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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Small Worlds, Orbiting

In a continuing series, I post about weird coincidences having to do with who knows who.

The scene: Our work kickball team, The Watchdogs, had its first game this evening. (It tells you something about the priorities of the kickball crowd that each league has its own designated post-game bar.) At the bar, I was talking to Brad and Jeff, who I'd not met before, and the topic of conversation was odd coincidences, like Jeff running into a friend at the British Museum. I tell my story about two friends from Carleton and Baltimore who managed to meet each other in Tanzania and become roommates in DC.

At which point Jeff says "Hold on, where'd you go to college? I think I might know who you're talking about." And it turns out he had dated one of them for a time. After that, there's really not anything else to say in a conversation about weird coincidences.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


Yesterday was not the best bike commuting day I've had.

On my way in, about a mile from work, I noticed a suspicious sssp...sssp...sssp sound as my front wheel went around. Stopping at the next traffic light, I determined that it was indeed punctured and losing air. Fortunately, I've just started carrying a multi-tool, tire levers, patch kit and pump in my bag. It was raining, so I walked a little way to the Giant in Shaw to repair it on the covered sidewalk. When I got the tube out, it looked to be a "snakebite" puncture from the tube getting pinched...I had hit a pothole pretty hard the night before, so it may have just taken some time to work into a full-blown puncture. I patched it and got to work about 30 mins late.

On the way home, the weather had cleared up, and I was thinking as I left that getting my third flat since November was more than I'd like, but one every two months isn't that bad. Meanwhile, there's a lot of construction just north of my office and there is sometimes debris on the pavement. Crossing Mass Ave can be dicey traffic-wise, so I was paying attention to cars and didn't see the little twisted piece of metal on the street that resulted in a pop! ffft...ffft...ffft. (This is the first time I've heard the pop when hitting something.) But, having gotten some practice just that day at fixing flats, I was fairly speedy at it the second time!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Songs of the Moment (An Occasional Feature)

> Calexico - All Systems Red [mp3]
> Gillian Welch - Tear My Stillhouse Down
> M.I.A. - $20 [mp3]
> Mountain Goats - This Year [mp3]
> Sufjan Stevens - Springfiel, or Bobby Got a Shadfly Caught in His Hair
> Casiotone for the Painfully Alone - Toby, Take a Bow
> Dosh - Mpls Rock and Roll [mp3]

Dosh has a new album out next month, and this sample track sounds pretty cool.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Brits and their logos

Today, while browsing a newsletter on government contracting, I came across this story from Britain's Telegraph newspaper.

It's about a government agency logo redesign gone wrong. It's hilarious on a couple levels: One, the problem with the logo is hilarious. Two, this is so very different from how it would be handled in the US -- there probably wouldn't be a newspaper story about it, and there's no way in hell the agency spokesman would make a pun about it in his statement.

As a bonus, check out the linked gallery of problematic logos. (Though I can't find anything lewd about the London Olympics one, aside from the fact that it's one of the worst logos I've ever seen.)

Thursday, April 24, 2008

From the Fridge (an occasional feature)

In honor of the garden planting I'm planning to do this weekend...

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


Here in DC we have C-SPAN Radio, which carries a number of things that appear on C-SPAN TV. I've had my alarm clock radio tuned to it for a week or so (because my radio has mysteriously stopped receiving NPR), and around when I'm getting up, the morning call-in program is on. It is reliably depressing.

Yesterday the topic was, "Does Earth Day Matter?" To succinctly paraphrase the series of three callers I heard while convincing myself to get out of bed:
Caller 1: Earth Day is a joke, I wish the left wouldn't whine so much about pollution and animals when we have real problems, like gas being expensive.
Caller 2: Earth Day is a good thing, but it just seems like there's not anything we can do.
Caller 3: Earth Day is a scam by the left, anyone who thinks global warming is real is an idiot. In the 70's we were all worried about an ice age!

Caller 3 did succeed in getting me out of bed to turn the radio off...which was useful, I guess.

The things people say on air often illustrate:
1) Our tendency to reduce disagreements about political issues to a question of our own identity -- callers 1 and 3 both referred to "the left." It seems like Earth Day should provide a nice opportunity for a bit of consensus because it involves both practical (wanting uncontaminated water, concern about economic impacts of climate change, etc.) and squishy concerns, but instead, for some, it's automatically bogus because those people are behind it.
2) Our tendency to view things through all the hang-ups and narrow perspectives given to us by our personal experience -- Caller 1 was focused on gas prices, Caller 2 had a misguided (to me, anyway) focus on a single environmental issue (which I can't remember), and Caller 3 was hung up on how his teacher had warned of a coming ice age in the 70's. It's natural for us to use our personal experience to make sense of things, since that's all we have (aside from reading and talking to others), but I often don't realize what an obstacle that can be to a having a shared discussion of issues.

I've also noticed these dynamics on web sites that have user comments. YouTube is the worst, there tends to be lots of virtual shouting and name-calling. It seems like the discussion is most productive in small web communities where there are social norms that regulate the participants, though part of that might be that they bypass the "identity" issue by collecting people who share an identity in some way or another. But it does seem that sites such as Slashdot have some luck, even after they get pretty big, by regulating comments with a system that helps people find and reward the useful comments by allowing users to rate and tag what others say. Maybe the internet will get better over time at helping us have these discussions...

Monday, April 21, 2008

Conformist Food

Reed sent me a link to this great set of pictures of food that takes the shape of its container.

I like this one because you can see the broccoli straining to fit into its box, like 1950s college students stuffed in a phone booth. Very nice set by Flickr user Zach Kowalczyk.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Songs on Sprawl

A few song lyrics I've noticed that address urban sprawl and homogenization:

vinyl-clad architects with GPS
staple gun carpenters building a 3-D mess
we protest, but it doesn't work, again

The Long Winters - "Clouds"

on the outskirts of expansion
lookin' out from blueprint peak
the flow is floodin' of urban settlers
pannin' through rivers running dry
numbers roll on in
smilin' a lottery grin
a sadness blurs they eyes
it's just a matter of time, and they're moving on

Calexico - "Service and Repair"

an interchange, plazas and malls
and crowded chain restaurants
more housing developments go up
named after the things they replace
so welcome to Meadow Brook
and welcome to Shady Space
well it all seems a little abrupt
no, I don't like this change of pace

Modest Mouse - "Novocain Stain"

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Monday, April 14, 2008

Cherry blossom crowds

The cherry blossoms were out in DC the last couple weekends. They are very pretty, but biking down there on a Saturday, I spent more time marveling at how many people were there:

In the larger version of this photo, I count 11 people in the process of taking a picture (or 12, if you count me).

Bike was definitely the way to get down there -- the traffic was really backed up, and Metro's a bit of a walk.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Open-source crime-solving

Post #2 under today's theme, The Internet is Really Cool:

A Times story about a car dealer who has his rare Nissan Skyline stolen, but gets it back with help from an auto enthusiasts' forum. This happening on a larger scale would probably be bad because of the tendency toward vigilantism, but in this particular case, you've gotta admit it's pretty cool.

(I predict this has an excellent chance of making it to the NY Times Most-Emailed list.)


I love Wikipedia. I started off looking at the entry for masala chai because of my aspiration to open a chai and doughnut cafe. Then I took detours into the history of the spice trade, an ancient Roman cookbook, star anise, cardamom and black pepper.

These entries were informative, well put-together, and pretty well-written on the whole. (I guess I'm not in a position to comment on their accuracy.) Plus, I could not have (or, more accurately, would not have) wandered this way through a regular encyclopedia. But you do occasionally find passages that would be excised by a traditional editor. They can be kind of entertaining, though:

"Pepper has long been believed to cause sneezing; this is still believed true today. Some sources say that piperine, a substance present in black pepper, irritates the nostrils, causing the sneezing; some say that it is just the effect of the fine dust in ground pepper, and some say that pepper is not in fact a very effective sneeze-producer at all. Few if any controlled studies have been carried out to answer the question."

I may be revealing myself as a slave to conventional wisdom, but I'm pretty sure that putting spicy things in your nose causes sneezing. Any volunteers for my controlled study?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Songs of the Moment (An Occasional Feature)

> Beulah - If We Can Land a Man on the Moon, Surely I Can Win Your Heart
> The Long Winters - Scent of Lime [mp3]
> Feist - I Feel It All [YouTube]
> Love Is All - Turn the Radio Off
> Bill Callahan -Night [YouTube]
> The National - Fake Empire [mp3]
> Love-Cars - Let's Start a Band

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Elevator Musing

I've often wondered about the principles behind elevator programming. (A system whose inner workings are opaque, encountered often, and usually at moments when you have time for idle thoughts -- a recipe for excess contemplation.) Does the elevator brain sometimes tell a car with several floor buttons pressed to bypass a call if another empty car is nearby, or are they not that smart? During off-hours, do the elevator cars congregate at the lobby level, or do they fan out strategically across the floors to serve potential calls as speedily as possible? Or do they lazily park themselves wherever someone last got off?

So I was pleased to stumble across this nice blog post about elevator control design. The most shocking revelation: Some new buildings are using using a system called "destination-based dispatching." Instead of pushing a button that tells the elevators "I want to go up," you actually key in your floor. The elevator brain groups people by destinations, and a screen will tell you which elevator to get in. You do not press any buttons upon getting in the elevator, just get off when it automatically stops at your floor. (You can try this demo if you like.)

As someone who has found himself trying to think of ways to program elevators to be more efficient, I can only imagine the deep, burning desire of a professional elevator control engineer to make this sort of quantum leap in efficiency. (Not only as a professional achievement, but also for the sense of striking a decisive blow in the battle against the entropy of the universe.) But it also runs into some real-world problems. In a separate post, the same blogger I linked to above describes his first experiences with destination-dispatched elevators in the new New York Times building. One, it turns out the cars have no controls on the inside. You are totally in the hands of the (hopefully) benevolent elevator brain. I guess the actual level of control you have in a normal elevator is not that much greater, but being in an automated delivery box would be disconcerting to me regardless. Two, the experience is made more disorienting by the fact that the elevator does not reveal its current location, just a list of upcoming stops. The blogger notes that people sometimes accidentally get off a stop prior to their destination. More intriguingly, the elevator expert he talks to also notes that people may get frustrated seeing others get on elevators first, or hearing elevators go past without stopping. The system may technically be more efficient, but because people do not understand its reasoning, they may not feel any better because of it. I'm reminded of ReeD's post a while back about trying to figure out when a machine's smarts get in the way.

Meanwhile, Schindler, a manufacturer of "vertical transportation solutions," has recently announced that they are "[taking] destination dispatching to a new level." (You'd think they'd be tired of the puns after all these years.) Their new system integrates destination dispatching with those RF ID cards everyone is carrying now -- you swipe your card, and the elevator knows which floor you're likely heading for, as well as which floors you're not allowed to access. "Not only does the smart elevator know in advance where the passenger needs to go, it also knows who the passenger is and personalizes the trip accordingly," according to Schindler. ("Sir, I hear you're feeling a bit nauseous from the lunch buffet -- I'll be careful not to jostle.")

Not like we're in any danger of getting this at my office. But in any case, for conservation and fitness reasons, I've been taking the stairs. Expect a lengthy post about stairway design sometime soon.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Protester and Policeman

Allow me to caption this photo from the Tibetan protests surrounding the Olympic torch relay in Paris:

Protester: I am very sure of what I'm doing.

Policeman: I am not so sure of what I'm doing.

(Photo credit: Lucas Dolega/European Pressphoto Agency)

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Twizzler Liquid

Target kindly sent me a coupon for a free smoothie at the "cafe" in their new store down the street. While I was there, I noticed this innovative beverage:

That sounds pretty dang nasty to me.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Mountain Goats update

After seeing The Mountain Goats a couple weeks ago, I wrote about how John Darnielle will be out of commission for a while with some unidentified illness. While buying The Sunset Tree at Crooked Beat today, the owner said that he heard that the condition Darnielle is afflicted with is tinnitus. This may not seem very serious, but he pointed out that Mission From Burma was out of commission for 20 years because one of the members had tinnitus. I guess if you're John Darnielle and you live for your music (and death metal), not being able to do it anymore is a huge blow, not to mention the fact that this is how he makes his living. But he could draw encouragement from a New York Times article on new treatments for tinnitus that came out a week after the show.

A Google search for john darnielle tinnitus doesn't yield any info, making this either inside info or a totally spurious rumor.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Mystery Minnesota

Voicemail from John that I received while out of town last weekend:
"Hey Teague. Hope you're having a good weekend. I'm calling because I picked something up for you last night, and it's a little weird, but I think you might like it. I need to check with you to make sure. Give me a call when you get a chance."

What might this cryptic message be referring to? It seems that John had found, laying out at the curb, an enormous map of Minnesota with an enormous number of pins of many different colors stuck in it.

I definitely got some looks carrying it back to my place on the Metro (which was kinda hard, because it's really big). This picture doesn't really give you a full appreciation for how many pins there are stuck in it; here's a picture looking south from the comparatively sparse Iron Range.

Meanwhile, pretty much the entire Twin Cities metro area is obscured under a teeming mass of pins. They seem to be pretty closely correlated with population across the state. The question is, who left their big map of Minnesota out by the curb, and what do their pins mean? I pose this question for your speculation, dear readers -- any ideas?

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Packaged Food Image vs. Reality

German site Pundo3000 compares the photos on the outside of packaged foods with the product inside. It ain't pretty, but it is hilarious. (Meanwhile apples, for instance, greet you without layers of makeup.)

Here's their intro YouTube video:

(Also, I have one word for you: "Currywurst.")


I've posted a hodgepodge of new pictures on Flickr. Some are from this past weekend, some are from a few months ago.

[building in NY Chinatown]

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Weekend Update

I had a great time visiting New York this weekend.

I went to Doughnut Plant Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I wasn't planning to go Sunday, but it's near where the Chinatown bus leaves from. I know, I know...but the doughnuts are SO good. I cannot believe how good they are. Here are the ones I ate, from best to still awesome:

Toasted Almond raised - I've always liked almond croissants, but it turns out a filled pastry is not the ideal vehicle for almond sweets -- a doughnut is. As long as it's the right doughnut. The light and clean flavor worked really well with the doughnut, and the "toasted" twist on almond was nice.
Tres Leches cake - The tres leches cream inside this cake doughnut mingles with the doughnutness in a wonderful way.
Orange cake - This doughnut had orange zest in it, and it was great.
Coconut Cream raised - [pictured above] This is an old favorite, pictured above, but I think it ended up being a little too much sugar for me at that point in the morning.
Orange raised - [pictured below] This was good, but I think the orange flavor worked better with the cake doughnut.

I did other stuff while visiting Alex besides eat doughnuts, of course, such as see a great movie, an indie rock show, a classical music concert, stay out with Nina, Shane and Megan until 5am, and see lots of art. I might do a post on the art later, there was some cool stuff.