The last part of summer

Big day today - the first 25 Red cameras shipped. From Jim Jannard:




Just so you know, I am here at 1:09am with the RED team personally reviewing each camera of the 1st 25. We are calibrating each camera and my job is to check the files in RED Alert! that Jarred is shooting. We are shooting ISO 320, 1000 and 2000. There are about 20 people here getting ready for tomorrow. It really is a memorable night. About a year and a half ago this was just a dream. Tonight the dream has become a reality.

I want to thank all those that believed in RED from the beginning.


Jim



And all around the world, high end digital video camera profit margins shrink.


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Dancing with the Stars…it’s a lot about the casting. I’ve only ever seen clips, but the talent they’ve convinced to grasp at that last of their 15 minutes of fame has been impressive. Among the cast for the upcoming season:



  • Mark Cuban

  • Floyd Mayweather Jr.

  • Wayne Newton

  • Scary Spice (Melanie Brown)

  • Helio Castroneves

  • Jenni Garth

  • Josie Maran

  • Marie Osmond

  • Jane Seymour


Mark Cuban isn't making some last clutch at fame, I think it's more about brand bolstering for him. Generating constant publicity for himself is just part of who he is. Mayweather is in the tail of his career, and I'm surprised to see him on the list. The The rest all make sense.


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Farecast lauches hotel search in beta. It’s both similar and different to their airfare service which lets you know whether fares are likely to go up or down and thus whether to buy now or wait. Their hotel service, called Hotel Rate Key, lets you know whether a hotel’s rates are a bargain or not relative to that hotel’s historical rates.


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What the residents of Dunder Mifflin did on their summer vacation:












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Tom Wolfe reviews Entourage



But there is hope in this moxie wasteland of moviemakers. Johnny Drama draws not my ire. Here is the bravado-laden torch of the past, its fire fueled by protein shakes and casting off the nearly forgotten aroma of desire. His ginseng-toned body twisting and gyrating with anxiety and self-doubt, he’s a New Age Neal Cassady, passed up here for a Lifetime movie, there for a Hallmark Channel special—the Houghton Mifflin and HarperCollins of the television world. Johnny Drama is no mere muzzled bus driver, however. He is a symbol of irony, that word now recognized only by the literati. Played by Kevin Dillon, Sancho Panza to real-life brother Matt, this role oozes the true Hollywood pathos of silver-screen heartbreak. If watch Entourage you must, then watch it for Drama.


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Indexed - lots of fun. I have a hard time picking my favorite.


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Gorilla movie - [via Daring Fireball via Fresh Signals via AdFreak]


Nephews and birthdays


Happy birthday to my little sis Karen. She left LA and went to Chicago just before I headed to LA from NYC, and now she's making the move to NYC. I suspect she's avoiding me. The other possibility is that the country isn't big enough for all of us Wei kids so we're constantly whirling around the country in a geographic pas de trois.


I flew out to DC this past weekend to visit my nephew Connor. My timing was good as my flights out and in were sandwiched around an air-traffic-crippling computer outage at LAX.


Connor was just over 3 weeks old when I met him. He's a tiny thing, between 7 and 8 pounds. My iPhone is taller than his head right now.




His mode of communication is binary at this point. He's either crying or he isn't, and our goal at all times was to get simple: if he was crying, we did everything in our power to get him to a state of non-crying, and if he wasn't crying, we tried to keep him in that state. He likes to be patted on the back all the time. If I so much as stopped doing so for a few seconds, usually because I'd fallen asleep, he'd let me know with an ear-splitting wail.


Until his belly button is healed up, he can't be immersed in water, so for now he has wipedowns instead of baths, like army baby-wipe showers. He's really not a fan. He's highly sensitive to how he's being held. Sometimes he wants to bee lying facedown on your chest. At other times, he prefers to on his back, cradled in your arms. At other times he wants to be held against your shoulder and walked around. Finding which position was preferred at any point in time was a matter of trial and error. He'd let us know when we were off.


After eating, he loves to crane his head back and throw his arms up in a cat stretch. In general, he loves to tilt his head back or to the side as far as possible. Mike is worried he'll develop some strange reverse hunchback posture; I think it's adorable.



When he was well-fed, I'd try and burp him, and then I'd sit on the sofa and rest him on my chest. It's the greatest. His little arms flail around, his motor skills being fairly limited for now. He has that fresh new baby smell, which ranks above new car smell on the list of magical, transitory scents. His little body is a furnace, and feeling his body heat against your chest is pure magic. When awake and excited, he pants or breathes heavily, and he strains to swing his head from side to side as if in search of something. Holding him is like cradling a hummingbird.


He can't quite seem to focus his eyes on anything yet, but I think we made momentary eye contact a handful of times over the weekend. And while his facial expressions are still a cipher when he's not crying, I remember three times when it appeared he was smiling. Joannie thinks he just had gas, but I like to imagine that he thought of something funny, like "boy are you in for a surprise the next time you change my diaper."


It's a good thing newborns are so cute, because they're so helpless. Or maybe they're cute because they're so helpless? I'm exhausted from just the short visit--I have no idea how Joannie or new mothers deal with sleeping a few hours at a time--but I'd trade sleep for some quality time with Connor anytime.


I shot a bit of video of Connor and will post a short clip as soon as I have a moment to digitize and transcode.


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TSA


Bruce Schneier interviews Kip Hawley, head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Good read as neither party pulls any punches. To Hawley's credit, he sought out Schneier to see how the TSA could improve its image on the web. I can't tell if security is improving or not--so much of what Hawley cites he cannot share. But that he's willing to engage Schneier on some difficult questions makes me feel a little safer. Even if that doesn't actually make air travel safer for me, there is an economic benefit to the slight boost in peace of mind.


I still do hate taking off my shoes and all that crap, though. Someone should follow that shoe bomber guy around and make him take off his shoes and put them back on every five seconds for the rest of his life.


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Virgin America


I can't remember the last time I thought an airline was cool. That's just not an association one has with an airline brand except if flying first or business class internationally. But Richard Branson's new Virgin America sounds pretty sweet. Two 110-volt power outlets for every three seats! USB connectors! Wi-fi and Ethernet internet access on the plane (eventually)! Nerds everywhere excitedly rush onto Twitter to announce their in-flight status. Such is the technological prowess of their airplane that they earned a writeup in Wired's Gadget Blog.




What will the in-flight chat rooms turn into? I find most flights to be grim affairs, the social atmosphere rising at most to a level of quiet courtesy born from solidarity of suffering. Will users be identified by their seat number, or name? Or will they be anonymous? If it's the latter, I see a swarm of anonymous complaints arising when there's a screaming baby on board.


I tried booking a flight through their website and ran into a lot of problems (my session kept resetting), so they may still have some kinks to work out. But they fly out of LA to SF and DC, and they've done enough brand differentiation so that they'll be my airline of choice for those flights.




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A photo of mine in Travel + Leisure


A picture I snapped while in Dubrovnik, Croatia last summer appears on page 158 of the Aug. 2007 issue of Travel + Leisure, on newsstands near you. It's a cropped version of the pic below of the Buza bar which hangs on the side of the cliffs outside the city walls. I've had a few pics in magazines before, but they were mostly cycling pictures in odd European magazines I'd never heard of. This one comes with a paycheck which counts at some sort of mini-milestone.


I don't get anything if you buy the magazine, but I picked up a copy for posterity's sake and it looks to be a useful issue for travelers as it features their annual World's Best Awards.


I highly recommend Dubrovnik. I meant to write about it after the trip but I was having too much fun just traveling, and then I got back and school started, and now it resides in my brain as a happy memory, one that triggers a smile whenever I jab it. Dubrovnik is the choice for Europeans when they want to get away for a vacation and hide from the hordes or summer tourists descending on their hometowns.


Derek and I had just finished our Eastern European travels when I left for Dubrovnik where I was to meet up with Jason and family. On arriving at my hotel, I took a bus into town. Jason and I'd loosely agreed over e-mail to meet at an Internet bar outside city walls. Even so, there's something special when it works out in a foreign country, when you can't just call each other up over a cell phone (is this how we had to meet up in the days before mobile phones?).


I was walking up to the cafe when a newly shorn Jason called out to me on the sidewalk. He'd already been there a night or two, and the first stop he took me was Buza bar. We sat down on the balcony (if you look at my photo below, we were sitting at the open table that's just above the guy in the blue shirt on the steps) to catch up over a beer. The Buza is rumored to be a favorite of folks like Bill Gates when they're in town. Looking out on the ocean with the crisp air brushing past my face, an ancient castle city above my head, and an ice cold Eastern European lager in my hand, I couldn't help but think it was one of the truly epic bars in the world.


Cold Drinks "Buza"


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Spiderman the musical?!


Marvel is in pre-production on Spider-Man the musical, to be directed by Tony-winner Julie Taymor with music and lyrics by Bono and the Edge.


Nice Flickr collection of the evocative name placards on apartment complexes here in Santa Monica. I agree with the photographer - these are the sole redeeming feature of the otherwise fugly apartment architecture ubiquitous in Santa Monica (and Los Angeles in general). You've never seen so much stucco and old shag carpet.


Kaoru Kubo is the famous voice heard on Airport Limousine buses ferrying passengers from Narita Airport to Tokyo. Very soothing.


A montage of beautiful title sequences by Kuntzel+Deygas who did the titles for Catch Me If You Can, among others.


Classified government report says Al-Qaeda is the strongest it's been since 9/11. How did this country ever elect Dubya? Perhaps Bryan Caplan is right.


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Tidbits


Lousy placement of a Yahoo ad at a baseball stadium.


Mozy offers 2GB of free online file backup for Mac users. Their unlimited backup service is only $5 a month which is not a bad deal. You get backup religion the first time your hard drive dies and takes your MP3 collection to the grave with it (Disclosure: that link contains my referral code, and for every four customers I refer I get 1GB additional free backup).


"As Hotel Prices Rise, a Villa May Be a Bargain" - the headline says it all. I want to stay in a villa!


Mmm, now this is some fresh sashimi (YouTube)


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Trying to laugh through the tears


Next year, I'm mailing my taxes via UPS or Fedex. Still fuming and on hold waiting for various financial institutions to answer their customer service lines and resend my 1099's. Argh. But through the tears, perhaps a few nuggets of laughter...


The Apple iRack.


Google Maps directions for New York, NY to Paris, France...skip ahead to step 23 (via a Sports Guy reader)


Also funny, from the same Sports Guy column, this box score from the San Antonio-Phoenix NBA game. Skip down to Robert Horry's line for the Spurs.


Ryanair CEO vows to offer flights from the U.S. to the UK for less than $10.30. You'd probably pay more because Ryanair charges for all sorts of basics a la carte, but still.


Some progress today in the fight against global warming.


Jackie and Jet team up (with an assist from Yuen Woo Ping). It would have been a dream of a pairing if they two of them were about 10 to 15 years younger, but we'll take what we can get. Meanwhile, the Weinstein Co. could use some wire work.


Tiger Woods Reveals He Is Zach Johnson.




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Daisuke Matsuzaka


Baseball Prospectus examines Daisuke Matsuzaka to see if he's really worth spending $20 to $30 million on, just for the right to even negotiate with him. The answer? He probably is. He might just be the second best starting pitcher in baseball after Johan Santana. I want to see the gyroball.

UPDATE: Rumor has it the Boston Red Sox won the bidding war for negotiation rights with an offer of somewhere between $38 million and $45 million. Wow.


For your next vacation, won't you consider a virtual tour of World of Warcraft with Synthravels, the first online virtual travel agency?


The NanoNuno umbrella dries off with a simple shake. The secret? Nanotechnology. That image on their website makes it seem as if the umbrella emits some kinds of forcefield.




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Free international calls?


Via David Pogue in the NYTimes, news of a company called Futurephone that allows users to dial a domestic number and use it as a gateway to dial over 50 international countries for free. Many people can dial domestically for free in the evenings or on weekends via their cell carrier, so this is a sweet deal.


Will it last? I doubt it. But when the occasional crazy company comes along and burns cash in an effort to buy market share or build brand recognition, don't ask questions, just join the looters on the street and grab as much as you can carry.


In short


Ah, the exciting controversies that arise in the heated world of competitive chess. Maybe Kramnik is shooting up in the bathroom. Will steroids leave no corner of the sporting world alone?


Amen. Since these titles change hands these year, they really shouldn't use the superlative, or is sexiness really so volatile? On the other hand, "Sexy woman of the year" rather than "Sexiest woman alive" is not quite as, well, sexy, and perhaps sexiness really is so ephemeral because of some inherent fad-like quality.


Of the 100 largest economic entities in the world, more than half are now corporations rather than countries. The measure used was either GDP or sales. GM is the top corporation at no. 23. The rise of the corporation, able to live across borders and skirt the laws of the countries it resides in, is one reason why so many futuristic sci-fi movies feature evil, gargantuan corporations as the antagonist.


Paris at night. No city more beautiful after sunset.


"Meetin' WA," a short video by Jean-Luc Godard. WA in this case is Woody Allen. Whether you enjoy Woody Allen's movies or not, you must admit that he has been blessed to be able to make his type of movies for a long, long time now. Every director should be so lucky.


El Bulli


Mark Bittman on El Bulli and Ferran Adrià in today's NYTimes. I guess he's not doing foam anymore.


If you offered me the opportunity to eat at one restaurant tomorrow, anywhere in the world, El Bulli would be the choice. That just lumps me in with probably half the other foodies in the world.


Sometimes, just to torture myself, I browse El Bulli's general catalogue and gaze at the photos. You might scoff at applying such nomenclature to food, but scan some of his creations first. They are examples of food elevated to art.


I've eaten at several Adrià-inspired restaurants in the U.S., and if you have the chance, I highly recommend Alinea in Chicago. Grant Achatz is the Lebron James of American chefs.


Sole survivor


Instead of heading straight for LA after leaving NY last week, I stopped over in San Francisco for Mark's wedding. The slower transition from my old home to my new one was much welcome.


For one thing, my friend Cindy's apartment, where I stayed for the weekend, was so large that it helped to ease my sadness over leaving Manhattan. You could fit my entire NY kitchen inside her shower, and her apartment could house two entire families if a tornado picked it up and dropped it in Manhattan. These are things you learn to live with after an adjustment period in NYC, but being able to lie down in a shower to do snow angels helps to ease the pain of leaving NYC the way the patch helps a smoker trying to kick the habit.


California is also a state that makes a strong first impression. She's a looker. As soon as you step out of the airport, she greets you with sunshine and blue skies. The day before the wedding, I went for a jog in the afternoon from the Bay Bridge to Fisherman's Wharf, and though the headwind beat me up, the views of the ocean, sky, and bridges couldn't have been more gorgeous.


The point of this post, though, is to plug my old college classmate Yul who will be one of the contestants on this season's Survivor: Cook Islands. I've never really watched the show, but finally, I am one degree of separation from a reality show contestant. This season's show has already courted lots of controversy by dividing the contestants into four teams by race: Asian American, Caucasian, African American, and Hispanic. Various sponsors have dropped out and community leaders have protested. In other words, this transparent tactic for boosting ratings appears to be working as planned, though the test will come Thursday when the season premier airs.


Yul, though he couldn't share details of what had transpired on the show, invited us to a viewing party for a TV Guide Channel preview of the upcoming season. He was the last contestant profiled and was introduced thus: "...with a Yale doctorate, a compassionate nature, and a whole batch of imposing muscle." The voiceover was paired with an image of Yul sans t-shirt, looking like a video game Bruce Lee. Oddly, Yul never appeared with a shirt on in any of the clips, and you can imagine the ribbing we all gave him.


I won't be rooting for any particular team but for Yul. Early odds have him as one of 6 contestants with 8 to 1 odds, the favorite at this point being Adam Gregory at 7 to 1. If you're watching but have no rooting interest, I offer my endorsement of Yul as a really decent guy, a far cry from the cutthroat reality contestants you love to hate.


Happy Labor Day


A thorough explanation of why Chinese is so difficult to learn. I grew up hearing Chinese in the house and even attended some Chinese school, and I found it to be a bear. I never did really learn to write or read cursive Chinese handwriting very well (yes, Chinese has both print and cursive, like English), another item I'd add to this writer's litany of complaints. Just when you think you've memorized a character, someone scrawls it in their own cursive style and it's as if someone took a print character's brush strokes and tied them in butterfly knots. Of course, without cursive, writing Chinese, with its numerous strokes, is like writing English in neat block capital letters...sloooooooooow).


Curse of the Golden Flower, a movie by Zhang Yimou, starring Gong Li and Chow Yun Fat, releases this Christmas season (trailer). Yeah, I hate dandelions, too, but I wouldn't go so far as to call them a curse.


Crocodile hunter, felled by a stingray. Stung through the heart by a stingray...brutal. I guess it should be obvious from their names, but I didn't realize stingrays were that dangerous. Earlier this year, on a dive trip down in the Turks and Caicos islands, Dave and I fed stingrays just off the beach with some fish our guides had brought along for that purpose. We were soon overrun with stingrays, and one ran up my back and bit me. I popped out of the water, and Dave said the ray had drawn blood. Shortly thereafter, two lemon sharks wandered over, and I hustled out of the ocean.


Get your bootleg Van Goghs and Da Vincis: a city in China is the world's leading producer of reproductions of famous paintings. It doesn't surprise me one bit.




A computer program named WebCrow defeated dozens of human competitors in a crossword puzzle competition. Humans managed to defeat the program in two Italian crosswords featuring lots of puns and political clues.


That green lump that resembles playdough, the one they dump on your platter of sushi? That's not wasabi. Real, fresh wasabi is rarely served at sushi restaurants, but whenever a sushi restaurant offers it I'll request it. Real wasabi is not as hot as the faux stuff, but it's better for you. Unfortunately, the real deal costs a fortune.


Michael Apted's next in his Up documentary series is about to release. He interviewed many children at age 7 about their lives and dreams for 7 Up, and since then, he's gone back to check up on them every 7 years (each doc in the series is named after the age of the characters, so 14 Up, 21 Up, and so on). This next installment will be 49 Up. All the previous installments are on DVD.


The new Sunday Night Football theme (MP3) is by none other than John Williams.


Four words no man wants to hear: bleeding in the scrotum. It's been that kind of year for the Cubs.


HiveLive is a site that allows you to post and share files and information among public or private hives, or groups of people.


The Statistical Review of World Energy 2006, by British Petroleum, including historical data series in Excel format.


You got the touch! Feel, feel, feel, feel, feel...feel my heat!


Underwater wonders of the world


The seven underwater wonders of the world:

  • Palau

  • The Belize Barrier Reef

  • The Galapagos Islands

  • The Northern Red Sea

  • Lake Baikal

  • The Great Barrier Reef

  • The Deep Sea Vents

I don't know who declared these to be so, but I first heard about them at dinner tonight, and I looked them up online when I returned home. Sure enough, the same list showed up again and again. I've gone diving at the Galapagos and the Great Barrier Reef. Now I'm intrigued by the idea of diving the remaining five.


Flying low


The best time to buy plane tickets: Wednesday from midnight to 1am in the time zone of the airline's home base? Not sure if this is true, but I've heard it from a few people now.


I have to fly in a few hours, and with the current state of airport security procedures, what should be a happy event (traveling) sounds about as pleasant as a weekend getaway to Abu Ghraib. I'm referring just to the portion of my trip that begins and ends at the airport. As always on these security issues, Bruce Schneier is a voice of reason. Greg Palast provides a voice of biting humor on the same issue. Martin Peretz thinks we may have to turn to the procedures used by Israel's El Al airline. You don't have to remove your shoes or your laptop, but El Al puts all its passengers through a short interview before allowing them on the airplane. I can't imagine U.S. airports have the capacity for something like that, but it sounds interesting, like being screened by a Blade Runner.


I'm not going to waste energy fretting about dying in a terrorist attack (airline flight is still much safer than driving, among other forms of travel - PDF), but we're about a year or two away from having to fly practically nude. Airplane travel continues to grow more and more unpleasant, with no solution in sight.


A few months ago, when I was in E. Europe, I was pleased that so many discount airlines had launched in Europe. But now I'm back to wondering at how an entire industry can be so unprofitable while continuing to raise prices for a service that continues to regress in quality. Are the economics of air travel just inherently awful (except for the discounters who depart from the hub-and-spoke model like Southwest, easyJet, Ryanair)? Plane ticket pricing seems to float in a free market, so I'm assuming that airlines don't raise their prices and, in turn, the quality of their service, because these prices are the ones that maximize their profitability, and so this is all the quality they can offer. I'm assuming they're near the optimal intersection of supply and demand with their ticket pricing, but perhaps something else comes into play?


I wonder similar things about other industries. Why do all telecom companies have such shoddy customer service? What about the cable companies? What is it about certain industries that seems to drag down all the participants?


Product feature: does the body good


A gallon of milk on Amazon.com inspires hundreds of customer reviews. Ships from Gristedes in New York. I priced out what it would cost to ship to me here in NYC, and it came out to $30.24, with expedited shipping, which I highly recommend for milk.


Toyota about to pass GM to become the world's largest automaker, though they've been fighting some quality issues recently. I remember when our family first purchased a Toyota Cressida, it might as well have been a Bentley to us. We later participated in the Camry tsunami.


Domaines Ott and French rosé wines are the new hot summer drink. What I find most surprising from this article, though, is that Alex Kapranos, lead singer of Franz Ferdinand, is a food columnist for The Guardian, and Jay McInerney is wine columnist for House & Garden.


"My other vehicle is a Gulfstream." I just enjoy that article's title. Private air travel is tough on the environment because of the outrageous fuel consumption, so I always try to airpool when I take my jet to Aspen or Jackson Hole, cuz that's how I roll. Okay, that's not true. I've only flown in a private jet once, and that trip confirmed that private jets is heaven compared to the human cattle call that is commercial air travel.


Floyd Landis's B-sample came back positive, so his team Phonak fired him. Now USA Cycling and the US Anti-Doping Agency will prepare a case against him while Landis and his team prepare his defense. It will be months before we hear a verdict, though the court of public and media opinion works has already issued theirs. On the "Top Ten Landis Excuses" piece on David Letterman, number nine was "Who can resist Balco's delicious 'spicy chipotle' flavor." Landis posted a statement on his weblog yesterday and a response to the B-sample positive test today.


The pilot for Aaron Sorkin's new TV show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip leaked onto YouTube this week, then was promptly pulled. So I can just link to this 6 minute promo (begins with a riff on Network, beats up on NBC's own SNL, and makes a joke about Sorkin's coke habit) and 30 second trailer. Anyhow, this is all an excuse to tell a short story about my apartment hunt in L.A. At the first apartment I went to visit in Santa Monica, a bald guy named Evan answered the door. He looked really familiar, like someone I'd seen on TV or in a movie, but I just couldn't place him. So I didn't say anything. He showed me his apartment and was really generous with his time, explaining the neighborhood and its nearby attractions. He mentioned that he'd done the New York to LA move also, and that I should keep an open mind to LA (I'm in depression over leaving NY for LA right now). He never mentioned his work, but after I left his apartment, and as I was filling out an application, I realized who he was. Evan played Charlotte's flame Harry Goldenblatt on Sex and the City, the role for which he's most known, and he'll be in the pilot of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. I didn't end up taking his apartment because I got a roommate and needed more space, but it seemed appropriate that he be one of the first people I met in LA.


Google announces "All Our N-gram are Belong to You," which I think is pretty generous of them.


Once upon a tongue, in a faraway place


I was in China last year, and I jotted a few notes about the food in my journal:


My first meal in China was at one of the best Sichuan (Szechwan) restaurant in Beijing, Yu Xin. Straight off the plane, Eric and Christina wasted no time in tossing my stomach into the fire, literally. The spiciness of real Sichuan cuisine comes from mala, a spicy sauce of Chinese chilies and assorted seasonings like sesame oil and Sichuan peppercorns. The word "ma" refers to numbness, the word "la" to the spiciness, so mala spells out its effect: it burns and numbs at the same time. The numbness actually allows you to eat more of it than you would otherwise.



The first dish that came out was a meat dish, but it was unclear from its appearance what the dish contained other than diced chilies. I had to send my chopsticks burrowing deep into the mountain of chilies to find a chunk of chicken. By the end of the meal I'd lost all feeling in my mouth, but that didn't wipe the big grin off my jetlagged face. The problem with eating lots of mala is that all other types of food taste bland in comparison.



The toughest restaurant to get a table at in all of China? Kentucky Fried Chicken (ken da ji). Far more popular than McDonald's. It's so popular that another chain of restaurants knocked off KFC's logo, colors, and mascot. Yes, there's another restaurant with a Chinese-looking colonel and the white lettering on red background, but that restaurant doesn't serve fried chicken at all. I didn't have time to walk into one to see what they served, but its existence seemed appropriate in a place where respect for copyrights is about as scarce as toilet paper in public bathrooms.



The hottest new American export to the Chinese dining scene since my last visit? Starbucks ("xing ba ke" in Chinese, xing meaning "star" and ba ke simply being a phonetic rendering of bucks). There's one in the Forbidden City. We stayed with Joannie's friend Arthur and his wife in Guangzhou. We asked him what he liked to do for fun, when he wasn't cranking out sneakers for Nike (he worked at a supplier to the Swoosh). He said his favorite event of the month was every other week, when he and his wife would drive 45 minutes to an hour into the heart of the city to get Starbucks.



In China people actually don't use soy sauce much. Soy sauce and egg rolls and General Tso's chicken, they're all largely staples of the Americanized version of Chinese food. In China, they prefer vinegar use it instead of soy sauce as seasoning, for example, for dumplings.


My visit two weeks ago to Beijing was another culinary adventure. Christina and Eric are among the more passionate foodies in my circle of friends, and the week's worth of activities they organized for everyone leading up to their wedding included visits to many of their favorite restaurants.


That was music to my mouth. I don't look forward to the cuisine in every country I visit (many of the stops on my E. European visit earlier this year left much to be desired from a dining perspective), but China is a culinary mecca. On my visits there, I look forward to eating as much as or more than sightseeing.


Some meals I remember from this trip...


Our first lunch was at Lei Garden, a fairly new restaurant to Beijing. I don't believe it was there last year when I visited, but it's the newest branch of a high-end Cantonese restaurant chain that first achieved renown in Singapore. For those who love Chinese food but don't possess the most adventurous of palates, this is the perfect restaurant. The restaurant, tucked away on the third floor of a somewhat sober business building, is elegant and polished, and the service is top-notch. As for the food, when I found out we were returning to Lei Garden for the rehearsal dinner, I delivered a celebratory chest bump to the next guy I saw in the street, sending him scampering away in fear.


Shrimp dish at Lei Garden


Duck


For one of our dinners, we visited the Qianmen branch of Quan Ju De (English website), the famous Beijing (Peking) duck restaurant. Roasted over a fruitwood flame, the duck arrives with a crispy skin and tender, juicy meat. Carved tableside and served in a wrap with scallion and plum sauce, it's a dish I can never pass on. Quan Ju De has the reputation of being the top roast duck purveyor in Beijing, though there are whispers of declining quality and worthy challengers. If you're only in town for a quick vacation, though, it's the safe choice.


Our dinner the next night was at Qiao Jiang Nan. What I remember most about our meal here, in a private banquet room, was that all the waitresses were wearing one-piece tennis outfits, much like the one Nicole Vaidisova is sporting here. I realize this seems like an excuse to reuse this picture of Nicole, but this is honestly the first photo of this type of outfit I could find. At any rate, I felt like we were eating at the clubhouse at Wimbledon.


Nicole Vaidisova


Perhaps my favorite meal of the trip was at Ding Ding Xiang, a Mongolian hotpot restaurant which bills itself as "Hotpot Paradise." It's not boasting if it's true. It instantly moves onto my list of restaurants and dishes that will haunt me forever. My second day back from China, I actually did have a dream about eating there again, and when I woke up I nearly cried at the cold slap of reality. At Ding Ding Xiang, everyone gets their own personal hotpot, set on top of a flame. Each diner can select one of several different broths to serve as the base of their hotpot. Christina helped Jed and I out and chose the mushroom stock.


I saw abalone on the menu and had to order it, despite it being the priciest of the dishes. I adore abalone. The waiter actually brought it out for our perusal, and it was still moving! I'd never seen one live before. We also ordered lamb, a whole slew of mushrooms, spinach and other greens, and a whole lot more. The presentation was gorgeous, and the hotpot was simply the most delicious I've ever had, and I've had more than my fair share over the years. I'll be dreaming about that meal for years to come, and it is unequivocally my top restaurant recommendation from this visit to Beijing. The next time I visit, it will be my first stop upon leaving the airport.


As for changes from my visit last year, the Starbucks in the Forbidden City is no longer there. Our guide told us the Congress over there gave it the boot. All the other branches of Starbucks remain a huge hit, however, and Kentucky Fried Chicken is still the king of the fast food restaurants in China. I did not eat there this trip, but I am also not one of those foodie or travel snobs who turns their nose up in disgust at the mere sight of a KFC or McDonald's.


I think it's somewhat of a waste to spend a meal at McDonald's or KFC when abroad, especially when most of what they serve is available back home. But, even as an American, I don't flog myself every time I spot a branch abroad, and I no longer recoil in horror if someone has to duck in under the Golden Arches for the taste of something familiar. The typical travel snob who holds everything foreign on a pedestal can't ignore that most American fast food franchises abroad stay in business primarily through the traffic from locals. I find it interesting to gauge foreign perceptions of American restaurants and culture, and fast food restaurants are an easy barometer.


It's also been many years since I've harbored any illusions that any popular travel destinations are hermetically sealed time machines, completely devoid of other tourists or influences from home. Wherever I go, I see American movies, travelers, books, music, and yes, more than a few frappuccinos and Big Macs. If a complete absence of anything American is the only way you'll be satisfied, then consider that your presence abroad is probably ruining some other travel snob's vacation.


One last food story. I've always been a fairly adventurous, open-minded eater. My mom forced me to clean my plate, to sample something from every dish. Whether it was innate or trained, my broad palate has been with me for as long as I remember. It's a high risk, high reward dining strategy. At times, as with drunken shrimp in Hong Kong, it ends with gustatory ecstasy. At other times, as with some bad (though tasty at the time of consumption) ceviche in Quito, it has sent me to the hospital.


Last year during my visit to Beijing, a bunch of us went for a stroll down a well-known food alley near the Wangfujing neighborhood of Beijing. There, we stumbled upon more than one street vendor hawking some creatures I'd never thought of as food before. They were impaled on kabobs. The mere sight of them was fearsome, but after an initial bout of revulsion, I tried to summon my stomach, so to speak. More than few people from our travel party were there, and an audience usually amplifies my dining bravado. I asked the vendor how much for a kabob, and he said they were 10RMB, or just over $1.


I took a deep breath. Okay, I'd eaten a fried grasshopper before, surely this was not much different. I could do this, and I'd have a story to share for years to come. After all, they were deep fried, right? The vendor reached out for one of the kabobs, for another customer, and that's when the true nature of what I'd be attempting became clear.


These creatures' legs started waving wildly, even as they were impaled on the kabobs.


"I thought they were fried!?" I gasped in Chinese.


"No!" said the vendor, recoiling in horror. "Much better alive. Fresh!"


I couldn't do it. We walked away, but not before I grabbed some video of these unique creatures, both pre and post skewering. These creatures should be familiar to most people (view either the 320 x 240 high quality or the 640 x 480 medium quality Quicktime clip, both about 3.5MB), though perhaps not as a snack.


I'll eat most things, but not everything. I don't know who has the unfortunate job of having to prepare these creatures nor how they do it. I don't know how they ensure you aren't injured or even poisoned when biting one of these while they're still alive. You can ask for them deep fried, but even on my return trip this year I couldn't pull the trigger.


After my initial encounter, just as we turned to leave, a young boy of perhaps 7 or 8 years old walked by with his father. The boy had a kabob of these and had chewed the head off of one.


His t-shirt read: "You are what you eat."