Ken made a nice American style meal for us last night. A big delicious US corn-fed filet mignon (from Geiser, a local butcher) And a nearly US-style baked potato. Not a russet, more like a yellow potato, wrapped in gold foil like it was something precious.

The bacon was too thinly sliced and we could only find crème fraîche, no sour cream. But it tasted just like home. You don't see US style beef here; Swiss beef is chewier, more beefy. Probably grass fed. Our imported steak was a beautiful cut of meat. About 1.5x more expensive than you'd pay in the US.

  2005-10-27 10:44 Z
Want to combine Alps, lakes, and palm trees with Swiss efficiency and Italian culture? Lugano is a lovely Ticino resort town, so warm our hotel had a banana grove! Here are some photos.

The best part of the weekend was the train ride to Lugano. A spectacular route through the center of the country, the mountains, and over and through St. Gotthard. We scored a panorama car; Ken and I were practically speechless the whole three hour trip. On the way down we passed a cool vintage steam train also making the journey.

Lugano's a bit sleepy in late October, and unfortunately we hit crappy weather so couldn't enjoy the lake or mountains. It's a pretty town though, with lots to walk around and shop and see. We had an excellent dinner at Arté, a welcome delicate touch in the kitchen.

Our rainy day Sunday trip was to Mendrisio, a little town near the Italian border. The attraction there was the model train musuem with hundreds of beautiful cars on display as well as a bunch of complex layouts. Also a surprisingly good lunch at Hotel Milano. If you're into model trains Mendrisio is worth a special trip. Otherwise, not so much.

We've been enjoying the weekend excursions but it's a bit exhausting to work all week and then travel all weekend. But we've only got three weeks left, no time to rest!

  2005-10-26 07:40 Z
Munich is a big city, but at Oktoberfest it gets full. My weekend started off badly with a 5 hour train crowded with Swiss getting an early start on Oktoberfest, followed by rain and a city full of drunk tourists. Having the hotel right next to the train station scumminess didn't help.

As an antidote to all this drunken chaos we headed out first to visit Dachau. Germany has done an excellent job grappling with the horror of its recent history. It's worth visiting one of the concentration camp memorials, both to remember the history and to see how contemporary Germany reflects on it. Very bleak.

The next day was still rainy and drunk-full, so we went to the Pinakothek, Munich's art museum complex. We went to the Moderne, but while I generally like contemporary art their collection was tedious. Happily Ken insisted we go to the Alte Pinakothek where I learned about Albrecht Altdorfer, a painter from the same period as Albrecht Dürer and Hieronymous Bosch. Absolutely amazing dense canvases with beautiful control of light combined with phenomenal detail. Visiting the Battle of Alexander alone is worth the trip.

We finally hit the Wies'n on the last day of Oktoberfest, a holiday Monday when most of the non-Germans had gone home. I was afraid of the crowds and drunks, but I hadn't considered the Gemütlichkeit. Bavarians truly are a friendly and welcoming bunch, particularly after everyone's had a couple of beers. If by "couple" you mean "several litres", spaced over a whole day with roast chickens to cushion the blow. My favourite beer: Augustiner Edelstoff.

Oktoberfest is simple. A bunch of giant tents house thousands of people each who sit down, pay 7,10€ for litres of beer, listen to traditional Bavarian music, and sing and chat. This kind of giant drinking party would be a total disaster in the US, but in Germany folks handle themselves well. It was a wonderful day.

Munich is a big and fairly sophisticated city, worth several visits. I'd like to go back in the late spring, when there's beer garden weather and Oktoberfest isn't distorting things. BTW, the traditional greeting in Munich is "Grüss Gott". It means roughly the same thing as "Allahu Akbar".

  2005-10-21 07:27 Z
Last weekend's excursion was two days in Sankt Gallen with a side trip to Appenzell. A perfect Swiss weekend: light luggage, short train ride, good food, and Alpine cows. I have lots of photos.

Sankt Gallen is the kind of place I'd never visit from the US but is a great weekend trip when you're nearby. Its big claim to fame is the abbey, a monastery that dates back to 613 AD and has been a seat of knowledge ever since then. The abbey still quietly dominates the city center and the rococo library and the church are the main tourist sites in town. Some amazing carvings in the church. Wood carving is quite a theme in Sankt Gallen, with many many beautifully decorated window boxes and sculptures on buildings in the old town.

Sankt Gallen also gave me hope for Swiss German food. It's still all roast meat, brown sauce, and rösti. But when done well like at zur Alten Post, with friendly service, it's good. And we stumbled into something great at Am Gallusplatz, a wine cellar going back to 1891 with reasonable prices! We had a 1970 Lafite Rothschild that was just lovely. We plan on going back for one night just for dinner (well, wine really). The "good wine at reasonable prices" theme continued with a 2000 Lynch Bages in Appenzell at the Hotel Krone.

Appenzell is interestingly rustic, a collection of villages and houses spread out across the mountain slopes. Buildings are often gaily painted, and life in general seems good. Then again it's a bit backwards; Appenzell only allowed women to vote in 1991. The train and wanderweg system is incredibly efficient. You have to love a place where you can set out at 11am with no specific plan and easily find 90 minutes of trains, an hour hike in the valley, and shopping and lunch.

This last weekend is the closest we've come to acting like we really live in Switzerland. A pleasant weekend trip, not a serious tourist journey. Great way to live.

  2005-10-19 07:54 Z
The EFF made some big news. DocuColor printers hide the date, time, and serial number of the printer in every image they print.
It's not really a surprise that this watermarking exists, but it is a surprise that it's so transparent. Any idiot with a blue lightbulb can read it; no cryptography at all.

The EFF does good work and could use your support.

  2005-10-18 13:02 Z
Printing SBB tickets online is convenient, but the tickets you get are quite restricted. They're only good for one day, they are only good for one person, and there's no refund or exchange. By contrast normal tickets are good for three months and are quite liberally refundable.

I think the reason online tickets are so restricted is they have no way to mark a ticket as used! Normally the conductor punches your ticket when it's used so you can't use it again another day. But with online tickets punching doesn't do any good; you could just print another one and use it the next day. In other words, online tickets are not printed on counterfeit-proof ticket stock. So to limit exposure the ticket is only good for one day.

They could have built an online system where the conductor's computer validates your ticket against a central database that's updated with what tickets are used, but that's awfully complicated. Limiting tickets works, too. There's still one way to game the system; you could travel twice in one day on the same route with the same ticket. But that's not terribly useful, so they probably don't worry about it.

We had order #398666 on 2005-09-02 and order #467833 on 2005-10-14. Assuming order numbers are serial, that's about 1650 tickets sold online a day.

  2005-10-14 13:09 Z
For the last 24 hours I've been listening over and over again to this new new Thelonious Monk / John Coltrane release from the Five Spot era. It's absolutely brilliant, overwhelming in its beauty. If you care at all about jazz rush out and buy a copy of this now.

The existence of this recording is a miracle, something like finding a previously covered up section of ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. It comes from the legendary 1957 collaboration between Monk and Coltrane, at the height of their development, of which there are almost no recordings. Until someone stumbled into a tape in the Library of Congress archives this year. And it was good.

But forget all that, just listen to this recording. It's amazing.

  2005-10-13 06:30 Z
Today's IHT has an astonishing article about the North Korea Mass Games.

20,000 schoolchildren filling the side of one of the world's largest stadiums flip giant cards with such synchronicity that they form a gigantic screen flashing picture-quality images and communist slogans. ...

It gave me shudders. I watched again and again, but could see not a single child making a mistake ... the children moved as if they were controlled by the enter key in your computer.

Mass gymnastics foster particularly healthy and strong physiques, a high degree of organization, discipline and collectivism in schoolchildren ... The schoolchildren, conscious that a single slip in their action may spoil their mass gymnastic performance, make every effort to subordinate all their thoughts and actions to the collective.

When it comes to making people move like robots, nobody can beat North Korea.

Someone must have video.
  2005-10-11 18:50 Z
Sorry for the absence, I was off touristing for a week. We went to München for Oktoberfest, then Heidelberg, Strasbourg, and a little town near Epernay in Champagne. Nice little trip, a lot of good food and wine and beer. And a lot of time on trains; 8 hours on 6 different trains today! But I'm home with 400+ photos. Details to come.
  2005-10-10 19:31 Z