Chocolate cheesecake

September 4th, 2014  |  Tags:  |  Leave a comment

Chocolate cheesecake

My cousins came up with a new family holiday a few years ago, in which we commemorate my paternal grandparents’ anniversary by making chocolate baked goods. I don’t make or eat a lot of baked goods, but I loved my grandparents and do enjoy dark chocolate. So this year I actually made something: a chocolate cheesecake.

I almost always use ratios (rather than recipes) to make custards, sauces, and batters, but I wrote this out for the benefit of people who don’t like weighing things. Since cheesecakes are essentially custards, we’ll start with the basic ratio for a custard, which is two parts liquid to one part eggs. The liquid for our recipe is a combination of heavy cream, cream cheese, and whole-milk ricotta.

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • 1 pound cream cheese
  • 1¾ cups ricotta
  • ⅓ cup heavy cream
  • 8 extra large eggs (2 oz each)
  • ½ cup sugar or equivalent sweetener (I used xylitol)
  • ½ cup unsweetened cocoa
  • 2 Tbsp vanilla
  • a pinch salt

Bring all ingredients to room temperature (or close to room temperature if you have a powerful mixer or blender).

Preheat your oven to 500º F.

Blend or mix all ingredients together, and then put the custard mix into a 8- or 9-inch greased springform pan.

Put the pan in the hot oven for 8-10 minutes. The top of your cake will turn brown all around. Turn the temperature of your oven down to 200º F and let it cook until the temperature in the center of the cake is 150º F; this will probably be a little less than an hour, but allow more time depending on your oven. Remove the custard and let it cool slowly on the counter for about an hour before refrigerating several hours or overnight.

I adapted the variable-temperature baking technique from this recipe, but if you don’t care about a NY-style browned top, you can also make a baked custard by putting the pan in a water bath at 300º F. Allow a couple of hours to cook but otherwise proceed as above.

Makes 12 servings, each with 308 kcal, 23 g fat, 14 g carbohydrates, and 12 g protein.

50th anniversary celebration

Bike data analysis talk

July 20th, 2014  |  Tags: , ,  |  Leave a comment

I gave a talk at Spark Summit earlier this month about my work using Apache Spark to analyze my bike power meter data, and the conference videos are now online. You can watch my talk here:




If you’re interested in seeing one of these analyses in action, I’ve also made a short video demo:

Thile records Bach

July 8th, 2014  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

Mandolinist Chris Thile recorded some of the Bach solo violin sonatas and partitas last summer, and the result is just great; I’ve been listening to the album for the last month. Read a review at the New Yorker or the Nonesuch press release.



(You may also want to check out Enrico Baiano’s Scarlatti recordings.)

Making sense of bicycling data

April 2nd, 2014  |  Tags: , , ,  |  Leave a comment

2014 04 02 at 8 46 AM

I’ve been working with Apache Spark a lot lately and recently wrote some code to analyze and visualize bicycling telemetry data with Spark. I’ve posted a more detailed writeup (including an explanation of what the above picture means) over at my work blog.

Should have seen that one coming

November 15th, 2013  |  Tags: ,  |  1 Comment

It was a little icy west of Madison today.

That awful Yahoo! logo

September 5th, 2013  |  Tags:  |  Leave a comment

When I first saw the new Yahoo! logo, my initial reaction — after the total horror wore off — was that Optima is a great choice if you want your company to be perceived as at least as hip and ahead-of-the-curve as John McCain’s 2008 presidential run. At least McCain had a good excuse.

Regarding TdF doping

July 26th, 2013  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

As much as I love riding bikes, I generally assume that the very top of pro cycling is approximately as authentic and fair as the very top of pro wrestling. I didn’t watch the Tour de France this year and pretty much only followed the action and attendant controversies both legitimate (like l’affaire King) and manufactured (like the endless speculation about Chris Froome’s power files) on Twitter. But I was nevertheless interested to read this report from Cycling Tips’ “Secret Pro:”

In terms of this being a clean Tour, one thing I can say is that the style of racing has changed, even in the past five years. The previous generation of riders, who we all now know were dopers, would put in five or six attacks and then ride to the top of the HC mountain without even being out of breath. Now, you’ll only see a couple attacks and that’s it. Riders are coming past the finish line cross-eyed and completely destroyed now.

It’s important to keep this in mind when comparing this Tour to the ’90s and early 2000s. It’s much different to be riding a climb at threshold with only a couple attacks or responses in your legs versus what Armstrong and Pantani did. If you’ve ever ridden a bike and looked at your power meter to see what those types of efforts take out of your legs versus riding at constant threshold, you’ll know what I’m talking about. This is likely why some of the top climbers are setting times up the climbs that rival some of the fastest.

From my perspective as a mediocre cyclist who often becomes acutely aware of the pronounced effects of burning too many matches too soon, this makes a lot of sense. That’s not to say that the peloton is actually riding clean — we are, after all, talking about a sport where mad-scientist snake-oil blood treatments are deemed “not doping” merely because they are probably ineffective — but this explanation is a parsimonious response to some of the most prominent conspiracy theories.

Father’s Day gifts

June 21st, 2013  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

Didn't get hurt, didn't DNF, didn't DFL

Last Sunday I entered a mountain bike race (my first), and Andrea took the three kids out to see the end of my race and most of their Uncle Ben’s race, which was after mine. It was very hot1 and the kids were surprisingly cooperative, although they probably spent more time looking at tiny screens and snacking than watching people zoom by on fat tires.

Shortly after I finished racing and found the kids, I asked Thomas to go help me wash off my bike. He groused a little at having to abandon his tiny screen, but perked up a little bit when he realized he’d get to spray a high-pressure hose around in public. As we walked back to my car to return the bike, he had a suggestion:

“Hey, Dad, I think you should get a folder to keep all of your bib numbers in, and then you can also write down how you did in each race next to each number.”

At this point, I should clarify something about my bicycle racing habit. I am able to enter a few races a year. I really enjoy racing bicycles, but I am not particularly good at it. By “not particularly good,” I mean that I have identified a bug in USA Cycling’s iPhone app whereby if you were ranked, say 11th out of 11 in a given discipline and demographic, the site would tell you you were “first.” Although I’ve never formally reported the bug, my rankings could provide them with a large corpus of test cases: in multiple cycling disciplines and when grouped by zip code, state, racing age, or age range. My goals for a given race invariably have more to do with not getting dropped, lapped, or hurt than they do with a competitive or even above-average finish.

So I was charmed that WT wanted me to track my mediocrity over time, but such a record seemed like a good idea for him (he is an amazing bike handler and has been pretty successful at kids’ triathlons), and I told him so:

“That’s a great idea, but maybe we should start keeping track of your bibs and your results!”

“And Dad? When you get a rainbow jersey, you can put it in the folder, too.”

I smiled. “Thanks, buddy. But really, I almost certainly won’t ever get a rainbow jersey.”

WT thought about it for a few seconds. “Well, Dad, here’s what you’ll do. At the end of the race, you might be in fourth or something, and you’ll just have to go as fast as you can to beat the person who’s winning. See?”

Of course, I’m usually right around fourth from last rather than fourth overall, but it doesn’t matter. What more could one want for Father’s Day than a wife who loves you enough to drag your kids across the county to watch your ridiculous hobby on a sweltering Wisconsin afternoon, three children who love you enough to cheer when they finally see you, and an oldest son who thinks highly enough of you that he assumes you might be awfully close to best in the world at anything?




1 Thanks to some Dropouts for taking pity on Andrea and the kids and letting them evade the sun in their tent!

Cycling signs of the apocalypse

May 17th, 2013  |  Tags:  |  Leave a comment

“You got your decadent wastefulness in my boring hybrid bicycle!”
“No, you got this hilarious ‘urban’ cycle in my conspicuous consumption!”

Two great tastes that taste great together?

In any case, Gucci and Bianchi have done a great public service to cyclists everywhere by introducing this 22-pound, carbon, $15K “urban bike.” Every time a new bike purchase idea is met with spousal suspicion, no matter how ridiculous the proposal is (e.g., “I’d like an aero fat bike for drafting behind snowmobiles” or “I’d like to get a real track bike just so I can drive for two hours to the nearest velodrome and race”), one can simply point to this hilarious specimen as the ultimate real-world strawman. After seeing this, I don’t think I’ll even be able to chuckle at people who ride halo bikes on the commuter path. (And should you find yourself with $15k to spend on an all-purpose urban bike, please buy eleven Raleigh Ropers and donate ten of them to an appropriate local charity.)

Visualizing recurring jokes with the Bluths

May 15th, 2013  |  Tags: ,  |  1 Comment

Recurring Developments is an interactive visualization of running jokes throughout the first three seasons of Arrested Development. Click on a joke to see arcs to episodes in which it occurred, or click on an episode to see arcs to the jokes that appear in it. Of related interest, see also this Will Leitch piece about Arrested Development’s popularity, changes in television viewing patterns, and the increasingly long tail of mass media. (The thing that resonates most with me about Leitch’s piece is that the first time I saw Arrested Development — the first episode of the second season, when it aired — I didn’t know that many of the running jokes were running jokes, but I was able to recognize the intricacy of the narrative, and that this was a show that rewarded viewers for paying attention.)

Proxima Nova’s ubiquity

May 14th, 2013  |  Tags: , ,  |  Leave a comment

Here’s an argument that Proxima Nova is to the 2010s as Helvetica was to the 1970s. I guess something had to take Myriad’s place after its fin-de-siècle dominance, but I would like to note that I was at least using Proxima Nova everywhere before it was everyone else’s default choice. (I think I licensed it in 2006 because I was looking for an alternative to Johnston Underground, which is too iconic, and Gill Sans, which I object to for moral reasons.)

Spring classics, Wisconsin style

April 17th, 2013  |  Tags:  |  Leave a comment

I often joke that Cross Plains, WI could host a Spring classic if they would just build a velodrome at the end of Church Street, but I suppose potholes and cobblestones aren’t exactly interchangeable. The weather in Madison is gradually moderating and — while it’s still too wet for mountain biking — we’ve had about a month of great totally adequate road riding weather now. Here’s a time-compressed video of a quick ride out to Cross Plains from last weekend; watch for the cobbled-classics infrastructure aesthetic from around 3:40–3:55:

Cross Plains 4/13 from William Benton on Vimeo. Soundtrack: “thieving magpie” by madcap ontic.

Welt, geh aus, laß Jesum ein!

March 28th, 2013  |   |  Leave a comment

  • Tim Rutherford-Johnson does a spectacular job of tracing the elements of contemporary popular music that are commonly ascribed to Steve Reich’s influence and teasing out what Reich’s influence may really have been — and where these elements may have ultimately come from. If you’ve ever wondered, among other things, what Donna Summer has to do with Philip Glass, read on. (via Steve Hamann on Twitter)

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  • This interview with Sigur Rós is over a decade old and the gear-specific details might not be of general interest even if they were current, but I thought the discussion of their aesthetic and the unusual steps they take to serve it — for example, recording in swimming pools and other large, untreated spaces — was fascinating.

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Common-sense font licensing

March 28th, 2013  |  Tags:  |  Leave a comment

I recently licensed a very nice font that I may never use.

Most computer users don’t pay for font licenses; they simply use the fonts that came with their computer (or that were bundled with a software package like Microsoft Office or Adobe Creative Suite). Type is sort of tricky from an intellectual-property perspective; typefaces themselves are not copyrightable under U.S. law (which is why you can have Myriad and Segoe coexisting peacefully with Frutiger), but digital font files are considered computer programs that, when executed with certain parameters, produce images of glyphs. As computer programs, font files are copyrightable (and also subject to potentially-onerous licensing restrictions).

So, if you want to use a font, you’ll pay a fee based on how many styles you’re interested in (weights, italic or upright, and optical sizes), how you’re going to use it (personally or commercially), and how many computers you’re going to use it on. You’ll also agree not to do certain things with the font software: most font licenses prohibit using font software to produce logos or other designs in which the typeface is the primary element (without special permission), using font software to make document generators accessible to the general public (because then they wouldn’t need to license the font themselves in order to use them in designs), embedding font software in editable electronic documents that are accessible to the general public (because these can be trivially extracted or modified substantially by third parties who haven’t licensed the fonts), and (of course) using the font software to produce a derivative font.

These typical restrictions are largely reasonable (although the embedding restriction poses more of an inconvenience to legitimate users than a roadblock to scofflaws, who are likely to pay dearly for unlicensed use of faces), and I am in general sympathetic to the intellectual-property tightrope that typeface designers must walk in order to retain control of the products of their art and craft. Some common restrictions, though, only make sense if we’re dealing exclusively with a print world: for example, some licenses forbid using a font in the production of generally-available electronic documents altogether; others forbid producing electronic documents unless you convert text (which is searchable and readable by assistive technologies) to images (which are not). Since I almost exclusively produce electronic documents (most of which I give away for free, like slide decks, technical papers, and handouts), I don’t bother licensing these fonts. Other restrictions exclude large classes of potentially interesting uses, by disallowing production of physical objects that are not printed on paper (coffee mugs, t-shirts, stickers, etc.), or drawing distinctions between still images and animations that were produced with a given font. I have been known to design a few t-shirts (e.g., this sweet Zoltan the Jackdaw shirt), so I need to be aware of these kinds of restrictions as well.

Some foundries offer what I would consider to be common sense licenses: they allow you to use licensed font software for just about anything (with some narrow and reasonable exceptions that require a specialized license) as long as you don’t give the font software to other people in the course of using it. Mark Simonson’s standard license is an excellent example of the genre. Other foundries are much more restrictive in their licensing; these licenses are typically biased toward print use cases (although they may allow production of physical objects that are not printed on paper) and do not allow the production of electronic documents. An example of a more restrictive license is the standard license from Hoefler & Frere-Jones.

Now, I believe both Simonson’s license agreement and H&FJ’s license agreement are perfectly fine to the extent I can look at either and determine fairly easily whether or not I’ll be able to use a face from that foundry for the kinds of projects I’m interested in doing. (I considered licensing some H&FJ faces for my dissertation — likely the only print book I’ll ever produce — and for my personal slide deck style, but didn’t because I wouldn’t be able to give away a PDF made using those faces.1) The problem comes when a license agreement

  1. is vague (for example, when the meaning of a long series of clauses depends on how conjunctions and disjunctions might be grouped, or whether a restrictive clause is meant to genuinely restrict or merely explain);
  2. contradicts itself (for example, when the same applications are listed as both acceptable and unacceptable uses!), or
  3. when the font seller (not the foundry) doesn’t make the agreement itself available for review until after you’ve purchased a license.

When all three of these show up in the same transaction, then we’re left with a very nice font that I may never use.

(See also “Sold, not licensed” for some related legal and practical questions.)



1 This is their prerogative, and I don’t begrudge it to them — furthermore, their faces are excellent and if I ever have to set something exclusively for print, they will be near the top of my list.

  • In news that is sure to delight my fellow University of Wisconsin alumni, architecture magazine Clog recently published a 176-page reflection on brutalism. (via Khoi Vinh, who also links to a photoblog on the same subject.)

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Supply-side hipsterism fails

March 21st, 2013  |  Tags: ,  |  2 Comments

Richard Florida, who has long claimed that urban planners should target the desires of the “creative class,” recently conceded that this approach is a mistake. Joel Kotkin’s summary of the problems with this approach is worth reading; chiefly, “the benefits of appealing to the creative class accrue largely to its members and do little to make anyone else any better off.” Florida’s epiphany comes after a large wave of hilarious but tragic attempts to replicate Vanuatuan cargo cults in major American cities, in which local governments spent years and millions of dollars building hollow simulacra of Seattle, San Francisco, or Brooklyn instead of spending hours and locally-sourced lumber building hollow simulacra of air traffic control towers.

Unfortunately, building pretend hip neighborhoods doesn’t do anything more to attract these mythical upper-income “creative class” types than building pretend runways does to attract cargo planes full of food and durable goods. Even worse, in Florida’s words, “talent clustering provides little in the way of trickle-down benefits.” (Apparently, the rising tide created by expensive nods to the whims of the creative class lifts only artisanal boats.)

You’re probably are as shocked as I was that choosing to incentivize SWPL is a poor basis for public policy. But establishing a cargo cult seems to be the most natural strategy for many decisionmakers: the same impulse is the one that says “increasing homeownership will swell the ranks of the middle class” and “college degrees lead to good jobs.”

  • I absolutely love Analog, a new typeface from Scribble Tone (formerly TK Type, whose amazing Chartwell I’ve mentioned in the past); it reminds me of classic books on electronics projects and computers and recalls a time when all of these things were rather more exotic and exciting.

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Really impressive polyphonic dictation

March 5th, 2013  |  Tags: ,  |  2 Comments

I bought and started downloading the upgrade to Ableton Live 9 after it was released this morning and had a chance to play with it after work. (Happy birthday to me!) I’ve used Live since version 4, and it has been my first choice for producing electronic and electroacoustic music in the last few years. So far, Live 9 seems like a good upgrade overall, but I think the killer feature for my workflow is its ability to take polyphonic audio and transcribe a MIDI sequence for further arrangement or manipulation.

I was skeptical that this would work all that well (even monophonic audio-to-MIDI converters have been more “interesting” than “useful” in the past), but I plugged in a guitar1 and hastily recorded the hook from the Isley Brothers’ “Footsteps in the Dark”2. The results from using Live’s MIDI extraction were really quite impressive. This audio clip consists of the hook three times: first, with my original guitar recording, then crossfading between that and a synthesized electric piano driven by an extracted MIDI sequence, and then finally just the synthesized piano.

While this output is usable and surprisingly faithful, it’s not perfect. Live misses the appoggiaturas, but that’s absolutely forgivable (especially since I suspect that discarding appoggiaturas is the result of a tradeoff that also discards, e.g., the vast majority of fret noise). I’m optimistic that it’s good enough to use for transcribing reasonable recordings of many real instruments. As a terrible keyboardist (even worse, one who owns a crummy keyboard controller), I’m excited about the prospect of using my fretted stringed instruments as input devices for generic musical ideas (and not merely as things that make fretted-stringed-instrument and processed-fretted-stringed-instrument sounds).




1 Specifically, I was running both pickups of a stock Epiphone Wildkat into a Tech21 Blonde pedal with neutral but realistic settings and then recording that through a passive direct box.
2 It was a good day, but I’m not sure whether the Lakers even played the SuperSonics, let alone beat them.

Massive produce attack

March 2nd, 2013  |  Tags: , ,  |  Leave a comment

This delightfully nerdy exercise turns fresh produce into custom electronic music controllers:

Things go better with vihuela

February 25th, 2013  |  Tags:  |  Leave a comment

This is a beautiful performance of Miguel de Fuenllana’s intabulation of Claude Sermisy’s “Tant que vivray.” It is absolutely worth a few minutes of your time.

(My six-year-old son, upon seeing that a single YouTube had given this the thumbs-down, said “I really don’t understand how anyone could not like this, Dad.”)

  • In an ideal world, the existence of this aggressively stupid law would open more eyes to how many avenues for tyranny were opened by the 1998 passage of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. But in our world, people will probably just hope that the law won’t be enforced. (Derek Khanna, who wrote the linked piece and is currently famous for proposing sensible copyright-law reforms and then getting fired, has been absolutely crushing the technology-policy front lately.)

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Visualizing my road cycling from 2012

January 3rd, 2013  |   |  Leave a comment

Last January, I plotted a representative selection of my road bike rides from 2011 using TileMill, the TIGER map data from the US Census Bureau, and exported activity routes from RunKeeper.

This year, I’ve improved the process somewhat, and I mapped my 2012 rides last night. I used the OpenStreetMap data in a PostGIS database to get information about streets, lakes, and cities (oddly, the OpenStreetMap extract for Wisconsin doesn’t seem to have city information for Madison), and I post-processed 196 RunKeeper activities into a single GPS track so that I didn’t have to manually enter each one as a new layer. With my sincerest apologies to some very nice rides in Iowa and Minnesota, I cropped the map to show only the area around Madison where I rode most frequently:

Map of my 2012 road rides

(Click the above to have the map fill your browser window, or click here to see it at full size.)

Readers familiar with southern Wisconsin cycling may recognize some of these routes: the main constellation of routes extends from the Horribly Hilly Hundreds 100k route on the west to the Capital City Loop on the east and from Lodi in the north to New Glarus in the south. The disjoint route in the north is the Tower Tour (my first-ever road race; I earned the lanterne rouge); the disjoint route to the west is the Dairyland Dare 100k route.

I would still like to improve the way I visualize route and point density. Currently, each activity’s track is painted as a thick line with 15% opacity. This is straightforward and unsophisticated, and the 15% opacity makes one-time routes visible and makes routes that I rode n times easily distinguishable from those I rode n + 1 times, at least for small values of n. Unfortunately, this method is coarse enough so that common routes become saturated fairly quickly.

When genres become zombies

December 20th, 2012  |  Tags:  |  Leave a comment

Has any word used to describe commercial music had such a tremendous decline as “dubstep?” In 2005 it referred to the music made by loose collection of producers with diverse sounds and styles.1 But by 2009 it had become a descriptor for a paint-by-number style that only admitted tracks that allowed a few facile, predictable, and ridiculous musical elements to grow until they choked out everything else. In four years, “dubstep” went from being a big tent containing some of the most interesting popular electronic music of the day to being a mark of philistinism — a pejorative to anyone except bros who skew lowbrow and are a little too enthusiastic about horticulture.

I suspect in this case, the decline was due primarily to the diverse group of innovators moving away from what became the rigid characterization of dubstep while a large group of second-tier musicians and bedroom producers (and glorified bedroom producers) were happy to play in a narrow style and to use draconian genre constraints as absolute guidelines rather than as a starting point for creative exploration. (To be fair, the genre’s increased popularity probably was due to new fans who demanded the same halfstep beat, a wobble bass drop exactly 16 or 32 measures in, &c.) No matter why it happened, though, this amusing video pretty well captures the current state of the genre:

(Chase it with something a little more interesting, like Burial’s “Untrue.”)


1 Even I produced some of the old-definition, broadly-construed “dubstep.”

  • Emily Esfahani Smith indicts undergraduate hook-up culture while reviewing Nathan Harden’s Sex and God at Yale. What strikes me most about the current state of affairs is not whether or not it makes moral sense (it does not), but that it doesn’t even make microeconomic sense.

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  • I hate Bookman, but I kind of love Bookmania. Clearly, Mark Simonson is a genius (observant readers have already noted that this site is set in Simonson’s Proxima Nova, one of my all-time favorite typefaces).

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