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Tuesday, April 28, 2009


I started reading Dan Neil in the LA Times after he won a Pulitzer in 2004. He won the prize for his automobile reviews, which piqued my interest, since car coverage is mostly devoid of actual information (beyond horsepower stats, anyway) and tends to lean heavily on cliches. It turns out that while the actual automotive content of Neil's reviews is a huge improvement over that stuff, what really sets his columns apart is that they're not really about the cars. Which makes sense, since cars themselves are usually not just about the engineering, but about identity, aspiration, culture, etc.

In that vein, I loved the column he has out now about the Ed Hardy brand. The ostensible subject of the column is the new Ed Hardy wine -- if you're not familiar with the brand, see their website for an indication of what an odd pairing it is. But the column is mostly about the vapidness of the brand and "branding" in general.

I love the line about the guy behind Ed Hardy trying to build an "off-the-rack psyche" to sell to his customers. This gets at the key issue: Brands are mostly benign when they convey useful information to the consumer (e.g. "Sony VCRs last longer than no-name ones"). They are often obnoxious when they turn things the other way and seek to convey information about the consumer to others ("This person with an Abercrombie & Fitch t-shirt is cool"). And they are downright insidious when they aim to save you the hard work and sell you an identity, sometimes subtly playing upon your insecurities to convince you that their identity is better than any you might be able to build on your own.

By the way, I have you tried Ed Hardy Structured Water? It's so much better than the normal water I've been drinking my whole life.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Weekend away

I took a couple days off at the end of last week and spent a long weekend with my parents in Hilton Head, SC. They picked me up on the drive down there, and I took the train back to DC today while they stay for a full week. It worked out well, and it was great to get a bonus weekend of hanging out with them at a time of year when I don't usually get home to visit.

I brought my folding bike with me, and got my parents on (rented) bikes for the first time in a while. We did the full-on tourist thing, going mini golfing and riding to the beach. (A couple more photos are on Flickr.)

The trip back on Amtrak was cool, seeing all the tiny southern towns -- it mostly made me want to hop off the train with my bike and ride around. Many of the places make it feel as though the train has somehow taken you back 20 years. And since I only took a backpack's worth of stuff with me, once I got to DC, I just unfolded my bike and rode home.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Heavy responsibility

I like my local Giant grocery store for the most part, but they are chronically short on checkout staff. So even though I typically go to the store late on Sunday evening, the lines are usually still long, sometimes stretching back into the aisles. (A social norm has developed for these lines whereby at a certain point, it breaks off and the next person waits at the front end of the adjacent grocery aisle, so that there is a space for people to move across the front of the store.)

Particularly if I'm there in the last hour the store is open, I've often observed this leading to a situation where the checker is scheduled to close his or her register, and turns out the light, but the end of the line is too far away to say "I'm closed" to new people getting in line. The checkers often deal with this by talking to the last person in line and tasking them with making sure no one else gets in line. Clearly, this is not a very desirable position for the customer to be in -- you have to tell potentially cranky people to go to another line, and to other customers you seem kind of obnoxious for having taken upon yourself (it seems, anyway) the authority to tell people which lines are closed.

But I've drawn some amusement from watching how different people handle it. Tonight's installment was particularly funny, albeit in a very understated way. The checker walked back to where the last guy was standing and told him he had to be an end-of-line enforcer. "Oh, okay," he said. A moment later I saw him somewhat sheepishly turn away another guy who got in line, but no big deal. A couple minutes after that, however, someone parked an unattended cart behind him for a moment, and the checker called back "Hey, that's not somebody in line, is it?" "Uh, no, I don't think so," he said. (Being accused of failing at your line-enforcement duties...harsh.) Several minutes later, the line had moved up enough that he was no longer waiting in the aisle, and I watched him look back and see a different unattended cart parked ominously at the end of the aisle. The poor guy looked slightly stricken, and he shuffled back and forth for a moment trying to identify whose cart it was. Not having any luck, he kept glancing between the checker and the cart until someone returned and moved it.

At that point, I got up to the register, so I don't know if he had any more travails as end-of-line enforcer. But I would happily give up this small source of amusement in exchange for shorter checkout lines...

Minnesota Saves the Day

Minnesota gets major props from the NYT for its food-borne illness monitoring:
If not for the Minnesota Department of Health, the Peanut Corporation of America might still be selling salmonella-laced peanuts, Dole might still be selling contaminated lettuce, and ConAgra might still be selling dangerous Banquet brand pot pies — sickening hundreds or thousands more people.

And that's a hard news article, not an editorial. Basically, most states are terrible at monitoring outbreaks, but Minnesota is pretty good at it -- as a result, they're the ones who give the rest of the country a heads-up in a disproportionate number of national outbreaks. Just goes to show what a little funding and some good management can do for the public welfare.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Information, Location

Research has shown some indication that places can be linked to people's thought patterns in hidden ways. For instance, in my Intro Psych class, the professor talked about research that found people do better on tests when they take them in the same environment (e.g. the same classroom) where they learned the information.

However, I have a suspicion that my brain is especially obsessed with physical location. In addition to being overly concerned with maps, finding my way around, and other aspects of geography, I seem to consistently connect thoughts with places. For example, yesterday at work I had occasion to insert a hard return in a cell in an Excel spreadsheet. As I did this, I involuntarily pictured myself in the place where I first learned to do this by pressing Alt-Enter -- a desk at my work-study job in college.

The locations aren't necessarily related in any discernible way to the idea. The concept of distinguishing between the words "insure" and "ensure" is connected to a spot in Guilford on Beaver Head Rd near where it intersects with Great Hill Rd. When I'm deciding which one is more appropriate to use, for some reason I tend to picture that place.

I guess it's hard to say if this is any different than what others experience. But I wonder what this tendency means for being in an environment where my consumption of many different kinds of information and ideas occurs in one physical place, seated at my computer? Do I retain less because my brain has no physical setting to map it to?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Small Worlds, Part VII

Tonight was the DC Listening Lounge monthly get-together, which I always enjoy. In addition to the audio, there was yet another small-world coincidence to appreciate.

A writing teacher from a suburban high school has been coming recently because he's been doing audio work with his students. He played a piece he made with his class, and then had to duck out a bit early so he could get up in the morning. As he was wishing us goodnight, a guy who doesn't usually attend (but lives in the house that hosted this month's event) asked what grades he teaches. "10th and 11th grades, though I think they're going to give me some 9th-graders next year," he said. "Whoa, watch out," said the dude, "those 9th-graders, they can be troublemakers." As the teacher was walking by him on the way to the door, the guy extended his hand and said, "I ought to know, I was one of those troublemakers." He simultaneously shook the teacher's hand and removed his hat, as the teacher's face registered total shock. The room erupted in gasps and laughter as he and his former student went over what year it had been and what they had been up to since.

This was definitely the most cinematic social coincidence I've witnessed -- in the way it played out in the space, in what the two of them said, and in their reactions to recognizing each other. Made my evening.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Songs of the Moment (An Occasional Feature)

> The Gossip - Yr Mangled Heart
> Flaming Lips - Kim's Watermelon Gun
> Elvis Costello - Clubland
> Interpol - The New
> Jimmy Eat World - Clarity
> Kanye West - Touch the Sky
> Spiritualized - Come Together

If you're not familiar with The Gossip, you should definitely watch that linked video. I just got the album that track is taken from (Standing in the Way of Control), and it rocks.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Reconstruction of a Monument, w/ Tape

I participated in a cool "large-scale cassette-loop intervention" yesterday afternoon. Layne handed out 100 30-second loop audio cassettes to people over the last few months; the liner notes had a couple vague images of an unusual place in Rock Creek Park and a short poem about it. Our charge was to record 30-second pieces in reaction, and bring them in a cassette player to the location at the designated time and day.

The setting was pretty neat -- a place in the park where big pieces of stone that were once part of some imposing structure (the Capitol, I think) were left after being taken apart. They've been there a long time, as big trees have now grown up through the debris. The event was called "Reconstruction of a Monument, w/ Tape," and everyone stuck their tape loop somewhere amongst the rubble and left it to play. The assorted sounds emerged from crevices and mingled in interesting ways as you wandered around, adding intrigue to an already-mysterious place. Very cool.

Other pictures are at Flickr.


Apropos of my post the other day about newspaper copyediting, I saw this headline on the Post website today before I left work, and it's still up on the home page:
"Anti-Loan Scam Plan Launched"

Everyone has their language bugaboos, and over time I've realized that mine is hyphens. And this headline rankles me, because I think it manages to err in both directions at once. It's an article about the Administration's new initiative to combat a rise in mortgage fraud that preys on people in trouble. But after reading the headline it takes a moment (for me, anyway) to figure out that's what the headline is saying. Taking it literally, it means a scam plan has been launched that is aimed at loans, because "anti-loan" is buckled together into in a adjective modifying "scam plan," when it should actually be "Anti-Loan-Scam Plan Launched," or "Anti Loan Scam Plan Launched." Harumph.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Arboretum, kite

The weather was gorgeous in DC today...sunny and in the 60s, though quite windy. It's the National Cherry Blossom Festival this weekend, and as I saw last year, hordes of people come into the city to see them.

So instead, I rode to the National Arboretum, which is lovely, and even has a number of flowering trees, but is comparatively unknown and out of the way. There were more people there than I've ever seen, but it's big enough that it didn't feel claustrophobic. In any case, there was still enough elbow room for me to find an empty clearing to eat my Subway sandwich in solitude.

Since it was windy, I brought along my kite-in-a-bag. I flew it by the National Capitol Columns.

A few minutes after I snapped this picture, the string snapped, and the kite flew away and became well-entangled near the top of a tree at the edge of the field. Thus, I managed to both lose my kite and leave a big, colorful piece of litter in a high-visibility location...sigh.

Still a pleasant afternoon out, though. A few more cell phone pictures are at Flickr.