Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Opt Out - Full Body Scanners

I've traveled between 50K-60K miles each year for at least 5 years now.  Since the TSA rolled out the full body scanners a couple years ago I managed to pick the right line at the airport and not have to deal with them...until recently.  It seems like every flight I've taken in the past 3 months I've had to get scanned.  Seriously, before 3 months ago, it was never even an option when I went through security.

To this day, I still haven't been scanned.  I am one of those.  I opt out.  I don't want to stand in a Transporter from the original Star Trek (unless I'm getting transported). I don't want to hang out in the nude-o-scope.  Why? I don't know.  I'm pretty sure it will cause cancer, but so will using a cell phone, being surrounded by electrical lines and living in a City.  My family has a bad history of cancer (and early death), so I'm pretty much resigned to the fact that within 25 years I'll be fighting that battle.

I don't opt out because I'm modest.  If someone wants to see my junk, just ask.  Nothing to be ashamed of here.

I do opt out each time I'm requested to go through the machine.  I stand there, while the cattle stare at me and the TSA person screams "MALE ASSIST.  OPT OUT!"  Then I am escorted around the metal detectors to the end of the security belt -- keeping an eye on my belongings.  The extremely hot TSA boys walk away and leave me to be groped by either Fat Albert or a slightly more functional Corky Thatcher (d'oh!).  They recite their required speech -- explaining how they will use the back of their hands when they reach my "sensitive areas."  They also explain how they will run their hands up my thigh until they reach resistance -- does that mean if I stand with my legs tight together they won't feel my balls?

They then ask if I want a private screening area.  Good god now. I would rather be felt up in public than go off into a private molester room (a/k/a a confessional if you are Catholic).  Then Mr. TSA asks again -- Are you sure you don't want a private screening.  No, Creepy Pete, I do not.

In 90 seconds they are done copping a feel and I'm left feeling remarkably unsafe in the terminal (they seem to consistently miss places that I would consider a "good hiding place").  I put my belt and shoes back on, collect my bags and move on to the lounge.

The past 2 flights I've been to efficient for my own good.  I am waiting to be directed to the scanner, after I've pushed my bags through the x-ray machine and right when the scanner line starts to move I tell the TSA I want to opt out -- and before I get the words out of my mouth they change their direction to me and instead of pointing me to the scanner they want to send me just to the metal detector (Double D'OH!).  Once I opt out, I've got to get molested -- no going back now.

Moral of the story -- wait until the last minute to Opt Out -- you might get a last minute dispensation from the Pope or a stay of scanning from the Governor.  If you open your big yap too early you are immediately sent to Molesttown.

When traveling do you take a ride in the nude-o-scope or do you opt out?  Are you surprised at how easy it was up until recently to find a security line where they weren't actually scanning people?  Do you fly out of a small airport where they don't have the scanners at all?

How to Pack: For a Business Trip/Conference

I don't travel for work as much as I use to.  Now I find myself logging about 4-8 trips a year for work.  Most of those are for conferences or large group meetings (not small 1 on 1 meetings).  Traditionally when I'm on the road for work I am gone for between 2-4 days, rarely longer and never shorter.

When traveling for work, I only bring my 20" Tumi Wheeled Carry-On (a/k/a wheelie, roll-a-board, roller board), no matter the length of the trip.  I've never been in a situation where "I just wish I'd packed a bigger suitcase".  How do I do it?  Let's see if if I can explain it below.

When I'm packing I throw in the standard crap I have to have while traveling like: laptop power power cable, sunglasses and toiletries.  These are always in suitcase no matter if I'm heading to San Diego in July or Minneapolis in January.

I rarely need to wear a suit while traveling, but I always keep a blazer in my bag -- just in case I need to "dress it up" a bit.  Traditionally, I'll either bring a navy or charcoal cashmere blazer which can be paired with slacks for a meeting or jeans for a casual dinner on the town.

Speaking of jeans, I bring one pair of jeans..<period>. No more, no less.  When on the road, like at home, I will wear the same pair of jeans multiple times between washings -- some of you out there might be creeped out by this, but in my mind, jeans are meant to be lived in.  Washing them after every use will also strip the dye from the jeans.

I will bring two pairs of slacks for a trip up to three business days.  Once I hit day 4 I will throw in another pair of slacks.  If I have a full day of travel, I'll just wear a pair of jeans (this is my one pair of jeans -- I never pack a pair and wear a pair).  Rewearing slacks is no problem for me -- I'm mostly in meeting in comfortable offices, hotels or conference centers.

I will normally bring a dress shirt for each day of the trip.  Unlike the slacks, if I'm on a 3 day trip, I'll have 3 shirts, but if I'm on a 4 day trip, I'll probably only bring 3 dress shirts as well.  I can mix and match my shirts and slacks to make for a different look.

I do always wear an undershirt, so if I'm in Atlanta in August I really don't have to worry about sweaty nastiness if I need to reuse a dress shirt.   I will bring 1-2 polo shirts, for a casual dinner or a cocktail after meetings.

I will bring one undershirt for each day of travel PLUS at least one extra, or maybe two depending on the destination (again, ATL in August will probably have me bring at least two extra undershirts).  Same goes for socks.  Always bring a pair of socks for each day, plus 1-2 extras.

After each day, I always hang up my clothes and if I know I'm rewearing something I'll either throw it in the bathroom and crank up the shower for a quick wrinkle releasing steam.  I never use hotel laundry services, because I'm usually not there long enough and it's just not my thing.

The final piece of this puzzle is the shoes, right?  I bring one pair of dress shoes, one pair of casual shoes and always a pair of flip flops.  I will also throw in a pair of swim trunks into my outer suitcase pocket and if the weather is appropriate, I'll throw a pair of casual khaki shorts in the case as well.  Easy breezy.

I can pack all the above items in my simple 20" carry on.  Now tell me why you think you need to pack a 22"26" suitcase on your work trips?  Even if you need to wear a suit every day, you don't need to bring a different suit for each day, just bring coordinating shirts and ties coupled with a charcoal suit you'll look clean and fresh every day.  Don't lug junk around you don't need.

What size of suitcase you bring with you?  Do you carry on, or do you check?  How many miles has your current suitcase logged?  When purchasing a new suitcase do you go to a big retailer or do you hit a discount shop where you get name brands at a great price?  Is there something that you always include in your suitcase (like me and swim trunks)?  What am I missing that I should add to my suitcase?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Thanksgiving Dinner Planning

I am hosting Thanksgiving dinner at my home this year.  I have two friends coming in from Alaska for a week, as well as a friend from Supper Club in addition to MS, my mom and of course myself.  I'm looking forward to cooking a Thanksgiving Dinner -- this will be the first time I've cooked Thanksgiving in years.  I honestly don't even know when the last time I cooked Thanksgiving dinner.

I am not cooking the traditional bird, but instead am cooking a standing rib roast.  For the sides I will, of course make my grandma's mashed potatoes -- made with condensed milk and loads of butter.  I'll probably also make the haricots verts from supper club as well.  A side of sauteed mushrooms will course be a side to my big hunk of meat.

MS has volunteered to make the dessert and an appetizer of butternut squash soup with a cider base -- this recipe was inspired from our dinner at L2O last weekend.  The soup was so good and I'm confident MS will do a great job at it.  This is even better because DMH and MZH both really like cider.

I'll probably make an appetizer of baked goat cheese or popovers earlier in the day.

I ordered the roast from Schmeisser's Home Made Sausage.  Some friends from LA swear by this place -- they were so helpful on the phone today and I'm very excited to give them a try.

What are you doing for Thanksgiving?  Do you traditionally have turkey?  Are you cooking your traditional Thanksgiving fare or are you trying something new?  Do you host or are you a guest?  Do you spend the holiday with friends or family?  Are you staying close to home or traveling?

Monday, November 14, 2011

Hotel Review - Aria Las Vegas

Last week I was in Las Vegas for work and stayed at Aria. This was my second stay at this hotel. Last year, I really loved it...this time, it was nice but has definitely gone down hill.

We arrived at the hotel around 20h45 and were greeted with no line in the lobby and proceeded through the check-in process very quickly.  I was given a room on the 6th floor -- which had a great view of the roof of the building.  While I don't think you need a great big room with a great view in Las Vegas -- hell, you should be out and about enjoying the City...but this was pretty disappointing.

The rooms are fully electronic: the lights, TV, curtains and furnace/AC are all controlled by 2 remote controls.  Last year the remotes in my room didn't work properly -- I asked for the hotel to fix it, but they never did.  The worst part about last years visit was the master alarm clock - at 05h30 the curtains would open, the TV would turn on, the lights would kick in and I was wide awake.  This year the whole thing worked pretty well.

When I finally crawled into bed the first night I found a gross stain on my sheets. How gross is that?  I opted not to wait for the housekeepers to come up and fix the sheets, so I just pulled them off the bed and dealt with the bed as is.  The bed itself is really quite comfortable -- filthy sheets, but still comfortable.  To make sure the maid really did change the sheets, I left the "Change Linens" card on the bed, and left her a note indicating the nasty sheets needed to be swapped out.  Luckily they were.

We ate a late night snack and a breakfast at Cafe Vettro.  The chocolate milk shake was great.  The club sandwich was sub par.  For breakfast two days later I ordered a ham steak and hashbrowns.  The hashbrowns were burned on the outside and surprisingly undercooked on the inside.  Absolutely miserable. The other people at my group for breakfast all had the Breakfast Parfait and absolutely loved it.

About 4 hours after I hate at Cafe Vettro the second time, my stomach began to churn.  I decided to skip out on the rest of my meetings that day and return to my room.  The maid was servicing my room when I returned.  After politely asking her to leave, I immediately threw up my breakfast.  How horrible.  I was cold and sick.  I cranked up the head to 80 degrees in the room and crawled into bed.  I made a hotel bed cocoon and watched HGTV and the History Channel.  I missed 3 meetings that afternoon and evening. I hate being sick.

I do not think this was food poisoning. I know it wasn't alcohol related.  I do think it was a simple 24 hour bug.  The hotel shop had saltines and Sprite.  Of course they did -- it's Vegas and people are often sick.

I did not win at the Aria Casino either...not as badly as I lost the year prior, but still a loss.  Would I return to Aria?  Probably. Unlike so many of the hotels in the area, Aria doesn't smell much like smoke (smoke is probably on my list of top 5 pet peeves).  I like the service at Aria.  It is so funny to return to a Vegas hotel two years in a row -- you can see how this pretty girl gets rougher year over year.  These rooms are hit hard by every guest and no matter how good the maids are you can't keep this old girl looking like the prom queen for ever...sooner or later she looks like the big girl with the torn dress.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Supper Club - Final Thoughts

I planned on providing an update on my Supper Club last week, but unfortunately I was too hung over on Sunday to write and then I was on the road all week this week.  Let's start at the top, shall we?

The appetizers were easy and tasty.  Somehow I screwed up the popovers, which I've made half a dozen times before. Like most times, I cut the recipe in half.  The popovers were remarkably dense -- but lathering them in butter, sea salt and bacon made them quite tasty.

The French Onion Soup was a little bit watery -- if I were to make this again, I think I would reduce the amount of water by 50% in this recipe.  The portions were just right for 6 people.  The soup was slightly more caramelized than I had anticipated, but the soup was tasty in general.  I think I'll find an alternate recipe in the future.  I'm really surprised the recipe from America's Test Kitchen let me down.

The Seared Sea Scallops with Bacon Butter Sauce was a pretty big hit.  The folks who traditionally don't like vegetables or fish even ate every bite of this small course.  Each person did have one medium sized scallop sitting on a bed of wilted spinach.  I would definitely make this as a small fish course again.

The main course of Chicken Dijon was a really big hit.  The chicken thighs were a great substitution for drumsticks I think.  I made 8 thighs for 6 people. All thighs were gone pretty quickly. I should have cooked another 2 or 3 thighs just to make sure everyone was happy.  The Dijon sauce was delicious -- everyone passed serving dish around the table and dipped their baguette in the sauce (just as Food and Wine indicated they would).

The haricorts verts Lyonnaise were gobbled up too.  They were so easy to make and I indent on adding these to my standard traditional menu options.  This took just a couple minutes and the beans can be prepped HOURS before and just tossed in the oil with the onions at the last minute. I will be fixing these for Thanksgiving.

I completely forgot to make the Arugula Salad. I didn't even realize I had forgotten the salad until the next day.  No one seemed to miss it -- it wouldn't have made the meal, but would have been a nice addition.

The desserts also went quickly.  The chocolate bonbons were by far the favorites -- as well they should have been.  The process to create these treats was long and intense, but these chocolates were absolutely amazing. I only wish they were easier to make -- if they were I would probably end up eating these every day...be 450 pounds and a diabetic.  Perhaps it is a good thing these are such a pain in the ass to make.  I will probably make these for Thanksgiving dinner as well.

The wines were well received as well. We had 6 people at dinner and finished 8 glasses of wine, half a bottle of port and half a bottle of Calvados.  Traditionally Supper Club is over around midnight or 00h30.  People left my home around 01h45.

All in all, I would say this dinner was a success.  The new recipes I tried worked out quite well and, as noted above, have even made it into my standard recipe pile.

Next Supper Club is a black tie event on New Years Eve -- which is the best way to spend the holiday, if you ask me.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Supper Club -- Final Menu

I have finalized my menu for Supper Club tonight.

I will be serving the following:

Hors d'oeuvres:
Raclette Cheese
Manchego Cheese
Chaumes Cheese
Salumi
Proscuitto
BLT Popoevers
Bacon (for the Popovers)

First Course
French Onion Soup

Second Course
Sea Scallops with Bacon Butter Sauce

Main Course
Chicken Dijon
Haricots Vert Lyonnaise
Arugula Salad (with tomatoes, artichokes and cheese...maybe with some bacon too)

Dessert
Ice Cream Bonbons
Dark Chocolate Truffles (I dipped the candies in a dark and white chocolate mixture and sprinkled with sea salt too)


The wine I'll be serving is as follows -- guests can drink what they want, when they want:
Pierre Delize - Blanc de Blancs Sparkling (France)
Macon-Villages - Chardonnay (France)
ArborBrook -- Pinot Gris (Oregon)
Morgan 2008 - no idea the grape (France)
ArborBrook - Pinot Noir (Oregon)
Kopke Special Reserve Porto (Portugal)
Calvados (France)

For the folks who do not care for wine (god forbid), I am offering Trois Pistoles (Quebec).

I will be taking photos while I am cooking today and updating via my twitter feed.

What are you doing tonight?  Are you cooking dinner or are you having a home cooked meal at a friends home?  Maybe going out for a dinner and leaving the cooking to professionals?  I want to hear!


Thursday, November 03, 2011

Recipe Test: French Onion Soup

After further review of several French Onion Soup recipes, I realized that the soup takes a decent amount of time AND if you make it a day or two ahead the flavor is enhanced exponentially.  Since Saturday will be a long day -- shopping and cooking, I didn't want to get stuck behind the French Onion Soup pot when I had a ton of other things to do -- and I wanted to make sure the soup was as flavorful as possible.

I visited Whole Foods tonight and picked up 4 pounds of onions, a couple bottles of French wine and some other basic ingredients.  My dutch oven (somewhere between a medium and large size Le Creuset) wasn't big enough.  The recipe said we should use at least a 7 quart dutch over -- mine is 6 quarts, if that.  The onions filled about 3/4 of the pot.  Using the oven to reduce the onions was a really great part of this recipe as I couldn't imagine standing over the stove for an hour sweating the onions and reducing them.

One option on the recipe was to stop at the end of Step One and allow the flavor of the onions to really build.  Saturday afternoon I will move on to Step Two.  God I can't wait to try this soup.  I wish you all could smell my home now.

More photos and a full dinner report will follow.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

US Airways Grand Slam Update - Miles Sweep 3

For several weeks nothing was happening in my US Airways account even though I've been playing the Grand Slam pretty consistently. When I last wrote I had completed 11 hits and earned 5,995 miles.  Since then I've continued to play and have done a few new things only to get miles.
  1. Dividend Mile Toolbar
  2. E-Rewards
  3. Dividend Mile Dining
  4. Buy Dividend Miles
  5. 1-800-Flowers
  6. Audience Rewards
  7. Miles for Magazines
  8. Track-It-Back 
  9. Dividend Miles Shopping Mall
  10. Super Shuttle
  11. MasterCard Purchase
  12. Officemax.com -- I followed the guidance that several other bloggers have suggested and purchased a cheap item on Officemax.com.  The cheapest thing I could find was a small pump container of anti-bacterial soap. The soap was $1.99 plus $6 in shipping. I gave the soap to my mom -- lovely gift, I know.  My miles to date now hit 6,000 total. Hit 12.
  13. E-Miles -- E-Miles is a website where you click links and read about partner offers. Each offer varies in value (I didn't buy anything).  Once you reach 500 points you can transfer those to the mileage program of your choice.  I transferred to US Airways for 500 miles -- bringing my total to 6,500 miles.  Hit 13.
  14. Skymall -- Like Officemax.com, I just bought the cheapest thing I could find -- a bad Halloween decoration for $2.97 plus shipping (about $9 total).  I haven't received the bad decoration yet, but I did get the points credited to my account already.  I earned 9 points here bringing me to 6,509 miles. Hit 14.
  15. Biscoff -- I had no idea what this was, but like Officemax and Skymall, I followed fellow bloggers guidance and bought Biscoff Spread (still not 100% sure what it is...other than a peanut butter alternative).  For $19 including shipping I received two (glass) jars of Biscoff spread, 19 miles (6,528 total miles) and my 15th Hit.
  16. Points.com -- This hit has been a total pain in the ass.  I didn't want to swap out hotel points or buy any overpriced points to transfer around so my only real option was to transfer 10 US Airway Miles to 4 Asia Miles -- then turn around and transfer 4 Asia Miles to 1 US Airways Mile. Yes, this means I'm losing 9 miles, but it gets me another hit.  The real issue here is that the miles were deducted from US Airways immediately, but wouldn't credit to Asia Miles. They just sat there, "pending" with no movement.  I ended up transferring another 10 miles just to see if it would clear quicker.  I emailed Points.com 3 times asking for guidance.  Nothing. I called and they manually processed the transfer.  Once my Asia Miles were posted, I immediately put in the request to transfer back to US Airways.  The transfer continued to "fail". I tried this 3 more times and nothing happened.  I emailed each time the transfer failed and was informed continually that they were looking into it. Right.  I called back and they suggested I swap my first and last name on my Asia Miles account -- how logical is that? I knew for a fact that this customer service person was just trying to get me off the phone. I tried it...and it worked. Who knew?  I gained 1 mile and lost 20. So far, I've got 6,509 miles and a total of 16 hits.  What a pain in the neck though.
  17. Sharebuilder --  I've had a Sharebuilder account for years.  I use Sharebuilder as my main independent investment vehicle.  I also use ING Direct as my main savings account.  I opted to open another Sharebuilder account.  I had to fund it and complete a trade -- which cost $9.95.  I bought some United Airlines stocks and hoped for the best. A new Sharebuilder account nets you 2,500 miles (flat amount not variable).  Hit 17.
While 17 hits have posted to my US Airways account, I've only gotten 10,000 bonus (Grand Slam) miles -- which is only for 8 hits.  I've got another 9 hits that have already posted.  Most of these additional hits have posted in the past 3 or 4 days. With 12 hits, I get an additional 5,000 miles and with hit 16 I get 10,000 more.  Once these miles hit, I should have about 32,000 miles.  My current goal is to hit at least 20 hits -- perhaps 24 depending on when some of these things hit.  If I reach 20 hits, I'll have earned a total of 35,000 bonus miles -- if I hit 24 I'll earn 45,000 bonus miles.

I'll keep you updated on how the points post.  If you are playing this game let me know how your points are posting -- or are not posting.  If you haven't started yet, you've got about 2 weeks get some bonus miles.  You can easily get 3,000 with out paying a dime and paying next to nothing for 10,000 bonus miles.

What are you planning on doing with your bonus miles?  How should I use mine?  What kind of crap have you purchased to hit these goals