Sunday, February 27, 2011

Robots that will freak you out

Someone famous (I couldn't find the source) once said that the strongest force in the universe is exponential growth. And, what's more, that humans aren't designed to think exponentially. We think linearly - 2x2x2, and not 2-squared, then cubed, etc. What all this means is just that when change accelerates, it can catch you off guard.

So, if you haven't been following robotics, this video will certainly catch you off guard (here's some background). And what's more more, check out this story about the Pentagon's DARPA program creating a robot cheetah that can catch human prey. Hmmm... seems seriously close to the Transformer Ravage.

So people talking about robots while playing Zork in their parent's basements are finally coming into the limelight. Expect to see much more of this in your lifetime.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Friends don't let friends use 5 Hour Energy

My poor coworker Ayanna had an awful experience on Thursday night. She missed her 8 p.m. bus, and didn't feel like waiting another hour in a terrible NE DC neighborhood for another one. So she tried to walk home.... but got lost in an even WORSE neighborhood.

Like, "crack den" bad neighborhood.

She tried to call a friend and get directions... but her phone died. And, this being a bad neighborhood, there were no cabs. She finally took refuge in a church which just happened to be open late (it was Bingo night) and she got a ride home.

Needless to say, it took her 2.5 hours to get home, and she was pretty damn tired today. Coffee wasn't cutting it, so she took out her secret weapon - the "magic bullet" known as 5 hour energy.

She had never tried it before. I told her to beware - my girlfriend and I had tried it once on a 7-11 impulse by and had the shakes all night. She examined the ingredients, looking for warning signs. The ingredients listed were:

  • Vitamin B6
  • Vitamin B12
  • Niacin (Vitamin B3)
  • Folic Acid (Vitamin B9)
  • Energy Blend
Not so bad, right? Until you dig in further to the mysterious "Energy Blend."
  • Citicoline
  • Tyrosine
  • Phenylalanine
  • Taurine (the stuff used in Red Bull)
  • Malic Acid
  • Glucuronolactone
  • Caffeine
So rather than coffee's one stimulant, it has SEVEN. Here's what the stranger ingredients are. Anyone else used this stuff to good / bad effect?

Friday, February 25, 2011

If you don't look rich, the sommelier will give you a shitty pour

Dianna and went to a wine tasting event tonight at Dean & Deluca in DC's ritzy Georgetown neighborhood. The sales pitch was "25 wines for $25." We both came from work - Dianna has dressed up jeans and I had a shirt and tie and my pea coat. Apparently, however, we didn't look rich enough, because we received pours that were anywhere from 50% to 75% smaller than the other attendees.

I'm serious. Our pours were barely enough to cover the bottom of our glasses, while the Baron von Moneybags with their designer purses and nosejobs got glasses that were more than 1/3 full. It happened so many times that both Dianna and I noticed it more than 5 times each before mentioning to each other.

And it wasn't even a tipping event so it wasn't like we were being cheap or anything. Both sommeliers cheaped on us over the course of the eight thimblefuls we received. I'm not sure if anyone knows the way out of this predicament, but I'd love to hear it.

And we even bought a bottle of wine, like chumps.

UPDATE: They refunded our money :)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities

When I heard about Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities I knew I had to read it. The Fraternity and Sorority system was a huge part of URI. While I drank their free beer (it was college after all), I hated the system and the conformity it seemed to generate. At the time, it amazed me how quickly information about Sororities spread to even people as remote and nerdy as myself. I heard that the Alpha Zetas and the Delta Zetas had the hot but stuck-up girls. I heard they hazed their pledged by circling their "problem areas" with black markers. I heard about naked streaking and bulimia. So, as a curious outsider, I wanted to find out how much of this was true.

It turns out, a lot. First, it's difficult to group all Sororities together - the multicultural and multi-gender Sororities are a different animal altogether. Still, the Sororities of legend and disrepute - who value materialism, conformity, cattiness, and unwavering loyalty above all else - are very common. Especially in the South, it turns out, where 75% of some colleges are Greek and many parents enroll their teens in "prep classes" that focus exclusively on getting into Sororities.

It was very difficult for me to separate the "good" Sororities from the bad while reading this book. The bad ones were so bad it seemed that they have tainted the word Sorority for me pretty thoroughly. The Sororities described by this uncover reporter for the New York Times expected all their girls to look alike, down to straightened hair and "the right" accessories. These images are honed and enforced by Nationals, the governing body usually led by alumni 40 or more years older than the girls they govern. These elder statesmen push for "traditional" values in their pledges, including moral uprightness and community service, much of which is just lip service. Often, the decision to exclude blacks from some Sororities and Fraternities also comes at the National level, which is one of the reasons why black and other minority Greek houses sprung into being.

At many Sororities, sisters are expected to make most or all meetings and are fined for missing them for any reason, including class or family functions. It seems that if a Sorority has a house, materialism becomes part of daily life, as sisters must seek out pledges to fill the rooms and pay bills. Often, pledges are screened for expensive clothing or rich parents, since that means they will be able to pay dues.

The book did describe some bonding experiences that made Sororities worth it for some of the girls. But for many others, sisters were expected to compete against each other for the affections of Fraternities, experience date rape at an alarming rate (more than 1/3 of Sorority sisters are sexually assaulted) and are expected to sacrifice friends, family and education for their House at all times. I highly recommend the book, even though it was extremely saddening to read.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Guess what? Your tax dollars support NASCAR

I heard this on "Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me" and decided I had to verify it. It turns out to be true: The U.S. Army sponsors a NASCAR car, to the tune of millions of dollars a year.

Now it's a little more of a gray area than just a plain sponsorship - by sponsoring a car, you get to cover it with Army logos and basically use it as a recruitment tool.

But still... NASCAR? Apparently, the Marines, Navy and other branches have cut ties with NASCAR recently, but the Army continues to spend your tax dollars on the dumbest of all events - cars driving in a circle.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Assholes of the week: Feb 14-18, 2010

This is very competitive list, as you well know. But these folks stand above the crowd:

1. A firefighter who refused to treat the victims of the Tuscon shooting spree because he disagreed with Gabrielle Gifford's politics.


2. The uber-douchebag who made fun of reporter Laura Logan's sexual assault via Twitter, then tried to call his accusers losers, and then resigned in disgrace with limp apologies.

Congrats, all!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The secret formula to Coke (REALLY!)

The recipe:

Fluid extract of Coca: 3 drams USP
Citric acid: 3 oz
Caffeine: 1 oz
Sugar: 30 (unclear quantity)
Water: 2.5 gal
Lime juice: 2 pints, 1 quart
Vanilla: 1 oz
Caramel: 1.5 oz or more for color

The secret 7X flavor (use 2 oz of flavor to 5 gals syrup):
Alcohol: 8 oz
Orange oil: 20 drops
Lemon oil: 30 drops
Nutmeg oil: 10 drops
Coriander: 5 drops
Neroli: 10 drops
Cinnamon: 10 drops


Monday, February 14, 2011

Nordstrom would love to hear your complaint... as long as it's 250 characters or less

OK, I admit I'm going through a Nordstrom bitch session right now, but I believe it's deserved for two reasons:

1. Snooty salespeople
We were going coat shopping at the Nordstrom at the Pentagon City mall. A 6-foot-2 waif blond stepped out from behind a piece of tinsel and asked if she could help us. I didn't know what my coat size was when she asked, so I guess it would be similar to my shirt size, so I said a 32.
"That does not exist," she said with a look of disdain, followed by an almost imperceptible smile undoubtedly brought on by my embarrassment.
"What size are your trousers?" she demanded.
"Thirty-two," I replied, still mortified by her behavior. She pointed out some coats and thawed a bit, but the damage was done. We didn't want to give her the commission, so we left for Macy's.

2. Their website doesn't give a fuck about you
So I was feeling all angry and empowered, and decided to lodge a complaint on the Nordstrom sit. I have never seen a corporate website that cared less about their customers than After navigating through the maze of menus to find their contact information, I noticed there was no option for complaints. I didn't want to live chat with someone, I wanted to send an angry email and get on with my life. But there was no avenue.

I eventually started typing my message into a "product question" site, when randomly the "complaint" link appeared on the side of my screen. Great, I thought. I clicked it and typed in my message. It was rejected because their message window only accepts a MAXIMUM of 250 CHARACTERS.

250 characters? That's less than two Tweets!!! You really expect people to be able to describe a problem in 1.5 sentences? Unbelievable. It gives me indigestion just thinking about it.....

UPDATE: I emailed Nordstrom's customer service on issue #1 and received the following response. I must admit I'm impressed that they named the offending salesperson (I didn't catch her name, so they must have researched it):
Please accept my sincerest apologies for disappointing you recently in our Men’s Clothing department when trying to purchase a coat. I’m so very sorry to hear that you had a poor service experience with XXXX, one of our salespeople in the department. This certainly is not our intention.
Please know that I have shared your comments with XXXXX, our Men’s Clothing department manager, and I have taken this opportunity to coach Agnese on the importance of servicing our customers. Thank you for affording us the opportunity to improve our level of service.
Again, our apologies for the service you encountered. We appreciate your feedback and hope that upon your next visit to our store, you will find that our level of service has improved.
Carla Carter-Brown

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Maybe it's not wrong to stare...

I was in a Starbucks today getting a coffee for Dianna and a cup of water for myself. While in line, I noticed a boy of about five staring intently at something around the corner. I took a few steps forward to see what he was looking at.

Relaxing in a corner reading a book was a large man in a wheelchair. It was an usual scene for a few reasons. For one, the wheelchair was larger and wider than most wheelchairs I've seen (the man was obese). It also was raised about 3 feet off the ground. The other interesting thing about him was that his feet were extremely swollen, a condition that I learned is called Edema and apparently sometimes happens to people in wheelchairs. His feet were approximately three times the size of normal feet, and were encased in thick black boots that I assume served some medical function.

My first thought looking at the young boy was, "Hey kid, it's rude to stare."

But the more I thought about it, how could he NOT stare? We are drawn to things that are different from what we see normally. This is also biological, and probably stems from our hunting days when determining small changes in our environment was essential to survival. So when we see something different from what we are used to, we notice. And for a five year old boy, seeing a large man in a jacked-up wheelchair with large feet is pretty darn unusual, and therefore interesting.

Now, yes, the people we stare at may be sensitive to our stares, and therefore we try not to out of kindness. But if our eyes turn towards a strange-looking person before we are even aware of it, we can avert our eyes politely, but we shouldn't beat ourselves up for the slip. It's natural, even if rude.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Look how far cable TV has come....

No, this isn't a music video, but it's the song for your reference.
In 1985 Weird Al did a song called "Cable TV" which described the life-transforming power of getting a cable hookup. I still have it on cassette and I play it in my car to much enjoyment.
But my favorite part is the anachronistic bits. Whenever he does a topical song, he will exaggerate things to make them funny. Example: In "It's All about the Pentiums" he describes having a "flat screen monitor 40 inches wide" and a computer with "100 gigabytes of RAM."
But in "Cable TV," the 1985 exaggerations have already been surpassed. He complained about his Cable costing him a ridiculous "50 bucks a month" in 1985. Using the uber-cool Inflation Calculator, I can see this equals $98 a month in 2010, something that people regularly pay.
He also exults in having "83 channels of ecstacy." I think even the most basic package has this beat.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Is it right to revere our troops?

My grandfather fought in WWII. My father served in Vietnam. Many people don't know this, but I attempted to enlist in the army when I was 17 to take advantage of the Montgomery G.I. Bill and finance my college education. I was, however, refused for medical reasons.

It makes sense to honor and respect someone who sacrifices on your behalf. We do this for police and firefighters, and it would make sense on its face to do this for our armed forces as well.

But if you look at it closer the similarity ends. We are allowed to talk about corruption in our police force, but never in our military. We can talk about immorality and financial misdeeds in our firefighters, but our military is above reproach. There is only one allowed attitude: "Support our troops." This extremely vague statement generally means we cannot criticize anyone who serves in our military unless they single themselves out by being caught by the media (see the Navy commander booted for his raunchy video, or the Army private responsible for the WikiLeaks scandal).

This exception aside, our military is, in public debate, immune from criticism. Their funerals are given special awards and pomp and circumstance. They are enshrined beneath our flag. They are one of the few occupations seen regularly as heroes in the 21st century.

And something about this mythic status bothers me. Respect and honor, OK. But I keep thinking about a scene in a movie where a barbarian clan is hunkering about a huge man who boasts that he is a "mighty warrior." We would laugh at that thought - "mighty warrior" indeed, we chuckle. Who is this ridiculous person wielding a club or an axe while people swoon at his muscles? And the we have shots of him cleaving people in half, which is OK, but then we see raping and pillaging, which are always part and parcel with war, and our adoration ends. We think, "The savages. Thank God things are better today."

Today, our warriors receive the same adoration. War, both in our legends and our history, always seems to straddle the line between occasional necessity and excessive debauchery. Rape and violence and crime always surround it at the edges, and are unavoidable. So shouldn't we view our warriors today as tragic figures? People who do the tough work even though bad things often come of it, and who often destroy themselves in the process? I guess we need that myth and respect to continue to encourage people to fight for us. It's a lie we all believe to get the job done.

Friday, February 4, 2011

2 things you didn't know about Justin Bieber

1. His mom is a religious bigot
When virtual unknown Justin was discovered by a Jewish agent many years ago, his mom was reluctant to let him represent her son because.... he's a Jew.

"God, I gave him to you. You could send me a Christian man, a Christian label! ... you don’t want this Jewish kid to be Justin’s man, do you?”[13]

2. He's actually got musical talent
His fame may be the result of a multinational corporation and a media frenzy, but he has some natural talent to back it up - Bieber taught himself to play the piano, drums, guitar, and trumpet. I can't lay acoustic guitar despite having multiple musician friends try to teach me, the Mel Bay audio CD, and tons of tabs.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Things you (probably) didn't know about the Beat Poets

After skimming through the mostly great graphic novel The Beats: A Graphic History, I learned the following things about the Beat generation:

1. They weren't hippies
They predated them, actually. The big Beats - Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg, William Burroughs - did a lot of their major work in the 1950's, and they were ones who generated a lot of the counterculture ideas that helped create the 1960's.

2. They were all bisexual / gay
Most had sex with each other, or, in the case of Burroughs - male prostitutes, including very young ones. Some dated women and men. Many were adulterers or bigamists, and they had the reputation of being misogynists.

3. They were criminals
Burroughs, who wrote "Naked Lunch" and other narrative-bending works, robbed people, did heroin and shot his wife in the head while drunkenly playing William Tell. Most of the big Beats stole, did jailtime or skipped town to evade prosecution. And yes, they all smoked weed. A few even grew it on farms.

4. They were Ivy Leaguers
Allen Ginsburg - Columbia University. Jack Kerouac - Harvard. William S. Burroughs - Harvard.

5. They were Buddhists / Zen Monks
Yes, like all true hipsters, they liked this before it was cool. Many spent years in ashrams, or become Buddhist monks themselves.

6. They were culturally important
Besides promoting progressive agenda that caught on nationally and helping make California the place it is today, they also made poetry relevant for the first time.... ever? They took poetry out of academia and brought it into coffee houses and made it a public art form again.