Acronyms I'd Like To See

It would be a weird future world where these phrases get used often enough to become acronyms.

RLHB: Real Live Human Being
AGL: All Green Lights
MOC: Moment Of Clarity
AFD: All Foes Dead
MFOOTS: Money Falling Out Of The Sky
5OCS: Five O'Clock Somewhere
WECSS: Wile E. Coyote Success Story
LOTW: Lamentations Of Their Women

Face-To-Face in a marriage

An interesting theory: a face-to-face discussion between intimates tends to move towards either agreement or breakdown. It does not accommodate agreement-to-disagree very well. A recent post at Simple Marriage Project attributes this to "mirroring", the unconscious practice of using the same nonverbal communications as the person you're speaking with.

Face to face communications (in contrast with electronically mediated ones) are becoming something of an interest of mine. Earlier I cited research indicating that only 7% of our meaning is in words, and the remainder in tone and gestures. Simple Marriage gives different numbers, but the idea is the same.

When everything is going well, a face-to-face conversation can increase intimacy. When there's a problem to resolve, however, the pressure to agree may lead to abandoning the attempt before everything can be aired out. And sometimes people just need to think about each others' ideas for a while before talking again. Simple Marriage suggests walking side by side to have a talk like that. Failing that, sit side by side and give each other permission to look at something else. A fire, for example.

Car geekery part 2: why pulse-and-glide works

Most people think that aggressive driving gives you bad gas mileage. But those who obsess about miles per gallon ("hypermilers") have some counterintuitive techniques. One of them is "pulse and glide", which calls for almost flooring the accelerator. Why does it work?

Gas engines have a throttle that prevents air from freely flowing into the engine (unless you're at maximum acceleration, when the throttle is wide open). The engine needs the correct fuel-to-air ratio, and this is how it's achieved. But when the throttle is holding back the air, the engine is forced to work to pull in the air it needs. The engine is acting like a pump, consuming energy. Holding the throttle wide open minimizes those pumping losses.

This is why big engines get lousy gas mileage: most of the time their throttles are almost completely closed and they are literally sucking air.

The bad news is, you can't really take advantage of this technique with an automatic transmission. In order to make it work, you have to be able to choose what gear you're in, and an automatic takes that choice away from you. Besides, let's face it, you can only floor it when there's nobody in front of you. Hell is other people, isn't it?

Car geekery part 1: the pedals in a hybrid

Road & Track recently reviewed an eBox by AC Propulsion, a Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV). BEVs and hybrids use an electric motor for acceleration and for some of the braking. The electric (regenerative) braking saves fuel, but it feels funny if you're used to old-fashioned brake pads and rotors, so the makers of the eBox put a little lever on the dashboard: how much regenerative braking do you want? At "min", you get a pads-and-rotors feel when you brake. At "max", lifting your foot off the accelerator pedal actually slows the car down a lot. You could do most of your driving without ever using the brake pedal.

We kind of take pedals for granted. In a traditional car, the right pedal is "go" because it controls the engine. The only way to "stop" is to use the left pedal. The eBox manufacturers did the same thing: the right pedal controls the electrics. I think that was a user-interface mistake. The electric motor/generator in a hybrid or a BEV is also used to slow the car down, and that's exactly what happens when you take your foot off the right pedal in an eBox: it slows down hard. People don't expect the right pedal to do that. That's why AC Propulsion had to put that lever on the dashboard. The most aggressive common current example, the Prius, has less than half the electric braking of the eBox.

Here's my idea for a BEV user interface. The right pedal should tell the motor/generator to accelerate the car. If the user takes their foot all the way off both pedals, the car could either coast (letting the wind slow it down) or hold its speed constant (like a cruise control). The driver should be able to select which behavior they prefer. Gently pressing the left pedal should tell the motor/generator to use regenerative braking to slow the car down, and pressing it hard should engage the mechanical brakes. This is all drive-by-wire and it shouldn't be too difficult to make the transition between the two braking modes seamless. Forget the lever.

It's all about the face time

This BoingBoing post has an excellent explanation of why being in the same room with someone has so many more possibilities for interaction than talking on the phone or emailing. I've written about this before, but the first half of pspinrad's post really makes a convincing case.

Here's my theory: communication layers itself within the available bandwidth. There is always a surface meaning, the main content of the communication. In a presentation, for example, it's the speaker's words and slides. These are what the meeting is "about". But below that, the audience and presenter engage in a back-and-forth of engagement and disengagement, understanding and disagreement/not understanding, etc - all without words. At a concert, a rock band plays songs ("about"), but below that, they're standing still or active, looking the audience in the eye or staring at their gear, the audience is dancing or getting beers, et cetera.

I suspect, though, that communication always finds a way to pack some extra layers into the available bandwidth. The lowest-bandwidth form of communication I can think of is texting. You get about 100 characters which can be letters, numbers, or symbols. It's physically difficult and technologically unreliable. Yet beneath the words (or abbreviations), any given user might mean something different, or something additional, when they use punctuation as opposed to when they don't. I know I do, and I don't even text all that much.

So there's a theory, and a counterargument to go along with it. I can be frustrating that way.


Sometimes I surprise myself by who I choose to call friends. Not who I associate with, but who I actually use the word "friend" to describe. What is a friend?
  • Someone you choose to spend a lot of time with
  • Someone who would drop everything and rescue you if you called them and said "I'm in trouble"
  • Someone who can make you laugh or make you feel better when you're down
  • Someone who challenges you, teaches you, expands your world
  • Someone who knows you well and can put your thoughts into historical context
  • Someone you can call and spend time with for no particular reason
  • Someone who trusts you enough to let you hurt them, and would forgive you for it
Clearly it takes more than an icon or an entry in a drop-down menu to make a friend.

Fire. An appreciation.

Men and women have been sitting around fires since before the dawn of history. (Nighttime: figurative and literal.) Fire comforts. The fire is warmth, yes, and it can cook the meats you hunted. But in the thin hours, when there are no more stories to be told, the fire keeps making little noises so you don't feel alone. It is an honorary member of the tribe. Huddled on a beach, wrapped in furs, the fire keeps up its side of the conversation so you don't have to. A man with friends a thousand miles away and a glass of scotch in his hand still wants a fire.

The fire cities: their orange streetlights pulse like a time lapse Tokyo, throbbing, a civilization of carbon coming of age and dying in an evening.

Even a man who has everything appreciates a fire. When you have eliminated all other distractions, fire fills the deafening silence.

Attention economy

Along the lines of holy-crap-I-forgot-about-my-blog, this past week I started using Facebook. Which is not to say I set up an account - I did that a long time ago - but instead of just logging on, accepting friend requests, blinking at it a few times and then moving on, I actually started doing things there. Posting status updates, photos, etc. And at the end of the week, I hadn't posted anything to my blog. Hmm.

What happened was that I found a different way to use Facebook: the mobile-web interface on my phone. That turns out to be a pretty good way to track status updates, which are my favorite part because they often amount to an endless stream of one-liners and witty banter. Waiting for an elevator? Check Facebook. Gassing up the car? Check it.

But those stolen minutes were the times I'd been using to think through blog posts. And at the end of my week on Facebook, I was mildly amused but I had nothing to show for it. I'm proud of this blog; it forces me to express myself clearly, organize my thoughts, and make connections between ideas. And it leaves behind a record of what's been on my mind. But Facebook turned out the lights on last week.

So, I probably won't be Twittering anytime soon. Hard choices.

The instant intimacy of Twitter

At a Social Media party this past week, I watched Twitter users cry out and hug each other - upon meeting for the first time. I confess I felt a little left out, as a mere blogger/LinkedIner/flickrer/meetuper/halfhearted facebooker. But I'm comfortable with having to make hard choices about social media.

Twittering, to the best of my understanding, answers the question "what are you doing" in 140 characters or less. Personally I imagine it as a giant collection of Facebook status feeds. On the surface this sounds utterly banal--I'm boring, how interesting can other people possibly be?--but it turns out that knowing what someone cooks can tell you a lot about them. I'm kind of afraid that if I got on it, I'd start to expect people to look like their icons when I meet them. But giant ambulatory teddy bears and talking coffee cups are uncommon.

If you want to learn more, the Cleveland Social Media Club is having a Social Media Showdown. This is a bracket-style 'competition' between social media services--anyone can vote based on any criteria they like. You may vote based on the ones you personally enjoy using, or those you feel have the most potential, or some such criteria. The point is to learn about all these services along the way.

Tomatoless Chipotle Chili

Here's the recipe for the chili I made for tonight's Cleveland Social Media Club get-together. I've made minor modifications from the original (which used beef and was double this size) and it's become a standard of ours.

Olive oil
1 1/2 pounds pork loin, cut in 1/2-inch cubes
1 large onion, diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 large jalapeno, seeded, diced
1 1/2 cups beef broth
1 bottle (12 oz) dark beer, preferably a microbrewed American stout
1 tablespoon pure chili powder
1 tablespoon cumin
1 teaspoon oregano
1 large buttercup or butternut squash, halved, seeded
1 or 2 canned chipotle chilies in adobo sauce, with some of the sauce
1 can (15 oz) black beans, drained & rinsed
1 can (15 oz) hominy, drained & rinsed
Sour cream & chopped green onions for garnish

1. Heat oil in dutch oven or heavy kettle over high heat. Brown pork, half at a time, adding oil as needed. Transfer to bowl.

2. Lower heat to medium-high, add oil to pan and stir in onion, garlic and jalapenos. Season wtih salt. Saute until softened, 5 -10 minutes. Return pork to pan with juices. Add broth, beer, chili powder, haf the cumin and half the oregano. Heat to boil, then reduce heat; simmer, uncovered, until meat is very tender, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. The simmer should be very low to avoid drying it out; add water if necessary.

3. Meanwhile, heat oven to 350 degrees. Halve and seed squash; lay cut side down on baking sheet. Bake until very soft, about 1 hour. Cool, then scrape out flesh and mash coarsely.

4. Add squash puree and remaining cumin and oregano to pot; simmer 15 minutes. Add water if necessary to keep mixture moist. Chop chipotles, stir half of them into pot with their sauce. Add black beans and hominy; simmer 10-15 minutes longer. Chili should be stewlike rather than soupy. Taste; add the rest of the chipotles and more salt if desired. Serve in bowls garnished with sour cream and green onions.

The result is so thick it'll almost stand up on its own. Since it's full of chili spices, you'd never know this stuff has no tomatoes.

The discipline of scheduling work

Last night the subject of scheduling one's writing came up, and now I wonder how that could apply to any job. My friend is working on his Ph.D. thesis and has found that it helps to set aside blocks of time to write. An acquaintance of Alice's works from home, and has set aside a room that's essentially an office and nothing else. It's an extension of his workplace into his home.

I thought that it must be nice to be able to step easily between work and personal life. For Alice's acquaintance, it's literally just a door he opens. With such an arrangement, a person could work when they're inspired to and relax when they need to, within limits. The barriers are extremely low, in contrast to a conventional arrangement of dressing differently and commuting.

What would my job look like if I could do that? My time is split about equally between desk and lab duties. Obviously, I can't build a lab in my house, and for safety reasons I can't melt metal in the middle of the night. I could telecommute some during the workday, though I like the benefits I get from hallway conversations. I could do some of my desk work at odd hours. I used to work pretty well that way in grad school. Which, come to think of it, was a lot like my current job.

Now, crucially, how could I achieve that? I'd need a couple things. First, a boss who's flexible about the wheres and whens. Second, low barriers of dress and distance. My work wardrobe is already pretty close to my personal one, but I would need to live a lot closer - preferably within walking distance.

Imagine that: a light laptop, a blackberry, and the lab a stone's throw from home. If I woke up in the middle of the night with a design idea, I could actually do something about it.

The Sea And Cake at the Grog Shop

Hats off to the Grog Shop for delivering a great Valentines' Day show. I've been listening to Sea And Cake since the late '90s when I picked up their EP 'Two Gentlemen' at Flat Black & Circular. I stood stageside, about ten feet from Sam Prekop, and was surprised at what a wild man John McEntire is on the drums (considering that his other band Tortoise has such a laid-back rep).

The opening act, Brian Straw, didn't disappoint. He stood alone in the sound booth with his acoustic guitar, but his CD (Bleeding Sun, dated 2006) lists a number of collaborators. His set really took me back to the guitar-based music I used to chase - guys like Hayden and William Ackerman and even Michael Hedges.

It was a great night. At some point, after demolishing chicken wings at the Winking Lizard, washing it down with good beer and a show where I could actually see the musicians' hands and recognize the songs, I thought to myself: I'm finally 20. It took me 40 years to do it, but here I am.

Theory and Practice of the Cocktail Party

Notes regarding Cocktail Parties.

1. You cannot have a serious conversation at a cocktail party. If you try, you will get interrupted, perhaps by a blast of music, a greeting, an arm around the shoulders or a kiss on the cheek, or a team of donkeys dragging a mariachi band on a float with seized wheel bearings. Whatever the means, you can be sure that an interruption will come, and someone will end up feeling slighted, put off, graceless, etc. Learn the skill of identifying incipient serious conversations and suggesting alternate times and places for them. A more appropriate venue might have loud music, crowds, and/or drunks, but not all three.

2. The cocktail party is a medium through which you swim. As fish are more effective swimmers than humans, so some partiers are more efficient at navigation than others.

3. Excessive alcohol consumption leads to boorish behavior such as spilling drinks on people and asking women their true age.

4. Insufficient alcohol consumption implies, and breeds, distrust.

5. You will encounter several species of partiers:
  • Sloppy Drunk
  • Knows Everybody But Says Nothing About How
  • Aggro, subspecies Short Man Syndrome
  • Girl With Painted-On Clothes
  • Buzzkill
  • Guy Who Won't Talk About Anything But Work
  • No Speaka Inglais (At Least Not To You, Buddy)
  • Long Story Teller
  • Any Excuse Girl ("Lets Get Fucked Up Like The Economy" or "I Didn't Get Laid Off, Time To Get Laid")
  • Wants Everybody To Think He's Casanova
  • Wallflower (Mr. Livin' Vicariously and/or Ms. Inhibited)
  • Lush, subspecies Tabletop Dancer, rare subtype Short Skirt No Underwear
  • Pukes-In-Flowerpots
  • Hilarious Death-Defying Stories Guy
  • Imperturbable Comic Foil (aka Straight Man)
  • Member of the Permanent Floating Party Club
  • Connoisseur, subtype Hates Everything And Insists That You Agree (aka Hipster)
  • Mr. Way Too Loud To Have A Conversation With Or Even Near
  • Uptight When Sober, Paranoid When Drunk
  • Personal Space Issues ("Do Not Bump: Contents Under Pressure")
  • Ms. Hotter Than Radioactive Waste
  • Too Much Information Considering I Hardly Know You
  • Non Sequitur Theater (may mention donkeys for no obvious reason)
Ed. note: if you must vomit into a flower arrangement, first verify that the vase is opaque.


And these streets, quiet as a sleeping army, send their battered dreams to heaven.

-Paul Simon, The Cool Cool River


I saw his car this morning in the rain. An old red Volvo wagon. I remember that its paint was faded one way on the roof and differently on the rest. I wonder who was driving it.

I pass the pool hall where we used to play and his ghost is there. And at the school where he worked. He echoes through the Art Museum - we went there the day they reopened. Even the dartboard in my basement bothers me once in a while.

This town reeks of him, of his categorical disagreement with being.

They say that to write is human, and to edit, divine. But no human can edit himself out of the world. Echoes linger, focused by the canyons of place and circumstance, and speak to us in the present. But we are not allowed to answer, and that contradiction colors everything. Two different fading reds deny the possibility of never having been.

The precision of Cleveland's addresses

Have you ever noticed how fast the street numbers go up in this town? It turns out that the distance between, say, 25th street and 50th street is one mile. Huh.

But the addresses are given with an extra two numbers--it's 2500 if you're at 25th Street. A mile is 5280 feet, so each number is about two feet! Is that really ... necessary? Could we have cumulatively saved a few man-years of writing and typing effort if we'd started out with one fewer digit a couple centuries ago?

Maybe. But turn the question around: what can you do with this extra information?
  • Differentiate between the front door of a walk-up and the door of the basement apartment in the same building

  • Estimate the width of a property by checking the numbers of the properties to either side

  • Determine whether a car accident occurred because someone was driving on the wrong side of the road

  • Provide the length, width, and depth of a pothole

  • Fly a small airplane between telephone poles, blindfolded

  • Describe the exact location of an individual seen on CCTV, for example, to call in an artillery strike

  • Track continental drift
There's probably more. It strikes me that we could maybe use another digit. With a precision of two inches, the addresses of the left and right sides of your screen could tell me whether you're reading this on a laptop or a desktop computer.

Using Social Media to make Face-to-Face Connections

The following is a draft version of a chapter submitted to the Cleveland Social Media Club eBook.

Spend a while on Facebook and it can begin to seem like an acceptable substitute for face time. Don't be fooled. Even if all you're trying to do is have a conversation, studies have shown that our words convey only about 7% of our meaning. The rest is tone of voice and body gestures. Besides, you might want to do more than converse - how about sharing an ethnic meal with an expert, or seeing a concert, or even dating? So yeah, Facebook isn't everything.

Let's say you're new in town. How do you find people to hang out with? A good starting place is Meetup usually has a wide variety of themed groups that meet locally. (There's probably a film meetup group in every town.) Here in Cleveland, I'm a member of a wine tasting group, a blogging group, and a couple other general-purpose social groups. If I could describe Meetup in a nutshell, I'd say that it acts as a filter, bringing together all the people who are interested in meeting new people. Just think of the last time you got the cold shoulder trying to strike up a conversation with someone, and you can see the value immediately.

I've also gone to social events organized by more specialized sites, like LinkedIn, the professional networking service. If you imagine that professional networking is something you only do when you're out of work, then you're doing yourself a disservice. In addition to finding possibilities for yourself, a conversation over beers can lead to finding a job lead for a friend, or a new business opportunity for a valuable client. The LinkedWorking Cleveland group threw an event at Rock Bottom and hundreds of people showed up!

Dating is another application for social media that's hard to argue against. My wife and I met on - in 1999. In this case, the social medium of profiles and escrowed emails exists for the sole purpose of getting people together face to face. Let's put that one in the "win" column!

So find a way to put your interests or areas of expertise to use. Do you exercise? Are you a gardener? A hardware hacker? Google up a social medium that caters to your specialty, and let serendipity happen!

SCORE: local black walnuts

I finally made it to the Shaker Square Farmers Market this morning (they're only open Saturdays until noon, which is kind of a challenge for me) and scored some black walnuts. It's cookie time! (see recipe below).Black walnuts have about three times as much flavor as the ordinary kind. Smoky, earthy, intense. They're also about three times as hard to open. Here's how:

Black walnuts are hidden inside these things that look like green tennis balls that fall from trees. They stink, they stain everything, and it's confoundingly difficult to get the green fibrous crap off the outside. This is one of those deals where the harder you try, the less progress you make. The best way is laissez faire: dump your harvest of tennis balls in the ruts of your driveway and drive over them until you see the brown nut shells inside.

Note: squirrels are very well equipped to deal with black walnuts. Don't leave them outside indefinitely.

Once you've got the brown guys pictured above, put them into a couple layers of tough plastic bags and beat on them with a hammer. It should then be possible to get most of the nutmeats out. Like I said, this is labor intensive.

Here's a recipe that raises eyebrows:
8 oz semisweet chocolate
3 oz unsweetened chocolate
8 tbsp unsalted butter
3 eggs
1 1/4 c sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
2/3 c bleached all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp taking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 c (about 9 oz) chocolate chips
1 1/2 c (about 6 oz) chopped black walnuts
1 1/2 c (about 6 oz) chopped pecans
Combine the ingredients in the usual cookie way. Bake at 325 for 12-15 minutes.

It's Oh So Quiet

I've been trying to listen to my inner voice lately, and I've found that it's very quiet. Just a whisper, really. I've been leading such a loud life, full of cocktail parties, music, online media, and activity, that I think this little voice has been drowned out. But this week I followed up on a resolution to be more contemplative; I pushed all those loud influences out and just lived quietly for an hour or two each day. No people, no computer, no music, no chores, no home improvement. Just me.

Faintly, when I'm alone, when I'm not busy, I sometimes catch a hint of an urge. An idea, just an inclination, sometimes subliminal such that I don't even realize it was there until later. The things these quiet voices say have the ring of truth.

It appears that I've become very good at distracting myself. Now I have to learn to listen.

God does not play dice

But if He did, He'd probably put a 2 or a 5 on that blank face first.

Anticipating: The Greenhouse Tavern on East 4th

We ran into chef Jonathon Sawyer at the recent benefit for the Cleveland Film Festival, "Food for Thought" (here are some more events in the series) held at the Taxel family studios. Laura Taxel writes the excellent book Cleveland Ethnic Eats, now in its seventh edition.

That night, four of the area's many great chefs talked about their favorite food films. Jon was the only one who didn't have a restaurant; he had recently left Bar Cento (attached to the Bier Markt) to start The Greenhouse Tavern. But never fear - we were told he left Bar Cento his recipe for french fries fried in duck fat. I can testify that these are worth the pilgrimage.

On the restaurant's blog, this writeup from CoolCleveland describes the Greenhouse as a green restaurant--a local food effort from the ground up. Jon spoke passionately, and realistically, about making great food and helping the region at the same time.

He did not, however, mention my favorite food film: The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. Though if I recall correctly, Fahrenheit's Rocco Whalen did. (If I ever start a rock band, we'll be The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Their Drummer.)

Whew! That took a long time to write - but it's an interconnected world, isn't it?

So You Got A Scientist, Part III: Motivation

By now you may be wondering how to get your scientist to do something useful. This again comes down to money--some for him in exchange for some for you.

Inform your scientist that he cannot build his next toy until he proves that his last one works. Tell him that the only way he can prove it works is empirically (this is a very important word that you must use, and use correctly, with your scientist), by using it to make a new product that people will pay folding money for.You will probably have to get engineers involved here, and they are a whole different species, but if you fancy yourself a cutting edge corporation, you cannot get innovation out of bureaucrats.

So You Got A Scientist, Part II: Maintenance

It may happen that occasionally your scientist will forget to shower. That morning he may have become fascinated by something he saw on the wall or thought of on the toilet--he's not actively trying to annoy anyone--and neglected certain basics. If this occurs, have someone (not a wine lover) engage the scientist in conversation and suggest that they build an artifical nose to alert them when a shower is needed. This artificial nose should be calibrated against real noses, starting that day.

You might imagine that the scientist will get the hint and make a point of bathing. No. Scientists do not get hints. They do, however, build things, and there is a fair chance that yours will actually build an artificial nose. Problem solved.

So You Got A Scientist, Part I: Care and Feeding

Why get a scientist? If you are a technical company, your meetings with other companies will involve many kinds of hooey. You are probably very good at business hooey, but you may have found that the technical hooey your engineers provide is not sufficiently intimidating, or that your consultants' hooey is too expensive. An in-house scientist can provide you with a never-ending source of exotic nonsense. Your task is to direct this enthusiastic fountain of physics fanfiction to create products.Upon arrival, your scientist will inspect your facilities and then probably request large sums of money. Money is a regrettable necessity, but some care is called for here. Scientists have been known to use money to dig giant holes in the ground and fill them with rows of oddly shaped metal objects, like clay soldiers in a Chinese tomb. The best approach is to suggest that the scientist personally build whatever he needs. This may be met with some grumbling about technicians and machinists, but trust me, he does his own oil changes. Scientist are professional dilettantes, having just enough manual skills to get by in almost any activity. Restrict him to the McMaster-Carr catalog, and you won't go broke.Ta-daa!

The upside-down fire

Tim Ferriss has posted a counterintuitive way to light a fire in a fireplace: upside down. It reminds me of BoingBoing's advice to eat bananas backwards.

Why does an upside down fire work? If you build it with no spaces between the pieces of wood, then the embers of each layer will rest on, and heat, the layer below it. In contrast, if you put the paper and kindling on the bottom, then half of their heat radiates towards the floor, and the pieces fall out through the holes in the grate while they're still hot.

Remember that carload of firewood I bought recently? I've burned quite a bit of it, but been frustrated that it's not nearly as dry as the grocery-store stuff. It hisses and steams, the fire isn't as bright and warm as it should be, and sometimes it's nearly impossible to light. I'll try Tim's technique.