12/27/11

The Tao of Frampton

Peter FramptonCover of Peter FramptonAccording to Wikipedia, tao is a Chinese word meaning 'way,' or 'path.'  It seems somehow appropriate to apply this to 70's wunderkind rocker Peter Frampton, who was never known for his lyrics, but really wanted you to show him the way.  In this case, however, the way is how not to write a lyric.  Here are some examples of promising starts, and then a right hook to the brain with a non sequitur.

I can see the sunset in your eyes
Brown and grey and blue besides
Clouds are stalking islands in the sun
I wish I could buy one out of season
BABY, I LOVE YOUR WAY '74

You can't erase a dream you can only wake me up
My mind is turning slower,never to accept defeat
It don't matter where I live I still got a house to heat
LINES ON MY FACE '73

Well, I can see no reason
You living on your nerves
When someone drops a cup and I submerge
SHOW ME THE WAY '74

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12/15/11

iPretentious

Apple is so pretentious. This image is from the iTunes wizard to register your iPad. The categories all seem so artistic & fulfilling. I don't see "Quickie Mart attendant," "Truck Driver" or "Waitress."





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11/15/11

Mail Order Mysteries

Recently I've extended my diet of podcasts beyond the two staples: "The New York Times Book Review", and "This American Life."  I was looking for comic-book based podcasts, but so many of the so-called reviews are either blow-by-blow recaps of the latest issue of "The Ultimate Spider-man," or blatant fanboy gushing over the cool art, that I began to despair.  Then I discovered boing-boing's "Gweek" podcast.  It's an excuse for Mark Frauenfelder to discover interesting nooks and crannies of comics, pop music, movies and geek pop culture in general.

In "Mail Order Mysteries" Mark interviews Kirk Demarais, who has compiled a book of the ads found in comics in the '60s, '70s and '80s, paired with actual samples of the merchandise which he has tracked down over the years.  As Demarais writes:

"I turned to an overcrowded page of fascinating black-and-white drawings; I was captivated It was an ink-smudged window into an unfamiliar realm where gorilla masks peacefully lived among hovercrafts and ventriloquist dummies. A dozen pages later an outfit called the Fun Factory featured another full-page assortment of wonders, and elsewhere in the issue I found a hundred toy soldiers for a buck, an offer for a free million dollar bank note, and an ad for something called Grit."
In the interview Frauenfelder asks Demarais what the rarest of these sorts of toys might be.  As I heard the question I figured it would be something like the missile-firing tank, or the rocket-firing submarine.  I figured it would be something large and expensive.  My mind briefly jumped back to the episode of "Get A Life" where Chris Elliot finally gets his Neptune 2000 in the mail.  Not so! It turns out the the rarest mail-order toy is the remote control 7 Foot Life-size Ghost.

I'm alone in the car listening to the interview on the way home from work. So, I'm surprised to hear my own voice aloud in the car. "No freakin' way!"

I remember buying that ghost. I probably cut up a comic to get the coupon, and then probably put my own dollar into the envelope.  I don't remember how long it took to arrive, but when you're in fifth grade anything longer than a week seems like forever.  When it finally arrived I opened the package, which was suspiciously light even if it contained a ghost.  It turns out the "ghost" was a white balloon, a white sheet of plastic indistinguishable from a disposable picnic tablecloth, and a small spool of fishing line.  You were supposed to inflate the balloon, put it under the sheet of plastic, and use the fishing line as the remote control.  I only remember trying it out on my door for about five minutes, and spending maybe five more trying to get my sisters to walk past the ghost and be scared.  After that the balloon probably popped, and it was just so much trash.

So, here's this guy on the podcast talking about trying to buy a vintage 7 Foot Life-size Ghost.  He found one on e-Bay, but other people were bidding it up. Demarais is an associate college professor, and it happened that the auction ended during one of his lectures. At the end of the auction he had to put the class on hold while he attempted to snipe the Ghost.  Unfortunately he lost the auction, but fortunately the winning bidder allowed Demarais to take photos of it for the book.  How much was the winning bid? Over $300!

"No freakin' way!" I said again.  But, I knew it was obvious. The Ghost was such a piece of crap that any that were sold most likely ended up in the garbage before the next dawn.  That's why crazy people end up spending over $300 on a piece of utter ephemera.

Meanwhile, the interview intrigued me enough that I could be convinced to drop the $20 for the book "Mail Order Mysteries" just because of the memories it might bring.


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10/3/11

My Bike Commute

Note: This is a longer version of an article I wrote for the Intranet site at work. “Personal Best” is a wellness program launched by ODS.  One of the employees working on the program asked me to write about being captain of the ODS Team for the BTA’s Bike Commute Challenge. Because I wasn't sure what to write, I staged it in the form of an interview.

Me: You're a captain for The ODS Companies team doing the Bicycle Transportation Alliance's Bike Commute Challenge. How did you get that position?
Me: I was just the first to sign up. There are tons of other more worthy people for a Personal Best profile.  I know people who ride every single day, even in winter. I know of one guy who takes the bus to work and rides over 30 miles to get home.  I know--

Me: Excuse me for interrupting, but aren't you supposed to be talking about your "Personal Best?"
Me: Sorry.

A lazy bit of Johnson Creek
Me: You seem to ride quite a bit in the summer. What's your secret to success?
Me: Honestly, I have three secrets.  First off, I have the right equipment: saddlebags are essential for carrying my lunch and extra clothes, and a quick-drying biking jersey makes it easy to always having a clean shirt for the ride.  At work there are showers and locker, great for freshening up after the early morning wake-up ride.  And finally, I've found the SpringwaterCorridor Trail, which works like a secret passageway for cyclists (and pedestrians), is amazing for getting around the East side of Portland.

The Springwater Corridor trail is also great for seeing wildlife.  From downtown it runs along the Willamette, and then turns and follows the Johnson Creek watershed toward Gresham.  Along the way it passes the Oak’s Bottom Wildlife Refuge.  Here’s a short list of the animals I’ve seen while riding on the trail: deer, mice, feral cats, rats, a skunk, a river mink, eagles, heron, osprey, redwing blackbirds and numerous other birds I didn’t identify.

Me: Have you ever had any accidents?
Me: Decades ago (in the 90's!) I was riding to work during “Bike to Work Day.” At a stop sign I bumped tires with another rider and fell over.  I got back up, shook it off, and rode the rest of the way to work.  It wasn’t until my coffee break that I realized my arms were still hurting.  At lunchtime, when I couldn’t lift my peanut butter & jelly sandwich I decided to take the bus home for the day.  Turned out I had broken both arms -- hairline fractures!  After that incident my supervisor convinced me to buy and wear a helmet, which I've been doing ever since. Luckily, I haven't had any accidents after that.

Springwater Corridor under Sellwood Bridge
Me: Do you ride all year?
Me:  I ride as much as I can. In the summer that's multiple times per week. After Daylight Savings Time ends, I prefer to ride once a month.

Me: So, would you say you're a fair weather biker?
Me: I know my limits, and push them whenever I get too comfortable. If you don't ride at all, then just try the ride once. If you ride once a month, then try riding once a week in the summer. If you ride once a week, try two times a week.  I don't like riding in the rain in the morning, but if it's raining on the way home, well, I know I've got some dry clothes at home.  The little things count. Last July I rode to work enough times that I only had to fill up my gas tank once that month.

Me: What inspires you?
Me: There's a woman I see almost daily taking a morning jog on the Springwater Corridor. She's about 70-something, 5' tall, doesn't have a runner's physique, and she's not going very fast. But she lays one foot down in front of the other, and she keeps on going. I see her out there nearly every day.  She's like the Eveready Bunny.  I figure if she can do that every day, the least I can do is give it the same commitment.

Here's a time-lapse video of my ride


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7/22/11

Friday Afternoon Chip Smackdown


Why do we eat potato chips? For the crunch? Because they're a transport layer for salt, oil and other spices? Because they're cheap, yet difficult to make at home, so it's a rare-ish treat?  Personally, I've gotten into the bad habit of spicing up the afternoon with a bit of salty and tangy.


So it was, late in the afternoon, stuck debugging a program, I figured it was time to stretch my legs. I wondered down to the lunchroom to see what the chip situation was. Our company recently switched snack vendors, so the options expanded from just the Lay's stable of chips.  Normally I like something jalapeno or habanero, but today I was thinking salt & vinegar.  Maybe it's in anticipation of the Oregon Brewfest next week. There were two kinds available: Dirty Potato Chips in a 2 oz bag for $1.29, and Corazonas in a 1.5oz bag for the same price. 

Tough choice! Normally I'd go for the higher ratio of chips/money, viz the 2 oz bag.  But, in a strange fit of experimentation, I bought both bags for a Friday afternoon chip snackdown.  The results follow.

The Corazonas are lighter, crunchier, with an actual potato taste that reminds me of the fries from fish & Chips plate at The Horse Brass (English pub). That impression is probably helped by the vinegar, which comes across with a malty taste (the ingredients say it's a mix of apple, malt, and white vinegar).

The Dirty Potato Chips, while kettle cooked, actually have a texture closer to Munchos.  They are much greasier than the Corazonas, and at twice the fat (15g vs 9g), I'm not surprised.  The vinegar is also much more in-your-face, with a sharp tang.  According to the label, it's not even vinegar, but a mix of "vinegar powder," citric acid, and malic acid.  I hate to admit it, but I've eaten enough salt & vinegar chips in a sitting that any with malic acid start to hurt my teeth.

Keeping up with the good chip/bad chip roles, the Dirty chips have 80 more calories per bag, with 140 of them from fat.

Meanwhile, the Corazonas practically have a halo on the bag. Not only are they gluten free, but the package says they're infused with plant sterols, which they say lowers LDL (bad) cholesterol. If you eat 0.4 grams of plant sterols twice per day (coincidentally, almost as much as is in a bag of Corazonas potato chips) you'll be on a low cholesterol diet!

Let me conclude before I feel like I'm turning into an info-mercial. Bottom line, I wasn't especially excited by either chip, although I'll probably buy the Corazonas again. They weren't greasy, and the supposed plant sterol benefits are pretty pyschologically compelling.  Also, I appreciated that they used real vinegar and omitted the malic acid.  On the other hand, given a choice between the Dirty chips and the Lay's Salt & Vinegar, I'd probably pick Lay's brand -- the Dirty chips were trying too hard for the price.
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6/5/11

Time to Plant the Tomatoes

This morning I was out toiling over the soil as my neighbors walked dogs and strolled to the cafe for a Sunday coffee. Why do I torture myself turning the earth by hand, double-digging the rows, getting far sweatier and dirtier than in any gym workout?  For the answer you'll have to read my 2009 post "How do you like them tomatoes?"

As usual, I used John Jeavons' method of double-digging the ground, then I added some regular compost. I alternate by year between organic chicken manure and garden compost.  Next up, a trip to Portland Nursery to get some tomato starts, a couple cucumber plants, three basils and a variety of hot pepper plants.  Maybe I'll plant a couple squash as well -- although the family gets pretty tired of zucchini early on. 

Remind me to take some photos of the tomato varieties I plant. That way, at the end of the year, when the garden is lush and tangled, I can still figure out whether the hefty tomatoes are Germans or Better Boys.  I'm starting about a week later than normal, but with the late cold spring (it was 34 degrees F on Mt. Hood when we camped at Timothy Lake on Memorial Day weekend) I figure it's not that much of a disadvantage.

Meanwhile, if you've already got your garden planted, or you prefer to read rather than dig, I suggest checking out William Alexander's "The $64 Tomato" (here's my book review).

Also, if you're not int
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5/13/11

Stoicism and the Agile Manifesto

I was recently reading David Mamet’s “On Directing Film” because I’d heard it has a good analysis of how to tell a well-built story.  The book is a synthesis of several lectures he gave at Columbia Film School shortly after directing his second film.  In the section on building a story he makes a reference to the Stoics of ancient Greece, and how they held that craftsmen should maintain a simple and understandable tool set.  Mamet then goes on to say that using simple tools, a complex and aesthetically pleasing story can be built stone-by-stone in a logical way.

When I heard this, it resonated with me not only as someone who likes to watch good films, but also as software developer.  Creating a software system is a complex task, involving hundreds of decisions, not only by a single artist, but from a team, or multiple teams of developers.  In the olden days, project managers used a tool called a Requirements Specification, which attempted to make all these decisions in advance.  Unfortunately, this method of development led to situations equivalent to specifying a jackhammer, where a screwdriver and a wrench might have been more useful.

In 2001, however, a group of independent thinkers about software development wrote “The Agile Manifesto,” which included a list of twelve principles that could be used to optimize software projects.  I admire these principles for several reasons: they focus on simplicity, understanding, and the craft inherent in the process.  Sound familiar?

So, I looked up the Stoics, and discovered that much what we know about these philosophers from nearly 2000 years ago is via the writings of Emperor Marcus Aurelius who lived from 121 to 180 AD, and is considered one of the most important Stoic philosophers.  One of his most-quoted statements is often heard in leadership seminars: “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.” (1)   In fact, his diary is a wealth of quotes, and the more I read the more I realized he was predicting the principles of the Agile Manifesto! Ok, well, not so much a prediction, but let’s say more of a resonance. I find it amazing that here’s a guy from two millennia in the past, yet the sentiments of working a craft are almost the same as today.

As an exercise, I paired up each of the principles from The Agile Manifesto with a quote or two from Marcus Aurelius.  Except for one principle, the ancient Greek had something to say about each Agile development tenet (more about the missing principle later -- see if you can guess which one).

Agile Manifesto: "Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software."
MA Says: Begin - "To begin is half the work, let half still remain; again begin this, and thou wilt have finished." (2)


Agile Manifesto: "Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer's competitive advantage."
MA Says: "Observe constantly that all things take place by change, and accustom thyself to consider that the nature of the Universe loves nothing so much as to change the things which are, and to make new things like them." (3)


Agile Manifesto: "Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale."
MA Says: "Confine yourself to the present." (4)


Agile Manifesto: "Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.
MA Says: Each day provides its own gifts." (5)


Agile Manifesto: "Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done."
MA Says: "Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart." (6)


Agile Manifesto: "Working software is the primary measure of progress."
MA Says: "Everything that exists is in a manner the seed of that which will be." (7)


Agile Manifesto: "Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely."
MA Says: That which is not good for the bee-hive cannot be good for the bees. (8)


Agile Manifesto: "Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility."
MA Says: "Execute every act of thy life as though it were thy last." (9)
MA Says: "If it is not right do not do it; if it is not true do not say it." (10)


Agile Manifesto: "Simplicity--the art of maximizing the amount of work not done--is essential."
MA Says: "How much time he saves who does not look to see what his neighbor says or does or thinks." (11)


MA Says: "Let not your mind run on what you lack as much as on what you have already." (12)


Agile Manifesto: "The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams."
MA Says: "Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth." (13)
MA Says: "The secret of all victory lies in the organization of the non-obvious." (14)


Agile Manifesto: "At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly."
MA Says: "Look back over the past, with its changing empires that rose and fell, and you can foresee the future, too." (15)

So, which Agile principle failed to have a partner in the quotes of Marcus Aurelius?  It is: “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation”

At first this baffled me, since I figured this Stoic philosopher would have some comment on communication, until I realized the obvious.  Two thousand years ago there were only a few possible ways to communicate, and 99% of the time it was face-to-face conversation.  The ancient Greeks didn’t have email, phones, Skype, or Post-it notes, most of them probably couldn’t even read.  They were forced to use personal communication. 

Ironic, isn’t it, that one of the benefits of modern technology – automated and remote communication – is also one of the greatest drawbacks in developing the same systems? While the ancient Greeks didn’t have to concern themselves with being misunderstood in an email, modern software development, already a complex process building a complex system, increasingly relies on complex communication structures.  In fact, it’s so great a problem that the writers of the Agile Manifesto included it in their list of 12 key principles.  Hopefully, though, people will remember the Stoic philosophy and maintain a simple and understandable tool set, including the ability to communicate in person.

On a final note, Marcus Aurelius had one more quote which I think can be applied equally well to software projects, the Agile mentality, and life in general.  That is: “The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it.” (16)  Sounds like a good philosophy to me.

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5/2/11

Weighted Words

Here are two word clouds that compare the text of George Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech with Barack Obama's speech on the death of Osama bin Laden.

Mission Accomplished - 2003
Wordle: The 2003 Mission Accomplished Speech, given by US President Bush

Death of bin Laden 2011
Wordle: Text of President Obama's speech on the death of Bin Laden

4/20/11

10 Great Fictional Spies + 1

The Wednesday before Easter is known as Spy Wednesday because on this day Judas made a bargain with the high priest to betray Jesus for 30 silver pieces. I’ve read that in Poland kids throw an effigy of Judas from the top of a church steeple and drag it around town, throwing rocks and sticks at it. At the end of the day, what remains of the effigy is drowned in a nearby stream or pond.

Instead of wasting my time making an effigy, I decided to compile a list of influential spies in fiction.  Without further ado, here is my list.


#10) Lancelot Link.  
In the 1970’s ABC TV show “Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp,” Lance and his colleague Mata Hairy worked for APE (Agency to Prevent Evil) as agents fighting the evil organization CHUMP (Criminal Headquarters for Underworld Master Plan).  What other secret agent under 3’ tall has saved the planet so many times and also surfs, plays in a rock band, and has pie-throwing fights?









#9) Harriet the Spy.  
Eleven year old Harriet Welsch is the hero of the book by Louise Fitzhugh, and an inspiration to any grade school kid who ever thought of spying, writing, or just exploring the neighborhood.  Harriet wants to grow up to be a spy, and as part of her training she carries a notebook where she documents her insights into her subjects.  Unfortunately, her subjects are her classmates and neighbors, and when she leaves her notebook on the playground the other kids are outraged by the way Harriet describes them.  They gang up on Harriet and form a “Spy Catcher Club” that makes her life a living heck. Luckily she’s got pluck, and soldiers on to a happy ending. Harriet shows she has the attributes to make a great spy: integrity, the ability to observe details, and the skill to convey those details in writing in an interesting way.





#8) The Grey Spy.  
The Spy vs Spy strip by Antonio Prohias has run in Mad Magazine since the early 60’s. The premise is an ongoing battle between the White Spy and the Black spy, with each one occasionally gaining the upper hand for a single episode, but there’s never a clear winner.  Until Prohias introduced the Grey Spy. She not only had the ability to woo Black and White separately, but also the cunning to pit them against each other.  Unlike Black and White, who alternated between victory and defeat with each new strip, whenever the Lady in Grey appeared she was always the winner.  Unfortunately her last appearance was in December, 1965 in MAD Magazine #99.  After that she apparently either retired, or was retired by Black or White.




#7) Joe Turner.  
Five years before Robert Ludlum wrote “The Bourne Identity,” Robert Redford appeared as Joe Turner in “Three Days of the Condor.”  The premise is simple: Turner works in a clandestine office of the CIA reading newspapers and books from around the world and looks for hidden meanings or odd ideas.  Unfortunately he files a report on an oddly translated spy novel which gets the attention of someone who comes and wipes out his entire office. Luckily he was out getting a sandwich at the time, but he loses his appetite when he gets back to work.  Freaked out, he attempts to contact higher-ups for help, but they’re either in on it, or dying in the process.  So Turner uses his knowledge from reading – yes, that’s right, he’s a spy-bookworm – to keep himself safe and unravel the mystery around him.  Any spy who’s into books, that’s a “level up” for me.



#6) James West.  
Conceived at a time when Westerns were losing TV airtime to the spy genre, The Wild Wild West was an inspired mashup.  Imagine, if you will, the US after the Civil War, a time when the west was expanding and outlaws like Billy the Kid and Jesse James ran rampant over the wild spaces in between.  At the same time technology is growing by leaps and bounds with devices like the locomotive, the telegraph and the Gatling gun.  Into this milieu President Ulysses S Grant commissions secret service agents James West and Artemus Gordon to protect the land against all threats.  Artie had the ingenious disguises and pre-Steampunk inventions, but James was good-looking, knew how to fight and handle a gun, and ooh, those tight pants!




#5) Stephen Maturin.  
James Bond may have a license to kill, but Dr. Maturin has a license to kill, perform an autopsy on the body, and deliver the cadaver to a medical school for further study.  Maturin is the close friend of Captain Jack Aubrey in the Maturin-Aubrey series of sailing novels by Patrick O’Brian.  One can get a feel for Dr. Maturin in the 2003 film “Master and Commander,” but to really get the blood racing with excitement I recommend reading into at least the first six or seven books of the series.  Maturin is a man of the times, a naturalist in the style of Darwin and Audubon, a learned doctor, and an occasional opium fiend, he’s also fiercely anti-Napoleon, so much that he’ll fight and kill to protect England from Bonaparte’s tyranny.




#4) Mata Hari.  
When I was a kid I had “The Real Book About Spies,” by Samuel Epstein and Beryl Williams, a tome with an air of secrecy about it, and a section on Mata Hari.  Although the real Mata Hari was executed for spying, Wikipedia says she was probably innocent.  But the fictional Mata Hari is more memorably played by Greta Garbo in the title role, as a dancing girl who seduces German officers in order to steal secret documents for the Allies. This pre-code film oozed scandal and seduction, and had to be censored by Hollywood after the Hays code was adopted. Leaving behind reality, Mata Hari has become over time the world’s greatest female spy.




#3) Maxwell Smart.  
Funnier than Austin Powers, with a soundtrack as snappy as the 007 Theme, and accompanied by the pretty Agent 99, who could resist CONTROL’s Agent 86?  Well, The Chief, for one.  "Get Smart", created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, brought KAOS to its knees on a weekly basis.  I loved his car, a red 1965 Sunbeam Tiger, and often pretended my shoe was a phone, 20 years before cell phones became popular.  Max acted dumb, but anyone who can catch all those KAOS spies and still get Barbara Feldon to hang around him is pretty Smart…Maxwell Smart.





#2) #6 .  
Played by Patrick McGoohan in the mind-blowing British TV series The Prisoner, #6 has the ultimate assignment: to escape society’s restrictions and discover whether his fate is in his hands, or directed by a faceless #1.  When he quits the secret service he’s abducted to an island community known only as The Village.  Week after week the latest #2 submits the prisoner to a series of mental and physical tortures in an attempt to learn why #6 quit his job as a secret agent.  This series not only breaks the bounds of TV, but explores the secret agent in what was a completely new, paranoid role for the time.





#1) James Bond.  
What more can be said about this spy? He’s changed his face many times, yet the women still swoon for him.  Guys like him because he’s got all the coolest gadgets and cars.  In the novels he’s much more finicky, concerned about greasy eggs for breakfast and poor service on the train. But tie him to a chair and torture him for a while and you’ll see what 007 is really made of.  For queen and country, and beyond.







Bonus: Spy Magazine. 
Ok, Spy Magazine actually has nothing to do with spies. But it was funny. Really, really funny. And they were early adopters of photoshopping celebrity heads onto ironic bodies, which is always funny.  Some of the memorable regular features in Spy Magazine were “Logrolling in our Time,” which pointed to authors who reciprocally blurbed each others’ books, “Separated at Birth?”, and elaborate Candid-camera style hoaxes.  In 1992 Spy ran a single serious piece on President George HW Bush’s alleged extramarital affairs. This piece was apparently compiled without any actual spy activities.
 
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4/18/11

Portland's Best Burgers

The site Extra MSG has a rundown of Portland's best burgers. I acknowledge that lists like these are always subjective, but he seems to have made a huge effort to keep an open mind (and full stomach).
In the course of the survey he ate 72 different types of burgers, sometimes more than once. This required eating up to four burgers a day!

I noticed most of the burgers were laden with cheese and bacon. At that point I wonder why add the beef? I'm making a note to myself to try some mushroom "burgers" with cheese, eggs and bacon.

From the list, I've only had the Foster Burger, but the most distinctive sounding burger was from Biwa.
He writes: "Even if you took one of their thick slabs of chasiu pork with its well-charred ribbons of fat and slapped it between two pieces of bread, it might still be one of the best sandwiches in town. But you add a beef patty and some tart, spicy kimchi mayo, and you have one seriously addictive Japanese-style “ham” burger fit for a sumo in training. Too bad it’s only available late night."

Well, I might just have to make a late-night visit to Biwa.


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3/31/11

NPR Pushes twitter/TV Synergy

Family watching television, c. 1958Image via WikipediaEarlier in the month I wrote "How to Save Broadcast TV", an idea I had where twitter could be used to reconnect viewers to the real-time aspects of TV viewing. While I was opining on the loss of a shared viewing experience, this real-time aspect is also important to the broadcasters and cable channels because it helps them get more revenue from advertising.

Yesterday I heard a similar article on NPR. Melissa Block interviewed Andrew Wallenstein, a television editor at Variety, who commented on how the stars of the shows are also twittering to connect with the viewers.

Mr. BOURDAIN: When served it's usually with a fresh, crunchy cabbage slaw so popular around here, and it hits like a (BLEEP) brick, let me tell you.
WALLENSTEIN: But while he gets bleeped on TV, you get the full flavor of Bourdain on Twitter, which is great if you like your TV chefs a little saltier.
Though Bourdain and the others may be live-Tweeting because they enjoy it, this is about marketing, too. More and more, people aren't watching TV shows when they're first on. They can watch on Hulu, iTunes or their own DVRs.
But the networks want to pull people back to the original airdate because that's where they charge most for commercials. And how's that for irony? With a little help from Twitter, good old-fashioned TV can hold its own.


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3/8/11

Operating Systems Concepts - 1983

My old "Operating System Concepts" book shows OS/360, Scope and Multics as dinosaurs, OS/MVS, VMS and UNIX as mammals, and CP/M as a speedy eohippus. Continuing this theme, would the smart phone operating systems be bees, cross-pollinating the environment? Or perhaps bacteria, invading the system?
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3/7/11

How to Save Broadcast TV

Anyone over thirty knows deeply the problems with broadcast television.   In the dark ages before Tivo, before the Internet, yes even before DVDs and VHS, civilization made do with watching whatever was programmed by the networks.  This meant living with the whims of the network executives, where niche shows such as Star Trek were canceled after entertaining only 22% of the TV audience, about the same share as American Idol gets today. Advertisers were king, and viewers had to beg for worthwhile shows. If it turned out there was an interesting show to watch, it meant organizing your schedule around the TV schedule, because in broadcast TV there were no second chances (except perhaps during summer reruns).

But, there were good things about life during broadcast.  I remember as a kid watching the Brady Bunch or Happy Days, and the next day at school all my friends had seen the same show.  We had a shared experience, and nearly every kid in school had suffered Marcia's broken nose at the same time, or watched Fonzie try to jump 14 garbage cans on his motorcycle.

"Specials" were truly special events, such as the Frosty The Snowman Christmas show on CBS, which wasn't guaranteed to ever show on TV again.  Who can forget the exciting music introducing it, beckoning you into the living room to stare at the TV?

In a similar way, there was something comforting about the timeslots for family hour and Saturday morning cartoons. The paternalist networks felt that 8pm was an appropriate time for the family to share an hour before the flickering lights before the kids go to bed, in a tradition that probably stretches back to the campfires of our primitive ancestors.  Meanwhile, Saturdays were a legitimate excuse for kids to consume mass amounts of sugary cereal paired with limited animation and ads for Mattel toys.  Yes, broadcast TV had some good points.

All of these thoughts ran through my mind while watching the half-time show for Superbowl XLV.  No, it wasn't Will.i.am's glowing headgear that made me think of sugary cereal. But here is a modern broadcast event that carries all the best baggage of the past: a one-time special event that many schedule their life around, a shared experience, a chance for the family to get together, as well as an excuse to consume massive amounts of Fritos and bean dip with a buffalo-wings back.  And the toys? Well, I guess the car commercials could count for those.  But what held my attention the most wasn't exactly on the TV screen.

While I watched Slash and Fergie battle for that "Sweet Child o' Mine" I also followed along with the chatter on twitter.  Not only did the performers kick off their own perspective on the event, but twitterers across the country provided their own color commentary, snide remarks, and general riffs on the ZeitpunktgeistHere, for example, are some saved tweets:

acarvin Andy Carvin  That was fast. RT @corbett3000: Ha! there’s already a @groupon spoof ad of a flaming protester: http://bit.ly/dVjILj This could get ugly.
slhamlet Wagner James Au  That Groupon commercial may actually inspire the Dalai Lama to give up a lifetime of non-violence to kick the CEO in the nuts.
copyblogger Brian Clark The Chrysler ad worked because of an emotional premise bigger than the product – the salvation of a city and its prodigal son.
BorowitzReport Andy Borowitz #SuperBowl: #Roethlisberger is hanging in there, but then, so is #Mubarak.
Fun, but not exactly Pulitzer writing. So, why is this interesting? Because it answers the question: "Why watch broadcast TV?"  When watching and reading the twitterstream in real-time you can participate in a shared event, something that can't be time-shifted, and experience something special as you kibitz with others.

"But the Superbowl is huge," you say. "It's a massive monolith, like in that Stanley Kubrick movie."

True, but we know from experience that the future of mass media  will be an ever-splintering market.  No matter how huge the show may be, others will be watching something else.  So, let's look at another example: "Castle."

Fillion & Katic read from "Heat Wave"
"Castle," the cop procedural show with Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic as writer Richard Castle and detective Kate Beckett, was a fairly popular show the first two seasons, ranking 35th and 30th, before dropping to around the 50th most popular show in the third season.  Yet, if you watch this 10pm show while following along on twitter you'll find the Superbowl phenomenon once again

sulien77: Tonight's #Castle may be a rerun, but it's just as good the second time through. Love this show!
Cimbora93: RT @Castle_ABC: Catch "Nikki Heat" again tonight at 10pm, and don't forget... a brand NEW episode of #Castle March 21st!
pure_believer: Beckett's reaction to Natalie asking if #Castle is gay is priceless. #coffeespittake
pamfromcalif: @SpoilerTV Should have been #Castle at @PaleyCenter this year discussing Castle's 3rd season huge viewership following.
 
The same thing happens for Chuck, a show which was reprieved from cancellation due to an active internet buzz by fans.
The key thing is that if the networks recognize this and nurture it, they may be able to extend the life of broadcast TV, maybe even grow it.  Maybe with digital TVs the twitter feed could be included as optional closed caption text.  Think of it like VH1's pop-up videos, except everyone is offering their version of the pop-up dialogue.
 
There are many ways the networks could ruin it.  For one, they could continue being monolithic. Part of the fun of the twitterstream is that it's democratic, and optional. You can ignore who you want to ignore. If the networks tried to lead viewers, or inject advertising into the feed, or pose as fake viewers... that would be a nail in the coffin.
A bad technical decision would be to institutionalize twitter as the platform for this conversation. Twitter is just one option, and with the speed of internet companies, it might not last as long as broadcast TV.  It would be like saying that AOL is the Internet, which I hope everyone knows by now is not true.  The TV networks should invest in expanding the base for these sorts of messages, without co-opting it.

And, the best way to ruin broadcast TV is to keep doing what they're doing: ignoring the new internet platform, and instead working on developing ever-cheaper lowest-common-denominator reality and game shows.  In that model, there's nothing special, nothing is an event, and I, for one, don't want to participate in that shared experience.
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1/20/11

GOP Bill Would Eliminate NEA, NEH?

The National Medal of Arts awarded by the Nati...According to this article here the House GOP "Spending Reduction Act of 2011" bill would eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and cut the National Endowment for the Humanities budget by 95% or more.

It shows a 100% budget cut of $167.5 million for the National Endowment for the Arts, and the  National Endowment for the Humanities would suffer the same amount: $167.5.



It's sad that at time like this, when this money is going to employ people who create art and enhance life, at a time when unemployment is high, that the GOP wants to cut more jobs and create more unemployment.

This study says that money invested in the artists has a 50%+ return to the economy.  While checking out this info, I found an interesting calculator. Click the image below to estimate the economic impact of your nonprofit arts and culture organization—or even your entire nonprofit arts community—on your local economy. Click here to learn more about the calculator.



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1/14/11

Lardo Sandwich Review

When I was a kid in Michigan after a day sledding I'd come out of the cold to find my mom had made me a "flower" sandwich. She would put a slice of cheese and a slice of bologna or salami on a piece of white bread, then a dollop of ketchup in the middle. I didn't like bologna, and didn't especially like ketchup on my sandwiches, but when she put it under the broiler something wonderful would happen: the bread would toast, the cheese melt, and the meat curled up everywhere except the center where the ketchup was. On my plate it looked like a little cheese & meat flower, toasty warm on a freezing midwestern day.

A new "pod" of food carts has sprung up in the neighborhood, and one of the most interesting is Lardo, which offers a similar sandwich. It's not the same ingredients, but the same philosophy of taking some simple, almost trashy ingredients and making a wonderful little sandwich. It's a grilled mortadella and provolone sandwich with mustard aioli and pickled peppers. Normally I'm nonplussed by mortadella, ranking it slightly higher than bologna, but I've had some versions of the meat that surprised me. This is one of them. The flavor was homey without being bland, reminding me of the flower sandwich, or maybe even something farther back in my memory. Meanwhile the pickled peppers provided enough excitement that every bite was a new adventure.

At this point you can stop reading and click away to some other web site, unless you want more observations on Lardo.

Their lamb slider is interesting. Unlike other sliders, which usually consisted of a small patty on a small bun, this sandwich was two small lamb burger patties on a single large bun, topped with home made ketchup and roasted red peppers for $7. Normally lamb has a rich, oily taste, but the ketchup and peppers balance it out.

The key Lardo sandwich is porchetta on a light panini topped with a parsley gremolata. The porchetta is distinctive, but not something I'd order again. I put it in the same vein as pulled pork (My wife hates when I order "pulled pork" at restaurants, she doesn't like the way it sounds. I keep ordering it, not to annoy her, but because it always seems like it should be better, but I'm usually disappointed).

Pickled peppers peeking out of the ciabatta
Like pulled pork, porchetta is pork steeped in cultural heritage until it's as tender as butter. Unfortunately, I don't want a butter sandwich. The sandwich was too fatty for my taste, and the parsley gremolata failed to pull its own weight. At $8 it was a bit expensive for what you get. I've heard other people rave about this sandwich, but my tastes run toward the grilled mortadella.

The guy running Lardo seems nice, and on the weekends you'll find his little son in the cart with him, or running around the pod. If you go for the porchetta (pronounced "pork-etta") then order a San Pelligrino limonata to complete the Italian experience.  Meanwhile I'll save a buck, order the grilled mortadella, and think of snowy days in Michigan.

1/13/11

Sandwich Review: Dick's Kitchen

Arnold: What's the secret sauce?
Brad: Thousand Island dressing. What's the secret sauce at Bronco Burger?
Arnold: Ketchup and mayonnaise.

 

I cannot recommend enough Michael Pollan’s book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”

Subtitled “A Natural History of Four Meals,” Pollan devote almost 500 pages to exploring food production in America, and the decisions, expenses and unintended consequences that are processed into that system. His website has the best summary of the omnivore’s dilemma.

“The cornucopia of the modern American supermarket and fast-food outlet confronts us with a bewildering and treacherous food landscape. What’s at stake in our eating choices is not only our own and our children’s health, but the health of the environment that sustains life on earth.”

The four meals are simple things. The first is a petroleum-based fast food hamburger and fries purchased at a McDonald’s and eaten in a car heading down the highway at 60 mph. With the second and third meals he examines both an industrial-organic method of food production and visits an intensive-organic farm. For the last meal he reverts to our hunter-gatherer heritage to forage for mushrooms and kill a wild boar.

This book is packed with information and anecdotes, including Pollan’s experience raising a single cow using the industrial method, but the idea that struck a chord with me is how much of our diet is based on corn. On Earth living things are carbon-based, and in order to grow and survive they much consume more carbon. Plants, bacteria, animals and humans are all in competition for efficient methods of gathering and consuming carbon. Corn has an identifiable carbon isotope known as C-13, which allows tracking of that atom of corn up through the food chain from corn to cow to human, or directly from corn to human in the form of high fructose corn syrup, as well as in additives to other processed food, or through the popcorn and breakfast cereals we eat.

In the course of the book he discusses the different methods of production and it’s clear he prefers the intensive-organic, grass-based farming method of food production. The small farm that he visits in the book has a mechanism where the cows graze the grass, which is then followed up with a movable hen house so the birds can clean up the grains the cows missed. The droppings from the animals go back into the ground as fertilizer, and he rotates among his fields so no grass is over-grazed.

There are many reasons to prefer grass-fed beef. In the US grasses are better for the soil, requiring less fertilizer, and they can more often be native plants. Feeding cattle on grass allows them to grow more naturally, slower than a cow fed on corn, but this natural diet keeps them healthier so they won’t need as much antibiotics and medical treatment during their life.

When it comes to taste, some say that the meat from grass-fed cows is more aesthetically pleasing in terms of marbling and fat content. And in the course of producing beef, grass-fed cows are treated less like meat factories, which might ease some people’s consciences.

I’m not saying you have to read “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” before you visit Dick’s Kitchen, but it helps to appreciate the backstory of the meal waiting for you there.
The website for Dick’s Kitchen says it’s “Portland' 1st Stone Age Diner.” If you’re one of those people who like a restaurant with a philosophy, theirs is written on the menu:
“an emphasis on healthy, lean proteins and fresh vegetables: the type of food our ancestors evolved to eat and that is now considered most in tune with the nutritional physiology that promotes health and a lower risk of metabolic disorders."

 
The hamburgers were supposed to be hand-made patties, but they were so regular they looked like they were made in a burger press. At five ounces it's slightly more than a quarter pound burger, but the difference is negligible. The basic burger comes on a dairy-free potato bun and with lettuce, tomato, red onion, "home-made" pickles, special sauce and a side of coleslaw. When I ate there you could order a side of "not-fries" for $2, but I notice the online menu shows the price as $2.50. The "not-fries" are baked fries, and are better than the average baked fry.

"Wait!" you say. "What's in the special sauce?"

Dick's Kitchen says they make all of their sauces, and we got a chance to try all of them. Of course they have the standards: ketchup, mustard and mayo. I felt the mustard was nicely zesty, thick enough but not pasty. But those were run-of-the-mill next to the other sauces. The Persilla sauce slightly reminded me of an Indian coriander chutney, which they described as a pesto-like sauce made of parsley, anchovies, garlic and Parmesan. The horseradish sauce could have been spicier, as with the Wasabi aoli. I liked the aoli, which was creamy and had a good taste of Wasabi, but not any of the bite, and found it was good dipping sauce for the burger. The best sauce for the “not fries” was the chipotle aoli. It had a taste which went especially well with the sweet potato “not fries.”

For drinks you can order hand-made sodas for $2, so we enjoyed a watermelon and a root beer, and I ordered a HUB lager from their selection of five taps. The d├ęcor was retro-minimalist faux diner with pictures of other famous Dicks on the wall. Because the space echoed it was a bit noisy, and on a Friday night we had to wait about half an hour from the time we ordered until we were served.

Let me tell you honestly: the hamburgers weren’t amazing, but I think the sauces made them enjoyable. Dick’s, however, isn’t about the burgers. It’s a gateway restaurant. In addition to the meaty fare they have a wide range of meatless offerings that look and sound interesting. The menu lists a tempeh Reuben, a Portobello burger, SmartDogs, and vegan salads. Swinging back the other way, they also have heritage meats bratwurst, and a bacon burger with uncured bacon. Oh, and there’s a non-required reading list.

So, what’s the secret sauce? The real secret is that Dick’s Kitchen wants to take you on a journey to change the way you think about your meal, and they're making it taste good on the way.

I’m not joking about the reading list:
FURTHER READING
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