Albums: two by We Were Promised Jetpacks

Here I'm going to depart from my usual album review format where I discuss a single album that I've been listening to for years.  Instead, I'm going to talk about the new album by We Were Promised Jetpacks, In the Pit of the Stomach, and how it's different from their first, These Four Walls.

Here's the song that got me hooked on the band, Moving Clocks Run Slow from These Four Walls:
The lyrics are catchy nonsense (is it about special relativity?) and the vocals and drums are up front in the mix.  The sound is spare, the pace propulsive.  It has groove.

I bought the new album because WWPJ played at the Grog Shop on November 1st.  Here's Medicine from In the Pit of the Stomach (not a live version):
The sound of this song, and most of the rest of the album, is grander, more epic.  The rest of the mix has been brought up alongside the vocals and drums, and there's just more going on.  More layered guitars, more effects, everything.  It feels like the difference between a live record with four guys making disciplined noise and a studio album where full advantage was taken of the multitracking.  Sadly, the new one doesn't play as well against background noise:  in my car, I can't hear enough of the detail to really get a feel for the song; instead I want to listen to it on the good stereo at home.  The popping, high-dynamic-range songs on Walls never needed that.

In the Pit of the Stomach feels more mature to me than These Four Walls.  Maybe this is the sound of a band growing up:  graduating from playing in bars to playing in studios.  Sadly, they didn't play Moving Clocks Run Slow at the Grog.  It was a great show anyway.

Cleveland Beer Week capsule reviews

Cleveland Beer Week is over.  We have now entered Cleveland Water Week.  Seriously, that was like running a gauntlet.  In chronological order:

My wife attended the opening ceremonies, "Grains Versus Grapes", though I did not.  (The link to the main Beer Week page above has the official descriptions of all the events.)  It's a simultaneous pairing of food with both beers and wines.  Alice reports that there were some flaws with the execution of the event:  it wasn't clear that there was both a beer and a Cava served at different stations to start, and nothing was said about the wine and beer for each course until after the course was over.  She'd have preferred to know why they were chosen to go with the food.

The next day, Buckeye Beer Engine trucked in a mess of oysters and served them with Rogue beers.  The oysters were pretty good and we got flights of Rogue beers on tap, which is a special treat.  My wife stayed to watch the Illini play football while I went on the Magic Hat Liquid Hunt.  It was a bar crawl with a scavenger-hunt theme.  We walked three miles west on Detroit Avenue through the city of Lakewood, stopping at ...um... four bars along the way.  It was a little blustery but a good time and I'd never been to any of the bars.  The organization at the start of the event left something to be desired - trying to process hundreds of people through an already crowded bar was not the brightest idea.  (Why take tickets in the *back room*?  Why not the foyer?)

On Tuesday, I had the great privilege of meeting Larry Bell of Bell's Brewery, whose beers I've been drinking since probably before I could do so legally.  The occasion was Bell's Eccentric Cafe On Tour, a six course beer and food pairing at the Beer Engine.  The food was made by the chef who mans the Touch Suppertruck, and the courses ranged in quality from quite good to sublime.  Several of the pairings were very good, and made me see some of Larry's beers in a new way.  (I never liked the Oarsman Ale much, but now I appreciate it.) The only hiccup was timing:  during one of the intermissions between courses, the Q&A went on too long, and it upset the kitchen's ability to get courses out.  The event started at 7 and we didn't get out until after 10:30.

Friday came, and with it an event Alice had missed in previous years:  Ales On Rails.  Beer is served on a train traveling south to Akron along the Cuyahoga; there's a new beer every half hour and a boxed meal.  Our group had a good time, but I'm glad we bought tickets for the cheap car, because we had space to move around.  The more "luxurious" cars were prettier but more crowded.  In the end, I was disappointed that we couldn't see out:  when the train got underway at 6:30, it was almost dark outside.

Finally, on Saturday, we went to Brewzilla.  I was on the fence about going because I had heard that in previous years the crowds were intense.  I needn't have worried - or perhaps the warning served to reduce my expectations.  We had a great time.  There were 60 or so tables, each serving samples of four beers; a ticket system for servings kept rampant consumption in check.  I discovered some beers I'll definitely be looking for in the future:  Liefmanns Cuvee Brut and Goudenband were outstanding.  The food was just OK, but I had taken the preemptive step of eating a heap of french fries at happy hour beforehand.  Oh, did I mention that before the event I had Bell's Batch 10000 on tap at a local bar?  I did.

It was a great week - but not the sort of thing I could do all the time.  A friend of mine takes beer week off as vacation every year, and I can see why.  Between the main events and all the little side celebrations at local bars, it's a great opportunity to broaden your beer horizons and taste some special offerings.

Fonts and their meanings

Much has been said about the need for a "sarcasm font". What does a font tell you about the tone of what's written in it, or the personality that chose it?  Here's a pictorial guide.

Comic Sans:

Old English:

Copperplate:  (note - copperplate is the font on my personal card.)

Courier:

Harlow Solid Italic:

Papyrus:  (my company used to have a safety poster about forklifts written in this font.  really.) 

Showcard Gothic:

Stencil:

Do you have any to add?

Swans at the Beachland Ballroom, 9/23/11

Swans are a band.  I'm somewhat at a loss to describe them in more detail; Allmusic has a lot of words about them at this link here.  I'm just sitting here opening and closing my mouth like a fish.

I can't say I wasn't warned.  The opening act, Sir Richard Bishop, graciously accepted some applause during his set and muttered, "Swans are gonna **** your faces off."  And they did.

Swans' set started out loud.  It got difficult to talk over the looped synthesizer, but we didn't see anybody on stage so we weren't sure they were actually playing yet.  A guy stepped out and started hammering repetitively on some hanging bells, adding to the noise.  And another guy.  And another - six total.  It was arrhythmic, throbbing, and glorious.  It droned.

Drone music is usually soft, like late afternoon in a meadow, or like bread that's fallen into dishwater.  Not like this.  Swans are to drone music as the Navy's active sonar is to whale speech.  Actually that's a very good analogy.

Confetti fluttered down from the cieling of the Ballroom.  It had probably been there since New Year's Day, if not longer.  Every square inch of my clothing vibrated, including the soles of my shoes.  I wouldn't have been surprised to look down and see an outline of dead skin cells on the floor around me.  I felt physically lifted up like a puppet on strings.  With every follicle on high alert, the sensory overload wiped out all my thoughts and pushed my consciousness into my body.  My beer went warm. 

God help the poor bastard who was trying to put on a show in the Beachland Tavern in the same building.  (It was the Schwartz Brothers.  Glen Schwartz was one of the early guitarists for the James Gang, and he's kind of a savant.  I figure he either thought the noise was just in his head, or else he went ballistic and preached hellfire from the mic all night.)

Go see Swans.  Bring earplugs.

How did they know???

I regularly caused consternation among the nuns at my Catholic grade school.  During one religion class, we were being taught what "AD" and "BC" meant for calendar dates.  I raised my hand and asked how the people back then knew what to call it.  The teacher reiterated, "it's After Death and Before Christ, Jeffrey.  Now moving on..."  And I said:  no, no, back in 100 BC, how did they know to count the years backwards?  Did they know Christ was going to show up in 100 years??

The class erupted, of course.  This was a head-scratcher.  Nobody really had the presence of mind to tell me that they probably called the years something else back then.  I guess it's hard to see out of such an ingrained way of looking at things.

And now I have my answer:  over at The Renaissance Mathematicus, thonyc tells us that the use of "AD" started around the year 525, and "BC" came into use in the 1600s.  Apparently beforehand, they had numbered the years by the reigns of the popes.

And that's your history lesson for the day.

The Permanent Floating Cocktail Party

A strange thing has happened in the Cleveland meetup.com scene:  there are a dozen or so groups with similar themes throwing large social events practically every day of the week; the same people show up to every single one; and you can't tell them apart.  It's like a permanent floating cocktail party.

Author Larry Niven once wrote of a "permanent floating riot club" that developed shortly after the invention of teleportation in a fictional future society.  Once any kind of disturbance broke out anywhere in the world, word got out, and immediately thousands of people teleported there to break things and loot the place.  It got to the point where there was always a disturbance somewhere, and there was a steady flow of people joining and leaving this flash mob, so it became a full-time riot moving from place to place.

That's kind of what's happening here, but with drinking instead of looting.  And the Internet instead of teleportation (which, admit it, is almost as good).  Cleveland has a beer group, several wine groups, a spirits group, a happy hour group, a nightlife group, a "social" group, a 20s and 30s group, a 30s and 40s group, a "party connection", etc - this is nowhere near an exhaustive list and I don't mean to single anyone out.  My point is that most of them make little or no attempt to differentiate themselves.  To further blur any distinctions between them, events are usually cross-posted to multiple groups.

Is this necessarily a bad thing?  What should we expect from a meetup group? 

The value of meetup.com is that it's a filter:  the people who come to meetups are the ones who are open to meeting new people.  In contrast, if you just go to a bar here and try to make new friends, you might get suspicious looks and cold shoulders.  For the most part, I think that's still true in the Permanent Floating Cocktail Party, though I'm no longer new here so it's hard for me to say from personal experience.  Some of my friends, though, have had bad experiences:  territorial behavior, gossip, that sort of thing. 

And this shows us something interesting:  the party has gotten large enough that it's no longer intimate; some people have begun to treat other attendees as though they were random strangers.  There's a strange transition that happens when a group gets to a certain size:  you sense that you'll never know some of the people in it, so you present a persona, a public face, that establishes a reputation for you among the people that you do know.  You start treating people less carefully, because they're just part of the scenery that you're projecting yourself on.  That is clearly happening in Cleveland.

My wife fumes with indignation that there's more than one wine group.  She takes it as a personal affront that anyone might find hers wanting in some way, and she says that the other groups' themes are feeble.  I keep telling her that meetup groups don't really have to have themes, though it's a nice way to bring new people in.  What really makes a group a distinct thing is the personality of the organizer, which sets the tone of the group.  The organizer determines what kind of behavior is acceptable, what kind of activities will take place, and in general how rigid or freeform the events will be.  In the Permanent Floating Cocktail Party, events are very freeform and the organizers make little effort to use the force of their personality to set a tone.  That's one thing that my wife does very well, and it sets the group she co-organizes apart from the others.

Most meetup groups, to be clear, don't involve alcohol or parties.  They're strongly focused on their themes, like book clubs or exercising or blogging.  That's the outsider's view of meetup.com:  that it's a way for geeks to find each other and share their obsession in person.  The vast majority are small and meet infrequently, and that's what their members want.  In that context, these giant themeless social nights are pretty odd.

When it's all said and done, you can go out any night that your schedule is open and have a drink with some strangers who will be willing to chat.  The event itself won't have a lot of personality, and you might encounter some high-school-like behavior, but it can be a lot of fun.  You never know who you'll meet, and in an unscripted live encounter, anything can happen.

The hatchet man

This post is fiction. My objective was to bring together three story elements in 500-1000 words.

Harald didn’t recognize the bartenders. He hadn’t been to Newark Airport in over a year but he remembered this bar having long-timers. That might have been too much to hope for in a place full of fungible employees selling disposable distractions to captive audiences most of whom will never return.

Tourists obstructed the place like arterial plaque. He picked a quick path to an empty stool. Down the center of a high countertop for laptops, a philodendron wound between the spindles of a decorative railing. It was real. Somebody must have been working here long enough to keep this plant alive, he thought, unless travelers have been pouring unfinished Guinnesses into its pot.

The low railing provided a symbolic separation from the person across from you, but it wasn’t enough for privacy. It was there to keep a self-entitled road warrior from pushing his laptop straight back into somebody’s fries. Across from Harald, a birdlike man in purple divided his attention between a small spiral notebook, a wrap sandwich, and the contents of his pockets, darting from one to the next without any apparent plan or smoothness of practice but without tension.

“Joe? Joe Calcioni?” Harald tilted his head with the question. When the man’s face came up, Harald was sure, and he extended his hand. “Wow ... Harry ... I haven’t seen you since high school,” he said. A little blood drained from Harald’s face at that. Joe had been a friend of a friend, and that friend had snapped, as males between the ages of 18 and 20 are prone to psychosis. He hadn’t used guns like some action movie revenge fantasy. He had killed like an animal, rabid, with the superhuman strength of rage and an axe from a fire extinguisher kit. Harald had seen his friend that day, through the windows between the office and the hallway, but their eyes had not locked.

There had been a lot of funerals. And no reunions.

Blinking hard, Harald released Joe’s hand. “So, what brings you to Newark? Are you coming or going or just on your way through?” “Going. I live in Philadelphia but I was in New York for work.” “Me too, Trenton. Environmental consulting for the state government. I live in Chicago now.” Harald took a sip of beer and the great purple bird nodded, the heavy contents of his breastpocket swaying from his shoulder like a sling. Joe had always loved baggy clothes. He’d wanted to look like that singer Bryan Adams but lacked the swagger. “A lot of us moved away. I kept track of a few people and they all went to college out of state and never looked back.”

Harald considered that. “My first year in college is pretty hazy. I was, ah, living in a state not conducive to memory. But I met a girl, kind of a modern hippie, a big environmentalist. I like numbers so I went into engineering. You would not believe some of the post-industrial wasteland this state has to heal.” Harald shook his head, and Joe said, “You ever work with Vertical Power?” “Yeah! They had a big layoff last year though, no big new jobs.” Joe pursed his lips and touched each of his pockets. “What?” said Harald. “How do you know Vertical?”

Joe cleared his throat, looking down. “That was my gig. The layoff. I’m with a human resources services firm. Outplacement.” Harald straightened, his eyes widening. “You’re a hatchet man!” He had practically yelled it. “Hey. I come in to patch things up after the cutting’s already been done. My job is triage.”

The two regarded each other. Cuts echoed forwards from the bodies of their friends through the economy and the Earth.

“Maybe we should plan a reunion.”

Science, justice, and living

I'm a scientist, and as such, I'm a big believer in using evidence and reason to understand the world.  But I admit it's not the only way.  Our legal system doesn't rely solely on rigid rules, and neither should we in our daily lives.

A recent Ars Technica opinion piece talked about why physicists so often try to speak authoritatively about subjects far from their actual expertise, and come across as jerks in the process.  The basic problem is that physicists (and many other technical types) believe that they are experts in the most fundamental, most important kind of knowledge, and in addition they're experts at using logic to defend almost any position.  This dovetails nicely with my last post and the comments on it.

One of the points made over and over again by Parker Palmer in A Hidden Wholeness was that it's a mistake to ignore other kinds of knowledge, for example what you might call intuition.  Or spiritual knowledge.  Or social insight.  You get the idea.  What makes physicists look like jerks is the implicit value judgement that these sources of information are inherently inferior to the firsthand observational knowledge of the natural world that physics is based on.  For many years I was that guy:  I couldn't tell you how many times I was called arrogant because I refused to take anything but what I called "facts" seriously.  I know now that "facts" excludes a whole lot of truth.

Science and justice:
Our legal system was born out of the historical period when empirical rationalism was the leading theory on how to guide people's actions.  That is in contrast to, say, taking theological recommendations as was done in earlier ages.  So the justice system and our Constitution were designed to influence our society like an engineer would design road widths to influence the flow of traffic through different areas.  For example, we decided that drugs are bad for society, so we outlawed them and put punishments in place for those who use them.  It's all theoretically based on cause and effect, though of course some laws are better supported by evidence than others.

But the legal system isn't a machine, impartially reshaping everyone who comes through it.  There is a non-rationalistic, non-empirical element built in:  the jury.  The jury is there to enforce what you might call poetic justice.

Science and living:
What does this have to do with our lives, the choices we make every day?  I've always tried to live my life according to principles, making an informed choice about the best way to live and then sticking to those choices.  When I learn something new, I revise my choices.  It's all very scientific.  But I've been thinking lately that it needs an element of poetic justice.  A truth other than the factual kind, a truth from my inner life in addition to those from the way I've come to see the rest of the world.  My wife has described me as the "king of self-denial", and it's true, I have immense restraint when it comes to doing what I *think* is best as opposed to what I want in the moment.  I've never trusted my impulses.

The thing is, I'm now coming to distrust my very scientific informed choices.  When I look back, I can see that a lot of them were just retroactive rationalizations for following a subconscious impulse.  That impulse might have been to avoid something feared, to approach something desired, or to strike at something hated.  But all those impulses were hidden.  To make a close analogy, as the Ars piece noted, during training in rhetoric one argues towards defending a predetermined position; this position may not be the one you would choose, or even one you think is right, but its assignment to you was hidden from the audience.  The point of the exercise in rhetoric is simply to lay down logical arguments to support it.  It's a deeply unscientific, even antiscientific, practice, and I think we do it all the time to defend our actions retroactively.  We do what we want, and then afterwards we come up with a story about why we did it. 

If we're acting on our desires anyway, why not bring them out of the subconscious and into the light?  Why not see our motivations for what they are, and give ourselves a chance to decide which of them to give in to?  Our rules for having a good life may say one thing, but our sense of poetic justice--or maybe just poetry--may have something else to say.

The benefit of the doubt

"Never attribute to malice that which can adequately be explained by stupidity."

You've probably heard that one.  Here's a corollary:

"Never attribute to stupidity that which can adequately be explained by ignorance." 

When you find yourself in a serious disagreement with someone, first give them the facts as you see them.  Stick to what you've observed firsthand, not your interpretations or hearsay.  You'd be amazed at the people you can find common ground with just by sharing your experiences.  Second, if they agree that you saw what you said you saw but they still don't agree with you, silently decide for yourself whether or not they're just dumb.  If you think they are a smart person, you may reluctantly conclude that they are malicious.

Now here's the tricky part:  do them the favor of turning this procedure around on yourself.  Listen to the facts as they see them - carefully restrict them to their own firsthand observations.  Give their observations the same weight as your own in your interpretation of events.  If after careful consideration of ALL the facts you still disagree with them, then silently decide for yourself whether or not you are just not as smart as they are.  If you think you're not dumb, but you can't come to some kind of agreement with them, you might be malicious.

I like to trot this one out during election season, but it never works.

To name something is to begin to kill it

I have a group of good friends who've gelled over the last several months.  Having noticed this, I'm tempted to say to them, hey, we're the somethings - something we have in common - but I'm resisting.  To name something is to create expectations for it, set patterns for its evolution, and to limit it.

There's a saying that the vitality of a form of expression is in inverse proportion to the number of books that have been written about it.  Think of the difference between hip-hop and rock in the early 1980s.  Hip-hop had barely entered the public consciousness--it had only recently been named so people who weren't familiar with it could talk about it--whereas rock had been the subject of hundreds of books.  Hip-hop was thriving with its practitioners trying new things practically every week; rock was moribund, more a commercial enterprise than an art form.

What does my group of friends have to do with a couple of musical genres?  These things are all communities of people trying new things, all of them creating something in some way, and watching what the others do, to form a larger composition - a genre, a group of friends, a scene, an academic discipline, anything.

To name such a thing is to put the first knife into it.  Other blows will follow.  There will be an "elevator speech" that those in the know use to describe it to the uninitiated.  And there's a little prestige that comes with recognizing a thing that can be named - seeing patterns and showing them to people makes you look smart.  After conversations about the new thing, there will be articles, documentaries, books.  Those introduced to the thing at each stage will then seek out what they were told this thing is, but what they look for is only what the thing was yesterday.  They want the thing to freeze so they can experience it the way they were told it was.  With each of these blows, the thing becomes less vital, dies a little.  They start at virtually the moment the thing comes into existence.

I want my group of friends to be flexible and adaptible.  I want us to be able to let people in and let people go, to try doing things together that we've never done, to find new ways of expressing ourselves and new channels of communication.  I'm frankly scared that if I even so much as stand up and announce that we are a group, then even that will limit us.  I can live without the pride of claiming that tiny burst of prestige.  Maybe I'll just let us be.  Just being seems to be working out for us so far.

Blogger's new UI: coming to your dashboard soon

Blogger is beginning to roll out its new user interface to users, one batch at a time.  Previously, the new UI was only available by logging in to Blogger In Draft.  I don't see too many differences between the final version and what I originally saw.  And of course this doesn't affect the way your blog looks to its visitors, only the way Blogger looks to you when you're writing posts.

Over the last few months I've seen new versions of other Google products, such as Calendar, Docs, and of course Google+.  Some I like, some I don't.  Overall, Blogger's changes are an improvement, though I do think they went a little crazy with the whitespace.

Two Mazdas. Three, actually.

Yesterday Alice and I test drove two cars.  They were both stick-shift Mazda3 models, but they couldn't have been more different.  Or more different from the Mazda3 I already own.

We're looking to trade in Alice's Nissan 350Z (Esmerelda, aka the Bluebird of Happiness, aka the Barbiemobile).  On Friday she went to a dealer to test drive a Miata, but the car was sold - to someone in Minnesota - while she was driving there.  Miatas are hard to find these days.  But there was a loaded stick-shift Mazda3 on the lot, and knowing how much I like mine, she test drove it.  Why?  It isn't the car she wants long-term, but it would bring our costs down and eventually become my car when she does find what she wants.
That's how we found the first 3.  We went back together Saturday to drive it together.  This car was a 2010 sedan like the photo above, with every option they offer:  dual zone climate control, nav, heated leather, everything.  They redesigned the car in 2010, giving it a really goofy grille, but this car is dark gray so it's not obnoxious.  I loved it, and I'd be thrilled to have it as my daily driver.  But Alice felt conflicted.  Its suspension and power just didn't measure up to the 350Z.  So we walked away.

We walked next door, to an actual Mazda dealership.  Our hope was that they would at least have a new Miata that we could test drive.  And--I shouldn't have been surprised--they didn't.  But they did have a Mazdaspeed3.  This was a 2009 hatchback, pre-redesign, a much better looking car in candy-apple red.  Alice drove it and loved the suspension and extra power, but it didn't have any of the luxury features the other car did.  If what we bought was eventually going to be my car, the speed3 didn't suit me as much as the 2010, because honestly I don't care about power.  And the salesman's starting point of price negotiation was several thousand more than the other car.  Almost the sticker price of a new one.  We felt insulted.

That's our dilemma.  The 2010 has luxury and up-to-date technology throughout, and it's cheaper.  The 2009 has all the sporty character Alice wants.  The thing is, the speed3 is a boy-toy.  Driving a red hatchback wouldn't project the image she wants, so eventually it would be my car, and I'd rather have the other one.  So on Monday we're going to go back for the 2010 car.  She won't mind driving it for a while, and we'll have more time to find that elusive affordable sporty car. 

Happy hour at Momocho

These Brief Reviews of Brief Meals posts focus on the after-work food available on the near West side of Cleveland.

Momocho is a "mod mex" restaurant and bar; for the year or two I've been coming there, their happy hour has reliably offered one food special:  half price taquitos.  They're excellent, filling, a bargain, and there are fifteen or twenty kinds to choose from.  You can also get margaritas at a reduced price - most recently, the one on special was the traditional recipe.  It was predictably excellent, with plenty of lime and not too much sugar.  Some margaritas make me feel like I've chugged a rum and Mountain Dew; not this one.

Momocho is chef Eric Williams' main haunt; he's also a partner at the Happy Dog, and you'll see many of his sauces in both places.  (This does cause me a little cognitive dissonance.)  The bar is bright, lively bordering on the noisy side, and really popular.  I once arrived at 5:10PM on a Thursday and couldn't get a seat.  The staff is professional and friendly without being intrusive - they've usually got their hands full.  The vibe is of groups of people there for some occasion, maybe a rare after-work gathering or starting the night with food before moving on to clubbier venues.  Friendly with a dash of nervous laughter.

I've had several of the taquitos offerings (it's a dish of filling, with sauces and tortillas on the side) and never been disappointed.  Last week I had the one with ground lamb shoulder; it's supposed to have mint, but that was probably drowned out by the mole sauce.  About halfway through, I realized what it reminded me of:  the Irish bar classic shepherd's pie.  Without the mashed potatoes, of course.  Besides that one, I can recommend the machaca and carnitas; I know I've had others, but I can't remember which.

I'm always surprised at how good Momocho is.  The cucumber margaritas are a revelation.  It's even cheap.  And you can't ask for more than that after work.

Infinite Monkeys Post

Everything in this post, starting after this sentence, was generated by accepting suggestions from Google Scribe; I also used it in my last post.

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This is like automatic paintball painting and surreal imagery.  Trying to make sense.   Maybe just go with the flow.   What will it suggests next?   Passenger in a automatic car pretty scary.   Cannot type what I want when machining doesn't suggest it, dammit.   Feel like a pinball in a machine.   Constraints like haiku.   Does it add anything to the results?  Humor maybe.  Enough of this.

Ingredients

My wife has been accused of viewing a restaurant's menu more as a list of ingredients than as a list of finished dishes.  She often asks them to make something special for her.  Here's the thing:  I'm kind of the same way about technical results.  When a coworker gives me a report with some experiments and the conclusions they've drawn, I'm likely to go straight to the data and come up with my own conclusions.  Data, of course, are the ingredients of a technical argument.
(I can't help it.  All my training and inclinations drive me to take observations and generate abstractions from them.  I will not be satisfied with someone else's abstractions if I get a chance to see the data.  Trust plays a role here, as does the fact that people learn best what they figure out for themselves.  As for Alice, she might order "off the menu" simply out of personal preference, but trust might have something to do with it too.  She might look at a menu, see a parade of bad combinations, and simply lose faith in the ability of the kitchen to produce something good without her guidance.)
The work of the chef and the work of the scientist are not so different.  I've always said that mine is a creative job.  They call us "knowledge workers".  We start with the elemental and construct something novel.  Ingredients become new forms of sustenance, or new areas of human knowledge.

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I'm writing this post in Blogger In Draft, with the "Google Scribe" feature on.  As you type, it offers suggestions on what word you might be in the middle of typing,  or might want to type next.  It is the strangest damn thing I've ever experienced.  It feels like someone is constantly interrupting me, or trying to finish my sentences.  I'm tempted to use it to write a blog post about nothing, just by letting it dictate the next word and see what the infinite monkeys produce.  They're developing self-driving cars--in fact, Google is part of the effort--next, will we get automatically generated art?

The Blackout Party (it's not what you think)

Last night I went to a party to commemorate a disaster.  On August 14, 2003, the northeastern United States suffered cascading power failures that left tens of millions of people in the dark for days.  To the best of my knowledge, no one at our party blacked out.

The restaurant/bar Melt has been holding a Blackout Party every year on that date, turning off the lights and TVs and serving dark beers in the dark.  Well, it wasn't very dark at 5PM with the windows open, but it was cozy anyway, and everybody looks better by candlelight.  Good thing, because we waited two hours for a table.  The company of good friends and the availability of Stone's Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale (yes, they really named it that), made the wait a pleasant one.

I'm surprised to learn now that the power failures initiated in the Cleveland area; I wasn't living here at the time.  Apparently trees had grown too close to several important power lines, and when they were asked to carry extra capacity, they came into contact with the trees and failed. 
(Here's something sciencey:  the extra current the wires were carrying caused them to heat up like resistors, which caused them to expand, in turn causing them to droop, which brought them into contact with the local foliage, which shorted them out to ground.  You gotta watch out for thermal expansion.)  
Having just spent a hard day hacking back bushes in my yard, I can testify to how much effort it takes to keep Ohio's greenery under control.  Still, it sounds like First Energy kind of fell down on the job that day.

Where was I?  In August of 2003 I was living in the Chicago area, hard at work renovating our first house.  We had frequent power outages, some of them long enough that we became concerned for our elderly neighbors, but we weren't affected by the Big One.  Perhaps Chicago had earned immunity eight years earlier with a deadly heat wave.  To the best of my knowledge, nobody commemorates that dark week.

Why music?

When you were a teen, you probably had songs that you listened to over and over, laying in your bed or huddled in the corner wearing headphones.  You weren't the only one.  Did you ever wonder why music is so popular with young people? 

Well, what is our music about?  Mostly it isn't about our schoolwork or our jobs, our laughter or our arguments, the safe things that occupy our everyday lives.  It's about more ... I think the right word is "intense" ... feelings.  Love.  Anger.  Ecstacy, delirium.  Scary stuff, it makes you act in ways you normally wouldn't.  I've begun to think that music is our way of getting used to those raw states of mind so we're prepared for them when they happen to us.

Why would we need that?  Here's my guess:  we are, as a culture, notoriously blind to our own emotional and even physical states.  Our minds are swimming with distractions created by consumerism; we're manipulated by advertising and fantasies in our media that are all constructed to maintain this capitalist world.  All that outside influence has a toll:  we may not have the time and the mental clarity to understand our own bodies and feelings - or we may simply give in to the distractions in order to escape from the hard work of figuring it out.  So we're unprepared to deal with lust, territorialism, fear, shame, and all the rest.  Music takes all those raw states and presents them safely, as entertainment.  Repeated exposure makes the messy stuff less frightening when it hapens to us.  
(Want a laugh?  When we have these intense feelings, we think:  I know what that is - and we start communicating in song lyrics.)
Here's a related thought, about adulthood.  I just got over appendicitis, and during the recovery I was repulsed by the idea of having a beer or a glass of wine.  Alcohol is about experiencing a different state of mind.  When I feel sick, I don't want alcohol, because I'm already away from normal - I want to be normal again.  So maybe music functions to familiarize us with the scary aspects of our ordinary state of mind, and alcohol serves to take us away when it gets boring.

I busted a gut

I am in the process of recovering from a ruptured appendix.  After a whirlwind eight-day tour of Michigan, including sleeping in five cities in five nights, I arrived home with a stomachache.  Little did I know.

I went to Michigan for a professional conference in Traverse City--ICT2011, which I liveblogged a bit over at my Google+ account except, whoops, I forgot to make most of the posts public--and I took the opportunity to visit family on the way there and back.  Let me just say to any employer sending someone to a conference:  don't send them alone.  When your employee is trying to make technical small talk with strangers in their field, the awkward silences are depressing.  Send a coworker along.

My last stop was in Williamston, to help my dear old friend Cat move to Grand Rapids.  The task of packing a house she'd lived in for 12 years proved overwhelming, so her boyfriend and I unstuck the gears.  I awoke early Sunday morning with a stomachache, which I thought meant I'd eaten a bad burger the night before.  I drove home uncomfortable, laid down to rest, and covered myself with a blanket.  And ran up a fever.  I felt slightly better as the day wore on, and we couldn't decide if I had food poisoning with a possible hernia (a painful spot on my right) or appendicitis.  Early Monday morning, I had a crescendo of pain so intense I could only breathe in gasps.  We went to the hospital.

They took out my appendix that day, noting that it was perforated before they got to it.  That means the bacterial soup inside it had a chance to attack everything else in my gut.  The doctor said the outsides of my intestines looked "pretty pissed off".  I replied "I can relate". 

The day after the operation I was swollen taut with inflamed intestines.  I couldn't even stand up straight for fear of the tension bursting my incisions.  They hit me with three different antibiotics in the hospital and gave me a fourth to take home.  It's Friday and I still can't button my pants, though I did manage a half day of work from home yesterday and another today.  Occasionally I get painful cramps that interrupt my ability to concentrate, and of course my digestive tract is not finished rebooting itself, but I hope to be able to return to the office Monday. 

Moral of the story:  do not mess with rapidly escalating abdominal pain associated with a low fever.  Get to a hospital.

Does Google+ solve a problem I don't have?

I recently joined Google+.  Why?  Everybody says it's supposed to compete with Facebook, but I like Facebook.  Why grind out another profile, track another feed, curate another presence?  And how do we know Google+ won't disappear like Google Buzz and Google Wave did, like cigarette butts flicked out of car windows on the information superhighway?

Pros: 
  • I use a lot of Google products (gmail, calendar, docs, blogger, etc).  Plus might actually allow me to share/social-ize some of the things I do in those services.
  • I have an Android phone; see bulletpoint above.
  • I generally like Google's user interfaces.
  • Google doesn't rearrange the furniture as often as Facebook, and they never do it with the purpose of catching my privacy settings off-guard like Facebook does.
  • Google clearly means it this time.  Buzz and Wave got a lot of hype, but they felt isolated from the rest of Google.  This time, all of Google's UIs are being revamped to be consistent with each other and to be integrated into Google+.
  • Facebook is successfully becoming what AOL tried to be:  a self-contained, closed system, a substitute for the broader Internet.  That's not good.  I already feel like I'm fighting Facebook, and as this trend continues, it's going to get worse.
  • Google is actually going to rename my beloved Blogger to make it part of Plus.  If I didn't get on board, I'd just feel resentful about it.
Cons:
  • I now have to decide where to share things.  Which service should I put this status/photo/link in?  One, or several?
  • I have to build this network from the ground up, and a lot of the people I enjoy interacting with aren't on it yet.
  • This is unfortunately not one of Google's better UIs.  In my limited time with it so far, I'm finding it pretty counterintuitive.  They're trying to reduce clutter by hiding navigation tips, but for a first-time user of a novel service, that's a problem.
So, I'm on the plus bus.  We'll see where it goes.

New Blogger.com UI now available to all

As I've mentioned elsewhere, there's a redesign coming for Blogger users.  The new UI is now available (optionally, for the time being) to all Blogger users.  When you write a blog post, the UI will look different, but when your readers come to your blog, they won't see anything different.  If you write a Blogger blog, you can see it yourself by logging in to draft.blogger.com instead of the usual www.blogger.com.  I'm writing this post in the new UI. 

It's ... white.  The list of posts is very spread out, with the titles in standard 12-point font in something like triple spacing.  There are some very Web 2.0-ey features, like controls that only appear when you hover the mouse over them.  There are some features that are IMO missing, like the lack of hover-over text to tell me what those icons at the top mean.  They've incorporated a lot of the information that used to be in Google Analytics, and it's pretty granular.  For example, until now, I had no idea that my most-viewed recent post was the one I wrote about the closing of tabletalk.salon.com.

The new look for Blogger is visually consistent with the redesign of Google Calendar, which I really dislike.  I am a very heavy Google Calendar user, and I'm sticking with the old design as long as possible, because the new more spread-out spacing reduces how many things I can see - even on the giant monitors I use.  The new Blogger UI doesn't give me a rash like the Calendar one, though.

I think the redesign is intended to go hand in hand with Google+.  I recently heard that Google actually plans to stop using the name "Blogger" and rebrand the service with a new name when they incorporate it into Google+.  I have to admit, it's odd to use Google Calendar, Google Docs, Google Maps, etc, and ...Blogger.  Blogger has retained its name so far because it's huge--it's one of the 10 most visited sites worldwide.  With luck, they'll integrate all these services together better.  There are big changes coming!

Communication styles: You kinda need them all.

Getting a team to gel means opening lines of communication with everybody.  I have my own preferred ways to communicate, but they don't work for everybody, so I've had to adapt.  For example, it came as a bit of a shock to me when my boss told me that many of my coworkers were using IM to ask each other quick questions.  I hate IM, but it works for them.

As you might guess, I like email.  I work best in long-form written English.  It's precise, and it leaves a record, but it also creates a certain distance and formality.  The telephone is far more immediate and intimate, but it's easy to forget to ask an important question.  (I keep lists to remind me.)  On the other hand, the improvisational nature of a phone call can help you think of things that might never have occurred to you in the linear, boundaried process of answering an email.  And of course face-to-face gives you the chance to add tactile cues, like the dozens of touchy-feely prototypes I keep around my office.

The eight or so most important members of my team are spread across Europe, Asia, and the U.S.; many of them have English as a second language.  I can't afford to put additional obstacles in the way of our teamwork, like asking them to email when they prefer talking on the phone because it takes them forever to translate.  Having realized this, and adjusted myself to their preferences, I find we're getting better traction than ever.

Happy Hour at ABC Tavern

These Brief Reviews of Brief Meals posts focus on the after-work food available on the near West side of Cleveland.

ABC Tavern (1872 W 25th Street) is an example, like Happy Dog, of a once-ordinary establishment brought into new glory by good management. I'm told that until a few years ago, ABC was a dive bar. But with well-executed food and attentive service, ABC is now a great place to be a regular. At around the same time, the rest of West 25th shook off its scales and started dishing up happening Friday and Saturday nights. The area is poised to become a paradise for beer lovers soon, with several bars specializing in craft beers, the Great Lakes Brewing Company bar, and the Market Garden brewpub opening Monday the 27th.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/clevelandurbangirl/5120885520/
ABC's happy hour specials are usually written on a chalkboard at the bar.  They used to offer several food specials, but now it looks like it's only one per day.  I'm not sure why they narrowed it down, it's not like the place is jammed when I go there at 5:30. Isn't the point of happy hour to attract people that either wouldn't be there at that time, or haven't checked the place out yet?  Fahrenheit scaled back their happy hour food offerings once they had a good sized crowd coming in.

My first experience at ABC was a birthday party for my friend Brian Asquith a couple years ago. Brian is one of those guys who seems to know everyone, and just about everyone shows up for these parties. The bar was probably at its Fire Department-mandated occupancy limit, but the servers were highly organized. At almost any other bar, you'd have had to shoulder your way to the bar to get a drink, and getting food would have been out of the question. Not so: at ABC, they managed to get out and work their stations, and keep everybody satisfied. We were amazed.

Which brings me to my one minor complaint: like a sled dog without a sled tied to it, service at ABC seems to get twitchy when the place isn't busy. They're not relaxed, which makes it difficult for me to relax. But I can hardly complain; they're knowledgeable and they offer a great after-work meal for cheap.

Happy Hour at Fahrenheit

These Brief Reviews of Brief Meals posts focus on the after-work food available on the near West side of Cleveland.

Fahrenheit (2417 Professor Ave.) isn't the sort of place you'd think to go to for happy hour - it's a well-regarded upscale restaurant, not a local watering hole.  But Fahrenheit has made it comfortable and inviting, and it works.

For a while I went on a cheeseburger kick.  Wherever there was promise of a well made basic cheeseburger, I tried it.  Here's a picture of me having trouble containing my ecstacy at the gigantic $5 double cheeseburger they used to offer:
Yes, that is a ray of light shining down from the heavens onto my dinner.  I ate the whole thing, including the light.

Did I mention I'm in a Happy Hour Meetup Group?  Yeah.  This was one of those meetups.  (BTW, how did Cleveland's happy hour meetup group get that URL?  Meetup.com really works here.)

Since that picture was taken, the fabulous basic cheeseburger was scaled down and made a bit more interesting.  In their current happy hour menu, it's listed as a goat cheese and sweet pickle cheeseburger.  I've had it - it's really tasty though smaller than the old one.  No more rays of light, but a good dinner, and the goat cheese goes unexpectedly well with a tight young red wine.

Happy Hour at Happy Dog

This is the first post for a new category here:  Happy Hours.  I'll call these posts Brief Reviews of Brief Meals.  They focus on the after-work food available on the near West side of Cleveland.

Happy Dog, at 5801 Detroit Ave

I remember being deeply suspicious of Happy Dog as I looked at it from the bar across the street, Roseangel (or maybe it was La Boca at the time).  But on the advice of a friend, I checked it out, and I've been coming back every couple weeks ever since.

The menu is a skinny strip of paper with checkboxes.  Hot dog, $5.  Or vegetarian dog.  Tater tots, $2.50.  Or fries.  But after "hot dog" there are fifty more checkboxes.  House made ketchup; brie; kimchee.  Yes, there are fifty things you can put on your hot dog, they're all free, and some of them are pretty strange.  Get them all if you want.  If you're feeling overwhelmed, they have several "recommended combinations" of four or five toppings that are tried-and-true.  Some of the toppings are from Momocho, a nearby modern-mexican eatery.

The tater tots are sublime.  They must have used the scientific method to determine the precise optimum time and temperature to deep-fry those little bastards.  Now I'm hungry.  There are a few dozen dippings and toppings you can get with them too. 

Happy Dog is, of course, a bar.  Later there's live music.  They serve beer - many excellent beers on tap and many more in bottles.  Mixed drinks, too, I guess; there are liquor bottles back there, but that's not what I come for.  Nope:  a typical tab for me is a hot dog, tater tots, and two beers, and it costs in the mid-teens.  And that, my friends, is a bargain.

So now you know what you could learn by stopping by for a meal and a beer.  But what makes Happy Dog thrive?  It's not a full-service restaurant - the closest the kitchen gets to "cooking" is the fried egg you can check a box for; all the other toppings are prepared ahead.  As a bar, it's good, but is it really better than other bars? Here's what I think:  other bars have happy hour food specials; some of them are cheap, some of them are good, a few are even both.  But none of them actually involve you like the Happy Dog does.  Ordering food elsewhere is like clicking a choice on a drop-down menu.  To order at Happy Dog is to create an original work of edible art out of fifty variables.  And with all art comes risk:  it might suck.  It really might.  But it's on you.  If it does, you'll shrug and laugh, and you'll come back in a couple weeks and try again.

Plain English

I consider it a virtue to speak in plain English, as opposed to whatever specialized diction is relevant to the topic.  It's hard work--buzzwords are easier--but I think I'm doing a favor to the people I'm talking to.

Every trade has its own terminology.  Acronyms like "HTML" are obvious, but it becomes quite maddening when terms like "quality" and "merit" take on unexpected meanings in manufacturing and human resources.  This trade talk is a convenient shorthand, but it also acts, for better or worse, as a group identifier and that makes it exclusive.

You don't have to be in a trade for its lingo to rub off on you, either.  For example, people who have received a lot of counseling sometimes engage in "therapy-speak".  In one highly personal conversation, my mind raced to fill in whole paragraphs of meaning behind terms a friend was tossing off by reflex - terms that have other, simpler meanings in plain English, but it was clear my friend meant more.  And I may have been wrong.  I may not have known all the associations and implications of their shorthand.

I don't want to be misunderstood.  Not when I'm excited about the topic, and certainly not when it's highly personal.  I discipline myself to speak in plain English, using the meanings of words that everybody knows.  If you read this blog (for example, the "recommended posts" at the bottom of the right column), I hope you'll agree that I've talked about some pretty abstract material in understandable ways.  It might surprise you that I do the same thing at work, replacing the shorthand of project names with their concrete goals.  Why?  My boss has four other employees like me, all working on radically different technologies; the last thing I need is for him to recall an outdated meaning of a term I've just used.
(Emily Dickinson famously grounded a difficult subject by saying that she knew she was reading poetry when "I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off".)
Buzzwords are tempting.  They make you look smart, like you're in touch with how the experts define every aspect of your field.  They're also faster.  But when you go to all the effort of learning them, are you really better at solving problems in your field? 

Sometimes it's difficult or it takes longer for me to speak in plain English, because I have to think about what my audience knows and explain in detail in terms they'll understand.  In personal matters it's about being aware of, and honest about, my physiological and emotional responses (like Dickinson was), instead of packaging sets of them into code words that may not reflect my reality.  It's about knowing my audience, respecting their time, and giving them a chance to benefit from what I'm saying.  Otherwise, why bother?

Earth at the Grog Shop, 6/12/11

On Sunday night I went to the Grog Shop with a friend to see the band Earth (video). They've been around for about 20 years, spawned at least one subgenre, and probably inspired many of my favorite bands like Low and Morphine.

Low, for example, plays loud, distorted rock music at maybe 60 beats per minute. That's half the pace of a typical rock song (Ben Folds Five "Song For The Dumped": 108bpm). Low's album The Great Destroyer is bleak, soul-wrenching, beautiful, and placid. And Earth makes them sound like the Minutemen.

The subgenre Earth inspired was called "drone metal" or "drone doom" or "doom metal", with rich harmonies and song structures from drone music executed as if they were heavy metal. It was pretty strange to watch the drummer slowly lift her arms in the air and bring the sticks down onto her kit as if she was at the bottom of a pool.

Ambient music was once described as "as ignorable as it is listenable"; it is not meant to be focused on, but rather to create atmosphere (see Harold Budd's early work Abandoned Cities). The super-slow pace of Earth's songs achieved the same trick: they developed too slowly for me to focus on the structures, and my mind drifted. For me, then, the experience of the concert was the unexpected memories it conjured up. That's never happened to me at a concert before - I'm glad I went. And it told me something about myself: that my mind is still not quiet enough to slip into meditation and simply be present.

Facebook is like my grandmother at the dinner table.

You could always tell when my maternal grandmother was enjoying her dinner, because she wouldn't say a word, she'd just eat it.

I always think of this when I read status updates about how much fun people are having.  Come on:  if it was that great, you'd be busy experiencing it, not pecking away at your phone. 

I'm more likely to believe you if you tell me you had fun *yesterday*.

New Blogger feature: mobile versions of your template

Today Blogger announced that you can let mobile users view your blog with a mobile-friendly template.  I've enabled it on this site (follow the directions at the link above) and my template's mobile version is ...minimalist.  But then, "minimalist" was the name of my old template, so I'm OK with that.  This QR code should take your phone to this site so you can see it:
The mobile version does have my tabs (Home, About This Blog, CLEblogs, etc), so it's actually pretty full-featured.  Well done, Blogger!

In other Blogger/mobile news, I'm happy to say that the official Android Blogger app is improving steadily.  Many of my complaints have been addressed.

Say goodbye to the humble light bulb

The history of the light bulb is the history of electricity.  It's the simplest electrical appliance, a resistor that gets hot enough to glow.  And it's had a good run:  1880 to 2012.  What other technology has lasted that long?  But soon you won't be able to buy them any more.

In the early development of the electric grid, buildings weren't given outlets for pronged plugs.  They just installed light fixtures.  The vast majority of electrical devices were light bulbs anyway, and those that weren't simply had the same kind of screw-in base that a light bulb did.  (I read somewhere that the second most common electrical device used in homes in the late 1800s was the vibrator.  Some things never change.)
Edison's bulb.  From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incandescent_light_bulb
When I was a kid, you could get 3-way bulbs that would run at 50, 100, or 150 watts.  Those suckers really lit up a room.  But by today's standards of energy efficiency, they're an abominable waste - especially in the summertime, when your air conditioning system then has to then use more power to pump that heat out of your house.  These days, a full-sized laptop computer runs on less than 65 watts when it's working hard. 
(It's estimated that 9% of electricity consumption in US households goes to lighting, so this is one of those little problems that adds up to big money.  This is a national priority, and it's exactly the sort of thing our Department of Energy should be working on.)
Fast foward to late 2006, when I moved into my house in Cleveland and found that the previous owner had lit much of it with compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs).  These are often marketed as giving "60 Watt Equivalent" or similar illumination, for much less power (typically about one-fourth).  They cost more initially than incandescent bulbs, but if they reach their expected lifetime, they cost much less to operate.  I have had a few burn out on me, so I'm not sure how reliably they reach those lifetimes.  Maybe I have noisy electricity.

The next leap will be to LED lighting.  The cousins of those little flashing red and green dots will soon be illuminating your living room, using even less power (though the current generation is about as efficient as CFLs).  Unfortunately they are also prohibitively expensive right now--about $40 for a bulb equivalent to a 40-watt incandescent.  They might last for decades, but at those prices, you might want to bequeathe them to your children in your will.  Their biggest technological challenge right now is heat, which is something of a paradox since they produce so little of it.  The reason it's a problem is because they themselves are so little:  the heat is concentrated in a tiny electronic component.  Heat reduces the LED's lifetime.  My company is busy supplying manufacturers of LED lighting systems with materials for next-generation thermal management.

I'm a realist, so I have to be honest about the drawbacks of technologies as I perceive them.  After moving in, I actually replaced some of those CFLs in my house with incandescents, for a couple of reasons.  First, they don't light immediately.  I have a tendency to charge into a room and flick the light switch on my way through the door.  If the light doesn't come on quickly, I could trip on something.  Correction:  I, uh, have tripped on things.  Second, not all CFLs are dimmable.  There are times when you don't want the full searchlight glare, like from your dining room chandelier during a romantic homemade dinner.  Special CFL bulbs and compatible dimmer switches are the answer here.

Another concern is color quality.  I'm fairly picky about this; even among GE's incandescent offerings, I prefer the "reveal" bulbs over the standard "soft white" ones, which I think have a yellowish tint.  Fluorescent bulbs, especially the cheap kind used in warehouses, are significantly worse.  I could go into detail about the spectrum--what you see when you put the light through a prism--but suffice it to say that better phosphors will give us better quality light from both CFLs and LEDs.  And better quality light means the colors of your clothes and your wall paints will be more nuanced.  As a worst case scenario, think about yellow sodium streetlights:  they make everything look black and white.

My home has a lot of light bulbs.  In three different rooms, there are arrays of six or eight lights recessed into the ceiling; with 60W bulbs, each array burns 360-480 watts.  I turn them off when I'm not using them, and we often use them dimmed.  These arrays are prime candidates for CFL conversion.

Fighting to acquire more energy is a ham-fisted approach to energy security, in my mind.  Reducing usage in the first place is a better start - and we can all contribute.

Free science books

The National Academy of Sciences has announced that all their books are now available as free PDF downloads.  Cool!

I took a quick look through the materials science section and found several books discussing corrosion.  Then I found this gem, which I'm planning to download:  Assessment of Technologies for Improving Light Duty Vehicle Fuel Economy.  In other words, your car's gas mileage.

Joint blogger meeting: Lake Erie Moose Society and Ohio Blogging Association

On Monday, June 6, the blogging group I co-organize with Heidi Cool will hold a joint meetup with the Ohio Blogging Association.  I went to an OBA meetup in April and had a blast - there are a lot of good people there.  Join us if you're blogging or thinking about blogging or if you'd just like to chat!

Erie Moose (we handle RSVPs on Facebook) has been trundling along nicely since our rise from the ashes of the old meetup group in late 2009; we've held meetings every month (with the exception of the very snowy December of 2010) with attendances ranging from a dozen in winter to two or three dozen in the summertime.  Many of us are in the Cleveland Social Media Club, so we have several members with strong technical and web-design backgrounds. 

I'm less familiar with the OBA, but my first impressions are that it is less technical and more about the content and the fun of writing.  They have blogs about charities, logs of big personal projects, etc - all fueled with enthusiasm.  It's very fresh and exciting, which is why I plan to keep coming back.  Energy!

Our meeting Monday will be at the Barking Spider Tavern and we're leveraging our technical folks to try to solve problems on the spot, so we're encouraging bloggers to bring their laptops.  Right now it looks like it'll be a beautiful day--74 and sunny--so stop on by!

Shaker LaunchHouse Blooms

Last night I attended the grand opening of Shaker LaunchHouse, an incubator of Cleveland-area startup companies.  Why would I care about such a thing - am I trying to start one?  join one?  invest in one?  Nothing like that.  It has energy, and I might be able to contribute to one of the startups in some way, just because.

A startup company begins with nothing but an idea.  The path from that idea to profitability is a gauntlet of problems the entrepreneurs have never seen before.  LaunchHouse connects them with members of the public that might be able to help them solve those problems.  Sometimes all it takes is a conversation, telling them about an option they didn't know existed.  That's the same way everybody solves new problems, from growing vegetables to home improvement:  they ask for advice.

One of the ways LaunchHouse facilitates this is by being open to the public, holding events like last night's.  They've also set up a formal mentoring program where you can provide "office hours" for the startups to talk to you.  You let LaunchHouse know what your areas of expertise are, and the entrepreneurs stop by when you're there.

I have a Ph.D. in materials science, so if any of these companies plans to manufacture a product, I can probably tell them about the materials it's made of.  I also do scaleup of new products from lab prototypes to volume production, I spent seven years as a Federal scientist working on lubrication and wear, and I'm gaining experience in intellectual property in my current job.  Those are the ways I hope to be able to help.  I'm effectively offering my consulting services for free, just for the privilege of being around the energy.

And that's what it's about:  energy.  It's the reason I co-organize a blogging group:  people blog about what they have passion for, so it's always enthusiastic.  Another motivation for me is to contribute, to help both a small company and the region.  I've never done much work for charity, but this feels right, because it's technical and it's personal and it's done out of love, not a sense of obligation.

Let a thousand flowers bloom!

Goodbye, TableTalk.salon.com

I just stumbled across this, which is happening as we speak.  It's an online community 16 years old being shut down - without an archive (via Scott Rosenberg).  It hurts a little, because I posted there from 1998 through the early 2000s before moving to Salon's other forum, The WELL.  I built friendships, met people face-to-face, and read a lot of great stories.  For example, this hilarious tale of two dogs finding an elk carcass and refusing to leave it.  What does the shutdown say about the permanence of content on the Internet?

The official announcement gives reasons for the shutdown and for the lack of an archive, but that's not why I'm posting this.  In this Metafilter discussion there's an interesting comment by user meehawl:
"I see my commenting history as more akin to conversation than anything else. It always suprises me that people might want to save what they've said online. This is not to snark at those who want to keep what they've said. It's just not my viewpoint. I'd happily see my ephemeral conversational metafilter history deleted."
Sounds like Facebook, doesn't it?  One of the first things I noticed about Facebook was that they make it a lot harder to find old content than pretty much any other site on the Web.  Facebook is not archival.  They don't make money off people looking up advice and interactions from years ago, so they don't let you.  It's not like it would be difficult for them to put in a search form, they purposely left it out so you'd concentrate on the here and now. So they can build an advertising profile on you.

Discussion forums like Table Talk are starting to look old-fashioned in comparison to Facebook, but people who got on the Internet before Web 2.0 developed an expectation that everything they ever said was in the cloud and would stay there forever, searchable by a simple Google query.  Not that you necessarily wanted it to be, it just was, because of the simplicity of the HTML that was used to build forums.

That age has ended.  Closed databases like Facebook--and The WELL--are not indexed, either for reasons of revenue or privacy.  Every byte on the Internet has a cost and a value, and business decisions are being made about your public history.  Who knows, maybe eventually it will be unnecessary to be careful what you put out there - the pictures of you drunk, the off-color jokes - and link rot will take away everything you don't pay to curate and archive.

A Restaurant Menu in Hell, Michigan

Meatball with Sauce of Reduced Circumstances
Existentially Sharp Knife
Squid Ink Immersion of Diner
Steak Bordelaise with Marrow Transplant
Pesto Won't Leave You Alone-o
All The Thyme In The World
Chili Con Carny
Pollo en a Dobro

How your car gets from 0 to 60mph

Car guys talk about how fast a car can accelerate to 60mph.  Not that you ever get a chance to actually do that.  But if you've taken Physics 101, you should be able to predict a car's 0-to-60 time just by knowing its horsepower and weight.  It turns out it's a little trickier than that.  One day I got curious and figured out why.
In its simplest form, the calculation says that the car's power times the length of time it accelerates equals the car's kinetic energy at 60mph.  Kinetic energy is 1/2 the mass times that velocity squared.  We know the power, weight, and speed.  The thing is, this says my car should reach 60mph just 4.6 seconds after I floor the gas - and I can tell you it doesn't.  Most family sedans take eight or nine seconds, a sport/luxury car takes six or seven, a serious sports car will be down in the four to five range, and to get to 60mph in less than four seconds you'll have to pay six digits.

So why is acceleration so inefficient?

http://www.automobilemag.com/reviews/lexus/0710_2008_lexus_is-f_dyno_chart/index.html
First, "horsepower".  When they say a car like mine has 156 horsepower, it's not all available on demand.  You only actually get that when the engine RPM is high - see the red power curve in the graph above.  So even if you floor it, you have to wait until the car speeds up to about 30mph before you're at full power.  And then of course it shifts into the next gear.  So in the process of going from 0 to 60, on average 30% of my car's horsepower is unavailable.

Second, friction.  There's a difference between the amount of horsepower the engine puts out and how much power the wheels actually put down to the road.  Manufacturers put the engine number in their brochures - partly because it's a larger number, and partly because it's a lot easier to measure.  In the example above, the Lexus IS-F is rated at 416hp but delivered only 333hp to the wheels, a loss of 20%.  Friction takes 10-25% of the power produced by an engine - more for AWD systems with automatic transmissions, less for two-wheel-drive stick-shift cars.  My car is a front-wheel drive automatic, so I'm assuming it's fairly efficient.

Finally, shifting.  The car can't accelerate while the transmission is between gears, and no car can get to 60 in first gear.  Those six-digit cars can shift in one or two tenths of a second, but I figure most cars take closer to half a second.

Add all that up, and the calculation says my car goes from 0 to 60 in a much more realistic seven and a half seconds.  In fact, Car & Driver magazine actually measured it, and got 7.4 seconds.  Not bad for a back-of-the envelope scribble!

Gloves

Some gloves you wear to protect your hands.  Others you wear to protect the things you're handling from your hands.

Words are like that too.  Some you leave unsaid - to protect yourself or your listener.

Comparative symbolism of wealth displays: Pharaonic and Gangsta cultures

Let's begin with contemporary Gangsta culture, where displays of wealth and power involve US currency, weapons, and gestures related to gang membership:
http://www.demotivationalposters1.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/05/17-dollars-now-thats-gangsta-poster.jpg
The Pharaohs, in contrast, saved their best bragging for after they were dead:
Those hieroglyphs are Egyptian for "one time, my dad donated 309,950 sacks of grain to this one temple.  He was standing next to some gods when they drew this."  And that, my friends, is badass.

Inspired by this.

Snap out of it, America

Osama bin Laden is dead, and I've been thinking about the last ten years - the escalating lunacy of security theater and foreign wars - and I wonder if now we might finally snap out of this 21st century Red Scare.

The final months of 2001 brought some quite sensible reforms in aviation security, like locks on cockpit doors.  But then security was institutionalized in the form of the TSA, and bureaucracies exist to perpetuate themselves.  Fear, plenty of it whipped up by the institution itself, fueled a cycle of dehumanizing regulations.

What began as security quickly became security theater.  The thing about theater is that it attracts the dramatic.  There was the guy with his shoes full of gunpowder.  And the one with the explosive underwear.  Are these guys credible threats to justify the existence of a system that frisks nine-year-old girls?  No, they're the same kinds of guys that put on costumes and turn themselves in to the police every time there's a serial killer on the loose in a big city.  These loonies are created by the attention the system creates in order to perpetuate itself.

At some point America had had enough of McCarthy's cancerous fearmongering.  Are we done with the TSA yet?  Can we go back to making laws like "don't drive drunk"? 

Third Bloggiversary for My Future Past

Today is the third anniversary of my first post at this blog.  Wow!  What did I have in mind when I started out?
Welcome to my future past, a logorrhea of the profound and the inane, a warehouse of dust and dreams, a diner where the absurd and the rational may commune.
Hmm, maybe "logorrhea" doesn't bring the right image to mind....

I was looking for a creative outlet, and what I found was a community.  Many thanks to the friends I've met through the old Cleveland Weblogger Meetup Group at meetup.com, my co-conspirators of the Lake Erie Moose Society, and my new friends at the Ohio Blogging Association - and a shout-out to the folks at Blogger, in whose honor I've doubled the 'g' in "bloggiversary".  Here's to many more!  What will the future bring?

Albums: X Unclogged

This is one of a series of posts about music.  I'll describe albums that are not famous and mostly not critically acclaimed either, but they grabbed me and held on.  I'd like to try to capture the mystique of each one for you.

Unclogged, by X, is American music.  It is rock played by four people on a stage.  It is not 'unplugged', but the name was probably a joking reference to that genre.  X were a punk band, but if you listen, you'll hear echoes of rockabilly, folk, country, and other American forms.

You will also hear vocal harmonies that I don't have words for, except "unexpected".  You might remember "Burning House of Love" as pretty standard rock radio fare from 1985.  Here, it's reborn as a boom-chick.  Listen when Exene Cervenka joins John Doe:
Frail female vocals, vibraphones, atmosphere ... this album was made for me.

Albums: Tabula Rasa

This is one of a series of posts about music.  I'll describe albums that are not famous and mostly not critically acclaimed either, but they grabbed me and held on.  I'd like to try to capture the mystique of each one for you.

And now for something completely different.  Hit Play on the video below and let it creep up on you.  It's a long track. 

I'm breaking my rule to bring you Tabula Rasa by Arvo Part, an acknowledged masterpiece.  Part is an Estonian minimalist composer of choral and orchestral music.  All that probably sounds like bollocks to a rock listener, which is what I was when I first heard it.  But Tabula Rasa has this:  atmosphere.

In this track, twelve cellos play a slow, aching melody several times, expressing a different emotion each time.  It forms an arc of tragedy:  quiet comprehension is followed by keening grief, then anger, and finally exhaustion.

Turn the lights off.

Albums: Fear of Fours

This is one of a series of posts about music.  I'll describe albums that are not famous and mostly not critically acclaimed either, but they grabbed me and held on.  I'd like to try to capture the mystique of each one for you.

In Fear of Fours, Lamb created an album as off-balance as the Talking Heads' Remain in Light, but warmer and less paranoid.  There are songs here that build to epic heights, but what fascinates me is lyrics like these:
This was a body
Now it's a home
For you, my little alien

I feel you moving
It's oh so strange
Do you like the music

I'm a happy home
What's it like in there
I'm a happy home
I hope it's cozy in there
There can be no doubt that these are the lyrics of a pregnant woman.  In 1992, Bjork wrote this:  "this is a lucky night for me/a night when one plus one is three."  In 1993, we heard her daughter on her first solo album, Debut.

It's not something you hear sung about much.  Pregnancy is not very rock and roll, right?  But here is this music that was inspired by it.  And it's a whirlwind of conversational bass lines, syncopation, and beeps and bloops.