Friday, December 30, 2011

World Heritage: 2011 in Review

2011 was a pretty good year for seeing World Heritage Sites for me. In addition to discovering I had visited one in 2000, I visited a site in Canada, one in the UK, one in Holland, and three in Korea. Six is my biggest haul since 2003, when I made it to a ridiculous eight.

My total is now at 54 out of 936, or 5.8%. It's up about two percentage points in the last six years. I did some quick estimates recently, and I think I'll top out in the 10-15% range some day, but that day does not appear to be anywhere close to hand.

If in 2012, I go to the same conferences as I did this year, I can rent a car on my free afternoon and drive to Canterbury, and then see how many of Beijing's six world heritage sites I can cram into a 4-day trip. On the other hand, it's a lot harder to travel with toddlers at home, so 2012 may see the percentage slide back towards five percent as more sites are added.

Bowie Restaurant Project: (38) Panda Express

Panda Express Is Now Closed.
For an explanation of the Bowie Restaurant Project, look here.

For a list of all the Bowie Restaurant Project reviews, look here.

Panda Express, 3860 Town Center Blvd.

Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 12/29/2011
Total Foursquare Check-ins: 2
Pre-Foursquare Visits: Don't think so
Rating: 1/2 out of 5 stars

Based on my criteria for determining how many times to visit a restaurant for review, I had hoped to get by with one visit to Panda Express. It seemed so familiar -- and ubiquitous -- that I was pretty sure I had been there before. But ordering my food brought no sense of remembrance, so I suspect Panda Express is the type of place I have walked by countless times to order food from some place better.

Let's get the details of the restaurant out of the way. The rice was dry, and the food was meh. You can get two or three entrees with a combo, which I guess distinguishes it from most "normal" Chinese restaurants. It at least assured me I wasn't missing out on some fantastic specialty. The entrees were a mixed bag; some were tastier than others, and I would try to remember which were which if I had any intention of eating there again. The combo doesn't include a drink, or at least that's what the worker told me. That's despite the fact that the sign makes ordering a combo a 3-step process, of which Step 3 is "choose your drink". That bit of lameness (whether on the part of the worker or the franchise) earns them the sub-one-star rating.

I'm not sure who would win the crown for "Most Unnecessary Restaurant in Bowie," but the answer is almost certainly either a Subway or a Chinese restaurant. Panda Express is a strong contender, given that you can walk a few feet in either direction in the food court and get better food. While you can't get "Chinese" food, you can get "Japanese" food next door at Hibachi. I recognize there is a significant difference between Chinese and Japanese food, but let's face it -- there's not a big gap between "Chinese" and "Japanese" food you find in a mall food court. So if you have a hankering for something Asian-y, and don't feel like leaving the food court, head to Hibachi. If you really want Chinese food, why are you in the food court?

As 2011 draws to a close, I am halfway done (in some sense) with my Project. I have 76 restaurants on my list. Some will be added, but some will be deleted, so 38 is just about halfway. I mark a couple of other milestones. I recently finished all 7 Subway restaurants. Moreover, Panda Express is the final food court restaurant. Look for "Best of Subway" and "Best of Food Court" posts early in the new year.

So will 2012 allow me to knock out the other 38 restaurants? I'm hopeful. I've averaged more than one review a week, so I'm certainly on pace to do so. I recognize that hitting all the Subways and food court restaurants leaves the impression that I'm getting the easy visits out of the way early. That's true to a certain extent, but there are a number of quick hits left -- Starbucks (ugh), for example. Trickier are the sit-down restaurants, which require a visit with family or co-workers. We like to take the kids out, though, and at work, there are often people visiting for a meeting who can be talked into a restaurant. The really tricky places are going to be the sit-down restaurants that nobody wants to go to -- I'm looking at you, Applebee's, Chili's and TGI Friday's. We'll see how that goes.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Frequent Flying 2011: On the Way to a Million

Wow, it's been almost four years since I did a frequent travel post. In that one, I had just requalified for top-tier status on United for 2008. Not only did I do that again in '08 for '09, but somehow I pulled that off for 2010. With the kids' arrival, I was bottom-tier (well, the 25,000 mile tier, not part of the no-status masses) for 2011. This year, by doing more flying than I probably should, I hit the middle-tier status (what they're naming Premier Gold for 2012).

A long-term goal of mine has always been hitting a million miles with United. That milestone comes with permanent Premier Gold status. Even when I was routinely hitting 100K each year, that still represented a decade-long project -- and a lot of those miles, for various reasons, didn't count towards the magic million.

Well, as a result of United's merger with Continental, a couple of things changed. First, Million Miler status will allow Premier Gold for both me and Christina -- meaning that the two of us, along with the twins, can get extra-legroom Economy Plus seats when we all fly together. Second, in order to even things out with Continental's program, all of those "don't count" miles that helped me reach status in years past (generally, partner flights, promotional miles and bonuses from more expensive tickets) will count towards the million -- but only those through the end of 2011.

So where does that leave me? As of now, I'm almost exactly two-thirds of my way to the goal -- 666,113 lifetime miles. I figure that all of the extra miles from past years should get me at least to 800,000. (I think I find out the exact total around Februrary.) At my 100K pace, that would still be two years away. At this year's pace, it would be more than four. It's probably going to be even longer, but it's nice to be able to see it on the horizon.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

World Heritage Update: Seoul

There are three World Heritage Sites near central Seoul. There is one in the city of Suwon, reachable by the Seoul subway system, but I didn't make it there. If I ever come back to Seoul, it will be at the top of my priority list.

The first site of my visit was Changdeokgung. It was also the first taxi ride I had taken in Seoul, and I took it as a good sign that the driver knew where it was -- I had some confused moments with taxis in Amsterdam, but hey -- Changdeokgung is one of the national treasures, so why wouldn't he know where it was?

Since it was closed on Monday, I made sure to visit on Sunday. There are guided tours in English twice daily, so I got there in time for one of them.

The history of Changdeokgung is sort of a mixed bag. It was built 600 years ago as a "backup palace". 400 years ago, the Japanese invaded and destroyed it and the main palace. For some reason, this one got rebuilt first and became the new main palace. Then, 100 years ago, the Japanese invaded again. During the occupation, Changdeokgung burnt down, and some of the restoration involved dragging buildings over from the main palace. Since then, some more restoration has gone into undoing the previous restoration.

As a result, it's not clear how much is "original", but maybe that it what allows everything to be brightly painted, and more evocative of what things looked like back in the day than a fading old building.

Later that day, I headed to Samneung Park, home to two of the Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty (the one that ruled from 600 years ago until deposed by the Japanese 100 years ago). I later learned that the tombs were required to be outside of the city of Seoul (but within a day's ride so that the tomb could be visited by the king's descendants). Today, the location of these two tombs has been absorbed by the city of Seoul, but I give that as an excuse why the taxi driver nor the first three hotel employees consulted knew where this park was. Finally, someone wrote something down in Korean for the driver and off we went.
Samneung Park

It was a relief when the taxi driver dropped me off and first I saw a park, then a World Heritage sign. I had no confidence how clearly things had been conveyed to him. I ended up having a nice walk on a cold day to see the two tombs (from a little bit of a distance, of course). Then it go dark and really cold, and I took a taxi back home (that's where the card with the hotel name on it comes in handy.)

On Monday, on my free afternoon, I headed to Jongmyo Shrine. I delayed heading over there until about 45 minutes before the English-language tour, since I didn't see any great advantage to getting there more than half an hour early. My request to go there was once again met by befuddlement from the taxi driver. I didn't understand this, since it was a major treasure not far from Changdeokgung. Finally, exasperated, I said, "It's right near Changdeokgung." Rather than recognition, this got me an offer to take me to Changdeokgung. Since I had Jongmyo programmed into my GPS receiver, I figured the walk from the palace wouldn't be too bad.

As it turned out, I couldn't head directly there because I had to follow the roads rather than straight line. Finally, I came to...the wall around Jongmyo. I had programmed the coordinates of the shrine itself rather than the entrance.

I took a quick guess and headed clockwise. After a few minutes, I came across a major road, which seemed promising for an entrance. Unfortunately there was construction along the road, which obscured whether or not there was an entrance -- and blocked the sidewalk. Traffic was at close to a standstill, so I felt relatively safe shimmying along the side of the road...but unfortunately, that did not lead to an entrance. So around and around I went. Eventually, after circling about 90% of the wall, I saw lines of tour buses (the taxi driver had never heard of this place). I rushed up to the entrance a few minutes after the last English tour of the day and figured I might be able to talk my way into joining up with it. But then I was asked for my ticket. Which I had to buy at a ticket booth separate from the entrance. Fortunately, there was no line, so after I forked over the equivalent of about 70 cents, I returned to the entrance...where I was pointed to the English-language tour in the distance. Whew.

Jongmyo Shrine
I probably would have appreciated the introduction to the tour, but what I gathered from the rest of it (and the answers to my questions) was that this is where Jongmyo rulers would come to commune with the spirits of their ancestors (and predecessors). The shrine contains the spirit tablets for the ancestors, and during a ceremony, the spirits come down from heaven and...I guess can be chatted up? I'm not too clear on that part. Anyway, it completed a trio of World Heritage sites from the Jongmyo era...the seat of physical power, the resting place of the leaders' bodies and the resting place of their souls. Three World Heritage sites in 30 hours (and four in 72 hours)...not bad.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Bowie Restaurant Project: (37) Subway (BP)

For an explanation of the Bowie Restaurant Project, look here.

For a list of all the Bowie Restaurant Project reviews, look here.

It has since come to my attention that the first of these isn't in Bowie, so it's been removed from the list. The review itself is left here for posterity.

For my visit to the final two of Bowie's seven Subway restaurants, I had to break another of my cherished rules. In particular, don't eat at a gas station. Once again skirting the limits of what constitutes a restaurant, both eateries had seating, so you could, if you want, arrange a lunch with somebody at either of the locations.

Now that I've hit all of the Subway locations, I expect in an upcoming post to rank them. I imagine these two will be vying with the Wal-Mart location for the bottom entries.

Subway, 16501 Ball Park Road
Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 12/16/2011
Total Foursquare Check-ins: 1
Pre-Foursquare Visits: No
Rating: 1/2 out of 5 stars

Christina has collected a bunch of Subway coupons. They allow you to buy one 6-inch sub and get another free (with the purchase of a 21-oz. drink). One way to do this is to get your two subs as a footlong. All told, you save a little bit of money, and you get a drink thrown in. I went ahead and added some variety to my lunch by getting two different subs. I will give the Subway credit for accepting the coupon (unlike the one in the Arundel Mills food court).

However, I was in for trouble when I went to get my drink. Let me let you in on a little secret. There are few places where you can get an Orange Coke (California Tortilla being the only one that comes to mind). But you can achieve a similar effect by filling most of your cup with Coke, then adding a splash of Minute Maid Orange soda. Except here, where the soda sprays all over your hand. And then, look, the Subway shares its soda dispenser with the gas station. That makes sense, I guess. Except for the fact that the gas station uses 22 oz. cups, and the lids available don't fit the Subway cups. Sigh.

One advantage that eating at a Subway inside a gas station gives you (I can't believe I just typed that) is that you have a much wider soda-and-chips selection than anywhere else, because you can shop at the gas station convenience store. Still, I didn't need much prompting to dish out my first sub-one-star rating, and the sad, sad experience of the drink dispenser (combined with the fact that I was getting my food in a gas station) was enough.

Subway, 6021 Highbridge Road
Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 12/23/2011
Total Foursquare Check-ins: 1
Pre-Foursquare Visits: No
Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

Along an approximately four-mile stretch of Route 450 there are four Subways. This one constitutes the westernmost Subway in Bowie. The BP station it lodges inside is more spacious than the Sunoco reviewed above. And...the drink selection is better. Because they have Cherry Coke, I didn't spray myself with any orange soda. But again, there are other, better, non-gas-station choices very nearby. That may explain why this location wasn't in foursquare until I added it today. One star, only because I didn't find an excuse to drop it further.

Bowie Restaurant News
In perusing the City of Bowie's "2012 Development Sites and Highway Projects Outline", I noticed a "McDonald's at Ball Park Road" project, right near the Sunoco Subway reviewed above. In 2011, it had the "stormwater management concept plan approved." I'm sort of hoping I finish this project before they build this one. In the annals of things we don't need, there's a McDonald's across Route 301 from one of the other ones. At least it isn't an eighth Subway, though.

It is now being reported that the Bang Bang Mongolian Grill won't open until February.

I have learned that Hunan Gardens is carry-out and delivery only. This information drops me to 76 restaurants on my list and means I am one away from halfway finished. (Although I expect more to be added and removed before I finish.)

Friday, December 16, 2011

Bowie Restaurant Project: (35) Olive Garden

For an explanation of the Bowie Restaurant Project, look here.

For a list of all the Bowie Restaurant Project reviews, look here.

Olive Garden, 4101 Town Center Blvd.

Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 11/30/2011
Total Foursquare Check-ins: 1
Pre-Foursquare Visits: About two or three
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

It's an Olive Garden. It's a safe choice, and the food is reasonably tasty. The service at our recent visit was not great -- not don't-leave-a-tip bad, but slow and indifferent enough for us to notice.

The food is good enough to bring it up to 2.5 stars. I've found over the years that Olive Garden does a reasonable job of having consistently good quality across the chain. (Also, mmm, bread sticks.) But we have to ask ourselves, what does it bring to the Bowie restaurant landscape? Would we miss it if it went away?

Bowie has many of its restaurants concentrated into the same cuisines -- Mexican, Chinese and Italian, mainly. If I count generously (e.g. lump all of the pizza restaurants into "Italian"), there are 9 Italian places, 6 Mexican places and 10 Chinese restaurants. So in those categories, there is a lot of competition. In particular, if you want Italian food, go to T.J. Elliott's instead. Or possibly Cetrone's (review to come later once I dine in there, also after I decide what I think of their non-pizza cuisine). You'll be supporting a local business with a lot more character than a chain restaurant at a mall.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

World Heritage Update: Amsterdam

There is one World Heritage Site in Amsterdam -- the "Seventeenth-century canal ring area of Amsterdam inside the Singelgracht." It was inscribed in 2010, and it seems odd that one of the most important cities in Western Europe during the Renaissance took that long. I'm guessing because it didn't fit 100% UNESCO's notion of "site", so they had to come up with something. So I had dinner there at an Italian restaurant last Thursday night. What, that doesn't count? I think it does, although it would be one of my more tenuous claims. Not as bad as the Palau de la Música Catalana in Barcelona, where I merely stopped by and admired the architecture, but close.

Never fear, though. One sentence late in the citation mentions, "In World War II around 100,000 Amsterdam Jews were deported, the majority of whom lived in the canal districts." By far the most interesting site in the canal district seemed to me to be the Anne Frank House. So Friday night, I visited there.

I have actually never read her diary. Christina points out that I will have an unusual opportunity. Most people visited the house and pictured the events of the book. I will be able to read the book (the new, unexpurgated version) and see the setting in my mind's eye. I'm not sure when I will be able to get to the book. The house itself was very depressing. I know it's supposed to be uplifting -- her words lived on where she didn't, and are much more influential than anything her oppressors wrote. UNESCO runs a parallel list to the World Heritage List, intended for important "documentary heritage" -- the Memory of the World Register. Anne Frank's Diary is inscribed there. But I spent much of the visit just galled at what I knew the eventual ending would be. The museum does an excellent job at showing the entire sweep of her story, and it doesn't shy away from the death camps. There are graphic pictures, and a touching interview with her best friend, who tried to keep her alive until the liberation.

Anyway, on that cheery note, we mark the 51st World Heritage Site I visited.

On a somewhat lighter note, the museum had the Shelly Winters Oscar from the movie adaptation of the Diary. I recalled that entertainment awards on permanent public display constitute a waymarking category -- and a fairly rare one, at that. So I posted it as the 19th waymark in that category.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Bowie Restaurant Project: (34) East Delight

For an explanation of the Bowie Restaurant Project, look here.

For a list of all the Bowie Restaurant Project reviews, look here.

East Delight, 6818 Race Track Road

Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 11/29/2011
Total Foursquare Check-ins: 2
Pre-Foursquare Visits: No
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

East Delight is one of Bowie's many Chinese restaurants. It is of particular interest because it is near enough to deliver to our house, but not of incredible interest, because it's not the only such place. There are four Chinese restaurants within 5 minutes of our house; I think three of them deliver. There are six others in Bowie, plus one takeout-only place.

So I can say that, yes, I got perfectly tasty kung pao chicken and orange beef here. The one distinguishing feature this place has is that their lunch specials range from $5.05 to $6.05, which is pretty cheap. But I can't go above 2.5 stars because it's not the sort of place anyone would miss if it were gone -- you'd just head down the road a little bit.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Book Review: Echo

Echo (Alex Benedict, #5)Echo by Jack McDevitt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is another solid entry in McDevitt's Alex Benedict series. Other than the first entry, they follow the same pattern. The prologue is a flashback to events driving the eventual mystery, then Chapter One opens with Alex Benedict, antiquities dealer, getting involved in the "present day" -- thousands of years into a future in which humans have spread across the galaxy. An object Alex investigates sparks a mystery, which leads to someone trying to kill him and Chase, his assistant (and the narrator). Eventually, they make a meaningful discovery that goes well beyond the original relic.

What saves this series from repetition is that the big ideas that each book centers on -- e.g. extraterrestrial life, longevity -- are treated in an interesting way, and the overall structure of the series is well-done.

McDevitt does have a tendency to repeat himself (not limited to this series, by the way). There are two staples, in my mind, of a McDevitt novel. Someone's plane is sabotaged, and...well, the other one plays a role in this book, so I won't spoil the surprise. But it's not done in the same way that it is in most other novels. And somebody sabotages something near a plane, so there's that. It may be repetitive, but it's not predictable.

Echo is another fine entry in the series. This time the story is centered around the search for aliens, which humanity haven't found in the numbers they expected. There is a subplot in which Chase begins to question whether she really finds fulfillment being the assistant to an antiquities dealer. It's somewhat understated, but it adds another layer to the character.

Ultimately, I think what I enjoy about the series is that McDevitt isn't averse to having the characters change the universe around them -- one book, for example, involves the discovery of a faster faster-than-light drive, which plays a part in later books. It may stretch credulity to have the same characters involved in a variety of such breakthroughs, but it's worth it to move beyond chasing after antique items, which the series would otherwise devolve into.

Nothing in the series has returned to the magic of A Talent for War, the first book -- the only one told from Alex's perspective, and a breath of fresh air when I read it -- but Echo is another in a long line of solid 4-star books in the series. I started a different book soon after reading it, but quickly downloaded the next Alex Benedict book, in the knowledge that I'd enjoy it more.

Echo was a nominee for the 2010 Nebula Award for Best Novel, but that's not why I read it -- I'm reading almost everything McDevitt writes. He has been nominated for Nebulas fifteen times (in various categories). Seeker, his only win, got reviewed on this blog in 2008. (Polaris was also nominated.) I would have preferred Polaris and Echo over the eventual winners both years, but that's mostly because of my disappointment with the 2005 and 2010 winners. That's not just because I'm a McDevitt fan -- he's been nominated for Best Novel an amazing 10 out of the last 14 years, and I am happy with the alternate choice in most years. I'm still amazed that A Talent for War wasn't nominated. It was early in his career, however, and that ties into my theory that much of the award is reputation-based.

I was surprised recently to discover that McDevitt is in his mid-70s. He's certainly showing no signs of fading in his talent, and I'm hoping that the series comes to a close before I find myself reading weaker and weaker versions, and has happened with some other SF writers. Actually, I'm hoping he manages to write long enough and well enough to be nominated for 10 more Nebulas.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Nebula Update: Stations of the Tide

Stations of the TideStations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In some place, this book was very interesting, and in some wasn't. In particular, one of the things I find interesting about science fiction is the universe-building -- are we reading about a near-future Earth setting, or a universe where interstellar travel is commonplace? While it became quickly clear that this was not set on Earth, the setting was only slowly and not very fully disclosed. I'm OK with describing things up front, and I'm OK with slowly peeling back the curtain -- as long as the author does so fairly thoroughly. But I was pretty far through this book before I knew whether the protagonist was from the same solar system as the planet the action took place on.

I say "the protagonist" -- he is referred to as "The Bureaucrat" and not named. He is sent to the planet to investigate the use of proscribed technology. It's an interesting premise -- in particular, set right before the once-a-century tides that are going to sweep away all of the buildings in the area after the people are evacuated. It's a neat premise, but I didn't love the execution. The author spends more time with tantric sex and mysticism than with the more science-fictiony aspects of the tale.

Science fiction authors have a choice -- they can write "future history" and tell the story of major events in the future. Or, they can provide a "slice of life" in the future. For example, they can write a detective novel, spy thriller or even a romance novel with the future as a setting. In order to do that well, however, the setting has to be present in the tale to a much greater extent than is true in this book.

I think the author created a fascinating setting, and I think the investigation plot contained a lot of potential. But I disliked the eventual wandering off into mysticism.

I am beginning to doubt the selection process for the Nebula awards. Granted, I did not read any of the other 1991 nominees -- maybe it was a thin year. In some cases, I suspect the author's popularity is too influential, but I have no explanation of why this book, which I found unexceptional, won the award. (Other than that my tastes simply differ from the voters'.)

So now I've read the Best Novel winners from 1991-2010, and 32 of the 47 winners. I had already bought two more of the winners, which may be the only reason I make any more progress in the near future. I have such limited time to read books these days, I have actually accumulated a list of new books I haven't had time to read. So using the Nebula list to find new books is less crucial, and I'm actually finding some of them disappointing compared to books I might otherwise choose.

Stations of the Tide is the fourth Nebula novel I've read this year. I figure if I average two to four per year, I can wrap up this project in another 5-10 years. I am actually more interested in reading next year's nominees, to expand my engagement with current science fiction. I tried that for the 2009 nominees, and I ended up reading the eventual winner. Maybe I'll have time next year to read all of the nominees before the award is announced and have an informed opinion about the choice. But probably not.

Sunday, December 04, 2011


More than 7 years ago, I gave up on putting ads on my blog because I had gotten zero revenue. (As it turned out, there was a negligible amount in 2004 before I managed to get them completely off my blog.) Since then, I have generated some revenue based on ads on and Not enough to prompt a payout from Google, mind you, but something.

Lately, Blogger has introduced statistics that show just how many people read your blog. Android's Dungeon is getting about a thousand hits per month, mostly scattered across older posts. So I'm going to try an experiment of turning ads back on to see if I can earn any revenue from these old posts. I thought I'd mention it, just in case you were wondering why there were ads back. If you're not wondering, then like me you've probably installed some sort of ad blocker. If so, good for you.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Bowie Restaurant Project: (33) Mi Hacienda

Mi Hacienda is now closed.

For an explanation of the Bowie Restaurant Project, look here.

For a list of all the Bowie Restaurant Project reviews, look here.

Mi Hacienda, 6133 Highbridge Road

Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 11/27/2011
Total Foursquare Check-ins: 3
Pre-Foursquare Visits: No
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Mi Hacienda is a Mexican Restaurant in the Shoppes at Highbridge -- in other words, it's in West Bowie off of Route 450. It's the best Mexican food we've found in Bowie, and it's gone over fantastic with the kids. They enjoy the tamales or just eating rice and beans, and they always leave stuffed. (Toddlers can be picky eaters, so it's nice to feed them somewhat "unusual" and see them respond with enthusiasm.) The meals that Christina and I got were also very good.

Much of what I said about Monterrey applies here, only a bit more so. It's authentic, non-chain Mexican food. It's a bit tastier than Monterrey, although maybe not enough that I'd travel twice the distance from work when I have to get back for an afternoon meeting. The decor, especially around the bar, is very nice, and a step up from Monterrey.

I think this is probably our new go-to Mexican place in Bowie, and it will probably get added to the stable of places I offer to take interview candidates.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Isotropic: Down to Level 13

Since Michigan had a nice lead against Ohio State, I thought I'd get in some Dominion games on Isotropic while I watched. The lead is now gone, and my enthusiasm for Isotropic has somewhat dimmed.

The guy who runs the site changed the leaderboard so that only the past 30 days of games count. That means my rating is based on only 18 games, and my level has dropped to 13. Because I don't have time enough to play that many games in a 30-day period, and because my rating will fluctuate based on what drops out of the 30-day window, this will be my last update on my Isotropic level unless the administrator heeds popular request and reverts the change.

That's probably just as well, since none of my isotropic updates have gotten more than 5 page views -- this blog doesn't have a huge readership in general, but my average is much better than that.

Anyway, to make this more general, I think there are advantages to having a site like this run by an interested amateur rather than a company. The complicated skill system is probably not something you'd see a big company doing, and there has been an emphasis on getting the gameplay right over flashiness. But a downside is that he can make unilateral changes like this without having to worry about losing business to negative feedback.

Well, I won my game of Dominion, and, oh, look, we just got our lead back.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Bowie Restaurant Project: (32) Villa Pizza

For an explanation of the Bowie Restaurant Project, look here.

For a list of all the Bowie Restaurant Project reviews, look here.

Villa Pizza, 3864 Town Center Boulevard

Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 11/25/2011
Total Foursquare Check-ins: 2
Pre-Foursquare Visits: I don't think so
Rating: 2 1/2 out of 5 stars

Apparently the Villa Pizza chain is the descendant of a restaurant next to the old Ed Sullivan theater. Also, it looks like Sbarro has a similar Manhattan pedigree. That said, I'm glad Bowie ended up with the former for our mall pizza option, because this place is head and shoulders above Sbarro. By that, I mean, the pizza is edible.

The standard meal is a slice of New York-style pizza, a side (e.g., ziti or a salad) and a drink. All are reasonably tasty, and I'm going to give it 2 1/2 stars on that basis.

Still, I can't recommend eating there unless you're already determined to eat at the food court. Why? Well, if you're going to get a slice of pizza or some pasta in a quick-service environment, you're maybe 1000 feet away from Three Brothers, which is a superior option. If you have the time to sit down, you're even closer to Uno Chicago Grill. T.J. Elliott's and Cetrone's Pizza are both better options for pizza or pasta, though neither are by-the-slice or in the mall. Of all the pizza-serving Bowie restaurants, I think the Pizza Huts are the only ones I might recommend behind Villa Pizza. Which is to say, it's not bad, but you can do better.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

19th Level on Isotropic

Just a quick note to mark my ascension to 19th level on the Isotropic Dominion server. I lost a game, dipped a level, regained it, then played 6 games against Ben next weekend. I guess the algorithm figures if you win 5 out of 6 against a newcomer, that's worth something. My estimated ranking is still climbing, to 37.129, but most of the benefit came from the plus/minus dropping to 17.445. It looks like I'm in striking distance of 20th level with one or two more wins, but a loss is always possible to send me back down...

Friday, November 18, 2011

Bowie Restaurant Project: (31) Dunkin' Donuts/Baskin Robbins

For an explanation of the Bowie Restaurant Project, look here.

For a list of all the Bowie Restaurant Project reviews, look here.

Dunkin' Donuts/Baskin Robbins, 6101 Highbridge Road

Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 11/17/2011
Total Foursquare Check-ins: 1
Pre-Foursquare Visits: No
Rating: 2 1/2 out of 5 stars

It's a Dunkin' Donuts. And a Baskin Robbins. But for our purposes, mostly a Dunkin' Donuts. Is it a restaurant? Sure. It features a counter and a few tables, and you can get such things as tuna salad sandwiches as your meal. I'd even argue that donuts (or certainly bagels) count as meals for breakfast, so it's definitely a restaurant.

It's the only Dunkin' Donuts in Bowie -- there was one next to California Tortilla, but it has since closed. Sadly, it's the only restaurant you can really get a bagel at in Bowie. Although that gives it some points, that's a sad commentary on Bowie.

I got the aforementioned tuna salad sandwich, because Christina had found a coupon. It was good, and surprisingly filling, although I don't expect to end up here for lunch much in the future.

In the end, 2 1/2 stars, as the sole representative of a decent cut-above-fast-food chain. It would get an extra half-star for being the only place to get bagels in Bowie, but it would then also lose that half-star for the ranting Cowboys fan who used the term "Deadskins" approximately 20 times in the five minutes I was in there. He seemed like he hangs out there a lot.

I also submitted this restaurant as a waymark in the "Dunkin Donuts" category.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Foursquare takes it to another level

In January 2010, and January of this year, I wrote about foursquare, and how I was enjoying its "gamification" of my everyday travels. I was going to save another reflection on the topic until January 2012, but this week foursquare introduced a new game feature that I'd like to take time to consider -- badge levels.

In January, I said that the badges -- icons given as rewards for certain types of checkins -- were probably my favorite part. Unfortunately, after you play for a while, you collect most of the badges that you're going to see, and that part of the game stagnates. Occasionally, it provides for some fun -- when I was in London in September, I was desperately trying to connect to the ferry's wi-fi network to unlock the "I'm On a Boat" badge. But most of the badges fell into the categories of easy or too hard.

Foursquare has revamped that by introducing the concept of levels for what they are calling their 24 "expertise" badges. Now not only do you unlock the "Ski Bum" badge for going skiing a few times, but you have the potential to get up to 10th Level Ski Bum by hitting (I think) 45 different ski areas.

They combined this change with the introduction of a few new expertise badges and the standardization of rules for the old expertise badges. I think the way they are handling retroactive qualification is by recalculating levels for badges you already have, but waiting to award new badges until the next qualifying check-in.

For example, when they made the changes, I ended up as a 3rd Level Jetsetter, 1st Level Swimmies, 2nd Level Bookworm, and 1st Level Baker's Dozen. (OK, I'm going to have to work on terminology here.)

Today, however, when I checked in at California Tortilla, I was immediately promoted to 5th Level Hot Tamale -- as a result of checking in at 20 different "Mexican spots". I went back and looked, and I could only find 19. Seven of them are fast-food type places, so that seems a little funny, but I guess it counts. For the record, 11 are in Maryland, 7 in California and 1 in Delaware.

I guess this points to how the game portion of foursquare works better than the recommendation aspect. Supposedly the concept of levels was developed partially to signal whose tips you should take more seriously. But for all I know, the 10th Level Hot Tamale has been to 45 different Taco Bells, in which case I really don't want to take his advice.

The concept of badge levels is not original -- I've seen in on Untappd (aka foursquare for beer), but I think it'll promote more foursquare use, more exploration ("ooh, if I check into a new pizza place, I can level up") and most importantly, more fun.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Project Bike to Work: New House

Project Bike to Work: New House at EveryTrail

For the first time since we moved to Bowie this summer, I broke out the bike and took it to work. It's now too late in the year to do this on a regular work day -- I don't have enough daylight to stay at work late enough. But yesterday was Veterans Day, and I had some hours to make up, so I thought I'd give it a shot.

It actually worked pretty well. The GPS receiver cut out a couple of times on the ride in, but it looked like it took 21 minutes to get there, and 25 to come back. Not bad, since 25 minutes was my old commute by car. It feels like it was more uphill on the way back, but the elevation data I got is a little bit all over the place, so it's hard to tell.

It adds less than half an hour to my round-trip commute, which means, weather permitting, it'll be worth doing on a regular basis. One thing I find funny is that the last 90% of today's trip is the last 20% of my ride from University Park from last year's Bike to Work Day. I hadn't realized that until I looked at the old map.

I also like the route because it's a reasonable one to take by car. It's nice to be on 30-mile-an-hour or less streets for all but a little part near the end, and it saves on gas to take a direct, but lower-speed route. There's an alternate bike-only route I hope to try some time that involves a trail for a few minutes, though -- that could be nice.

It was a bit cold and windy on the ride -- I don't appreciate the burning sensation the cold air produces in my throat. But it was good to do this, and I hope to start exploring more of the area by bike.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Up to 17th Level on Isotropic

Last week, I blogged about playing Dominion on Isotropic and getting to 16th level. Since then, I have only had one chance to play again. Yesterday morning, I got up, and everyone else was asleep. Further, Jack and Christina were asleep in the family room, which limited what I could do in terms of the noise I could make. So I started up a game of Dominion.

The game featured two cards I know pretty well: Treasure Map and Lookout. Treasure Map gives you four golds if you get two copies in your hand at the same time, and Lookout, among other things, allows you to trash unwanted cards -- the only one in this particular set that let you do that. Those two cards are in the second expansion (the sixth has just been released), so I suspect my opponents were looking for more novel plays. I got the Treasure Maps on turn 9; my opponent who went for them didn't hit the jackpot until turn 14 (clearing out the junk really helps you get the Treasure Maps together). My opponent didn't buy a Lookout until much later; by the time he played it once, I already had played mine 3 times.

There were other factors -- I made good use of Jester, one of the newer cards -- but in the end, it wasn't close. I finished with 41 points, the guy who was late to the party on both Treasure Maps and Lookouts got 22, and the other guy, who tried a different strategy, hit 17.

As a result, I climbed up to 17th level. My plus/minus actually increased by 0.01 to 18.909, but my estimated ranking went up from 35.195 to 36.217.

I figure if I only post when I gain a level (or, let's say, drop five), I'll keep this blog from being overwhelmed with Dominion posts. (And keep it being overwhelmed with restaurant reviews.)

Bowie Restaurant Project: (30) Three Brothers

For an explanation of the Bowie Restaurant Project, look here.

For a list of all the Bowie Restaurant Project reviews, look here.

Three Brothers, 15485 Excelsior Dr

Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 11/10/2011
Total Foursquare Check-ins: 1
Pre-Foursquare Visits: I think, once.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I ended up rating this place higher than I expected. Three Brothers is a Maryland-only chain, so, like California Tortilla, it ends up getting rated higher than a national chain. Further, it's one of the only places in Bowie that sells pizza by the slice. (Villa Pizza in the food court is the other that comes to mind.) I think every town needs pizza by the slice, so even though Three Brothers isn't my favorite, it gets points for that.

For my review, I called ahead and ordered a slice of mushroom pizza and a chicken parmesan. Probably too much food, but I wanted to try both the pizza and another menu item. The pizza was OK -- like most pizza by the slice, the mushrooms looked dumped on as an afterthought. The chicken was pretty good, and it came with a side salad. If you want great Italian food, go to T.J. Elliott's  instead, but this place isn't bad.

What cemented the third star, however, was the drink selection. Since I was doing takeout, I had intended to bring my own drink from home. I've long been in search of a decent artificial sweetener. The latest thing I'm trying is stevia. Splenda and other artificial sweeteners are now believed not to contribute to weight loss, but stevia has promise because -- I don't know, something about blood glucose levels or something. Anyway, the problem is that people who are interested in stuff like that often look for caffeine-free beverages, but I personally need some caffeine. Fortunately, there's Vitaminwater Zero Drive, which is sweetened with Stevia but still has plenty of caffeine.

I forgot my Vitaminwater Zero and was resigned to having a Coke or something, but lo and behold, Three Brothers stocks VW0 Drive. Good for them. It's a solid place, in my mind, to get a takeout Italian lunch (or eat there, if you don't have a place to be). If I have more time, I'm going to T.J. Elliot's, but this isn't bad.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Bowie Restaurant Project: (29) Dairy Queen/Orange Julius

DQ/OJ is now closed.

For an explanation of the Bowie Restaurant Project, look here.

For a list of all the Bowie Restaurant Project reviews, look here.

The outdoor entrance
Dairy Queen/Orange Julius, 3878 Town Center Blvd

Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 11/3/2011
Total Foursquare Check-ins: 2
Pre-Foursquare Visits: No
Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

Yep, just hot dogs
It's not exactly a Dairy Queen. On my first visit, I came back to work with a "Dairy Queen" bag, which caused a co-worker to talk about how great their hamburgers are. Not an option here -- the only "Hot Eats" available are hot dogs.

When I defined minimum standards for what constitutes a restaurant, I should have anticipated that some establishments would just barely clear the bar (I'm looking at you, Starbucks). If you want to, you can meet someone at DQ/OJ for lunch, order up some hot dogs and a Blizzard and sit at the food court and eat it. The hot dogs, while above 7-11 standard, are nothing to look forward to, though. You'd be better off with the ones at Five Guys across the street.

The "Cool Treats", while not strictly necessary to be a restaurant, are a nice touch. I was considering let this place drift up to 1 1/2 stars because you can get such interesting beverages with your meal. But I recently decided to require two visits to non-chain restaurants, as well as those chains I'm not particularly familiar with. The quantity of dread I felt after my first visit, knowing that I'd have to return for a second, tells me to leave this one at 1 star. But, hey, at least I am the Foursquare mayor here.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Bowie Restaurant Project: (26) Subway (Bowie Plaza) & (27) Subway (Wal-Mart) & (28) Subway (Bowie Town Center)

For an explanation of the Bowie Restaurant Project, look here.

For a list of all the Bowie Restaurant Project reviews, look here.

I'm taking Martin's suggestion of lumping several venues together when they are part of the same chain. But I can't bear to work my way through all of the Subways without giving myself the satisfaction of checking some reviews off my list.

I was going to tie together the Wal-Mart Subway and the Food Court Subway into one "Subways inside Other Buildings That Are Not Gas Stations" post, but then I discovered I had never gotten around to reviewing the one in Bowie Plaza. So, here are three reviews in one post.
Subway (Bowie Plaza)

Subway, 6928 Laurel-Bowie Road

Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 10/18/2011
Total Foursquare Check-ins: 3
Pre-Foursquare Visits: No
Rating: 1 1/2 out of 5 stars

It's a Subway. Parking is easy, it's busier than other Subways I've seen (except the one in Wal-Mart), and the inside seems roomier than other restaurants in the chain. But other than that it's standard-issue. If you're going to go to a Subway in Bowie, it might as well be this one. Since it's the closest one to my house (by a minute) and it has decent parking, I'll probably go there a fair amount.

Subway, 3300 Crain Highway

Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 10/31/2011
Total Foursquare Check-ins: 1
Subway (Wal-Mart)
Pre-Foursquare Visits: No
Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

It's a Subway. Inside of a Wal-Mart. As a Subway, it's fairly standard-issue. But it's inside a Wal-Mart. That means, if you're there to grab a sandwich, you have to deal with the hellscape that is the Bowie Wal-Mart parking lot. I mean, I'm glad that, unlike the Bowie Target, they're actually using most of their asphalt, but it seems to me that they didn't need to funnel all of the cars entering and exiting the parking lot past the pedestrian zone in front of the store entrance.

Then, once you've finally parked and walked into the store (dodging all of the cars trying to park), you walk a little bit through Wal-Mart to find that the store entrance is half-blocked by people in the Wal-Mart customer service line. The restaurant is busy, and it is hard to understand the accents of the Subway employees.

I am docking this place half a star for being inside Wal-Mart. If you're not at Wal-Mart, you're better off going to one of Bowie's other 6 Subways (well, I've only been to the 4 that aren't in gas stations, so let's restrict ourselves to those). If you are in Wal-Mart, go to one of the other ones, because then you will have the added bonus of having left Wal-Mart. Heck, you could even walk over to the New China restaurant in the same shopping center, if you really don't feel like getting into your car.

I'm not going to drop below one star, however, because it was still a tasty sandwich.

Subway, 3868 Town Center Blvd.
Subway (Bowie Town Center)
Now Closed!
Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 11/02/2011
Total Foursquare Check-ins: 1
Pre-Foursquare Visits: Yes
Rating: 1 1/2 out of 5 stars

It's a Subway. In a food court. I know I was there pre-Foursquare because I remember arguing with the cashier who wanted to see my driver's license in order for me to use a credit card. (It's a violation of their credit card merchant agreement, but I've stopped arguing the point and found other hobbies.)

Parking is a lot more convenient than a lot of other restaurants in the mall, because much of the available parking tends to be behind the food court. Unlike Wal-Mart, I don't consider being at the mall to be inherently problematic, so I won't dock it half a star for that. In fact, being in the food court is convenient because you can go there with other people who get to choose a different food court eatery (and you can decide for yourself at the last minute to have bourbon chicken instead). The drink machine is behind the counter, which is a bummer if you'd prefer to serve yourself.

It's somewhat different than the other Bowie Subways, but not enough to escape the standard 1 1/2 star rating. If you want to go to Subway, and it's the closest one, there's no reason to avoid it.

Bowie Restaurant News
In a previous post, I mentioned the Ravza restaurant, which I noticed when driving by Collington Plaza, and I wondered why it wasn't on the city's list. Well, it's not there any more -- I don't know why the Collington Plaza management still had it on the sign along Crain Highway (for all I know, they still do.)

The Muffin Man Caribbean Cafe is supposed to be opening in 2010 according to the city's guide. The last I'd heard it was going to open in November (2011). Now we're back to January (2012).

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

World Heritage Update: Tentative Lists

One way for me to increase the number of World Heritage Sites I've visited is to, well, visit more World Heritage Sites. A less obvious way is for places I've already visited to be inscribed on the list. The Sydney Opera House was inscribed in 2007; Christina and I had visited it in 2002. I visited at least three other sites "before they were stars": Brugge, Edinburgh and Jeju.

Besides lobbying UNESCO (that just got trickier), what can I do to increase the odds that sites get inscribed after I visit them? As it turns out, UNESCO now requires any sites to be on a "tentative list" before being nominated. So I can try to visit sites on the tentative lists and then hope they get moved to the real list. This method is not foolproof -- sites may get withdrawn from the tentative lists, and new sites that I haven't visited may replace them. Still, it is a good way at increasing the odds.

With that in mind, what sites have I already visited that are on the tentative lists?
I thought there might be more, but this isn't a bad list. It looks like the Alamo and Frank Lloyd Wright are near the top of the U.S. list, which would have been awesome if the U.S. hadn't just stopped contributing to UNESCO's budget. Well, I'll keep my eyes out for more opportunities during my travels.

Monday, October 31, 2011


When I first played the card game Dominion, I was "less than overwhelmed". Eventually the game grew on me to the point where a year later, I was playing in a tournament. Other than a weekly lunchtime game, I don't get much chance to play face-to-face. That's why I've been enjoying playing on-line at the Isotropic server.

There's been a long-promised official on-line version, but in the meantime, Isotropic fills the void nicely. It supports all of the released cards (often within hours of their release), and it is in fact used by the game designer and developers to playtest new expansions. There's a nice "auto-match" feature where you can tell it how many players you want to play with, and which expansions you prefer, and it sets up a game with other players.

This being a site by and for gamers, there's a "meta-game" of ranking; it uses an algorithm to determine how good you are based on how well you play against players of various rankings. What I find interesting is that it gives you both an estimated rating and a "plus/minus" error range. Then it awards you a "level" on the basis of the lowest part of that range.

So you start out with an estimated rating of 25 (the average), but an uncertainty of 25. Thus, your starting level is 0. As you play, the uncertainty is reduced -- but as a new player, you may find that your play is somewhat below average. Hopefully, your level moves up over time.

On Sunday, my estimated rating was 33.495 with a plus/minus of 19.492, netting me a level of 14. That's down from Saturday's level of 15. The drop is probably a result of a game Saturday night which was almost finished when I bumped my laptop battery on the side of a chair, turning the computer off and disconnecting a turn or two before the end of a game where I think I was doing pretty well. That's OK, though -- I'm sure I've benefited from others' inadvertent disconnections, too.

Yesterday, during the sad, sad Redskins game, I played three 3-player games. I won the first two, and came in second in the third one. Coming in second shouldn't have hurt me too much -- the opposition was ranked fairly high, and the ranking system counts it as a win over the player who came in third, and a loss to the first-place guy.

Looking at the leaderboard now, I see I moved up to 16th level. Encouragingly, that was more due to my rating creeping up to 35.195, and less due to my plus/minus dropping to 18.899. My total of 27 games is very small. I'm ranked #1609 overall. #1608 has played 577 games, and #1610 has played 1220. So I'm hoping if I can find more time to play, I can move my level into the twenties.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Bowie Restaurant Project: (25) Monterey Mexican Restaurant

Monterey is Now Closed.

For an explanation of the Bowie Restaurant Project, look here.

For a list of all the Bowie Restaurant Project reviews, look here.

Monterey Mexican Restaurant, 4449 Mitchellville Road

Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 10/24/2011
Total Foursquare Check-ins: 3
Pre-Foursquare Visits: A couple
Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Earlier this week, some colleagues were visiting my workplace. As the decision as to where to have lunch came around, some of them bemoaned the lack of choices Bowie offered and talked about going to Chipotle. Since I needed to go there to do a review, I was OK with that, but I raised an objection anyway. If you want Mexican food, and you have the time, why not go to an actual Mexican restaurant?

Because that's what you get from Monterey. You get actual, tasty Mexican food served in an actual restaurant. The food is good, but not spectacular -- if I were craving excellent Mexican food, I'd take the half-hour drive to Sierra's in Beltsville or to the "Little Mexico" section of Riverdale. The service is good, if a bit uneven -- the last time I was there with Christina & the boys, they got confused on the order, and the bill needed correcting. But it is family-friendly, and the prices are reasonable.

Every city needs a non-chain, sit-down Mexican restaurant. You're not going to wow friends or relatives from Arizona or California by bringing them here, but this place is one of two solid options you have in Bowie. It's also a reminder -- Bowie has a lot of Chipotle-level options, but if you let your mind get stuck there, you'll miss out on a few higher-caliber meals.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Bowie Restaurant Project: (24) Panera Bread

For an explanation of the Bowie Restaurant Project, look here.

For a list of all the Bowie Restaurant Project reviews, look here.

Panera Bread, 3921 Town Center Boulevard
Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 10/18/2011
Total Foursquare Check-ins: 1
Pre-Foursquare Visits: Apparently, since I have a menu in my office
Rating: 2 1/2 out of 5 stars

It's a Panera Bread. It's probably a better place to get coffee and a sandwich than Starbucks (I'm currently slogging my way through Bowie's Starbuckses -- review to come later). I don't drink coffee, so I maybe that would be better at Starbucks. But the sandwiches are pretty good. Not great, but pretty good. If I wanted a sandwich, though, I'd probably just go to Subway or, even better, a non-chain restaurant.

What distinguishes this Panera from other representatives of the chain? Like Noodles & Company, it's located on the "Main Street" portion of the Bowie Town Center mall, with the associated annoying parking, but other than that -- not much. It's a generic chain that's a step up from fast food. Since it's the only Panera in Bowie, that earns it 2 and a half stars.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Bowie Restaurant Project: (23) Main Street's Brasserie

Main Street Is Now Closed. 

 For an explanation of the Bowie Restaurant Project, look here.

For a list of all the Bowie Restaurant Project reviews, look here.

Main Street's Brasserie, 14207 Old Annapolis Road
Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 10/8/2011
Total Foursquare Check-ins: 2
Pre-Foursquare Visits: No
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

I'm going with "Main Street's Brasserie" as the name for this place, because that's what's on the sign, although their web site refers to it as the "Main Street Brasserie." (The city restaurant guide, which often gets names wrong, refers to it as "Mainstreet Catering.") This lack of attention to detail does not bode well.

The first time Christina and I went there was after seeing a house in the neighborhood. We got sandwiches and soup from the counter and then attempted to feed the kids. Since Main Street doesn't have high chairs, that was a challenge. So much so that I ended up taking my sandwich back to work and eating it there. As I recall, it was a fairly good sandwich.

The second time we ate their food was a result of a question I asked on Bowie Patch, namely, "Which restaurant serves the best burger in Bowie?" We were pretty spoiled living near Hyattsville with Franklin's Restaurant and Hank's Tavern, both of which served great burgers. I have yet to find their equal in Bowie, but someone suggested Main Street. So I placed a takeout order. I knew I had not found the best burger in Bowie when my attempt to order a burger medium-rare was met with, "they cook them all the same way." I'm sorry, but if you won't cook a burger medium-rare, you're not the best burger in town. In the end, the burgers were fairly greasy and neither of us could finish ours.

So it's a mixed bag. The sandwiches were good, but nothing I'd want to make a special trip to West Bowie to enjoy. I might go there if I were already in that part of town (why?), but I'm much more likely to end up at the Chesapeake Grille or the Uptown Cafe. This reticence is compounded by the fact that Main Street is only open Tuesday-Saturday, and only for lunch. The food isn't good enough to cause me to want to keep track of that schedule.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Bowie Restaurant Project: (21) McDonald's (Bowie Gateway) and (22) McDonald's (Bowie Office Park)

For an explanation of the Bowie Restaurant Project, look here.

For a list of all the Bowie Restaurant Project reviews, look here.

For this post, I am adopting Martin's suggestion of grouping all of the establishments in a particular chain together.

Five or more years ago, Christina and I decided to stop eating at McDonald's. Because the food is awful, mainly. Before this project, I think I had broken that rule four or five times -- when I was desperate for a bathroom, a Coke, or in one misguided instance, some fries.

McDonald's, 4306 North Crain Highway

Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 10/5/2011
Total Foursquare Check-ins: 1
Pre-Foursquare Visits: Yes
Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

To have more of a full experience, I decided to go in rather than use the drive-thru. Remarkably, despite the long line of cars idling outside, nobody was waiting at the counter. My order required four pieces of information -- the number, whether or not it was a "meal" (I guess that's the latest version of "would you like fries with that?"), the size, and given that the meal was McNuggets, what sort of sauce I wanted. The order was taken by a McDonald's employee, who was assisted by a manager. Despite the fact that they had two people working on the order, every piece of information was repeated back to me incorrectly at some point.

Open 24/7: A good thing?
The food was more or less as I remember it. I might buy some of the Hot Mustard sauce if I could eat it with something other than McDonald's food. The McNuggets tasted faintly of chicken. The fries were good until they got the slightest bit cold.

I noticed that both the lobby and drive-thru are open 24 hours. I almost gave a half-star bonus for this fact, but honestly, you'd be better off if it were closed more often.

McDonald's, 14300 Gallant Fox Lane
Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 10/7/2011
Total Foursquare Check-ins: 1
Pre-Foursquare Visits: In the 1980s
Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
McDonald's, Gallant Fox Lane

I have memories of stopping here about 25 years ago on the way to The Magic Page, a nearby comic book shop which has long since disappeared. It makes me sad that The Magic Page is gone, but that this McDonald's remains as one of the oldest restaurants in Bowie.

For my modern-day visit, I adopted another one of Martin's ideas. At one point, he was boycotting McDonald's -- except during breakfast. I had fond memories of, in days with less responsibility, groggily stumbling out of the house and stopping by for a Bacon, Egg & Cheese biscuit on my way to work.

So after a rough night with the kids, I decided to treat myself to Second Breakfast at this McDonald's. As with the other one, I decided to go inside for the full experience. Here, however, there was a really long line, and I decided I didn't want the full experience. Now being overcrowded at 10 am (not peak meal time) either means the service is slow, or the demand is really high. I guess the latter should give it some sort of thumbs up, but I couldn't help wishing the people would find someplace better to go.

The drive-thru wasn't super-slow, but it was somewhat puzzling. You pull up to a screen and speaker, next to which is a menu, which did not show the breakfast options. The apparatus says, "Confirm Your Order Here." But you don't actually order there; there's another apparatus you pull up to later which says "Order Here".

Other than that, the ordering experience was fine. The Bacon, Egg & Cheese biscuit was really disappointing, though. I think at this stage in life, I've realized that when you have bacon, eggs, cheese and a biscuit, you've got potential for something really great to happen, which made this meal all the sadder.

This McDonald's also open 24 hours, which means that neither is fulfilling a unique service for 3 am eats. IHOP is also open 24 hours. Though I haven't reviewed it yet, I have to believe you'd be better off there.

So if you win, you can quit your job at McDonald's?
I visited both McDonald's in the middle of their Monopoly promotion. (Tip: the "rare" pieces are always the last ones alphabetically, except for Broadway.) Thankfully, I didn't instant-win anything, so I don't feel compelled to go back to redeem it. But I noticed next to the $1 million prize they were advertising were the words, "No More Second Job." So if you get Boardwalk ("the approximate odds of collecting Boardwalk are 1 in 618,106,200"), you can look forward to...only working one job? Yay, America?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Bowie Restaurant Project: (20) T. J. Elliott's

For an explanation of the Bowie Restaurant Project, look here.

For a list of all the Bowie Restaurant Project reviews, look here.

T.J. Elliott's, 6814 Laurel-Bowie Road
Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 9/30/2011
Total Foursquare Check-ins: 2
Pre-Foursquare Visits: Maybe once in the 1990s
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I think I finally have the history straight. The Marcos family and another family opened Ledo Restaurant near College Park in the 1950s. Eventually the families parted ways, with the other family holding franchise rights to Ledo Pizza and the Marcos family running the original restaurant and, later, T.J. Elliott's in Bowie. That's why T.J. Elliott's features "Ledo pizza", but is not listed as a Ledo franchisee. There is actually an entertaining court opinion here which details a series of disputes between the two families.

All that's to say, if you like Ledo pizza, you might want to give T.J. Elliott's a look, but Christina's not a big fan, so we take our local pizza business elsewhere (the subject of a later review). I'm OK with that, because the Italian meals we've had at T.J. Elliott's have been some of the best food we've had in Bowie.

Our first visit there was after inspection on our house, where we still had the babysitter booked for a few hours. It was a nice place for a fairly casual dinner, and the clientèle seemed to be a diverse cross-section of Bowie. I tried to organize a dinner there later, but ended up at Uno Chicago Grill after finding out T.J. Elliott's only has two (or possibly three) high chairs. I organized a later dinner with eight adults and two children, and all the adults expressed satisfaction with the quality of food. My lasagna in particular was quite tasty.

The service was a little weak. ("Can I get you a refill on your drink?" 15 minutes later: "Oh, did you want a refill?") Christina attributes this to the inevitable turnover in waitstaff as the school year starts. I'm a little bit wary of adding it to my "places to take an interviewee" list for that reason -- but the food is so good, I think I will. I can now say, "What do you feel like, Chinese food, American food from a place that looks like it hasn't changed in 30 years, or Italian food?"

The only other negative I'd add is the location in a strip mall doesn't really give much atmosphere. I mean, look at the above picture. The inside is nice enough, but not spectacular. Still, it's Bowie -- how much more atmosphere are you going to get?

So four stars -- excellent food at a locally-owned business at a reasonable price. This is one of Bowie's best.

This doesn't really count as "Bowie restaurant news", since it's just an observation, but Christina and I stopped by the Crab Galley for dinner the other night to discover that it only does takeout. We're definitely going to try it some time, but -- not a restaurant. So that drops the count from 78 to 77.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Waymarking Statistics

In a previous post, I mentioned that while I had been enjoying waymarking more, geocaching had better statistics. That's still true, but that doesn't mean there are no statistics for waymarking.

BruceS, one of the more prolific waymarkers, has released a list of "Top 10 Contributors by Country". With 132 in the United States, I'm far away from the 2623 needed to make the list. I am, however, Estonia. Only two waymarkers exceeded the two waymarks I posted there.

There's a similar list for states, provinces and regions from last year. I was #4 on the Maryland list last year, but my totals have only gone from 92 to 100 since then, so I dropped to #5. (On the other hand, I am #8 in South Australia!)

My general waymark-posting pace is way down.  Here are the by-year statistics:
  • 2007     1
  • 2008     107    
  • 2009     48     
  • 2010     8     
  • 2011     9 
My visiting numbers are down as well.
  • 2007     17    
  • 2008     266    
  • 2009     217     
  • 2010     87     
  • 2011     27
I think that's because when I'm in Maryland, I'm more likely to feel like I can't spare the few minutes to stop and snap a picture of a potential waymark. When I'm traveling, I usually load the waymarks into my GPS receiver, but often find other things to be higher priorities during the trip.

In the new list of categories, the only category for which I'm "Top 10" (besides those so unpopular that one or two waymarks qualifies) is Maryland Historical Markers. That's a pretty cool category, and I know of two unwaymarked in Bowie that I should be able to get before anyone else.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Bowie Restaurant Project: (19) Hibachi Japan

Hibachi Japan Is Now Closed.
For an explanation of the Bowie Restaurant Project, look here.

For a list of all the Bowie Restaurant Project reviews, look here.

Hibachi Japan, 3856 Town Center Boulevard
Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 10/4/2011
Total Foursquare Check-ins:1
Pre-Foursquare Visits: Yes
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Every food court in America worth its salt has a bourbon chicken place. What I find weird is that it might be disguised as a Cajun food place or a Chinese food place, but it's basically a place where you can get bourbon chicken, rice and corn in a styrofoam container.  In Bowie, that place is a "Japanese" restaurant.

Now, on the menu, it's listed at "bon bon chicken", but the guy giving out samples of chicken on toothpicks (see picture, lower right) called it "bourbon chicken". That's another feature of these places -- they always offer you a sample on a toothpick. I always try both the bourbon chicken and the non-bourbon chicken (in this case, honey chicken), and then order the bourbon chicken.

The bourbon chicken here is pretty much exactly like the bourbon chicken at every other mall -- which is as it should be. I'm not going to give too high of a rating to a stand in a food court, but given that it plays an essential role in the food ecology of Bowie, I'll give it 3 stars.

Note that you can get other food like egg rolls (at a Japanese restaurant?) You can also get sushi. I'm not sure I would get sushi at a food court. (I take that back -- I have, but it's probably not a good idea.) When I last visited, they had menus sitting out for the East Moon Asian Bistro. So while I don't think there's an actual sushi chef hanging out at the mall hawking bourbon chicken, it's possible there's one at East Moon who's shipping fresh stuff over. But there are other sushi options in Bowie, so I'm not desperate to press my luck.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Bowie Restaurant Project: How to Review a Restaurant

For an explanation of the Bowie Restaurant Project, look here.

For a list of all the Bowie Restaurant Project reviews, look here.

At 18 out of 78(ish) restaurants reviewed, I'm about a quarter of the way through this project. The process has been somewhat ad hoc -- for example, where I decided what constitutes a restaurant.

One thing I've been thinking about is how many visits to give a restaurant before writing a review. One visit might not be enough -- I could catch a place on a rare bad day, or I could miss the fact that an establishment is terrible half of the time. On the other hand, this is not exactly a profit-making project, and I don't have the time to eat at every Subway twice in order to establish that it's exactly like every other Subway.

So here are the criteria I've established.
  • If it's part of a chain, and I've already visited other restaurants in the chain, one visit will suffice.
  • If not, two visits should suffice.
  • If the restaurant has table service, at least one of the visits should be dine-in; otherwise, I'll just look around at the seating options and feel free to take my food home.
Reviews for two places I've visited are currently on hold due to the dine-in requirement. Three are awaiting my second visit. Three technically meet all requirements, but I am having trouble forming an opinion and may require a re-visit. One I'm all set on, and a review should be appearing later in the week.

That leaves...about 50 restaurants to go. Ouch. Some are going to be tricky due to the dine-in requirement -- it's not easy dragging toddlers to new restaurants (though it's fun when they love it, as happened at one place this weekend). Some are going to be a pain because they have a dine-in requirement and are so uninspiring that I'm going to have trouble convincing someone to join me for the dine-in, with or without toddlers. (On a related note, see this article "What Does Your Choice of Casual Dining Chain Say About You?" Of the six chains they make fun of, Bowie lacks only a Red Lobster.)

On the other hand, half of what's left can probably be knocked out with a simple willingness to branch out during my lunchtime forays. This conflicts with my desire to pack a lunch more often, as well as the tempting convenience offered by the Uptown Cafe, whose arrival I noted last month. Still, if I end up at one or two a week, the project should move along to its planned 2012 conclusion.