On Nearly Losing a Phone in New York

October 27th, 2009 § 1 comment § permalink

Tonight had all the makings of a disastrous evening. It came arse-clenchingly close, but it did not come to pass.

I left work at 7:00 or so, and decided to take a longer route home, mostly to make a change from the West Side Greenway, which, while fast and convenient, can get a bit tedious after hammering back and forth for days on end. I headed up 8th Avenue, after dodging gaggles of pedestrians who had meandered off the sidewalk, and food vendors dragging hot-dog carts up the street. My plan was to follow the Central Park Drive counter-clockwise from Columbus Circle up to 110th Street.

I hit my stride somewhere around 89th street, near the Guggenheim Museum, cruising along just above 20mph. I had my iPhone in the pocket of my sweater, with the headphones stuffed in on top. Those headphones must have unraveled themselves, because I saw them get wrapped around my handlebars for a split second, before my right leg turned another revolution of the pedals, yanking the iPhone out of my pocket and down to the street.


I slammed on the brakes, and flipped the bike around as quickly as I could without rolling it over. I expected to see the phone on the street, fifty yards back, with the white headphones sprawled out across the asphalt. Maybe with a cracked screen or case. Instead, I found nothing. Not even any fragments of shattered glass or a torn-off earbud.

Double Shit.

OK, I thought. The phone must have bounced to the edge of the street. I zigzagged my bike up and down the street for a hundred yards in either direction, kicking up piles of leaves hoping that my phone was hiding under one of them. Still nothing. I began to think that one of the runners who had passed me had snapped up the phone in the few seconds it took me to stop and turn around.

It had been fifteen or twenty minutes at this point, and, at very least, I knew I would be home much later than antipated. As the ever-prepared computer nerd, I broke out my laptop and Sprint card, fired up Skype, and called Alex to tell her what was going on.

“Should I call your phone?” she asked.

“I don’t think there’s much point. One of the joggers could easily have picked it up and walked off with it. I’m going to keep looking for it here for a while.”

“OK”, she said. We hung up.

I un-clipped the headlamp from my bike and started walking up and down the same bit of roadway, looking for the phone. I was more or less resigned to the fact that my phone was long gone, and tomorrow I’d have to own up to my employer that I’d carelessly thrown their phone on the ground in Central Park and, worse, managed to let someone pinch it, too. I gave myself another ten minutes. If I hadn’t found it by then, I’d give up, then slink off home and begin the tedious process of changing the credentials for all the accounts that had anything stored on that iPhone.

I was in the middle of peering down into a storm drain with my headlight when someone called out to me:

“Are you Guy?”

A woman walked up to me, holding my phone. In perfect condition. I nearly passed out with relief.

It turns out that she was, indeed, one of the joggers, and had seen the phone on the ground. She had lost something in the park recently, too, and thought that she had better take the phone to the Central Park police precinct to turn in. On her way there, the phone rang. It was Alex, calling my phone anyway, just in case. Alex had described me to her (“He’s riding a bike, wears glasses, and speaks with a British accent. If someone says its their phone and doesn’t have an accent, it’s not him”), and the woman had gone back to where she found my phone, and caught up with me. Her name was Claire. I shook her hand, thanked her profusely, and she went on her way.

Anyone could have found that phone, walked off with it, and nobody would be any the wiser. Worse, they could have wreaked a little bit of havoc on my life with my stored data. If New York mythology is to be believed, the city is full of villains and miscreants, none of whom would even think twice about pocketing a valuable find. Rather, Claire bothered to pick it up and send it back to its owner. Whatever it was that she lost in Central Park, she deserves to find it. And I deserve a swift kick in the pants for being so bloody careless.

In Search of A Proper Old Fashioned

October 17th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

My good friend Pat and I have a longstanding disagreement, which bubbles to the surface every time we get together for cocktails. It concerns the correct way to make an Old Fashioned. I contend that an Old Fashioned should be merely sugar, water, bourbon, bitters, and some lemon peel, while Pat believes that an Old Fashioned should be bourbon, muddled fruit, bitters, and soda water.

Wikipedia refuses to take a side on the issue, saying:

Most modern recipes top off an Old Fashioned cocktail with soda water. Purists decry this practice, and insist that soda water is never permitted in a true Old Fashioned cocktail.

Many bartenders add fruit, typically an orange slice, and muddle it with the sugar before adding the whiskey…

My boss, Jane, knower of all things cocktail, shares my view that muddled fruit has no place in an Old Fashioned, which, frankly, was more than enough for me. Naturally, this was not enough to convince Pat, and so of course, there was only one way to settle the score for sure, which was to go and sample some Old Fashioneds at several bars across Manhattan. And so last night, that’s what we did, meandering our way across the downtown Manhattan, happily buzzed, stopping in at four establishments.

The rules of the contest:

  • Each participant chooses two bars
  • At least one person must order an Old Fashioned at each bar, without specifying a method of preparation to the bartender.
  • One point to be awarded to Guy for an Old Fashioned served without fruit
  • One point to be awarded to Pat for an Old Fashioned served with fruit

And so, the results:

Round One – Guy’s Choice
The Raines Law Room

48 West 17th Street

Named after legislation which forbade the selling of liquor on Sundays, except in hotels, drinking at The Raines Law Room feels like sipping cocktails in a living room. The bar is furnished with vintage velvet couches, and period pieces like a vintage gramophone. The cocktails are pretty outstanding. My colleague Chris joined us for the first round. I had one of their signature cocktails, the Suffering Bastard, involving Bulleit bourbon, Plymouth gin, lemon, sugar, and ginger, which was simultaneously strong, sweet, and spicy; generally kickass. Chris tried a Champs-Élysées, involving brandy and chartreuse, which was tasty but not really my type of drink. Pat was on Old Fashioned duty, and Raines scored one for me, bringing a simple mix of sugar, water, bourbon and bitters with a single giant cube of ice.

Score after Round One:
Guy 1, Pat 0

Round Two – Guy’s Choice
Little Branch

22 7th Avenue South

Little Branch remains one of my favourite bars in the city. They take their drinks seriously, it’s definitely got the speakeasy feel but the gimmick isn’t overplayed, and the atmosphere is always relaxed. Their bartenders are clearly experts at their craft, and to that end, will choose a drink on your behalf based on rough specifications you provide. Since Pat had never been here before, he took the “Bartenders Choice”, while I ordered up the Old Fashioned. Pat’s specs of a ‘rye-based, fruity’ drink landed him a tasty concoction with fresh squeezed juice and mint, while my Old Fashioned, appropriately, was devoid of both muddled fruit and soda water.

Score after Round Two:
Guy 2, Pat 0

Round Three – Pat’s Choice
Blue Owl

196 2nd Avenue

We strolled over to the East Village to visit Blue Owl, which is hidden just below street level on Second Avenue, underneath one of those shady-looking massage parlours with a video of someone getting a shiatsu on permaloop and about fifty neon signs. It was about nine o’clock when we arrived, and it was still fairly quiet, with just a handful of people at the bar. I had one of their house cocktails, the Jules Winnfield–bourbon, apricot liqueur, and fresh lemon and orange. I’m unsure what made whoever came up with the drink name it after the cinematic hitman with the best sideburns ever, but it was more or less a whisky sour made with fresh ingredients instead of bottled ones. Pat scored his first point of the evening with an Old Fashioned made with muddled lemon, orange, and, for some reason, dried sour cherries, which yielded a drink which tasted, in Pat’s words, “like a Jolly Rancher”.

Score after Round Three:
Guy 2, Pat 1

Round Four – Pat’s Choice
The Dove Parlour

228 Thompson Street

By the time we arrived at The Dove Parlour, it was past ten o’clock and the place was starting to become full. Somehow we managed to find two seats at the bar next to a greasy looking hipster sitting alone and knocking back beer. The house cocktail menu is short, and Pat ordered an Olympia, listed as “Bourbon, bitters, fresh lime juice and a splash of ginger soda”. The resulting greenish drink was incredibly tart, probably from being a bit too heavy on the lime juice. The bartender served me the final Old Fashioned of the evening with orange, cherry, lemon, and sugar, the product being syrupy enough that the sugar refused to dissolve at the bottom of the glass. Nonetheless, it evened up the score for Pat.

Final score after Round Four:
Guy 2, Pat 2

We briefly considered a tiebreaking round, but at four bourbon-based drinks apiece, we felt that a final, tied score was appropriate. Our adventure does seem to suggest that we could both be right — the modern interpretation of an Old Fashioned generally involves some sort of fruity garnish along with the bourbon. The classic version, on the other hand, sticks to the base ingredients. So, we’re back to where we started, I suppose, and Pat and I will just have to continue to regularly needle each other about our taste in cocktails, which I think I can handle, as long as there’s enough bourbon.

Subway Math and Geekery

August 31st, 2009 § 1 comment § permalink

This afternoon, while riding the subway, I noticed an ad that the MTA has been running for some time now as part of its self-promoting “SubTalk” campaign. It reads:

In 1986, the subway and bus fare was $1. That’s $1.89 in 2008 dollars. Today, 30-day Unlimited Ride MetroCard brings the fare down to $1.17. Believe it.

Maybe I’m a crotchety windbag, or maybe the afternoon’s chatter with friends about the GRE mathematics section sparked something off, but I didn’t, as the ad implored me to, believe it. Assuming that the ad campaign was started before the subway fare increase earlier this year that raised the base fare to $2.25 from its previous $2, it seemed like the MTA was taking a pretty liberal view of how many times one would have to ride the subway or bus with their monthly MetroCard to bring their effective fare down by 30%.

(In case you’re not familiar with how the 30-day MetroCard works, you can pay a flat fee per month for unlimited use of the New York subway and local buses instead of the pay-per-ride fare)

Partly to prove that I could still actually do arithmetic and basic algebra (and render it in TeX), I scribbled out this calculation:

MTA Fare Math

I’m sure this broke all sorts of mathematical conventions, but p_m is the price of a 30-day card, p_r is the effective per-ride cost according to the MTA, and r, r_d, and r_w are rides per month, day, and week, respectively you’d need to make to get that price.

This assumes the 2008 30-day fare of $81. To get the purported $1.17 fare, you’d have to ride the subway or bus (not including free transfers) about 2.3 times per day, every day, or just over 16 times per week, for the entire 30-day period. I have no idea where the MTA got their data from, but I don’t know anyone who rides the subway that much.

On Biking in New York

June 30th, 2009 § 1 comment § permalink

When I was about seven years old, I took the National Cycling Proficiency Course. It was a six-week program which taught you how to ride your bike safely on the road, offered through my primary school. On the third or fourth week, once we had demonstrated that we could stop, start, and turn left and right around cones arranged in the playground, the instructors led us out in groups of two or three onto the road to let us practice hand signals and turning on a real street. Our route took us in a short loop around the school, which involved turning right across oncoming traffic (remember, this was the UK) from the moderately-busy street that ran through the village. Of course, this involves stopping toward the center of the road and waiting for a gap in traffic big enough to make the turn safely. When it came to be my turn, I dutifully stopped to make the appointed right turn, right hand stuck out to indicate my action. As I was waiting there, a fire engine with lights and sirens blazing crested the hill just in front of me, and came tearing by at full tilt, inches from my outstretched hand. Somehow I managed to pull myself together enough to make the turn before I wilted into a quivering mass on the curb.

At the conclusion of the course, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents award me a handsome enamel pin and an official-looking certificate which would entitle me, should I choose, to ride my bicycle to school and back.

Similar experiences are to be had daily, I’ve found, on the streets of Manhattan. Except nobody gives you a pin for your troubles. With much gratitude to Pat, I’ve recently acquired a used but quite-functional mountain bike, and I’ve been commuting to work on it for about a month now. Though I’m far from a seasoned veteran at New York bike commuting, here are a few thoughts for anyone who’s thinking about giving it a shot:

1) Wear a bloody helmet, and install some flashy lights for the evenings.

Even if you’re only riding on bike paths or bike lanes. In my relatively short time riding around the city I’ve had some close calls and seen even closer ones. Sure, you get helmet hair, but it’s better than the alternative. Also, nobody can see you in the dark unless you have lights. Install some; I found some on eBay for $7. This should be intuitive.

2) Assume all other road users are on a mission to knock you off your bike, and act accordingly.

This includes police cars, buses, little old ladies crossing the street, parents pushing strollers, and other bicyclists. For some reason, nobody thinks to look for a bicycle at a crosswalk, when changing lanes, making a turn, et cetera. Assume you can’t be seen, or if you have, assume the driver/pedestrian/hipster-in-crosswalk doesn’t care. Look behind you, on both sides, before changing lanes. Ring your bell, shout, scream, and make a fuss if someone’s about to pull out or walk in front of you. Pull over if you have to. Be ready to stop quickly at all times. And for god’s sake don’t listen to your iPod on your bike.

3) Obey traffic laws

This dovetails nicely into #2. It makes you a much harder target to hit, and should you be obeying traffic laws, feel free to occupy the moral high ground when other road users attempt to kill you. Or yell, swear and/or flash dirty looks at other said road user. Your choice. Oh, and don’t wuss out and ride on the sidewalk. It’s illegal, and signifantly more dangerous given the amount of pedestrians milling about (who, don’t forget, are out to kill you).

4) Don’t get doored

I refer you again to #2. The danger from drivers does not end when the driver has taken the keys from the ignition. In fact, the oblivious driver is still unlikely to check for oncoming bicycles when he opens his car door into the bike lane. Give parked cars at least four feet lest you find out what it’s like to wear a car door internally. Be particularly wary of stopped taxis, as their passengers don’t even have to pay for the door if you break it, and don’t even have a mirror to look into before stepping out.

5) Bring a change of clothes to work

Or at least a clean shirt. Your colleagues will thank you.

6) Rock the 1980s pant-leg-rolled up look

It keeps your pant leg out of your bike chain. This will not only keep your trousers clean, it will prevent the dangerous scenario of pulling your chain off the chainwheel mid-ride because your errant pant leg got snarled up in it. You could also find a pant clip if you’re that sort of person. Or wear shorts. But if you wear bike shorts to work, please don’t come to my office. I don’t need to see that.

7) Buy a decent lock

I suggest a beefy chain and/or a beefy U-Lock. The Kryptonite brand seems to the the gold standard. An $80 lock is much cheaper than a new bike. If you have quick-release components, lock them up or take them with you. There are pages and pages on locking technique. For an good, yet irreverent video on the topic, I suggest this one by Streetsblog.

8) Enjoy yourself

I’ve found that commuting by bike makes the 30 minutes between home and work something other than dead time where I zone out and sip coffee on the train. I like that sometimes, but I always feel much more ready to actually do work when I arrive by bike. If you’re finding yourself exhausted and sweaty when you arrive, slow down. Take in the view. What’s the rush?


August 3rd, 2008 § 1 comment § permalink

My good friend Patrick recently signed up for Zipcar, and this week he invited me along for his first test drive. I’ve considered joining myself, especially under pressure from Chris, who’s been a member for some time, and I knew that Zipcar offers BMWs, so we decided to take one for a spin to see how it performed.


Patrick picked up the car, which bore the unfortunate name Burl (Zipcar refers to its cars by name), but which was a nearly new 328. We drove

along the West Side Highway, over the GWB, and up the Palisades Parkway, stopping at an overlook before turning west and driving through Bear Mountain State Park.

The lookout by the Hudson River had some pretty spectacular views. I’ve lived in New York for nearly four years now and I rarely leave the city limits, so this was fairly new to me. The Palisades are two-hundred to five-hundred foot cliffs that rise vertically from the western bank of the Hudson to a plateau at the top. From the lookout, you can see south back toward Manhattan and the Bronx, and northward into Rockland County.

There was a couple seated in lawn chairs next to some graffiti sprayed on the short wall designed to stop visitors from wandering aimlessly over the cliff edge. The text read “Norma + Paul”, and had two dates scrawled next to the names, about a year apart. I wondered if the couple sitting there were, in fact, Norma and Paul. I think they might be, but you be the judge:

After a trip through the park, we headed west to the Delaware River, near the intersection of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania at Port Jervis. We tried to find something to eat but came up a bit short. We walked into Arlene ‘n’ Tom’s Restaurant, which purported to be the home of the Meanyburger. Unfortunately, they close at 9, and we walked in at two minutes past. The only open establishment we could find was a Port Jervis Pizza, where we grabbed a slice and hit the road again. I did spot a shop which sold puppies, and judging by the age of the signage, has been selling puppies for some time.

From Port Jervis, we headed south along the river, along River Road which is a good windy stretch of highway perfectly suitable for testing the handling of the BMW. We were impressed with the sport shifting and the performance of the car close to the redline. By this time it was pitch-dark outside, and we were driving through woodlands which probably were home to a fair number of animals which might wander into the road. Neither of us felt like explaing to zipcar why a deer ended up through the windscreen, so we kept the speed to a reasonable level for most of the drive through the woods. We ended up on Route 15, heading south, and ended up skirting around the edge of Jefferson, Alex’s hometown, finally getting on I-80 back into the city.

I’m generally impressed with the zipcar rental concept, and the cars they have available. I’m not yet convinced that I need to sign up myself–I can think of few occasions where I particularly need a car–but you never know.