Saturday, May 24, 2008

On the road again: Balticon, day 2

I slept a bit over seven hours last night, and though I didn't awaken feeling a hundred percent healthy and rested, the sleep did help. After some work, we headed out to the Hampden area, which I mentioned in last year's Balticon entries, and lunch at Cafe Hon. The food was, as always, tasty diner-style fare, and the atmosphere was as funky as ever.

We spent a little time walking among the shops and stopping at Atomic Pop and Atomic Books, where I dropped some money on some seriously odd books. As I also said before, I love both shops. I had to leave them early, however, because as a phone call from the concom reminded me, I was due back at the con.

After registering, I walked the dealer's room, signed some books, and was happy to see a stack of One Jump Ahead paperbacks on Larry Smith's table. Go, Larry!

I then headed to a panel on Medicine in SF. The crowd was small, maybe a dozen folks, and only three of the four panelists showed up, but we had a lively and, to the best of my ability to tell, interesting discussion. After a grocery store run and some more work, I changed and returned to the con for opening ceremonies. After they introduced the main guests of honor--Connie Willis and John Jude Palencar were the writer and artist headliners--Naomi Novik, last year's Compton Crook winner, presented me with the award plaque. (I assume the concom will give me the check later; if not, I'm not too bashful to remind them.) The audience treated me nicely, and it was a very touching time for me.

A few minutes later, as the opening ceremonies were winding down, we headed to my favorite Baltimore restaurant, Chef Cindy Wolf's Charleston. Four of us enjoyed an excellent dinner; all of my dishes were, as always there, flavorful and perfectly executed. Because we couldn't start until after 9:00, we were, of course, running late, but that was okay; I'd planned for that.

What I didn't plan for was the over an hour we wasted as the freeway narrowed to one lane and all of the traffic funneled toward an area jammed with police cars whose lights were flashing. We were convinced something terrible had happened.

Nope. Someone in the Maryland government had decided to have the cops stop all cars and perform sobriety checks, then pass out anti-drinking leaflets. Here's how the test worked:

Cop: "Hi. We're the Maryland State Police, and we're performing sobriety tests to catch drunken drivers. Is that you?"

Me: "No. I don't even drink."

Cop: (handing me a leaflet) "Okay then. Have a good night."

Wow, do I feel safer. I understand that the officer might have been able to smell alcohol on my breath, but seriously: if you're going to waste an hour of my time, at least do something that might possibly be useful.

Needless to say, for the rest of our ride our car full of non-drinkers was awash in negative emotions that ranged from annoyance to full anger. I didn't mouth off to the cop, however, because I'm sure he didn't choose to be doing this particular job.

Despite that ending, it was a good day, and I'm grateful for the award and the nice treatment by the con folks.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

One Jump Ahead won the 2008 Compton Crook Award for best first novel!

Wow, am I tickled. The kind folks of the Baltimore Science Fiction Society (BSFS) present this award, which is for the best first SF or fantasy novel of the previous year. (You can read their rules here, and you can see the list of all past winners here.) I felt very lucky to be in the company of the other four nominees:

The Blade Itself, Joe Abercrombie (Pyr)
The Outback Stars, Sandra McDonald (Tor)
The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss (DAW)
Magic Lost, Trouble Found, Lisa Shearin (Ace)

and I'm frankly quite surprised--as well as very happy--that One Jump Ahead won.

As I've mentioned before, I've attended almost all of the Balticons since my first one in 1978. I've attended the masquerade every year I was here, and before each costume contest began I've watched the con give the award to some lucky writer. (This year, they're presenting it at the Friday night opening ceremonies.) Each time I saw this ceremony, I thought, "Wouldn't it be cool to win that someday?"

Now, I know the answer: Yup, it's cool.

Thanks, BSFS. I really appreciate it. Thanks also Joe Abercrombie, Sandra McDonald,
Patrick Rothfuss, and Lisa Shearin, for letting me stand in your company. I'm honored.

On the road again: Balticon, day 1

As usual, I start my trip report with the first day I travel, which is often not the first day of the event I'm attending. Thus, though Balticon officially cranks up tomorrow, my Balticon adventure began today.

First, an important safety tip: Riding for six hours in a car with a hurt back is not a fun time, so don't do it if you can avoid it. I could not. That said, the journey was far less painful than I had feared, thanks to frequent stops, shared driving, and a huge dinner break.

Said meal was at Cityzen, a lovely restaurant in the beautiful Mandarin Oriental Hotel in D.C. (The con is not in that hotel, by the way; I can't imagine the SF con that could afford it. We simply stopped there for the restaurant.) We almost always choose the chef's tasting menu with the most courses, which in this case was nine, but we didn't tonight. The options for the three-course menu simply looked better, and with the addition of a cheese course, we had both more food than we needed and the dishes we wanted.

The dishes were delicious and interesting, with a high point being the fried cake of shredded pig head flesh on top of some greens. If you're in the D.C. area, make your reservation and settle in for an excellent meal.

I am now in my room, working, so at least that much of my world is normal, and that is good. I shall write, and then I shall rest. Tomorrow, I'll get in some tourist time, then hit the con, and wind up the day with friends and dinner at one of my favorite restaurants. I'm a lucky guy.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Heading out in the morning

Tomorrow morning, we head to Baltimore for Balticon. I'm on a bunch of panels, so they're definitely keeping me busy. If you're at the con, please stop by one of the events in which I'm participating and introduce yourself. If you'd like some free stuff, be sure to come by the Baen Books Presents session, which Jennie and I are running, because we'll be giving away books, ARCs, cover flats, and assorted cool and odd swag.

While up there, I also plan to eat at a few of my favorite local restaurants, visit with Kyle, catch the UFC PPV, and so on. I'll report back here on how it goes.

The trickiest part about the trip is managing the drive with a very sore back and a bunch of work obligations--I have multiple conference calls to do from the car. It'll all work out, of course, but right now it's not shaping up to be the most relaxing drive I've ever taken. Still, I've gone to most of the Balticons since my first in 1978, and I'm looking forward to this one.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

My ideal notebook PC

In the course of a conversation at work today with Bill and Mark, I described my current (as of about 5:00 p.m. Eastern time) ideal notebook PC:

* Start with a MacBook Air. Keep its size and weight and display.

* Put in a 256GB solid-state "disk" that delivers the far faster (than current SSD drives have) sequential read and write speeds that Intel's been claiming its upcoming offerings will achieve

* Replace the graphics with something on the order of an NVIDIA 8800, i.e., something that can easily drive a 30-inch monitor

* Make the monitor connection able to drive a dual-DVI, 30-inch monitor

* Dual-boot Leopard and Vista, plus have the newest Fusion VM software ready to go

* 8GB of RAM

* Double the camera's quality, both as a Webcam and as a still camera

* Make the Time Machine/Time Capsule backup work for both the Leopard and Vista partitions

That's all I want. It's not much, not really. After all, I can describe it, so Apple should be able to build it.

For that matter, I'd take the same product from Dell or any other company, provided it's at least as sleek and attractive and, of course, has all the above features.

If you've ever wondered how much of a geek I was, the fact that I keep in my head and update often the specs of my ideal notebook should help you answer that question.

Monday, May 19, 2008

I hate being hurt

Which is exactly what I am right now. I went to bed Saturday night with a slightly sore back. I awoke an hour later in serious pain and found I could not sit up or stand up. So, I rolled myself out of bed and then pulled myself up to first a kneeling and then, after much pain and time, a standing position. The process took multiple minutes and involved enough pain to make me grunt, cry out, and tear up. Wow, did it hurt.

I repeated this process several times before I gave up trying to sleep any more.

Thanks to some persuasion by Jennie, her chiropractor opened his office on Sunday, when he would normally be enjoying a day off, and saw me. He worked on me then and again this morning. I'm slowly getting better, but the emphasis is definitely on slowly. I can't sit or stand without significant pain, and the transitions between positions are amazingly bad.

Of course, in the interest of full disclosure I should note that I am not following the doctor's instructions. He wanted me to spend the first twenty-four hours on my back, with ice for fifteen minutes every hour, and I just could not do that. He also wanted me not to sit at all. Not sitting basically equals not working, so no way could I follow that part of the program. I did as best I could, I finished the work I had to do (including the day's writing, of course), and as a result I'm probably healing more slowly than I would have. I hate it, but so it goes. The work must go on.

This attitude, by the way, caused Jennie to remark, "You have the common sense God gave a barnacle." She and Sarah now refer to me as Barnacle Man or, if in a very good mood, Commodore Barnacle. The first sounds like a particularly sad superhero, while the second strikes me as the fleet commander in a Napoleonic naval parody, so given a choice--which, of course, I never get--I'd opt for the former.

To illustrate my astonishing good sense, I will see the chiropractor the next two mornings, then head Thursday for Baltimore, Balticon, some fine meals, time with fan friends, time with Kyle and the UFC Saturday night PPV, and much more. The doctor said healing should take three to four weeks. I'm giving my back until Thursday morning to return to normal. It better listen up.

Oh, in case you're wondering how I injured myself, the truth is, I have no clue. I must have sat wrong for a long period of time, which is how I hurt my back the last two times. Amazing.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Mint: The best restaurant in the Research Triangle area

After the bellydancing show last night, we went to dinner at The Mint at One Exchange Plaza, a relatively new (opened in January) restaurant in downtown Raleigh. We entered with some doubts, because the local Raleigh restaurant critic had given it the same rating as several other places we'd tried recently, and all of them had disappointed us a bit. We left three hours later sure in the knowledge that the critic was wrong--he should have ranked The Mint much, much higher than all the others--and that we'd just eaten at the best restaurant in the area.

The moment you spot the lovely entranceway and take advantage of the free valet parking, you begin to hope for something special. The interior, complete with bank vault door leading from the foyer into the dining room, is elegant and way more big city in feel than one expects in our area. Attractive design touches abound: a winding staircase to the bar upstairs, strands of crystal hanging in the two-story-high windows, nifty place settings and candle holders, and so on. In the wrong mood I might take the designer as having tried a bit too hard, but even then I'd admire the effort. I was in the right mood, however, so I loved the place.

The real star of the show, though, is the food. Executive Chef Jeremy Clayman and Chef Eric Foster (whose title I regret I did not get) are a potent, talented, young team. We'd read in the local paper that they were slowly introducing Raleigh to molecular gastronomy, so we begged them to hold back nothing, to create a tasting menu they wanted to cook, charge us whatever was fair, and hit us with their best shots. They did. The resulting meal included many courses (I didn't count, but at least nine), and each one was delicious, inventive, playful, and interesting. For those afraid of molecular gastronomy, note the first word in that list: delicious. Just order the food, put it in your mouth, close your eyes, and experience it.

We were lucky enough to be able to talk to the chefs for a few minutes after the meal, and they said that they were encountering some resistance to their techniques. Though that's probably something we should expect from Raliegh, I'm still very sorry to hear it, because these two are superb at what they do.

Let me give one example, the dish I believe would be most likely to scare away most diners. (None of the others was this weird, so I figure if you can get your heads around this one, you can handle the rest.) In a beautiful, small, white bowl we received a dish that looked like a slice of sardine sitting atop some reddish-brown crumbs and some tiny yellow-white balls. The dish was in fact a Spanish sardine atop pound cake crumbs and banana ice cream dots--and it wasn't a dessert. Okay, I grant it wasn't traditional, and I can see how it might put you off, but if you passed it by you'd be missing something wonderful. Cut the sardine and use a spoon to put a bit of it, some dots, and some cake crumbs into your mouth all at once. Chew, and you experience the true joy and magic of adventuresome cuisine (molecular gastronomy or otherwise): a wonderful blending of textures (crumbs and popping dots and the soft flesh of the sardine) and tastes that you've never experienced before, something totally new and joyful. The fishiness of the sardine vanished and left a briney flavor that mixed beautifully with the other ingredients. Amazing.

The Mint doesn't post its offer of a tasting menu, but I highly recommend asking them to create one for you. These guys are artists, so hand them money, sit back, and let them work. I'll be returning many times to do it again. I'll also go to try the items on the menu; if they cook it, I want to eat it.

I should also note that the service, led by our main server, Kevin Barrett, was attentive without being intrusive and generally quite good. I'm only downplaying it because the food is so stellar.

I still adore Piedmont and Rue Cler and many other local favorites, and I'll dine at each of them often. When you eat the The Mint's tasting menu, however, you're entering another level. I've dined at about half of the country's top-rated restaurants, and the highest praise I can give The Mint is this: my meal last night held its own against the best I've had.

Keep this place in business, and encourage Clayman and Foster to keep practicing and improving their art. Take a chance on their talents, and you'll be very glad you did.

Unexpected art

Earlier tonight, I attended a hafla at which Jennie was dancing with fellow bellydance students. The organizers billed the event as an "Experimental Dance Theater Show," words that would normally send me fleeing. In this case, however, it amounted to bellydancers mixing other techniques with bellydancing and performing to non-traditional music. So, I wasn't too worried.

I did not, on the other hand, expect to find much to charm me. After all, we're talking experimental dance.

I was wrong.

I enjoyed almost all of the performances, but two stood out and reminded me of the great pleasure even small bits of art can provide.

The first was an interpretive dance to Annie Lennox's "Little Bird." From the write-up and the on-stage setup (a blindfolded, heavyset dancer with her legs bound together with ribbons), I expected the worst kind of interpretive dance. Instead, the dancer's exuberance and her obvious joy in the performance elevated it into a small moment of sincere art. Sincerity is something many critics use only in negative reviews, but I hate that; sincere feelings matter. In any case, this woman's performance won me over.

The second dance that really grabbed me was a tribal fusion number set to Static X's "So Cold." The dancer, an instructor in another city, had a mesmerizing stage presence and amazing body control and movements. I'd attend an hour of just her dancing.

I often fear that left to my own devices I might not leave my house for large stretches at a time, content to work and immerse myself in reading and electronic entertainments. Nine out of ten times that someeone persuades me to attend a live performance, however, I come away glad I did. I should not forget that fact.

It's late, and I have more work to do, so I will save for tomorrow my review of what I now believe to be absolutely the best restaurant in my area.


Blog Archive