Feb 28, 2008

food fight

courtesy of effie, a history of food in war:

keeping it together

so, i see tiffany on gchat and i show her a photo of my favourite piece, a small, round-bottomed bowl turned from freshly-cut copper beech and then allowed to dry. this is what it looked like fresh from the lathe:

while drying, it warped out of round and cracked slightly, but retained the marvellous shading it had before. this is how it looks today, after being finished with blonde shellac and rubbed-out varnish. the crack was highlighted with black dye and then tied together with copper wire. it's a bit wonky:

keeping it together

and tiffany said it reminded her of this new yorker cartoon by ariel molving:

which is exactly right and made my day.


my cousin, who is brilliant, sent me a link to the skinhead hamlet.


leave it to the swiss. they also have the world's most beautiful passports (designed by herzog & de meuron, of course).

Feb 23, 2008


green-turned copper beech, allowed to warp and dry, then steamed, hand-ground, and finished with varnish.
grew-sheridan studio, san francisco, december 2008.

a new box

with hand-cut dovetail joinery and irregular sides. in the days before thin plywood, drawers and boxes would have wood plank bases with the edges beveled down to sit in a groove cut along all four inside walls of the box so, of course, this is what i have done. recycled douglas fir, finished with blond shellac and varnish. better photos to come.

Feb 21, 2008

kitchenaid hacks

thanks to david lebovitz, who leads an apparently irritatingly carefree life eating his way through paris, i now know where to go, if ever i purchase one, to have my kitchenaid fitted out with flames:

Did you know that every year over one million KitchenAid stand mixers are sold AND NOT A SINGLE ONE WITH FLAMES!!!! Only you can put a stop to this tragedy. By making a small, non-taxdeductable donation through the PURCHASE link at the bottom of this page we can start the healing process one mixer at a time.


when i was in madrid a few years ago, the reina sofia had a brilliant exhibition called "the age of the monochrome" (art in america article here). the best piece there was a shower of golden stones suspended from the ceiling in mid-pour. but new york magazine also has a series of five short interviews with people who wear only one colour. it's great:

brown: "But obviously I've never been to a tuxedo event. Maybe it's glorious fun."
blue: "I also buy white Chanel and Christian Louboutin shoes, and I color them blue with custom-ordered electric-blue Sharpies." and "And my bathroom products are blue, like my toothbrush."
white/pink: "In 2000, I was on a panel with nine architects, and I wore a white suit. Everyone was wearing black except me. I felt detached from the incestuous profession."
green: "I started wearing green nail polish, and it spread all over me." and "I have a grand-puppy. My son asked me to babysit him, and I airbrushed his tail green. Sam flipped out."
grey: "Even the soles of my shoes have to be gray or white. I get annoyed if the soles are black."

Feb 18, 2008

cookie monster

elizabeth blair from NPR's In Character series conducted a marvellous interview with cookie monster. what is cookie monster's least-favourite word? "oscarthegrouch," it seems. although, after some consideration, also "pusillanimous."

heritable culture

maybe. physorg's article about a stanford study showing that human culture may be subject to natural selection is exciting. from the physorg summary, it doesn't look like the stanford paper argues that culture is genetically transmitted, only that cultural evolution is affected by processes analogous to those seen when natural selection acts on organismic genomes.

i have enough heated discussions about the topic of heritable culture (i'm using the term loosely -- i mean considering culture as a phenotypic characteristic) that i leap upon any kind of juried research even slightly connected to that area with alacrity. there's lots of existential fear around this, because systems of justice and ethics built on the idea that individuals are equal (and people who believe passionately in them) begin to founder once we begin to admit the possibility that culture traits of individuals and groups may be affected through the same kinds of systems that govern phenotype and on a much shorter timescale than usually is seen in the action of natural selection on genomes and phenotypes. this seems like a classic example of the kind of situation in which things have to get worse before they can get better.

(thanks to joel f for pointing this out)

christopher brosius

after finding the black phoenix alchemy lab, i began keeping an eye out for more people making a big deal of smell as a holder for memory.

i came on christopher brosius entirely by accident -- his pages of bottles had been highlighted at Ministry of Type as an example of things that delight by repetition and change.

on clicking through, i was amused to see that brosius hates perfume. he has a manifesto, which includes the following paragraph:

I hate perfume. Perfume is too often an ethereal corset trapping everyone in the same unnatural shape. A lazy and inelegant concession to fashionable ego. Too often a substitute for true allure and style. An opaque shell concealing everything – revealing nothing. A childish masque hiding the timid and unimaginative. An arrogant slap in the face from across the room. People who smell like everyone else disgust me.
so that was pretty neat, but i was hooked by the specificity and precision of the stories connected to the bottles. for example:
A Secret History, Winter 1972: A field of untouched new fallen snow, hand knit woolen mittens covered with frost, a hint of frozen forest & sleeping earth.

I recall clearly the scent of that winter air. It was not at all a pine scent and had nothing to do with cinnamon or spices. It was the blue frozen scent of fresh snow and silver stars. It was a scent that spoke to my young brain of remembering what was and realizing what will come. It was the sleeping scent of spring now frozen beneath the snow.
and also,
The Fir Tree: Fir trees in the forest with a touch of frozen earth

This is a story by Tove Jansson. Supposedly for children, it is one of my favorites even now.
(i have to clarify here that i like the idea better than the reality -- it's an alluring thought that scents can conjure up time past, but most of the attempts fall flat. the descriptions, however, can be quite inventive. i'm sure they work for some people somewhere.)

Feb 16, 2008

cotyledon etching

i'm not sure why this is so appealing but there it is: style meets people is selling laser-engraved beans that sprout to show their messages in one of the seed leaves.

autobiographical neuroses

i sent this article by giles turnbull on writing 3-line biographies to everyone i know who has a minor neurosis about their life stories. the temptation to be flip is overwhelming, but even that, as he points out is "Too clever by half. Too much up its own backside." problem usually is that you either have not enough of a story (insufficiently interesting), too much of a story (solipsistic), or too many stories (dilettante). there's really no good solution.

a magnificent mullet

Feb 10, 2008

austin, tx

bad weather on the east coast friday night delayed my flight out of boston just enough to make me miss the connection from houston to austin. i turned up after midnight, grouchy and bleary, at a cookie-cutter hotel in north houston and left again, still grouchy and bleary, too early on saturday morning.

after finishing up at the conference centre on the UT austin campus (no internet access!), the plan was to find the bed and breakfast i'd been a no-show at and leave my stuff there for long enough to find a bookstore and a cup of coffee before heading to the airport again. as it turned out, i was more than a mile from where i had to go. jon, the final year law student who was passing by and gave me directions walked off, then stopped and turned to offer a ride. (this has never happened to me in san francisco.) when i got to the austin folk house, there was no-one at the desk but a post-it with a phone number was stuck to the back door. i called it to try my luck and chris, one of the owners, said to come over to his other place just round the corner. i stopped in at the star of texas for long enough to be shown the passcodes for the doors and have a large mug of coffee and a peanut butter chocolate chip cookie pressed on me. austin gets two thumbs up.

power and decision-making

not what you might think; more a disquisition on the value of complete data in decision support.

example 1: whenever we consider strategies that individuals can implement for reducing carbon emissions, the first thought seems to be to throw on a bunch of solar panels. this particularly because, in california, of tax rebates and solar installation subsidies. the reality is that the first thing to do is increase energy efficiency in the home rather than change the means of energy generation. household energy consumption could be reduced by between 15% and 25% -- an immediate savings that is significantly out of proportion to the cost of an efficiency audit and the usually inexpensive fixes that they recommend (a heater blanket, auto-off power plugs, properly sealed windows and doors, etc).

example 2, and similarly: biofuels (particularly corn ethanol) have become fashionable as environmentally-friendly substitutes for miscellaneous petrochemicals. only recently has systematic research been published on the degree to which biofuels reduce net greenhouse gas emissions -- and the indications appear to be that biofuels may actually harm rather than help. why is this? several reasons, all associated with absence of full-cost accounting when evaluating biofuels:

  • land-use patterns changed dramatically when biofuels became popular. two articles (here's one, and the other) in the feb 8 issue of science argue that increased demand for biofuels changes land-use in ways that were difficult to predict and which liberate greenhouse gases. (a gross oversimplification of one of the cited causes: converting US corn production to ethanol production causes, among other things, land in the tropics to be deforested for other grain and seed production to compensate. no good.)
  • nitrogen-based fertilizers used in producing biofuel increase the amount of nitrogen dioxide, also a greenhouse gas, liberated into the atmosphere. (the reference is from crutzen's recent paper in ACPD.)
  • moreover, the amount of energy required to produce ethanol from raw biomass only infrequently reduces total energy use. corn ethanol is an instructive example. to grow and produce 1 calorie of energy from corn grown in the US generally requires 10 calories of petroleum-based energy (the variation in the input-output ratio varies, but is never even close to 1:1). part of this is due to the general inefficiency of the corn plant as an ethanol producer. most of the biomass of a corn plant -- the stalky, leafy part -- is not amenable to ethanol conversion. we spend a lot of energy growing an annual plant, about 85% of the biomass of which cannot be used for ethanol. new processes for converting what is currently waste cellulose to so-called cellulosic ethanol may change this, but are still only in initial pilot phases.
whether implicitly or explicitly, we make decisions about complex systems using models that have far fewer degrees of complexity. sometimes that just doesn't cut it.

Feb 5, 2008

nassim nicholas taleb, at SALT

nassim nicholas taleb was the latest speaker in stewart brand's series of free public seminars about long-term thinking (SALT). the last lectures i attended were by vernor vinge (on the coming singularity) and frans lanting (on photographing time past in the present). taleb is the author of the black swan and fooled by randomness, two books which i've tried and failed to read through (like the hobbit, no doubt, which took more than four attempts). stewart brand always releases an excellent summary of the talk on the SALT blog, so there's really no point in me reinventing the wheel that brand will probably make today. though his talk was nominally about how the future has always been crazier than we thought, it was really an extended disquisition on the limits of knowledge both retrospectively and prospectively. what i thought was most apropos was his argument that the modelling sciences are generally in the business of inferring future states based on observed past states. this can be a flawed exercise because

  1. historical data is almost always incomplete (records are ephemeral, recordkeeping is idiosyncratic, and coverage cannot be universal)
  2. any series of data can be explained by an infinite number of non-linear models
in consequence, particularly of the second point above, to be effectively predictive, quantitative models are best applied to non-complex systems. the interesting result of this reasoning is that it becomes a strong motivation for reintroducing qualitative analysis as a viable mode of understanding the kinds of complex systems that which occupy the researches of most social scientists: societies, cultures, and how they change. intelligent qualitative analysis is a mode thinking which acknowledges the effect of unobservables and idiosyncrasy rather than falling back on presumed certainty derived from highly-imperfect data.

in a sense, taleb's entire talk was about knowing the enemy and knowing the self (知己知彼,百戰不貽). pervasive rationality leads us to believe that we can extend the nature of causal connection from simple to complex systems (taleb would call it extending learnings from mediocristan to extremistan) when in fact this extension is fallacious. we need to have the ability to confront complex systems without requiring a highly-structured and deterministic analytic framework, by which i mean quantitative modeling and analysis of almost all varieties. i bring up keats's concept of negative capability and a.r. ammons's corsons inlet* repeatedly in situations like this, precisely because this is the ability and approach that they both advocate.

as a race, we're now in a position where the rate of growth in our power to change the world has far exceeded the rate of growth in our knowledge of how to use that power. as we increase our influence over complex systems like global climate patterns or ecozones, our basic action orientation has to include negative capability so that, as taleb puts it, we can understand why our default position in regard to complex systems should be a hyperconservative one. (ie, getting us both individually and collectively to a point where our actions and decision-making methods are appropriate to the systems our actions affect.)

now, getting off the soapbox, another question which this brings up is whether or not complex systems (like societies and other large groups) are ever susceptible to analysis by analogical comparison to self-similar -- but smaller and more bounded -- groups. i think the jury is still out on that one.

* both introduced to me by glenn adelson as part of bio95hfz: conservation, nature, and biodiversity -- sadly no longer taught at harvard, but available to the lucky women of wellesley in modified form as es242: war and environment.

Feb 3, 2008

a glue for meat

from the research scientists at aji no moto*: activa TG. marvel at this sample meat application (sic):

some suggested uses include

  • Cold Bond meat pieces
  • Attach bacon to the surface of meat
  • Improve the texture of cheese

* lit: the essence of taste. it's where the flavour lives.

Feb 2, 2008

grilled cheese sandwich

around 11pm every night, i experience and succumb to the urge to make a grilled cheese sandwich. specifically, slices of light seeded rye or sweet white bread and an 1/8" slice of extra-sharp, crumbly cheddar dusted with cayenne and fresh-ground black pepper, grilled without butter on a cast-iron griddle. (previous incarnation!) my obsession with sandwiches perhaps verges on the pathological. when i was at the goog, colleague nate and i would sometimes go for days on sandwiches alone; he went to michigan and ann arbor is home to the legendary zingerman's reuben*, so also has Strongly-Held Views about sandwiches.

the only acceptable cheese to use is an extra-sharp cheddar--wrapped slices of "american cheese" are only tenuously identifiable as cheese and are almost certainly a crime against nature. when trader joe is too far away (he carries english coastal cheddar, aged over a year and filled with inclusions of calcium lactate; also inexplicably inexpensive), cabot makes a much more widely-available extra-sharp white cheddar, available in 2-pound blocks. after years of careful experimentation, i have concluded that large chunks of firm aged cheese are best stored wrapped in a single layer of unbleached paper toweling or muslin inside a sealed ziploc bag, wherein they will last for up to 6 weeks without diminution of quality.

please pistol-whip anyone who makes a grilled cheese sandwich out of wonder bread for reasons other than pure irony (that also being the sole contingency in which "american cheese" is acceptable). here in cambridge, we rejoice daily in iggy's bread of the world. they make, apart from very good artisanal breads, industrial-size loaves of rye, sourdough, and sweet white. i've never found these in stores but have discovered A Secret Location where i get these loaves thin-sliced for half-price.

* its fame is such that it even has merch:

Feb 1, 2008

cities, maps #1: data is only infrequently orthogonal

those of us who claim to be interdisciplinary recognise that there's very little information out there that's truly orthogonal to everything else -- a fancy way of saying data usually makes more sense in the context of other data. putting two or more usually disjoint datasets together in the right space allows stories to be told more powerfully and conclusions to be drawn more accurately.

the difficulty then usually lies in finding the space in which two datasets interact to produce more information than the sum of parts. imagine, for instance, overlaying malaria interventions, vector populations, average monthly rainfall, prevailing winds, and malaria prevalence onto a map of equatorial africa. connecting preventive techniques with success indicators and other data connected to the phenomenon helps place the data in context and helps researchers develop good hypotheses to test. (amazingly, no one has done this yet that i can find online. once corrie sends me a few datasets, i'll make and post something.)

since i work on maps, one of the things that falls to me do to regularly is tell people that their lives and work could be easily improved by

  • publishing their data in an openly-accessible format
  • allowing that data to easily interact with other data.
  • putting that data in geographic context
data interacts with other data in all sorts of places but the physical world is probably one of the most useful general spaces for commonplace data to be combined. this is particularly true for cities, where their organization is fundamentally geographic in nature: once you've gone past the city limits of newark, you're not in newark any longer. because the information that city governments generally collect is about a collection of physical locations (education or average house price statistics by neighbourhood, coverage areas for hospitals, etc), physical location can connect multiple apparently unrelated observations.

the geographic information systems (GIS) community long ago cottoned on to the idea that each one of these types of information (house prices, school information, public services, etc) constitutes a dataset for a given area, and that these datasets could be overlaid on each other to produce precisely the kind of contextualization to make the datasets more valuable viewed together than in isolation. imagine searching for a house and being able to say "i only want to find houses that match my price range that are within a mile of a grade school and a half-mile of a grocery store." that's a combination of 3 sets of data: prices of houses currently for sale, school information, and store information. if you're looking to move to toronto, realosophy lets you do this easily. most other places, it's sort of a drag.

many cities employ professional geographic information systems (GIS) specialists to help them publish all sorts of data that might be interesting to the public, as a search on google for "city GIS" shows. this is a start, but most of the data continues to be published in formats that are only viewable on proprietary (and expensive) software like ArcGIS or through a clunky web interface or application (here are the solutions denver and norfolk have come up with. points for effort, but would anyone voluntarily subject themselves to using these?). most cities also require that this information be purchased in order to be manipulated, even though the real value of a diversity of datasets comes from the ability to mash them together and see what results. if urban information is difficult to find and use, people don't use it enough.

portland's mapping department is a shining beacon: they publish urban information, for free, in a format that anyone with google earth can open (its called KML, for Keyhole Markup Language. think HTML for geographic browsers like google earth and google maps.) once opened in google earth, users can place multiple layers of data on top of each other easily.

what happens when people publish their data and make it easy to mash it together? really nice things. for example, everyblock's made it possible for people in covered cities (new york, chicago, and san francisco) to see news in their neighbourhoods and filter it if so desired. see, for example, a news map for albany park in chicago. they made a nice user interface, but the data's all coming from data feeds from governments, news outlets, and the like.

so, given that data frequently makes other data useful, what can city or urban organizations do to improve the lives of the people whom they service?
step 1a: publish lots of location-specific data
step 1b: publish it in an easily and freely viewable format
step 1c: allow anyone with the inclination to use and transform your data
step 1d: use (or let people use) someone else's mapping service as a canvas for the data

next up: public transit information and some thoughts on why it mostly sucks.

rules of the art

by sister corita kent, whose work also adorns the big gas tanks on boston's south shore.

found on kottke (who wisely never responds to my emails), from whence i followed the link to hi+low, a blog i used to read which then fell off my reader list. rule #8 is particularly appropriate at this point of inflexion. oh yes.


just when it didn't seem possible to get more intense about food, i find mikuni wild harvest, a company that's been around for years (apparently), providing systematic access to wild-harvested produce such as mushrooms, fiddleheads, and the like. what would euell gibbons say?*

* stalking the wild asparagus, gibbons's guide to edible wild plants, is pretty neat but no longer in print. john mcphee also wrote a great profile of him in a roomful of hovings.