Things you can't get in Ohio

By now you may have concluded that I have a thing about strange liquors.  I see something intriguing in a bottle, and I want to find out what it tastes like.  It turns out that Ohio isn't a very good place for this hobby.  Here's the list of liquors that the state of Ohio permits to be sold here.  (*) The list is exclusive.  If it ain't on the list, it ain't in stores.

There are some notable omissions.   Boulard Grand Solage Calvados, a wonderful French apple brandy, fell off the list this past year - after I fell in love with it.  Maison Surrenne Ancienne Distillerie cognac is really the only cognac I think is worth the money; I've kept it around the house for most of the last ten years, but go ahead and control-F the Ohio list, it's not there.  Or let's say you want to try the drink "Death in the Gulf Stream" which is attributed to Hemingway.  You'll need Lucas Bols Oude Genever.  Have someone buy it for you elsewhere.

I am lucky enough to have friends and relatives living in more permissive places; the first two of those three liquors were given (back) to me for Christmas.  The third seems to be laughably obscure, but I don't know what I'm missing, because I've never had it.  It annoys me that I don't have access to these interesting things, but what I really wonder is why?  Has the state of Ohio decided that they're toxic?  Have the importers or distillers not paid some, uh, "licensing fee" for the right to sell to Ohio citizens?

Wine distribution laws are equally wrongheaded, but at least the reason is clear:  distributers want to protect their staggeringly profitable middleman status, so they lobby state governments to outlaw direct shipments from wineries to consumers.  The justifications ("protecting children", etc) are predictably ridiculous, and the real reason is depressingly predictable.  Zero value is added.  But this case doesn't help me understand the limited availability of liquors.  Does anyone know?

(*) As of January 2011.  For a current list, just google "state of Ohio liquor list".  And yeah, everything costs 10% more in Cleveland.

Self-help for corporations

On the face of it, a corporation is no different from a shelf full of beanie babies - it's a collection of real things that "exists", as a collection, only in an abstract sense.  The thing is, corporations exhibit some collective behavior that resembles the way people behave.  For example, can you blame BP's Gulf oil leak on individuals?  It's probably more accurate to say it was a result of a corporate culture:  standards and priorities that were set by and shared by most of BP's employees. 

Much has been said about the inherent amorality of corporations:  that they report only to the bottom line.  There are individual people that behave amorally too - but unless they're sociopaths, their conscience intrudes.  Then they start thinking about how to lead an existence that's more in tune with their surroundings.

Self-help books give such people mental, emotional, and social advice.  Which makes me wonder:  what would a self-help book for a corporation look like?  How can you guide the latent sentience of a group?

Corporate culture isn't top-down; examples are set from above, but they have to be reinforced, or reinvented, at every level.  There are many cases where a corporation lacks a cohesive culture or where parts of it have a culture different from the rest.  Take my employer - it grew rapidly by acquisition, so each site had its own "feel" for quite some time after acquisition.  Turnover, and repetition of a consistent message from headquarters, has built a shared outlook.  But it wouldn't have happened without buy-in.  Every individual contributed.

Where does individual morality come from?  Strictly behavioral lessons, like "don't hit people or they'll hit you back," don't explain the full spectrum of human ethics.  Altruism (part of which may be genetic) comes into play.  Spirituality too.  And, perhaps most of all, empathy.

What kind of "book", then, can influence the individual employees of a corporation to set priorities in accordance with empathy, spirituality, and altruism?  Certainly their own moral codes are guided by these things.  Maybe they just need to sense that they're allowed--even required--to make those things a priority within their company.  We all want to act with integrity.

Talk to the person in front of you.

"Duh", right?  But how many people do you know that will spend their time at a party or an event or even a dinner table pecking away at a smartphone?  Here's what's wrong with that:
  1. Your interactions will remain superficial.  Nobody will open up to someone who's half ignoring them.  You will never make a close friend this way.
  2. You insult those who took the trouble to physically show up and spend time with you.
  3. You train people to use the phone to contact you, which in the future will both interrupt you and trivialize your interactions with them.
Give your undivided attention or stay home.  The former if you want to be human - the latter if you want to be alone with your phone.

The TSA's naked-mannequin backscatter scanners

 The day before Thanksgiving, the busiest flying day of the year, was chosen as "National Opt-Out Day" to encourage people to ask for a pat-down from the TSA rather than go through the new Backscatter Scanners.  The organizers of Opt Out Day seem primarily concerned with privacy--people in the backscatter photos look kind of like creepy naked mannequins of themselves--but the scanners' safety has been questioned as well.  I've done a lot of X-ray work as a materials scientist, so I'd like to summarize what we know.

This enticingly titled Ars Technica article does a great job of describing the difference between conventional medical X-rays and the new backscatter detectors, but ultimately concludes that the "biology" part of "physics and biology" is not well understood.  What X-rays and cosmic rays and ultraviolet radiation from the sun have in common is that they are ionizing radiation, electromagnetic radiation with high enough energy to knock an electron off of an atom.  Visible light, wi-fi signals, and microwaves are also electromagnetic radiation, but are not energetic enough to ionize atoms.  Ionized atoms are more chemically reactive than neutral atoms.  If an atom is ionized in the living cells of your body, the atom may then react with nearby atoms in such a way as to render a useful molecule defunct, or worse, create a mutation in a DNA molecule.

Much of our information about the health effects of ionizing radiation comes from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  It's grim to think of, but the conditions were perfect:  hundreds of thousands of people were affected, and they could precisely report their distance from the explosions.  The units and terminology are confusing:  the Curie is a measure of radiation itself, essentially the number of photons, but it's almost never used.  Instead, units like the rem (Roentgen Equivalent in Man) and the older rad (Radiation Absorbed Dose) include a correction factor to account for the likelihood that a specific energy of photon will be absorbed.

In my radiological safety training, I was told that the information from Hiroshima covered doses ranging from "very high" to "massive".  Lower-dose cases were obsured by the citizens' ongoing exposure to radioactive dust and debris.  Medical researchers extrapolated health effects downwards from "very high" doses to the smaller doses one might encounter in dental X-rays and industrial accidents.  Unfortunately, the accuracy of that extrapolation was hard to verify, because there were fewer people involved and the circumstances were less controlled.  Everyday doses from sources like radon are orders of magnitude lower, and their health effects correspondingly less clear.

It's comforting to know that, according to the Ars Technica article, the backscatter scanners give a dose of only three microrem, about a thousandth of the dose you'll get from cosmic rays if your flight crosses the continental US.  But then you realize that this dose is concentrated in a small volume:  your skin.  You could try to do the math and say that three microrem in the outermost few millimeters of your body is equivalent to some larger dose distributed evenly throughout the body.  The truth is, the health consequences of radiation aren't well enough known to make that kind of calculation - or the assumption that risks scale linearly down to low doses in the first place.

We're exposed to radon, cosmic rays, and radioisotopes continuously throughout our lives.  Somehow we manage to have kids - and, occasionally, tumors.  Do biological cells have a certain rate at which they can repair radiation damage without permanent harm?  A nonlinearity in the risk curve?  If so, we don't know what it is, partly because we engage in so many other activities that are riskier.

Why is absurdity my favorite form of humor?

For example, this post on 3/15/10 on Texts From Last Night:
(301): the majority of my texts from you are at 3 AM & consist of either "I'm drunk", "you're asian", or "bratwurst".
I laughed my ass off when I read that.  Bratwurst non sequitur.

I first saved this post as a draft at least a year ago, but I didn't have anything to put in the body of the damn thing.  I figured if I left it there, I'd see it whenever I scanned through the drafts, and eventually I'd think of some kind of answer to the question.  Finally I have one:  absurd humor is like play. 

A couple weeks ago I asked about play at a "Thinkrs & Drinkrs" gathering.  My question was:  "How do you play?  Alone or with others?  Physically or mentally?"  I expected to hear about musical instruments and sports, but the question had a life of its own.  One of the most useful responses was John Heaney's:  that he doesn't set aside time to play, rather, he's constantly playing by choosing to improvise the way he gets routine tasks done.  Drive a different route to work, see different buildings, think of new possibilities.  Innovation happens when you think about the problem in front of you in a new way because you were exposed to something totally unrelated.  So a functional definition of play is that it's an activity that seeks to provide these mental collisions between unrelated thoughts.  This is very much in line with the Stephen Nachmanovitch post I quoted a long time ago about its importance in science.

Absurd humor is also a collision of unrelated thoughts.  I'm drunk, you're asian, bratwurst.  The outcome is laughter instead of innovation, but the mechanism is the same.  It jiggles the brain the same way a flash of insight does.  And I'm addicted to that.

Reductio ad Meteorite

Reductio ad absurdum is a Latin phrase meaning "to reduce to absurdity".  It's a debate technique where you take your opponent's line of reasoning and point out that it leads to conclusions that are absurd - and therefore the line of reasoning must have some unseen flaw.

I recently witnessed an argument about whether or not it was safe to use a cell phone while pumping gas.  In theory, electricity can ignite gasoline vapors.  The consequences are highly undesirable, so you should avoid any risk, right?  But think about it - every time you get out of your car in the wintertime, you get a SNAP of static electricity.  It's caused by the dry wind against the car's shell, and the arc can be well over 1000 volts.  If that open discharge doesn't ignite the lingering vapors at a gas station, what will?  And what's the voltage inside a sealed cell phone anyway, three volts?  Nine?

Whenever I consider odds like this, I say you're as likely to be hit by a meteorite.  If risk is what you're talking about, then the stress of worrying is far riskier than what you're worrying about.  Reductio ad meteorite.  (By the way, this concept isn't limited to risk, but all the most common examples - say, fear of flying - are about risk.  Why?  Because people are lousy at evaluating and comparing small risks.)

Paper marbling: a craft ripe for rebirth?

BibliOdyssey has posted a stunning collection of "marbled paper designs". When I was a child, we had some old books around the house, and I remember some having patterns like this one:

Vintage 19th c. marbled paper, Nonpareil pattern (13)

This is just the one that was familiar to me. The original post has several that are much prettier than that.

The way BibliOdyssey describes the process, it sounds quite accessible to the amateur: you take a tray of water. Toss some non-water-soluble ink on the surface of the water. Throw a piece of paper on top. Take it out of the water and let it dry. The interest comes when you use multiple ink colors, surfactants to make the ink cluster into veins or avoid an area, combs or other tools to drag the ink around, move the paper while you're gradually laying it down, et cetera.

Sounds like fun. I'm tempted to try it myself. Of course, to really take it to the next level, I'd have to make my own paper.

Homogeneity breeds disrespect

Somebody on Facebook has been spouting anti-University of Michigan jokes. This morning I told him to shut the f*** up about Ann Arbor. I do take it personally, but there's a broader point too.

Jokes about a rival school are a lot like ethnic jokes, or jokes about religious groups or blondes or whatever. A group gets targeted and everbody else gets a few laughs at their expense. If they complain, they're told to lighten up, it's just for fun, don't overreact. All of which tells the victim that their feelings don't matter.

How does this happen? In today's example, it's easy to imagine that everyone in Cleveland is an Ohio State fan. When you believe that, it feels permissible to publicly trash-talk Ohio State's rivals. The homogeneity allows you to split the world into "us" and "them". But when you separate a group out as Others, you create a dangerous opportunity to treat them differently. It's just humor at first, but it can become disrespect, and then maltreatment. (Let's be honest, it's disrespectful to make jokes about them in the first place, and maltreatment to dismiss their feelings about it.) At its core, it's a failure, a refusal, to be understanding of differences.

This is one of the reasons I avoid ideological homogeneity too. I'm politically liberal, and many of my friends seem to be also, but when you get a bunch of liberals together in a room and they start using words like "repuglicans", I get uncomfortable.

I defend underrepresented points of view. It's one of my most deeply rooted reflexes. I do it in science because I want to know the truth, the real truth, and you can't get that by shrugging your shoulders and assuming that the information in front of you is all you need to know. You have to work hard to imagine other ways of seeing the situation. So I try to surround myself with a variety of points of view, and when someone separates a group into Others, I step in to correct that. Well, especially when the Other is me.

The obligation of an engineer

Doctors and firemen take oaths when they enter their careers.  Their job is, front and center, to save lives, and the public wants to see them swear they'll carry through.  Accountants and graphic designers aren't accountable in the same way.  But what about engineers?

There is a subculture within the broad field of engineering, particularly among the civil engineers who build bridges and other large structures, where it's explicitly acknowledged that getting it right is not just a matter of money, but sometimes of life and death.  The Engineer's Ring is one such acknowledgement.  When I was in graduate school, one of my fellow students wore one, and told me that the tradition dated back to the deadly collapse of the Quebec Bridge in 1907.  Due to poor design, its collapse killed 75 workers during construction. She told me that the original rings were made of steel from that bridge.  They're worn on the pinky finger of the engineer's writing hand, to drag on the table throughout the day.

It's worth remembering that somewhere down the line, somebody's safety could depend on your work.  Whenever I'm tempted to relax my standards, I remember that ultimately I have to answer to myself.


When I was in college I studied pretty hard and got pretty good grades.  I once astonished a roommate by telling him that before every important test, I convinced myself I could afford to fail it.  I would say that what I was afraid of wasn't that bad.  Only then could I relax and tell myself, "I can do better than failure."

On Monday I'll be in another state, at an important meeting.  I'll be the point man for about half of the meeting.  I cannot convince myself that I can afford to fail.  This isn't just a grade.  The stakes are too high.

When I wrote "I can do better than failure" above, I tried to keep writing:  'if I study, I might do better.'  Or 'I have nothing to lose by studying.'  But I didn't write those things because they didn't make sense.  "If", what, or if not then what?  "Nothing to lose by studying", as opposed to what?  What did I think my alternatives were?  Freeze in terror?  Run away?  Keep thinking about the consequences until I could visualize a tolerable outcome after failure?  Keep thinking about my options until I came up with something other than studying that would make the outcome more tolerable?  It's strange how the mind works.

Basically I studied, every time.  And I'm prepared for Monday.  I can make this presentation - not without looking nervous, but I can make it.  Wish me luck.


8.  A ragged chord arose.
7.  My scalp tensed as each string came into tune with the others.
6.  With his right hand he reached up.
5.  He'd plugged it in - the band was on a break - and its sagging strings groaned.
4.  There was a blast of noise.
3.  He took down the oily rickenbacher from among the memorabilia.
2.  The man in the fraying jacket approached the wall of the bar, head down, sidelong.
1.  I finished my sandwich and turned to leave.

The difference between joy and entertainment

"Positive emotion alienated from the exercise of character leads to emptiness, to inauthenticity, to depression, and, as we age, to the gnawing realization that we are fidgeting until we die."
 - Martin Seligman

Addiction is, among other things, the attempt to achieve happiness by increasing the number of happy moments in your life.  The above quote relates why it doesn't work.  Long-term happiness comes from actually doing something that arises from your character and leads to a positive result.

Positive psychology and the win-win game

Along with some friends, I'm currently reading Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman.  Upon looking at the jacket after it arrived from Amazon, my first thought was that I've finally become my parents.  My mom was about this age when she started reading self-help books.  That's how it's marketed, but before I was through the preface, I could see that this was no self-help book.  Those books are about subtracting negatives from your life.  This one is about adding positives.

In the book's first sentences, Seligman lays the groundwork:  "For the last half century psychology has been consumed with a single topic only - mental illness - and has done fairly well with it. [...] But this progress has come at a high cost.  Relieving the states that make life miserable, it seems, has made building the states that make life worth living less of a priority."  This book is about positive psychology:  the study of positive emotions, traits, and institutions. 

I say it's about time.  The world needs this.  If you never stop thinking about broken things - even with the good intentions of fixing them - then all you ever see is broken things, and that's depressing.  Eventually you'll lose your motivation to keep fixing.

One way this shows up is in the difference between "win-lose" situations and "win-win" ones.  A win-lose game is a competition:  you date the hot girl and somebody else doesn't.  You get the promotion but not your coworker.  Some situations are competitive by nature, but not all are.  Sharing your enthusiasm is win-win because you energize the people around you.  Helping somebody move into a new house gets the job done and makes you better friends.  OK, fine.  But the key thing to realize here is that you can choose what to focus your attention on.  If you focus on dating the hot new girl, and helping your friend move takes a back seat, you've just chosen to turn somebody into a loser instead of helping someone. 

To take it a step further, not only can you choose between win-lose and win-win situations you're presented with, you can actually create win-win situations.  Start a how-to site on the web.  Run a meetup group to bring together passionate amateurs.  Make the world a better place, and you can't help but win.

An artistic medium is a partner

In "Free Play", Stephen Nachmanovitch points out that making art is like loving a person:  the drive to create something goes hand in hand with the limits of the medium and the painful self-discoveries along the way.  The tensions and vibrations of a violin, the colors and textures of paint, these are the things that artistic technique turns into expression. 
"...Falling in love with our instrument or with our work is much more like falling in love with a person, in that we experience the rapture and delight of the discovery, but then we are saddled with the effort of fulfillment, with love's labors and the hard lessons in which illusions are stripped away, in which we confront diffucult pieces of self-knowledge, in which we have to stretch our physical, emotional, intellectual stamina to the limits, in which our patience and our ability to persevere and transcend ourselves are tested."
Nachmanovitch also says that this is exactly why it's easier to love someone else's artwork:  at the end of the day you can walk away from it and go home.  You are not committed to it, driven by it.

I mentioned the other day that having preferences makes interacting with a medium more like a partnership, where it helps you and responds to you, and less like using a tool that would do the same for anyone.  A violin is not a terribly customizable thing, but the choices a musician makes while playing it create a set of limits:  key, time, etc.  These constraints are the artist's partner in creation.  Watch when children play a superhero game:  you can fly and I have super strength!  Their narrative grows within these constraints.

I'm thinking now of the English language and my partnership with it here on this blog.  The range of meanings available within my diction constrain my narrative.  For my first couple years doing this, I called it a "creative outlet", not trying to make too much of it to anyone.  Now I'm not afraid to call this art.  My facility with written English allows me to achieve a certain amount of flow.  I'll go one step further:  I've been using Microsoft Excel so much, for so long, that I can pretty much do whatever I want in it without thinking about the method - only the desired end result.

That probably sounds ridiculous.  But think about your tools.  What are you so good at that you work towards a result, not against a technique?


The idea here is to provide a working definition of my nemesis, the hipster.  But first some fun:  the other day, Dave Polak somehow got me to dress up as an ironist, ironically.  It's self-referential enough to make my head spin. 

Dave had been accused on Twitter of being a hipster, which he isn't, but he went with it and held a Hipster Funeral Party at the Happy Dog in Ohio City.  Apparently at least one person was convinced he was dead.  The party was a good time.  Dave set up Hipster Bingo cards so everyone was scanning the bar crowd for facial hair, trucker hats, and classic videogame T-shirts.  Happy Dog is one of my after-work stops where I'll get food before moving on to an evening event, and I've never been disappointed there.  I ate and drank there from 5:30 to 10:30, listened to two live bands, and somehow my bill was still under $40.
Why would Dave deny being a hipster, and why would we go to a bar to make fun of them?  Because hipsters make people miserable.  They're one of my touchstones for toxic habits.  I realize that not everybody gets the scope of the label, though, so here I'll try to explain what I mean.
The hipster archetype is Jack Black's character in High Fidelity.  He played a record store clerk who openly mocked his customers.  Staggeringly judgemental, he would happily tell someone that their favorite band sucks--and exactly why and how they suck--not caring that it hurts them and makes them hate him.  Music hipsters claim to be music fans but the truth is that they only like a few albums by a few artists and hate everything else.  Nothing is ever good enough for them.

Hipsterism extends far beyond music.  The syndrome's main components are (1) professing to have tastes too elevated to enjoy the things most people like; and (2) open disrespect for anyone who lacks (1).  This manifests itself as an irony-drenched existence.  The webcomic Cat And Girl once made the point that hipster fashion uses the tropes of 1970s males - trucker hats, PBR beer, ringneck tees, etc.  Originally, all this was authentic, but when recycled by hipsters, it becomes jeeringly ironic.  They'll make fun of any authenticity.  

Another manifestation is that hipsters overwhelmingly define themselves negatively.  When stating an opinion, it's usually "I dislike X" rather than "I like Y".  At its root, this is a fear of standing in favor of something, of having to defend something.  It's weakness.  This is why I've said that when Cleveland natives trash-talk their own town and expect nothing good to come of it, it's toxic hipster bullshit.

Being a hipster means you're never disappointed, because your expectations are rock bottom.  But you're joyless, and a buzzkill to everyone around you.

These, then, are people to avoid.  Instead, lead by example.  Be authentic, ingenuous, sincere.  Seek joy and encourage others to do the same.  Never mind the bollocks!

The magic of preferences

One of the basic differences between computers and older technologies is that a computer can remember how you like things to work.
This is a folder of files on one of my Windows computers.  Every time I've set up a user account since Windows 98, I've told it all my folders should be presented in "details" view and sorted by date modified.  My eyes automatically go to the bottom of the list for the last few things I worked on.  Sometimes I change the view, and it's kind enough to stay changed the next time I open the folder.
This is the dashboard of my car.  I consider myself lucky that it remembers I like the cruse control on all the time.  But why can't it remember what speed I was going if I shut the car off?  Why can't it remember that I close all the windows when I'm going faster than 50?

And while we're at it, why do my bank's ATMs keep asking me if I prefer English?  I already told them once - do they think I might change my mind?  Would an ATM really be the ideal place for me to practice learning a second language?

Something with preferences is customizable:  it's yours.  I'm not talking about trivial cosmetic mods like skinning a media player application, I'm talking about changing how information is presented to you.  Different learning styles are rewarded by different organizational schemes. 

In a way, it's like developing a relationship with a vendor or a customer.  At first, you're feeling each other out, just guessing what the other person needs you to tell them.  After a while, you develop a working process, and it requires a lot less effort to get work done.  Having 'preferences' in your interaction with a computer, or a car, or anything, makes it more like a partnership and less like using a tool.

The personal technology habit

Before the Internet entered people's homes, personal computers were uncommon and expensive.  The 1989 price of the Macintosh SE/30, for professional desktop publishing, was $6500.  In 1994 or so, my in-laws paid $2000 for a Pentium desktop computer and got on AOL, and at that price point the computer entered middle America's spending habits.  More recently, I bought a midrange computer for $700, but you can pay as little as $400 for a decent new machine and expect it to last three to five years.

Computers went from costing most people $2000 every few years to $400.  Where's the extra money going now?

Answer:  perhaps not coincidentally, data plans for smartphones are $30 or more a month.  Tack on $200 up front and the cost is $1000 every two years.  This, then, is what people are willing to pay for their personal technology habit.

(The Droid X has an HDMI output port, allowing it to display HD video on your TV.  Make that a monitor port, and give me a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, and maybe I wouldn't need to buy another computer.  Are you listening, Motorola?)

What did people buy with that $2000 every few years before 1994?  ...Stereos, maybe?

How to: annoy rock musicians

via Allmusic:  
Def Leppard’s [lead singer] Joe Elliott will release his own beer, which will be bottled by Dublin’s Porterhouse Brewing Company and served in their bars. Elliott said, “Over the years I’ve noticed a lot of musicians putting their names to a variety of wines etc which, as nice as a glass of red or white is, well, it’s not very rock and roll is it?!”  Source.
Subtext:  "Please do not throw the bottles at my head while I'm on stage."

Cool thing of the day: Fordite

The word Fordite induces cognitive dissonance, doesn't it?  It sounds like a combination of cars and rocks.  Well, the alternate term "motor agate" does too, and it piqued my curiosity.
According to the Fordite history page, this manmade mineralesque material was formed in the paint booths of Detroit.  Early car-painting techniques were pretty wasteful, and every floor, wall, and fixture accumulated baked-on overspray until it had to be chiseled off. 

These paints were epoxies, or basically oil paint:  pigments in simple mixtures of thinners and oils that polymerize (turn to plastic) via oxidation.  In this case they were very thoroughly cured by repeated baking in the paint booth.  Many of the pigments were toxic--you only need to think about lead-based paints--so I don't know how I'd feel about my wife wearing a necklace of the stuff against her skin.  A ring, like the example above, is perfectly safe.

* * *

As a follow-up to the metallurgical display case post, I've just discovered that they're making rings out of ceramic.  They're not exciting structural ceramics like silicon nitride, but they're the real thing and characteristic of the breed:  lightweight, hard as hell, and brittle.  The ceramic used seems to be zirconium oxide, familiar to jewelers in single crystal form as fake diamonds (yttria-stabilized cubic zirconia) and to dentists as fake teeth.  They're available in white, black, and a couple pastel colors.  And they're cheap!

A perpetual fuddle

The World Atlas of Wine contains this gem noting that for much of recorded history, wine was the only liquid that was always safe to drink:
Europe drank wine on a scale it is difficult to conceive of; our ancestors must have been in a perpetual fuddle. 
Johnson and Robinson go on to say that with the later inventions of beer and tea, wine finally had some competition.  And that's all fine information about the history of wine, but today we have a word for someone who gets all their liquid in the form of wine:  an alcoholic.

Were our ancestors used to a constantly elevated BAC?  Sure.  Did it affect their productivity?  I would guess that it did.  I can't see how it couldn't have.  Which brings me to my point:

Did the invention of purified municipal water supplies lead to the acceleration of technology that characterizes the modern age?  After millenia of inebriation, did western society have a nice greasy lunch and get to work one Monday?

Jared Diamond would say no, no, it had everything to do with Europe's grains and large mammals and so on, but I prefer my theory.

How to: repair speakers with blown woofers

In college I bought a pair of Polk Monitor 5 speakers for $200.  They were probably built in 1981, which now makes them old enough to vote but not quite old enough to be elected U.S. President.  They were in my living room until a few years ago, and I still listen to them in my basement when I'm exercising.  Or at least I did until my cat puked in my amplifier (below) and blew them up.
I'd made the tactical error of placing my power amplifier on top of the preamplifier.  The power amp has vents and I wanted it to breathe freely.  Well, power amps are nice warm places for cats to lay, and cats occasionally get hairballs.  It must have scared the crap out of him when the caughed one up and the speakers made a mighty BLATT.  It blew a fuse in the amp and toasted one of the woofer voicecoils.  I popped another fuse in the amp (and vacuumed the hair out of it!) and it worked fine.  But the speakers needed new woofers.

Polk sold this woofer, the MW6500, to technicians for many years to make repairs.  Then they made a near-equivalent replacement, the MW6502, for even longer - people were still buying them in 2008.  But after 30 years it's not reasonable to expect a company to continue to offer replacement parts.  They recommended I contact the good folks at Madisound for a substitute.  We settled on the house brand Madisound 6102 woofer (the left pair below) as the only one that would fit the highly constrained front panel of the speaker.  It sure does fit - even the screw holes are in the same places.
What does the inside of a speaker look like?  CLOUDS!
The white stuff is a fibrous filler often put in speakers to reduce internal echoes.  And the larger cone at the bottom isn't a woofer, it's called a "passive radiator".  No power gets delivered to it.  As you can see, I soldered the leadwires to the new woofers and...
THEY WORK!  They even sound pretty decent!  OK, I haven't run them with a sound level meter to make sure the tonal balance is right, but this is not bad for $50 worth of parts!

Easily overused but don't throw them away

Things I own that I would like to put in a box and store in my attic:
  • My righeous indignation
  • My territorialism
  • My libido

The metallurgical display case

Dave Cunix looked at my hand at the Blogger 11th Birthday Fiesta and commented that my rings seemed to be multiplying. They weren't - I'd just moved one from my right hand to my left - but as of today I have a new one.
On the left is my platinum wedding band, with a few dings because platinum, a noble metal like silver and gold, is soft. Platinum shares its face-centered cubic arrangement of atoms with other soft metals such as aluminum and copper.

In the middle is my tungsten carbide ring. It's not pure tungsten carbide, because that material is really a ceramic and can't be shaped by bending or cutting like metals can. The material we call tungsten carbide is really tungsten carbide powder held together with the metal cobalt, like concrete is pebbles held together with cement. Cemented tungsten carbide is used to cut steel, and is certainly harder than almost anything I'm likely to grab - that's why it's unscratched.

The ring on the right is my new titanium one. They're all the same size, but the titanium one is much lighter than the others because it's only about a quarter as dense. This makes the Metal Guessing Game a lot more interesting, even though I don't wear the silver ring any more. This lightness, together with its resistance to corrosion, is earning titanium some inroads into the world of jewelry. Its strength also makes it a great structural material, but its Achilles' heel is that machinists hate it: its terrible friction and wear properties cause it to weld itself to cutting tools.

Speech-to-text: you can't handle the truth!

"Dude be ready" the text message said. Probably. I didn't send it or receive it, I was just sitting next to my wife as she spoke it.

She was using her Droid's speech-to-text capabilities to avoid having to type while she drove to pick someone up. Now the Droid is awesome, but I'm pretty sure the "OR ELSE" I heard in her tone of voice didn't make it into that text message.

Sigh. Yet another way to strip nonverbal cues from our communication.

Every time I see another example, I'm still amazed that the march of technological progress doesn't carry forward all the information content of the old technologies it supersedes. A brief list:
  • Music with lossy compression (flogged here)
  • Speaking face-to-face -> telephone -> text -> speech-to-text
  • Cameras with fixed focus and tiny lenses
Each new technology is more convenient than the last, or makes inroads into new applications. But if computers were like this, your new Windows 7 box wouldn't recognize thumb drives because, hey, you've got online storage now.

Maybe we don't want the details: the closed posture, the reddening complexion, the tightening voice. The kick drum behind the vocalist. The beginnings of a dry brown edge on a flower petal. Maybe we'd say if it doesn't fit on one side of a sheet of paper in doublespaced Courier 12, it hasn't been edited enough yet. Maybe we want plausible deniability. The opportunity to be inhumane through ignorance.

You can't handle the truth! A fleck of spittle lands on Tom Cruise's cheek. Jack Nicholson hasn't had a cigar yet today.

When networking isn't

A person's "network" is a collection of relationships that they maintain. Why, then, is it permissible to say you're "networking" when you have no intention of renewing the contacts you make?

I co-organize a blogging group and my wife co-organizes a wine tasting group. I meet a lot of new people every month. I *like* to meet new people. It's OK if I learn someone's name and occupation and then never see them again; my groups aren't for everyone. But if you come to an event and hand out your business card to everyone there, then a couple months later when nobody's heard from you I'm going to start thinking you came for the wrong reasons. That you came to promote yourself and not to take part.

Now don't get me wrong - it's OK to accidentally come to an event for the wrong reasons, but once there, you should recognize your mistake and adjust your approach. You don't create a positive personal brand when you drop business cards like propaganda pamphlets out of the back of a plane over enemy territory.

This is related to how permission marketing can be overused. But whereas that was about people who abuse my attention with a one-way firehose of marketing, this is about people who come to meetings--all kinds of meetings--with no intention of doing anything but broadcasting a single message. I'm convinced that some of these people scour the Internet for every public gathering where they might meet a couple dozen people in a free evening. People that may turn into leads, and if they don't, they don't matter. They are serial self-promoters.

Networking shouldn't be that way. When I check out a new group, I'm trying to see if there's a place for it in my life. Sometimes there is and sometimes there isn't. If I keep coming back, I don't even bother to call it networking, I just end up getting to know people. And that ... my friends ... is a network.

The ideal size of a conversation

Did you ever notice that some days you just seem to be rock-star funny and other days you struggle with awkward silences? I started wondering about that effect, and about the differences between the "Thinkers & Drinkers"(*) gatherings I go to and my blogger meetups. There are different dynamics in conversations of different sizes.

Two people: there is the potential for intimacy and trust, but it can be hard work keeping the conversation flowing. Things can be said between two people that can't be said in almost any other context. The flip side is that there are no witnesses, so either person can deny having said something if it gets repeated later.

Three or four: it's like having two people, but it gives one or two people an opportunity to think longer before speaking. In conversations of this size, this little delay can help me be very funny or very thoughtful.

Six to eight: everybody gets to hear everything and comment on everything; there are a variety of viewpoints but it remains one conversation. It can be quite thoughtful, but everyone has to take care to keep their comments brief and to the point. This size is where Thinkers & Drinkers works best, in my opinion.

Ten or more: the gathering breaks into more than one conversation. People occasionally move from one to the other, for example, if everyone is sitting at a long table, the people in the middle can talk to either side - but usually not both at once.

Twenty on up to over 100 people: everyone is free, indeed almost obligated, to wander from one conversation to the next. It becomes a cocktail party. Each conversation is 3-5 people if standing, or more if seated at large tables like at a wedding reception. You can have as funny or as thoughtful a conversation as you like, because there are plenty to step into.

What kinds of conversations do you want to have?

(*) 'Thinkers & drinkers' is an idea I adopted from George Nemeth, who used it as a format for some of our blogger meetups back in '08. Each person writes down a question--but not their name--and throws it in a hat. One by one they're pulled out and discussed. Wondering about its origins, I just Googled it. It seems to crop up in a variety of places (esp. Ohio for George's variant spelling "thinkrs & drinkrs") but it hasn't coalesced around a unifying theme, organization, or a home on the Web. I'm still not sure where it originated.

Blogging News

I learn some interesting stuff by reading the Blogger Buzz and Google Docs blogs. Here are three things that came down the pike recently.

August 31st will be the 11th birthday of the Blogger service, and they're throwing a worldwide celebration in conjunction with This works for me on so many levels. I use Blogger and I love the way it makes self-publishing easy for people with passion. I use Meetup and advocate for it every chance I get, because it helped me find friends after moving to a new town. And I co-organize a group of bloggers that meets every month and was on Meetup for seven years. Seven years is a long time for people to have been getting together to talk about the Internet, and eleven years is a REALLY long time for an Internet service to have been around. They're calling this celebration the Blogger Fiesta, and I'm organizing the Cleveland party. We haven't settled on a location yet, but I have some places in mind. I'm looking forward to bringing my Erie Moose friends together with other Blogger users all over town!

Blogger made a huge step forward this week with an improved comment handling system. As I noted over at the Erie Moose site, comment spam was hard to deal with under the old system. Be patient if you don't yet see the new "Comments" tab on your Blogger dashboard; they're switching users over one batch at a time.

Lastly, I just heard about the Google Moderator service completely by accident on the Google Docs blog. Google Moderator is a sort of polling/voting/questioning system for audience participation. I decided to try using it to collect feedback on places for our blogger group to meet. Here's the resulting poll. I've put up five suggestions for locations; you can vote them up or down, or suggest your own. This service feels a little bit beta right now (why can't I get an RSS feed of votes and suggestions?) but it's easy and it seems to work. Thanks Google!

Finally! Custom backgrounds in Blogger!

At long last, we can use our own photos as backgrounds for our Blogger blogs. For the time being, I'm using a photo of the grasses outside my kitchen window; if you're reading this via RSS, click through to see it.

This post on the Blogger In Draft blog describes the feature. It's built into the Template Designer in Blogger In Draft, so you'll need to use the URL "" to edit your site instead of composing as usual on I've discussed the Template Designer previously here and on the Erie Moose test blog.

Here are Blogger's recommendations for image size and format:
For images that fill the entire background, we recommend using a resolution of 1800 pixels wide and 1600 pixels high, and file size less than 200KB to minimize the loading time of your blog pages.
I cropped my photo of grasses to 1800x1600 and compressed it to slightly over 200kB. They'll let you upload an image up to 300kB. If you like how it looks, try it on your own blog and let me know!

The Peter Principle of multitasking

The Peter Principle states that in a hierarchy, individuals are periodically promoted as long as they continue to perform adequately. When they stop, they are said to have risen to their level of incompetence.

A corollary for multitasking: an individual performing all their tasks adequately will add tasks until they can no longer do any of them well. This miserable state is called being "busy".

At this point I could pontificate about quiet, but I'll just say this: busy kills. Hang up and drive, folks.

The tangent of a relationship

The trigonometric tangent is defined as:I hereby define the tangent of a relationship as the time spent together vertical divided by the time spent together horizontal.

Table I. Tangents of common relationship types.
90 deg.___Friend, coworker, etc.
45 deg.___Friend with benefits
30 deg.___Spouse, significant other
0 deg.____Booty call you can't stand
Amusing etymology:
1590s, "meeting at a point without intersecting," from L. tangentem (nom. tangens), prp. of tangere "to touch," from PIE base *tag- "to touch, to handle" (cf. L. tactus "touch," Gk. tetagon "having seized," O.E. þaccian "stroke, strike gently"). First used by Dan. mathematician Thomas Fincke in "Geomietria Rotundi" (1583).

Harvey Pekar's death touches a chord

Many of my fellow Clevelanders have shared Anthony Bourdain's tribute to Harvey Pekar with one another. I didn't know Harvey, and to be honest I'm not that familiar with his work (the American Splendor graphic novel, which spawned an independent film). But this paragraph of Anthony's tells me that Pekar might have been my kind of guy:
A few great artists come to "own" their territory. As Joseph Mitchell once owned New York and Zola owned Paris, Harvey Pekar owned not just Cleveland but all those places in the American Heartland where people wake up every day, go to work, do the best they can--and in spite of the vast and overwhelming forces that conspire to disappoint them--go on, try as best as possible to do right by the people around them, to attain that most difficult of ideals: to be "good" people.
To be good. To keep trying. To not let down the people around you. This is the essence of the Midwest, and why I feel at home here. This tells me that Pekar, despite his reputation as a curmudgeon, probably would have agreed with me about choosing Cleveland. Which was my point in posting this.

Modern Koans

Modern pseudo-koans to use when you need to distract someone:

1. How wide is a mountain?
2. What emoticon would best represent schadenfreude?
3. What is the minimum number of PowerPoint slides necessary to convey the entire content of the Bible?
4. How could you make coffee using only a toaster, the Chicago Tribune, and a gift certificate to Home Depot?
5. If Apple Computer were to hang a plaque in your honor in their lobby, what would it say?
6. What is the secret ingredient in goulash?
7. When you thump a perfectly ripe muskmelon, what musical note does it make?
8. What television program would be most likely to air a quote from Voltaire--with attribution?
9. What are the lyrics to "Copacabana?"

Cars and driving in China

(One more China post and I'm done. I promise.) China's rapid changes in infrastructure, employment, and standard of living have led to an interesting assortment of cars on the road and driving behaviors. For the most part, Jalopniks would feel at home in China.

Driving is an active, primary task there. They haven't had time to start taking it for granted. They all drive stick shifts, and they don't talk on the phone. On the other hand, they don't drive for fun, or to see and be seen. They don't hoon. Unanimously they hate traffic. But they confront this necessary evil rather than trying to insulate themselves from it.

Westerners are often alarmed by the Chinese habit of driving down the wrong side of the road whenever it happens to be empty. (I know I giggled like a toddler on a rollercoaster my first several taxi rides there.) In the States, the double yellow line is strictly enforced, the penalties for crossing it are severe, and anyway people would look at you like you were juggling sticks of dynamite. Seen another way, a major US city's clogged inbound arteries every morning standing alongside its empty outbound lanes could be regarded as a brian-dead waste of resources. The best we ever do to correct this is to have "flex lanes" that can be swapped mid-day. The Chinese utilize their roads to the fullest. The converse of "defensive driving" might be called "opportunistic driving" and the Chinese practice both.

And the vehicles? First of all, there are genuine jalopies. The most stunning are the 2-part farm tractors converted for road use. They're hinged in the middle, making them look like genetically deformed Mad Max props. But also the pedicabs, and the scooter version that looks like a doghouse on a bicycle-wheeled sidecar.

There's a stunning variety of cars, mostly small to what we'd call medium sized. An even more stunning variety of sub-car transport: three wheels or two, motor or no. A lot of modifications and improvisation keeps these subcars on the road. There's not too much cosmetic damage on the cars, but the work trucks all look like hell. They're a lot older than the cars. There are no old cars in China for the same reason that Columbus didn't meet any white people in America.

Large and conspicuously expensive cars glide through the tumult. I saw a Bentley in Shenzhen. I saw quite a few BWM 7-series in Quanzhou. I note that BMW, Merc, and Audi all sell cars here with smaller engines than elsewhere. 730Li? S320? A8L 2.0T? Speed is not a realistic possibility there anyway.

It occurred to me that roundabouts (traffic circles) would work very well in China. They're already negotiating their position on the road all the time, anyway. Maybe that's why Americans can't get the hang of traffic circles: we take our position on the road for granted and we've stopped negotiating with each other.

Why does the carpet say Tuesday?

During my stay in China, I jotted down notes whenever I saw something unusual. It happened a lot. It started on the first day, with the title of this post: I walked into a restaurant whose 6-foot-wide plush red welcome mat was printed with a long string of Chinese characters and, below them, the English word "Tuesday" six inches high. That's all. Why did the carpet say Tuesday? None of us could guess. Here, then, are the rest of my notes. Some come with commentary, some without.

Why aren't there any old people here in Shenzhen? Answer: this is the "new part of town", built to support the factories, so it's full of the 20-40 year olds that work in them. (anybody over 30 is a manager anyway).

Three paces backwards, everything is breaking

Chocolate mouse in the dessert case

Plane flight bullshitting with seatmates: ferret furniture; long distance Depends testing

Die-cut pancakes

Five people in a doghouse bolted to the back of a moped, making an illegal left against traffic

Rotating restaurant on 24th floor of Baolilai hotel

[Obscene comment, hover mouse here to read.]

You cannot get coffee grounds in china. It's all powdered instant.

Company cantina 3 free meals a day for employees

It's lychee season

Shenzhen Train Station mall: concierges and barkers
"Real is no good" - a barker
[Obscene comment, hover mouse here to read.]

Hills with mohawks of trees

No Facebook in China

Utterly bungled service at the "Japanese" restaurant ... that offers 1.8-liter bottles of hot sake.


World cup everywhere

When I'm tired, I create new abstractions without the usual degree of editing. Like "white is the new default headphone color" after seeing a guy wearing big white over-the-ear headphones. I have no idea how true that is, but the words came to me.

Reading my friends' blogs on my day off made me homesick. I'm kind of ready for that flight back, but I'm only half done.

[Obscene comment, hover mouse here to read.]

Gorged myself on raw seafood

I tried to wait for the shuttle in the lobby, but the cigarette smoke finally got to me.

I do feel a little bit like I'm coming down with a cold.

I'm definitely sick, and this has turned into one of the worst days I've experienced in a long time. My flight was delayed after I arrived at the airport--for two hours and then indefinitely. Then, without warning, it boarded (before the two hours was up). Now I'm on the plane, but the pilot says we're delayed due to weather. So basically I've been stuck in an airport where very few people speak English, hungry and especially thirsty, saturating tissues and paper towels with my nose literally dripping, and without internet access. I'm afraid they'll decide I have bird flu and quarantine me. I've been traveling for seven hours and I've gone nowhere; I have a 80 minute flight and a 2 hour drive ahead of me. On the bright side, I was able to contact my coworker at the site I'm traveling to, so theoretically there will still be a car waiting for me.

I'm in Quanzhou. The hotel redid its restaurant since I was here last. But the rooms are the same.

The plant is still busted up, but now they only use 1 floor of the building. Downsizing.

Awesome steak au poivre sizzling on fajita platter. This is "chinese food"? More like French executed by Mexicans. The fruit that looks like lychee but smaller and dark red is tart like a berry.

There is a Shaolin temple in use and under construction. Kaiyuan is the historic one, the site dating back 1200 years. The Luoyang Bridge (aka Wanan Bridge) is equally old.

Sick, crashed 13h without dinner. Fever, chills

The hotel staff here seem more bookish, shy. Also, there are a lot of tall guys working here. No tall guys in Shenzhen.

Strawberry guava juice is delicious.

Tshirt: "sex & bananas & rock&roll"

Traffic in China works exactly like a high school hallway between classes. Crowded but functional. Nobody crashes because everybody pays attention. When did we forget how to do that?

Soccer is like hockey, but bigger

Imaginary soccer commercial: regular team vs. Kung Fu guys. Flying, acrobatics. Beheaded regular player: red flag for the kung fu team.

Most buildings in Quanzhou are six stories or less. Until recently, the government restricted building because they didn't want Quanzhou to compete with Taiwan.

Pear juice. Wow.

Statue of hero who took Taiwan back from Holland is made of metal!

Luoyang Bridge the tide is low. Crabs, oysters, a few cranes. A Buddhist temple at the end opposite the statue of the builder.

Tallest mountain in Quanzhou, lunch on top. Tea like flowers, famous Quanzhou product. Restaurant 480m elevation. Mountain prob higher. Dam, temples, Lao Tzu. Koi and turtles in the temple pond.

Walked the streets around the Quanzhou Hotel for about an hour. Pretty intense. I soon realized it's the first time I've ever been out alone in China. I was the ONLY white guy. The intention was to buy some small gifts, but that will have to be later. Going left out the hotel entrance and following the left wall, you curve north onto Zhongshan Middle Road, mostly a garment sales area. Right from the hotel, you are forced to turn left at a gate; you soon find yourself at a major intersection with Xinmen Street. There's a liquor store across the intersection. Come back tomorrow.

Thai restaurant in the hotel. Nice - I feel like a king. Three menus easily 50 pages total. Amazing seafood red curry, best scallops I've ever had in it. Two chef demo stands in the dining room, Indian guy spinning paper-thin dough. On the way to this restaurant, I asked a tall bellhop for directions. He pointed me on my way. Behind me, the female staffer with him clapped with glee. Congratulations on your good English! You can do it!


[Obscene comment, hover mouse here to read.]

Tea ceremony in a shop: you cannot let water sit on the tea leaves. Dump the first steeping. Steep briefly, maybe a minute. You can steep the leaves many times.

Goodbye QZ. I came away with a deeper affection for all these folks - at least the ones who are left. Anson's leaving blood on the ice. And after a week of me asking Ruby for her opinion and offering my help, I think she finally got used to the idea of being taken seriously.

The road to Xiamen looks like it was gouged through the countryside by a planetary router. They're trying a lot of different anti-erosion techniques - they've got plenty of space to experiment.

China's last attempt to rip you off: duty-free at the departure gates at Xiamen. And 35-yen Evian. That's $5 US for a bottle of water in a place where you can't drink what comes out of the tap. Chutzpah.

Five minutes of searching and concentration to figure out how to turn on and off the lights in my room at the Hong Kong Novotel Citigate. And for the first time in my whole trip, I had to use the package of power outlet adapters I bought at Radio Shack. This is a live example of poor user-interface design.

Visible wine cellar outside the hotel restaurant: Sassicaia ($200) next to Marques de Caceres Rioja Crianza ($13). Marselan Big Red ($7) next to, I kid you not, Lafitte ($100).

Shoe math

Shoe math, def.: A mathematical exercise done to justify the purchase of shoes, in this case by women. Example:
These Manolo Blahniks cost $300. *
Well, they're well made, how long are you going to own them? **
How many times a year would you wear them, like to parties and maybe even work? ***
So how many dollars per wearing does that come out to?
That's totally affordable! It's like my Starbucks habit! ****
* No way, that's my car payment!
** Maybe, but they'll be unfashionable by then.
*** Farfetched. A gross exaggeration.
**** These shoes aren't cheap - and neither is your Starbucks habit.

The male version goes like this:
This bottle of Balvenie Portwood costs $140. +
Then don't mix it with Coke, dumbass. How many ounces are in a bottle? ++
How many one-ounce drinks can you get out if it? +++
So how much is it per drink? ++++
Bonus round: How much would you pay for one drink of that in a bar? +++++
That's a BARGAIN. ++++++
+ I work for a living. Most of the guys that drink this don't.
++ 25, FYI.
+++ 25, but you know that's not happening.
++++ Ahem. $5.60.
+++++ $25. I was once billed--true story--$40 for a Scotch I was told was $20. I had finished the drink but I almost returned it anyway.
++++++ Maybe, if you keep it locked in a safe whose combination you can only remember when you're sober.

Historic Quanzhou, China

I recently returned from Quanzhou, which is across the strait from Taiwan. I'd been there twice before, to visit my company's factory, but I never saw the city's historic sites until now. I visited the 1300-year-old Kaiyuan Temple, the giant equestrian statue of Koxinga, the 1000-year-old Luoyang Bridge, and a scenic area on top of Mt. Qingyuan. I always like to see the old stuff when I travel, so this was a wonderful surprise.

Quanzhou was once the biggest port in the area, one of the starting points for the Silk Road. The Kaiyuan Temple contains two lighthouses, each about 150 feet high, that were used by mariners. (That's me at the bottom.) The temple complex is right in the middle of town, but is secluded from the hustle and bustle and quite peaceful. The site is both a tourist attraction and an active religious destination. Here are the photos I took there.

General Zheng Chenggong, also known as Koxinga, lived in Quanzhou and won Taiwan back from Holland in 1661. The Dutch had held the island for 38 years. A few years ago, an enormous gold statue of Koxinga on horseback was erected on a mountaintop visible from the streets of Quanzhou. It's 125 feet high and pretty amazing. Check out the photos on flickr, where the statue looms larger and larger as you get closer to it.

The Luoyang Bridge crosses the Luoyang River, which is wide and low at this point a few miles from the Pacific Ocean. Actually, when I visited, the tide was low, so there was hardly any water at all. Judging from the height of the bridge's supports, it never gets very deep. As a scientist I was amazed by the bridge's construction: the supports are about 10 meters apart, and are spanned by stone beams. Each beam is about nine meters long, a meter thick, and maybe two feet wide. Astonishingly, none of them appear to have ever broken in the bridge's 1000 years of service! I also appreciate the fact that they erected a statue to the guy who made it possible. Here's the photos.

Lastly we visited Mt. Qingyuan, which at 500 meters is the highest peak in the area. It was quiet and peaceful up there, and we had a lovely outdoor lunch, though I suspect it was that meal that disagreed with me (see previous post). I must have missed the statue of Lao-tzu, the founder of Taoism, because I certainly would have taken a picture of it. In any case, the temple was lovely and the turtles in their pond were very happy. Here it is on flickr.

Quanzhou is a relatively small city, with only 500,000 people inside the city limits. The streets are very busy, but growth has been calmer than in boomtowns like Shenzhen. It has a hometown feel to it, and I'll be happy to return.

Useful info for the traveler in Asia

The active ingredient in Imodium is available in China. If that's too much information for you, skip the rest of this post. I offer it for future reference.

Travelers from the West to China often find themselves fighting gastric distress. Whether you accidentally drank some tap water (even the locals stick strictly to bottled water) or some street food disagreed with you, it's ugly. It's happened to me two out of three trips now, so here's the remedy.Loperamide hydrochloride, the anti-diarrheal ingredient in Imodium, is sold in China in the packaging pictured above right. Click for big. This box contained six capsules and cost 5.5 yen (less than $1 US). I got complete relief in four hours - though a couple days later, the medicine wore off before the illness did, and I had to start taking it again.

You may also be offered the traditional remedy pictured above left, called Seirogan. Most Chinese households keep this around. It smells horrible and it isn't fast or effective enough for a panicked traveler short on time. Especially if, say, you're about to get on a 12-hour flight. It turns out the active ingredient in Seirogan is creosote. Hence the smell: wood smoke. According to WebMD, it's safe.

The concierges and the barkers

EDIT: photo inserted.

I have a couple days off in the middle of my China trip. Yesterday I went shopping at the Shenzhen Railway Station (*). The railway station itself links to Hong Kong, and the mall on top of it is huge and crowded. There is so much activity here that occupations have evolved specifically to assist shoppers. Here I'll tell you about two I met: concierges and barkers.To begin with, our taxi--which cost an astonishing $30US--dropped us off at the wrong place. He was "chosen by the hotel to ensure our safety" (I've never felt unsafe here) but I think he left us at the metro station instead of the railway one. We were about a kilometer from the mall, not too far, but not within eyesight. We called and gave our hotel's staff some hell while walking in the direction of our best guess. Eventually we saw a bilingual road sign that said Train Station Road, and followed it until my companion saw the buildings he recognized.

As we approached--two white guys walking semi-aimlessly, pointing at the tops of buildings, and repeatedly saying "TRAIN STATION" loudly--a Chinese man asked us in passable English if we wanted help. We did. Yes sir, we did.

"Tony" (**) handed us a business card with a phone number and said he would take us to the train station and help us find the things we came to shop for. He led us into the station and to a specific pair of shops that were "his" and that sold some of the things we were looking for.
Now I'd like to try to give you a sense of scale. The mall had a central atrium; there were probably four shops deep on either side of the atrium, and the mall is maybe three times as long as it is wide. So as a back-of-the-envelope estimate, let's say there were 1250 shops in this five-story building. Did we need help? Yes sir, we did.
As we shopped, Tony talked to us about what we were looking for. Upon concluding a purchase (or not), he would take us up or down a couple floors and through zigzagging hallways to the next relevant vendor he had a relationship with.

Tony didn't ask for a tip. The vendor would pay him for bringing us there if we bought something. It worked out well for us. Tony was a concierge and he was pretty good at his job. He found us almost a block from the building, spoke good English, and led us to what we wanted.

They weren't all like Tony. As he led us through the building, every store we passed had someone sitting outside calling to us. I couldn't tell you how many times the word "watch" (as in wristwatch) was said to me. Some actually touched or grabbed us. These were the barkers. We got coffee and came back shopping without Tony and almost immediately fell into the hands of a team of scammers. I should have known because one of them was the first Chinese girl I've ever known to actually try to use her looks to manipulate me. Good thing she wasn't my type. We ended up buying some totally frivolous goods (***) and some electronics that were actually fake. We didn't lose much money, but I did learn a valuable lesson: negotiate only for things whose value you are sure you know.

My success story for the day was shirts. I'm tall and thin, so off-the-rack shirts never fit me. I can buy shirts that are close and get them taken in, or even handmade to fit me, but at American labor rates that's prohibitively expensive. In the Train Station they actually make shirts, so Tony took me to a tailor. They took my measurements and let me look through four books of fabrics. I paid $20 each for six shirts, which will be delivered to my hotel tomorrow. $20 is a fair price for the parts and labor that go into a shirt made in China; I'm just disintermediating the people who don't know what size I am. Look for me looking sharp the next time you see me.

(*) Photo above inserted 6/26.
(**) Many Chinese take Western names to make things easier for Westerners. They favor names that are phonetically similar to their own: Xian Li becomes Charlie or John Li.
(***) A pen that contains a working digital camera. For $17 I can bring it home just as a conversation piece.

China's Radio Shack

I'm in China for work right now. I have no way to upload photos, but I want to tell you about the greatest electronics store I've ever been in.

The backstory: I built a piece of equipment in Cleveland and brought it here for our production facility to use. When I assembled it and plugged it in, the Chinese electricity fried its power supplies. (Yes, I had switched them over to 220V.) Not just any power supplies: these provide current regulated to the third decimal place. I had paid $275 each and I had four business days to get it working. The solution? Drive to a store an hour away.

When we walked in, the first thing I saw was a glass counter piled high with different thick bundles of wires. From six feet away I could see about 50 recognizable types of plugs, jacks, wiring harnesses, and connectors. This was a wire connector vendor. That counter was eight feet wide. It was the first of maybe a half dozen wire connector vendors I saw.

There was a fan vendor. A counter with an impossibly organized pile of small project boxes - aluminum or plastic cases you could build circuits in. LED vendors with spools of flashing lights ready to put into a pick-and-place assembler. One person selling light housings - complex extruded and machined aluminum domes with fins to dissipate heat from a high-power LED. It went on and on. Each vendor had six or eight feet of space.

The place was jammed with people. The sellers didn't hawk, didn't reach out and try to entice us. Navigating the place required a body-and-mind dance of politely slipping through the crowd while scanning the visual onslaught for the parts we needed. It was a warren of narrow angled aisles. If I had to guess, I'd say it was about the size of a largish restaurant. It was China's Radio Shack, an order of magnitude more well-stocked than ours ever were.

We found some suitable power supplies, in three stalls along one wall. At each, we negotiated price and checked specifications. The stall where we made our purchase specialized in sensors: meters for airflow, sound level, light intensity, temperature and humidity, force, electrical current, everything. They even had several oscilloscopes. It was six feet square, and every square inch of the walls and countertop was hung or stacked with something. One of something that they had more of elsewhere. The price for my power supplies? USD$25 each. One-eleventh what I had paid.

That was the first floor. There were four.

The upper floors were progressively cleaner, more open, and less crowded, and sold things that more closely resembled finished goods. On the top floor they sold computers, but the prices were comparable to what we'd pay in the US.

Why does this place exist? Here's my theory: if you are running a factory and need to fill an order for a customer fast, you can come here for the parts. In America we'd have no alternative but to mail-order, but there is such a density of electronics manufacturers in Shenzhen that they can support retail sales of quantity parts.

I got back to the factory and instantly regretted not having bought screwdrivers, crimping tools, voltmeters, soldering irons, and a dozen other things. My Chinese coworkers had improvised a fine screwdriver by filing down the tip of an Allen wrench. Oh well.

My love-hate relationship with bitters

Found in an Italian market today: Ferro-China Magnoberta bitters. $15 for 750ml. I expected something similar to Aperol or Campari, both of which I love to mix with soda (and, in the case of Campari, red vermouth).I've just tossed an ounce and a half of the Ferro-China into soda. The mixture looks like Coke - not a good sign. I'm tasting it as I type this. It occurs to me that the "ferro" in the name may be the source of the metallic taste I can't get out of my mouth.

It tastes like horribly burnt vegetation, rusty iron, and maybe a little cocoa. This is weaponized booze. Serve it to people you never want to speak to again. It may actually be worse than Fernet Branca. WTF, Italy?

Why do I do this to myself? Oh yeah, because this is how I found out about Campari and Aperol. And the moderately useful Getreide-Kummel. And Heering Cherry Liqueur. OK, I feel better about it now.

Permission marketing gets stale when it's overused.

I'd like to talk about the old-fashioned concept of "overstaying your welcome". If you and I chat and exchange business cards, maybe we'll become friends on Facebook. I'm giving you permission to contact me, on either a personal or a professional basis. But not indefinitely.

Seth Godin talks a lot about permission marketing, the idea that a brand like Apple has its customers' permission to send them information about new products. Contrast this with how you'd feel if, say, Toshiba sent you an uninvited email about their new laptop: you'd call it spam. The same principle works face-to-face, too. As co-organizer of a blogging group, member of a Social Media Club, and frequenter of a sort of permanent monthly cocktail party, I meet a lot of people. I even made up personal business cards so I wouldn't have to hand out my company's cards. I've made good friends this way, made peripheral contact with several social networks I otherwise never would have known about, and from time to time I'm asked to support a cause or attend a fundraiser or some such thing. That's all fine.

Here's the thing. If I only met you once, you may not hammer my inbox with weekly inspirational quotes until the next Ice Age. If I've never RSVP'd yes, or even responded in any way shape or form, to one of your event invitations, you should quit sending them.

When does my permission expire? When I can no longer recall what our last conversation was about, when I see your name and remember only your marketing ledes and what you want from me, then I don't want to hear from you. How can you keep that from happening? If we meet in person, talk to me and try to learn what interests me, what I'd like to hear more about, and use it. If we don't meet often, then put me in a Facebook list of people you don't send promotions to until you have, yes you guessed it, had a conversation with me and found out what I want to hear.

It's entirely possible that we have nothing to offer each other, and that's OK. But if you overstay your welcome, don't be surprised if I retract my permission for you to contact me.

Sound quality falls as video tech improves, sort of

A recent New York Times article argued that sound quality hasn't benefited from the same kinds of technological progress that video has. (Think of flat panel TVs, High Definition, and 3D movies; then try to imagine what a living room stereo with fancy new technology would look like.) But then the website Create Digital Music published a rebuttal, reminding us of High Definition Compact Disc, DVD-Audio, and various cinema-grade surround formats. They tore apart pretty much every point in the Times article, and their criticisms are mostly right. Unfortunately they were a little too busy attacking the lazy Big Media journalist and polishing their righteous indignation to identify and address the reason the Times wrote the article in the first place: people have stopped buying stereos.

It used to be common to have two large speakers in a big room for listening to music. Today I can only think of one person outside my family who has anything that qualifies, and he uses it mainly for videogames. I won't exclude him because of that; what I'm talking about here is listening carefully to music on a system chosen to reveal audio detail, and he does that sometimes. I'll bet even audiophiles do most of their listening passively, while multitasking. The thing is, over the last 30 years, most of the rest of us went from occasionally listening carefully to never doing it. So we no longer devote the space in our living rooms to it.

Why are Blu-Ray players selling so much better than, say, SACD players? Something has changed in our patterns of consumption. On the surface, video content is more immersive than audio-only content, simply because it engages an additional sense. I've always thought that actively listening to music was a more contemplative pastime than watching television or movies, simply because there is less in the media to distract me from my thoughts. It's been said that America needs to work on its mindfulness, so perhaps the trend towards more immersive media is part of that.

What else could America have been?

Everybody knows that the United States could easily have been a monarchy or a theocracy, but what if something else had influenced the founding fathers? Might they have founded the United States of Confucianism? Or Machiavellianism?

The Founding Fathers drafted our Constitution and our country as an experiment in applied rationalism. Everywhere else, superstitions and class favoritisms were explicitly spelled out in the law. Those who created the government here decided to try doing without all that, relying instead on clearheaded empiricism. That set of ideas came along at the right time to influence the birth of a nation.

Philosophical systems are created and developed by groups of intellectuals corresponding with one another. By contrast, governments are usually formed by a conqueror or they coalesce out of smaller city-states. The United States became independent in an unusually self-aware way. It provided an opportunity to build a good government from scratch - to learn from previous mistakes. The form of "good government" the founding fathers chose was democracy, because it was the idea that was in vogue at the time. But it could easily have been different.

How to make sure an old wine cork doesn't fall apart

We had a special dinner last week and opened a 1998 Bordeaux we'd been saving. As I drove my Waiter's Friend corkscrew into the cork, I felt very little resistance. Then, tragedy: what came out was the top half of the cork and the crumbled core of the bottom half. I spent the next fifteen minutes failing to extract the cork, then filtering the wine through a fine mesh strainer. We still had bits of cork in our glasses. That cork disintegrated.

Sometimes you're just unlucky, right? And there's nothing you can do about it? Not so. You can tell when you're dealing with a weak cork and use a different tool: the two-pronged opener known as the Butler's Friend or Ah-So. Polling my friends with more experience in old wines, I learned that that lack of resistance as you drive in the corkscrew is the telltale sign of a weak cork. I drink mostly young wines, so I'm used to really having to twist. In fact, I can't recall ever having a cork crumble on me. So here's what you do.
  • If you're opening a bottle 10 or more years old, pay attention.
  • If the conventional corkscrew goes in too easy, unscrew it back out again.
  • Open it with the two-pronged cork puller.
Here's how to use it: push in one prong a little bit, then the other, rocking the tool back and forth until both prong tips are past the bottom of the cork. (Don't try to push both prongs down at the same time or you may push the cork into the bottle.) Once the tool is far enough in, twist and pull without rocking to break loose the cork from the glass and extract it.

This short YouTube video demonstrates the technique. Enjoy your well aged wine!

Layout change

I went into Blogger In Draft and changed the layout of this site. Those of you subscribing via RSS won't notice, but how's the readability at the site itself? I went to a three-column layout and added a "tabs" widget below the title. Several things that used to be in the right-hand column are now on their own tabs. I think it looks less cluttered this way.

Each tab is a "page" in Blogger. My blog posts appear in the "Home" tab and the "About" tab is self-explanatory. The "Shared Readings" tab is things that I've shared in Google Reader and the "Shared Links" tab is things that I've shared on Delicious. "CLEblogs" is a subset of my Delicious feed, just the Cleveland bloggers.

I'm not 100% happy with the layout of the Shared pages. I'd like the Readings to look more like the shared items page itself, with multiple posts instead of a single post consisting of a list of previews. I'd also like the Links page to include everything in my Delicious feed except CLEblogs, since the CLEblogs links now appear on a fifth tab to serve as a blogroll. I'm sure there's a way to do that, but I'm short on time.

Car geekery part 3: automatic transmissions with clutches

As much as I like cars, there aren't too many technical innovations in them that I'd be willing to pay for. An exception is what I'll call an automated manual transmission. Once a rarity (think Ferrari F1 cars and BMW M3s), they have slowly approached my price range (Audi/VW DSG, still not there). But lo and behold: this year we get a dual clutch automatic transmission in the 2011 Ford Fiesta ... for about $14k. This is a car I'd actually consider buying.

What is an automated manual transmission? You can think of it as a stick-shifter with the addition of a computer that can shift for you. How is this different from a conventional automatic transmision? In a car with a stick, there's a solid mechanical connection (through a clutch plate) between the engine and the wheels. In contrast, a conventional automatic puts the engine's power through a fluid connection (the torque converter). They're called "slushboxes". Think of sticking a spoon in a jar of honey and twisting the spoon to spin the jar. The drawbacks are delays, inefficiency, and less sense of being connected to the road.

Inefficiency, yes. Fuel economy is everything these days. Everybody knows manuals get better gas mileage than automatics--they're lighter, they don't waste power churning fluids, and they have more gears to choose from. Nonetheless I was startled to see the EPA estimates for the Fiesta:
Manual: 29 city/38 highway
Automatic: 30 city/40 highway
Um, what? The automatic gets BETTER mileage than the manual? Yes - it's doubtless heavier but it has one more gear.

On the downside, apparently you cannot choose what gear to be in, so you can't downshift in preparation for a passing maneuver. I think I'm OK with that. What I really want is the immediate response. I hate pushing the accelerator and waiting for my car's automatic to raise the engine revs and tighten the torque converter before I start to accelerate.

Jalopnik thinks very highly of this car, despite it only having 120 horsepower. It's light and has a great suspension, which is actually a lot more important to me than the powertrain. I know from experience that having more power just makes me drive like a jerk. What I enjoy is being able to go around corners without slowing down. This could be my next car.

Previous car geekery: part 1 and part 2.