Monday, August 31, 2009

Face Recognition

In a recent piece, I suggested, given the rise of face recognition software being used in applications like Apple's iPhoto and web-based photo services like Google's Picasa, that we as a society were on the verge of a major breakthrough. In the very near future, we might be able to locate pictures of ourselves in the vacation photos of complete strangers.

You might think, "Well, whoopee - what's so cool about that?" You'll have plenty of time to ponder that question because, after my recent experiences, I think we're a very long way yet from any global face recognition breakthrough.

My new laptop came with the latest version of iPhoto and I was able to really play with the face recognition function for the first time. At first I was impressed: when you go to a picture with a face on it and click "Name," iPhoto was quickly able to pick out the faces in the picture:

iPhoto was easily able to find my face in this photo

After that, all you have to do is label the faces it picks out and then iPhoto is supposed to go through your library and pick out other occurrences of this face - sounds simple enough. Knowing ahead of time that face recognition technology is far from perfected, I expected some level of error. Sadly, iPhoto's ability to (a) locate faces, and then (b) identify them based on a set of manually labeled pictures, doesn't quite live up to even my already lowered expectations and it comes up with astonishing amounts of false positives. On the plus side, these misidentifications proved incredibly amusing. Essentially everyone I know, male or female, young or old, bearded or clean-shaven, was identified as possibly being me - but it didn't stop there: I was numerous faceless inanimate objects as well.

Here are some of the best things that were tagged as me or Maggie in my photo library:

  • A pork pie with sliced pears
  • A fake aquarium plant
  • A baby in a bear suit
  • A clump of dirt
  • A yeoman warder
  • Sir Walter Raleigh
  • A spooky doll
  • A goose
  • Sir Joseph Banks
  • A cluster of tomatoes
  • A gelato spoon
  • A Malaysian curry
  • A bagel
  • Scary clown head
  • A chanterelle mushroom
  • The Golden Gate Bridge
  • A pizza
  • A snowball
  • A handrail
  • A solid black square
  • Grandpa Leo's birthday hula dancer
  • A spatula

  • Statue of Ron Howard
  • Cardboard cutout of Elvis
  • A granite counter tile
  • A Parisian living statue
  • Rear end of a pig
  • A frosty mug of root beer
  • A penguin
  • A snowy mountain
  • St. Francis of Assisi
  • The Eiffel Tower
  • Barrack Obama
  • This creepy mannequin
  • A camel
  • Lettuce
  • A "No Left Turn" sign
  • A carnivorous plant
  • A bus tire
  • Her own knee
  • Indian man with large scarf
Not Maggie

To be fair, iPhoto did get a lot of photos correct. However, given that a rather large percentage of my photos have either me or Maggie in them, I'm not sure it did significantly better than random. Oh well, I guess I'll have to wait a bit longer for the ability to find out-of-focus pictures of myself accidentally ruining someone else's travel photo.

Friday, August 21, 2009

How to Plan a New York Trip If You Like Food

The best thing about being a foodie traveler today is that there's more information available than ever before about local food and restaurants around the world. The problem is that most of this information isn't in guidebooks, it's scattered in magazines, newspapers, blogs, online review sites, or locked away in the brains of your foodie friends.

To be fair, guidebooks vary by publisher, location, and author, and some are significantly more thoughtful about food than others, but overall guidebooks are simply insufficient if you're a devoted foodie. Guidebooks have the built-in constraint that only a limited space can be allotted to food content, but the biggest problem I find is that the guidebooks aren't written specifically for me and my personal tastes. I don't really know why this is, in fact someone should really do something about that, but for some untold reason guidebooks are written to appeal to a broader audience, so I find that only a small fraction of the recommendations in most guidebooks are exactly what I'm looking for. I've included below a breakdown of the types of restaurants one can typically find in any given guidebook in the form of a colorful pie chart:

So how do you plan a trip if you're a foodie and you want to tailor a trip to your own peculiar food tastes? Write your own mini-guide. My version of this is almost embarrassingly low-tech: an extensive, sometime multi-page, always sloppily-written, longhand list that I keep in my pocket during the trip. Maybe once I break down and get a smart phone this will change (and, honestly, why I haven't typed these lists is beyond me), but I've done quite well so far with the hand-written list.

My well-used list of food destinations from my recent New York trip

When planning my recent New York trip, I came up with a few categories of places that I wanted to hit during this trip (e.g., pizza joints, gelaterias, hummuiots [see below]), then I pulled together info from various sources including places I've loved from previous trips, recommendations from friends, Yelp, Chowhound, TV food shows, New York bloggers, and various New York publications.

Luckily, Maggie and I have compatible traveling styles: we both like to have a small number of activites planned in advance (typically only things that require advance planning like theater), and then we come up with a list of things we might like to do during the rest of the trip. This allows flexibility in case the weather is bad or unplanned laziness strikes, and it generally lets you do exactly what you want to do at any given moment, which is something I look forward to on vacation. With the food list in your pocket, no matter what neighborhood you find yourself in, there's a good chance that the list has something tasty nearby to try. If not, then guidebooks, concierges, cabbies, serendipity, and your nose can fill in the gaps, and it's always fun to include some off-list experiences.

Highlights from the list:

1. Pizza. I mostly covered the pizza experiences in the previous New York post, but this serves as an illustration of one way the list helps keep you flexible: we wanted to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, which neither of us had done before, but we didn't know what day we were going to do it as it relied heavily on weather. What we did know is that whenever we did cross the Brooklyn Bridge, we'd be right near Grimaldi's at lunch time, so having the address/directions, say on a hand-written list in your pocket, could come in quite handy.

On the way to Grimaldi's (looking back at Manhattan)

2. Hummusiots. I had read an article in the New York Times about the rising popularity of hummusiots, restaurants where hummus is the star of the show. I had been to one such place in London (Hummus Bros) that had disappointingly under-seasoned hummus, but the NY Times article talked up several locations and got me craving some really good homemade hummus.

Hummus with chickpeas from Hummus Place

I have to give credit to my trusty Lonely Planet guidebook on this one, because the best hummus we had in New York was from the amazing Taïm in the West Village, recommended in the guidebook but not even mentioned in the NY Times piece. If you go to Taïm, don't stop at the hummus: make sure you try the falafel, the salads, the brown sugar lemonade, and pretty much anything else they make. If you're curious, Taïm has a series of podcasts that show you how to make many of their dishes (including the hummus).

3. Breakfast. Anyone who knows me well (or even slightly) knows of my love for all things breakfast-related. Despite having a free continental breakfast at our hotel, always a plus, we had to go out for a few breakfasts to explore a bit of Manhattan's breakfast scene. I could claim that I got the tip to go to Clinton Street Baking Co. in the Lower East Side from a recent issue of Lonely Planet Magazine, but in fact I saw it first on an episode of Throwdown! with Bobby Flay, where they competed with Bobby Flay to see who makes a better blueberry pancake.

Breakfast at Clinton Street Baking Co.

I had every intention of ordering the pancakes until I saw the menu. I love places that make it difficult to order by having too many tempting things on the menu, and Clinton St. Baking Co. is definitely one of those. In the end I went with the Southern Breakfast with eggs, cheese grits, fried green tomatoes, and sugar-cured bacon, while Maggie went with a southwestern-style breakfast roughly the size of her head that involved homemade biscuits and tomatillo sauce.

4. Root beer floats. Always on a quest for amazing root beer floats, I did some research on Chowhound and found a few places recommended around Manhattan. At dinner with some of our NY friends at Peasant in Nolita, they snagged our list and eagerly scoured it crossing out things that weren't worth our time, adding arrows, exclamation points, and underlines to things we should definitely do, and even writing in a few additional places that fit our interests. Shake Shack got an emphatic arrow, and prompted one of our friends to say in satisfied caveman voice, "Shake Shack! Shake Shack gooooood!" This was high praise indeed.

Inside Shake Shack - keen eyes will observe a rare and very discerning choice here: Abita Root Beer on tap

The fact that they had Abita Root Beer on tap, my current favorite root beer for making root beer floats, was an excellent sign, as was the fact that they use homemade frozen custard. Sure enough, the float was excellent, but was overshadowed by the almost supernaturally delicious burgers. These aren't ultra-gourmet burgers (although they do use high quality ingredients), they're just really good fastfood-style burgers but with a sprinkling of magic unicorn horn to make you crave more.

Off-list highlights:

1. The Sturgeon King. I feel ashamed now, but I purposely left Barney Greengrass the Sturgeon King off of my list assuming it would be silly and contrived. Boy was I wrong.

We had two other excellent breakfasts out, one at Clinton Street Baking Co., and the other at Blue Ribbon Bar, but our breakfast at the Sturgeon King was far and away my favorite. Complaining that the H&H Bagels on the Upper West Side makes incredible bagels but doesn't toast them, our Shake-Shack-loving friends pointed out that the Sturgeon King serves toasted H&H bagels with their fish platters. That alone was enough to convince me to give it a try.

Inside Barney Greengrass the Sturgeon King

I know smoked fish for breakfast isn't for everyone - and I don't want it every day myself - but when I'm in the mood and it's high quality, it can be amazing. This was one of those times.

H&H Bagels with a Nova lox and whitefish platter

Beyond the excellent food, The Sturgeon King has some serious character, not to mention some serious characters working there, which makes only adds to the experience. This ain't TGI Friday's.

2. A Brief Seinfeld Moment. I didn't eat here but had to take its picture when we happened to walk by on the way to a friend's apartment:

It felt wrong to see this view without a laugh track and bass riff

3. Cheesecake. I wasn't planning to go out of my way for cheesecake on this trip, but I chanced across a Junior's counter just as they were closing for the night in the food hall at Grand Central Terminal.

Junior's cheesecake is a bit sweet, the crust gets a tad soggy, but the flavor's good and the consistency has the mix of lightness and richness that I look for in a cheesecake. Interestingly, it tastes even better when eaten off the ticket counter in the main hall of Grand Central.

Between the list and the off-list places, we ate extremely well, in fact I can't recall a trip in which I was happier with the food, and we mostly avoided very high-end places. Next step, typing the list so I don't have to rewrite it every time.

For the über-curious, here's a map of all of the places we ate on our New York trip, and I'm happy to go into silly levels of detail upon request.

View New York Food Spots - July 2009 in a larger map

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Oh Deer

Spotted today in Alameda Towne Centre, a place known more for cheesy piped music and chain stores than for offbeat humor:

Please do not feed or sit on the deer

If you trust the sign, feeding the bronze deer statues might be unwise. I suppose it might make the statues reliant on human handouts and lead them to favor human foods, certainly less healthy than their typical diet of wild landscaping plants.

Is this intentional humor, or are they really worried about people trying to give the deer a sip of their Jamba Juice?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Pizza Love and Understanding

When I think of New York food, several things spring to mind: pastrami sandwiches, bagels, hot dogs, and, best of all to my mind, pizza. There's good pizza throughout the US, but there's something about New York pizza that makes me want to run down to the airport and catch the next plane going east.

On my first visit to New York, I had convinced myself ahead of time that New York style pizza was overrated: after all, the pizza I'd had in California that was billed as New York style was bland, used sub-par ingredients, and was generally about as interesting as chewing on a wet newspaper. By the same token, I'm sure many New Yorkers probably think West Coast pizza is all soulless dreck covered in tofu, aioli, pineapple, and a variety of toppings that have no business prancing their way onto a pizza. If so, they're just as wrong as I was.

I never seem to have enough time (or pizza stamina) to try all of the places that crop up in the never-ending New York pizza arguments so I'm not even close to being able to say I've found the absolute best, but this past month I managed to squeeze in meals at three of the classics: John's of Bleecker Street, Arturo's, and Grimaldi's.

John's was my first love in New York pizza and continues to be my favorite. The signed headshot of Vanilla Ice on the wall that says "Keep makin' dope pizza" doesn't inspire much confidence in the quality, but Mr. Ice seems to know his pizza because pizza doesn't get much more dope than John's. It was a simple margherita pizza at John's that showed me what New York pizza was really about: super-high heat from a coal-fired brick oven, quality ingredients, a crust that's thin but has some attitude, and, in true New York fashion, no bullshit.

The margherita pizza at John's

There's a philosophical cheese divide amongst New York pizza fans: some prefer the cheese in small rounds distributed across the pie (e.g., Grimaldi's), others prefer an even spread of grated cheese (e.g., John's). Honestly they both have their merits, and I can't say I strongly prefer one over the other but I give a slight edge to the John's style. At John's, apart from the delicious char marks from the oven, you get a pretty even experience all the way, but at Grimaldi's you get a very heterogeneous pie: one bite will be mostly sauce, the next will have a piece of chewy melted fresh mozzarella.

Pizza Margherita at Grimaldi's

Grimaldi's has several things going for it: they have probably the prettiest pizzas you'll see anywhere, the location under the Brooklyn Bridge is unique and scenic, and the staff are friendly and at least as saucy as the pizza. Perhaps revealing my West Coast origin, I asked the waiter if they had salad. This was apparently a funny question.

The local Olde Brooklyn Root Beer at Grimaldi's

The Brooklyn Bridge looms over Grimaldi's

Oh, and Grimaldi's has perhaps best pizza poster ever:

Now you come and say "Don Corleone, give me pizza," but you don't ask with respect.

Arturo's is perhaps not as well known as Grimaldi's or John's, but often shows up on favorite lists by locals. With a live piano player, Arturo's provided the best entertainment of the three, but the pizza didn't quite live up to expectations the night we went: the crust was a bit too burnt around the edge, and the cheese to sauce ratio skewed way too far in the cheese direction. The fact that they serve Boylan's root beer (good choice) and the restaurant has a pleasantly quirky atmosphere helps a lot, but the pizza that night wasn't in the same league as John's or Grimaldi's.

Mushroom pie at Arturo's

To sum it all up, here's a handy table with the various attributes rated on a 1-10 scale:

Overall Score
Bonus Points
Root beer by the pitcher, headshots of Bruno Kirby and Vanilla Ice
Local root beer, friendly, location
Boylan's root beer, quirky place, live music

All three restaurants make a solid pie, and I'd even be happy eat at Arturo's again because I have the feeling that I hit them on an off night. John's just ekes out the victory here with their amazing tomato sauce and their magical ability to pull more flavor than should be possible from the few ingredients, but the Grimaldi's pie is a very close contender and has one of the best crusts you'll ever find - definitely a pizza you can't refuse.