All posts by Ben

The Taste Fork

I spent this week in Dallas at the Internet Engineering Task Force. It was my first time going.

Participating in the IETF has long been a dream of mine. Maybe something beyond a dream; it was only a few years ago that I realized this history-making council of knights was something that I might actually be able to join myself. It was an odd epiphany, like opening one’s mailbox and finding an invitation to apply for a professional masters degree program at Hogwarts.

For me, the IETF process, where any person can join, but no companies are allowed, and the most official decisions are called a “request for comments”, inspires a feeling somewhere between patriotism and religious fervor. I’m liable to interrupt family dinners to explain the IETF’s hum-based method of gauging consensus, or to repeat by heart Dave Clark’s famous quote

We reject kings, presidents and voting. We believe in rough consensus and running code.

So, naturally, actually going to IETF would have to be a disillusioning experience, and in some sense it was. The meetings seem to be 40% bickering about minutiae and 60% talking to dead air. Obstinacy, pedantry, and obstructionism are in long supply. There’s essentially no educational component; no energy is expended to help attendees to learn about areas outside of their own bubble. I learned an important lesson there: review the agenda ahead of time, and study up on anything that piques your interest, or you will simply be lost!

The vast majority of people in each meeting are simply silent, and it’s impossible for me to know whether they are bewildered newcomers (like me) or some kind of passive expert observer. I spent the whole week in Dallas just to give two 10-minute presentations. And oh, by the way, proportionally, the men’s swim team at my high school had more women in it than the IETF.

On the other hand, it was also a fascinating, inspiring, and massively informative week. I met personal heroes and long-time collaborators by the dozen. I had lunch and dinner with a different group of grizzled experts every day, with plenty of time to hear old engineering war stories and ask all the unanswered questions from all of the day’s working groups. I might even have managed to drum up support for my very first internet standard proposal.

Most IETF attendees seem to be regulars who go to most of the meetings. Some people have been to practically all of them, since the beginning. I’m not sure I’m likely to become one of them … but I also get the feeling this won’t be my last.

First night


The Dallas Museum of Art, as it’s properly known, holds a monthly late-night event on the third Friday of each month. Conveniently, that’s today.

Walking there, the city center (called the “arts district”) seemed dead. The sidewalks were empty, and the storefronts were shuttered.

Inside the museum, it was a different story. The sprawling, gleaming space was packed with a lively crowd that seemed diverse in every way.

This month’s theme was Jane Austen, and maybe there were a few more mother-daughter pairs than the average month. In keeping with the 19th-century literary theme, one of the many scheduled events was a simulated letterpress typesetting session. (It took me the whole hour to assemble this sentence above.) I also listened to a short lecture on marriage in the time of Jane Austen (fun fact: the average marriage was the same length then as today, despite virtually zero divorces, due to the high rate of mothers dying in childbirth).

The museum has a little bit of everything, and yet seems to have almost too much space for its collection. Maybe they just like to be a little less crowded down here than in those Northern cities.


I’ve never been to Texas, outside of an airport anyway, but starting Friday I’ll be spending a week in Dallas. I know almost exactly nothing about the place, and since it’s for a conference, I don’t suppose I’ll have much of a chance to experience any culture. In fact, I might not ever leave the corporate hotel district, in which case I will still hardly have been to Texas at all.

Normally I would be irritated by this possibility, but any such concern is fully offset by the weather differential: high 60s in Dallas, snowstorm in NYC.

Anyway, lemme know if there’s something or someone I should wedge into my schedule next week. Could happen.

Bleeding Edge

I read Infinite Jest during the summer of 2003, while taking Metro North for 63 minutes twice a day to my internship in midtown. Afterward, I was briefly stunned, and then went in search of more. Who else in the world can write like this? The first answer was always the same: Thomas Pynchon.

Pynchon and Foster Wallace share a predilection for dropping the reader head-first into unexplained worlds, drenched in jargon and dialect, where half the facts are unbelievable but true, and the other half are equally implausible fabrications. Infinite Jest‘s notorious footnotes serve in part to acknowledge the inherent problem with this style, which favors immersion over comprehension.

I tried to read Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow for years, but never made it more than halfway through. Between the word games and the assumed knowledge of World War II Britain, I was just lost. I suspect someone watching Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia without knowledge of mathematics, or reading Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon without cryptography, might have the same sinking feeling that this must be a reference to something, although those writers are more generous with expository for a general audience.

For me, then, Bleeding Edge turned out to be a chance to read Pynchon as an insider. This time, the prerequisite context is Manhattan real estate geography, New York Jewish culture, late-90s hacker lingo, and what it felt like to live in the area from winter 2001 to spring 2002. So armed, you might have some idea of what’s going on when the characters visit a bar called Eternal September or the Bit Bucket, where a new acquaintance complains about “tag soup” and the pernicious “”. Similarly, you would be able to catch a reference or two in the line

Come on, Jews and tattoos? I’m desperate, but not unobservant.

Of course, that’s just the major stuff. It’s also helpful if you know some finance, so that you can make sense of lines like

“He seemed distant.”
“The three-month LIBOR, no doubt.”

and it would be a plus if you happen to be familiar with obscure films from decades past, to make sense of patterns like

Jules and Jim (1962) it is not.

(I don’t know what that one means.)

That would be a good start. Then there’s the miscellany like

“Suppose something’s going on that they’re not catching?”
Suppressing the urge to scream “Al-vinnn?” Maxine gently inquires, “Which…would be…?”

(Alvin and the Chipmunks)

And this here, I can smell it, could turn matrimonial faster than you can say, “But Ricky, it’s only a hat.”

(I Love Lucy, apparently)

Even pretty close to the target demographic, I still missed a lot. I’d never heard of The Montauk Project or Tzena Tzena Tzena, and I still don’t know what Von Dutch or Keokuk are. But it was enough that I could focus my mental energy on deciphering the inventive textual structure and baroque plot, and come out the other side feeling like I got the message.

I don’t think I can explain it though.

Good morning to you too


Welcome to New York, I guess.

After vanquishing the beast with a hot shower and a toilet brush, I moved my cereal and flour into the freezer, cleared out all the trash and recycling, called my building management, and then considered whether I really want to renew this lease in a month.

On luck

I bit down on a fork last week and slightly chipped a tooth, which seemed like a good reminder that I should find myself a dentist in New York. Not knowing where to turn, I started at my insurance company’s page, which had a list of nearby approved dentists … and literally found myself a dentist, in the form of one Benjamin Schwartz DDS, with an office in midtown. For the sake of comedy, and in the name of luck, I felt compelled to go.

He confirmed that the chip was irrelevant, but with some help from a high-resolution dental camera he did manage to spot a cavity … my first. It seems my luck has run out.

He said it was very superficial, so he could likely treat it without even local anesthesia. I don’t know whether to feel pleased or scared.


I had promised to show the Oscars tonight, so it was a real problem this afternoon when I discovered that I couldn’t tune WABC-TV for more than a few seconds without it dissolving into a mess of block noise.  It worked better if I taped the antenna up in one corner of my window, but still not well enough to be watchable.

I looked up the frequency for WABC-TV: Channel 7, so 177 MHz.  1.7 meter wavelength.  Then I grabbed my Leatherman, a tape measure, and a spare coax cable, and improvised a resonant dipole antenna for that frequency, leaving bits of aluminum shielding scattered across the floor.  That was better, but still not quite good enough until I taped it to a piece of cardboard and stuck it out the window at a particular angle.

There were still a few garbled words and corrupted frames over the course of the show, but it pretty much worked.  Physics!



After acquiring beaded necklaces by the kilo during the parades, we were faced with the challenge of disposing of them. Sure, you could dump them in the trash, but we don’t like to make things that easy, and so we set ourselves the task of giving them all away before the end of Mardi Gras. We made a good dent by tossing them off our balcony to all and sundry, but that left a sizable stash with only hours to spare. After some consideration, we came up with a plan: go to Bourbon Street, and just hand them out. After all, Bourbon is jammed with people who are jumping up and down clamoring for beads.

This actually worked amazingly well. We handed out dozens of necklaces in minutes, declared victory, and went home.

After resting up for a few hours, we walked back to Bourbon to witness the official end of Mardi Gras, in the form of a phalanx that rolled down the street, featuring the mayor, police chiefs, foot patrol, horseback police, street sweepers, a street sprayer machine (which covered the tarmac in suds), and even a specially equipped front-loader for clearing beads. Some of the bars kicked everyone off the balconies for the event, but the bars stayed open, and as soon as the procession rolled past, the mayhem was back in action … maybe reinvigorated.

We took the police’s suggestion literally, and went home.

Mardi Gras

It’s Mardi Gras.

Yesterday, which is generally known as Lundi Gras, we slept in, ate well, wandered, and relaxed. In the evening, it rained. I put on my warmest waterproof jacket and beads, and walked through the rain to find the Krewe of Robyn, which held a minimally organized dance-parade-party in the rain through the historic district, with a pedal-driven sound system at its heart. Hundreds of people danced through the potholed street and turned the cold misery into pure joy. I’d never heard of Robyn before, but it appears that I am a fan.

Today was Mardi Gras itself, the moment we’d all been waiting for. I put on my wing suit and we wandered out toward Marigny, in search of a Chewbacchan walking parade that never materialized. After lunch I tore off the tentacles to assume my final form, as a masked angel. We wandered back through the mayhem until mid-afternoon, and made some observations

  • It was cold — in the low 40s, breezy, and cloudy (or just shadowed) for most of the day — so very few dared to venture out less than fully clothed (which is always an option at Mardi Gras).
  • Royal St. was where the action was. During the day, Royal was absolutely packed with a kaleidoscope of fabulously costumed individuals and groups (including children), when it wasn’t completely blocked by even more fabulous foot parades large and small.
  • Bourbon St. was packed, lame, and boring. Almost no one was in costume, and everyone was just hanging around trying to catch stuff being thrown by people on the balconies, who were being obnoxious (as is traditional) to an extraordinary degree. I saw one young woman shouting her obscene demands down to the crowd below through a megaphone.

In late afternoon I struck out my own. I headed to Bourbon St., and attempted to collect beads from the lecherous balconies, by getting their attention and then performing the wing-reveal on my costume, with some success … although the most debauched balconies were surrounded by crowds too thick to unfurl 8-foot wings. Then I headed back down to Royal and crouched in the folded position by the side of the street in a few places, surprising passersby as they passed. Tons of pictures were taken, and I got enough memorable positive reactions to give anybody a big head. Some people thought I was busking for beaded necklaces (the valueless currency of Mardi Gras), and so I collected about as many as I could carry before I stopped.

After about 6 PM, Royal St. was trailing off. I suppose the locals must have work, or school, tomorrow. I can still hear occasional delighted screaming now, and a lone clarinet, but the party seems to be over.

It was a lot of fun.