Jan 07

Once You Go Black…

Black CoffeeAmy has an uncle named Fred. Fred’s an interesting guy for lots of reasons, but of interest at the moment is that when he drinks wine, he cuts it 50/50 with ginger ale. I used to think he did this only with a particular batch of home-brew wine that was, to normal wine, what the bags of concentrated coca-cola syrup are to fountain drinks; dilution with that stuff is wholly appropriate.

But no. He does this with all wine. I think that’s fantastic. If that allows him to have a pleasant wine experience (champagne every day!) then more power to him, and what’s even better is that he can continue to enjoy even very cheap wine because the dilution softens some of the harsher effects of buying economy brands. Fine by me.

But I don’t do it myself, because I enjoy what’s involved in developing a palette for wine. I enjoy the vast spectrum of flavours you can come to appreciate, and I feel like cutting it with ginger ale would impair my ability to enjoy that: different strokes for different folks, that’s all.

I’m the same with chocolate: give me high-percentage, uncut, dark chocolate and I am a happy guy. I’m not stupid about it – I don’t turn up my nose at Hershey the way a good aficionado ought. But given my druthers, I trend towards quality and I trend towards unadulterated.

And so I confronted myself recently with the fact that I don’t drink my coffee black. Milk and Sugar, sometimes even a double-double. This, I realized, flies in the face of my whole aforementioned way of doing things. So as of about a week ago, it’s been straight black coffee.  Yes, purely in the name of aesthetic synchrony.

It wasn’t easy at first. Turns out those adulterants do a pretty good job of making bad coffee more drinkable, and bad coffee abounds. But I’m here to tell you that it takes less than a week for your tongue to form the appropriate calluses, and now I’m starting to really feel it. I expect that, like wine, my brain will start to assign more neurons to coffee tasting in the coming months, and that the experience will grow on me. As it happens, I got a half pound of Kona for Christmas (thanks Barb!) and while it’s not Jamaican Blue or (I can only imagine) Kopi Luwak, I’m looking forward to tasting it without blinders.

Yes, I realise how ridiculous this all sounds.

Jan 07

Johnath’s Book Guide 2007

BooksAlthough I can enter droughts that last for months at a time, I am, in general, a reader. At the end of 2006 I checked my PalmPilot’s list of books read in 2006 and it turned out there were 25. This is not a particularly impressive number, but it is clearly fodder for a blog post of some kind. I thought about writing a separate post for each, basically a book review a week or so — I could stretch the content until June that way.

Problem is, I don’t really care about stretching content, and that sounds like a lot of work. Besides, I suspect that some of those reviews would be pretty thin since the books either left no mark, or left a mark which has faded over the intervening months. So instead I’ve done the potentially more useful thing and just compiled them into a coarsely ranked list, because what would the internet be without lists?

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Dec 06

I Have Arrived

Whatever arbitrary standards I might previously have employed for assessing my place in the world are rendered suddenly irrelevant.

Ken Jennings just linked to my blog from his.

That is all.


Dec 06

Car Quips

Car QuipI have always wanted an LCD Panel for my rear window in the car. It always seemed like it would be exceedingly handy to have the ability to fire off one of several pre-canned messages or, if I had a passenger, have some kind of keyboard where they could provide context-appropriate messaging for the cars around me. “Your turn signal is on.” “Your high beams are blinding me.” “That is a very big SUV, clearly you suck.” And so forth.

LCDs are still a good idea, but one can accomplish the same goals in a cheaper, lower maintenance, and much more analog way. What I have made instead is a coil-bound flip book with 14 standard messages I might find myself needing, plus three laminated blank pages at the end on which I can add messages with dry-erase markers. The whole thing is designed to fit in my glove compartment, and has forward and mirror-image versions of each message on facing pages so that cars in front of you can read it through their rear view mirror. Obviously the messages have to be kept short to maximize font size, but other than that, the sky’s the limit. In the hopes that someone other than I can see the value in such a book, I present:

Building your own Car Quips booklet
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Dec 06

Spiritus Frumenti

eBay and I have a relationship that is more flirtation than passion. Of course I know how sexy it can be. Of course I want to get to know it better. But eBay is an expensive mistress, so my feedback is a withered little 5, because I rarely actually buy the things there that I covet.

I am, however, so thoroughly chuffed with a recent purchase there that I must share. Thanks to the kind auspices of ginger.1 I am the proud owner of this:

Prescription (small)

It’s a prescription from December of 1924. A very special prescription, printed on a very special prescription pad issued by the U.S. Treasury department. It’s a prescription for Spiritus Frumenti, filled in Providence, RI. This is exciting for me, because 1924 is right in the middle of prohibition and Spiritus Frumenti, as the Latin geeks have no doubt already ascertained, is whiskey.

I have always loved old paper, but I am particularly fond of old paper which reflects old ways of thinking, and reminds me that people have always been crazy. This one is particularly great because it also reminds me that people have always been wily about wrangling their way around government prohibitions of things that are fun. And as you all know, I’m a real fan of people.

Nov 06

The Aeroplan Game: An ethnography

AeroplanSteph’s sister Jody says my posts are boring. I choose to interpret this to mean that my posts are fascinating, but on topics which do not readily proclaim their relevance to her life. In any event, today’s will be no exception, because I’m going to be talking about frequent flyer miles; but also about voyeurism, so there’s some excitement for you.

Aeroplan, and programs like it, are a real challenge for geeks. On the one hand, as a demographic with higher-than-average concern for issues of digital surveillance and privacy, loyalty programs like Aeroplan which allow a company to profile your purchases and predict which brand of condom you will enjoy are viewed as being somewhat intrusive. On the other hand, Aeroplan miles bear a disturbing resemblance to points, and games with points, where intelligence can be applied to earn more points, well brother, that might well be called our oeuvre.
Continue reading →

Nov 06

Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge

A Google search reveals that this book isn’t nearly as well known as I would have thought (only 16,000 hits), and Amy hadn’t heard of it either so it must needs be posted here. Don’t ever say that my cognitive science degree never brought you any joy.

So I guess it was in one of my philosophy classes – ontology maybe, or philosophy of mind – that I first heard about it, but in a 4 year cog sci degree you can’t avoid hearing about this book half a dozen times. It comes up virtually any time you get into a conversation about classifications, taxonomies or crazy people.

The book, Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, is an extremely old Chinese encyclopedia, or so the legend goes, and was translated by a guy named Franz Kuhn (no, not the Structure of Scientific Revolutions guy, that’s Thomas). It might have been lost to antiquarian irrelevancy if it were not for one crucial section which set out the categories of animals in the world. Keep in mind, this is centuries if not millennia before the whole Linnean classification was developed (Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family Genus Species – my mnemonic was Kings Play Chess On Fine Green Sod – what was yours?) and yet it is absolutely enrapturing. How, you ask, does an animal classification system rise to the level of rapture? The 13 categories it outlined are as follows:

(a) those that belong to the Emperor,
(b) embalmed ones,
(c) those that are trained,
(d) suckling pigs,
(e) mermaids,
(f) fabulous ones,
(g) stray dogs,
(h) those that are included in this classification,
(i) those that tremble as if they were mad,
(j) innumerable ones,
(k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush,
(l) others,
(m) those that have just broken a flower vase,
(n) those that resemble flies from a distance.

Tell me that isn’t beautiful. I absolutely adore that list, and revisit it because its crazy randomness breaks you out of any structure you might be building up around yourself. And yet, it isn’t random, quite. There’s an almost deliberate lack of overlap, a perverse balance.

Or maybe not – in any event I had always loved the list and had to share for those who might not yet have encountered it.

PS – It goes without saying, of course, that lo these thousands of years later, with the advent of the internet, Web 2.0, folksonomies, and tagging, that we have come full circle and can now have a cat which is classified, at once, as fabulous, embalmed, and drawnWithVeryFineCamelHairBrush.

Nov 06

Britain thus far

On the whole I believe I approve of Britain. I’m having a great deal of difficulty figuring out how long I’ve been awake right now – I woke up on Tuesday at 7am, and my watch claims it is now roughly 4pm on Wednesday. Somewhere in there though my watch wound through 5 hours of watch-time in mere seconds of Johnathan-time so I believe the closest estimate is that this is roughly hour 28 or so. I’m reasonably certain that I haven’t slept in that time, though I guess it’s conceivable that I just don’t remember. I’m not accustomed to feeling this fuzzy, it’s almost like being drunk, and it causes my food not to sit right. That’s another thing. After eating a second “dinner” around midnight, and then continuing to travel for several more hours, I have no idea when I’m supposed to eat anymore – I’m basically playing it by ear. I think I’ve had 5 meals since my last sleep, including most recently something called a steak bake, which is like the lovechild of a Jamaican patty (without the spice) and a beef pot pie (without the pot pie).

It’s not that the travel is killing me or anything like that, 28 hours isn’t even particularly epic (though the estimated 35 by the time I get to sleep tonight is more so,) it’s just that right at the moment, sleep is sort of front-of-mind for me. What coherence I retain though argues vehemently that to sleep now is to ensure my schedule is messed up for the rest of the week – better to just slug it out and then wake up tomorrow 100% on Leeds time.

Leeds is like… hmm – it’s like Hamilton mixed with Kingston, or perhaps with a very old part of Etobicoke. You can tell it’s an industrial town or used to be, it has that sort of rough-ness to it but, being a sizable British city and all, it’s steeped in the same million years of history that every other sizable British city is, so the whole place has this beautiful aged patina to it. Stone walkways everywhere, and stone walls lining the roads – on the cab ride in to my hotel I noticed that ISO-standard red-bricks of the kind any North American is quite used to are the exception here. There are plenty of them, don’t get me wrong, but only in new construction, everywhere you look you see stone, not brick.

Also, people talk about the rolling hills of the English countryside. Seriously. I just, it’s difficult to explain. You never, never, pass an open field that is level. Ontario is not Saskatchewan, we like to think we have all 3 dimensions well represented, but you can drive for miles in Ontario with farmers fields to either side keeping roughly to where the horizon puts them; not here. Every open field is either rising up away from you at something like a 30+ degree angle, or you just can’t see it because it’s dropped away from you, and in the distance you see it ebb and flow half a dozen times. Quite astoundingly picturesque, like some parts of Hwy 10 through Caledon only everywhere, in every direction.  In Sim City 3000 when the random map generator produced something like this, I used to spend a lot of money on bulldozers.
Their pigeons here are the same as our pigeons at home, and they also have Starlings, which shouldn’t surprise me since our Starlings are European imports, but it was still nice to see a familiar face.

The hotel is well executed – the front desk person even went out and bought me a power adapter/converter when I asked if they had any and she said she’d “check.” I know it’s a $3 piece of kit, but she still gets bonus points for that.

The highlight of the trip thus far was about 20 seconds long — when we swung around for our final approach to Heathrow, and the sun was rising over the Thames and even though I don’t know London, I know the shape of that river, and I know the shape of the last 5 centuries or so around that river. Seeing it full of activity on a beautiful, sunny morning was an image I will remember — despite my fatigue.

Now I’m going to post this and rationalize with myself about why napping for a couple hours won’t hurt my sleep tonight.