe for the Hotel Nacional Special. The National Hotel of Cuba is just outside of Old Havana, and while we could have walked it we decided it was far enough away to merit a cab.

As we were walking down the street I saw a taxi and I flagged him down. What I didn’t realize is that we were standing in front of some sort of police station. As the taxi pulled up a uniformed man started asking the driver all sorts of questions in a rapid-fire Spanish that I couldn’t follow. When he looked at me I pointed to the car and asked “permiso?” and he waved us in, but we still couldn’t leave. I could hear the driver getting out some coins which I assumed was for some sort of payoff. Another man, obviously the boss, approached the car and when he saw us in the back he just waved the taxi on. From there to the hotel Alejandro got an earful from the driver about his poor treatment at the hands of the police (or whatever they were) and I caught “I drive by there every day”. It was one of the few examples of any form of corruption I saw during my visit.

The Hotel Nacional is a grand old hotel located next to a motorway across from the water.

Hotel Nacional Lobby

It was once the scene of an intense battle during a coup, but it seems to have been restored to glory.

We walked in and were seated on the patio. In five minutes I saw more Americans than I had seen the entire trip.

Hotel Nacional Patio

I ordered a Hotel Nacional Special and looked over to the bar to watch them make it.

Hotel Nacional Bar

While rain was once again threatening, it was otherwise a lovely day and I enjoyed relaxing with my drink.

Hotel Nacional Special

I will say that I think I make them better, however. (grin)

We then wandered around the hotel a bit to soak in the atmosphere

Hotel Nacional Exterior

and continuing in that vein we decided to take an “old car” taxi back to Old Havana.

Classic Car Taxi

Our driver was Pablo, and as he drove us back we passed some Havana landmarks such as the Great Theatre

National Theatre

and the Capitolio.

Cuban Capitolio

This building, which greatly resembles the US Capitol, was the seat of Cuban government before the revolution. It currently houses the National Library of Science and Technology, among other things, and is undergoing a restoration. Cubans like to say it is three feet taller, three feet longer and three feet wider than the US Capitol.

As we approached Old Havana I took one of my favorite pictures ever:

Pablo Returning Us to Old Havana

It is just such a nice composition of Pablo, the old purple car and the buildings in the background.

Our last evening event was held in a brewery. We sat at large tables with others from the conference, and I sat next to a woman named Inauri. I’m not sure how the discussion came up, but we ended up talking about race in Cuba.

One thing I noticed, outside of the lack of mobile phone zombies, was that there didn’t seem to be any real racial divides in Cuba. Cuba was such a focal point of trade in the New World that people from all over met, settled and had children in the country. There are blond-haired, blue-eyed Cubans as well as Cubans with skin so dark it is almost blue. Yet they seem to intermingle way more than in any other place I’ve been. Whether in a restaurant, a bar, walking down the street or in groups talking on street corners there was always this glorious mix of skin tone.

Inauri told me that before the revolution there were schools for rich “white” children, schools for poor white children and schools for everyone else. After the revolution it was declared that no matter your skin color, you were all Cubans, and while I’m sure it took some time it seems to have worked. I have no doubt that there are racists in Cuba but from my experience it was the first truly integrated culture I’ve seen.

The next morning we took another “classic” car to the airport. It was based on a 1953 Pontiac and was in incredible shape.

1953 Pontiac Taxi

The driver was obviously proud of the condition of his car, and he even offered to turn on the air conditioning, which I don’t believe was stock in 1953.

Pontiac Taxi A/C

It was a rainy morning and quite humid, so the A/C was nice. I took a few pictures on the ride, including this mural “Faithful to Our History”

Faithful to Our History Mural

and sat back reflecting on my visit.

I was extremely happy I went. The people in Cuba are amazing and I sincerely hope that the political situation both inside and outside the country warms up so that they can get access to the things they need to be great. I’m certain what they would create and share with the world would be wonderful.

Cuba from the Plane

The House on the Rock

As part of my effort to deal with the PTSD I suffered after visiting The House on the Rock, I thought I would write up my experience here.

House on the Rock sign from American Gods

I first heard about The House on the Rock in Neil Gaiman’s masterpiece American Gods. Now that the book is being made into a television series, I wanted to visit before it becomes even more famous in the next season. The picture above is from the very end of Season 1.

I am in Minnesota for work, and I suggested to my friend Mike that I come up a day early and we drive out to The House on the Rock. It would be a long day as the attraction is four hours from Minneapolis, but I haven’t seen Mike in awhile and I was sure we could pass the time. The ride back was a lot quieter since we were still trying to process all that we saw. As sensitive as I assume Gaiman is, I can easily imagine that the whole idea of American Gods could have been triggered by visiting. It was both an amazing and an unsettling experience.

The House is located in a geographical area known as The Driftless, which is poetic on its own right. When glaciers extend and retract, they “leave behind silt, clay, sand, gravel, and boulders called drift”. This area was never exposed to glaciers, so it is both rugged and beautiful. It inspired Frank Lloyd Wright to build his studio and school Taliesin here, and the area is marked by tall columns of rock.

On one such column Alex Jordan Jr. decided to build a house. It started in 1945 as a private artist retreat, but word spread about the unusual house and by 1959 Jordan was able to charge admission. While the house itself is interesting in its own right, around the base were built a number of metal buildings which house the most eclectic and strange collection of items I’ve ever seen in one place.

House on the Rock Entrance

We did not see that sign shown in the television show, but as it is supposedly sixty miles away we probably didn’t come that way. I did ask about it when buying tickets and the lady was pretty closed-mouthed about filming. It would be hard for me to imagine that they would try to build a copy of the House on a set, and the typeface used on that sign is used throughout the property, so I’m eager to see what sections make it on the show.

Around the entrance are a number of very tall pots decorated with lizards and other creatures and used as a planter for flowers. I have a better picture later on but you can see one to the left of the sign in the image above.

After a short drive you come to a parking lot and the main visitors center. Take note of the metal building to the left used to house some of the collection, and you can also see another one of those pots.

House on the Rock Visitor Center

Here is where you buy your tickets and then you can enter another building that covers the history of the House. There are three sections you can tour, starting with the House itself. We decided to just do the first two, ending up at the Carousel. We are both glad we did because we were pretty weirded out by the end.

As a hint as to what to expect, the Visitor Center has a number of works that kind of set the mood for what you are going to see, such as this one.

Three Headed Statue

We wandered around the center for awhile but then were eager to start the tour. Even though it was lightly raining, all of the walkways are covered so it was easy to get around, and I also think that they limit what you can see to just what they want you to see. It was very hard to get a whole perspective of the place.

As you head to the House, you pass through the Asia Garden.

Asia Garden

This was pretty and way too normal for what was going to come later. We wandered around for a bit before heading up the ramp to the House on the Rock.

Entering the House you have to stoop. The ceilings are quite low, which is surprising since Jordan was supposed to be six foot two. I asked one of the ticket takers and she said it was to keep in the heat, but I’m not totally convinced. The visitor center stated that Jordan tended to build without many plans, and would often tear down a section that didn’t work and rebuild it.

One of the first rooms you enter features a set of automated musical instruments. This group played Ravel’s Boléro.

Instruments Playing Bolero

I haven’t been able to get that song fully out of my mind.

While it definitely looks like they are producing the music, I’ve read that some of the music coming from these animated machines is simulated. I can kind of believe that, since the amount of tuning and upkeep would be daunting. But then, considering how bad some of them sound, it is also easy to believe they are real. It is kind of at this point the place starts to seep into your mind. What is real, what isn’t, and what in the hell would drive someone to create stuff like this?

I also want to mention the smell. The House on the Rock smells very, very odd. Sometimes you get a whiff of something musty, like in an old attic. Other times it is a much more … biological smell. It is almost impossible to determine where the specific smells are coming from and they can wax strong and then wane faint in seconds. In telling people about our weekend, one person said they had a friend who had to leave because of the smell, but I just found it disconcerting.

Back in the 1950s to the 1970s, some “modern” houses were built with sunken areas called conversation pits. Many of the rooms in the House looked designed around that aesthetic.

Conversation Pit

The House is built on many levels, and at one point we heard a player piano above us. Climbing some ramps and stairs we came to another decorated living space.

Living Room

That’s Mike in the shorts and you can see the piano in the background. The entire tour was very dimly lit when not outside, so I will apologize in advance for the quality of some of the pictures.

At some point you end up at the Infinity Room. Built in 1985, this is a cantilevered 218 foot room that shrinks to a point in the distance, with around 3000 panes of glass forming the windows.

Infinity Room

You can’t walk to the end of it, but when you get close there is a rectangle cut into the floor so you can look directly down on the tree tops.

Glass in the Infinity Room

It kind of reminded me of the “Moon Door” in the Eyrie castle in the Game of Thrones television series.

You end up exiting the House the same way you came in, and I tried to get a shot of the exterior of the building. As I mentioned before, much of this is blocked by the covered walkway, but I was able to stick my camera out at arms length and get this picture.

House on the Rock Exterior View

After leaving the house you walk back down to start the second, and much weirder, part of the tour. We were there during the Halloween season, and so some of the place was decorated with things like skulls.

Walkway with Skulls

I want to point out the side of the metal building. They do an extremely good job keeping you from realizing that your a basically wandering around inside a big metal warehouse. We walked down the path and entered the building.

The first section we came to was called The Streets of Yesterday.

Streets of Yesterday

This is an area designed to look like a street in a small town in the 19th century. It reminded me a lot of Pirates of the Caribbean (the ride not the movie). You knew you were in a building but it was dark, the ceiling was high above you and the light was dim and indirect. The “street” was lined with a number of “shops” but I have never been in a place that would have shops like this so close together and it was more of a way to show off various collections.

Like dolls? Go to the doll store:

Store with Dolls

How about clocks?

Store with Clocks

and there was china:

Store with China

Each store displayed a collection that would have been the pride of any collector of those particular objects, but it was weird seeing so many of them clumped close together. Plus there was little context. It’s like a rich compulsive hoarder met up with an OCD museum coordinator with an aversion to labels. It was also hard to tell what was real and what was just made up. Take this display of firearms:

Weird Pistols

See those strange pistols with the many, many barrels? While some of them resemble real “pepper box” pistols, others looked like they were simply welded together to look funky and would never fire. But without context you didn’t know.

It was at this point my mind started going all sideways. Who would put something like this together? Who had a fetish for, say, dolls and antique brass cash registers?

Cash Registers

We then moved on to a section dedicated to music machines called Music of Yesterday.

Music of Yesterday

I should mention that a lot of these devices wouldn’t move or play until you inserted a token. I expected a token to be expensive, like one for a dollar, but it turns out they cost a quarter. This is wise on the part of the owners since if it were free people would just push everything they passed. I can’t imagine many of these devices would stand up to that kind of use. As it was, it was rare to pass one of the larger displays that someone had not already inserted a token.

We bought some tokens when we got to this player piano thing with an odd mechanism (it had a xylophone attached to it but it didn’t seem to use that part). The music was produced using a scroll of paper, like other player pianos, but instead of winding it on a spool it was just pushed and folded into a glass case at the top of the device.

Player Piano with Scroll Music

It would feed out of the left side and then get smushed back in on the right. I was very surprised it worked.

While that was a standalone machine, many of the displays contained numerous musical devices.

Music Room

Probably the most famous is a machine called the “Mikado”. In the visitor center we read that Jordan had acquired a number of Asian figures in Chicago and they created this display to use them. I captured this one with a short video.

Melodious, no?

In the last room in this section there was a calliope called The Gladiator.

The Gladiator

I liked this one because I thought the male figures looked like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Off to the right of The Gladiator was a small machine that told fortunes.

Fortune Teller

This device is mentioned in American Gods, and had I had the time to read up on it before visiting I would have inserted a token. As it was, I thought it was cool enough to take a picture of it.

As we left this section Mike and I were talking about a time we visited the main Google campus, but as we turned into the Heritage of the Sea display our conversation just trailed off into silence.

We were looking at this:

Huge Whale

Now a blue whale can get up to one hundred feet long. This thing was two hundred feet long and huge. Who, I mean who makes something like this? It’s crazy. And if adding teeth to a two hundred foot long blue whale model wasn’t enough, why not have it being attacked by a huge Kraken/Octopus thing?

The Kraken's Eye

Again, here we are, in this huge room dwarfed by one of the largest sculptures I’ve ever seen and we were reduced to blubbering. Why? Seriously, why? We don’t even know what it was made of. It looked like it could have been formed concrete over a wire frame, but it was more likely some sort of foam that was sprayed and then carved (concrete would be very heavy)

It was crazy. Gaiman wrote of the House on the Rock in a blog post that “I had to tone down my description of it and leave things out in the book in order to make it believable.”

A set of ramps, five levels tall, surrounded this spectacle. In cases along the wall were collections of items with a nautical theme. There was a Titanic display with items that may, or may not, have been from the ship, such as a menu. In keeping with shipwrecks there was another case focused on the Lusitania. In between you might find scale models of tall ships or a Soviet sub. As you got higher you could see more of the massive sculpture in the center.

More Huge Whale

I did take a picture of two models of the Monitor and the Merrimack, considered the first battle between armored ships.

Monitor and Merrimack

Another view of the Kraken:

Moar Kraken

As I mentioned, this seems to be a blue whale, but blue whales do not have big teeth (like sperm whales do).

Huge Whale Mouth

Of course, without the teeth it would have a hard time eating a boat, right?

Huge Whale Mouth Eating a Boat

I can just hear the artist now: okay, we have this big honking whale thing being attacked by a big honking octopus thing, but something is missing. I know – a boat in the whale’s mouth.

After leaving Heritage of Sea we were a little shaken. It is hard to get across how this tour makes you feel. You are trying to puzzle out some sort of reason or system and it just isn’t there.

The next exhibits were tame by comparison. You get into an area that is a little more modern, so why not put up a bunch of hot air balloon models.

Hot Air Balloons

The tented space below was a pizzeria restaurant with some of the sorriest looking pizza I have ever seen. It also plays a role in American Gods and it isn’t like you can miss it since the way out is through the restaurant.

There were some other displays. For example, why not stick a perfectly normal looking Gull-wing Mercedes in this place?

Gull-wing Mercedes

If that is too normal, walk a few feet to admire a 1963 Lincoln Continental with suicide doors, a radiator modeled after the one on a Rolls Royce, and covered in over a ton of ceramic tile?

Lincoln Covered in Tile

There was still a touch of the weird, such as a display featuring marionettes:

Marionettes

and a store that displayed cameras:

Camera Store

The camera display was labeled with detailed little cards for most of the items. Mike and I joked that the guy who set up the display must have been busily working along when Jordan ran in, saw the labels and screamed “What are you doing! Stop that right now!”

Exiting this area we came to a few more displays, including another elaborate music room.

Stringed Instruments

For some reason the devices they used to control the strings reminded me of something out of H.R. Giger, and they reminded me of the facehuggers from Alien. I did put up a little video if you want to see them in action.

The final room on the tour was the coup de grace. It was a huge room dominated by the world’s largest indoor carousel. Eighty feet wide and 36 feet tall, it features over 20,000 lights, 183 chandeliers and 269 animals. Not one of which is a horse (I thought I saw one in the back but it turned out to have a fish tail, making it a hippocampus).

If that weren’t enough, the walls and ceiling were covered with angels. Well, female mannequins with wings. Just to try and explain the weirdness, many of the wigs weren’t on straight and some of the dresses were falling off. To finish the effect, throw in some of those automated musical instruments and add the mouth of a large monster (whose eyes move) leading the way to section three, just for good measure.

We’d had enough. After chatting with the employee in charge of watching over the carousel (you are not allowed to ride it), with followed the ominous sign out of the building.

Final Exit

You exit into the Japanese Garden, which was a beautiful example of normalcy after the previous two hours of insanity.

Japanese Garden

As you exit past the gift shop, there were a few more of those huge pots we saw at the entrance.

Large Pot and Sign

We made our way back to the car and started the long drive back to Minneapolis. We stopped at Taliesin but our hearts weren’t in it and we’d missed the last tour of the day in any case.

Two days (and one long blog post) later, I’m starting to come back to normal. I do want to go back and take Andrea. Perhaps I’ll have the nerve to do section three, and I would like to visit Taliesin. Even if you aren’t a fan of Neil Gaiman, if you have the chance to visit the House on the Rock, I urge you to take it.

It is a place of power.