Mar 18

That barbecue map

An online magazine called Chef’s Pencil (no, I’ve never heard of it before, either) stirred up a cauldron of controversy involving a cuisine that many people have strong opinions about: barbecue. The magazine analyzed TripAdvisor ratings of the barbecue restaurants in America’s 75 largest cities, and compiled a list of what they claim are the ten best cities in the country for barbecue. This was accompanied by a map showing where those cities are, and here it is:

The map, and the analysis that it was based on, made a lot of people angry. This Newsweek article sums up the controversy pretty well.

I won’t try to enumerate all of the things wrong with this map, because many people have already done that. (Matt Mitchell’s video is a good example.) I’ll just point out a couple of things.

The biggest outrage is that Texas is completely ignored. Now, I’m the first to admit that I’m not objective about barbecue. Of course I’m biased: I was raised on Texas-style barbecue because my father was born in Dallas, and he loved to make that kind of barbecue in his backyard grill. He was always tinkering with the sauce recipe and the way he cooked the beef brisket, in the hope of duplicating the sort of barbecue served in east Texas restaurants. He was never completely satisfied with the result, but I certainly enjoyed eating the meals that he produced. So it’s difficult for me to believe that no city in Texas made it into the top ten.

Some of the cities that did make it seem bizarrely inappropriate. Seattle, Newark, and Miami do not come to anyone’s mind when you ask them where they would go for great barbecue. As Matt points out, New Orleans has incredibly good food, but barbecue is not what it’s renowned for.

And Charlotte? Really? I grew up in the Charlotte area, and I’ve eaten in the city’s restaurants countless times. If it has some of the best barbecue in the country, I sure didn’t hear anything about it. And maybe I wouldn’t, but you can bet that Dad would have known about any good barbecue restaurant in Charlotte, and he would have taken the family to eat there. I don’t think that ever happened. (Maybe the excellent barbecue places in Charlotte only appeared after he died. Okay, I’m game. What are their names? I’d love to try them out. Update: According to TripAdvisor, these are the best barbecue restaurants in Charlotte.)

I think this project was doomed from the start, because its methodology was wrong. If you want to find the best barbecue in the country, why would you look only at the biggest cities? It’s not an urban cuisine. In my experience, some of the best barbecue is to be found in small towns and even rural settings. You’re more likely to find great barbecue at an Alabama church potluck than in any metropolis.

I can’t claim to know where the best barbecue in the country is. But the best I’ve ever tasted was at Bodacious Bar-B-Q in Longview, Texas. Longview isn’t a metropolis by any standard; it’s only the 47th largest city in Texas (81,653 residents in 2019). So the Chef’s Pencil analysis would have ignored it completely. And that’s why the map they produced is meaningless. If you’re only looking in big cities for great barbecue, you don’t understand barbecue at all.

Postscript: I notice that the barbecue analysis, including the top ten list and the map, has disappeared from the Chef’s Pencil website. I can understand why.

Mar 14

Setting the clocks

Most people dislike Daylight Saving Time, myself included. Debates about it can get convoluted, but in my experience, the arguments against it boil down to two objections:

  • The time change gives everyone jet lag twice a year.
  • Resetting every clock you own is an annoying waste of time.

There isn’t much you can do about the first one, but it is possible to reduce the effect of the second. How? By replacing your dumb clocks with smarter ones that reset themselves automatically.

Most of us already have some of the smarter kind, although we may not think of them as clocks. Your smartphone, for example, always displays the correct time. When the twice-a-year time change happens, your phone makes the switch without any action on your part. Your computer probably does the same thing, and if it doesn’t, that’s because the feature is disabled. (In Windows, right-click the clock in the lower right corner of your screen and click Adjust date and time. Then make sure that Set time automatically, Adjust for daylight saving time automatically, and Set time zone automatically are all turned on.)

But what about the other clocks? Most people don’t know this, but you can buy clocks that know how to set themselves. I learned this a decade or two ago when I needed to replace my bedside clock-radio, and while shopping for a new one, I stumbled across an Emerson SmartSet clock-radio that automatically resets itself to the correct date and time “as soon as you plug it in and after every power interruption.” That sounded too good to be true, but I bought one, and it works as advertised. (The model I bought back then has been discontinued, but Emerson makes several similar ones, which sell for prices as low as $15.)

The instruction manual didn’t explain how it performs this miracle, but a little research revealed the answer. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is a part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, and it’s in charge of providing a national time standard. The correct time from NIST’s atomic clocks is made available on the Internet (which is what computers and phones use) and by radio signal on several different frequencies. The Emerson clocks are designed to receive that signal and adjust themselves accordingly.

Emerson isn’t the only clock-maker that offers this feature, and it’s not limited to digital clocks. A couple of years ago, the analog wall clock in my kitchen stopped working (it was at least twenty years old), and I decided to see if I could replace it with a self-setting model. After a little browsing on Amazon, I ordered a La Crosse Technology clock that looked almost exactly like its predecessor, except for the words ATOMIC TIME on its face. But despite its old-school appearance, this clock listens to the NIST time signal and resets itself whenever the need arises.

At this point, I have very few clocks left that have to be reset by hand. The analog wall clock in my bathroom still requires that, but I’ll eventually replace it with a La Crosse or something similar. There’s also a digital clock in my living room that has to be set by hand. I replaced my old analog wristwatch with an Apple Watch at the beginning of this year, and it synchronizes with my iPhone. The only other holdout I can think of is the dashboard clock in my car. (My microwave oven has no clock, which is fine with me.)

Someday, I will have no clocks that need to be reset manually. Won’t it be nice to eliminate that minor annoyance from my life?

Update: Since writing this entry, I’ve realized that I have two other clocks in my kitchen. They’re built into my coffee maker and my digital kitchen scale. I normally don’t even notice these, so I suppose it doesn’t matter whether they’re correct or not. But I went ahead and reset them anyway.

Mar 12

A gift for Dad

Health update: I’m almost completely recovered from my flareup of lower back pain. Still some pain when I first get out of bed in the morning, and some stiffness when I get up from a chair if I’ve been sitting for too long. But once I’m up and moving around, I feel fine. I suspect that in a day or two, I’ll be completely pain-free. The muscle relaxant really helped, and I’ll make sure to thank Dr. Raman for prescribing it when I see her for my annual physical in a couple of weeks. Once again, I have my life back, and I’m grateful.

Recently, I was reading one of the blogs I follow, and I found myself looking at the following image, which was presented without any context or explanation.

I was immediately intrigued. A USB flash drive that looks like a vacuum tube? That’s really cool, and I want one! But is it a real thing, or just a picture someone made in Photoshop? After a quick image search, I determined that this is absolutely real, and it’s for sale on Amazon.

Sadly, my design to own one was extinguished when I saw the prices. They vary depending on storage capacity: the cheapest is $49 for 8 gigabytes, and the most expensive is $119 for 256 GB. (For comparison, you can buy a SanDisk 512 GB drive for under $50.) Those prices seemed exorbitant to me until I read the description, and learned that this thing doesn’t just look like a vintage vacuum tube, it actually is one. Each of these drives is made by hand (in Latvia) from a vacuum tube that was manufactured in the Soviet Union in 1981. A genuine collector’s item. Suddenly, the price seems appropriate when I consider the scarcity of the raw materials, and the skilled labor required to craft the finished product.

It’s still too expensive for me to buy just for my own amusement. But if my father were still alive, I would buy him one of these in a heartbeat. Dad was notoriously difficult to buy gifts for, because if he wanted something, he would usually buy it for himself before anyone had a chance to give it to him. So the trick was to find something that he wasn’t aware of, but that he would like if he knew it existed.

Dad was a ham radio operator and electronics hobbyist from the 1950s onward, when vacuum tubes were still in a lot of radio and TV sets, although transistors were gradually making them obsolete. He was quite familiar with these tubes, and I’m sure he would have appreciated the combination of retro and futuristic tech. He had fond memories of the tube-powered radios and TV sets of his youth, but he was also an avid early adopter of cutting-edge technology. It was because of him that our family had a home computer in 1976*, at a time when you couldn’t just buy a functioning computer; you had to build it from a kit.

Dad would have loved this. I wish I could have given it to him for Father’s Day. Seeing the look on his face when he unwrapped it would have been worth the price.

*Correction: Bob informs me that we didn’t get the computer (a Processor Technology Sol-20) until 1977. That’s still years before the arrival of the IBM PC (1981) and the Apple Macintosh (1984). However, a bit more research shows that several home computers that did not have to be built from a kit made their debut in 1977: the Apple II, the Commodore PET, and the Tandy TRS-80.

Mar 07


My cardiac health continues to improve. I had another appointment with my cardiologist on February 22, and he was quite pleased with my progress. The only change he made was to add one more medication that might further strengthen and support my heart. It’s basically an experiment to see if it helps, and to find out how well I tolerate it. (I can answer the second question now: after two weeks, I have noticed no side effects at all. But then, I have felt no side effects from any of my cardiac medications, and I’m on half a dozen of them now.) He also said that I will probably be ready to stop wearing a defibrillator fairly soon. My next cardiology appointment isn’t until April 26, so I assume I’ll be using it until then. It’s no great hardship.

But I did have a health setback in recent days that had nothing to do with my heart. It wasn’t life-threatening, either, but it sure was unpleasant and inconvenient. I had a flareup of lower back pain. This seems to happen to me about once a decade, or maybe a little more often, and it typically isn’t the result of a back injury. It just happens, for no apparent reason. And it doesn’t seem to be related to my age or my weight, because I can recall having one of these flareups when I was in college, at a time when I was still young and slim.

The discomfort built up rapidly over a couple of days, starting around Tuesday of last week (March 1). By Wednesday morning I was experiencing quite a bit of intermittent pain, but I was still functional. I had planned to take my old desktop computer to the Kramden Institute and donate it, something that I could only do on a Wednesday evening unless I wanted to take time off during a work day. So I was determined to complete that errand despite the pain. Picking up the computer and carrying it down the stairs to my car was not too bad, and driving was fine. When one of the Kramden volunteers offered to come out to my car and bring in the computer, I was happy to accept.

But things got worse that evening. The Kramden building is right next door to a Golden Corral restaurant, and I took the opportunity to eat supper there. I was doing OK during the meal, even though a buffet requires you to get up and move around much more than any other kind of restaurant. After the meal, I visited the men’s room and went into one of the stalls. When it was time to leave, I found the process of standing up, restoring my clothing to normal, and so forth to be agonizing. After washing my hands, I made my way slowly and painfully out to the parking lot. My gait was so stiff and slow that I thought I must look like Frankenstein’s monster shambling through the restaurant, but no one seemed to notice.

Once I got into my car, I was more or less comfortable. (Sitting or lying down doesn’t hurt. But standing and walking do.) I had planned to stop at a Walmart Neighborhood Market that was on my way home to pick up a couple of grocery items, and I decided to go through with it. I probably should have skipped that, but I was too stubborn. I managed to hobble through the store and collect the items I needed, leaning heavily on my shopping cart for support. As I approached the self-checkout, two of the employees saw that I was in distress and asked if I was all right. I explained what was happening and, after I scanned, bagged, and paid for my groceries, one of them offered to escort me to my car. I accepted with thanks, and managed to reach my car without incident. She put the groceries into the car for me and took care of returning the cart.

When I got home, I had to face the ordeal of climbing the stairs to my apartment. Since being discharged from the hospital, I had grown accustomed to traversing those stairs easily and effortlessly. Now it was like climbing a mountain again — not because of shortness of breath and fatigue, as it was in December, but just because it hurt so much. But I made it to the top, unlocked my door, and staggered inside. After putting away the groceries, I took my evening medication, added some pain reliever, and went to bed early.

Thursday morning was the low point. Getting out of bed took about half an hour and involved a great deal of pain. I found myself thinking that I might actually have to call 911 if I couldn’t even walk. But I wasn’t going to do that if I could avoid it. After using the shelving unit near my bed to slowly, gradually pull myself upright, I found that I could manage a shuffling walk. My first concern was, of course, to get to the bathroom. Second on my list was to make it to the door of my apartment and unbolt it, because if I did have to call 911, I wanted to make sure the EMTs could get in.

I was able to do both of those things, get some breakfast, and start my work day. Working was actually not a problem, because I do that sitting down, and sitting didn’t hurt. But the longer I sat in my comfy office chair, the more it would hurt when I stood up. So I made a point of getting up at least once per hour and hobbling around the apartment — going to the bathroom, getting another cup of coffee, or something like that. Standing and walking was still pretty awful.

In the past, I have dealt with these flareups by taking large doses of ibuprofen. It relieves the pain, but it also reduces the inflammation that’s causing the pain, and by using that medication, I have typically been able to clear up the problem in a few days. But now that option was off the table. When I left the hospital, my instructions had included a ban on ibuprofen or any of the other NSAIDs, like naproxen sodium. The only pain reliever available to me was acetaminophen, which I find to be less effective for pain, and worthless against inflammation. So on that Thursday morning, I called Cary Cardiology and spoke to a nurse. I described what I was experiencing and asked them to either give me permission to use ibuprofen or offer me an alternative medication that would do something about the inflammation.

The nurse talked to my cardiologist and called me back. They couldn’t let me use ibuprofen; in combination with one of my other medications, it could cause bleeding. And they don’t prescribe pain medications. She recommended that I call my primary care physician about that. So I did, talked to a nurse there, and she spoke to my physician, who prescribed cyclobenzeprine hydrochloride. It’s a muscle relaxant, not a pain reliever, but it seemed like a good idea to me, because I could tell my pain was being caused by muscle spasms in my lower back.

At my request, the prescription was sent to the pharmacy at the same Walmart Neighborhood Market where I had stopped for groceries the night before. But how would I get it? I was in no shape to navigate the stairs again. Up until this point, I hadn’t told any of my family what was happening, but it was clearly time to enlist someone to help. I called Ruth, and she immediately agreed to pick up the prescription and bring it to me when she got off work. When she arrived, she also took out my trash and insisted on preparing my supper and serving it to me. When she left, she took with her a package that needed to be dropped off at a FedEx store. (I am very grateful that she lives so close and is so willing to help when I need it.) After her departure, I took my muscle relaxant, ate supper, and went to bed early again.

On Friday morning, I didn’t notice any significant improvement. Getting out of bed was still an ordeal. But as the day progressed, I could tell the pain was gradually lessening. I continued taking the new medicine. With the arrival of Friday evening came the weekend, and I resolved to spend it resting and healing as much as I could. I spent Saturday and Sunday quietly at home, taking several naps during the day. Each time I slept, I woke up with less pain. By Monday morning, I was moving around the apartment much more easily. It still hurt, but in a more tolerable way.

It’s now Monday evening, and I’m nearly back to normal. There’s still a lot of stiffness when I get out of bed or stand up from a chair, and I’m still walking slowly and carefully, with some moaning and groaning. But I’m definitely on the mend. The Walmart pharmacy notified me that a refill of one of my prescriptions is ready, and I plan to go and pick it up myself tomorrow evening. That will be my first time venturing out of my apartment since last Wednesday, but I’m sure I’ll be up to it by then.

On Thursday evening, March 10, I am scheduled to have dinner with Bob and Miles. I don’t think I’ll have any difficulty keeping that appointment. I may not feel like going walking after dinner, but the meal itself, and the trip there and back, won’t be a problem.

It seems that I’ve weathered another storm. But it sure would be nice to have calm weather for a while.