Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Music's biggest letdown of the year

So there's this song called "Blank Space." You might have heard it—it gets played on the radio approximately every 5 minutes on every station. All the time that this song has been blowing up the airwaves, I've been convinced I was hearing something like, "Got a lonely Starbucks lovers, they'll tell you I'm insane...I got a blank space, baby, and I'll write your name!"

I thought this lyric was some kind of play on the phrase, "star-crossed" lovers, and I found it very clever. I envisioned a sad barista, leaning on a desolate counter, just waiting for her favorite customer to come in so she can write his name on his cup! Although my version didn't quite take the form of coherent sentences, I was convinced that I had the spirit of it right, and if I just listened harder and actually paid attention to the lyrics (something I rarely do), I would not only learn the correct words, but I would hear the entire story of a tragic coffee-shop love affair.

Alas, yesterday, a Buzzfeed article someone posted to Facebook set my starry-eyed mind straight. In this article, I learned that the verse I (and apparently lots of other people) thought referred to Starbucks lovers actually goes "Got a long list of ex-lovers"—a typical and played out Taylor-Swiftism. It was also through this article that I learned Taylor Swift was indeed the artist, but it's the first revelation that really hurts. Why is it that the real lyrics of a song never quite stand up to the lyrics I imagine in my selective deafness? Who else out there thinks this song would have been better if it were about doomed romance in a coffee shop?

Monday, December 1, 2014

Say it again, Sam (or don't)

Since my last (non-food) post was about stupid questions, it seems a reasonable progression to have my next post be about stupid phrases. Yes, today I'll be taking on the persona of Li'l Language Lady and sharing my thoughts on superfluous verbiage!

I am not at all a fan of saying the same thing twice (you should hear the hostile "nothing" I have perfected for when my boyfriend has asked "what?" too many times in a conversation!). And I get just slightly, almost imperceptibly, annoyed by sentences which could be several words shorter and still say the same thing (you'd think that someone who's so fond of rambling asides would have a little more tolerance for the inefficient sentences of the world, but life is full of inconsistencies, eh?).

Take, for example, double self-referencing. People love to stick the word self in front of other verbs as a way of indicating that the action is directed towards the actor—a prime example: self-diagnose, which is common in this age of Internet medical reference and accessible hypochondria. There's nothing wrong with using self- as a prefix, but I do take issue when it is also used as a suffix, as in, "Self-diagnose oneself." Almost as bad as the dreaded double negative, the second "self" in this phrase is just dead weight and should be jettisoned. Think of it as a practical impossibility—one can not have two selves. Unless, maybe, one is part of a sci-fi story.

One particular circumstance in which duplication of words seems to happen a lot is when using acronyms in a sentence. People don't always seem to know the words behind the letters they speak, resulting in superfluous meanings like "Self-contained underwater breathing apparatus gear" or "Automatic teller machine machine" or "Personal identification number number."

One of my favorite misused acronyms to rag on is RSVP. Commonly seen at the bottom of invitations, asking the recipient to note whether he or she will be coming, RSVP comes from the French "Répondez s'il vous plaît," or, "please reply." Somehow, in common English, RSVP became a verb for "tell us whether you're coming," and so gets commonly used in phrases like, "Please RSVP." Translated literally, this means, "Please, please, reply," which sounds just a bit desperate. When used as a noun meaning "an indication of whether you're coming," RSVP becomes even more weird—e.g. "Indicate your meal preference on your please reply." I try not to use this abbreviation in such a corrupted way, but I'll admit that even I have trouble avoiding it—there's just no good alternative word that packs in all that commonly accepted meaning in such short four letters!

Maybe we should just reduce the conclusion by using our own English language. From now on, maybe I'll start closing my invitations with TUWYC (Tell us whether you're coming.)

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Costco Macaroni and Cheese

A few weeks ago, my boyfriend was shopping at Costco and called me on the phone. "Should I get some macaroni and cheese?" he asked. I thought about it. We've been to Costco many times in the past couple months (I still believe it's not worth the cost of membership, but when you're borrowing someone else's card, it makes all the difference!), and many times, I have looked over the giant pan of ready-to-bake macaroni and cheese, wondering the same thing. This time, I decided why not?

I'm sure glad I did. Though the Costco ("Kirkland signature," if you want to be totally accurate) macaroni and cheese takes an agonizing hour to cook, it is one of my favorite macaroni and cheese dishes out there.

It has plenty of flavor, plenty of salt, nicely substantial noodles, and is an all-around crowd pleaser. I don't really have anything bad to say about it, although I guess it can be improved by adding more shredded cheese to the top, which we've done every time we've had it.

All in all, I rate it a good 2 Happy Noodles, because why not?

1 happy noodle1 happy noodle

The Mood Noodle rating system is not based on a fixed scale, but is a much more subjective system based on what makes me happy and what makes me sad.
Any number of happy noodles and comparatively few sad noodles constitute a good rating.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Ask a stupid question

All my working life, I have been dealing with stupid questions. They mostly come from people who are too lazy to follow directions.

For example, when I worked for a recycling nonprofit, I fielded all the inquiries that came through the contact form. At the top of the form, we had posted a list of questions we could not answer. Of course, this did not stop people from asking those same questions on a regular basis. I started compiling a list of the dumbest questions so that I could eventually blog about them, but I always chickened out, afraid it would cost me my job...and sometime since I left the job, I lost the list.

I get a few eye-roller questions here at my current job (though I think I've intimidated most of our users into thinking twice before sending me a question). But by far the stupidest questions I get nowadays are from my potential guests on Airbnb. In my listing, I describe my living situation and the surrounding area in great detail. Almost any question that people could think to ask about my accommodations is answered. I post at the top of my listing a plea (in capital letters!) for people to read the whole listing before asking a question or making a booking request. But almost every day, I receive an inquiry from some lazy oaf who wants to know how close I am to the airport and DC and public transportation (see section "Getting Around") and how much the room costs (see first line of listing). I get complaints from guests who were not expecting me to have pets, even though I have dedicated a whole paragraph to explaining about the dog, the rabbit, and their respective shedding habits, and I include a picture of them both in the photos section.

I list my room at the lowest price in my metropolitan area (It costs approximately as much to stay in my house with a private room, an outfitted bed, a kitchen, free towels, and central heat as it does to rent a campsite and bring your own tent). But just yesterday, I got a singular inquiry from a potential guest from Viet Nam wanting to know "Can you give me more discount for Vietnamese?" This person also wanted to know whether I was close to DC. Well, with two stupidity strikes against them, I didn't even want their money. I declined their inquiry without another word.

The moral of this story is, if you were contemplating asking someone a question today, contemplate this first: When the answer is right under your nose but you refuse to look for it, you're only sending the message that you value your own time more than that of the person you're asking—hardly the right way to begin an interaction. If you can do just one thing to make this world a better place, it's to do your research before you ask a question. Oh, and if your question is about whether you can get a discount for being Vietnamese, better to not ask at all.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Starbucks Redux

Ages ago, early on in my cookie-reviewing career, I did a little piece on the Starbucks chocolate chunk cookie, in which I concluded that Starbucks cookies were good, but no longer worth their price.

Recently, having come into possession of a Starbucks gift card and not being a coffee drinker, I had no choice but to enter a Starbucks and acquire some cookies for a re-review.

I can confidently say now that they are still not worth their price. They have gone up to $2.15 per cookie (including tax, or 1.95$ without) and have actually decreased in size. Now they just barely meet the 10cm diameter threshold necessary to qualify as a "Giant" Cookie. This puts their mass at just 71 g each, and their price at 3¢ per gram—about as high as Giant Cookies go.

As for their eating experience, however, they are still pretty satisfying—definitely better than the last time I reviewed them, which was partly, I think, due to a bad batch. The flavor is delicious, the texture is still pretty close to perfect, and the chunks of chocolate are still huge and wonderful. I conclude this review by saying I still won't be dipping into my pockets for Starbucks cookies on the regular, but I definitely won't mind using up the rest of my gift card on them!

The Bottom Line

Taste:4 out of 5 stars
Texture:5 out of 5 stars
Price:1 out of 5 stars

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Macaroni and Cheese from Nelly's

As one of my Facebook friends kindly pointed out in a mass post, I have been attending a lot of sporting events with my boyfriend lately. This is not because I enjoy them—I'll make that perfectly clear—but because everyone must make concessions in the name of a happy relationship. Speaking of concessions, have you ever bought food at a sporting event? You probably shouldn't. Whether at a stadium or at a bar, the choices are fried, fatty, or, well, that's about it. Now I love me some fried pickles, but after eating them every time I set foot into Hard Times Cafe to keep my boyfriend company while he indulged in football, I was ready for a break.

So we went to a different sports bar this Sunday: Nelly's in DC. Their menu was notably lacking in fried pickles, but featured my favorite alternative: macaroni and cheese! I ordered it. Here's a review.

When the plate first arrived in front of me, I was cautiously optimistic. A thick golden layer of what appears to be real cheddar is always a good start. Underneath the top coat, the sauce was suspiciously liquidy, arousing my worst fears of synthetic cheez, but the top coat was so perfect that I really didn't mind.

I loved it. It even had a little greenery to add aesthetic value. Nice, though non-nutritive, touch.

Flavor-wise, it was also pretty tasty. Everything a macaroni connoisseur could ask for.

My one complaint was that the noodles were a little softer than I like, but not inedible.

The really standout thing about this mac & cheese was that it tasted good even as a 4-day old leftover. I microwaved it on a styrofoam plate (hello, cancer!) and then gobbled it up shamelessly.

I rate it one happy noodle for best sports bar macaroni yet, and one happy noodle for cheese overload, and one sad noodle for being a little mushy.

1 happy noodle1 happy noodle 1 sad noodle

The Mood Noodle rating system is not based on a fixed scale, but is a much more subjective system based on what makes me happy and what makes me sad.
Any number of happy noodles and comparatively few sad noodles constitute a good rating.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sweet & Natural Chocolate Chip Cookie

This cookie is vegan, so it's 4 dollars. For those 4 dollars, I got 145 grams of cookie, which equates to 2.75¢ a gram, or the worst giant cookie value I've encountered in a good long while!

Even before I opened it, the odor wafted out from the wrapping, and I didn't really appreciate the smell. It did not smell like chocolate, or sugar, or cookie, or any of the flavors I enjoy, but I was willing to open it up and see if the smell was improved by being separated from its coating of cling wrap.

It took all my strength to break off the first piece, which is never a good sign, although scattering of crumbs was minimal.

But for all my effort, I was still disappointed by my first bite. The cookie's taste lived up to its smell, being kind of bleh (or as my boyfriend put it, "feels like it's missing something". The chocolate chips were up to par, marginally redeeming the lackluster (bordering on unpleasant) taste.

I did enjoy the hint of coarse sugar in the texture. The little gritty bits were a surprising pleasure to my teeth, but they didn't do enough to counteract the overall dry and tough nature of the cookie.

This is one rare instance where I feel the cookie could have been improved by being less giant. It would have still been too crunchy, but it wouldn't have been such an ordeal to break and bite into.

The Bottom Line

Taste:2 out of 5 stars
Texture:2 out of 5 stars
Price:1 out of 5 stars

Friday, September 26, 2014

Six of one, half-dozen of the other

It took me 2 years, last time, to come up with a bloggable list of things I like, but this time I've done it in 6 months! There are only 6 items in this list, but I've balanced it out with 6 things I dislike, so you should have a nice reading experience that runs the gamut of human emotion! Starting with anger.

Things that annoy me

  1. Soup spoons

    Call me microcephalic, but I have a hard time fitting soup spoons into my mouth. I'm sure I could do it if I wanted, but it seems an unreasonable effort to contort my mouth so weirdly just to fit some vessel of liquid into it. I don't even like liquid foods! When restaurants only provide me with a soup spoon, my level of life satisfaction goes down, just a little bit, never to be recovered. Thanks, restaurants.
  2. Microwave timers being left paused

    This is one of the hazards of living and working with other humans. Inevitably, one of them will cook something in the communal microwave and then remove it with a few seconds left on the timer. Seriously, people, you cannot wait 7 more seconds for your food to finish cooking? It's really that hard to push the cancel button after you close the door? You have to leave it set on 7 seconds indefinitely, to, at best, confound me when want to cook something and waste a few precious moments of my time...or, at worst, completely hide the microwave clock I'd really like to be able to use to tell me what time it is!
  3. Winter

    In my last list of peeves, I complained about opening the window in winter, and this won't be the first post in which I've mentioned my distaste for cold weather, but in case you weren't certain, I'll lay it out for you: I hate winter. And it keeps coming back every year!
  4. Faucets on a timer

    In some public bathrooms, there is something I like to call the Faucet of Doom. This amazing feat of technology puts the faucet on some kind of spring-loaded delay, so that the water only runs for an arbitrary amount of time before shutting off automatically! As you well know, people can't be trusted to turn the faucet off after they are done with it, so this is the perfect way to conserve water. It is also the perfect way to drive them mad when the water invariably turns off while they are midway through rinsing their hands.
  5. Microsoft Excel not reading my mind

    In the same ironic way that Autocorrect on your phone keyboard continually makes your life harder instead of easier, Microsoft Excel easily brings you to the same level of irritation with just one simple trick! When you type data into a cell and then drag the corner to fill the adjacent cells, Excel guesses whether you want to paste the same value in every cell or "fill series," automatically incrementing the value in each cell by 1. Somehow, Excel always guesses wrong.
  6. Web page advertisements that play sound

    And, finishing off this list of negativity, here's an annoyance that I'm sure everyone who's ever browsed the web in their office can understand. You're minding your own business, trying to read an innocuous article, when suddenly you hear some simpering mom talking about how awesome Wal-Mart is. Really loudly. She is an advertisement, and even if you can find which browser tab is playing the ad, chances are you can't turn off the sound. Or if you do, it will start right back up again the moment the next ad autoloads. This, in my humble web developer's opinion, is usability at its worst. If you must present ads on your site that are videos, do it when the user is already going to watch a video—not by interrupting her while she's trying to quietly read something. That's the fastest way to get me to exit a website immediately.
Now let's turn that frown upside-down and take a look at the things that make me happy (this half of the list actually filled up first, meaning I must be learning the elusive habit of optimism! Or at least I can hope so...)

Things that joy me

(Yeah, yeah, yeah, joy's not a verb, but it makes for a nice rhyming structure in my headings)
  1. Skunk cabbage

    Eastern Skunk Cabbage along brook in sprintime
    Photo courtesy of Williamwaterway
    You would not think that something with "skunk" in its name would make it to the top of someone's happy list (even one like this one which is in no particular order), but skunk cabbage does mine. This big ol' smelly leafy weed is one of the first plants to pop up in swampy areas when the weather starts getting warm. Although its preferred habitat is another strike against it in many people's books, its role as a harbinger of spring is, for me, a huge asset. After all, you only need to read up a few paragraphs to be reminded how much I hate winter.
  2. Being able to breathe through my nose

    Having spent the majority of my childhood with a chronically stuffy nose, I have a hearty appreciation for the gift of nasal breathing. While my nose is a lot better behaved these days, every once in a while, a head cold—or the weather, or some cruel alignment of the stars—will turn it into a congested mass of misery. This makes me curse the day I was born, feel strongly that oxymetazoline HCl is chemistry's greatest gift to humanity, and reaffirm that I really love being able to breathe through my nose.
  3. In-browser developer tools

    When I first started building websites, I used WYSIWYG tools such as the much-renowned (that's sarcasm) AOL Press and Netscape Composer, and my designs were so simple that I never needed to analyze how they worked. Then, gradually, I learned about the magic that is CSS, I started working on complex sites with so many layers of styles (cough — Drupal)  that it would take days reading through styles to figure out why a certain element was blue, and I discovered in-browser design tools. Thanks to Firebug and the developer tools that now come standard with every browser, I can solve problems while looking at my actual site. It sounds simple, but boy, would I be lost without it!
    Oh, and these helpful little workhorses aren't just for the web developers among us; they can be for anyone who wants to take control of their browsing experience. Have you ever gone to a site and been prevented from interacting with it because some stupid popup asking for your email takes up the whole screen? Well, you can use your developer tools to delete that popup from the HTML, so you can actually see the site and decide whether it's worth giving them your email.
  4. Self-threading sewing machines

    In a similar "thread," if I may be so obvious with my puns, technology has come a long way since the invention of the sewing machine. My newest machine threads itself, with but a little assistance from me, which is infinitely delightful when I consider how much time I used to spend licking my thread and poking it at the needle in the hopes of getting it through the hole. The new system isn't perfect, sometimes requiring a few tries before the microscopic hook engages the thread, but I'm grateful for it nonetheless.
  5. Driving up a bridge into the sky

    The closest thing to ascending to heaven while one is still alive is probably driving up onto a bridge. What a glorious sight, to look up and see nothing but sky ahead of you! I get really excited about this every time. I don't have any photos of this, because I'm usually busy driving when I see it, but here's a picture someone else took:
  6. Degreaser

    If you haven't noticed, the predominant theme in this particular happy list is things that make my life easier, so I'm rounding it off with a cleaning product. For years, I struggled with  hideous messes on the backsplash of the stove, ghastly streaks all over my toaster oven, and black smears of countless fingerprints on my doorframes and light switches. Nothing would remove them. Until I finally capitulated to common sense (and not to my "all-natural homemade everything" policy) and bought some degreaser. Now I can remove the aforementioned hideous messes in a few swipes of a rag. Wow. Would someone like to use me in a degreaser commercial? I'll do it for free!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Adventures in Cooking: Cake pop bars

I'm not a big fan of cake, so the first time I tried cake pops (last summer), I was rather surprised to find I liked them! I liked them so much that I contemplated making some of my own. I even looked up some recipes, which is how I learned that their secret ingredient – the thing that makes them taste so good and not at all like normal cake – is cream cheese. But really, who was I kidding? How could I, in good eco-conscience, willingly create a treat that required the use of a disposable lollipop stick, just for the aesthetics!? And all that effort, baking and rolling and freezing and decorating, only to make something I was just going to eat? Not going to happen!

At least, it wasn't going to happen...until I started thinking about that block of cream cheese, sitting in my refrigerator, bored and lonely...and how there was a precedent for making a treat that is traditionally rolled into balls and dipped, in a much less labor-intensive bar form instead.

And so I made it my personal mission to find a way to make cake pop bars! Here is the recipe, in classic Adventures in Cooking style.


1 package of Oreos
2/3 package of cream cheese
candy melts (melting chocolate)

  1. Remove Oreos from package. This is an actual step in my recipe because it gives me the opportunity to bring up the fact that you probably don't have Oreos. You don't have Oreos because who wants to pay 4$ for a 14.5-oz pack of cookies when they can buy the Target brand sandwich cookies for $2.09 and get an extra ounce in the bargain? So open up your pack of Market Pantry sandwich cookies and begin to contemplate how many cookies are in that extra ounce and whether you should modify the recipe to account for that.
  2. Use a food processor to crumble cookies. If you don’t have a food processor you can put the cookies in a large plastic bag and use a hard object to crush the cookies as finely as possible. You don't have a food processor, and you don't have a clean plastic bag, either (because buying bags just to use them once would be wasteful), so improvise by emptying the industrial-sized bag of M&Ms in your fridge and using that. Eat a couple M&Ms.
  3. Because the bag has been previously chewed by the dog, allow cookie crumbs to spill out of the holes and onto the counter. Be unsuccessful in completely crushing the cookies (despite the use of a heavy cooking pot in lieu of a rolling pin, because who has one of those lying around!?) and so move them into the blender.
  4. Blend cookies several times. Spray more cookie crumbs on counter.
  5. Get cream cheese out of refrigerator.
  6. Realize you probably should have let the cream cheese soften before attempting to mix it into the powdered cookies, so take a break. Start writing a blog post about this recipe or something.
  7. When you come back 2.5 hours later from selling stuff on eBay, in a bowl, combine Oreo cookie crumbles and cream cheese. First try to do this with a wooden spoon, but find that the cream cheese is too attached to itself to want to mingle with the crumbs. Then try using an electric hand mixer. Spray more crumbs on counter. Go back to the wooden spoon, spill more crumbs, then finally decide to wash your hands and knead that stuff!
  8. Form dough into one large ball and chill in refrigerator for about 30 minutes or the freezer for 10 minutes.
  9. Three hours later, come back and read the next step, which says "Now, roll dough into 1.5 inch balls." Realize that since you wanted to spread the dough into a pan rather than roll it into balls, it was probably counterproductive to refrigerate it. Oh well. Forward momentum!
  10. Ignore the following step: Use the second half of my Cake Pop Recipe to complete your pops. I like to serve mine chilled. Recipe will yield approximately 25 cake pops.
  11. Instead, press the cake pop batter into an 8x8-inch pan.
  12. Get out a bag of white chocolate. Overestimate how much you need, then melt it in the microwave per the instructions.
  13. Spread melted white chocolate over pan of batter with a rubber spatula. Realize you have either not melted your white chocolate enough, or it is just too thick by nature, because it is dragging crumbs of cake pop batter wherever you spread it. Eventually succeed in spreading the now-blackened white chocolate over the entire pan.
  14. Cut the bars while the white chocolate is still hot, because it is far too thick and certainly won't be cuttable while it's cool.
  15. Take some photos, go wild with the filters, and try to make it look delicious!
  16. (Optional) You now have 1/3 of a package of cream cheese and some unknown quantity of white chocolate left over. Imagine what kinds of Adventures in Cooking you can have with that!

This recipe was lovingly modified from one I found online.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Take Note

In the days before I worked at the University, I had a foolproof mechanism for taking notes on the things I wanted to blog about—I typed them into a text file entitled "things to blog about".

Once I started my desk job, though, that no longer worked, as I did my blogging at home but my idea-inventing at the office. So over the past 2.5 years, I have been questing without cease to find the perfect note-taking solution (mostly to house topics for my blogs, but also to store the many random thoughts that flit across my brain over the course of a day).

In my first month of work, I tried and rejected Google Docs, emails to myself, and Microsoft SkyDrive (now called OneDrive), and Evernote.

I then decided that, since the big names were letting me down, I would go small-time. I started with some rinky-dink online app that I can't remember the name of. It appeared to be a free-time solo project of some software developer, and I wouldn't be surprised if it no longer exists. I liked it because it could store plain-text notes that wouldn't add a bunch of wacky formatting into my blog when I pasted them. I disliked it for many more reasons that I can no longer remember.

After that, I stumbled upon a little gem called Springnote. After using it for a while, I deduced that it was some kind of knockoff of a more popular platform called Springpad. It was also not primarily developed for the English-speaking audience, which always gave me trouble when I needed help with one of its features. I hadn't been using this service for very long when the entire Springnote platform shut down.

After that, I moved on to Catch Notes. I always enjoyed Catch, if for no other reason than its colorful interface.  However, Catch Notes soon went under as well, obliging me to scramble for another note-taking service.

Next, I went with Springpad, the big cousin to my beloved Springnote. One of my favorite features of Springpad was the bookmarklet that would allow me to add any web page to my Springpad notebook with just a click (kind of like Pinterest!). That and the cute "binder" covers that you could use to style your notebooks. However, no one should be surprised when I say that Springpad went the way of all its predecessors: that is, into oblivion.

Fortunately, Springpad provided its users with tools to export notes into a similar application: Evernote. So I reluctantly went back to the service I'd tried and rejected in the past. Evernote's spartan and utilitarian interface did not bring me joy the way Springnote's had...and a bookmarklet was hard to find and even harder to get to work consistently. But Evernote is the tool of the masses (second Google result for "online note app" as I write this, the first being a Mashable post from 2008 singing the praises of the late Springnote), and I probably should have just stuck with it from the beginning.

I've found that pasting into my blog from Evernote is not as messy as I thought—I simply strip the formatting and delete the empty paragraphs that always seem to show up. I guess I'll be content. But if you've learned nothing else from this story, you've learned that the note-taking services I like to use have a tendency to go out of business. So other Evernote users, be warned. Your app might be next!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Panera chocolate chip cookie

In my work as a Giant Cookie blogger, I have reviewed a passel of cookies from Panera.
Yet somehow, in my vast experience, I never got around to blogging the common, classic chocolate chip cookie. Until yesterday.

Then I unwrapped the cookie, generously bought for me by my boyfriend for breakfast on Sunday, and treasured unopened for a whole day, before I devoured it. My other experiences with Panera cookies indicated that I'd probably find this one pretty tasty.

In order to give it the fairest review possible, I prepped my tasting powers with a hefty dose of nasal decongestant. Somehow this didn't seem to completely restore my sense of smell, but I soldiered on, concluding that, despite my crippled olfactory system, the cookie still tasted good. It wasn't too sweet, it wasn't too salty, and it wasn't skimping on the chocolate chips.

But its real winning point was the texture. Soft, yet with a thin crust, it was, to the poet in me, as a thin layer of ice that has formed in the sun on a deep bank snow. Sometimes only the center of the cookie is truly the perfect texture, but this cookie was just right, almost right to the edge.

The Bottom Line

Taste:4 out of 5 stars
Texture:5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

An insider's Guide to working with AT&T Wireless (Or A Phone of One's Own, Part 3)

Have you read the story of how many times I got conflicting information about procuring a new phone through AT&T? Are you thinking about using my advice on buying a new phone from someone other than AT&T but not sure if that's the right choice for you? Are you as confused as I was by AT&T in general, but specifically about the differences between AT&T Next and the traditional  system of wireless contracts? Then read on for a crash course.

In the past, getting a new phone every two years was as simple as renewing your contract and saying thank you. Maybe if you were into newfangled technology, you'd have to pay a bit for your fancy-schmancy handset, but you got a hefty discount as long as you renewed the contract. This is still possible, but AT&T is moving away from this system. Nowadays, most everyone is using a fancy-schmancy phone, and it's not economical for AT&T (and, from what I hear, other carriers as well) to continue offering them for next to nothing. So they are encouraging all their customers to switch to the new AT&T Next plan, where you buy your own phone (still at a discount, but a smaller one than you would get with the new contract), but in exchange, you pay a lower per-line monthly access fee (if you're using the Mobile Share Value billing plan). Although I didn't believe it at first, you actually save money in the long run by going with AT&T Next (because if you choose the new-phone-with-contract option, you lose that discount on your access fee). If you're as skeptical as I was, check out this handy calculator that they have created for you.

Now, here are a few caveats. They kept specifying that this pricing system applies to the Mobile Share Value Plan. If there are still other plans available, and if you're on one, I don't know whether it's still going to be cheaper to use the AT&T Next purchasing option. But since that's the plan I'm on, I'm telling you how it is for me! The other caveat: AT&T also allows you to bring your own device. If you are willing to do the extra research and the shopping around, you can almost certainly get the same phone for less if you buy it from another retailer. That's what I chose to do (the phone that I chose isn't even available through AT&T).

What is a Mobile Share Value plan? Well, I don't know exactly. What I do know is that while before, my line was allotted a certain number of gigabytes of data all to itself, now everyone on my family plan is sharing all the data in one big pool (cue the "MOM! Billy's hogging all the data!")

If you are going to put on your gauntlets and do business with AT&T Customer Service or visit a retail store, I strongly encourage you to do four things first:
  1. Make sure you are an authorized retail user. If you're on a family plan, only the account holder has permission to actually make changes to the account. But an authorized retail user, such as Yours Truly (I'd like to thank my dad for making this possible!) can buy a phone and renew his or her contract and things like that. This is a must for those who are geographically separated from the account holder by 500 miles or thereabouts. You will need to get the account holder to add you as a user, but once you have, your life will be easier by at least 5-fold.
  2. Make sure you have the last four digits of the account holder's social security number. Even if you're an authorized user, they won't allow you access to account details without additional proof of authorization. For example, I could not get the refund on my ill-advised SIM card purchase until I provided these magic numbers.
  3. If you're going to visit an AT&T store, make an appointment first. When I arrived for mine on a Sunday afternoon, I was the only one with an appointment, which automatically put me ahead of the 7 walk-ins on the waiting list. Even so, I had to stand around waiting for a good 10 minutes, and then someone messed around with the wait list and accidentally removed my name before I was called, just adding to the annoyingly long wait and obliging me to have a loud conversation with my boyfriend about what had happened to my name until an employee noticed I'd been skipped over. This leads me to my 4th point.
  4. Be ready to be proactive.* There are some very stupid people working for AT&T. All sorts of accidents happen and all sorts of misinformation are dispensed like candy. Everything you get told, check and double-check. It's a hassle, but it's better than getting billed too much, which seems to be the usual result of these miscommunications.
And lastly, before you put on those gauntlets, be aware of the distinction between AT&T and an AT&T Authorized Retailer. This is a tricky one, because AT&T authorized retailers are apparently allowed to have huge signs with the AT&T logo (albeit with the words "authorized retailer" next to the logo). They can look just like an AT&T store, but they can apparently charge you 20$ for a SIM card which a company store would give you for free. Who knows what insidious other ways they may be different!? So be cautious when shopping; visit an Authorized Retailer at your own risk, and be sure to double check on any of the fees before you hand over your credit card.

Following these steps to success, I am pretty sure that you can navigate the morass of confusion and have a happy (OK, OK, I'll settle for semi-functional) relationship with your cellular service provider!

*Some people would argue that my strategy for getting service in point #3 would be better classified as passive-aggressive, not proactive, to which I have to agree, if it had been an actual strategy. To my credit, at the time, I was just trying to figure out what had occurred and not actually opening a conscious bid for attention. It just happened that the issue did get resolved without my having to actually approach anyone—phew! Another win for the avoidant person in me!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

How to buy and bring your own phone to AT&T
(Or, A Phone of One's Own, Part 2)

Last post, I recounted the story of how I finally weaned myself off carrier-subsidized cell phones and took the plunge into the free market. If you're looking to buy a phone through the non-traditional route as I did, look no further! Or considering how much flying by the seat of my pants I've been doing, maybe, you should look a little further, but start here at least!

Last things first

Because I think this was what my dad wanted to know when he requested the details of my experience, I will first share what I had to do to make my newly purchased phone work once I received it. In theory, this should have been easy. The phone was already unlocked to work with any carrier and even already charged! I should have just been able to put my old SIM card in the new phone and begin making calls (this worked consistently when I kept switching back and forth between the iPhone 3G and the 3GS). Unfortunately, I hit a road block this time. Apparently, SIM cards come in too many sizes. I'd already learned this when I had to get a new SIM to switch from the iPhone 3G (standard SIM) to the iPhone 4 (Micro SIM). With the new Droid Mini, I had to downsize again to a Nano SIM. Which necessitated a visit to the AT&T store to get my SIM card replaced. Once that was done, it was smooth sailing. My new phone worked like a charm!

So the moral of that story is that actually getting a phone to work with your network is probably the easy part. 
Now, let me give you some helpful pointers I learned along the way about the hard part: buying a phone in the first place. Then, because this turns out to be a lot to digest at once, I'll follow up with one last post on understanding the mysterious beast that is AT&T. Now let's get shopping!

Know what you want

For me, my priorities in getting a new phone shifted a lot over the month or so that I was searching for one. Originally I really just wanted a small Android phone that worked fast and had a good battery (preferably replaceable). Then I realized, I really needed a half-decent camera for those spontaneous Unfashion pics I might need to take at work. While shopping, I found a number of phones that take microSD storage cards, which I thought sounded like a nifty way to transfer music and files from my phone to the computer and other devices...until I realized that most of the SD cards are buried under batteries and back panels and aren't really intended to be swapped in and out all the time. So that went off my priority list again, and I settled for a phone with an average battery just because it was cheaper. But all that aside, whatever your priorities are, you can probably use to help you find them. This site has a detailed advanced search feature and a nifty tool that'll let you compare the actual sizes of different handsets. Their staff reviews are also really thorough, though reviews of old phones do not really reflect how they compare to modern phones. Once you know what it is you're looking for, it's time to consider the things you might not even know you're looking for.

Carrier-locked vs. Unlocked

Some phones can only be used with certain carriers. When you buy a phone directly from a carrier, it is usually locked to work on their network alone. For example, you cannot pop your AT&T SIM card into a T-Mobile phone and expect it to work unless the phone is unlocked first. Now, you can unlock almost any phone, sometimes for free, but usually for a cost that can vary quite wildly. So if you're shopping for a new phone, I recommend buying one that's either already unlocked (this is different from jailbroken, by the way) or is keyed to the carrier you are going to use. I hear that they have just passed some law that makes it legal (read: easier) to unlock your phone at any time, so if you're planning to sell your phone, I'd recommend getting it unlocked first, because that way you can sell it for more money, since there will be a higher demand for it! 


It's an alphabet soup out there in the phone-buying world, and the first acronyms you'll probably run accross are CDMA and GSM. Apparently, not only can phones be deliberately locked to a specific network, but different carriers use completely different technologies to provide cellular service. Carriers that take SIM cards use GSM bands, and carriers that don't take them use CDMA—or something like that. Some phones are set up for both services, but others are not. If you use a GSM carrier and buy a CDMA phone, you will not get far. In most listings on eBay (where I bought my phone), the band will be listed in the specifications, so pay close attention to that. Theoretically, you can also use specific band version numbers to find out whether your phone supports 3G or 4G data, but that wasn't a huge priority to me, so I didn't investigate it much.

So far so good? Here's just a little example to confuse you all over again. Verizon is traditionally a CDMA carrier, and AT&T is GSM. You would think this would mean that, as an AT&T customer, I should have steered clear of Verizon phones. However, being the renegade I am (or just the pennypincher who will take any risk to save a few bucks), I bought a Verizon phone, because the seller had stated clearly that it was unlocked and would work on AT&T's network. When I brought it to the AT&T store for activation, the salesman got a very worried expression on his face. But he installed the SIM card anyway, and, voila! It worked. This just goes to show you, nothing is for certain in this world!


Here come some more meaningless letters! I don't know what they stand for, but apparently if a person's phone is lost or stolen, or if it is linked to a contract that hasn't been paid, it can be reported by the carrier as having a bad ESN or IMEI, and it won't work. Not only that, but you could be potentially breaking the law by using it! If you see a phone for sale with any mention of a "Bad" ESN or IMEI in the listing, just keep on scrolling. I think it might be possible to get these phones to work outside of the US, but here in the States, it's better to be safe and legal than sorry.

Woohoo! You've just learned in 5 minutes what it took me several days of phone shopping to begin to understand. Now you should be ready to explore that handset market with confidence. And, if you aren't already comatose from information overload, stay tuned for my next post, which I hope will clarify some of the murky waters surrounding everyone's favorite carrier (or at least, the one I'm currently using, AT&T Wireless!)

Monday, August 25, 2014

A phone of one's own

I've had a cell phone since I was gifted a stylish Motorola StarTAC when I turned 16 in 1999.

Thus began my long relationship with cell phones: I've gotten 1 as a gift, 5 as hand-me-downs or on extended loan, 3 free with a contract, and 1 at a discount with a contract. I've gone through 10 handsets and been a phone-carrying mobile user for 15 years, yet never, in all that time, have I had to actually buy a phone from a retailer! 

But all that changed this summer. 

I lost my HTC One X in Indonesia in June. I was actually not very disappointed, because I'd been annoyed with the size and battery life of that phone pretty much ever since I'd gotten it, and I'd just been biding my time until I could renew my contract (which I estimated to be sometime in June) and get a smaller phone. However, upon my return to the States, I learned that, not only was there no such thing as a small smartphone any more, but AT&T had changed their pricing and would no longer be providing free or heavily discounted phones to users who renew their contract. I wasn't keen to spend full price on a brand-new phone, especially on some giant phone on some dumb installment plan, so I started shopping around. At first, I was gung-ho to find a new phone that would suit me, but I soon learned that good phones are not cheap, and there weren't even any phones out there that I considered good enough to be worth the price. 

So I switched from using my backup antique iPhone 3G to using my boyfriend's slightly less old iPhone 3GS, and contented myself with that until something better should come around

Then I broke his screen and the drama started afresh. After a few days, I repaired the screen for 63 dollars, but within a few more days, I stopped picking up a signal (I must have damaged the antenna too—what a waste of 63 dollars!), so I switched back to my antique iPhone. Then after a couple weeks of cursing my phone's existence, I got a Micro-SIM card for 25 dollars and switched to my boyfriend's slightly newer iPhone 4, learned it really was still possible to get a discounted phone by renewing your contract and that I'd overpaid for the SIM card (what a waste of 25 dollars!) and that I still don't like iPhones no matter how new they are, got a courtesy refund on the SIM card, learned it would be cost-ineffective to the others on my family plan to get an upgraded phone by renewing my contract, and started shopping again for new phones that would suit me. 

This time I lowered my standards and resigned myself to paying around 200 dollars for a phone that I might like slightly more than the HTC One X or the iPhone 4. Yesterday, I finally took the plunge. I have returned to my Motorola roots and bought myself a used DROID Mini on eBay (for 148 dollars, including charging accessories).

Yes, this is a long story, and it is really only the introduction to my true purpose: sharing the lessons I've learned from this phone buying adventure. When I told my dad my plans for buying an aftermarket handset, he asked me to provide a narration of what I needed to do, since he has a friend who needs to buy a new phone. And that made me realize, what with AT&T's new pricing structure, there are probably lots of first-time phone-buyers out there who are just as bewildered by this whole process as I was. 

So here I am to save the day! For the past month and a half, phones have consumed my thoughts. In my next post, I will share all those thoughts with you! Soon we will all be experts on navigating the seamy underworld that is basically any marketplace beyond your carrier's friendly neighborhood store.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Pet Peeves

If you were reading my blog about 5 months ago, you were introduced to the unholy terror known to those who love him (do such people really exist?) as Jack Jack (I shortened his name to Jack in the last post), the dog with no control over his bodily functions or his compulsion to frolic in the trash. In those 5 months, he has not seemed to learn anything.

Several times a week, I come home to garbage strewn through the house, poop on the floor, knicknacks knocked off the shelves, sometimes broken (he climbs like a cat, but he's a lot less graceful about it), and, always, a cowering, quivering dog somewhere in the vicinity of ground zero.

Jack Jack cringing in anticipation of his tongue-lashing
Jack Jack begging for mercy
His terror of being yelled at trumps his excitement to see me, so he no longer approaches me eagerly and pees on my shoes, but that same terror usually causes him to pee wherever he is currently located (usually on the couch) instead. This is not an improvement.

I have become quite irritated by this whole state of affairs. After all, it was Al's decision (without any consultation with me) to bring the dog into my house, yet it is I (being the first one home every day) who always has to deal with the messy consequences. So after months of getting progressively angrier every time I found a mess, now when there's a disaster in the house upon my arrival, I've taken to calling my boyfriend home from whatever he's doing (usually hitting the gym) to clean up after his dog.

I don't think anyone would be much surprised to hear me say that I'm not feeling particularly charitable to the canine species at present, but I've just recently realized it's not just dogs that are a thorn in my side; it's dog owners—or maybe more specifically, dog walkers.

Allow me to explain. Every day, I ride my bike to work. I don't like to waste time, so I travel as fast as I can pedal for the entire trip. My speed is not usually a problem to other people. The trail that takes me most of the way to the office is a nice wide paved route with a yellow dividing line. When I pass other bikers or pedestrians, they generally let me by without complaint. But the dog-walking-crowd—they're just a whole breed apart.

The only times I've ever taken any flak while riding my bike, it's always been from some high-strung woman walking a dog. Once I passed a dog-walker from behind (on the opposite side of the dividing line) and got screamed at: "You're supposed to WARN people when you pass them!" Another time, I came down a hill right where the bike trail intersects a street, and a dog-walker approaching the trail from my left yelled at me: "Slow down!"

Call me insensitive, but I don't feel remotely guilty about either of these incidents. I was riding my bike on a bike trail. Yes, it's open to pedestrians as well, but if you're going to be walking on it, you should expect to encounter a few bikes, most likely doing what bikes do—which is move faster than you and your dog can do on foot. I don't get all bent out of shape and start shouting when I have to brake because somebody's dog is taking up the whole trail, even though it's clearly divided into two lanes; and I think it's reasonable to expect dog walkers not to act hysterical because a biker comes near them moving fast.

To be fair, this has only happened two times, but one bad experience can color your opinions forever! And right now, because of these two incidents, my opinion of dog-walking-ladies is that they are a bunch of overreacting ninnies.

So to recap, and so as not to let my rant go to waste, a moral! The lesson every dog owner can take away from this post is: if you want to own a dog, then be prepared to accept the consequences of owning a dog. Don't move your dog into someone else's home and then expect them to clean up after it all the time. And if you don't feel comfortable walking your dog around people on bikes, then don't walk your dog where there are people on bikes! That's easy!

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Chocolate Chip Cookie from Epcot Center

Shortly after my macaroni lunch at Epcot Center, I picked up a chocolate chip cookie at the Norway Pavilion.

By this time I was no longer hungry, but I couldn't resist the temptation to get a Giant Cookie at such an exotic locale. So I did, wrapping it in a napkin, folding part of the paper plate over it, stuffing it in my purse, and hoping for the best. I carried it around with me for the rest of the day, through Mexico, FutureWorld, and the land of Imagination...dragging it along on my ferry ride to the Magic Kingdom...shoving it into my suitcase for my trip back to DC...and keeping it in a drawer at home for a couple more days.

This is what it looked like when I finally ate it.

Having survived that much abuse, my Norway cookie shouldn't be faulted for not being at its peak of deliciousness, but...the taste didn't do much for me. There was something slightly chemical about it. Maybe it absorbed too many fumes from my sunscreen. I'll give it the benefit of a doubt.

Texture, similarly, was acceptable, but not exceptional.

The white medallion at the center, probably this cookie's one point of distinction, didn't really do anything to enhance, being a bit soft and not having any noticeable flavor.

Unsurprisingly for a cookie bought at an amusement park, it was kind of pricey (but could have been worse), weighing in at 100 grams (give or take; it's hard to accurately weigh a cookie which has lost a portion of its mass in your purse) and costing $2.59, or 2.6¢ per gram.
All in all, another run-of-the-mill Giant Cookie to scratch off my list.

The Bottom Line:

Taste:2 out of 5 stars
Texture:3 out of 5 stars
Price:2 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Nudel Gratin from Epcot Center

Whilst visiting Disney World's Epcot Center last weekend, I had the singular experience of buying both a Giant Cookie and a Macaroni in the same day!
The cookie review is coming soon! Read on to find out what I thought of the macaroni!
But before you begin, you should know that, at the time I consumed this pasta dish, I was participating in a little thing they call "Drink Around the World" which is something boozers like to do at Epcot Center, because it is the only Disney Park that serves alcohol. To play this game, you buy an alcoholic beverage at every international pavilion in the park. And then if you're hardcore, you get pictures with the staff of every pavilion and/or make them sign your T-shirt or mug or whatever else you have custom designed for the purpose. There are 11 pavilions in the park. I myself, not being capable of consuming 11 alcoholic drinks in a day, and not a fan of asking strangers for favors, was sort of half-heartedly drinking around the world, which is to say I got a drink when it struck my fancy and had a few sips of my boyfriend's drink when it didn't. Despite my determined moderation, I was still fairly intoxicated by the time I ate my macaroni. This means, of course, that my judgment, as far as the quality of my food, may not have been 100% accurate.

But that said, I rather enjoyed it. The flavor was good, the top was pretty crusty, and I was able to eat the whole thing. The texture was a little different from other macaronis I have known, being somewhat mushy and wet, rather like an overly eggy quiche, but hey! It was vegetarian food in an amusement park—I won't complain.

The macaroni was purchased at the Germany pavilion and was called by the decidedly German name of "nudel gratin". It appeared to be baked and came in a rectangular shape, which I have to say is a first for my macaroni reviews.


On the whole, I rate it 1 happy noodle for satisfying my hunger (and thirst for the unusual) and 1 sad noodle for the rather unappetizing texture.
1 happy noodle 1 sad noodle

The Mood Noodle rating system is not based on a fixed scale, but is a much more subjective system based on what makes me happy and what makes me sad.
Any number of happy noodles and comparatively few sad noodles constitute a good rating.