Nov 30, 2008

a custard of ipomoeas

ipomoea batatas, you are my helpmeet. having made two sweet potato pies in the last two days, here is the freshly-tuned, officially-sanctioned sweet potato pie filling receipt.

1 pound sweet potatoes
4 tb unsalted butter (room temp)
1/2 cup sugar (if your potatoes are sweet, you could use less)
2 large eggs
1.5 cups light cream (also substitutable with the same volume of milk of any fat content)
a sprinkle of nutmeg
a scatter of cinnamon
a knoblet of ginger
a pinch of salt
a splash of vanilla or lemon extract (not the crummy synthetic variety)

peel potatoes, then cut into 1-inch cubes. steam until they surrender to the fork, probably 10-15 minutes. (why do people insist on boiling or baking these things? it takes ages, then you have to mess with peeling them while they steam malevolently.) mash while steaming, then allow to cool thoroughly. while waiting, you could have a calvados.

preheat your oven to 350F.

using a mixing implement of your choice, whip the butter into the mashed potatoes. the best that will happen is that you get little shreds of butter distributed throughout. they never disappear. add the sugar, salt, cream, vanilla/lemon, spices, and mix well. the mixture should attain the consistency of very heavy cream, and should be a little sweeter than you want it to be after baking. i like a light hand with the flavourings and sweeteners, but if you like your pies to taste of nothing but sugar and nutmeg, go nuts. (i've successfully refrigerated this custard mix for up to 8 hours with dire consequences for neither flavour nor intestinal well-being.)

just before baking, mix in the two eggs. into the prepared piecrust or baking tray and bake for 50 minutes at 350F, resisting the temptation to open the oven door. a cold metal skewer stuck into the center of the pie should come out clean (a firm custard) or with traces of sweet potato (a gently-set custard). cool your pie slowly or the surface will crack. this is best either cold or slightly warm, with softly-whipped cream.

and its pal, the human calendar


the human clock


Nov 29, 2008

self, expanding #3

The expansion of the circle that fills the view and interest of individuals may frequently give rise to a particular form of egoism that engenders a real and ideal restriction of social spheres. It may promote a greatheartedness and an enthusiastically outreaching vault of the psyche, both of which are inhibited by the amalgamation of personal life with a narrow interest circle of solidary comrades. But whenever circumstances or character retard this outcome, then, quite significantly, its exact opposite results ... Along many dimensions, human nature and human situations are so positioned that when the individual's relations begin to exceed a certain extensiveness, he becomes all the more thrown back upon himself.
georg simmel, "group expansion and the development of individuality"

Nov 28, 2008


The felt insecurity concerning the basis of such relations often moves us, who desire to maintain the relation at all cost, to acts of exaggerated selflessness, to the almost mechanical insurance of the relationship through the avoidance, on principle, of every possibility of conflict. Where on the other hand we are certain of the irrevocability and unreservedness of our feeling, such peace at any price is not necessary.
georg simmel, "conflict."

Nov 27, 2008

after tryptophan

and craig and jenny thought there wouldn't be enough food.

they were disabused of the notion by 4.30pm, at which time the side counter was covered in assorted trays of food and jenny and her posse had concluded their tryst with the 15-pound turkey. the carcass was on its way to the trashcan when i diverted it to a roasting tray and put it in the oven to brown. the sociologists took a break from the groaning tables at 7 to bring a plate of food and a beer to the guy who sleeps outside darwin's on cambridge street. he had several foil-wrapped plates by his side, but accepted the beer with pleasure. when we got back, we talked about agriculture for longer than strictly necessary. there was a brief moment of spectacle when jenny whipped the cream -- whipped cream not from a can is apparently a novelty.

after pie and more pie (pumpkin, pumpkin, coconut cream, apple, sweet potato), everyone left. we got through the dishes, redistributed the chairs, cleared off the counters, swept the kitchen, and took out the trash. now, everyone is in bed and i'm reading simmel with a mug of coffee, a slice of sweet potato pie, and the tunings of glenn gould and cocorosie, as the crushed bones of the turkey simmer, barely bubbling, in the stockpot.

happy thanksgiving,

Nov 26, 2008

spatial operating environment

oblong industries is developing an operating environment that relies on gestural input and thus allows data presentation in more than the usual 2D + time. doesn't yet seem useful for text input, but already good for large dataset visualizations seadragon style (i like it that they have cruciferous vegetables on their website). seems to me that increasingly we'll want to have separate interaction environments for managing visualizations and for text input. current UI and input modes are heavily optimised for the latter, at the expense of the former. subvocalized input would be awesome and might be something to bridge that gap.

(it occurs to me too that visualization mode heavily influences interaction mode, a case of function calling forth function.)

oblong's chief scientist, unsurprisingly, advised for minority report. also unsurprisingly, there is a xoogler on staff: chris rishel, who used to be on the agency team

g-speak overview 1828121108 from john underkoffler on Vimeo.

Nov 25, 2008


who's bryan? no clue, but the pictures here are sweet.

Nov 24, 2008

milk, definitely.

i cannot comprehend why people make a huge fuss about dark chocolate and regard milk chocolate eaters as pariahs of a particularly egregious variety. good milk chocolate has the flavour of dark chocolate and way better texture. the best i've had are the endangered species smooth milk chocolate, equal exchange milk chocolate with hazelnut, and the paris chocolate company's flyer gold plane no. 11. this last has a special place in my heart for periodically releasing appealingly nerdy white papers on chocolate.

visual isomorphism and values dissemination

having recently completed a small-N analysis, i conclude that startups by ex-googler (xooglers, if you will) look sort of like google products. the feel of the user interfaces on weatherbill, friendfeed, nextstop all share the minimal ethic of google user interfaces.* (for comparison, look at google's adwords homepage and blogger homepage) to some extent, this is probably a feature of current priorities in web development and user interface design -- flickr, delicious, etc look sort of the same as each other and as these xoogler startups i'm talking about.

some of this isomorphism almost certainly stems from the prevalence of UI/UX (user experience) staff at web companies trained at CMU, stanford, and so forth, but this also points to how firms can become institutions with specific cultural priorities (in this case, certainly when looked at through the lens of UI philosophy). employees, for better or for worse, soak up these priorities and, when they leave, act as the RNA that spreads the word. particularly in a diffuse yet highly industry-coherent network like the valley, this mode of values distribution seems particularly significant.

* mechanical zoo is the exception that proves the rule, but every rug needs an imperfection.

Nov 21, 2008


Precision, speed, unambiguity, knowledge of the files, continuity, discretion, unity, strict subordination, reducing of friction and of material and personal costs--these are raised to the optimum point in the strictly bureaucratic administration, and especially in its monocratic form ... Bureaucracy develops the more perfectly, the more it is "dehumanized," the more completely it succeeds in eliminating from official business love, hatred, and all purely personal, irrational, and emotional elements which escape calculation. This is appraised as its special virtue ...
Max Weber, "Bureaucracy"

Nov 19, 2008

life as transcript

last night, yochai benkler made the usual introductory remarks in advance of the berkman center's workshop on subject security. Some May Say that living online is gradually killing off living in meatspace, but it also increases the opportunities for interaction -- it's a new space for communication and association and it looks very little like the geographic space we're used to interacting in, and interaction is quite different from what we're used to. one of the comments yochai made was particularly apropos: the part of life lived online is, for the first time, one in which the vast majority of social relations are an explicit transcript. empirical variables for the study of social relations are, for the first time, not just oversimplified abstractions of social relations but the relations themselves -- for the social scientist with a methodological bent, this is huge.

Nov 18, 2008


every so often, i come across something that feels great; some organization has gone and used the resources available to it and done something interesting, unexpected, funny, gentle -- bricolage is the fancy word. it's particularly nice when that something involves a product i used to work on, and when it involves neighbourhoods and communities that coalesce around a transient event or phenomenon -- the way good art should. this is old news by now but robin hewlett and ben kinsley (both from CMU) went and orchestrated a piece of transient community art and captured it in google maps. (presumably, they did this with the help of the google streetview team. it probably doesn't hurt that part of the google geo product and engineering team work out of the google pittsburgh office, and that there are some pretty strong ties between the geo team and CMU. some of these googlers were instrumental in the launch of the sky feature in google earth and maps).

you can see Street with a View both on their website and in google maps:

View Larger Map

Nov 16, 2008

we must have one

the toaster for the well-equipped home. (unfortunate: depending on the image, the product is likely an uncrisp piece of toast.)

self, expanding, #2

What man most passionately wants is his living wholeness and his living unison, not his own isolate salvation of his "soul." Man wants his physical fulfilment first and foremost, since now, once and once only, he is in the flesh and potent. For man, the vast marvel is to be alive. For man, as for flower and beast and bird, the supreme triumph is to be most vividly, most perfectly alive. Whatever the unborn and the dead may know, they cannot know the beauty, the marvel of being alive in the flesh. The dead may look after the afterwards. But the magnificent here and now of life in the flesh is ours, and ours alone, and ours only for a time. We ought to dance with rapture that we should be alive and in the flesh, and part of the living, incarnate cosmos. I am part of the sun as my eye is part of me. That I am part of the earth my feet know perfectly, and my blood is part of the sea. My soul knows that I am part of the human race, my soul is an organic part of the great human soul, as my spirit is part of my nation. In my own very self, I am part of my family. There is nothing of me that is alone and absolute except my mind, and we shall find that the mind has no existence by itself, it is only the glitter of the sun on the surface of the waters.
-- d.h. lawrence, apocalypse

self, expanding

I find it useful to think of the ego complex as a thing that keeps expanding, not as something to be overcome or done away with. An ego has formed and hardened by the time most of us reach adolescence, but it is small, an ego-of-one. Then, if we fall in love, for example, the constellation of identity expands and the ego-of-one becomes an ego-of-two. The young lover, often to his own amazement, finds himself saying "we" instead of "me." Each of us identifies with a wider and wider community as we mature, coming eventually to think and act with a group-ego ... which speaks with the "we" of kings of wise old people. Of course, the larger it becomes, the less it feels like what we usually mean by ego. Not entirely, though: whether an adolescent is thinking of himself or a nation of itself, it still feels like egotism to anyone who is not included. There is still a boundary. If the ego widens still further, however, it really does change its nature and become something we would no longer call ego. There is a consciousness in which we act as part of things larger even than the race. When I picture this, I always think of the end of "Song of Myself" where Whitman dissolves into the air:
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
Now the part that says "me" is scattered. There is no boundary to be outside of, unless the universe itself is bounded.

-- from lewis hyde, the gift.

Nov 14, 2008

the kelmscott chaucer

michael arranged for us to visit the houghton today to see books printed from the days of classical printing through to the revival of artisanal printing in the late 19th century and beyond. some wonders:

particularly interesting: the woodcut illustrations by burne-jones were reproduced for the print run using photographic plates. not what you think of when you think of morris, but very practical.

Nov 12, 2008

make your own muppet

fao schwartz has a new service that allows you to make your own muppet online. presumably, the patterns get sent to some lasercutter somewhere, sewn up by an itinerant stuffed-toy artisan, then make their way to you.

Nov 9, 2008


what else is really nice: when the night before was damp, the day that follows is dry and sunny, the leaves on the walnut and beech in the yard have turned yellow but not yet fallen off the trees, and there's a mug of tea on the porch.

Nov 7, 2008

stamps by typographers

a neat collection assembled by michael russem (i think as part or consequence of designing the mentoring stamp). for reasons not entirely clear, this one by gerrit noordzij is my favourite:

Nov 6, 2008

final marks

after press last night, we watched final marks, a short film about letter design and letter cutting in stone at the john stevens shop in newport RI (also, apparently, the oldest continually operating business in the US). particularly nice: showing how modern roman characters (like times new roman) are products of the original way of drawing letters with brushes -- there's barely any gap between brushdrawn serif letters and modern roman type. here's a short trailer:

short plug: letterpress 1, a class taught by michael russem of kat ran press at the bow and arrow press, is my weekly dose of light amusement.

Nov 3, 2008

the shape of things

when enough data gets together, neat stuff happens. it's probably not precise enough to call it an emergent property of data en masse, but that's good enough for the moment.

in any case, flickr now has enough photographs tagged with nested geographic information (through yahoo's gazetteer WoeID service* and latlong coordinates) that place geometry can be inferred. to simplify: take all photos with the same WoeID and make an outline surrounding them.

this reminds me of ben fry's visualization of all the roads in the US -- drawn in space without underlying topography or imagery, the road aggregations reveal both physiographic and anthropogenic terrain all by themselves.


As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don't be afraid of them:
you'll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won't encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you're seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you're destined for.
But don't hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you're old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you've gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn't have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you'll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

constantine cavafy, trans. edmund keeley, philip sherrard