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Vacation in France

by Michael Alderete on 9/24/2002

Yes, we just got back from 16 days in France. Yes, we took a lot of photos. Yes, we have a lot to write about. And yes, we’re behind on putting these up.

Rochelle will write the commentary to the photos, while I’ll post a bunch of stuff here. Look for it over the next couple weeks, starting this weekend.

Of course, there would already be stuff posted if my damn server hadn’t died while we were gone…

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France 16, Mexico 3

by Michael Alderete on 9/24/2002

Our trip in France lasted 16 days, and we obviously ate a lot of French food. Which was wonderful, but it’s time for a rest.

So today I ate Mexican food for the third day in a row. Mexican is one of the cuisines you have real difficulty finding at all in France. In fact, the closest we found was a TexMex restaurant (we were too scared to eat there).

So, since we got back, I’ve been eating a lot of Mexican food. For three days straight. Well, Sunday it was only margaritas (and margaritas only)…

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The Paris spreadsheet

by Michael Alderete on 1/2/2005

Mentioned in the lead paragraph of that NYTimes article is the spreadsheet which Rochelle put together prior to our trip to France in 2002. Since publication we’ve actually had people inquire about getting access to it, so I thought I’d put it online. If you’re impatient, you can find a download link toward the end of this story. But some background will help you make the most of it.

Rochelle created the spreadsheet in an attempt to duplicate the really amazing experience she had using Vindigo on her Palm handheld when visiting New York City in May 2002. She did a lot of pre-trip research, and entered addresses and venues of interest into Vindigo. Then, while in NYC, she was able to tell Vindigo where she was, and get a list of places within walking distance, along with step-by-step directions for getting there. It made her touring the city (while I was locked in business meetings) efficient and fun, while still allowing for serendipity to influence where she went.

However, there is no Vindigo for Paris, or for any city in France. So we set out to try to duplicate the most essential features, by tying every location of interest to the nearest Metro stop and its arrondissement. We thought that this would let us figure out where we were, and then find interesting places nearby. In the end, it was only partially successful for us.

We had the most fun when we used it at the beginning and middle of the day, during breakfast and lunch, to plan where we would spend the rest of the morning or afternoon. When we tried to use it to follow whim after whim, which Vindigo had done successfully, we ended up pretty frustrated.

The other thing that didn’t work out the way we envisioned was the Palm version of the spreadsheet. We managed to download the data into Rochelle’s Palm, and use a micro database called JFile to be able to search and sort it, etc. But without a lot of additional development, having just the table of data was simply too hard to use on a Palm screen, it’s just not wide enough. With a search engine, hand-crafted results and detail pages, cross references, etc., the electronic version could have been pretty good…but even if I had put 20 hours into it, it would still have been nowhere near as good as Vindigo.

In the end, the printout of the spreadsheet was a tremendously valuable tool for us, and we’d never have seen as many cool places without it. And even if Vindigo had covered Paris, we’d still have wanted to pore through all the guidebooks and websites that Rochelle found. We would never have depended on Vindigo’s content. But having Vindigo to organize our own content by precise location, instead of rough chunks, would have been pretty darn cool.

Anyway, the spreadsheet was put together prior to our trip to France in October 2002; some things are now surely out of date. We’ve made no attempt to clean up Rochelle’s unique annotations and categorizations (Rochelle is an information organization specialist), which will likely be meaningless to you. And you don’t get our copies of the guidebooks, where were marked up and bookmarked with color-coded flags, and cross-referenced in the spreadsheet; we used those constantly, too. But if you still think it might be useful to you, here’s the spreadsheet.

Last note: this only covers half our trip, the time we spent in Paris. We also spent a lot of time in the Champagne region. We didn’t make a spreadsheet for that part of the trip, which (except for our first hotel and one meal) was entirely unscripted. Instead some photos and some weblog entries may give you some useful information about that.

Enjoy France!

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Tequila 101

by Michael Alderete on 11/25/2003

About a year ago, I was sitting in a bar waiting for a friend to arrive, eavesdropping on the conversation at a nearby table. Mostly I listened to one fellow trying to impress his table companions by making a sophisticated tequila order. He was having more than a little trouble, because he couldn’t remember the brand of any quality tequila except Patrón. The waiter was trying to help, but he was using tequila terms correctly, and the customer just had no clue. I thought about stepping in, flashing my Ph.D. card, and trying to help, but decided the guy was beyond saving. He eventually managed to order “Patron Gold” (there is no such thing; presumably the waiter brought him Patrón Reposado or Añejo), and as the server walked away, he said to his companions “that guy doesn’t know shit about tequila.”

Sadly, his level of knowledge is pretty common, even in states like California where a lot of tequila is imported and consumed. It’s not hard to learn enough to always get a quality drink, but it requires a bit more effort to impress your companions, or the waitstaff.

Before posting more about our trip to the tequila region of Mexico, I thought I would describe a few of the basics of tequila. This is by no means an exhaustive list of what you might want to know about tequila; if you want to learn more, you need to start visiting Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant on a regular basis. Sit in the bar, and talk with Julio Bermejo, one of the world’s “tequila ambassadors.” But this will get you started.

First of all, tequila is a denomination of origin spirit, one of two in North America (the other is mescal). This means that to be legally labeled as tequila, the spirit must be produced in a particular geographic region, primarily the state of Jalisco in Mexico, but also including a few smaller areas nearby. Other denomination of origin spirits you might be familiar with are Scotch (the denomination of origin version of whiskey) and Cognac (known as brandy if not made in the right part of France).

Agave plantTequila is made from a particular plant, agave tequilana weber, blue variety. While many people mistakenly think the agave is a form of cactus, it’s actually closely related to the lily. It looks something like a large aloe vera plant.

Quality tequila is made from 100% agave, and will say so on the label (it’s a mark of pride and quality), but the law allows products labeled tequila to be made from as little as 51% agave, with the rest coming from unspecified sugars (usually sugar cane).

Tequila production, like other well-known denomination of origin spirits, is heavily regulated, with government oversight to ensure adherence to the rules. This is A Good Thing. A few years ago there was a severe agave shortage, and many less reputable distilleries were not using 100% agave to make their tequila. The CRT inspectors, who make daily visits to the distillerias, actually measure the volume of agave delivered to the plant, and when production significantly exceeds the expected amount for that volume they know something’s fishy.

The process of making tequila goes something like this:

  1. Harvest agaveHarvest agave plants. Quality producers harvest individual plants at the height of their maturity, i.e., when they are 8-10 years old. Harvesting kills the plant. (Tequila is the only spirit where the raw materials do not renew easily and grow every year, year after year.)
  2. Cook in autoclaveCook the agave. Almost all of the highest quality tequila is cooked in traditional stone ovens called hornos; the more commerically-oriented technique is to use a giant steam pressure cooker called an autoclave. The cooking process converts the agave starches to sugars. This can be done in as little as 12 hours in autoclaves, but generally is a 36 hour or longer process in a traditional hornos.
  3. Extract juicesExtract the agave juice, called aguamiel. The traditional approach uses a giant stone milling wheel; it’s roughly 30% less efficient than more modern techniques that use motors, gears, steel rollers, etc. Quality tequila can be made using either technique, but the difference is a lot like “first press” olive oil or “first crush” wine. All other things being equal, the higher quality result will be achieved by being a little more gentle, and accepting some loss in efficiency.
  4. Ferment the sugars. Yeast is added to large vats or tanks of extracted agave juice, and it ferments, converting the sugars to alcohol. Eventually the increasing alcohol level kills the yeast, and fermentation ends. Fermentation produces an alcohol level of 5-7%, about the same as beer.
  5. DistillationDistillation. In the traditional batch-oriented process, pot stills are used to purify and raise the alcohol level of the product. The fermented juice is distilled once to become ordinario, which is around 20% alcohol (40 proof), and tastes pretty foul raw. It’s distilled a second time to become tequila, at 45% alcohol (90 proof) or greater. High-volume production is done with something called a column still, which isn’t a proper still at all. Tequila produced with a column still is always inferior to product coming from traditional stills; no quality tequila is made with column stills. Note that what comes out of the still is higher in alcohol content than what you’ll find in the bottle. Most products are dilluted with water to adjust the alcohol percentage as necessary, down to 40% (80 proof).
  6. Aging (optional). Some tequilas are aged in oak tanks or barrels, to add color and complexity to the flavor of the spirit. More on aging further down.

The next thing to know is that there are four major categories of tequila, which generally correspond to increasing levels of quality:

  • Joven abogado, which means “young and adulterated”. This is never good tequila. It’s not 100% agave (the “abogado” part), and it’s not aged (“joven”). This is stuff like Cuervo Gold/Especial/1800. This kind of tequila is often called mixto, meaning it’s a mixture of agave and other sugars (mixto says nothing about the aging, however). Just Say No.
  • Blanco, or unaged tequila. Blanco means white, and a true blanco is crystal clear, with no color at all. It is tequila straight out of the still (cut with water if necessary to bring the alcohol down to 80 proof). Many tequila connoisseurs drink only blanco tequilas, because they are closest to the “pure” flavors of the agave plant. A very few blancos, mostly Herradura Silver, actually see a little time in oak. This gives them a bit of color, adds some flavor and complexity, and can cut the harshness that is common with blancos. Blancos are sometimes called plata as well.
  • Large aging vatReposado, or “rested” tequila. Reposado tequilas have been aged in oak containers for a minimum of 60 days, up to nearly a year. There is no limit on the size of the oak container, and for some volume products like Sauza Hornitos, they are aged in giant oak vats. Better tequila is aged in smaller 55 gallon barrels, the same size used for aging wine, and for longer than the minimum, usually 6-9 months. The oak can be new, or more commonly, used bourbon barrels from the US or Canada. Aging mellows the tequila a bit, and adds color and complexity.
  • Añejo or aged tequila. Añejo tequilas must be aged for a minimum of 12 months (but 18 months or more for the better quality tequilas), and the oak containers may not be too giagantic (not over 600 gallons, but again, 55 gallon barrels are best). The extra time and contact with wood imparts a stronger oak flaver to the tequila, deepens its color, and smooths it out considerably. Añejo tequilas are almost always the most expensive, but this is a factor of the time and storage space it takes to make añejo as much as it is a factor of quality. Still, all of the super-premium tequilas, like Cuervo’s Reserva de Familia, Herradura’s Seleccion Suprema, or San Matias’ Rey Sol, are añejos. (I am extremely partial to Rey Sol in particular.) Even these products are aged only to 5-6 years (compared to many times longer for some other spirits).

The most important thing about this list is that, while these categories generally correlate with increasing quality as you move down the list, it’s not guaranteed. You must still look for the “100% Agave” on the label, even on añejo tequilas!

Another important thing about this list is that you don’t see any of the marketing terms that people confuse with descriptive terms. I.e., you don’t see “gold”, “silver”, or (these days) “platinum”. Those are marketing terms; they mean nothing about the quality of the tequila, and tell you only what the manufacturer wants you to think about their product. Non-100% agave tequilas can contain other sugars, so often caramel coloring is added to make the product look like it was aged for longer than it was; this is where the “Gold” almost always comes from.

I’ll stop here, and save some more information, recommendations, and margarita tips for another post. And then, maybe, I’ll write more about our trip to Mexico, and the psychopath tequila fiends we went with.

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The soul of champagne

by Michael Alderete on 11/13/2003

Almost two years ago, Rochelle and I attended a champagne tasting held at Absinthe, and hosted by Terry Theise, a specialty wine importer. We had gone to a couple other champagne tasting events, but this was a smaller setting, and Theise had a different agenda.

He introduced us to “grower producers,” or, champagnes made by the same people who grow the grapes, in very small quantities. It was eye opening, and we immediately decided our next big vacation would be to the Champagne region of France. That trip was in September of 2002, and will probably remain our best vacation for many years.

Yesterday’s New York Times has an excellent article about champagne grower producers, and also provides a fine introduction to some of the subtleties of champagne. I’ve been meaning to write up my own introduction, but for now, I’ll just point you at the Times.

I will add one thing to the NYT article, that Rochelle and I thought was the key lesson we learned at our tasting with Theise. Grower producers don’t have any money for marketing, and don’t make enough product where marketing would actually help them. So when you buy a bottle of their wine, you’re paying for the wine, not the marketing budget.

By contrast, the largest champagne houses spend zillions on marketing and distribution. That’s what puts them on supermarket shelves across the US, and what drives people to buy them off those shelves. A substantial piece of the price tag for that wine is the marketing and other costs which are not reflected in the quality of the wine.

So, if you’re drinking a well-made $40 champagne from a grower producer, it compares favorably to a $80-100 champagne from, say, Moët & Chandon. Dom Perignon, the premium label of Moët, is $80 at Costco. While in France we paid 30€ for bottles we liked better.

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Stupidity tax, part two

by Michael Alderete on 5/30/2003

So, getting ready for our trip, Rochelle was going to Xerox our passports, so we would have copies, just in case. I was in the tub, and she went to get mine. A minute later, she came down the hall, laughing, “A ha, Michael is a dumbass!” It turns out my passport expired on 30 April 2003. Oops.

We had exactly 18 hours to figure out what to do. Rochelle checked a Costa Rica web site, remembering that you could take a photo ID and your birth certificate, and that would be enough. It turned out that that had expired on 1 May. Oops.

A quick internet search turned up Plan B, travisa, which is able to do same-day passports in four cities in the U.S. One of them — thank god — is San Francisco. Rochelle called them, and the cut-off is 10am. It was 8:30am, so plenty of time. They even were able to take the photo.

The damage: the US Government takes an extra $60 to do an expedited passport renewal. travisa’s service fee was $139 + $10 for the photo. Doing the math, that’s an extra $210 above what it would have cost if we’d done this after getting back from France — which is when I should have noticed this.

What’s really fucked up about this is, we decided not to take the direct flight from SFO to San Jose, because it was an extra $110 per person. One hour of massage in Costa Rica is $20, so that would be five massages. So we decided we could do deal with the indirect flight by getting massages, and come out even, or ahead, really, because we were going to do the massages anyway.

Well, that’s how the stupidity tax works, you think you’re getting ahead, and in an instant you wipe it all out. Ah, well…

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Paying the stupidity tax

by Michael Alderete on 5/19/2003

Rochelle and I have a thing we call the “stupidity tax.” It’s where you pay more money than you should, for a really dumb reason. My most common stupidity tax is forgetting to send in rebate forms.

Last week I paid the stupidity tax three times:

  • Paid my car registration three days too late ($12)
  • Waited until too close to our vacation to order from, and had to pay for expedited shipping ($13)
  • Let Rochelle go to the MADE IN FRANCE open warehouse and moving sale unsupervised ($300)

At least I get to eat the cheese from the last one.

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Vendor-specific e-mails to fight spam

by Michael Alderete on 4/13/2003

Managing your own e-mail server is a pain in the ass. There’s no two ways about it, when you want to take control of your own network infrastructure, you increase the complexity of the systems you manage, and you greatly increase the consequences of screw-ups.

For example, when I was using aggressive RBL blocking, it was bouncing e-mail I actually wanted to receive, in addition to some spam. A different anti-spam tool was causing occasional, apparently random errors, which resulted in some e-mail messages being dropped on the floor. And back in September, when Rochelle and I were in France and the e-mail server died, we lost about two weeks of e-mail.

So if it’s hard work, and screw-ups mean you lose important messages, why would anyone want to run their own e-mail server? For me, it’s all about spam and viruses. I have a great deal more options for strategies to deal with unsolicited commercial e-mail (spam) and for protecting us from e-mail borne viruses. Since I get about 200 spam messages every day, this matters a lot to me.

One of the tactics I use is to create vendor-specific e-mail addresses, and then expire them when they start generating spam. Here’s how it works. When I register at a new web site, say,, I give them the e-mail address, which will be an “alias” for my actual e-mail address. This lets me receive mail from the vendor, but tagged in a way that’s traceable to them. Any e-mail sent to that address, I know it’s that generated it — or sold my address to spammers.

And that happens surprisingly often, especially with dot.bombs that went out of business and sold all their assets, including their customer lists, to whomever wanted to buy them. The biggest offenders in my Inbox have been and

When the amount of spam going to a vendor-specific e-mail address gets to be too much, or if I know they’ve gone out of business, I will “expire” the address. This is done by setting the alias to bounce when someone tries to send messages to it. For folks who want the technical details, I add an entry like the following to sendmail’s virtusertable file: error:nouser 550 No such user here

This trick is only possible if you own your own Internet domain name, e.g.,, and have complete control over the e-mail aliases for your domain, usually by running your own e-mail server. (Some hosting services will let you do stuff like this, but most of them don’t give you full access to your aliases files.)

I’m still evolving my strategies to combat spam. With almost 1500 offensive messages being sent to me each week, I have to have pretty sophisticated filters. What I have today works fairly well, but could be even better. I’ll surely post when I add new techniques or tools. But no matter what I add, vendor-specific expiring addresses will continue to be a useful and important part of my anti-spam system.

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C’est fromage

March 4, 2003

We just ate cheese for dinner. Four really fucking good cheeses, air shipped to us from France. Rochelle read about in the New York Times, and talked Hilda into splitting a shipment with us. Our selection arrived this morning.

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Gerard Boyer

December 13, 2002

Photos of our meal from Gerard Boyer are up in the photos section. This was the best meal of our trip to France, and the most expensive. We both had the fixed price lunch of the day, with the only difference being our desserts.

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Champagne markers are here

December 9, 2002

Latest photos from France (yes, I’m still working on this), of the stone markers used to indicate which fields belong to which houses. We passed hundreds of these while driving in the countryside around Reims and Epernay.

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Slow updates, upcoming downtime

December 5, 2002

I’ve been beavering away on setting up a new server, to replace the temporary server I set up to replace the machine that died while we were in France. This weekend will probably be the big swap, where I copy all the data from the old server to the new. The new server will be a lot more quiet, because that’s my new Big Thing.

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