Sunday, August 31, 2008

"They were using nicknames like 'The Terminator' and 'The Executioner'."

Apparently St. Paul (and Minneapolis?) police are raiding homes in advance of the Republican National Convention. Here's a video interview of some victims of one of the raids, in which the occupants of a house say that the raiding cops "were using nicknames like 'The Terminator' and 'The Executioner'."

Glenn Greenwald says it best:

Targeting people with automatic-weapons-carrying SWAT teams and mass raids in their homes, who are suspected of nothing more than planning dissident political protests at a political convention and who have engaged in no illegal activity whatsoever, is about as redolent of the worst tactics of a police state as can be imagined.

SWAT raids for suspected drug users are already beyond the pale. But SWAT raids purely for political beliefs?!? Sounds like China...

Via Boing Boing.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Carbon Footprints

Lately I've been eating less meat in general, and when I do eat meat it's usually chicken or seafood, with pork and beef occasionally mixed in (particularly as sausage). I've known for a while that beef is pretty carbon-intensive, but lately I've been wondering how bad (carbon-wise) chicken is with respect to other foods. According to this "blist" on Foodprint, chicken looks pretty good compared to other meats. Here's what they have for various meats, in grams CO2 per serving:
  • Lamb: 1407.4
  • Beef: 978.4
  • Pork: 906.3
  • Pig (what's the difference with pork?): 824.5
  • Fish: 413.8
  • Turkey: 310.9
  • Broiler Chicken (what makes it "broiler"): 285.4

Interestingly, some fruits and vegetables rank fairly high, as well, with bananas, blueberries, strawberries, and cherries (unfortunately all the fruits used in smoothies) producing more carbon per serving than chicken.

Of course, this is just one datapoint and I'm sure there are some fairly large margins of error on those numbers. Nevertheless, if you can't go 100% vegan, it looks eating more poultry and fish and less beef, pork, and lamb is the way to go.

Desire Paths

You know how more often than not heavily-used buildings set back in a lawn (like those on a college campus) will often have dirt paths revealing the shortcuts pedestrians take? Apparently those are known as desire paths (a concept introduced by renaissance-man Gaston Bachelard). Each desire path is a case-in-point that even the most brilliant designer cannot always predict the behavior of users ahead of time.

Via Uselog.

Image from Flickr user Kake Pugh used under a Creative Commons license.

Google Trends: 1 for 2

Well, Google Trends did not successfully predict John McCain's running mate (Google Trends said Mitt Romney but it turned out to be Alaska governor Sarah Palin), but the volume of Wikipedia edits did.

There has been a flurry of activity around this choice in the blogosphere, as it were, with some people wondering if this is John McCain's Harriet Myers moment and others proclaiming it to be bold. I agree most with Tyler Cowen:

[These] commentators are falling into The Trap. Most American voters do not themselves know much detail about foreign affairs and their vision of an experienced leader does not require such knowledge. Was it demanded from Reagan? Doesn't everyone agree that Cheney and Rumsfeld knew plenty? Rightly or wrongly, many American voters will view Palin's stint as mayor of small town, her background in sports, her role in a beauty contest (yes), her trials raising teenage children, and her decision to stick with her priinciples and have a Downs Syndrome baby as all very valuable and relevant forms of experience.

The old cliche that voters tend to vote for the person they'd like to have a beer with rather than the person that's best qualified may indeed be the case here.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Using Google Trends To Predict John McCain's Running Mate, Part II

Since it sounds like John McCain is going to announce his running mate selection tomorrow, here's the latest Google Trends graph (an update to this post) for potential running mates for John McCain. Note that last week's buzz person (Meg Whitman) has been replaced by this week's buzz person (Kay Bailey Hutchison). Also, I decided to go back to last names only.

Looks like Mitt Romney is still the Google Trends favorite.

Overhead Power Lines

Ever since living on 50th Street in southwest Minneapolis, I've had a distaste for overhead power lines. The stretch of 50th between Lyndale and France goes through some pretty nice neighborhoods, and there are some very nice intersections with small businesses. But the streetscape would look so much nicer without the ugly overhead power lines lining the street.

So I was excited to see this post on Deep Glamour highlighting this very issue in Los Angeles.

Concise Thoughts

Will Wilkinson is great at concisely characterizing complex ideas (and apparently I'm good at alliteration). Here's a quote from his latest Marketplace Morning Report commentary:

The corollary of "eat local" is "don't eat Mexican," so to speak.

It's true, of course, and it exposes an unfriendly reality of the local food movement.

Here's another quote from Will about competition between various world cultures, particularly the general "liberal" culture (think classical liberalism as opposed to modern American liberalism) and the general "conservative" culture (think "resistance to change" as opposed to modern American conservatism):

There is fairly rapid cultural selection going on, and it has been very friendly to broad liberalization and very unfriendly to conservative norms.

This perfectly captures and clarifies a murky idea I've had for a while, which is that as time->infinity, freedom and liberty increase (along a non-linear path, of course). I think "cultural selection" is the perfect phrase for characterizing how and why this is the case.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

We make lawsuits not art

This is ridiculous. Now you can't even parody a title?

"There is absolutely nothing to link 'Hari Puttar' with 'Harry Potter,'" said Munish Purii, chief executive officer of Mumbai-based producer Mirchi Movies. Hari is a common name in India and "puttar" is Punabji for son, he said.

"Even if it does rhyme with Harry Potter, surely there is a limit to cases?" said Tarun Adarsh, editor of Trade Guide magazine.

The film is not a tale of wizard spells or flying broomsticks, but rather a story of an Indian boy left home alone, who fights off burglars when his parents go away on vacation - a plot more reminiscent of the film "Home Alone," starring Macaulay Culkin.

Warner Bros. is seeking an injunction against the film, which is set for release Sept. 12. Hearings began Monday and the next is scheduled for Sept. 2.

Ever since the file-sharing lawsuits started, the RIAA and MPAA have seemed more interested in generating revenue from lawsuits than from producing music and movies.

Vân emailed me this story. The title of this post is itself a parody (ha ha, get it) of this blog's title.

Monday, August 25, 2008

"Hipster" Doctor Blasts Obama's Healthcare Plan

Dr. Jay Parkinson is often referred to as the "hipster doctor from Brooklyn," so I thought I might as well use the moniker, too. Anyway, here's what he said about Barack Obama's healthcare plan:
If there’s anything that could destroy our health care system and make it look even more like the post office, it’s government-run health care...Trust me, I worked at the Maryland State Department of Health. I saw all kinds of people just dying for the weekend and retirement just doing enough to get by...Come on Obama. You’re smarter than that.

I like what I've seen so far from Dr. Parkinson's approach to primary care, which involves communicating with patients through pretty much any form of communications technology you can think of, and I also like Dr. Parkinson's skepticism of government.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Olympics

I really enjoyed watching the Olympics for the past two weeks, and since the events and champions themselves have been discussed in great detail in other forums, there's no sense in me trying to add anything to that analysis. But one thing I would add is that my favorite Olympic-themed commercial was, despite Visa's best efforts, the Nike commercial for the men's basketball team (the "Redeem Team"), which featured a clip of Marvin Gaye's rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. Here's the commercial:

And here's the full song:

The Star Spangled Banner - Marvin Gaye

Using Google Trends To Predict John McCain's Running Mate

As stated here, Google Trends correctly predicted Joe Biden's selection as Barack Obama's running mate, so now it's time to test if Google Trends can predict John McCain's running mate. Marc Ambinder, who doubtlessly knows way more about politics than me, seems to be considering four potential people: Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, Joe Lieberman, and Meg Whitman. Since "Whitman" is a fairly common name (there's Walt Whitman and Whitman College, for example), this time I'll use both first and last names. Here's what Google Trends says:

As of right now, Mitt Romney would be the predicted pick (using the same method that correctly predicted Joe Biden for Obama). But Marc Ambinder, who thinks the pick will be Whitman, is pretty influential and there already seems to be some buzz building for her, so it'll be interesting to see how this graph changes over the next couple of days.


I love cities, and it's always interesting to ponder the things that make cities so appealing (to me, at least). I liked this comment abot cities by Adam Greenfield (via Putting People First), the new Head of Design Direction at Nokia:

"You know, I believe that cities are all about difficulty. They're about waiting: for the bus, for the light to change, for your order of Chinese take-out to be ready. They're about frustration: about parking tickets, dogshit, potholes and noisy neighbors. They're about the unavoidable physical and psychic proximity of other human beings competing for the same limited pool of resources….the fear of crime, and its actuality. These challenges have conditioned the experience of place for as long as we've gathered together in settlements large and dense enough to be called cities.

I would add one more thing to the list of difficult things that enhance cities: non-right-angle intersections. These haphazard junctions of vehicular, bicycle, and most importantly pedestrian flows create such interesting places that they themselves become destinations. Destinations to eat, people-watch, meet people, catch a bus or train, etc. One of my favorite intersections I've experienced is Place Cambronne in Paris, pictured below.

Images from here and here.

Is "Nudge" Just Good User-Centered Design?

I still haven't read Nudge yet, but the more I learn about the concepts in the book the more I wonder if it's just a twist on user-centered design. This article, which uses the concepts presented in Nudge to analyze a DVD player, may as well have used the concepts presented in Norman's The Design Of Everyday Things (originally published under the name The Psychology of Everyday Things twenty years ago).

1) Feedback. Every input to a DVD player has no observable effect for four seconds. Simply ejecting a disk means pressing ‘eject’ then making a cup of tea while you wait for the machine to wrestle with its inner demons. ‘HAL, open the disk bay door!’ ‘I’m sorry, Dave, I can’t allow you to do that.’

2) Choice architecture. The standard DVD remote control is covered by 37 buttons all of an equally fiddly size, 32 of which perform no useful function whatsoever.

3) Defaults. When I load a disk, it’s because I want to watch the film. From the start. In bloody English. The remote is by now somewhere under the sofa, so the last thing I need is a menu screen asking whether to ‘a) play the main feature? or b) watch 17 minutes of unreleased footage with a spoken commentary and Flemish subtitles?’ Default to a), damn it!

Norman talked about four main principles: conceptual models, feedback, constraints, and affordances. Both Norman and Nudge talk about "feedback," so the similarity there is self-evident. But Nudge's "choice architecture" sounds like a combination of Norman's "constraints" and "affordances," while Nudge's "defaults" like a combination of Norman's "constraints" and "conceptual models."

As Tim Harford puts it:

Nudging is good architecture, good design or good marketing...

All this just makes me want to read Nudge more; is there a Nudge-like principle that describes how learning bits and pieces about something makes it all the more intriguing?

Google Trends Vindicated

Back on Wednesday, I used Google Trends to predict that Joe Biden would be selected by Barack Obama to be Obama's running mate. This prediction was correct.

Now then next big test: can Google Trends correctly predict John McCain's running mate?

Image from here.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Calorie Counts

The idea of mandating calorie counts on restaurant menus touches on a lot of things that interest me--how/why people make the choices they do, government intervention in the economy, food. I haven't been following the issue too closely, but the recent exchange between Jacob Sullum and Ezra Klein caught my attention.

Klein (who favors mandating the posting of calorie counts) tries to counter Sullum's two major arguments, but in so doing makes the classic mistake of listening to what people say instead of what they do.

His article on the subject basically makes two points: The first is that consumers don't want this, because if they did, then the market would already have provided it. As Sullum says, "If customers really were clamoring for conspicuous calorie counts, restaurants would provide them voluntarily." That sentence competes for space with a poll showing 84 percent of Californians support caloric labeling requirements, and the basic reality the article is responding to: Democratically elected legislators who depend on the favor of voters for their jobs are the ones trying to pass a bill. Because they think it popular. The idea that public preferences only have legitimacy if they're strong enough to be heard atop the clamor of the market is an exceedingly odd one.

The second is that they won't work. This appears to be a misread of a new survey from the New York health department. The researchers polled 7,318 customers at nearly 300 franchises of 11 fast food chains. Of these chains, the only one that posted calorie information in a usable space was Subway. At Subway, 32 percent of consumers reported seeing it (it's posted near registers, though not on the menus or menu board), and 37 percent of that 32 percent said it was a factor in their purchasing decision. "In other words," concludes Sullum, "simply making people aware of calorie content is not enough to affect their food choices."

Jacob Grier, guest blogging at the Agitator, shreds Klein's contention against Sullum's first claim:
Well, ok. But the notion that conducting a poll is a more reliable way to gauge consumer preferences is even odder. Answering a question in a poll is not like ordering lunch in a restaurant. Facing no trade-offs, there’s no reason not to give the publicly virtuous answer. Of course most people will say they support posting caloric information. Faced with the actual trade-offs of less menu space, higher costs for testing new products (more significant for small chains than for large), and the sometimes unpleasant reminder of how dense some food is, they might not actually prefer the one-size-fits-all rule of posting calorie counts prominently on the menu. If 84% of consumers were really demanding it, you would think that at least one restaurant chain would have filled this demand. The fact that none has done so voluntarily suggests that the mandate is excessive. (And what of the rights of business owners? They don’t merit concern, apparently.)
As for Klein's attack on Sullum's second claim, 37 percent of 32 percent is about 12 percent, which means that a total of 12 percent of respondents self-reported that the information presented influenced their behavior. First, survey respondents are notoriously bad at self-reporting behavior (especially when there's an inherent moral element to their response), and second the survey Klein cites is was a sort of best-case scenario, since many people choosing to go to Subway do so because they're concerned about their calorie consumption.

Image from here.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Russ Feingold Makes Me Proud to Be From Wisconsin

Despite supporting a lot of things I don't support (such as the McCain-Feingold bill regulating campaign finance), Russ Feingold's stance on civil liberties (he was the only senator to vote against the so-called PATRIOT Act) kind of makes me proud to be from Wisconsin:

Once again, this administration has demonstrated its perverse belief that it is entitled to keep anything and everything secret from the public it serves and their elected representatives, while Americans are not allowed to keep any secrets from their government. That's exactly backwards. In a country founded on principles of liberty and democracy, the personal information of law-abiding Americans is none of the government's business, but the policies of the government are very much the business of Congress and the American people.

Via Hit & Run.


One of my favorite things about traveling anywhere is trying out different brands/flavors of pop. I've been to Europe three times, and each time I've been there I've tried as many different flavors of Fanta that I can find. I don't know why we in the US are limited to conventional flavors like strawberry, orange, grape, and pineapple (well, pineapple isn't that conventional but I've never seen it in the US). And where are the cool bottles?!?

In any case, Fanta is updating their logo (the new logo is pictured above), which makes me pine for the days when such exotic flavors as Blood Orange and Green Apple were just a Euro away...

Image from here.

Classic Strawman

Columnist Barb Shelly, writing in the Kansas City Star about the new movement to lower the drinking age to 18, makes a classic strawman argument.

But do these academic folks ever leave their college towns? Stumbling back to one's apartment or dorm room after a night at the frat party or bar is one thing. The thought of 18-year-olds drinking legally and then getting behind the wheel in, like, Overland Park, is another.

Ms. Shelly raises an idea that no one is advocating (18-year olds drinking and driving) and then attacks it. It's easy to win arguments (in your mind) when you make up ridiculous claims and then attack them for being ridiculous.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Using Google Trends To Predict Things

So Barack Obama is apparently going to name his running mate (via text message) this week, and there's a lot of speculation that it will be Joe Biden, Tim Kaine, or Evan Bayh. Based entirely on a Google Trends analysis, I predict it will be Joe Biden:

We'll see later this week if this prediction is correct.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Tyranny of the Hygiene-Challenged

I have yet to read the book Nudge, which popularized the phrase libertarian paternalism, but I've been following the Nudge blog for a couple weeks and it's consistently interesting. This post on bathroom flies (which provide a target for urinal users, thereby reducing "spillage") caught my attention:

With so many sightings of flies in urinals around the world, some readers have wondered about the urinal entrepreneurs enabling this choice architecture. Meet Doug Kempel, engineer and owner of Urinal Fly, aka. the “Fly Guy,” who sells flies, trees, and rifle-scoped targets for the benefit of men and janitors everywhere. (Price: Starting at 4 flies for $4.99 up to 100 for $59.99.)

This reminded me of the recurring (yet admittedly unoriginal) idea I have to make all public bathroom doors open outward from the inside, without the use of handle. This would allow those of us who wash our hands at the end of each visit to the "restroom" to not be at the mercy of the least-clean hand to have touched the bathroom door handle. Not only does this negate the entire point of washing ones hands in the first place, it also shreds the veil of comfort that the "employees must wash hands before returning to work" sign provides.

But besides satiating the paranoid concerns of germophobes, I think the universal implementation of handle-less outward opening doors (HOODs?) might actually reduce the spread of germs. Maybe this would even result in fewer doctors visits, fewer prescriptions, and fewer sick other words, definite real-world benefits.

Some would probably suggest that such a policy should be adopted into municipal building codes, and given the disconnect between the cost-bearer (the owner of the facility with the bathroom) and the beneficiary (the general public), maybe that would be the best way to achieve mass adoption (despite compliance costs). However, maybe a more voluntary system, such as a website that brands a given facility as "good" or "bad" based solely on how its bathroom doors operate, would be able to encourage facility owners to replace bad doors with good doors (HOODs) or at least use HOODs for new construction.

In any case, I yearn for the day when I can use any public restroom and leave with my hands clean. Only then will we truly be free from the tyranny of the hygiene-challenged.

Image from here.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Refrigerator User Experience Captured Perfectly By Area Newspaper

The Onion is so good at capturing subtle details of everyday life, which for some reason are very funny when they're simply pointed out. A great example is this article about a guy that rearranged his whole refrigerator to accommodate a bucket of chicken. I love this part:

Upon finding room for the bucket, Browning discovered he still had a surplus of food items with no place to be stored, even after he transferred a loaf of white bread and an apple to the freezer. He initially contemplated flipping the quarts of milk and orange juice on their sides, but ultimately decided the risk of spilled liquid was too great. Instead, Browning was able to create a minimal amount of room by folding in half a pizza box containing a single slice left over from three nights ago.

According to sources, Browning at one point went so far as to drink the remaining half of a two-liter bottle of Pepsi in an ill-fated attempt to free up space in the refrigeration unit's side-door soda caddy.

"Everything kept sliding under the bar, though," Browning said. "I could hear everything fall out when I shut the door. I think because it's slanted."

Browning said his biggest breakthrough occurred when he finally began to fully utilize the dairy compartment by filling it with smaller food items, including part of a lime, a small stack of white Kraft Singles, and a Ziploc bag of ground beef. In addition, Browning was able to find a home in the vegetable crisper for the box of KFC biscuits from last month.

I hate when you finally get everything arranged just perfectly, and then you go to close the door and a bottle of something slides underneath the bar...Brilliant!

Thursday, August 14, 2008


Vân's post about nighttime scenery reminded me of how much I love the ways cities look at night. Maybe it's because a city's character can totally change once it gets dark. Paris goes from one big museum during the day to a city of enchantment and intrigue, the perfect setting for a spy movie. Minneapolis gets a lot hipper and big-city feeling at night. Maybe nighttime is when a city's true character finally gets a chance to reveal itself?

In any case, Vân's post got me feeling nostalgic, so I thought I'd post two of my favorite nighttime pictures from when I was in Paris right around New Year's Day, 2005.

Here's the Champs-Élysées at dusk, looking toward the Arc de Triomphe:

And here's a view of the Seine River (or "River Seine" if you want to sound fancy):

I think pictures of city lights reflecting off of water is probably my favorite nighttime image. Someday I'll try to take cool pictures of the Minneapolis riverfront at night.

Martin Doors?

In The Design of Everyday Things, Donald Norman used unintuitive doors as an example of bad design--well-designed doors make it intuitive to know whether they should be pushed or pulled, but poorly-designed doors require a "Push" or "Pull" label. Apparently it was such a quintessential example that the concept of "Norman doors" now refers to unintuitive doors.

In his brilliant Comedy Central special, I think Demetri Martin has introduced the concept of what I'm going to call "Martin doors"--revolving doors that you pull (instead of push) to operate. In the clip below (the particular bit starts at about 7:20, but the whole clip is funny), he says:

I want to make a revolving door that says "pull" on it [just] to see how obedient people are.

Due to the prevalence of so many "Norman doors," people are probably so trained to look for labels on doors that some would, despite all intuition, pull the door and walk through it backwards.

Writing on Walls

Graffiti is interesting. While I technically think it's unethical to appropriate someone else's property by writing on their walls, I love the look of graffiti. But despite the often awesome results, it's understandable that many property owners want to maintain control over their property and don't appreciate having their building's walls continually covered with graffiti.

So when a business in Los Angeles got creative about protecting its building's walls and preempted graffiti artists by hiring local artists to cover the building in a mural, naturally the Los Angeles City Council slapped the owners with an order to remove "excess signage." As quoted by Reason:

"ORDER TO COMPLY," said the letter from the Building and Safety Department, which required the Antonios to remove "excessive signage" under threat of a $1,000 fine "and/or six (6) months imprisonment" for each of four alleged violations.

The Antonios called the office of Councilman Ed Reyes for help, but to little avail. One day the city sent out a work crew and just like that, the Antonios' $3,000 investment was gone, covered over with dull beige paint.

You know, of course, what happened next. Whitewashing that wall was like sending ants an invitation to a picnic. The taggers have been back almost daily, treating the wall like a fresh canvas.

Nice. Meanwhile, in New York, the upstart "Healthcare 2.0" clinic Hello Health tried a cool new advertising campaign that was very inline with their hipster brand reputation--they put signs like the ones shown below in some subway stations, presumably hoping that subway customers would fill in the speech bubbles with some interesting text. The outcome would be a dynamic billboard.

The results were fun and interesting, if not a little vulgar, until CBS Outdoor (who operates the billboards in the subway under a contract with the MTA) stepped in and killed the campaign, apparently because the billboards lend themselves to being vandalized. Ha!

So apparently it's not only illegal to violate someone's property rights by writing on their walls without permission, it's also illegal to exercise your own property rights by letting people write on your walls with your permission?!

Images from here and here.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Conversations as a Metaphor for Urban Design

I've always been a fairly introverted person, and I realized the other day that up until a few years ago (when I started making a conscious effort to try and have better conversations), my goal in any given conversation was, subconsciously, to exit the conversation as quickly as possible. It was as if my goal was to exchange information as efficiently as possible (i.e. with the fewest words spoken) and stop what I perceived (again, subconsciously) to be an unnecessary verbal exchange.

I was thinking about this when I suddenly shifted my train of thought to urban design and how, at least historically (since the 1950s) in the US, traffic engineers seemed to have operated under the assumption that the goal of a city's streets is to move cars through the city as quickly as possible. Hence the trend of converting every city's downtown streets into one-way, three-lane avenues leading straight to the nearest freeway and out of town. "Forget the city," the mentality seemed to have been, "we need to increase throughput and move as many cars through the system as quickly as possible."

So for some reason I put these two thoughts together and wondered if there might be a connection between how traffic engineers deal with urban streets and traffic flows and how these same engineers approach the idea of holding a conversation. It's obviously a stereotype, but it's probably not much of a stretch to presume that many traffic engineers (after all, my original major in college was civil engineering, and I was most interested in traffic engineering) tend to be introverted. Is it possible that they are applying the same subconscious logic which they apply to conversations to traffic engineering (and therefore urban design), as well?

You might be thinking, "Yeah, but so what? Who wants to sit in traffic all day? I'm GLAD traffic engineers try to move cars through the system as efficiently as possible." Well, yeah, no one like sitting in traffic, but I think it's one dimensional to think that minimizing the time spent in traffic should be the only, or even primary, goal of traffic engineering. Is it worth engineering streets to maximize vehicle throughput at the expense of sacrificing everything else that streets can influence? What about the pedestrian traffic that brings a neighborhood to life, but which requires wide sidewalks (and therefore narrower streets)? What about the visual interest of streetscapes and the beauty they can provide for a city? And what about the sense of place that livable (i.e. safely walkable) intersections can provide? What's the point of building traffic-optimized streets if there's no where interesting left to drive to?

Likewise, what's the point of talking to another person if the only point of the conversation is to optimize the exchange of information? What about the joy and humor that a good conversation can result in? What about getting to know someone, not just by listening to what they say, but also how they say it? And what about cultivating a sense of community, which we humans seem to have evolved doing and therefore which might be an important thing to do in order to live together?

I thought of all these things, and then seized upon my psuedo-theory, which is this: Since traffic engineers tend to be more introverted, it's likely that they tend to apply the same pattern of thinking to traffic engineering that they apply to holding conversations. In one application, the result is a cold and lifeless exchange of words, while in the other application the result is a cold and lifeless network of streets. And we will be destined to accept this fate until either (a) traffic engineers become more extroverted, or (b) some system (oversight by architects or human factors engineers to be the pedestrian's advocate, for example) is put into place to check the authority of introverted engineers in designing roads.

Of course, I have no data to support this theory, and the two phenomena could be unrelated and I could just be trying to generalize based on a stereotype. Who knows?

Image from Flickr user Write From Karen available under a Creative Commons license.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Ineffective Error Messages

This quickly-becoming-famous image is apparently from a restaurant in China. Some people seem to think it's photoshopped--they claim the "l" in "Translate" isn't behind the steel girder, but I'm not so sure that what they're assuming is the top part of the "l" isn't just a shadow within the girder (other portions of that bottom bar have similar shadows).

In any case, it looks like whatever translation software was used (the Chinese characters apparently say "restaurant" or "cafeteria") produced an error message which the user mistook as the translation. If you're going to have translation software, one would think you'd take care to provide error messages in both the "to" (English) and "from" (Chinese) languages.

For the record, here's what Google Translate says:

  • 餐厅 = restaurant
  • 翻译服务器错误 = translation server error

Via Hit & Run.

Image from here.

St. Paul

I've always loved the area around Rice Park in downtown St. Paul (pictured above), probably because it's one of the few parts in the entire Twin Cities that has a European feel. I think this is due to the stately feel of buildings surrounding it, as well as the fact that there are several non-right angle intersections here. St. Paul claims to be the most livable city in America, and if all of downtown St. Paul were like Rice Park, I could get behind that claim. But once you move about a block outside of Rice Park (in any direction), downtown St. Paul starts looking like a typical midwestern American city: parking lots, non-pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, no trees. It feels very cold and unwelcoming.

So hopefully when the Central Corridor light rail line, which is supposed to enter downtown along Cedar St. and then turn down 4th St. to extend all the way to Union Depot on the east side of downtown St. Paul, will bring at least some pedestrian activity and/or streetscaping to this part of downtown. If the pre and post-game light rail usage at the Metrodome stop in Minneapolis is any indication, there will hopefully be a fair amount of pedestrian traffic between the 4th and Cedar light rail station and the XCel Energy on game nights. By reconfiguring the street (it's pretty bleak right now, as shown below) to be a two-lane street with wide sidewalks and trees, this could be one of the best streets in the Twin Cities.

As this Finance and Commerce article points out, the business climate in downtown St. Paul is worse than downtown Minneapolis, worse than the western suburbs, and worse than the southwestern suburbs. St. Paul should come to the realization that it can't beat Minneapolis at becoming a mini-Manhattan and, instead of trying to woo big companies with generous subsidies, begin branding itself as THE place to live in the Twin Cities. Streets in downtown St. Paul should be reconfigured with fewer driving lanes, more bike lanes, and much wider sidewalks with plenty of trees. Developers should be encouraged (but not subsidized) to build 3-6 story mixed-use buildings in a very dense fashion that creates the streetwalls that make European cities so beautiful. In other words, make the rest of downtown St. Paul more like Rice Park.

Images from and Google Street View.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Speaking of School Choice

This clip from a British sitcom lays out the argument:


Via Cato@Liberty.

Rating Schools

I think the idea of parents rating schools (and being able to choose which school to send their kid(s) to regardless of where they happen to live) is a great idea. But if you're a parent rating a school, you might want to double-check your spelling and grammar when you leave a comment next to your rating. As Red Pen, Inc. reports, here's what someone wrote about Pearsontown Elementary School near Durham, NC:

thay wont just let your chid slade threw

It's reassuring to know that at Pearsontown Elementary, chids are not allowed to slade threw. Slade?!?

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Girl Talk

I recently discovered the mashup artist Girl Talk and I love it. I usually find mashups forced and annoying to listen to, but Girl Talk blends things so perfectly that the sum is often greater than the parts. Here's his newest CD, Feed the Animals, on imeem.

Girl Talk - Feed The Animals

Grill in the Summer, Bake in the Winter

Google Insights is addictive. It's fun teasing out seasonal differences is search patterns. For example, "grilling" vs. "baking":

Looks like baking peaks at Thanksgiving/Christmas and grilling peaks right around the 4th of July. Every year.

Looks Like Microsoft Is Interested In Usability

Wow, look at this (from Google Insights):

Here's the map:

Gee, I wonder if Microsoft (headquartered in Redmond, Washington) is interested in usability... It's interesting, too, that Microsoft people are using Google instead of their own search engine.

Minneapolis makes the top 10!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Tire Pressure

Megan McArdle (not pictured above) asks:

One thing does puzzle me, however: why do so many people drive with improperly inflated tires? Forgive my ignorance, but having grown up in Manhattan, the world of car ownership is as a closed book to me--I just bought my first real car in my mid-thirties. So what's the deal? Does it make the ride more comfortable, or are people just to lazy to put a little air in from time to time?

A couple commenters hit the nail on the head. Basically, maintaining proper tire pressure is a giant hassle (note the distress evident on the face of the woman in the above picture). It's more trouble than it's worth. The pressure gauge that never seems to deliver a consistent reading, the hard-to-access valves on the tires, having to squat, kneel, or sit on dirty asphalt, dealing with the hose getting stuck under a tire, the noise of the air compressor, the car behind you impatiently waiting to use the air (who you invariably assume is an expert at filling tires and looks down on you for taking so long), etc. etc. ad infinitum. All for 2-3%?!? It's probably worth it over the course of a year or so, but that's tough to convince yourself of when it actually comes time to check the pressure.

If someone came up with a product or system that dramatically improved the tire pressure maintenance experience (and was cost effective), I bet they'd be successful. Imagine if all the whole process was automated, so that all you had to do was park your car in special stall and little robotic arms would locate each of your tire valves, unscrew them, check the pressure, and add or remove air, all while you sit in the comfort of your vehicle. This sounds like something they'd have in Japan...

Image from Flickr user squashpicker available under a Creative Commons license.

Modern Day Muckraking

Congratulations to Radley Balko for bringing down Dr. Steven Hayne, Mississippi's corrupt medical examiner.

Bring on the Pulitzer!

Image from here.

America vs. Iran

No, it's not what you think. Look at this video of a mega-intersection in Tehran (the capital of Iran) and compare it to your local suburban mega-intersection.

This makes me want to go to Tehran, if for no other reason than to observe traffic.

Via The Daily Dish.

Monday, August 4, 2008

What Makes A Profit So Windfally, Anyway?

This is a good editorial:

The "windfall profits" tax is back, with Barack Obama stumping again to apply it to a handful of big oil companies. Which raises a few questions: What is a "windfall" profit anyway? How does it differ from your everyday, run of the mill profit? Is it some absolute number, a matter of return on equity or sales -- or does it merely depend on who earns it?


Maybe they have in mind profit margins as a percentage of sales. Yet by that standard Exxon's profits don't seem so large. Exxon's profit margin stood at 10% for 2007, which is hardly out of line with the oil and gas industry average of 8.3%, or the 8.9% for U.S. manufacturing (excluding the sputtering auto makers).

If that's what constitutes windfall profits, most of corporate America would qualify. Take aerospace or machinery -- both 8.2% in 2007. Chemicals had an average margin of 12.7%. Computers: 13.7%. Electronics and appliances: 14.5%. Pharmaceuticals (18.4%) and beverages and tobacco (19.1%) round out the Census Bureau's industry rankings. The latter two double the returns of Big Oil, though of course government has already became a tacit shareholder in Big Tobacco through the various legal settlements that guarantee a revenue stream for years to come.

The best line is the closer:

It's what politicians do in Venezuela, not in a free country.

I hope Obama is pandering.

No Free Pop? Then Let Me Bring My Own!

I don't like this trend.

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA is objecting to collecting the $1 and $2 fees for nonalcoholic drinks, which US Airways is imposing to counter record fuel costs. Should travelers balk, they probably will not have to pay, the union said.

The ban on liquids is nothing but security theater; it inconveniences everyone with no real commensurate gain in security. For me, personally, the one thing that made it tolerable (yet despised) was that while I couldn't bring my own pop on board (I had brought 2-liter bottles on before the ban), at least I could have all the pop I wanted while on the plane, even if the brands available weren't my favorite.

If Northwest/Delta follows US Airways' lead, and since a passenger departing from Minneapolis is most likely to fly on Northwest, which only serves Pepsi products, and since I'm too nice to put up a fuss about having to pay for something, the net outcome of this trend could be that I will have to pay $1 to $2 for either Sierra Mist (okay) of Pepsi (yuck!). If I'm lucky, they MIGHT have Wild Cherry Pepsi, which is okay.

But all I want (well, not literally ALL) is for my country to allow me to bring my own 2-liter bottle of Vault aboard the plane. Is that too much to ask?

Via Good Experience.

Image from Flickr user liltree available under a Creative Commons license.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Minnesota Rated As Second-Worst for Urban Congestion

According to a study by the Reason Foundation, Minnesota is second only to California for urban congestion.

At first this seemed surprising. Minneapolis has bad traffic, but worse than Illinois (Chicago) and New York (New York)?! But it's a little deceiving because the rankings are at a state level. Illinois and New York both have several small to mid-size cities that "water down" the effect of Chicago and New York, respectively. Minnesota, on the other hand, has pretty much one urban area (the Twin Cities), and since it's congested the whole state ends up looking congested.

With yesterday being the anniversary of the 35W bridge collapse, it's interesting to note that:

Deficient bridges were thrust into the spotlight in 2007 because of the tragic Minneapolis bridge collapse. Minnesota actually ranks 5th best in the nation, with 13 percent of its bridges deficient. Of the nearly 600,000 highway bridges in the country, 24.1 percent were reported deficient and/or functionally obsolete in 2006, a minor improvement from 2005 when 25.5 were deemed deficient. At the current rate of repair it will take 62 years for today's deficient bridges to be brought up to date. [emphasis added]
Via Hit & Run.

Image from Flickr user amme@work available under a Creative Commons license.


I used to think that I would have a separate blog for each of my separate interests. It turns out that was unrealistic, which is why I created the uniblog that is Everything's Dynamic. I've imported all of the posts from Energy for the Future, Mechanical Usability, and I like to complain into Everything's Dynamic, but the comments did not survive the move. Nevertheless, any post that originally contained a comment now has a link back to the original post.

Image from Flickr user Lorrie McClanahan available under a Creative Commons license

Stuff with Bacon

While looking for the picture for my post about tuna fried in bacon grease, I came across a bunch of pictures of interesting food that you wouldn't expect to contain bacon, but do. My favorites:

Image from Flickr user yi available under a Creative Commons license

Tuna Fried in Bacon Grease

Problem: You've just cooked a pound of bacon in a grill pan and now have a bunch of bacon grease at the perfect temperature...if only I had something else to cook using all that delicious-tasting oil.

Solution: Thaw one frozen tuna steak in the microwave and, at the lowest possible temperature fry in the bacon grease-laden grill pan.

I wasn't sure how this would taste, but I figured anything coated in bacon fat must taste good, and it ended up tasting great. I'll definitely do it again, although next time I'll be more patient and flip the tuna steak less. Some of the outside of the steak ended up with a nice crispy coating, which of course was the best part.

Image (of plush bacon) from Flickr user Sappymoosetree available under a Creative Commons license

Friday, August 1, 2008

'Surge' is the new 'War on'

Radley Balko (mocking John McCain) scares me:

Think of all the other problems "surges" could solve. I’m seeing the "Anti-Poverty Surge," the "Health Care Surge," and the "Anti-Obesity Surge." And of course, all we really need to finally win the drug war is a "surge"—a three-month blast of troops, guns, and ammo ought to do.

I'm not an Obamaniac, but I really hope John McCain doesn't win.

Variable Speed Road Tolls, Part II

If proven successful, the pricing mechanism I describe here could even be used to replace speed limits altogether. Assuming that in the future every vehicle will be tracked by GPS (it's going to happen, get over it), greedy government officials may want to charge drivers with a fine every time they exceed the speed limit. This just isn't practical. People will either be so paranoid of getting a ticket that they'll drive horribly because all they're thinking about is their speed, or so many people will get tickets that there'll be a massive backlash against the system in general.

I think a much more palatable and more effective way to enforce desired speeds would be by charging different rates for different speeds. Imagine a pricing scheme like the example below:

People respond to financial incentives, and this system seems like a much more transparent system than fines (and insurance premiums!) to cajole people into driving the optimal speed. Plus, this would allow police to focus on the truly dangerous act of driving recklessly (which could still include driving faster than conditions allow) instead of having to arbitrarily decide which driver going 10 mph over the speed limit they're going to pull over.

Variable Speed Road Tolls

This post by Tom Vanderbilt, in which he talks about the successful impelementation of variable speed limits in the UK, got me thinking about variable speed limits.

I’m in D.C. for the day, and I’ve been interested to note that an idea that’s had success in places like England’s M25 motorway is being introduced here. It’s called “variable speed limits” (wait, aren’t they all variable, you’re asking?), and the basic idea is that when a section of highway has become congested, rather than having upstream vehicles simply drive at full speed into the gelling pack, those drivers are given instructions to drive at specific speeds, lower than the typical speed limit. Instead of driving into a stop-and-go mess (in which a lot of time and fuel is wasted stopping and restarting), following cars approach at a slower, smoother pace. When the new speeds are obeyed (in the U.K. they’ve mounted cameras to enforce this), engineers have found they can achieve greater “throughput” through bottlenecks.

I agree with the idea that "slower is faster," but I cannot get behind instituting traffic cameras to enforce speed limits. Telling drivers to reduce their speed "for the greater good" or else get punished with a huge speeding ticket seems like a rather heavy-handed, clumsy way of achieving the desired goal.

I think a better way to accomplish variable speeds would be to financially reward people for driving the speed that optimizes the flow of traffic. Assuming that a “pay-per-mile” tolling scheme is in place, drivers could be charged not only for where and how far they drove but also how fast they drove. As drivers approach a traffic jam, there could be one rate for traveling at 65 mph, another for 55 mph, and another for 45 mph, with the cheapest rate assigned to the speed that optimizes traffic flow.

This solution provides a transparent set of incentives for drivers to reduce their speed without resorting to some draconian enforcement mechanism (i.e. cameras that rigidly enforce lower speed limits).