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.