Black boxes for bicyclists

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

This NYT article poses an interesting solution to an ugly problem: if helmet cameras become ubiquitous, cyclists will be able to document the actions of malicious or negligent motorists — perhaps even to the point where our characteristically bike-indifferent (or bike-hostile) criminal justice system will be forced to take victims seriously. But I fear that point remains distant. Consider one of the example cyclists profiled in the article, who

[…] wears a camera on his helmet during his 50-minute commute each way between his home and office. He began riding with the device this year after buying a $7,000 velomobile, a three-wheeled recumbent cycle with a shell around it.

Let’s imagine a pretty clear-cut case: the victim’s attorney (or a prosecutor) presents impeccable footage of a driver hitting a cyclist because he was distracted while putting puppies and kittens in a blender; goose-stepping towards the victim while screaming offensive epithets; and, finally, driving away without providing insurance or contact information. The victim’s case would be doomed immediately upon cross-examination. Can you imagine an American jury finding in favor of someone once they learned that he captured the incident from a helmet camera while riding a $7,000 tricycle?

  • Often, the places we remember fondly don’t exist in any meaningful sense after we leave. This probably holds most true with institutions like colleges, but even a city or region can change so dramatically in a short time as to be nearly unrecognizable to expats. That’s why I was relieved to see that bloated grocery unions are still ruining retail for everyone in the DC suburbs, just as they were when I went to junior high and high school in the area. In one small way, it’s like I never left.

Gas powers everything?

September 11th, 2011  |  Tags:  |  Leave a comment

This Nissan Leaf commercial, in which the narrator asks us to imagine a world in which “gas powers everything,” is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen. A world in which “gas powers everything” would not have tiny internal-combustion engines attached to every appliance and gadget. Instead, it would look roughly like our world, in which batteries and alternating current both exist even though we primarily get the energy to power devices by burning smoke-belching coal. But perhaps acknowledging where our electricity comes from is beyond the consideration of Nissan’s target market; the fellow smugly unplugging his Leaf at the end of the ad appears to believe that his wall socket merely channels the power of unicorns and the optimism of children’s dreams.

Transcending ideology on Twitter

September 9th, 2011  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

I follow Twitter users representing a wide range of vocations, political philosophies, and creeds, but they all have one thing in common: visceral hatred of mediocre rock band Nickelback. I base this assertion on the sheer number of people who’ve approvingly retweeted the following message:

WARNING: if you see posts offering free clip of the new Nickelback album DO NOT CLICK. It links to a free clip of the new Nickelback album.

The variety of people gleefully expressing Nickelback-related animus actually gives me great hope for a harmonious future. Nickelback’s universally hated oeuvre may have the potential to help people of diverse concerns find common ground — and, ultimately, to bring the world together in peace. In this sense, they are the inverse of fictional rock band Wyld Stallyns, whose music was so widely loved that it led to the eventual establishment of a 27th-Century utopia.

Be excellent to each another, my Nickelback-hating internet friends.

  • A delightful polemic about one of my least favorite authors from David Bentley Hart at First Things: “I know one shouldn’t expect much from a writer who thought Mickey Spillane a greater artist than Shakespeare. Even so, the cardboard characters, the ludicrous dialogue, the bloated perorations, the predictable plotting, the lunatic repetitiousness and banality, the shockingly syrupy romance—it all goes to create a uniquely nauseating effect: at once mephitic and cloying, at once sulfur and cotton candy.”

    Read it all!


Tricky numismatic quiz

May 23rd, 2010  |  Tags: , ,  |  Leave a comment

Tricky quiz

If you bring these two coins to the miniature golf course, you can exchange either for a turn in the batting cages or a few minutes operating a radio-controlled boat. But one of them is also U.S. legal tender for all debts, public and private, while the other has no value for general trade. Can you tell which is which? Was it hard?

Cameron’s combinatorial explosion

March 26th, 2010  |  Tags:  |  Leave a comment

Just about every website in the universe is breathlessly reporting that James Cameron made over 100 different versions of Avatar for different viewing scenarios, tweaking postproduction variables like spoken language, subtitles, brightness, presence of 3D, and even aspect ratio. (The aforelinked article does an excellent job of making this appear to be the indefatigable devotion of a master craftsman and not the insane dithering of an egomaniac who probably spends his spare time sorting toothpicks.)

I applaud this level of attention to detail, although I’m still waiting to see the movie until Cameron releases an ideal version for my preferred viewing scenario, and even Cameron’s arsenal of postproduction manipulations might be insufficiently powerful to create such a version. Specifically, the version I’m waiting for would feature a plot developed by competent adult screenwriters, rather than by a pack of misanthropic teenage syndicalists; this alternate plot could involve characters that weren’t merely irrational and one-dimensional bullseyes or fetishized noble savages. It would also be nice if this putative “plot version” of Avatar were available in a Papyrus-free edition, and on Blu-ray with a DTS 5.1 mix.

Abuses corrected

January 13th, 2010  |  Tags: , , , ,  |  2 Comments

(This is merely one of those “briefly-noted” remaindered link posts I have from time to time, but given the common leitmotif I couldn’t resist the urge to allude to the Confessio Augustana in the title.)

Logo abuse

Armin Vit discusses the new Peugeot logo, which represents a dramatic step backwards in execution and looks rather like it was created by the “3D Text” feature in Microsoft Office 97. (True story: at one point in my graduate-school career, I worked on a student project with someone who insisted not only on using Word for scholarly writing, but also on making a “3D” title page for our paper. That was a particularly awful semester.) As an interested layman, I can only speculate that AIGA and other professional societies are requiring identity designers to meet an “awkward gradients and misplaced highlights” quota these days. Either that, or branding agencies are delegating work to enthusiastic toddlers with Office licenses.

Naming abuse

Thomas and I were shopping for a TV antenna a few days ago, and we came across this product, which is billed as a “Quantum Antenna.” This made a lot of sense: in my experience, over-the-air TV reception is definitely a problem domain in which observing an apparatus can change its state. I didn’t buy it, though, since it was expensive and our reception is bad enough as it is without introducing any additional uncertainty.

Tautology abuse

D and B recently brought us a battery of amazings gastronomic delights including some truly excellent blackberry ice cream. I ate some of the latter last night and noticed the following truly excellent copy on the carton:


Yes, with a sentence that recalls Jon Gruden’s booth work on Monday Night Football (“THAT GUY is a FOOTBALL PLAYMAKER, making FOOTBALL PLAYS for this FOOTBALL PROGRAM.”), this carton of ice cream assures me that it is “certified organic by organic certifiers.” My initial reaction was “of course! Who else could do so?” But perhaps I’ve construed the second “organic” too narrowly, and the sentence simply means to indicate that organic certification was performed by a carbon-based certifier. In any case, the ice cream is great.

By the way, if you’re keeping track of Myriad creep, be sure to make a note here.

It’s funny because it’s true

August 24th, 2009  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

Here’s an excellent and evocative one-liner from Peter Suderman’s recent Reason post about netroots disillusionment with the current administration, for whom charisma, control of all three branches of government, and regular bons mots are apparently insufficient leverage to establish an agenda that satisfies the truest of the true believers:

Unless you’re a character in an Aaron Sorkin show, that’s just not how national politics work.

The whole post is, I think, pretty well done and worth reading, but the point that many vocal citizens are apparently living in the onanistic and reductive political fantasy world of The American President &c. is one that probably bears repeating as often as possible.

Ideology and its limits

August 8th, 2009  |  Tags:  |  Leave a comment

It looks like these college kids appreciate anarchy enough to name their nightclub after a misogynist, racist, and murderous thug, but not enough to go all the way and eschew the notion of private property (or the idea that the monetary values that markets ascribe to physical objects are meaningful):


Word dies; irony hardest hit

August 3rd, 2009  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

Jeremy Reimer wrote an article for Ars Technica claiming that Microsoft Word is dead. Some incidental aspects of his argument surely deserve additional scrutiny (e.g. the “people prefer software with more features” claim), but the main thrust is that Word is dead because documents now appear on the web instead of in print, or something, and there are better formats and tools for writing for the web:

What everyone had lost track of in the heat of battle was why we were still using Word (or OpenOffice Writer, which is—let’s face it—just a clone of Word) to create documents that were likely never going to be printed.

Word, to this day, is still largely a digital representation of a bunch of 8½ by 11 pieces of paper. Pages have numbers which you must use to reference them, and every page has a header and a footer. Word does have a display mode called “Draft” that makes it look more like an endless stream of toilet paper than separate pages, but I always switched to “Print Layout”—partly because Draft was so ugly, but mostly as a kind of unconscious reflex, a need to “know” what the printed form would look like even though I was rarely printing things out any more. Even in Draft mode, the pages are still there, and are always the same size.

One almost hesitates to point out that Reimer’s article — as it appears on the Ars Technica web site, unfettered by the antiquated constraints of physical media — is paginated. Furthermore, each page has a header, a footer, a sidebar, and a number. Perhaps some constraints die harder than we might wish.

Edison lives to fight another day

July 6th, 2009  |  Tags: , ,  |  2 Comments

As you may recall, the venerable incandescent light bulb was due to be illegal by 2012 due to more stringent efficiency requirements. (I snarked about this earlier here.) This is unfortunate for a variety of reasons: fluorescent lights often look terrible, are more expensive than incandescent bulbs, contain mercury, and are — in my experience — of wildly variable quality and durability.

Fortunately, a new wave of incandescent bulbs is emerging that have vastly superior energy-efficiency characteristics. Unfortunately, the nature of engineering dictates that these suffer from tradeoffs, just like everything else:

The first bulbs to emerge from this push, Philips Lighting’s Halogena Energy Savers, are expensive compared with older incandescents. They sell for $5 apiece and more, compared with as little as 25 cents for standard bulbs.

But they are also 30 percent more efficient than older bulbs. Philips says that a 70-watt Halogena Energy Saver gives off the same amount of light as a traditional 100-watt bulb and lasts about three times as long, eventually paying for itself.

I’m sure these bulbs are great, and I’m almost inclined to buy some right now to replace the ugly and slow CFLs that have turned my basement into a futuristic gray dystopia. Furthermore, their prices will almost surely come down with competition, with improved manufacturing, and as the companies involved recoup their research costs. But did we really need an energy bill that mandates that we spend twenty times as much on a commodity product to improve its energy efficiency by less than a third?

Was verfolgst du mich?

June 29th, 2009  |  Tags: , , ,  |  Leave a comment

Apparently, the religion reporting in AP wire stories that the NYT runs isn’t much better than the religion reporting in the NYT proper:

Archaeologists recently unearthed and opened the white marble sarcophagus located under the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome, which for some 2,000 years has been believed by the faithful to be the tomb of Paul.

Consider this some vindication for Wenham’s reading of Paul: not only was Paul not a theological innovator, but, given that his tomb has been regarded as such for “some 2,000 years,” many of his epistles must even precede the birth and ministry of Christ!

(Note also the gratuitous Ratzinger-bashing in the final paragraph: “At the end of Sunday’s service in the warm basilica, Benedict, 82, lost his balance slightly as he slipped on a step on the altar….”)

No worse than “straight edge”

June 26th, 2009  |  Tags: , , , ,  |  Leave a comment

This Kottke post on a moronic dietary subculture is definitely worth reading. However, the “breatharians” are not uniquely deserving of scorn: a “breatharian” who sneaks an occasional cheeseburger is no worse than most of the “straight edge” people I knew in high school, whose various and intricate proscriptions always seemed to stop short of one undeniable appetite or another. Pop asceticism is the slave of the passions, I guess.

On Facebook usernames

June 12th, 2009  |  Tags: , ,  |  Leave a comment

Like almost all sophisticated and clever people, I am delighted every time Facebook announces a new, easy-to-abuse feature that might at its best enable some of its users to become sharecroppers of a trivially larger chunk of the AOL of the oughts. If you’d prefer to see a rather dimmer view, then you’ll want to read Anil Dash, who wrote an amusing article speculating on the immediate aftermath of the “user-specified URL” feature rollout on Facebook; it is chock-full of goodness like this:

LinkedIn posts a thinly-veiled but very smart update on their company blog that happens to mention in passing that they’ve had friendly usernames as an option for URLs for years, and that it’s more likely you want to show your professional profile to the world as the first Google result for your name. The post omits any mention that you can also register a real domain name that you can own, instead of just having another URL on LinkedIn.

(via Ben Brown)

Melting things

April 15th, 2009  |  Tags: , ,  |  2 Comments

I can think of at least two reasons not to tell Rosie O’Donnell about this note on the Popular Science site. The first is right here, and the second should be patently obvious.

RIYL: (1) 9/11 conspiracy theories and Occam’s razor and (2) Not your “friends”

Selling NoWay products

December 16th, 2008  |  Tags: , , ,  |  Leave a comment


I had the Thanksgiving football games on while I was running some experiments. Amway ran ads in every game, explaining what a wonderful company they are. (They have run these ads regularly since, and I now have more time to finish writing short notes.) The ads included numbers that were, I suppose, intended to lend credibility to their claims. I found them to do the exact opposite: they merely strengthened my belief that Amway is some kind of cross between Mary Kay and Scientology.

The numbers that stuck out the most were these:

  • Amway makes “3 million people” into “small business owners” with “$7 billion in sales” every year.
  • Amway has 450 products and 700 patents.

The first of these basically tells you everything you need to know: the mean Amway “small business owner” has slightly over 2 grand in revenue every year? Yikes. I hope that they have some magical way to have more profit than revenue, or at least that Amway ships their cookware, cleaning supplies, and nutritional supplements to their small business owners for free.

I won’t address the latter number except to point out that most of the Amway products mentioned are shockingly pedestrian and seem unlikely to exploit inventions that warrant patent protection; certainly, not at the rate of more than one patent per product. This means that Amway’s portfolio is probably dominated by business method patents, which I suspect have titles like “Mechanism for paying ‘small business owners’ at the top of the pyramid with fees from other ‘small business owners'”

I tried to give you a gift

November 22nd, 2008  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment


…but then I had to quit Safari.

Sony is price fixing for your own good

November 20th, 2008  |  Tags: , ,  |  Leave a comment

From “Bits” at the NYT comes this tale of holiday cheer from Sony:

At a chat with reporters in New York, Stan Glasgow, the president of Sony Electronics in the United States, and Jay Vandenbree, the company’s president for consumer sales, discussed its new rule that bans retailers from discounting Sony’s Alpha digital camera line, its more expensive televisions and some other high-end products.

Mr. Vandenbree said that by having the price for these products be the same at all retailers, Sony had eliminated stress for buyers.

“Consumers don’t have to worry about whether I can get a better deal at retailer A or retailer B,” he said.

Another benefit is that smarter consumers now have one fewer overpriced consumer-electronics brand to worry about.

Voting for change

November 5th, 2008  |  Tags: , ,  |  Leave a comment

Yesterday, I saw an enthusiastic young woman on State Street who was handing out stickers to passers-by. When I got within earshot, she asked me if I had “voted for change.” I had voted — and indeed, I had voted in favor of several specific changes — but more-or-less politely declined the sticker, since I am only willing to provide free advertising for burger joints, not particular candidates.

I know what she meant, but honestly, it strikes me as an abuse of language to think that one might have voted, but not “for change,” in an election with no incumbent. What would such a vote consist of? “Actually, no. I wrote in W. for a third term. Here’s hoping we can get that pesky term-limit issue ironed out in time for January 20!”

  • Why you shouldn’t bother voting. I don’t expect I will take this advice, but I must say that the zealous fervor and demagoguery of the election season is probably one of the five or six things I find most distasteful about America.


Ruining Britain (hymnody edition)

October 24th, 2008  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

From a snarky column on “people who have ruined Britain” comes a delightful indictment of Graham Kendrick, composer of the violently banal hymn “Shine, Jesus Shine.” Choice quote:

Kendrick, who has a personal website complete with an efficient shopping section, is the nation’s pre-eminent churner-outer of evangelical bilge….

The sturdy hymns of England, musical embodiment of the stoicism, resolve and undemonstrative solidarity of our nation, are in severe peril, and all thanks to ill-shaven remnants of the late Sixties — grinning inadequates who have never got over the fact that they weren’t Cat Stevens.


August 28th, 2008  |  Tags: , ,  |  Leave a comment

Football season is blissfully close — and, with it, the only time of the year that I actually watch television. As always, I feel compelled to revisit the perennial question: have those NHTSA advertisements really cut back on the number of people driving around in vehicles shoulder-full of booze?

I’d appreciate any hard data on this question.

Royalty-free “Love”

August 7th, 2008  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

There was a lot of commotion a while ago when some overcaffeinated kid revealed that the beat for the ubiquitous Usher single “Love in This Club” is made up of royalty-free loops, specifically, some synthesizer lines from the “Euro Hero Synth” set in Apple’s GarageBand. (All of the Apple loops have these bafflingly creativity-destroying names like “Cop Show Clav,” “Glow Stick Anthem Acid Bass,” “Angsty Chorused Flannel Stratocaster,” and “Uzbek Tech-House Breakdown Balalaika.”)

Of course, I use and love Logic Studio (which comes with approximately 2.7 years of royalty-free loops, including all of those included with GarageBand), but I never install loops. If I had — and if, you know, everyone else in the world hadn’t already done it — I might throw down a quick and mildly droll remix. This would probably be even easier than it sounds, since it seems like much of the production for “Love in This Club” may have been done in GarageBand. In particular, you might notice the obvious application of the “Earbleed Squarewave Mastering” preset:


Usher may not “care who’s watching,” but he cares even less, apparently, about those who are listening. Who’s winning the loudness war now?

NB: some preset and loop names may be imaginary.

Rangefinders and progress

July 18th, 2008  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

The Canon Canonet GIII QL17 is a classic rangefinder from 1972. It was designed to use mercury batteries that are now unavailable in the U.S.1; substituting contemporary batteries results in metering errors that change over the life of the battery, according to Wikipedia:

The lightmeter uses a PX625 mercury battery, which is now discontinued. The alkaline version can be used, but the different electric tension, different discharge curve, and absence of electronic compensation circuit, induce a defective exposure metering, between a 1.5-f-stop at the beginning of the life of the alkaline battery, and a 1.5-f-stop underexposure [at] the end.

At first glance, it seems absurd, or at least quaint, that someone would put up with inconsistent exposures and the absence of modern amenities in order to use this camera in 2008. (And people do make a lot of nice pictures with the Canonet even today.) However, when one considers all of the crap that people have to put up with to use a 2007-vintage, $10k Leica M8 digital rangefinder, worrying about a stop or two here and there suddenly doesn’t seem like that big a deal.

1 This decades-old restriction on mercury batteries looks awfully prescient now, since we’ll need to ensure a ready supply of mercury for light bulbs in the next decade. Good show, lawmakers!

Uniquely terrible

June 18th, 2008  |  Tags: , ,  |  Leave a comment

Well, this entry into the “themed-snack” marketplace is basically the dumbest thing I’ve seen since I learned that Sony was bankrolling “Are We There Yet,” a PG-rated children’s comedy starring Ice Cube:


Next up: “United States Currency-O’s,” “Fruit-Flavored Powerbook Keycap Snacks,” and “Whole-Grain Picture-Hanging Hardware Kit.”

(via Wolf Rentzsch on twitter)