Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Fruits of 2008

Honeycrisp cider by Carlson Farms. We stumbled onto one of only 36 jugs that Wilson Farms received last week. Sweet, light, and young. I seriously don’t want a regular apple cider after this one. Word from the owner is that they’re going to do another pressing next week. A good way to start the new year.

Golden kiwis from New Zealand. Apparently seasonal, these turned up at Whole Foods for a couple of weeks this past summer. The flesh has an identical texture to a regular kiwi, just different in color, but the flavor is tropical. The hairless skin wasn’t as entertaining as the usual kiwi skin, so I stuck to eating the inside.

Fresh-squeezed pineapple juice by Kennesaw. Starts out tasting like a perfect pineapple. If you leave it in the refrigerator for more than a couple of days after opening, the sugars ferment quite rapidly despite the light pasteurization. No complaints about that.

Lisa’s cranberry sauce. Lots of honey and orange peel turned this Thanksgiving obligation into a real treat.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Pay it forward

For a few weeks one summer in high school, I worked for a flower farm picking weeds. Rumors were rife that the owner would fail to pay you at the end of the week or at the end of the summer. This didn’t happen to me at that flower farm, perhaps because I was hit by a car before it could become an issue.


For one summer in college, I worked as a department secretary. My instructions were simple: photocopy anything that a professor asked me to photocopy. Journal articles gradually gave way to stacks of library books, which in turn gave way to a professor who left me a key to her office and instructions to photocopy the contents of her entire filing cabinet so she could have a duplicate for her semester in California. The regular department secretary, it turns out, would have said no if she had been around. I was good at photocopying, however, and did not complain or say no. At the end of the summer, the department said they did not want to pay me for most of my work because the professors should not have asked me to do all that work.

When I was in graduate school, I was offered a fellowship from the US Department of Education. The university saw an opportunity to obtain free labor, and told me that the fellowship included a part-time work requirement. When I later responded to a Department of Education survey that I thought those fellowships would be more useful if students didn’t have to work for them, a chain of threats and hilarity ensued.

I stopped working for other people after that. I do employ people, and I take my responsibilities as an employer seriously. I’ve never even considered not paying someone for their work. That’s not because of my past experiences as a worker; in fact, I tended to run into problems as a worker because I considered each of my past experiences to be exceptional, and never believed that any other employer would treat workers that way.

Last week, I discovered that the Employee Benefits Security Administration of the US Department of Labor feels that it’s fine for employers to retroactively reduce compensation for 50 weeks already worked, as long as the money has not yet been paid. All work is done on spec, even when your contract says otherwise. A judge would say differently, but a social contract that tells workers their only recourse is legal action is fundamentally broken. The right way to reduce employment-related lawsuits, as with any lawsuits, is to provide some other recourse. Otherwise employers like me wind up as the exceptions that follow the rule.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

not Frost/not Nixon

Over on graphpaper, Christopher Fahey recommends taking some time to record an interview with your family:

For the last decade of her father’s life, my wife would interview him for an hour or more almost every time we visited her parents, videotaping each interview. For his funeral, she edited all the tapes into a single 45-minute movie where he tells stories from his incredible life. It’s hard to [overstate] how happy this video made a lot of people.

More and more people are collecting stories from their families and sharing them with their families and even the public. So this holiday season, why not kill two birds with one stone: video your family but in particular talk to them about what is important to you, trying to find out the historical roots of your own life and interests.
I love this idea, and I know that it’s never too soon to start. Have any of you done anything like this? Advice on how to start?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

To every room there is a purpose

Mark Bittman, writing in the New York Times about his 7' x 6' kitchen:

... when it comes to kitchens, size and equipment don’t count nearly as much as devotion, passion, common sense and, of course, experience.
So why do I want a bigger kitchen? Well, part of it is having enough room to put everything away. As with many 19th-century homes, ours has very little storage space. No coat closet by the front door, single tiny closets in the bedrooms, and a cobbled-together broom closet and pantry. We have nine linear feet of upper cabinets in the kitchen, and the majority of the shelves are out of comfortable reach. 

Part of it is having enough room for both of us to work at the same time without getting in each other’s way. That’s really a layout issue more than a size issue, but it’s easy to confuse those. I’m quite sure that Mark Bittman is not trying to cook alongside another person in his kitchen, nor is he trying to avoid cross-contamination because of food allergies.

Part of it is wanting more or larger appliances. I want to add laundry to the kitchen, since we don’t have a good way to add it to the second floor. It would be nice to replace our kitchen and basement refrigerators with a single larger refrigerator and a freezer. We don’t need a larger oven, but we could definitely use an extra burner or two somewhere in the kitchen since we often run out of burners when we’re hosting a crowd.

And part of it is wanting to have a comfortable space for other people to hang out in while we cook. Our kitchen is quite separated from the rest of the house, and there’s nowhere to add a passthrough or other conversational connection. I don’t think we need to go as far as the Edinburgh kitchen we used that included a sofa, but some sort of seating or standing room that isn’t in the working traffic corridor would be great.

Bittman’s point, of course, is that none of this is relevant to cooking well. He’s right. Cooking, by itself, doesn’t require storage or a good workflow or conversation. None of what I want to improve in our kitchen about cooking well. I already do that. What I want to improve in our kitchen is about living well.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Unleaded

Time for my annual post about testing lead in toys. In two months, a new law takes effect in the US that requires manufacturers and importers to test toys (at significant expense) for lead and phthalates. As implemented by the CPSC, there are no exceptions for toys imported from European countries with much stricter safety laws than ours. There appear to be no exceptions for toys made entirely of safe materials such as cloth or wood, or using materials such as paints that are already tested by manufacturers. No exceptions for handmade toys sold at craft fairs. But we will still allow toys that are made, tested, and certified in China, which can’t be trusted to keep melamine out of our food chain.

There is an exception for toys that aren’t primarily for children, so the teaching aids I produce don’t have to be taken off the market. But I want to be able to buy the handmade wooden rattle, or the all-organic-fabrics stuffed animal, or the unpainted wooden train like the one I grew up with. I want to be able to buy German and English toys without traveling to Europe myself and sneaking them into the country as if they’re unpasteurized cheese. I want to be able to shop at the funky independent toy stores that sell American handmade and European toys. I’ll be glad if the CPSC can improve the safety of children’s products, but I’d like to see their focus start on where the problems have been: paints and plastics.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Yankee pill swap

Different ways of learning: Tutoring vs. the classroom. Individual therapy vs. group sessions. Individual medical appointments vs. group medical appointments. It’s nice to have options, and we surely need to try some new approaches to providing medical care.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Solar, wind, and fire

An article by Chris Goodall in The Guardian about current environmental issues has brightened my Sunday morning, so I pass the link along to you.

I attended a focus group recently about energy efficiency, and it was clear that most people are concerned about the environment and are willing to take productive steps to reduce their energy usage. Utilities, too, would be happy to continue the trade of helping us reduce usage in exchange for higher rates. And with a potential massive public works program to improve energy efficiency in public buildings, our federal government could finally get on board the solar train to Cleanville. That prospect makes me really happy. And researchers say that means you’ll now be happier too. Smile, and the world is up to 34% more likely to smile with you. Catchy, ain’t it?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Safe for a while longer

As we sat around at work today nervously awaiting news as to who got laid off, this post on essential steps to take before you're laid off caught my eye.

The advice made sense: figure out how much less you can live on, build your network, build your skills.

And this one: blog under your real name about your profession.

My name is uncommon. If you google my name, you get me and a school nurse. I've been quite reluctant to use my full name on the web: I haven't joined LinkedIn---another thing I'm supposed to do before I get laid off---because it's useless without the personal information and I just don't like the idea of being in another database.

I blog here a bit. I certainly don't take it as seriously as Michael does.

But I hadn't really thought much about blogging about math and editing and education until I read the advice to blog about your profession as part of preparing for a job search. Of course, quilts and origami can fit nicely into the mix.

Blog under my own name. Blog only the things I would want an employer to read. Blog like a professional writer. Blog like my career depends on it rather than as if it might get me fired. Hmm.

You folks, our readers, mostly blog under pseudonyms. What do you think? Privacy vs. name recognition. T'is a puzzlement.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Talking turkey

The dark meat on a turkey needs to get to 185º, but the white meat on a turkey only needs to get to 165º. The solution that we follow to avoid overcooking the white meat is an adaptation of advice from the Cook’s Illustrated folks: we cook the bird upside-down for 40 minutes at 400º first, then flip it and finish it at 325º. Total time for a 25-28 pound turkey is usually 3-3.5 hours.

We don’t put stuffing in the bird, just chopped vegetables, lemon, and orange. Dry rub a spice blend on the outside, and this year we added a bit of apple cider instead of butter when we needed to baste. This year I added a small pan of water next to the bird for the last 30 minutes to increase the steam level in the oven without having the bird sitting in liquid.

Flipping an enormous hot turkey is hard. (Not to be confused with whatever the kids are doing these days that they call “flipping a hot turkey.”) I find the best approach is just to use a pair of washable oven mitts and grab the bird directly from both ends. There’s a risk of the turkey’s breast skin tearing or being stuck to the roasting pan. The color on the skin usually looks absurdly uneven when you flip it, because the weight-compressed part that has been in contact with the roasting pan is much darker, but the color evens out by the time the bird is done.

This year’s turkey came from neighbors of Lisa’s parents, who raise a truly free-range bird. When we’re buying it locally, we go to Owen’s Poultry Farm in Needham, who raise their own eggs but get their 3000 Thanksgiving turkeys from another New England farm.

After stripping off the meat, the carcass and pan scrapings go into a stockpot with more vegetables: onions, carrots, celery, garlic, green pepper, whatever comes to hand. Fill the pot with water, and simmer slowly for 24-36 hours, adding more water as needed. Strain through a cheesecloth, then chill and scrape off the fat, and you’re left with a fabulous condensed stock. Add water and salt when reheating to taste.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Interstices



Odette England, Attentional Landscapes.

Friday, November 21, 2008

How do you feel?



After making a couple of dozen “I [Heart] whatever” bumper stickers (actually, literally using whatever might be funny), it’s time to play around with replacing the heart. The classic Rorschach ink blot seems like a natural choice: the shape is right, a deep red filter in Photoshop makes the color right, and there’s the additional layer of your feelings towards Rorschach being open to interpretation.

Actual bumper stickers now available at http://www.cafepress.com/redrorschach.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

What can we do for our country?

Lisa:
In his post on expectations for Obama’s presidency, Douglas Rushkoff says:

The election of Obama is itself a cue. It’s a cue that America can elect a smart, capable, and caring person as its leader. That we are capable of transcending the logic of short-term self-interest, fear, and even racism. And if we are capable of doing this, it means we are better than we act most of the time. This moment is the bang of the starter’s pistol – an awakening, an opportunity.

But this new narrative is not the story of how we are led by some new person. It’s the story of how we lead ourselves. It’s about how we accept the cue to act.

No, the opportunity is not to create the next great website for modeling bottom-up community activity, but to go and actually do the stuff. It is to participate [in] the public school, work towards alternative energy possibilities, design and install bicycle lanes, argue at work for equal pay for women, assist local agriculture projects, develop complementary currencies and non-profit credit unions.
Michael:
Seizing this opportunity requires our taking actions, as individuals and in groups, that will actually reclaim our country as ours.

I had long wanted to be an observer at a polling place, to guard the individual right to vote. What I rediscovered on Election Day was that I had an even clearer view as a poll worker. “Be the change you wish to see in the world” is about going ahead and participating, not just wishing or wondering or commenting. Sure, tell those in power what they are doing wrong. You can be vocal about more issues than you can dive headfirst into. But speaking up is not a substitute for action.

Lisa:
In the years since 2001, Michael and I have often talked about the dangers of not speaking up when you disagree with a government’s policy. What can you say, and where do you say it, in order to make a difference? It’s nice to think we can set that conversation aside for a more hopeful one: what can we do to make our world better? Is it enough to get paid for creating content that we hope will improve student outcomes in the classroom? Does it require helping individual students? Can I count uprooting invasive weeds in other people’s yards and strewing flower seeds around as a piece of doing my part? How do we find time and energy to lead when life has become so very complicated? More questions than answers, but at least the questions are more fun to ask.

Michael:
Particularly when our government started sanctioning torture, I wanted a way to say “Not in my name.” With the distance of history, we say with broad strokes that a population was silent. How can we avoid that future judgment on us? Speaking up effectively requires determining our audience. Are we trying to reach our elected officials, our neighbors, our distributed communities, those beyond our borders, or just crying out to the future?

The new and eternal question of how we can make our world better also involves determining who we are trying to reach. The collective answer must be everyone, but we must also each come up with our own approaches. You scatter flower seeds, and I return shopping carts, and Roberta leads a more communal approach to child care, and our neighbor digs out his neighbor’s car, and that’s how we extend our sense of home by a few more blocks. And that’s how we must approach our communities and our world as well.

Games back in the day



BibliOdyssey has posted a lovely collection of game boards from the past 500 years. I’m particularly taken with this round board of music notation:

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Organic architecture

Back in September, we drove through several miles of Fire Island by the Hamptons. We saw egrets and great blue herons, marsh and dune and flooded out road, and beach houses both tacky and marvelous. But nothing like this gem from outside Rio de Janeiro.


The main page of the architects’ site is a slide show of this beach house.

Not buying it

Thomas Garvey will be posting about Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s The Merchant of Venice, which we saw last night. I agree with him that there is much not to like in the production, from the eerie stillness of Antonio while the court hearing swirls around him to the near-complete excision of the play’s racism. The occasional background music is much weaker than I expected. The stunning two-level space at Midway Studios with massive columns below and 200 feet of wrap-around glass railing in the balcony is only used twice to good effect: the columns when Jessica is lolling around Portia’s estate and the glass railing when Launcelot is wrestling with his inner fiend and his conscience. Doug Lockwood’s Launcelot and Marianna Bassham’s Nerissa are the standout performances, with Launcelot dropped in from a comedy that includes unstrained and unrestrained humor and Nerissa straight out of Sex and the City.

Wow, a play obsessed with money and lending, done when our own financial and credit markets have collapsed: what could be more timely? And there’s plenty of stage business involving money changing hands, some that almost makes sense and some that just serves to distract. The problem is that this production loses all class distinctions; nothing is made of a wealthy prince and an indebted merchant being on equal footing in gambling for Portia’s hand. The servants do not act or dress like servants, and we can hardly keep track of which side characters have money and which do not. The constant and easy flow of cash on stage confuses claims of poverty, contradicts the rationale for Antonio borrowing from Shylock in the first place (and for not paying him back), and alienates the audience from the world of Belmont and Venice. We are, after all, living in a world where cash flow has been problematically reduced. The most charitable interpretation of this directorial choice is that the omnipresence of money actually reduces money’s salience and keeps the conflict centered on promises and contracts instead.

Of course, the show is actually about anti-Semitism, or so I keep hearing. Jeremiah Kissel’s Shylock, directed by Melia Bensussen, is a snarling raving parody of Shakespeare’s parody of his time’s anti-Semitism. He certainly brings a lot of energy to the role. And here is where I think the press attention to these two observant Jews choosing this particular portrayal of Shylock is rather overblown. How the audience responds to this multiply-removed depiction of The Jew reflects the audience’s inner world rather than Kissel’s, Bensussen’s, or Shakespeare’s. For myself, the anti-Semitism expressed in the play was muted by all of the characters being so unlikeable. Prejudice is, perhaps, less sharp when surrounded by prejudice and expressed by characters with so many other flaws as well. There is a mild shock of seeing Kissel embrace and enhance the worst of Shylock, just as there is a mild shock in seeing the photo of the enormous swastika painted on the Newton shul’s sign yesterday. But neither should be confused with a serious threat. The fact that Kissel’s performance is so over-the-top, and that the swastika was painted backwards, provides a comforting reassurance of that in both cases. It’s just not reasonable to take either one too seriously.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Holy Copays, Batman!

Ah, open enrollment. A time of chaos and despair PowerPoint and false statistics, and always some new advice from HR. Last year, HR advised employees that having children was expensive for the company. This year, I learned a lot more at the benefits presentation:

1. If providing a benefit to the employees does not cost money, then HR believes it cannot have value.

2. If providing a benefit to the employees does cost money, then scolding employees for using the benefit is the best way to reduce usage. Don’t listen to your doctor; make your own health care decisions.

3. Chiropractic care is useless, and could even cost more money because chiropractors could injure their patients. Stop making your own health care decisions.

4. It’s important to be an informed health care consumer, so try to understand your EOBs.

5. There are never errors or fraud in medical billing, so stop trying to understand your EOBs.

6. It’s important to HR to regain our trust, as long as that doesn’t involve improving benefits, treating employees like adults, or answering questions. So the bold new step HR has taken to regain our trust is to reduce our direct interactions with anyone who works for HR.

There are so many internal contradictions in their presentation, you can’t help but agree with something they say. But the most informative minute was before the presentation started, when we talked to one employee who works directly for HR and another employee who HR used in an intranet video presentation about the medical plans. They’re both on their spouse’s health insurance instead of this one.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Free parking

Parts of downtown Boston have switched over to a new on-street parking system where you pay at a central box for a slip that you leave on your dashboard. (It’s not clear to me how motorcycles or convertibles are supposed to comply.) Paying for parking is a current issue in my town as well, where parking has been free. There’s a time limit (in some areas), but no enforcement of the time limit. And the only solution that most people can imagine is adding traditional parking meters and enforcement.

So I’ve been wondering about how people think about paying for on-street parking. The current popular system in downtown areas is parking meters and enforcement, where the parking meter rate is significantly cheaper than off-street parking and parking tickets cost more than off-street parking. The revenue from parking meter payments covers the cost of the meters, but parking tickets represent significant revenue. The city wants revenue from parking tickets, turnover at parking spots, and less traffic. The businesses and restaurants want parking to not feel burdensome to their customers in terms of availability, cost, and risk of tickets. And drivers, when we’re discussing the situation away from our cars, generally accept the risk of getting tickets ourselves in exchange for the benefits of ticketing others (higher turnover, higher city revenue, and schadenfreude).

Personally, I hate getting parking tickets. And I think a lot of other people do, too. It’s not so much the expense of the ticket as the random enforcement, the ticketing mistakes, and the sense that the city government claims an inverse correlation between general moral uprightness and parking tickets. If we’re going to change the parking system in Boston or in my city, I’d like to see it changed in a way that reduces ticketing.

In a city like mine, the only real concern for on-street parking is making sure that cars don’t occupy spaces in the business district all day. We don’t need meters; we only need a bit of enforcement of the existing time limits. But parking in a downtown like Boston could use some imagination.

Right now, we have to guess ahead of time how long we’re going to want to be in the parking space and round up. I was happier guessing on the high end when I knew the next car would benefit from my overestimate, but the parking slips remove that consolation. A parking ticket makes parking much more expensive if we forget to pay the meter, if we overstay our up-front payment, or if we overstay the upper time limit. On the other hand, once we get a ticket, there’s no further payment required for staying in the parking space for many hours beyond the upper time limit.

Switching to smart meters or smart parking slip boxes means we could make on-street parking work much more like a parking garage. We could remove the up-front guesswork, pay for the time we actually use, and scale the payments for overstays to fit the length of the overstay. Right now we pay 25 cents per 15 minutes with an up-front guess on how much time we’ll be, with a 2-hour upper limit and a single $25 ticket for an overstay. We could leave a pay up-front option in place, but add an option of swiping a credit card on arrival and returning your parking slip on departure, where you’d pay the regular rate per 15 minutes up to 2 hours and $2.50 per 15 minutes after that. No more having to guess ahead of time, no more paying for time you don’t use, no more free parking once you’ve been ticketed, and a payment for staying beyond the limit that is scaled to the amount of time you’ve overstayed.

And once we’re looking at a system like that, we can adapt the parking rate to the projected or even actual demand for space at different times of day. We can set a higher upper time limit for evenings in restaurant and theater districts. We can set a higher rate during peak demand. We can lower the rate in shopping districts during times when we want to increase shopping. And smart meters can be integrated into live parking availability maps that resemble live traffic maps, reducing traffic and frustration.

Or we could just keep chasing parking ticket revenue, increasing the stress, misery, and unfairness involved in parking downtown. Punishing others is so satisfying.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Where do you go?

At lunch, I had the pleasure of eavesdropping on a conversation rather than reading my book. One of my (unknown) coworkers was saying that her ultra-conservative relatives are talking about moving to Canada rather than live through an Obama administration.

It was all I could do not to laugh.

I wonder if these ultra-conservatives plan to refuse to participate in Canada's socialist medical plan, or if they have any clue just how high the VAT is, or if they understand that Canada doesn't have a democratically elected president.

Canada: when you just can't live with American politics anymore.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

On being a cog in a wheel of democracy

Monday evening I stopped by the election office to volunteer as a poll worker for Tuesday afternoon, and today I was privileged to help over 500 people cast their ballots. The work was mundane, and repetitive, and uplifting, and I couldn’t stop smiling while I was doing it.

I was relieved to learn more about how the elections in my town work, how the votes are counted and how the voter rolls work. I checked people off on the voter rolls and handed out ballots, explained how the ballot scanner works and reassured people that their votes were being counted, and helped voters get replacement ballots to fill out when their first ballot was rejected by the scanner due to overvotes or stray marks. Half a dozen times or more, a voter came back to the scanner with their replacement ballot, and every time the replacement ballot was perfect. I saw parents explaining the voting process to their children, and families and friends coming to the polls together, and neighbors catching up, and people returning to the polls to accompany other family members long after they had voted themselves. I saw people who were voting for the first time as an adult, or for the first time as an American citizen, or for the first time for a presidential candidate who inspired them. I saw a woman with portable oxygen, and some people who could barely walk, and some in wheelchairs, and some who could barely see, or hear, or speak. And I played my small part in helping them all vote, and I truly could not stop smiling.

I was unsure about this choice ahead of time. I had strong feelings about parts of this election, and being a poll worker meant I couldn’t hold a sign or distribute information outside the polling place. I had to put my own opinions aside in favor of helping the voting process run smoothly for all voters. In the end it was easy to do because I believe we need a democracy as much as anything.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Truth

Vardibidian eloquently writes today:

Your Humble Blogger is trying not to get too obsessed with tomorrow’s election. I like elections, but there is the danger that the election becomes the graven idol of democracy, if you know what I mean. So I thought I would just write a little note pointing out that we have, in the United States, accomplished an enormous amount already, and will need to accomplish a lot more after Wednesday, no matter who takes office in January.

I do wish that the tremendous popular movement and organization that Barack Obama and his associates had gathered were focused slightly less on his election and his person, and a little more on potential policy outcomes. If we elect Barack Obama and don’t push for a sane health care and health insurance industry, it won’t happen. If we elect sixty Democratic Senators, and don’t push for a sane foreign policy, a sane relationship between our nation and the rest of the world, particularly the countries who (to quote Sen. McCain, don’t like us very much), it won’t happen. If we elect three hundred Democratic Congressmen, and we don’t push for sane and urgent action on climate change, our atmosphere and our oceans, our energy needs and our energy habits, it won’t happen.

But if we do push for those things, they might. And we have institutions, now, that will allow us to push together. We have symbols, now, to guide us together. We have the rituals, now, that will keep us together. And we have the values, now, expressed for us, to us, and with us, that have brought us together and will bind us together.

So when you go out tomorrow to vote, Gentle Reader, or if you have already voted or even if you aren’t a citizen of our United States and can’t vote, enjoy the election, the marvel that is a nation coming together to put a group of people out of power without having to shoot them. Elections are marvelous miracles, and we should enjoy them. But they aren’t the work of democracy. Wednesday, and Thursday, and December and January and February, and every day is the work of making ourselves a free, self-governing nation, a steward of the world (who isn’t?) and a good and fitting home of the brave.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

To which I add a hearty amen.

One more day

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Please vote

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Interfaces

The iPhone, Microsoft Surface, and the Wii Remote are offering radical new options in how we interact with our electronics. But for the humble keyboard and mouse/trackball/trackpad, Google and Apple have had all the cool interfaces. Google Maps and Google Earth. CoverFlow and Spaces. Now Amazon has WindowShop, which could seriously improve the online shopping experience by creating an easy browsing experience. When WindowShop is merged with the power of database queries, sort filters, and personalized recommendations, I’m not sure I’ll miss the mall.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Ticket Me Elmo

German speed cameras have been repeatedly catching an Audi’s passenger, but not the driver, because the Audi is British and has the driver and passenger positions reversed. And the passenger is a Muppet, who cannot be ticketed.

The photo that the German police have released is from 11:11 on 08/08/08. Surely the driver deserves an award for timing.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Current flowing to and fro

My electric bill has been absurdly high for about 10 years. A while back the state told me I had one of the highest per capita electricity usages in Massachusetts, and gave me a brand new refrigerator as a prize. (Really. It’s in our basement.) Energy auditors have twice told me that my electric bill isn’t mathematically possible. I’ve had electricians try to figure it out, the power company has tested and replaced my meter, and still my electric bill has remained impressively insane.

Well, rewiring the house may be paying off. Our latest bill shows that our usage has been cut roughly in half. We don’t know which piece of the rewiring may have solved the problem, so there will always be a bit of mystery to it. And we don’t know whether the improvement is permanent, though another check of the meter two weeks after the bill seems to confirm the usage reduction. I know I can’t get that $10,000 in unnecessary electricity costs back, but can we keep the refrigerator?

Monday, October 20, 2008

National values

In American Scientist, Roald Hoffmann conveys excitement about theoretical chemistry. There’s still work to be done, molecules to dream up, puzzles and problems to solve. These sorts of intellectual pursuits for the sake of knowledge and for the sake of progress are the real America to me. I grew up hanging around a national lab, where scientists from all over the world saw that America valued science. Crystallography moms and math dads passing on the value of teaching, the value of learning, the value of research and collaboration. That’s the American idea, or at least a working hypothesis.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Choose your vendors well

Robert Reich writes about our general preference for ignoring the moral implications of our spending decisions:

[A]s moral beings we want to think of ourselves as stewards of the environment, intent on protecting future generations. But as consumers, we often disregard this moral aspiration. Many of us continue to buy cars that spew carbon into the air, and some of us spend lots of time flying from one location to another in jet airplanes that have an even greater carbon footprint. And we often buy low-priced items from poor nations in which environmental standards are lax and factories spill toxic chemicals into water supplies or pollutants into the air. How do we square our moral stand on the environment with our purchasing habits? Beyond buying the occasional "eco-friendly" product, we typically don't even try.
Many of our choices as consumers are not simple A/B choices, of course, and there’s a complex web of linked effects further up the supply chain that we typically can’t even determine. But I know I feel better when I can support local producers, local farms, and small businesses.

Monday, October 13, 2008

My first unregulated derivative market

Slate has posted a set of children’s books that are appropriate to difficult economic times, showing characters living in poverty or privation. The piece’s title—Mom, What’s a Credit Default Swap?—is a funny title, but should really be about an entirely different and missing set of books that can explain economics and finance in comprehensible terms. I suspect a lot of people would appreciate some of those books right now.

We don’t teach consumer finance in the typical high school curriculum. Home economics no longer includes any economics related to the home. But even if we corrected that, financial literacy does not translate into understanding macroeconomics or the financial sector. As we’ve seen, degrees in economics and careers in the financial sector do not translate into understanding macroeconomics or the financial sector. So how do we, the concerned and undereducated public, figure out what would be good public policies going forward?

One key to the appeal of children’s books is that they generally contain lessons. Here are some lessons I’d suggest we can use to guide us going forward, even without understanding the details of what happened:

1. Things go wrong sometimes. Have contingency plans.
2. Transparency helps.
3. Regulation helps.
4. Enormous companies can become societal burdens. Keep companies smaller.
5. Honesty and verification are important. Investigate and punish fraud.
6. Markets of all sorts go up and down, and not always at convenient times.
7. If we have safety nets for our citizens, harder economic times don’t have to be as punishing.
8. When good economic times return, remember that there will always be some people who are not as well off.

Different people would come up with different lessons from this financial crisis, of course. But almost anyone can come up with some lessons if they try. It’s at least as productive as watching the Cat in the Hat Treasury Secretary choose arbitrarily large numbers to play with.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Fed on the money

People defaulting on mortgages is an effect, not a cause. The major economic problem (other than sheer panic) is that banks are sitting on their hands, refusing to lend money. The bailout bill is a triumph of trickle-down theory: the premise is that if we give the banks enough money, they’ll feel comfortable lending money again. After all, isn’t that what banks do with money? 20 years ago that would be good reasoning, but today banks use their money to speculate in unregulated markets with no leverage controls. Giving the banks more money is just giving a fresh stake to someone with a gambling addiction living in a suite in Vegas and hoping that they’ll go pay their rent back in Poughkeepsie like they used to.

So the bailout bill didn’t actually reassure the stock market. The Fed announced plans today to enter the commercial paper market, meaning we the people will start doing direct short-term lending to large businesses. With Fannie and Freddie nationalized, we are already lending to homeowners. If 10% of the bailout bill had been steered to the SBA, we could have quadrupled our lending to small businesses. Keep the change—be the liquidity you wish to see in the world.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Shakespeare on the media

Actor’s Shakespeare Project has a new home at the old Armory in Somerville, where they’ll be putting on Coriolanus and John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, the two less known of this season’s productions. They presented charmingly unadorned live previews from the coming season during their open house last week, along with showing off their new offices and performance space.

So while pundits and reporters were filling time an hour before the vice presidential debate, we were listening to Ben Evett speak these highly relevant words Shakespeare wrote 400 years ago for Caius Marcius before he becomes Coriolanus:

They’ll sit by the fire, and presume to know
What’s done i’ the Capitol; who’s like to rise,
Who thrives and who declines; side factions
and give out
Conjectural marriages; making parties strong
And feebling such as stand not in their liking
Below their cobbled shoes.
In addition to the plays, we love attending ASP’s Conversations panel discussions each season. The panelists provide fascinating background and perspectives for understanding the plays in their historical contexts and exploring the production choices, but the relevance of the plays to the modern world really speaks for itself.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Fireworks on the Mystic

Clear skies, and 30 minutes of starbursts among the stars. Standing amidst the boats we gasp and point and smile, as fire bridges the gap from water to air. The earth element is now only echoes, repeated percussions behind us.

An hour earlier, we had scouted possible locations to watch the fireworks from the uncrowded side of the Mystic, and the payoff was a yacht club dock paralleling the shore. The fireworks launch was right in front of us in the middle of the river, so we had a perfect view of the low-level display as well as the higher aerial shells. And thankfully no flash-bang salute shells, which would have been ear-splittingly loud at that closeness over water. There were other people and a couple of dogs scattered across the dock, and the fire department had set up as a precaution back on the shore, but it felt like we had lucked into a private show.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Words

The debate last night showed two quite different styles. Thanks to Wordle for these images comparing Joe Biden’s and Sarah Palin’s word frequencies.


Thursday, October 2, 2008

Market efficiency

Curious about the process of selling textbooks to university bookstores? The bookstore would like free shipping and unlimited return privileges. But the returned copies are rarely in new condition, so they’re usually now worthless, and we receive zero income for the destroyed inventory. So we make the bookstore pay for shipping and we limit return quantities.

To choose a recent example, a bookstore orders 9 copies of the book, and 2 months later decides to return 5 of them. We point out that our return policy limits the return quantity on their order to 3 copies after 30 days. And we get a cheerful reply:

Thanks for your prompt reply. I will return these copies, and have coded the title to restrict future orders. We'll let any instructors adopting the title in the future know that we have to short order your titles, and special order the balance due to the returns policy.

(We probably should have just listed this one as “special order only”, though we might not have even sold the four.)
In other words, they’re pissed off that we are only willing to throw out 3 additional copies of the book in order to sell them 6 copies at a discount. They feel we should throw out 5 additional copies of the book in order to sell them 4 copies at a discount. Underlyingly, they’re pissed off that publishers are no longer totally dependent on the bookstore. Their response to that situation is to encourage students to order their books through other sales channels, making the students less dependent on the bookstore as well.

I know I’m not supposed to send a reply saying “Sounds good!” But it does sound good. The current process of selling through university bookstores adds 35% to our printing costs due to returns. The only marketplace factor which costs us more is the used textbook market, which is largely driven by university bookstores. Our biggest economic risk is also university bookstores, because they declare bankruptcy in clusters (and when that happens, we are out 60 to 90 days of unpaid orders). If the university bookstores want to disintermediate themselves, that’s ok.

Our textbooks are $20 to $50, rather than $150 to $200. Higher prices improve the economics of selling to university bookstores, but I still don’t see how a supply chain with 50% waste is sustainable.

The biggest reason for a student to buy a textbook at the university bookstore is immediate access. That’s also the reason for university bookstores to order too many copies and return half of them. Universities could theoretically ask professors to choose their textbooks sooner, publicize the textbook details, and ask students to order all their textbooks a couple of weeks before the start of the semester. Or publishers could put the first couple of textbook chapters online, which would take care of students while they wait for their textbooks to arrive either through another sales channel or through the dreaded bookstore “special order.”

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

(In)to a good year

Like photos, a selective journal can both supplement and supplant memories. Skimming back through my journal provides touchstones to the year past, but the greater narrative needed for Rosh Hashanah has to come from within. This afternoon I will stand at the river bank and cast my sins onto the water, those remembered and those unremembered. And I will renew my prayers for a sweet new year, filled with love and laughter. These rituals too are touchstones, reminders of the greater work needed over the days and year to come if we wish to actually improve our world and ourselves. L’shana tovah.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Kooza

We went to see Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza earlier this month, and seriously considered going back to see it again before its Boston run ends in a couple of weeks. We’ve seen a lot of Cirque shows at this point, and despite the consistent structure and predictable clowning, many of the acrobatic acts in Kooza still managed to surprise and delight in new ways. Strength, grace, flexibility, teamwork, a sense of play, and a complete defiance of physical limitations and occasionally of physics itself. Those are hallmarks of Cirque shows, and their shows leave me not just in awe of what other people can do, but convinced that I can push beyond some of my own limitations.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Yeah, that’s the ticket

I’m not going to mow our back yard because of the historic crisis in our financial system. And I’m calling on the grass to stop growing, too.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Liberals like new experiences

I don't really have time to develop a proper post, but I watched Jonathan Heidt's Ted Talk about The Real Difference Between Liberals and Conservatives on my lunch break, and I think it's an interesting place to start a discussion about how democrats might alter their message to appeal to more of those moderate voters who are nervous about all this talk of change.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

7 weeks or less

Sarah Palin's relationship to the Alaska GOP establishment and state government has precisely mirrored her relationship to the Wassila town government: take people's support on her way up, then discard them as soon as politically convenient to do so. Her lasting friendships were formed in high school: she has appointed numerous high school classmates to top positions in Alaska's government. But she has hung onto her resentments from that time as well, and it's not clear that she ever matured beyond high school. A consistent theme of her public life has been loyalty to nobody outside her immediate family, demands for fealty from those under her authority, and a fervent pursuit of vendettas. As mayor and later as governor, she fired everyone who crossed her.

Palin has always campaigned on a platform of clean government and ethics reform. She filed ethics complaints against those above her while she was on the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. She publicly scolded Ted Stevens for ethical violations when it became expedient to do so, after knowingly depending on those suddenly unethical tactics for years. Advocating for ethics is admirable, but it's clearly just a hunting blind for political attacks when her own ethics are so lacking. Long before the numerous lies she has been telling as a candidate for vice president, she was claiming per diem travel pay for hundreds of nights spent at home, doing something on her tax returns that she's now hiding, appointing utterly unqualified friends to overpaid government posts, and being so vicious in attacking her sister's ex-husband while child custody was being worked out that the judge described her actions as child abuse.

All of this suggests that Sarah Palin's exit from the 2008 presidential campaign, whether it is before or after Election Day in November, is likely to be spectacularly nasty. She has a long potential future in politics, while John McCain does not, so she doesn't need him any longer. Once she leaves the campaign, she will be casting blame in any direction but her own. Campaign managers put words in her mouth. The media was unfair. Bloggers were unfair. The campaign didn't listen to her ideas for campaign strategy. And John McCain lied to her or to the public, whether it was about the vetting process, his campaign positions, her campaign positions. We're already seeing the groundwork laid for a scorched earth exit, as Sarah Palin's husband drops new hints that the vetting process by the McCain campaign was incomplete and rushed. All we need to do is convince Sarah Palin that her political future will be brighter if she leaves before the election, citing ethical problems with the McCain campaign that she is unwilling to tolerate. If she believes that McCain will lose the election anyway, she will certainly get far more press by leaving early. Electus interruptus may not be a foolproof strategy, but it's been so much more fun than abstaining from the race to start with.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Rainbow at Stellwagen Bank


Photo by Michael

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Primary Day next Tuesday

If you live in Carl Sciortino’s district and are voting on the Democratic ballot, the only name you’ll see on the ballot is Robert Trane. But you can still vote for Carl, who is a great state representative (and a really friendly, kind, and interested-in-the-world person). Just write in “Carl M. Sciortino, Jr., 17 Orchard St., Medford” in the next empty box and connect the arrow or fill in the bubble. See www.writeincarl.com for details.

I’ll be doing the same for the Register of Probate position for Middlesex County. Solves the problem of how to vote against John Buonomo. Carl for everything!

Our only other serious choice on the ballot is for Governor’s Council, which rubber-stamps reviews judicial and parole board nominations. I’m voting for Michael Callahan, because his opponent scares me.

This is how I choose to take note of 9/11. Please vote.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

How the Huntington Lost the Audience

The Huntington’s first production under their new artistic director is a world premiere of How Shakespeare Won the West, by Richard Nelson. A group of actors decide to leave New York for California during the Gold Rush, having heard that the miners are desperate for entertainment and that they love plays, particularly Shakespeare. This sounds like a great premise, and the program contains some fun historical anecdotes about the popularity of Shakespeare in 19th-century America. After finding our seats and looking through the program, we settled in for the ride.

Well, traveling across the country in the 1840’s was wearying, stressful, and generally joyless. Just like the play!

The story, it turns out, is narrated by the entire company. Non-stop. I mean, they really won’t shut up. And the constant bouncing in and out of role does neither the actors nor the audience any favors. It feels like a Christmas pageant in which each child has been given Very Important Lines so that nobody feels left out.

—Look, now they’re telling the story of how they looked for a comic actor for their troupe.
—Oh, now they’re acting out a scene where they find the comic actor.
—Yeah, it’s a shame he’s not funny, but at least he’s not really trying to be funny, is he?

Of course, in a Christmas pageant, the kids are cute, loving family members are in the audience, and there’s an upbeat story. And, with any luck, there’s more than one song.

The fundamental problems with How Shakespeare Won the West lay squarely at the feet of the playwright. He spends far too long setting up the journey across America and not enough time on the journey. You can see the outline he first developed for the story because so much of it remains in outline form and the later pieces are hurried through. (Though I hesitate to suggest that the play should be longer, because I certainly wouldn’t want to see more of it.) The characters are labeled instead of developed, and there’s no relationship between most of the characters because they’re too busy talking to the audience to interact with each other. In fact, the only complex network of interactions happens during the 15 minutes of dumb show as the characters arrive on stage before the curtain.

There’s one powerful set piece where an Indian chief who does not speak English is deeply moved by a performance of King Lear. The distancing of the constant narration is finally overcome for a few moments, though the playwright steps on the emotional climax in a desperate attempt to segue to the next item on his outline.

By the time the characters arrive in California, they are broken, and so is the interest of the audience. The climax of the play felt like an epilogue, and even then the playwright tacked on a secondary ending that just made it all worse. There was no standout performance. I left with admiration for the settlers and prospectors and performers who sought their fortunes or sought new lives in the great American West, sympathy for the actors who worked so hard to accomplish so little, and a deep and abiding hope that I never have to sit through another Richard Nelson play.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Ask me for money

As an arts council, we have to decide on how much funding to give each project. There are theoretically many different ways we could do this. Even if just one person were making the funding decisions, do you try to spread your funding among as many projects as possible or focus on giving more support to better projects? Do you strictly rank all projects by various criteria, or just put them in buckets of good, better, best? If two similar projects ask for different amounts of money, do you give more money to the project that asked for more money (since they asked for more) or equal amounts (since they are similar projects) or more money to the project that asked for less money (since that project is more efficient or is more likely to happen)?

Each of us can individually make these decisions, but how do we make them as a council of 5 to 22 people? Do we each make our own allocations of the complete budget and then average those allocations? If a majority of the council agrees on a particular level of funding for a particular project, should they just vote to allocate that amount and then let us move on to the remaining projects and the remaining money? Should we assign $15,000 of the funding through an averaged allocation (the first approach), and then allow each council member to allocate $500 of funding? I like variations on this last idea because it makes it more meaningful that each individual person is on the council, and allows a project to be fully funded if a few council members feel strongly about supporting that particular project. On the other hand, the first approach allows a few council members who feel strongly that a particular project should not be funded to reduce the amount of funding that the project receives.

As a further complication, how do we deal with conflicts of interest, since one or two council members may not be allowed to vote on particular grants? And how do we ensure that we meet our guidelines of floors and caps on particular types of grants?

We need a process that is comprehensible, easy to implement, doesn’t require endless rounds of voting, and keeps each council member feeling that their voice matters in the process. Opinions are very welcome.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Rose mallow in our garden


Photo by Michael

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

A time of renewal

The arts council is changing. Our chair resigned in the spring, and our current treasurer and chair (one person) is leaving before the end of the year. Three new members have just joined the council this summer, so along with the three of us who joined last fall there is little continuity. And in the next two weeks we will rethink our funding priorities and procedures, taking into account this summer’s survey results.

Far more people mailed back the survey than completed it online, and we ended up with around 100 completed surveys. We can pass this along to other councils as a positive example, since gathering community input can be difficult. And once we’ve collated and analyzed the results, we’ll have some good information about our community’s priorities and interests.

What we then need is a sense of ourselves: who are we as council members, what are our individual and collective strengths and weaknesses, who should we call on to handle particular tasks, and who would it be helpful to recruit to join us? Do we need someone who has experience in the outside grants world, or with local or state politics, or with the school system, or with PR and marketing? Or do we already have those bases covered? In a way we need to do a collective self-interview, and that may be more difficult than interviewing our community.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Olympics

Tivo recorded about 180 hours of Olympics for us, sometimes more than 20 hours in a day. We’re almost done watching the recordings, four days after the closing ceremonies, and we were certainly able to see more Olympics this way than we ever have in the past. I used to hate watching non-live sporting events, but I guess I’ve gotten used to it. It was sometimes frustrating to know the results ahead of time, since I don’t have a Firefox extension that can redact the sports results from news pages.

NBC didn’t do as many sob story retrospectives this year, showing how every athlete has overcome horrendous personal tragedies. That was really the only improvement this year. NBC still skips blocks of points in the middle of matches, provides nonstop repetitive chatter, rarely explains fine points of the rules or scoring, and complains about the judging whenever possible. Watching online would be a far better choice if only the frame rate weren’t so poor (and the screen so small), because then you can watch entire matches without the commentators, check the rules and scoring guidelines, and not wear the print entirely off the Tivo remote’s skip forward button while trying to bypass 8760 commercials and 17 hours of gymnasts sitting around waiting for their scores to be posted. Oh, and maybe see more than 10 minutes of badminton.

If we had the Tivo connected to broadband, there may have been some better ways to record individual sports rather than 4-hour to 8-hour mixed blocks. But when you do have to record a huge block of time as an individual program, Tivo really needs a way to let you delete part of a program. Even a limited functionality of that would be tremendously helpful.

Despite those frustrations, there were many amazing events to watch. Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt are tremendously fast, but there were some swimming finals where almost the entire field was ahead of world record time for much of the race. The Cuban women’s indoor volleyball team dominated their first match against the US, playing at a very high level. The new gymnastics scoring had gymnasts trying more difficult and impressive routines, which bodes well for the progression of the sport in the future. And I’m always blown away by the diving.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

I can has royaltiez?

Oxford University Press has published a new book by David Crystal on the language of text messaging, cleverly titled Txtng: The Gr8 Db8. The executive summary: Chill, white-haired dudes! Language isn’t being weirded too much.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Aphrodite frittilary




Photos by Michael

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Sweet, sweet eucalyptus

A Reuters article about DEET smelling bad to mosquitoes (and the more DEET the better as a repellent) also mentioned that the key neurons in their antennae

also reacted, even more strongly, to compounds known as terpenoids, which help make up the distinctive aromas of eucalyptus, cloves, menthol and camphor.
Time to adjust our garden plans.

Tubes


Photo by Michael

Monday, August 18, 2008

Curves in architecture

What would you do with 50 kilometers of white polypropylene string?



Closer to home, John Kostick created the ultimate pergola.



Our house is mostly straight lines. But perhaps in the back yard we could someday afford a non-rectilinear shed, also built by John Kostick:

Friday, August 15, 2008

For my father

Falling,
falling,
falling.

We fall into place, fall into line,
fall asleep, fall apart. And sometimes,
we just fall.

Nightmares have always been a part of my life,
like migraines or heartache or any other life-defining trait
that nobody else can see. The self,
alone,
falling.

We lift our spirits, lift our gaze,
lift our burdens, and set them down again.
We create the lives we want, and wonder whether
these are the lives we want, and wonder when
we will fall.

Vertigo too, invisible, inevitable. Always
falling. I seek the edge, prove the nightmares
wrong, prove the vertigo
wrong, prove the edge
wrong.

Offset words and offset lines,
parallels upon parallels.
Words line up,
and scream,
and fall silent.
The book unread, the story untold.

The story untold is not truth.
Neither is the story fully told.
Truth falls between the extremes,
slipping into consciousness
and into nightmares
and still we are falling.
The truth is falling.
The sky is falling.
The world is falling.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Buying a piano, part 2

The previous post really just talked about my journey in piano shopping, without giving any advice based on what I’ve learned. Here’s some actual advice:

1. Consider a digital piano or keyboard. If you’re happy with a digital, there are tremendous advantages: no expensive tunings every 6 months, no specialized movers, volume control, and many computerized bells and whistles. Literally. You can make it sound like bells and whistles.

2. Try lots of different pianos, both expensive and cheap, both new and old. Figure out what you care about and how picky you are. You may decide you strongly prefer certain types of pianos, or you may find that any piano is fine as long as it works and the case is attractive.

3. Get a copy of The Piano Book by Larry Fine. He includes lots of great explanations and advice, as well as descriptions of many current piano manufacturers.

4. Avoid large piano sales events you see advertised—they’re rip-offs. Realize that most piano stores run like car dealerships, except the pricing is far more variable and you’ll never see the dealer invoice. All the usual cautions about buying a car apply.

5. You can save a lot of money by buying a used piano, and even more by buying from a person rather than a store. Some people have an inflated sense of how much their piano is worth, but spending a bit of time poking around craigslist should give you a good sense of the market. It’s hard to evaluate a used piano’s condition yourself, and if you’re spending a significant amount of money you may want to ask your piano tuner (or piano technician) to take a look at the piano before you buy it. You have a piano tuner, right? No? Ask friends or neighbors for recommendations for a piano tuner. They can also be a good source for finding a used piano. [Edit: I meant the piano tuner can be a good source, but so can friends and neighbors.]

6. The way a piano was cared for and the conditions it was kept in matter far more than its age. Avoid a piano that has spent any significant length of time in a storage facility, or in a church basement, or in a daycare.

7. You do not get what you pay for. Prices, particularly at the low end of the used market, are highly variable. From free to $1000, the prices are essentially random. And no piano is free unless you want to move a 500-pound instrument yourself and learn to tune it yourself.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Buying a piano

In July 1995, my friends bought me a piano. It was an incredible gift, a lovely huge old Hallet & Davis with a light touch and a resonant soundboard. Made right here in Boston about 80 years earlier. It needed various repairs over the years, and those repairs gradually got more serious. Eventually the bass bridge gave up the ghost, and an extensive rebuild didn’t seem like the right choice. The Hallet & Davis took a crane ride two years ago to a friend’s home where numerous children now enjoy it.

I looked at pianos at 9 or 10 different piano stores from Maine to Rhode Island a few years ago, and just never found the right piano. I did learn a fair bit about what I do and don’t like in an upright piano. Yamahas are very popular, but I don’t personally like the way their very stiff action has a noticeable shift partway through a key press. Steinways can be wonderful, but they’re a significant investment. I definitely like a mellow tone, which is more common in European soundboards, and the Schimmel pianos that Boston Organ and Piano had a few years back had a fabulous touch and resonance. Boston Organ and Piano had a few Kemble pianos as well which I liked a lot as well, though the brand is less well known. Several stores had pleasant Petrof pianos, which seem to be the best of the pianos coming out of Eastern Europe. I even found one Kawai that I liked down in Providence, but overall I strongly preferred the European pianos. The headache of dealing with a high-pressure sales pitch was frustrating, though, and I finally decided to just check craigslist periodically, hoping that a used Schimmel would come up. (I nearly bought a Sohmer that way a couple of years ago, until the piano technician who had supposedly tuned it every six months told me that the owners actually hadn’t had it tuned for 10 years.)

Time passed, and last week a used Schimmel appeared on craigslist. I made an appointment to go try it out, and figured in the meantime I should check in with Boston Organ and Piano to see what they were selling for these days, and see if the used one was holding up to how new ones sounded. I didn’t realize that Boston Organ and Piano had collapsed from 5 or 6 stores down to 1 and was no longer a Schimmel dealer (after 4 years of being the biggest Schimmel dealer in the world). I went to a couple of other piano stores, both overpriced and under-prepped. The saleswoman at one seemed to understand instantly what I liked and didn’t like in a piano, but the store’s selection was extremely weak. The other store had a huge selection, but the sales pitch was painful. I found one piano there that I probably would have bought for $8000, but it took an hour to get the price down from an inflated $16,000 to an inflated $15,000. On the other hand, the craigslist Schimmel turned out to be shockingly bright-sounding to my ear. After 7 hours over 2 days looking at pianos, I gave up. No more piano stores. I hate the unpredictably awful salespeople, the guessing game on the prices, the bad lighting and bad acoustics and frequently untuned pianos. And I wasn’t learning anything any longer by going to the stores. One more look through craigslist out of habit, and, wait, there was a lightly-used Kemble purchased new in 2005, built around 2001, in perfect condition and at a reasonable price. A couple of phone calls and a trip to try it out the next afternoon, and I bought a piano!

Kemble has made Yamaha pianos for the European market for quite a while, and they shifted over to using Yamaha parts for their own pianos. Recently Yamaha finished buying Kemble, and people say there is no real difference now in the Yamaha and Kemble piano lines except for the cases and perhaps the voicing. Since I’ve never personally liked Yamahas, I’m surprised that I like Kembles. But I consistently have liked the Kembles I’ve tried, and this one was no exception. (Actually, I may well have tried it out back when it was still in the showroom at Boston Organ and Piano.) And I’m very excited that I’ll have a piano in the house again. We’re moving furniture around to make space for it before it arrives on Saturday morning.

In an amusing coda, I received an e-mail today offering to sell me the $16,000 piano for $8000. Apparently the key to receiving a good price is to say that you’ve bought a different piano, and it’s good to know that my sense that the store’s prices were absurdly high was correct. I’m very happy with the Kemble, though, and I really don’t need two pianos.

Buying a camera

My parents recently asked whether I had any advice in choosing a new digital camera. I’m partial to Canon; I think their color accuracy is generally quite good. For snapshot purposes, I want a camera that’s lightweight to carry, easy to hold, turns on quickly, autofocuses quickly, and has a reasonable battery system. Megapixels are incredibly overrated; I’ve gotten great 8x10 prints from a 3-megapixel shot, and the difference between 7 and 12 megapixels is meaningless in most cases. Some features I like: a physical control of some sort for turning off the flash, a tiltable LCD screen, and a good zoom range for the lens (ignoring digital zoom, which is useless).

I’m hoping some of you might have other advice to offer. What kind of camera do you use? What do you like about it, and what do you wish for in your next camera?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Eureka

Lisa and I were delighted yesterday to find a games and puzzles store called Eureka Puzzles. The store is in Coolidge Corner in Brookline, and they have quite an impressive selection. It was difficult to choose only a few new toys.

After a blissful 90 minutes in the store, we had dinner at Rani Indian Bistro a couple of doors down from Eureka. Wow. It’s great to find an Indian restaurant that has some different dishes on the menu in addition to the standard choices. We tried the cardamom-spiced chicken and the salmon with omum seeds, two tandoori-roasted dishes, and both were excellent. And the gajjar ka halwa—a custard-like dessert made of carrots, milk, butter, cardamom, and nutmeg, garnished with chopped pistachios—had me merrily eating carrots. That’s an accomplishment.

Destroyer of worlds

70% of biologists believe that we are currently living through a mass extinction event caused by human actions.

We worry about an asteroid crashing into the planet, causing another mass extinction event. We study the solar system, hoping to discover the next asteroid on a collision course. We wonder whether we are better off trying to destroy an approaching asteroid or simply deflect its course slightly. And we would probably merrily destroy all asteroids if we had that ability, simply so we wouldn’t have to worry about which of them might next threaten our planet. We are, after all, the gods we imagine. We are Shiva.

I’d like to imagine that when humanity is discovered in a million years, some relic of our better natures will shine through. Writing and art, architecture and exploration, the fact that we sought to understand our world and the fact that we sought to improve our world. But it’s hard to imagine any of that outweighing the discovery that humanity was a colliding asteroid, a cause of a mass extinction event.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Wholly irresponsible

Whole Foods sold some ground beef that made some people ill. Very ill. And on August 6, Whole Foods pulled all shipments of that ground beef, but didn’t tell the public what they knew. Apparently Whole Foods didn’t even tell their own stores what they knew. Until August 8, when the Massachusetts Department of Public Health started warning the public not to eat any ground beef that had been purchased from Whole Foods between June 2 and August 6.

The store management at our local Whole Foods deflected all questions to the regional headquarters, which isn’t answering the phone or returning calls. And as of this afternoon, they still aren’t posting notices in the meat department or at the entrances and exits.

A recall like this is no fun. A lot of people will throw away food that isn’t in the recall, a lot of people will avoid the Whole Foods meat cases entirely, a lot of people will have a lot of questions and complaints that have no answers yet. And a lot of people will no longer trust Whole Foods, because Whole Foods doesn’t care enough about the safety of their customers to take simple steps to inform them that, oh, by the way, the ground beef that Whole Foods sold you recently could land you in the hospital, as it’s already done to at least 5 other people.

I think Whole Foods has a choice to make: this can be a learning experience for Whole Foods so they don’t hide information from their customers next time, or this can be a learning experience for a whole lot of Whole Foods customers.

Friday poem

A Man Doesn’t Have Time in his Life
Yehuda Amichai

A man doesn’t have time in his life
to have time for everything.
He doesn’t have seasons enough to have
a season for every purpose. Ecclesiastes
Was wrong about that.

A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment,
to laugh and cry with the same eyes,
with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them,
to make love in war and war in love.
And to hate and forgive and remember and forget,
to arrange and confuse, to eat and to digest
what history
takes years and years to do.

A man doesn’t have time.
When he loses he seeks, when he finds
he forgets, when he forgets he loves, when he loves
he begins to forget.

And his soul is seasoned, his soul
is very professional.
Only his body remains forever
an amateur. It tries and it misses,
gets muddled, doesn’t learn a thing,
drunk and blind in its pleasures
and its pains.

He will die as figs die in autumn,
Shriveled and full of himself and sweet,
the leaves growing dry on the ground,
the bare branches pointing to the place
where there’s time for everything.

Friday, August 1, 2008

A few scattered typos

I read a lot of book reviews in my field (though not closely), and I’ve noticed a boilerplate comment appearing more frequently along the lines of today’s “As a side note, the reader will also encounter a few scattered typos, though infrequent.” Sometimes the reviewer actually lists a typo or two.

I’ve done a lot of proofreading in my life, and in fact spent much of yesterday doing proofreading. I know the joy of finding the elusive typo, as well as the pain of seeing the ones that make it through to print. A few scattered typos are inevitable. They are not reflective of whether the publisher has done a thorough job editing the book, nor whether the author has interesting ideas presented in a thoughtful manner, nor whether the reader will find the book entertaining or informative. Turning book reviews—or worse, book reading—into a game of typo gotcha seems like a dreadful development. Please, if you’re a book reviewer, only mention the typos in a book if they would cause a respectable press to actually recall the book.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Remaining silent

I was raised to believe that the police were friendly, and I’ve known genuinely decent and friendly cops. I’ve chatted with plenty of cops on street corners, asked them for directions, reported crimes, and offered witness statements. I never used to worry about talking to the police, because I never had anything to hide.

I still have nothing to hide, but I’ve learned that it is perilous to talk to a law enforcement officer of any variety. That still distresses me, because our society is very poorly served by a system where honest and law-abiding citizens face serious risks from talking to the police. But there are in fact numerous reasons that every defense attorney will tell you to never talk to the police, even if you have done nothing wrong and even if you want to tell the police the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Some of those reasons are laid out clearly, if quickly, by law professor James Duane in a 27-minute lecture. You may follow his reasoning and still disagree with his conclusions, as do many of the commenters on that page, simply because his conclusions are distressing. I’ll just point out that Duane goes out of his way to assume an ideal world in which the police officer you talk to is completely honest and well-intentioned, and his conclusions hold even in such a world.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

As time goes by

A dear friend of mine has written a thoughtful reflection about the costs of keeping and severing our ties to friends from days gone by. It is not easy to maintain friendships with those who do not live near us, or even with all those who do. I certainly claim no answers, but I do know that the questions are worth reflection.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Rhododendron


Photo by Michael

We saw several stunningly large rhododendrons in Rockport, MA, a few weeks ago. Sometimes a plant seems to find the ultimate microclimate and attains absurd proportions, and these were such a case. A homeowner saw us admiring one at the street and invited us to see the one in their back yard: 15 feet tall, 25 feet across, covered in blooms.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Avoid HP LaserJets

Memo to self: stop buying HP LaserJets and HP toner cartridges. I know, I own two HP LaserJets right now, and I’ve owned at least five other HP LaserJets, and I’ve convinced plenty of other people to buy HP LaserJets, and I’ve been using and troubleshooting HP LaserJets since they were invented. That creates a comfort level that has always persuaded me to only look at HP whenever I needed a new laser printer. But when I buy professional-level printers that are supposed to handle at least 25,000 pages per month and I only use them for 10% of that, I expect them to be reasonably reliable. Instead they’ve become disposable pieces of crap, and HP’s support has become distinctly unprofessional.

The almost new $200 HP toner cartridge that dumped toner all over my rug and me this afternoon? The one with the lifetime warranty? HP has no process for honoring that warranty. The pleasant woman at OfficeMax was dumbfounded to discover that HP treated her just as badly. She didn’t really believe that HP had bounced me around for close to an hour without resolving anything until HP then bounced her around for close to an hour without resolving anything. She’d been about to buy an HP computer and monitor herself, and that won’t be happening.

I’ve been growing disenchanted with the HP JetDirect network cards that cost $150 when they should cost $20 and tend to fry themselves after a year or two, the fuser assemblies that can’t handle cardstock despite the printer specs, the terrible HP software that is user-hostile on every level, and the increasing costs of their toner cartridges. But HP’s customer “support” today was incompetent and nasty, and that’s unacceptable.

On the bright side, the copy center in Lisa’s building loaned me their toner vacuum overnight. That was very kind of them, and has mitigated the damage to my rug. And now I know about toner vacuums, which are a handy $300 toy to have in the neighborhood.

Someday I’ll post reminiscences of the early days of laser printers, when BlackLightning created transfer toner and encouraged an aftermarket subculture that wasn’t afraid to tinker. Their quirky and personal Flash magazine was the Make magazine for laser printers. Two decades later, HP has tech support reps who have to flip through a book of phone scripts to figure out what toner is and a switchboard that’s convinced that laser printers and LaserJets are completely different.

Update on 7/28: OfficeMax has decided to replace the defective HP toner cartridge that they sold me, though they’re not sure when the replacement will arrive. American Express will continue with their chargeback procedure until we confirm that OfficeMax has actually replaced the defective merchandise. HP, who over several hours of phone calls refused to provide any way to obtain any warranty service, called me up today to tell me that they decided that their lifetime warranty is only good for 30 days and that they don’t think the receipt that OfficeMax provided is real. And then they threatened to call me again tomorrow. HP’s behavior is not even remotely acceptable. It’s unfortunate that HP can get away with treating people this way, at least until HP declares bankruptcy or HP’s stock plummets even further.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Not so much a question as a comment

The comments widget that displays recent comments on the side of House out of Focus has been broken for a couple of weeks. I don’t know why. It is not an anti-comment move on my part; I just don’t know how to fix it. Rest assured that comments still work, old comments are not lost, and new comments are certainly welcome.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Clam festival

We drove up to the Yarmouth Clam Festival this past weekend, and it really is a great fair. Lots of crafts vendors from around the region, a parade that includes a huge bagpipe band and three sets of Shriners in little vehicles, fireworks, and a carnival with a great ferris wheel. The weather was flaky, with intermittent storms and an extremely rainy parade on Friday, but everything cleared up perfectly for the fireworks on Saturday night. We rode the ferris wheel afterwards, and the view that will linger from the weekend is the one of my wife sitting across from me in the round ferris wheel car, the bright and noisy fairgrounds slowly receding and reapproaching, and the huge orange moon increasingly lighting a striped section of sky. And me holding on to the center pole for dear life. I don’t really like heights, but I’d repeat that evening any time.

Ralph Pill vs. Home Depot

The problem with Home Depot is that they really are cheaper and have better policies. I had to pick up 4 15-amp single-pole arc fault circuit breakers this morning, and my choices were Ralph Pill electric supply company or Home Depot. Ralph Pill: $46 each (at their discounted price), 20% restocking fee if I return them. Home Depot: $35 each, no restocking fee.

I’d prefer to shop at Ralph Pill on principle. They’re a small regional chain instead of a huge national chain. They probably treat their employees better. I’d love to find some more rationalizations to support what feels like a more local business. But adding over 30% to the price is significant, and the restocking fee is particularly unfriendly. I decided to spend my money at Ralph Pill this time, but I’m afraid I’ll be back at Home Depot next time.

On the bright side, we’ll have 4 circuits that will be less likely to burn down the house. And you can’t put a price on that.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Does your bank trust you? Do you trust your bank?

COCC, who provide services for numerous small banks, helpfully lists some of the suspicious things you might do with your bank account.

Remember, if you see something, say something. In that spirit, here are some recent suspicious behaviors by my bank:

  • All branches closed on a weekday with no explanation
  • Phone lines not working on a weekday
  • Failing to reply to queries sent through their web site
  • Failing to reply to written correspondence
  • Reducing check images on statements to 2 inches across, rendering them essentially unreadable
  • Losing wire transfer details
  • Prominently displaying their robbery protocols folder behind the counter

Cash flow

It’s got to be tough to be a web host right now. You have an enormous and growing electric bill, with no real way to hedge those cost increases. Your data pipes may be on a contracted rate, and computer hardware costs aren’t increasing rapidly, but that electric bill is going to eat you alive. Meanwhile, you get paid a monthly amount by your customers, and there’s tremendous pressure not to increase that monthly amount by much. Rate increases defeat customer inertia in driving down customer retention rates. And many of your customers prepay for a year of service in exchange for a discount, so there’s no hope of more money coming in from those customers in order to cover your increased costs. And you still have to meet payroll and tax obligations and other expenses.

One common desperation move when facing cash flow problems is to stall your payments to suppliers and try to accelerate your income. For example, you could ask your customers who normally pay for the upcoming year of service in January to pay you the previous July instead. That will help you for several months, because you’ll have all that money in the bank. Customers will be happy, because they’ve just locked in a future year of service at current rates, which seems like a good idea in an inflationary environment. Just don’t ask your accountant, who should be asking you how you plan to keep paying your bills next year when none of the usual money is coming in from your annual renewals.

My web host is pushing customers to prepay for 2009 web hosting now (instead of next January) and to prepay for many years of domain hosting now. I think they have a fair bit of breathing space, because they could still save some money by reducing their support staff. But I think it’s time to start exploring alternatives. When a business fails due to cash flow problems after already accelerating their income beyond all reason, it fails fast.

P.S. I’m not naming the web host, because I want other customers to continue paying them and signing up with them. Even if they’re not in financial trouble now, they will be if they appear to be having cash flow problems. A perfectly healthy business can easily be taken down by suppliers canceling credit terms and customers fleeing, just like a bank run can take down a financially solvent bank. So while the general problem is interesting to ponder, my bank is just fine and my web host has no problems. Keep repeating that, kids, or Tinkerbell will die.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Inflation

Gasoline, heating oil, natural gas, airline tickets, beer, food, fertilizer, haircuts, health insurance, and shipping are all about 20%-25% more expensive than a year ago. I’ve never lived through this sort of rapid inflation, and I’m not actually sure how to think about it. Especially since wages are not increasing.

On the personal front, I can obviously reduce some expenditures. Travel less, drive less, eat out less, put off major purchases. Having money in the bank starts to feel foolish, since the value of that money is dropping rapidly. Not having money in the bank is risky, since we’d like to pay our bills.

On the business front, should I raise the price on books already in my catalog? Add an inflation surcharge to mimic the fuel surcharges and energy surcharges and baggage surcharges and ad infinitum surcharges on everything I buy? But since I don’t want this sort of inflation to be happening, shouldn’t I refrain from contributing to it? How big a raise should I plan on for my employee, given that his costs are also increasing? Don’t I have a moral obligation as an employer to have wages keep up with the cost of living? Lisa’s employer feels no such moral obligation, but I don’t want to be in a race to the bottom with them.

Not everything is increasing in cost rapidly. Claritin is about the same price it was a year ago. So at least I can watch the economy fail without sneezing.

Seriously, I don’t know how to think about it. I’d rather pretend that the price increases are temporary or manageable or limited. It’s easier than giving up my intuitions and habits about prices and wages.

Replacement windows

Yesterday we finally had three replacement windows installed – two in my office, one in our living room. Polo and Guillermo from ProWindows did a great job, taking the time to get everything right.

We ordered the Anderson Woodwright windows from Home Depot several months ago, thinking that we had someone to install them. Then the windows sat on our front porch for the entire spring. When we realized we had to make other arrangements, ProWindows graciously agreed to take our small labor-only job and fit us in rather rapidly. Arte came to look at the situation on the same day, checked the measurements, and made sure he understood what we saw as the complicating factors (since nothing on an old house is simple). They found a space in their schedule a few weeks later, arrived exactly when they said they would, and did exactly what they were supposed to. Now the old storms and sashes are gone, the weight pockets are insulated, the exterior wood frame is wrapped in aluminum, and we have three new windows! All that’s left is for us to polyurethane the insides, add a couple of aftermarket handles, and appreciate the noise reduction and the reduced air and water infiltration. Well, and look askance at the 20 other windows on the first and second floors that would clearly like to be replaced. We’re already making our priority list for the next round, and ProWindows will definitely get the job.

The upgraded screen that we got on one window definitely makes a difference in appearance, with the finer mesh being much less visible. The maple interiors are much more even in color than pine, and match the new office floor. We’ll have to stain the maple on the living room window, but the maple will take a stain more easily than pine. I’m surprised that Anderson doesn’t offer a factory finish on the wood interiors – none of the window manufacturers do, but the first one that does will have a definite marketplace advantage over the others. Nobody would spend thousands of dollars on unfinished kitchen cabinets, but somehow that’s the status quo for wood replacement windows.

It’s still not easy to fit in a window air conditioner and seal the gaps, which is a failure of engineering. The only improvement I’ve seen in window air conditioners (aside from baby steps towards energy efficiency) has been the slide-in chassis, where you install the relatively lightweight chassis into the window and then slide the core of the unit into the chassis. I’d love to see flexible and insulated side panels that can properly seal to the window frame, rubber on the top and bottom of the chassis to reduce vibration and seal the gaps to the sash and sill, and ports on the side panels that can be opened to chase away nest-building birds. And would it really be that hard to design a quieter air conditioner? Manufacturers advertise their units as quiet, knowing that people care about that. But they don’t list the noise level in sones or decibels, since they also know that their units are not actually quiet at all. And with the exterior noise reduction from our new windows, interior noises become more noticeable.