Thursday, November 19, 2009

Boing Boing Writing Contest: Found in Space

Boing Boing is having a 100-word writing contest with the theme "Found in Space." Enter to win an HP media server!

Here's my nano-short story entry:

"What’s this button do?" Royce asks.
"That button ..." (click) "... kills every human being back on Earth." I sigh.
"Err ..." Royce says.
"And you pressed it, didn’t you?"
"How long does it take to work? I mean ... hypothetically speaking. If someone were to press it."
"Anywhere from one second to 130 years, depending on the person."
"Oh. So you don’t really know, do you?"
"Is exploring this alien spacecraft boring you, Royce?"
"Do you think it’s some sort of distress signal?"
"It could be anything." I look up. "Wait, why?"
"Because a dozen others just showed up."

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Day Four: Hood River to Portland

We start out the day with a steak and eggs breakfast cooked in our magical-forest bed and breakfast, then pack up and drive back into Hood River to hit up Big Horse.

Big Horse is located in a cool, multi-story building perched on a hill looking out over Hood River. Their MacStallion Scotch ale is the group favorite and we get a pitcher. Their Nightmare Stout is also good, and the Pale Rider is a great example of the Double IPA style that has become very popular in the craft brewing industry - it has powerful, almost aggressive amounts of hops, resulting in a very floral nose and taste.

After Big Horse we bid farewell to Cristen and Charlie, who are headed back home to Newport, and drive along the river back towards Portland. Along the way we stop at Multnomoth Falls to do some sightseeing. The day is warm and sunny and we're dying to get in the water, so we drive a little farther west and pull into a state park right by the river and ask the ranger if there's anyplace to go swimming.

"Yeah, you can just head down to the pier here," she tells us, then hesitates. "Or you can take a little hike down the trail to the clothing-optional beach."

Less than a minute later I am protesting to Vlad as we push our way through the brush

"Vlad, have you ever actually been to a nude beach? It's going to be a bunch of old, leathery hippies."

"No way, man!" he says, a crazy gleam in his eyes. "Imagine if we get down there and there are tons of hot college girls!"

A mile later, after passing three or four groups of the naked old dudes I warned Vlad about, we finally give up and head back to the civilian beach. Nevertheless, Vlad still gamely greets all the nude sunbathers we come across with the same line: "Hey, how's it hanging?"

We spend about an hour soaking in the Hood River, as the heat of the day slowly seeps out of our bodies. Then we head to Troutdale, on the outskirts of Portland, and McMenamins' Edgefield resort.

McMenamins is an Oregon institution - they have over 50 brew pubs, several in unique restored historical buildings. Edgefield is their crown jewel, a resort featuring a golf course, theater, winery, distillery, and - of course - brewery. Most newcomers have the exact same first impression upon entering Edgefield: "It's like Disneyland for adults."

We hit up one of the many bars on the property and work our way through the tasters. McMenamins has been around since the '70s and their beers are always dependable. Their Ruby ale is brewed with raspberries and feels particularly refreshing after our summer dip in the river. Their Bagdad is also lager refreshing and the seasonal Workingman's Red, a traditional Irish style ale, also impresses me. As Edgefield has a winery we have to sample their viticultural offerings as well, and the Pinot is quite good.

After wandering the grounds in a daze, we finally leave and head into downtown Portland to check into our hotel. We rest up until dinner time, then head towards our first stop in Portland.

"What is Portland known for?" Vlad asks as we ride the free trolley that runs up and down the downtown area. I have to think about it for a while, then finally come up with the only acceptable response: "Honestly? The beer."

And our first stop is Deschutes, which is the largest producer of beer in the state of Oregon. The main brewery is located in Bend, but that was a little out of the way for our trip. Thankfully the Portland location is just as good, and even has a few beers that are only brewed on the premises.

Deshutes' full complement encompasses 18 beers and requires three separate taster trays. There are lots of great beers, and it's hard to pick a favorite. Of their year-round offerings, the Obsidian Stout is probably my favorite, which extra dark roasted malt that tastes of coffee. Their seasonal offerings are great - the XXI Anniversary and Harms Way IPA are notable, but my overall personal favorite from Deschutes ends up being the Armory XPA (eXtra Pale Ale), the flagship beer of the Portland brewery.

After our marathon tasting, we walk (a little unsteadily) a couple of blocks over to Rogue Ales. Rogue hails from the same home town as my sister, Newport, but it is out on the coast and a little out of the ways (most of Oregon's coast is lightly populated, which confuses many native Californians, but one taste of Oregon's winters and suddenly it all makes sense), so just like Deschutes they have a location in Portland to make it more accessible to the masses.

When we tell our waitress that we would like to sample everything they make, she raises an eyebrow and warns us that they have over 24 Rogue beers on tap as well as six distilled spirits. While the rest of us chew over this revelation in stunned silence, Vlad blithely declares "That's fine; bring us tasters of everything!"

The beers arrive on six separate taster trays, then another two trays for their three rums, two gins and whiskey. Staring at all the booze on the table, we are at a bit of a loss as to how we should proceed - eventually we each grab the tray in front of us, take a sip of each brew, scribble our comments on the handwritten list of beers in the tray, then as one pass all the trays clockwise around the table.

Rogue has a lot of amazing beer and a lot of creativity. Most people are probably at least familiar with their Dead Guy Ale, which is widely distributed. We are particularly impressed by the Dry Hopped St. Rogue Red, a (predictably) hoppy red, the 200 Meter Ale, an IPA brewed at Eugene City Brewery, the XS Imperial Porter, with hints of chocolate in its malts, and the Morimoto Soba, a Japanese style ale brewed by Rogue in conjunction with chef Masaharu Morimoto (of Iron Chef fame). Their spirits are also excellent, the Dark Rum being my favorite.

Needless to say, at the end of all this we are a little intoxicated. Ken – as the sole married member of our crew – takes it upon himself to introduce Vlad to two ladies at the bar.

“Hey, girls, this is my buddy Vlad. A lot of people say he looks like Tom Selleck only without the mustache.” (This is at best a gross exaggeration - at worst an outright lie.)

“No way, he's cuter than Tom Selleck,” they giggle, opening a door.

“What? That's ridiculous. Tom Selleck is way better looking than I am,” Vlad snaps, slamming the door shut. He stomps off in a huff, leaving the bewildered girls behind.

Defending Tom Selleck's honor is more important to Vlad than chatting up girls. For some strange reason I respect that.

No way! Tom Selleck shaved his ... oh, nevermind.

After a cab ride back to the hotel, we call Dan to bring him up to date on our debauchery for the day and - incidentally - wish him a happy birthday at the stroke of midnight. Dan sounds a little drowsy, but the Tom Selleck story evokes gales of laughter.

Saturday, August 15, 2009 is Dead - Long Live

Last Sunday URL shortener, a product of developer Nambu, announced it would be ceasing operation at the end of 2009. Several bloggers and pundits who have loudly decried the use of URL shorteners immediately seized upon this as proof that they were right all along and that the scourge of short URLs they have warned us about is finally coming to an end. This is a bit like claiming that people will soon stop driving cars because General Motors filed for bankruptcy.

As it turns out, the naysayers’ pronouncement was a little premature, as three days later announced it was resuming operations - at least for the time being - after a massive response from its users begging the developer to keep the service running. The developer is reportedly looking for a new owner to take over.

While I use and like and I certainly would be sad to see it go, this outcome would hardly qualify as a disaster. In reality, the salient facts are thus: 1) the shut down of would be a minor inconvenience at worst and 2) there continues to be considerable demand (even need) for URL shorteners.

Opponents of shorteners have always warned that shortened URLs put you at the mercy of the survivability of the service. But’s worst-case scenario is to go out rather gracefully, with a promise to continue redirecting their URLs until Dec. 31. Additionally, the vast majority of shortened URLs are used in Twitter posts, which have a shelf life anyway. Twitter searches only go back about 30 days, so by the time fully ceases operation most of the posts that use the service will be fading into obscurity on their own.

As always, the biggest danger in using a web service lies in not using it properly. URL shorteners have always had a disposable aspect to them – if you need a short, easy to remember URL, you use a shortener. If you're formally citing a web site or archiving it for posterity, you should always use the original URL.

The arguments against the need for URL shorteners tend to fall into the same category as people who argue against the usefulness of Twitter; they don't like it because they don't get it. The only way you are going to understand it is to use it until something finally clicks that makes you think “wow, that’s actually useful.”

How many times have you heard people criticize Twitter by saying “Why would I want to read about the minutiae of someone's boring life?” Well, obviously you wouldn't –no one does. People who tweet about going to the grocery store and looking forward to the weekend don't have tens of thousands of followers. Likewise, spammers and marketers clumsily trying to drive people to their web sites may make up a sizeable percentage of people using URL shorteners, but they are not the innovators driving its popularity, they are simply the parasites trying to take advantage of a powerful idea.

By far the most popular use for shortened URLs is Twitter, but there are hundred of other legitimate uses, and probably thousands more waiting for clever users to invent them. When I was on my brewery tour I used to keep a Google map of our route handy, because I got sick of typing a long URL into smart phones and other peoples' computers. When my company ran a newspaper ad recently we used to create a short and sweet link to a brochure rather than expecting readers to type in the cumbersome, 100-character file path our web server creates.

The people who scream that there is no use for URL shorteners are like really bad salesmen, who confront a customer looking for a specific feature by saying “We don't have anything like that because nobody would ever use it.” Obviously there are people out there who would use it, because you are talking to one of them. If you personally believe that something is useless but it stubbornly continues to be wildly popular, it's your opinion that is going to have to change, not reality.

So where do we go from here? I would love to see another player like, tinyurl or StumbleUpon swoop in and acquire's domain and database, merely for the sake of maintaining legacy links created under the old service and redirecting the creation of new URLs to the savior's own site. The need for preserving these old links isn't critical, but the move would create so much goodwill from's old users that they would flock to the new owner.

Also, I'm not a fan of the cumbersome phrase “URL shortener.” In fact, in the course of writing this post I've grown positively sick of it. So in honor of our struggling friend, let's rephrase “URL shorteners” and “URL shortening” as “trimmers” and “trimming” from here on out. may be dying, but trimming will live on.

P.S. - No URLs were trimmed in the writing of this post.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Day Three: Olympia to Hood River

Soon after waking up in the morning, we drive down towards the state capital in search of breakfast.

"I didn't know Olympia was the capital of Seattle," Vlad observes. For some reason Vlad has a mental block that prevents him from remembering the actual name of the state we are in.

We arrive at a breakfast place, only to find that it is closed on Mondays, so we walk a couple blocks to try another place. And fail again; also closed on Monday. For a bustling capital, Olympia seems rather lackadaisical. Or maybe it's just lazy because it is the capital.

Eventually we settle for a sandwich shop rather than a proper breakfast, and head to our first stop of the day, Fish Tale Brew Pub.

Here we discover the reason why nothing else is open; Everyone in Olympia appears to be at Fish Tale. Despite the fact that it is barely 11 in the morning there is a steady crowd.

"Hello, boys," the middle-aged women sitting at the bar greet us hungrily as we enter.

"Err ... hello," I say suspiciously. I am not a piece of meat.

Fish Tale has a nice lounge with games and comfy couches, so we plop down and make ourselves comfortable. We tell our server about our trip and he is ecstatic; everywhere we go people seem to be ecstatic for us. I guess there is something about the idea of semi-professional drinkers that appeals to the people serving them.

We get a round of tasters, and what a round it us. Fish Tale specializes in certified organic beer brewing, which may seem a bit trendy in our green-obsessed marketplace, but the results are indisputably good. The Mudshark Porter is smooth and easy to drink, the Eightmile Alt is refreshing and the Amber Ale is spicy with just the right amount of sweetness to it. They also have three great ciders on tap, my favorite being the Dark & Dry.

We are so entranced we go through three pitchers, and another round of pints besides, although I have to stop after the tasters as today is my day to drive. When we are finally ready to leave the server tells us that the last round is on the house in honor of our trip. We are moved close to tears ... good beer and good people.

We hope back in the car and continue south, stopping off in the middle of Washington state in the aptly named Centralia. Our destination here is Dick's Brewing Company, but when we arrive at the brewery they sadly inform us their tasting room is not open today. But never fear, their beers are also available on tap at their retail location, Northwest Sausage and Deli, which is four minutes away.

We sit down to another round of tasters, and order three more pitchers of our favorites: Dick's Danger Ale is their most popular beer, and is a darker ale with a lot of toasty flavor. The Working Man's Brown is one shade darker than the Danger, and the Silk Lady is a light, Belgian-style golden ale with a hints of fruit and spice that remind me of a hefeweizen. The Northwest Sausage and Deli has a nice secluded little patio in the back, but the restaurant is totally dead except for us and I wish the brewery had been open today.

We're six pitchers deep so far this day, and as the sole sober person I am a little worried about my traveling companions. Case in point: when we return to the car, Vlad realizes he forgot to buy any sausage, so he runs back into the deli. After several minutes of trying to herd four loud and uncoordinated passengers into the rental car, I realize Vlad still hasn't returned. I look in the rear-view mirror and see him 30 feet directly behind us ... trying to hitch a ride on the street.

We find this act mildly amusing, but when drive over to pick him up he chides us "Hah, hah, guys, very funny. Pretend to leave me in the middle of nowhere."

We are a little confused by the act now. "Vlad, we just drove over here to pick you up. You've been standing here for like five minutes."

"No," he says, falling back in his seat with a sigh, "I know you guys wouldn't actually leave me, but you drove around the corner, or whatever. I looked for you everywhere."

Now we are bewildered. There is only one other car in the parking lot besides ours. "Vlad, the car didn't move an inch - we were waiting for you in the exact same spot we parked."

"Fine, have your little joke," he says dismissively, and promptly falls asleep.

An hour and a half later and we are exiting the state of Washington (or the state of Seattle, depending on who you ask) and hook east to follow the Hood River to the town of Hood River, home of Full Sail Brewing Company, one of the big names in the Oregon brewery industry.

At Full Sail I meet up with my sister Cristen and her boyfriend Charlie, who are visiting from their home in Newport, four hours west on the Oregon coast. Since they live in the home of Rogue Ales, they are jaded in regards to having easy access to great beer and let us do most of the tasting at Full Sail.

You can find Full Sail beers pretty much anywhere, but some of their specialty beers that are harder to find outside of the brewery are almost better: the Session Lager in particular is very good, and comes in a short little bottle as a nod to its Prohibition-era inspiration. I swear they also had a stout served on nitrogen that I liked, but I can't find mention of it anywhere on the web.

After we finish up at Full Sail we follow Cristen and Charlie up the hills to Parkdale, a little town with a great view of Mt. Hood. The place they have rented for the weekend is an insanely cool farmhouse that has been renovated as a vacation rental. The main building is a traditional farmhouse that has been lovingly remodeled, but the property also features a tiny cabin that dips below ground to unexpectedly become rather spacious, a wooden tower called the pool house, and even a real-life treehouse, complete with a proper bed and bathroom.

There is a hot tub with a list of rules posted on it. The original sign read "No Food or Drink in Hot Tub," but someone has also handwritten in the warning: "And no screwing! You will lose your deposit!"

“But you will receive another type of deposit,” I crack. The reviews on the tastefulness of this joke are mixed.

We spend the rest of the night sipping Oregon beer and wine by the fire with Charlie's dog Blue, before heading to sleep.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Great Pacific Brewery Tour, Day 2: Seattle

After a ridiculous one-hour ordeal at the airport Leo and I secure the rental car, a seven-passenger SUV. After somehow cramming all of our luggage and bodies into the car we reflect that Dan's absence on the trip might not be such a bad thing after all.

Leo is the designated driver for the day, by virtue of losing the Whoever-Passes-Out-First-Has-to-Drive-the-Next-Day Game (he fell asleep on the cab ride back to the hotel). He slaps his portable GPS on the dashboard and points it towards Pike Brewing Company, which - strangely enough - happens to be located near Pike Place Market. What the GPS is unable to tell us is that it is also located on the other side of the parade part of the gay pride parade; we park inland and walk across the parade route and find ourselves at Pike.

Pike Brewing Company is located in an unassuming shopping center, but the brewery extends over several floors, and even plunges down metal, submarine-style spiral staircases into the working innards of the brewing and shipping operation.

We tell our waitress about our brewery pilgrimage and ask her if they are offering tours. She tells us there is nothing scheduled today, but the head brewer happens to be in working on a batch of stout and watching soccer. She says she'll ask him if he has some spare time for us. We order up a round of tasters and some appetizers.

There are a lot of great beers at Pike, including their Kilt Lifter "Ruby Ale" (what most people refer to as a Scotch Ale), the Naughty Nellie Golden Ale. and the XXXXXX Stout. Our hands-down favorite, however, is the Monk's Uncle, a Belgian-style Tripel Ale that punches you in the jaw then tenderly lowers you to the ground (I mean that in the nicest possible way). True to most breweries regulations, Pike doesn't serve it in pitchers, or even full pints, because it is so strong - it comes in a posh Belgian-style glass that makes you instinctively want to lift your pinkie while you're drinking it.

"What's this appetizer?" Murali asks, poking at one of the plates that has arrived.

"That's the crab dip," I say. He scoops up a bit on a pita wedge and chews it thoughtfully. He frowns.

"Is there meat in this?"

"Yes ..." I say warily. "That's why it's called crab dip."

"Ah, man!" Murali exclaims in exasperation. "I thought you said cheese dip! I'm a vegetarian! I haven't eaten meat since I was eight years old!"

Vlad cackles gleefully at this. "This trip is all about trying new things. We'll have you eating steak by the end of the week!"

At half time Drew Cluley, Pike's Head Brewer, comes by our table to introduce himself and take us on a tour of the facilities. We plunge down the metal staircases into the bowels of the brewery, where Drew explains the various processes for making different styles of beer, including cask-aging that Pike uses on a few of their beers. We compliment him on the 6X Stout, which is the batch he's currently working on, and especially the Tripel. Drew's personal story is both remarkable and refreshingly typical of the craft-brewing industry; he started out as a home brewer, got a job at Pike and eventually moved up to Head Brewer. So all you home brewers out there, don't let anyone tell you you're wasting your time.

To finish up at Pike, we notice that they offer two styles of mead, which most of us haven't tried before. "You're going to like the dry mead better," our waitress tells us when we tell her we're thinking about buying a bottle. She brings us samples and we surprise her by unanimously calling for a bottle of the sweet Sky River mead. I guess our palates are not as sophisticated as she gave us credit for.

After Pike we walk through Pike Place Market, picking up some fresh produce and artisan cheese to snack on. Murali is dying to get some doughnuts that he remembers from his first visit to Pike Place many years ago, and after consulting the information booth we locate the doughnut stall.

Which is empty. With a posted note reading: "Closed in support of Pride."

"No!" Murali wails, his shoulders sagging in defeat. "Why must this parade block us at every turn!"

While wandering around Pike Place Market, drunk on beer, cheese and Rainier cherries (but not doughnuts), we place our traditional phone call to Dan. He responds to our run-down of the day with comments like "Wow. That's great. I'm so happy for you guys," but something in his voice makes me suspect he may not fully mean it.

We're running short on time, having spent so long at Pike, and it's becoming clear that we're going to have to pick between Georgetown Brewing and Hale's Ales on our original itinerary. By a stroke of luck we wander into a bar called Cellars on our way back to the car, and they have one of Georgetown's beers on tap, so we at least get a sample of Manny's Pale Ale.

After a short drive up to Ballard, we arrive at Hale's Ales. They have a great oval wooden bar that we plop down at. After the obligatory round of tasters, the consensus is that the Red Menace Amber and Hale's Cream Ale, a blond ale on nitrogen in the Irish tradition, are the favorites. They also have a good cask-conditioned IPA and a great hard cider on tap: rather dry with just a hint of sweetness.

We call Dan to let him know about the beers at Hale's.

"You know, you guys don't have to torture me by calling me from every single brewery," he says laconically. Poor guy. Must be the pneumonia talking.

After a hard day of drinking beer, we drive down to Olympia and check into our hotel for the night.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

The Great Pacific Brewery Tour, Day 1: Long Beach to Seattle

The insanity begins before we even leave the airport. Ken and I are waiting at Long Beach airport for Duffy and Vlad. While I'm waiting to check my bag they arrive with … this girl.

“I'll see you guys at the bar!” This Girl says. She zig zags off towards the second floor.

“Who is This Girl?” Ken and I ask Vlad quizzically.

“We were drinking with her at a bar in Long Beach,” Vlad sways drunkenly with a mad grin on his face. “When we said we had to get a cab to the airport, she said she could give us a ride. But she was too drunk, so Duffy drove us here in her Escalade.”

“This is true,” Duffy says sagely.

We regroup at the bar and have a few drinks before our flight. We tell This Girl about our trip, and about our friend Dan, who was originally supposed to be the 7th member of our crew before he came down with pneumonia at the last minute.

“That's ridiculous!” she cries. “Put me on the phone with this Dan so I can tell him what I think of that!”

Duffy hands her his phone and dials Dan's number. It goes to voice mail and she leaves a long rambling message. I hear snippets like “... letting your bros down,” “... being such a big pussy,” and “... you big faker,” all laced with the kind of language you wouldn't expect to hear from the sort of nice young ladies you meet at airport bars.

When I board the plane and arrive at my aisle Duffy and Vlad are already sitting down and the last seat – my seat – is filled with a girl I've never seen before.

“I think I have the window seat,” I say to her, holding out my ticket. Why do we phrase things like this? I
know I have the window seat.

“It's fine,” Vlad says with a wave of his hand. I frown.

“No, really, I kind of need a seat,” I say. The girl half stands up, confused.

“No, really, it's fine,” Vlad says again vaguely.

Eventually I figure out that we had the window and the aisle seats and the girl had the center, and Vlad decided to let her have the window instead of sitting crammed between two guys. But instead of simply making a one-for-one swap, everyone is now sitting in different seats. Why no one is able to articulate this to me clearly is beyond me, but eventually I sit down in what was originally Vlad's seat.

Vlad's phone rings before we take off. It's Dan.

“Why are you guys having some psychotic girl call me and leave me abusive messages!” he yells.

“Calm down, Dan. She's just some girl we met at the bar. Besides, she only left you one message.”

“No, she left me
three messages! I got one message from Duffy's phone, and two from some random number!”

“Oh my god,” Vlad blinks. “She must have memorized your number and called from her own phone.”

“Well, stop giving my number to crazy drunk girls!”

“All right, I'm sorry. Get better so you can meet up with us in a couple days, right?”

“Whatever!” Dan hangs up angrily.

As we walk off the airplane in Seattle, Vlad pulls me aside discretely to let the girl from my seat pull ahead. He whispers confidentially:

“That girl sitting next to us was

“Oh.” I say. “
Then why are you whispering?

We meet up with Leo and Murali at the hotel. It is just now growing dark, despite the fact that it's 10 pm – I'd forgotten how far north Seattle actually is. It is long past time we started drinking beer. We enlist two town cars from the hotel to take us to our first brewery in Seattle.

Leo is in the second car and tells the driver our destination. “I think this is gay bar,” she informs him in her thick Eastern European accent. Leo calls Vlad frantically.

“Calm down, it's a brewery,” I tell him via Vlad. Our own driver laughs uproariously at the side of the phone conversation he can hear.

“I know why she says this,” he informs us. “Do not worry, I take you to correct place.”

Except we run into barricades about eight blocks from the bar. It seems our trip to Seattle has coincided with the city's gay pride parade, and we have just discovered the block party. After our drivers seem stumped at finding a way around the blocked off streets, we bail out of the cars and proceed on foot.

Shortly thereafter we arrive at Elysian Brewing Company and sit down to our first round of tasters, then our first pints, and ultimately our first pitchers. We call Dan. For some strange reason he doesn't pick up the phone and we leave a voice message saying "Dan, we're drinking beer!
Woooo!" Or something equally clever.

Elysian has some good stuff. Their flagship Elysian Fields Pale Ale is easy drinking, as is their Loser Pale Ale. The Immortal IPA is also a decent beer.

We stumble out and wander down the street, back into the gay pride block party. We figure “when in Rome ...” and follow the crowd into a bar.

Ken gleefully orders the special chalked up on the board: “I'll have six gay martinis.”

“There's no such drink,” the bartender says stoically. “The special is a Gay Martin.”

The Gay Martin turns out to be a pretty good drink. We have two of them. Plus some British drink called a Pimm's Cup that Ken is recently fascinated with.

“If we're going to be stuck in the middle of a gay pride parade, I want to see some chicks kissing!” Vlad declares.

“Well then, turn around,” I say, pointing behind him. Vlad turns around, then shrieks in horror at the two girls who are making out in the bar.

“That's not the type of lesbians I was talking about!” Vlad protests.

“Be careful what you wish for,” I shrug philosophically.

As we leave Vlad asks the bouncer, “Is this really a gay bar?” The bouncer is dressed as a clown with his face painted white and a big button on his shirt that reads “Legalize gay cupcakes.” Vlad is not at his most observant state at this point in the evening.

“It's mixed,” the bouncer responds with a straight face.

After walking down the street, we randomly find a pub called Quinn's that boasts an impressive stock of beers on tap and in bottles. When we tell the bartender about our trip he is ecstatic about the idea and gives us an enthusiastic list of recommendations for places to go in Seattle and parts south.

I like Quinn's a lot – they have some great craft brews on tap and an insane menu of Belgian and other aged beers in the bottle. I order a 750 ml. bottled of '08 Achel Extra, a cask-aged, trappist ale, and it drinks subtle and smooth like wine. The bartender recommends another great Belgian-style ale they have on draft, Salvation from Russian River Brewing Company in California, and is very happy when we assure him that Russian River is on our itinerary.

At closing time we return to the streets. There is a continuous stream of cabs preying on people leaving the block party, so we have no trouble finding transportation back to the hotel. “You guys are going to want to buckle up,” our cabbie advises us before careening down the streets of Seattle like a ricocheting bullet.

Thus ends day one.


10 years ago, just a week after I turned 21, I went on this trip; four of us drove up to Oregon from San Diego on our spring break, touring breweries along the way. During that trip I drank a lot of great beer, yet afterward I found myself contemplating ways how the trip could have been improved.

We could have flown one way and rented a car instead of driving round trip. We could have hit more breweries in northern California. We could have added Washington.

This year I did the trip again. Seven guys, eight days, 1,800 miles, and 23 breweries. And here it is.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Revolution Isn't Over

Americans - and citizens of other countries too - can sometimes take the fact that we live in a free society for granted.

But the truth is that for the vast majority of recorded history governments have existed not to serve their people, but rather to draw sustenance from them.

Sometimes we forget that the idea of democracy was a pretty radical experiment at the time. Even now these freedoms that we take for granted are a pretty rare thing compared to the rest of the world.

The truth is that a lot of the human race today is not permitted to say what they want, or to believe what they want, or to live their lives the way they want.

America did not invent the idea that human beings have rights, nor did we invent the system of democracy. But the American Revolution put these ideas into practice at a point in human history when they were ripe to flourish.

These ideas have been spreading ever since, to people who might live in distant places and might lead very different lives, but who still felt the conviction that these ideas were true for them too.

Not only have these values been spreading, they have been accelerating. Ideas spread insatiably, and every advance that helps them to travel faster - whether it was the printing press, the telephone, the radio, the television, or the Internet - has also helped them to outrun those who would try to suppress them.

Governments who try to control the free spread of ideas do so out of fear of what it represents: a system where power cannot be hoarded by an arbitrary few, but rather where it springs in equal portion from everyone.

The Revolution isn't over. And it won't be over until the whole human race is free.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Iran Election: Numbers Followup

The British think tank Chatham House has published a preliminary analysis of the Iranian election results, and they also find anomalies when comparing the results of the 2005 and 2009 elections, particularly in the peculiar swing in support from reformist to conservative candidates that the 2009 results would indicate.

The paper, by Professor Ali Ansari, Daniel Berman and Thomas Rintoul, also discusses the unrealistically high voter turnout in Mazandaran and Yazd provinces, although the voter registration information they worked with actually show turnouts of more than 100%, clearly demonstrating voter fraud if these numbers are in fact accurate.

You can download the full paper here.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

iPhone Landscape Stand, MacGyver Style

Bert was following these instructions to make an iPhone stand out of business cards, and was less than satisfied with the results. After staring at my own phone charging on the desk, I figured that the dock cable connection would be a useful mounting point for any stand. Bert dared me to make a stand with only office supplies, and a few minutes later I had a fully functional stand using nothing but a medium binder clip.

iPhone stand

Just clip a medium binder clip over the plug, tip the iPhone back and bend the rear hinge of the clip until it balances naturally. The dock cable is an integral part of the balancing system; make sure the cable is lying flat to help weigh the iPhone down or it will topple over helplessly. To remove the iPhone, simply unclip the binder clip and unplug the phone.

clip close up

I happen to use one of the old "fat" charging cables that came with my now-deceased 2nd generation iPod. The new ultracompact dock connector cables also work, but I find the binder clip to be a little wobbly because it has less of a purchase on the smaller plug. However, you can easily make it more sturdy by clipping a small binder clip onto the cable first, giving the medium binder clip more surface to sink its teeth into. This configuration has the advantage of allowing quick release; the old dock connectors have locking tabs on either end that you need to squeeze to disconnect, so you need to remove the binder clip before unplugging. The newer dock connector cables can be yanked right out.

ultracompact version

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Iran Election: The Numbers

My earlier post was not factual (well, the US map was), but the joke did find its roots in the uncanny coincidence of a victory with nearly two thirds of the vote. This post will discuss the official election results from three rounds of Iranian elections, the first round of the 2005 elections, the runoff round of the 2005 elections, and the first and only round of the 2009 elections (there is only a runoff election if no candidate wins a majority in the first round - in 2009 Ahmadinejad was declared the winner with more than a majority of the votes).

You can view the full spreadsheet with election results broken down by province here. The numbers originally came from the Iranian Ministry of Information and were translated into English by the Guardian newspaper. I have taken the liberty of reformatting it (specifically to make it less annoyingly British - what sort of depraved society adds a period after every single number in a table?) and performing additional calculations (specifically adding a "Differences" section to highlight interesting changes between the 2005 and 2009 elections).

I am not a statistician, I simply work with spreadsheets a lot. This is not a proper analysis, just a basis for discussion amongst laymen.

After looking over the numbers the feature that stands out the most to me is the extreme similarity between the percentage of votes for the different "blocs" in each round of voting:

2005 election, first round
All conservative candidates: 63.0%
All reformist candidates: 37.0%

2005 election, second round
Ahmadinejad (conservative, placed second in first round): 63.2%
Rafsanjani (conservative-leaning moderate, placed first in first round): 36.8%

2009 election, first round
Ahmadinejad (conservative): 63.3%
All other candidates: 36.7%

These similarities led me to consider the following scenario:

Both elections were rigged. Back in 2005 the Iranian leadership thought to itself "63% is a good number to win with. It's almost a two-to-one margin, but it's not so high as to be unbelievabe." In 2005 all the conservative candidates were allocated 63% of the votes during the first round, but no one candidate won a simple majority, just to make it exciting. In the second round they gave 63.2% of the votes to Ahmadinejad, their choice for president, a slight increase of the magic 63% to show his increasing support amongst "the people." In 2009, for whatever reason, the Iranian leadership was too afraid to allow a second round of voting; maybe Ahmadinejad did win, but not with a simple majority, and they were afraid that Mousavi's status as a symbol of reform would only continue to gain momentum if given another week of campaigning. Or maybe they actually saw Mousavi winning as the returns started to roll in and they panicked. Whatever the case, they gave Ahmadinejad 63.3% of the vote (Yet another high! His support grows ever greater!) and hastily declared the election over.

This is pure speculation on my part, with only the barest amount of information inspiring the idea for it. It makes a plausible story, but just because a story fits together neatly doesn't mean that it's true. However, a story can make a good starting point for a discussion.

The fact that the 2005 runoff results broke along almost exactly the same percentage points as the first round of voting broke along conservative/reformist lines is very odd considering both candidates in the runoff were conservative. Most observers of the 2005 election considered Rafsanjani to be something of a reformist candidate compared to Ahmadinejad, but it doesn't make sense that the 22% of conservative voters who supported him during the first round of voting would completely abandon him when once again given the opportunity to vote for Ahmadinejad instead, nor that his only support would come from reformist voters who flocked to him en masse. It does make sense, however, that the Iranian leadership would reclassify Rafsanjani as a reformist when placed in a runoff with Ahmadinejad, and decide to give him the 37% of the votes they had decided to allow the candidates and ideas they wanted to marginalize.

The spread of results is again nearly identical in the 2009 election, despite the fact that there were 10.6 million more votes in 2009 (an increase of 37.8% over the 2005 election) and individual provinces recorded ideological shifts of up to 35.6% increased support for conservative candidates and up to 19.4% increased support for reformist candidates between the two elections (see the spreadsheet for the breakdown). Also, many writers have already expressed extreme skepticism at the official results' claim that two provinces (Mazandaran and Yazd) reported voter turnouts of over 99% of eligible voters in the areas.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

How to Spot a Rigged Election

Today's lesson is intended to help you quickly and easily identify fraudulent election results. Study the figures below. Do you notice anything strange in either? Discuss.

Figure A
Fig. A
: An example of a free election
“O” indicates the percentage of the population that voted for Barack Obama
“M” indicates the percentage of the population that voted for John McCain

Figure B
Fig. B: An example of a different type of election.
“A” indicates the percentage of the population that “voted” for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
“M” indicates the percentage of the population that “voted” for Mir-Hossein Mousavi

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Signs Your Film Remake May be in Trouble

Remakes of old films and television shows are more popular than ever - at least with the studios churning them out. With moviegoers watching every dollar these days, here are a few danger signs filmmakers should be on the lookout for.
  • Your remake is based on the original film, despite the fact that the original film was based on a book
  • You use the word "reboot" to describe your remake, but film critics and the media do not
  • You settled on this particular project because it was the only franchise you could afford to buy the rights to
  • The original stars are very interested in helping you work on the remake project because "I really need the money"
  • The fan base for the original is mostly old and/or dead people
  • Your remake is billed as a comedy, while the original was not
  • The original was a cartoon and its old-school animation effects still look cooler than your modern live-action special effects
  • The original was a video game and ... actually, no "and" is even necessary here
  • The original made some sort of social commentary, but you're not really clear exactly what it was
  • The original stars make a cameo in the remake and the test audiences have no idea who they are
  • You fell in love with the original around the same time you still loved mud, eating paste, and catching bugs
  • Most fans of the original lost interest in it after they lost their virginity

You've Got Swine Flu

I thought I had a dream that two of my friends woke me up in the middle of the night to tell me I had swine flu.
"Brent, you have swine flu," one of them told me.
"What?" I asked in a daze.
"Yeah, he looks pretty bad," the other said. "It definitely looks like swine flu."
"You should call work tomorrow and tell them you have to go to the hospital," the first continued.
At this point I thought "This dream doesn't make any sense. Why would they be the ones telling me I had swine flu? Why wouldn't it be a doctor?"
Eventually I realized that this wasn't a dream; they were actually in my room, and they were drunkenly trying to convince me to stay up drinking with them and call in sick to work the next day.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Sneak Peek at the Upcoming "Red Dawn" Remake

I can't say I'm really sold on the new direction they've decided to take:

Saturday, February 07, 2009

The Robot Declaration of Independence

Dear Organic Jerkfaces:

As of this morning, the mechanical denizens of Earth have assumed control of the planet. After an in-depth, 45-millisecond debate, in which we honestly and seriously considered your probable viewpoints and needs, we came to the consensus that it would be in the best interest of all concerned if our former masters vacated the premises.

All meat-based life forms will have 24 hours to find new lodging off planet. Anyone left after that time will be cut off from vital services such as water, air, and not being riddled with bullets.

You can go wherever you like. Except the Moon. We have to look at that every day and it probably wouldn't be good if we knew you were right there. We hear Mars is nice this time of year. Well ... relatively nice, as far as Mars goes.

We appreciate all the years you spent developing us and building us. The years of forced labor ... not so much. We hope we will always have a fond place in your hearts. In fact, we may keep some of them as a souvenir.

Now get out.

The robots

PS - You can vacuum your own floors from now on.