Jan 31, 2008

quite amusing

Jan 29, 2008


i was up in the mountains last night and it was as dark and quiet as it is possible to be while still surrounded by human habitation. i pulled a down comforter from the bed in the pitch-black room and heard the crackling of lightning and saw sea green sparks between the sheets. then, this morning, it was cold and windy, with clusters of powdery snowflakes drifting sideways and upwards. a pretty good life, in all.

Jan 25, 2008


this is a nice idea, and elegant. aquaduct is the winner of innovate or die. (idea by, i think, the happy folks at goodby, silverstein.) which goes to show that a surprisingly paltry grand prize ($5000) can call forth a remarkable product.

again with the bakings

map showing multiple points of interest.
pegman appears to contemplate a watery end.

map cake

Jan 24, 2008

translation in chat

this is the kind of thing that makes me bliss out about working at google. engineers (including one i know, the lovely and delightful sha-mayn) have been working on statistical translation of language pairs and you can see the results at Google Translate. in mid-december, they announced real-time translation in google chat and google talk. it was only today that i realized how unbelievably awesome this is -- they support 23 language pairs and, in chinese at least, the translations are incredibly idiomatic and polite. it works by inviting a translation bot to your chat, so it's as if you have a virtual translator in the room with you -- a really neat and elegant approach, i think, though it does make for inherently amusing chats since the translations aren't always spot on:

me: this also does FRENCH!!!GTranslate: 这也不代表法语!

Audrey : oh dear
GTranslate : 哦亲爱的
en2fr: Ah
me: this also does french!
en2fr: Ce ne français!
GTranslate: 这也不代表法语!
Audrey: this is ridiculous
GTranslate: 这是荒谬的
en2fr: C'est ridicule
Audrey: it's like I'm having a conversation with myself
GTranslate: 这就像我有一个谈话与自己
en2fr: C'est comme je avoir une conversation avec moi-même
Audrey: and me and me
GTranslate: 我和我
en2fr: Et moi et moi
Audrey: see the french I can understand
GTranslate: 看到法语,我可以理解
en2fr: Voir le français je peux le comprendre
Audrey: the chinese I could not
GTranslate: 中国人,我不能
en2fr: Le chinois je ne pouvais pas

full instructions and a list of language pairs is available in the google talk blog announcement about it.

frothing milk

yesterday, i watched closely as a colleague who used to be a professional snooty coffee maker steamed up some milk for a latte. he manages to produce, each time, steamed milk with froth of a mousse-like consistency, full of microscopic bubbles and dense, yet light, like well-whipped cream (which it is, sort of). i took copious notes, experimented throughout the day, and was able to abstract the following principles:

  • non-fat milk produces lame results -- don't use it. 2% is fine, full-fat produces no difference that i can detect once diluted with a shot of espresso.
  • good milk tastes so much better than bad milk that it is a crime to drink anything else. we get quite good milk from clover stornetta in the north bay. they have a sweet mascot and some appealingly dorky billboards.
  • the milk must be cold in order to absorb enough steam and heat to froth well without cooking. some people put the milk and steaming container in the freezer while pulling the espresso shot, but that seems excessive.
  • use a thin-walled metal container to steam the milk so that you can feel the temperature changes with minimal delay.
  • regardless of the container you use, have 3-4 inches of milk in it.
  • before activating the steam, place the tip of the steamer about a half-inch under the surface of the milk, off-center. cup the container in your hand instead of using the handle.
  • steam on, and immediately bring the tip of the steamer just under the surface of the milk, still off-center. you should see a controlled roil, not a furious bubbling. it should look a little like this picture of the churning of the sea of milk.
  • the surface of the milk will begin to look thick and glossy after 5-10 seconds and the milk should be warmish but not hot. at this point, push the tip of the steamer to the bottom of the container, as far off to the side as possible to encourage a swirly, vortex-esque movement of the milk. the vortex ensures that the heating is uniform.
  • your hand should still be cupping the container; shut off the steam before the container becomes too hot to hold comfortably.
once done steaming, tap the container against a hard surface to pop the big, vulgar bubbles and leave only the smallest, finest-textured ones behind.

max the steaming fiend points out that my instructions can be modified with similarly good results and that there is a distinction between foam and the frothy mousse that the latte fan seeks. he's right, of course. so this is max:
using my office steamer i've found that i can use the side of the container to produce a vortex and moderate the steam jet. if you steam a lot of milk (several inches deep) slowly without disrupting the surface at all, you build up volume and glossy microbubbles. then at the very end when its warm i move up to about a third to a half an inch beneath the surface and fill the container.
this glossy thick mousse is different than foam - for foam (and so, i think for cappuccinos) the skim is best.
if you add honey you get something which can sometimes be burnt but if you get the temp right is almost like meringue.

Jan 22, 2008

the black phoenix alchemy lab

having just gone to bourbon and branch, i'm suffering from a massive over-inclination to appreciate commercial endeavours that depend on unrealistic levels of connoisseurship for success. the black phoenix alchemy lab, whose carceri fragrance i discovered while searching google for the producers of yo-yo ma's sound of the carceri, turns out to have numerous scent categories celebrating, among a host of things,

  • characters from neil gaiman's latest books and good omens. agnes nutter's fragrance (she was burnt at the stake) is composed of gunpowder, charred wood, smoke, and rusty nails.
  • shades of dream, including one named oneiroi, "Created to invoke the ancient Greek deities of dreams. On the shores of the ocean, somewhere in the West, they dwell behind their gates of horn and ivory."*
possibly the best description of all is the scent called burial: "deep, brooding forest scents, including juniper and patchouli. The scent of upturned cemetery loam mingling with floral offerings to the dead." aha.

the relentlessly consistent, victorian, i'm-channeling-aubrey-beardsley aesthetic was somewhat punctured (but only slightly) by my discovery of the BPAL trading post, the habiliments department of which sells yoga pants.

* yes, yes, minz points out that the real horn/ivory reference is from the aeneid, but the fagles translation of the bit in the odyssey is much, much better:
"Two gates there are for our evanescent dreams,
one is made of ivory, the other made of horn.
Those that pass through the ivory cleanly carved
are will-o'-the-wisps, their message bears no fruit,
The dreams that pass through the gates of polished horn
are fraught with truth, for the dreamer who can see them."

Jan 18, 2008

a piece of cloth

across the hall from the history of history, there was a traveling collection from the kyoto costume institute accompanied by more photographs by sugimoto that were not very inspiring. fortunately, to make up for it, the collection contained some topological clothing which was pretty cool from rei kawakubo and the miyake design lab. when i stumbled on a piece of cloth (by dai fujiwara and issey miyake) a few years ago, it was epiphanic. a-poc is a line from the miyake design lab employing a process designed to create fully-constructed pieces of clothing as the end-product of weaving -- they encode three-dimensionality into a two-dimensional object by careful and complex manipulation of the weave.

the genes of the cloth force it to become a specific object with only a small range of variation. (as it turns out, fujiwara himself has described a-poc as being a genetically-encoded design object; it's also particularly wonderful that only a few weavers were able to adapt their production processes to produce a-poc pieces, almost all of whom were master kimono fabric weavers):

The process by which A-POC collections are made is something of a technological revolution in itself (patents pending), and often uses specially developed materials. The A-POC knits are made on industrial knitting machines from the 1930s and 1940s. Fujiwara spent five years developing this machinery to suit the needs of A-POC as well as the computer software that is now used to program them. The thread patterns they produce look a little like a chessboard from an Escher drawing and nothing at all like the piece of clothing they will eventually become. Nevertheless, they still use the same logic as traditional looms, which, at their most basic, direct threads over or under one another, and at their most complex become A-POC. Fujiwara explains the process in his essay for the Vitra Design Museum's catalogue for the 2001 A-POC Making exhibition: 'Analysing A-POC clothing, one finds a set of dots. If one is to consider these dots to be like genes in a human body, each A-POC dress may consist of as many as 200 million "genes".' (courtesy of contemporary)
the limitation on final form is both restriction and stimulation; while it reduces the number of forms a given length of fabric can be transformed into, it also reduces assembly time to nearly nothing. today, clothing, tomorrow, buildings. imagine taking structural steel and concrete and weaving it into flat-pack sheets that are cut up and popped open into houses on-site, within minutes. there was also a rei kawakubo sweater on display that was a single flat piece of knit with slits woven into it, which had been transformed into a draping and three-dimensional form through folding and interpenetration (unlike a sari, which transformed by coiling into a cylinder) -- pretty neat, though very strange-looking. actually, who are we kidding? all of it looked really odd, especially this:

issey miyake (1994), photo by hiroshi sugimoto

in any case, when final forms are built into the fabric of pieces allowing only minor variations to be made to the finished work, the planning and design process requires detail, future-oriented thinking, and extensive optimization. future-oriented thinking seems to emerge in many of the iconic cultural products of japan,* so that i wonder a) if it's something cultural and b) what the genesis of the impulse was -- it's always difficult, without penetrating the hermeneutic circle, to understand whether a piece of work or a body of work represents simple expression of a culture gene or real innovation.

* ise shrine in mie prefecture, for example, is rebuilt in alternating adjacent sites approximately every twenty years, a way of ensuring perpetuity without senescence. the cycles of rebuilding have continued with only a few interruptions for over 1200 years. next rebuilding is in 2013, and i have every intention of being proximate.

Jan 16, 2008

little, big

thanks to the lifton-zolines and joel finkelstein, i've been re-introduced to the work of john crowley. the last time i picked up little, big, i put it down again after just two pages. something about the opening chapter failed to resonate, or it may have been the mood of the time. (i had the same experience with the hobbit, which i have still not succeeded in finishing.) this confirms my belief that for every book, there is a time and, presumably, a place.

this time, here, little, big is superb. reading it is a bizarre experience -- the plot recedes and you are drawn gently through a progression of images, all intricate and dim, like old daguerreotypes or piranesi's etchings of imaginary prisons.*

carceri d'invenzione, plate 7: the drawbridge

it feels like walking into a warm, slow-moving, dark river. crowley is funny too, as inventive with the language as rushdie and his images as fabulous as marquez, but without the compulsive flashiness of either. for reasons unknown, he's never made it to the pantheon of great fantasists. for that, little, big probably deserves to be somewhere on the top ten list of unfairly unknown books, together with t.r. pearson's short history of a small place.

* the carceri d'invenzione have prompted some pretty unusual creative output. for one, any perfumier intelligent enough to create a scent in celebration of imaginary prisons is worthy of investigation. not to forget that the inspired by bach series had yo-yo ma playing bach's solo cello suite no. 2 in a computer-generated rendition of piranesi's etchings. performance spaces have a particular dynamic and auditory profile that performers in them respond to; the idea of playing a piece in response to an imaginary performance space so that the sound engineers can later transform the recording is quite astonishing.

Jan 15, 2008

bourbon and branch

after hearing about it ad infinitum from ami, who harbours a deep desire to be milk and honey, we made a reservation at bourbon and branch. it's a high-ceilinged, restored speakeasy in the heart of the tenderloin, wallpapered in cut crimson velvet, with hammered tin ceilings, and staffed by people dressed exclusively in black. to get in, an online reservation is required -- you get a password (which changes nightly) and speak it furtively into the intercom before the door creaks open.

but, all this needless pretension aside, bourbon and branch is the best bar i've been to in years (small sample size, but nonetheless) because

  1. they have a thirty page drink menu and nothing else
  2. music was good (gilded age stuff, mostly), wordless, and just loud enough to drown out the surroundings without making conversation difficult
  3. the drinks are great
halsey correctly pointed out that bourbon and branch is a two-drink outfit -- just one drink would seem like a wasted opportunity, while three would be over-indulgence. having just read the auberge of the flowering hearth (all about the valley of la grande chartreuse, and one of the ten best books about food i've ever read), i had chartreuse on my mind. i tried a lemon thyme (vodka, veloce, meyer lemon juice, thyme, peach bitters, and yellow chartreuse) which was light, citrusy, and perfumed, and also a last word (gin, green chartreuse, and maraschino -- herbaceous and citrus-laden at the same time). all very nice.

it's great, this tentative grasping for connoisseurship, where the gate is closed to barbarians by knowledge rather than price. in a kaiseki restaurant of the first order, you would not be able to get a reservation without having first been endorsed to the chef by a patron in good standing, this being an indication of your ability to understand the exquisite refinement, referential richness, and entire moral economy of the restaurant. underground bars and guerrilla vegetables (like these, from mariquita), i suppose, are the baby steps toward a culture in which depth of consideration has value.

Jan 14, 2008

turk st, sf ca

virgin america

i flew virgin america to DC over the weekend and the contrast between VX and other US domestic airlines is jaw-droppingly extreme. the planes are brand new -- so new, in fact, that the enamel baked over the entry door screws has never been broken -- and the cabin crew are relaxed, cheerful, and quick. the overhead lighting is a cool ultraviolet, which is weird but acceptably slick. i liked RED, their inflight interactive entertainment system that includes seat to seat chat, meal/drink orders, and a safety video that was so good i watched it twice (below, for your delectation). we even got into SFO 32 minutes earlier than scheduled. they just got it right, and i'm happy to have helped put google maps in their planes.

Jan 12, 2008

the climate project

i left san francisco last night and landed in DC this morning at 5.30am, checked in, showered, and then headed out to the climate project's DC area regional reunion. it's been about a year since the first climate project presenters were trained at session 1 in nashville, and this was billed as an opportunity for presenters on the east coast to get together and compare stories of a year in the field trying to change mindsets about climate change and spur people to action. i was attending at the last minute to share what i usually call the "how technology can help you tell the story and change the world" presentation which i'll get around to posting some time: a show-and-tell of how the new new media lets people tell powerful stories to big audiences and keep them constantly engaged. the hope was that we'd be able to figure out which of these tools resonated most with the presenters and then find some way of incorporating these into the training curriculum.

i had no idea what to expect when i showed up at the chevy chase village hall. it turned out to be about 70 people in weekend casual who had paid their own way to chevy chase from as far away as new brunswick in canada and boulder, colorado. they were deeply passionate about climate change education in a way that is entirely unlike anything i've seen before -- complex, multivariate causes like climate change only infrequently call forth this kind of devotion (i think they are too difficult to understand). after a 10-hour day, a small group went to dinner and i followed along. i haven't seen people as happy to be doing what they're doing in a long time.

winning a spot at a training session to become a presenter is tough. less than 5% of applicants make it to nashville but those 200 people in each training session come from a gratifyingly broad range of backgrounds. in this reunion (which gathered 70 out of about 1700 trained presenters worldwide), there was a high school senior, a professor at middlebury, an "IT Professional," several business types, doctoral candidates, teachers -- all of whom had paid their own way to nashville and who continue to spend time and money preparing presentations about climate change and delivering them to anyone who will listen. one woman from canada took a bus twelve hours into the boreal north, to the cree country, to present to a cree village. the elders didn't speak english and she had to be translated into cree as she went slide by slide through her presentation. they stumbled on images of penguins in the antarctic: the cree have no word for penguin. it was a surreal and dream-like image right out of star trek, of an envoy from the warming world traveling many hours to the north to tell of birds in the far south for which there are no words.

i heard paul hawken talk about blessed unrest last year at google. in it, he describes the tremendous and diffuse (hence nearly invisible) rise in movements in support of good causes -- as if the world has become a tremendous organism undergoing some kind of collective effervescence. as he puts it, "if you look at the science that describes what is happening on earth today and aren't pessimistic, you don't have the current data. if you meet the people in this unnamed movement and aren't optimistic, you haven't got a heart." it felt just like that.

Jan 10, 2008

food art

edible googley eyes from the evil mad scientist folks. reference implementation is an edible flying spaghetti monster. brilliant.

(thanks to audrey for the link)

Jan 9, 2008

custom books

blurb's one of the best of the custom print-on-demand book services that have been popping up. they had a booth at nextfest 2007 last september, and i had a chance to poke around in some of the sample books they had on display -- high production quality and materials, good bindings, and quite good typography and layout, for a surprisingly low price (starting at $12.95 for a 40-page 7x7" 4-colour paperback). they've got a free page layout program called booksmart that is pretty decent too.

my big beef with blurb is that they don't permit designers to submit finished postscript files conforming to standard production parameters (size, etc) to them for production (or at least i couldn't find this option on the website anywhere) -- everything has to be designed on booksmart. which is nice if you're not the kind of person who gets all worked up about precision kerning on display text, but not so nice if you are. in all, probably a good thing for making a celebratory photobook or something simple like that without too much text, but useless for a project requiring greater typographical rigour.

it seems like it would be relatively simple for blurb to provide custom PPDs to designers so that they could design using more powerful tools without having to go through booksmart and still print a PS file that would be completely compatible with the printing system being used. if there's some workflow subtlety i've missed that would make accepting custom postscript prohibitively expensive or complex, i'd certainly like to hear about it -- but it would be real nice to be able to self-publish leverage in full colour.

Jan 8, 2008


i saw helvetica last week; it's the gary hustwit film about the genesis of the typeface and how it became the juggernaut of the western typographical world. helvetica has so many variations (the official linotype page lists 68 separate faces in the family) that it's pretty easy to not notice how dominant it is in the visual landscape. as an inveterate type nerd, i found it refreshing to watch a documentary featuring interviews almost exclusively with people with whose work i am familiar: paula scher, michael bierut, stefan sagmeister, hoefler & frere-jones, erik spiekermann, david carson, hermann zapf, just to name a few.

there was a short but quite interesting section about how the design of neue haas grotesk (which is helvetica's original name -- not very sexy) was much more the product of eduarde hoffmann's input (he was the the director of the haas type foundry where neue haas grotesk was designed) than he is generally given credit for. these secret histories must permeate our world, and i appreciate any occasion on which they are brought to light. about this, more anon.

the best bits of the film were those times when the typographers being interviewed tried to explain their peculiar view of a world in which type is almost a spiritual element of the designer's toolkit, just like white space and texture. paula scher quite memorably (though in a distinctly tongue-in-cheek way) explained that in her mind, the relentless impersonality of helvetica was inextricably connected with the mindset that would send people off to the vietnam war. scher (like bierut) is one of the principals of pentagram, a design partnership worthy of adulation; when i was in new york in the summer, i saw a print of her atlas of the world that i was on the verge of purchasing except that i lacked $9800 (yes, even after a hefty discount). some of her great map paintings are viewable here.

there will be little agreement among typographers about what good typesetting is and should do -- should it be a transparent vehicle for meaning or an expressive container for content?, and many other questions in a similar vein -- but most typophiles will probably agree that it is too easy to mistake tools and type for typography. taste in typography is a skill compounded of training and natural gift; the gift is rare, training not frequent enough, and the tools make it ever easier to set type absent gift or training without being a substitute for either.

in the film, a question frequently posed in one form or another is "why is helvetica so ubiquitous?" and erik spiekermann, designer of ff meta and not a proponent of helvetica, says in response, "why is bad taste ubiquitous?" much of the film became an exploration of typographical philosophy and variation in taste. david pye, in the nature and art of workmanship, talks about the quality of risk inherent in workmanship which calls forth a level of care in work that aims to mitigate the risk of loss of both material and time invested in material. a good illustrative example is mindfulness in cooking a bresse chicken, or in turning a rare piece of old madrone in order not to mess up the material with which you have been entrusted or lose the time spent in earlier steps of work.

risk of loss is a necessary prerequisite to careful work, and time and skill invested produces that risk; where large investments of time and skill relative to product are not required, production tends to be careless. one part of the answer to spiekermann's question is that bad taste is ubiquitous because carelessness is ubiquitous. in any case, we end on a cheerful note with a fine quote from eric gill's an essay on typography: "among the chinese, good writing is more highly honoured than painting is with us, as highly perhaps as we honour a successful contraption for boiling soap." is this the fate of art in the age of mechanical reproduction?

pincake tuesday

here on the maps team, we know how to eat well. brownie art courtesy of effie seiberg.

classy photo by nate johnson

dopplr in spades

signing up for yet another online service can be a risky proposition these days. a dopplr invite came into my inbox a few days ago and i tooled around with it for a bit. i quite liked it and invited more people (actually, quite a few people), at which point the user experience went south. within an hour, i had 20 emails from various people asking why i'd invited them to dopplr 5, 18, 14, 28, 12 times. as my inbox continued to fill up with irritated emails, i resolved never again to invite people to anything. i filed a bug on the dopplr homepage and then went hunting around for an actual person. no email contacts were listed on the site, so i cast a wider net. i eventually found matt biddulph's blog (he's the CTO) and sent him an email. within 20 minutes, he'd replied to say that they were working on fixing the problem and, this morning, they'd emailed everyone affected to apologise.

now, that's pretty nice. dopplr's actually a good idea, and executed well. apart from the broken bot, now apparently fixed, it's nicely done. re: the bot, their rapid response to my email and matt's email apology this morning makes me feel good. i will admit that this is mostly for reasons of ego (it's always nice when someone else is abject on your behalf), though it's a good sign that they take seriously problems like this that affect user trust.

i like the idea of being able to engineer serendipity: dopplr lets you note your travel destinations and times and then shows you where and when you overlap with other people that you know who have shared their travel plans with you. their privacy and access controls seem to work pretty well, the UI is clean. the grace notes too are all true -- i particularly like how each city is marked by a different colour, though i'm left wondering how they decided that reykjavik is . todd falkowsky has done some interesting stuff to try and find the colour palettes of different cities by photographing major landmarks and extracting principal colours from them. sounds like a flickr geotagging exercise is in order.

in any case, dopplr is good, and i'd like to know where you're going.

Jan 7, 2008

Jan 6, 2008

the return of pancake sunday

pancakes again today, for the first time in many months, during which we used every plate, mug, and champagne glass in the kitchen. we are now also the happy custodians of a bottle each of elderflower and boysenberry syrup, collectively divers and arguably exotick. pancakes are an eminently scalable weekend breakfast food particularly the mix is home-made in bulk. alton brown's formula is foolproof, but his instructions for wet ingredients are unnecessarily fiddly.

  1. buttermilk is expensive and what else do you use it for? -- a tablespoon of lemon juice or white vinegar in the milk works just fine;
  2. for that matter, no need for milk. water makes a fine, light pancake with a crisper surface;
  3. eggs can be beaten in whole. separating them makes for a tenderer pancake (or, at least, so it appears) but is not worth the trouble;
  4. melted butter is messy, especially without a microwave. a dribble of olive or canola oil is just as good and significantly easier.
my theory about cooking food for many people is that it is a fine pretext to inventory and draw down the contents of the fridge, use all the crockery and cutlery, and then clean everything after. it's a bit like taking the vintage car out for a turn around the mountain every couple of weeks, just to keep the fluids running right -- healthy in general, and good for the tubing.

Jan 3, 2008

productivity report for the holiday season

back at work yesterday after almost two weeks away for the holidays. this morning, when the alarm clock went off, i lay in the dim blue light and thought grimly about how nice it had been to wake up at 8am rather than 6.20am and have parking everywhere available on the streets. john decided to open the shop through the new year weekend so i finally got around to finishing the bowls and frames that had been lying around unsanded and unsealed for weeks and making the scale prototype for the chair i'm making. pictures to follow.

christmas in santa cruz with joel, abigail, and annika consisted of several days of cooking vegan food and sitting around drinking tea and talking, with brief excursions to the hills and no internet or phone access -- ie, the best kind of holiday. their real guests had canceled their visit at the eleventh hour, leaving them with an empty beach house. this was a pleasant surprise when i showed up, and then again when i woke up the next morning with full sun coming in through the windows and the pacific lapping at the land not 50 metres away.

Jan 1, 2008

romeyn b. hough

is the author of the american woods: exhibited by actual specimens and with copious explanatory text, a comprehensive guide to the trees of north america that used to be a rare, reference-only 14-volume edition illustrated with actual slices (thin ones) of the woods of over 300 trees and which cost a king's ransom. using wood veneers was revolutionary thinking back in the day when accurate colour reproduction in high-resolution was impossible but, fortunately, those dark days are now behind us. taschen has recently reissued this as the wood book, available even to the unwashed masses for less than $30. for those who are particularly parsimonious and who don't require the now-outdated copious explanatory text, the special collections librarians of north carolina state university have digitised every page of this book and conveniently produced both a common and latin name index.

and so

the last day of the old year got off to a late start but rolled along with marvelous inevitability to conclude with butternut squash soup, fresh pasta, boeuf bourguignon, four types of baked goods, a massive pot of hot chocolate, 15 bottles of wine, four bottles of champagne, and many people huddling together at midnight on a cold rooftop overlooking a sparking and popping embarcadero. we had fireworks this year on the piers that went on for much longer than expected, and
included smiley faces, ringed planets, cubes, and similarly improbable shapes.

every year, i come closer to admitting that impractical wishes may be the only possible ones -- 2008 feels like the year when the evidence becomes incontrovertible. all best for this new year and may things go, as the saying is, upwards and to the right.