Friday, December 28, 2007

"'Pottery Barn' is in for a world of hurt."

Kramer, entering Jerry's apartment: Well...I've had it with these jackbooted thugs!
Jerry: 'Pottery Barn'?
Kramer: I got three 'Pottery Barn' catalogs in one day. That makes eight this month.
Jerry: Why don't you just throw 'em out?
Kramer: Oh, no. I've been saving them up here in your apartment. And now, it's payback time. 'Pottery Barn' is in for a world of hurt.
-- The Junk Mail (Seinfeld)
I just learned from Sierra Club Magazine about CatalogChoice, a site which will help you unsubscribe from magazines and catalogs. I intend to unsubscribe myself from the numerous items which go straight to recycling. I will also unsubscribe all the previous residents of my apartment from their magazines as well.
Kramer, throwing his catalogs in the Pottery Barn store: Hey, you like sending out catalogs!? How do you like gettin' 'em back!?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Photos: Ice Picks II

Pictures of various nearby frozen items (VNFI) can be seen here.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Dancing Deer writes back

(Update 11.9.2008: be sure to see their second response in the comments of this post here and my final post on the issue.)

I got a response to my email to Dancing Deer bakeries (see this post):
Dear David,
Thank you for your e-mail. The Deers always appreciate feedback. As you mention in your e-mail, Dancing Deer is a company that prides itself on environmentally friendly practices - this means packaging too!
Originally, the product development team intended the shortbread cookies to be a "lunchbox" cookie. This meant that the individual packaging (though arguably excessive) would allow parents to easily add a quick dessert to their child's lunch. Since the cookies' usage has become more widespread, we have (and will continue to) consider using less packaging. I'll be sure to pass your suggestion onto the packing team!
Thanks again, David - it's conscientious consumers like you, who allow us to continually improve our products!

Customer Service
I'm fairly satisfied with the response -- it's not automated based on keywords and they clearly read the email. We'll see if they actually change the packaging, but this is a start.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Recommended viewing: Daily Show 3.7.2005

Or specifically, this clip of Lewis Black where he talks about Mafia cops, accountability in Abu Graib, and terrorist watch lists. Depressing yet hilarious.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Oh Deer

(Update: See their first and second response. This post is essentially retracted.)

I'm having trouble taking Dancing Deer's eco-friendly claims seriously. It is possible that they are extremely environmentally friendly and socially responsible in almost all cases, but I fear that their Triple-Chocolate Shortbread Cookies contains a major oversight. But first, I'll describe their policy.

In their own words:
Caring for the Environment
To the extent possible we make choices in our packaging, production and facilities management, which are friendly to the environment.
(source: Dancing Deer: How We Think)
The cookies in question come twelve to a (purportedly recycled) cardboard box. Each two cookies are wrapped in plastic resulting in six plastic wraps rather than wrapping all twelve at once. They'd use much less plastic in the latter case. I'm assuming the silly wrapping is for freshness and, as the website says, "makes them lunch box friendly." So apparently, being lunch box friendly is more important than being fully environmental friendly. See (for example -- there are tons) this article for some more information about plastic's environmental unfriendliness.

Possibly what bothers me the most is that Dancing Deer has been written up and praised multiple times for their "environmental packaging":
The Innovator Award is the most recent accolade for the natural foods company that has received public acclaim for their fresh baked products, community activism, and artful and environmental packaging.

Dancing Deer uses all natural ingredients, minimal packaging and environmentally-friendly materials.
(source: Winning Workplaces)

[Dancing Deer's CEO] also often hears praise for the $8 million company's philanthropy, green packaging, and commitment to its 65 employees and inner-city Boston. [...] Its cookies, brownies, cakes, and mixes, all packaged in recycled fiber and whimsically illustrated with stick-figure bakers...
(source: BusinessWeek)
I'm willing to believe that Dancing Deer could potentially be an otherwise environmentally aware and socially responsible company, but it seems very strange to praise them for something that is clearly bogus. Social Funds and Winning Workplaces need to do some more fact checking it seems. (It's too bad, since I was hoping to use Social Funds to help me find an enviromentally/socially conscious mutual fund, but now I have doubts as to whether they will be accurate.)

I will send my comments to Dancing Deer.

Thursday, November 1, 2007


While my favorite (pseudo) warrior-poet is Stephen Colbert, (as he currently describes himself in his show's opening title sequence) my favorite coder-photographer is probably Lennart Poettering. In the first category, he made PulseAudio, an awesome open source sound system which allows you to (among other things) combine sound cards and send audio across computers. In the second category, he has taken some incredible panoramas and shares a list of tips for making them in hugin. Kudos!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Free the Phones

This article, Free My Phone, does a good job of explaining many of the things that are wrong in the telecommunications world. I hope that Google or (much less likely, unfortunately) OpenMoko can break things open (I intend to buy an OpenMoko phone in a year or two, provided they have reasonable stability). Also, the problem is slightly worse than he describes for Sprint -- they couldn't even transfer numbers from my old phone to the new phone, let alone the rest of my data. Also, they're responsible for the br0x0red Bluetooth implementation which prevents my phone from synchronizing contact information (or anything else) with my computer.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Gmail mobile app 1.5

I just deleted Gmail mobile 1.5 from my cell phone, keeping version 1.1.1. The new version (1.5) is way slower, as mentioned here. Startup and shutdown times are noticeably longer. Two possible factors:
  1. The file was about 3x larger and might take longer to load into memory (though I don't really know much about the memory hierarchy of phones, so this may be bogus). The new version does have a bunch of new features (draft saving, etc.) so the new bloat might be warranted.
  2. When starting up the new version, it displayed a list of emails immediately. The old version displayed an empty list and fetched the emails, so it looks like the new version might have cached emails locally. This might explain the slow startup and shutdown times. However, considering that usually there is at least one new email when I check Gmail from my phone, caching the titles of emails from last run is not really a savings.
The weirdest thing is that Google claims here:
New! Our new Gmail version is even faster and uses less data than before.
So maybe it's just my/some phones?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Forgetting something?

Every once in a while, I see some totally ridiculous spam headlines. Here's my current favorite:
Subj: LET:account,password,shop,did you forget?,are you forget?,why are are forget?,damn you forget}
Damn you, "forget" indeed. If you have any idea what these things could possibly mean or how they originated, I might even buy some \/!@gRA from you.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Recommended viewing: Daily Show 10.2.2007

Another grillfest, this time with Hardball's Chris Matthews. Matthews was there to discuss his book, "Life's a Campaign," but Jon's opinion of the book and its philosophy is anything but positive. A transcript can be found here and here are two other takes.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

How we saved the world from Thrash Cakes, part 1

It went something like this:
Ryan: This Wikipedia article on pancakes "may contain original research"
Me: I like pancakes, what's their pancake research?
Ryan: Well, that depends on which type of pancake you want.
Me: What are my choices?
Ryan: Well, there's American, Canadian, Vermont, Hotcakes, griddlecakes, flapjacks, drop scones, Scotch pancakes, pikelets, ...
Me: Wait, go back one!
Ryan: Also, it says that "[i]n Santa Rosa or anywhere near the San Fransisco Bay Area they are known as "Thrash Cakes" named after the musical genre, which is popular in the region.[citation needed]"
Me: That can't be right.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Cold(er) showers

In theory, water usage in the shower should be proportional to shower length times pressure. Energy usage is proportional to shower length times pressure times temperature. I'd like to decrease both.

Back when I was in Grassroots at University of Rochester, people were talking about taking colder showers. As someone who likes warm-to-hot showers, this seemed difficult-to-insane. Indeed, I still can't take a cold shower. However, what I have been trying over the last month or so is to take colder showers. This has the nice secondary effect of making me take shorter showers (since the colder water reminds me not to stay there forever), thus using less water and energy.

My trick has been to gradually decrease the temperature during the course of the shower. Over time, I've been able to lower the starting point. Note that the water is actually still somewhat warm, so if I start feeling cold, I can move out of the water and then back in.

We'll see if it changes my apartment's gas bill (though there are other factors, so it's hard to measure). We'll also see if I can maintain this through colder room temperatures.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Get supported, customers

Recently, I called Southwest's customer support and was surprisingly greeted within about 20 seconds by a real human. Even stranger, when we determined that Southwest couldn't fly where I wanted for a reasonable rate, the customer service rep actually referred me to other airlines which fly the same route. As far as I know, Southwest doesn't partner with any of them, so this appears to just be good customer-focused support.

However, most customer support systems are a nightmare (I'm looking at you Sprint and COX Communications!). Today, I found two tools which might make getting support suck slightly less.

Both tools help with the problem that many companies try to do everything over the Internet now and hide their customer support numbers. (This is especially amusing/frustrating when the company itself is an internet service provider, though I know that Netflix hid their CSR number at one point.)
  • GetHuman gives you numbers and instructions for how to talk to a human immediately. They also rate companies according to their standards.
  • Bringo takes it a step further. They claim to call these numbers for you and navigate the phone tree for you. Once they reach a human, they will call your phone and connect you.
P.S. While I'm talking about good/bad customer support, I should say that HP was very helpful when I was buying my laptop from them. I don't know if their technical support is as good as their sales as the laptop has been problem free so far.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Free games!

Davinci Games, makers of the great card game, Bang!, have released some free games which could be cool. All of the free games include printable manuals and game materials.

In related news, their website reveals that there's a 2nd edition of the Dodge City extension pack which weakens three of the characters. The three characters were found to be too powerful in tournaments (details here).

Friday, September 7, 2007

Some thoughts on objectivity and journalism

I skimmed an article describing Bush's recent report of our "progress" in Iraq. The article mentioned casually how this was Bush's 3rd time to Iraq since the war started. Now, I could be interpreting this incorrectly, but I'm pretty sure the journalist included this fact to emphasize the relative smallness of this number.

The reason I mention this is that it made me think about how even the act of including this fact imparts a political bias. Thus, even a seemingly basic task as fact selection is not objective. I'm sure this was obvious to many, but I hadn't thought about it before. I brought this up with my roommate, Allison, and we talked about how given space/time constraints, fact selection must take place. However, as more facts are included, the bias should be reduced. She made the point that 24-hour cable news channels have more time to fully investigate stories and include facts, making it all the much more sad when they don't.

For further information: The Daily Show rails on cable news at least weekly and Fox News has their own documentary, Outfoxed. The latter is interesting in that while it uses many of the techniques designed to influence the viewer (music and graphics to affect viewer's emotional state) and the documentary makers are obviously biased, they make a strong point by simply showing that Fox News is not "Fair and Balanced" as it claims to be.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Don't panic!

...or do: Five things that are worse than Global Warming is quite scary. Even if you don't believe in all five of the problems they describe, (not to say that I don't) if even one of them is real, we're probably in serious trouble. Some, like the water shortage, are getting significantly less attention and potentially much harder to solve.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Recommended viewing: Daily Show 7.25.2007 (belated)

While more than a month old, I still enjoy this clip from the 8.25.2007 episode of the Daily Show. The clip shows Senate judiciary committee's questioning of the unquestionable Alberto Gonzales. The article linked to is essentially a transcript, so just watch the clip.

Update (8.27.2007): Gonzales is resigning, which I did not know at the time of posting. If this isn't positive reinforcement for me starting a blog, I'm not sure what is.

Update 2 (9.1.2007): Oops, the show was 7.25.2007, not 8.25.2007

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Scourge of my wallet

Cash receipts for simple purchases (non-restaurant or supermarket) are a pet peeve of mine (also, the phrase "pet peeve," but that's another post, I guess). I think comedian Mitch Hedberg says it best:
I bought a donut and the guy gave me a receipt for the donut. I don't need a receipt for the donut. I give you the money, you give me the donut -- end of transaction. We do not need to bring ink and paper into this. I can not imagine the scenario where I would have to prove that I brought a donut. Some skeptical friend. Don't even act like I didn't get that donut. I got the documentation right here.
To save paper, we really should have a no-receipts-for-cash-purchases policy (unless, of course, you ask for one). I wonder how much paper/trees/energy/etc. could be saved if we didn't have these things. I also wonder why many places will give you a free x if you don't get a receipt with a purchase -- there must be some legal precedent for this or something.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Springy light bulbs

Living with CFLs is a neat guide to those of us thinking about switching to CFLs (compact fluorescent lights) and interested in learning more about them. I am about to buy a bunch of CFLs of varying wattage to replace some of the lamps in my apartment. Sadly, I'm told the dimmable CFLs are very expensive and not worth it, so the study will remain incandescent.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Switch to green electricity

One of my problems with Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth is that it didn't focus enough on possible solutions (some suggestions are given during the credits while people are leaving the theater). One of those suggestions is to switch your electricity to renewable sources. If you live in a blue state, this is likely an option. According to some rough figures, the average American produces about about 19,000 kg carbon yearly. If we assume that the average energy usage is 500 kilowatt hours/month, this turns out to be about 3,636 kg carbon yearly, or about 20% of the average American's footprint. At a small premium (about 10-15%), my apartment's electricity comes from renewable sources and hopefully helps grow the renewable energy market to make it more affordable. This is a very easy and fairly cheap way to lower your carbon footprint, though I haven't checked to see if it is actually the most affordable or best footprint-decreasing-value.

See GreenUp if you use National Grid in New England (MA, RI) for more information. If you're curious, my GreenUp provider is Community Energy with 50% wind, 50% "small" hydro.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Six Flags: Brought to you by...

I recently visited Six Flags New England and was surprised to see the level of sponsorship: rides by Home Depot, napkins by Heinz (the usual condiments too), partnerships with D.C. comics and Looney Toons, and food by fast food chains (Papa John's, Panda Express, and others). If I remember correctly, I did not see nearly as much sponsorship when I went to Six Flags Darien Lake in 2004.

And another thing: What's with the ultra-greasy food at these theme parks? Seems like they're just asking for trouble and there's no way I'm the first one to point out this. As someone with a stomach that doesn't process fast food well, I wish there had been something light and not in danger of reversing its digestive course on the next ride. Ok, so there wasn't any real danger of that...or was there? [eerie music] But seriously...please serve at least one healthy thing.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Recommended viewing: Daily Show 8.15.2007

On 8.15.2007, Jon Stewart was on fire (or perhaps plasma or even the state after that). The episode has two important bits that I've posted in other fashions.

First, meet 1994 Cheney who explains why invading Iraq would be a mistake and predicts with alarming accuracy many of our current problems.

Then see Jon Stewart's grillfest (ranterview?) with Stephen Hayes, Cheney's biographer. For those of you who don't watch the Daily Show, he is clearly much more upset than normal. While he doesn't give Hayes much time to respond to his questions, he doesn't like the answers that he does get. It seems at points as if he sees Hayes as standing in for Cheney/Bush administration:
Stewart: Then stop making the rest of us feel like idiots when we question their strategy in the war on terror, and stop making the rest of us feel like — and I don't mean you, I mean them — [...]
I'm really glad to see interviews like this, despite somewhat misdirected outrage. I hope the segment doesn't prevent him from getting guests like Hayes in the future.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Some puzzles

My officemates and I have been doing a lot of Tangrams lately, but recently we discovered a bunch of cell-based puzzles (including the super popular Sudoku). Nurikabe is an interesting one. The 5x5s get easy after a couple of rounds, so try the 9x9s after that.