All posts by Ben

Fire

I was late to my choir rehearsal Wednesday, at a friend’s gorgeous penthouse apartment on Riverside Drive by Columbia. I raced in, worried that I’d miss something important … but they hadn’t even started. Everyone was distracted, transfixed. Someone had to explain to me to look out the window … and then I saw this. Even from across the Hudson it was spectacular … and it had been burning for hours. A whole block of apartment, spitting flames.

It burned for the whole rehearsal. We managed to focus long enough to get through our agenda, but at the end of every song we couldn’t help but turn to look back out at the shocking view. Toward the end I could see not only the flames but also the arcs of firefighter’s water jets, curving over the burning facade and making more smoke, but not less flame.

It’s reassuring, almost heartwarming, that in every news report and conversation about the fire, the first thing people say is that no one was hurt. Sometimes, at least, we have our priorities straight.

Thing I did at the MIT Mystery Hunt

  • wrote a Hamiltonian Path finder
  • deciphered Morse Code from a poem’s stress-accent pattern
  • established an interface definition for, and then wrote my fair share of, a 700 line parser for a quasi-human-readable word rule language used by a collection of 10,000 puzzles
  • determined the general-relativity comoving distance of a highly redshifted galaxy in the early universe
  • found some words in a word search the size of my kitchen
  • formed part of a fish, for a game of immobile charades, by lying on the floor of lobby 7

Heavywait

I usually take the bus when traveling between New York and Boston. In fact, I’m doing it right now. The other obvious option is Amtrak, which is about 5 times the price and spends way more of the trip in GSM dead zones. (Neither bus nor train has decent onboard wifi, so I just tether through my phone.) Lately I’ve liked Megabus, whose double-decker vehicles have power outlets at every seat. Sure, the seats aren’t very wide, but I’m not a very wide person anyway, and so far I’ve always gotten two seats to myself.

Anyway, I was feeling pretty smug about my choice of transport right up until we spent 20 minutes at a dead stop by the side of I-95 near the New York/Connecticut border. It turns out that, for approximately the first time ever, the Powers That Be decided to open the Weigh Station, and all large vehicles had to pull over, get in the queue, crawl up to the scale, and then hang around afterward until the paperwork was ready.

I’m not sure whose idea it was to mix coach buses full of passengers with the tractor-trailers in the queue at the Weigh Station, but somebody should teach them to calculate Disability Adjusted Life Years. For starters, how about weighing buses (lower frequency, more costly to delay) and trucks on different days?

Katz’s Deli

I made my first pilgrimage today to Katz’s Deli, which I think is probably in the running for most famous deli in the world. I had what seems to be their top selling dish these days: the pastrami half-sandwich with split pea soup and a pickle. (Two pickles, actually, in two different styles.)

I mentioned to my mother that I was planning to go, in honor of a friend’s birthday, and she exclaimed that she had fond memories of eating there as a child, with her father, as a treat. She said that she would always order a cream soda with her pastrami sandwich, so I did the same. For a brief moment at noon, I felt like I was reliving a lost family tradition.

Of course, when my mother and her father went to Katz’s Deli, the half sandwich with split pea soup and a pickle probably didn’t cost $17.45.

New Orlinz

It looks like I will almost certainly be going to New Orleans for a week or so in February … possibly including Mardi Gras itself. I should be excited, and I am, but I’m also anxious, because I feel like I’m not prepared to hold up my end of this Mardi Gras bargain. What is my duty as a Gras-goer? For example, I’ve heard that everybody is supposed to have a costume, with a mask, but I’ve also heard that the masks are because of the masked balls, to which I am totally not invited even a little, and the costumes are for people who are actually in the parades.

It also seems like basically it’s all parades?

I even googled what nerds are supposed to do at Mardi Gras, and was directed to the local nerd scifi costume parade … wrong kind of nerd, although I do approve.

If anyone knows what academics and engineers are supposed to do at Mardi Gras, please let me know. Otherwise, I may just focus on making the best costume that will fit into the overhead compartment, and hope that I haven’t misunderstood the entire tradition.

Cap

I got a notification that I hit my 2 GB “soft cap” on T-Mobile … something that’s never happened before, in many years on this phone plan, even when using my phone as my only internet connection. Luckily, Android has a settings pane to see which apps are responsible for data usage … and found the culprit, using 1.3 GB of data in two weeks:

NPR One.

NPR One is NPR’s audio streaming app, and the remarkable thing about it consuming this much data is that I’ve only used it for about 2 hours in that period. In fact, the settings pane shows the usage curve … which consists of three very sharp spikes, only while I was listening to NPR.

If you do the math, NPR One is consuming about as much bandwidth as you might expect if it were streaming uncompressed stereo CD audio … which would be a pretty wacky thing to do. The people behind it evidently know about the problem, based on their comment last month that “resolving the extremely high data-usage is our top priority”.

Unfortunately, they do not appear to have any idea what the problem is.

Two kinds

There are two kinds of gyms. One kind opens early on January 1st, with a big banner inviting freshly invigorated Resolvers to come in and sign a 12-month contract that they’ll have forgotten about by March.

The other kind is closed, because their clientele is in no shape for exercise on New Year’s Day, and their staff is in no mood to get out of bed either.

It looks like the local gym up here is that second kind.

Defiance

While staying with my aunt in Florida last week, I was introduced to Defiance, a Syfy-channel series about which I knew exactly nothing.

We started at the first episode, which looked, basically, horrendous. The opening scene was archetypal Bad CGI of a car driving down a road, presumably because they couldn’t afford to film an actual car driving down an actual road. It looked more like a videogame screencast than a proper film production. It also set up an extremely bizarre, totally mysterious, melodramatic future wasteland, with at least half a dozen different alien races and a long ton of room for lazy writers to do whatever they want and explain it away with a sentence or two of expository. In short, it seemed a lot like a typical doomed Syfy channel show.

It’s not, quite. Why not, exactly, sort of creeps in over the course of the pilot episode, and then lands with a thud when the mayor hands our fearless protagonist a pewter badge of a six-pointed star tipped with circles, and declares him the sheriff lawkeeper. Suddenly, it all snaps into focus. Over the course of the first season, ostensibly

  • It’s the year 2046
  • It’s been 14 years since a devastating war
  • St. Louis is a small city with hardly a paved road because it was destroyed by alien terraformers
    • but New York is still a big city because … unexplained
  • The economy is driven by the local Gulanite mine
  • The mine-lands were originally taken by two local outlaws who killed the (alien) Irathients who were farming there
  • There’s an epidemic of “hemorraghic fever” due to an unfortunate immunological relationship between humans and Irathients
  • There’s only one doctor because … unexplained, but presumably because few people have the training to care for all these different species
    • and medical images are made on big sheets of paper (which then animate to show different features)
  • The local drinking hole is also a brothel, presumably related to the (unexplained, but implied) gender skew of the town overall
  • There’s a Bible salesman/preacher who turns out to be a con artist because Times Are Tough
  • Everyone wears three-piece suits, bowlers, and pince-nez glasses, for absolutely no reason

but obviously

  • It’s the old west
  • It’s shortly after the civil war
  • St. Louis is a small city but New York is big because it’s the old west
  • The economy is driven by gold mining because it’s the old west
  • and the land was stolen from native Americans who were murdered
  • There’s an epidemic of cholera because it’s the old west
  • There’s only one doctor because it’s a Western
  • and medical images are made on big sheets of paper because they’re old-timey X-rays
  • The local drinking hole is a brothel because it’s the old west
  • There’s a Bible salesman/preacher who turns out to be a con artist because they just copied it straight from Oh Brother Where Art Thou, which is extremely meta because that’s a story that’s ostensibly set in the old west but actually is from ancient Greece
  • The costumes … come on.

It’s absolutely transparent, but also surprisingly endearing.

The surface layer alone has unlimited artistic freedom, with little fixed history to guide the story. Without constraint, nothing the writers can set up would be particularly impressive or thought-provoking. It’s a world as floppy as a string; no surprise that you make any shape you want.

With their two parallel plots, the fabric of the show has both warp and weft. The writers have to satisfy both the surface logic of their alien races in 2046, which are fleshed out gradually as needed, and the implicit phantom story in ~1870, which must somehow follow the Western’s genre conventions. Like rhyming poetry or a cappella music, the competing constraints make the plotting more impressive, and give the viewer more to think about.

It doesn’t hurt that their visual effects budget clearly increased dramatically over the course of the season, so that by the end the visuals finally awe instead of detract.

If you’re in the market for a science fiction Western, watch Firefly … but if you have a lot of time afterwards, and the patience to tolerate the first few episodes, you could do worse than Defiance.

Sand

On Saturday night I went for a jog along the water’s edge at Del Ray Beach. It was just after dusk, so darkness was rolling in from the water. It seemed like a good night to try barefoot running, so I dropped off my sandals at the deserted lifeguard tower and started out North for my usual 30 minutes.

As I trotted along, figures emerged from the deepening dark at fewer and fewer paces: a cultish camp group, a clutch of friends, a photographer and his curvy model, revealed by each flash, a father and two children, a couple and their dog.

About halfway through, my toe started to hurt, but there was nothing to be done except run back. As it turns out, running barefoot on sand is a great way to get yourself a blister.

So to those soft-footed folks thinking of pounding sand in the emperor’s new shoes, I suggest you start off at just a mile or so. Otherwise, you’ll be particularly poor company at the local oldies dance club that night.

FL

As per tradition, I’m heading to a florid area for a few days. My current plan for Harlem->Del Ray involves a subway, elevated loop train, plane, bus, and commuter rail.

I’m still hoping that one day, when fusion reactors have pushed the price of energy to zero, I’ll be able to make this trip by personal roof-mounted point-to-point sub-orbital capsule.

EDIT: If you miss the Howard Beach stop on the A train to JFK, you’re about to experience the longest subway detour of your life.

EDIT2: Pictures of or from trains.