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.