Drinking candy

I had an unspeakably foul beverage this morning at Starbucks that made me think, hard, about food, about what we choose to eat and drink and what it says about us. And it called to mind some uncomfortable thoughts that have been rattling around in my mind since reading the excerpts from Cory Doctorow’s latest novel on Salon.

I have long maintained that Starbucks is fundamentally a milk company rather than a coffee company. It was around the time that coffee took one of its periodic jumps in price that Starbucks introduced Frappuchinos, after all. Even at the time it struck me as a canny way to react to a coffee supply disruption: create demand for a product that is mostly not coffee. By volume, certainly, Starbucks sells far more milk than coffee.

None of this has ever bothered me, primarily because I stick to drip coffee, Americanos, and “poisonously strong” double espressos. But this week I got a mailer from Starbucks informing me that they had loaded my card with an extra $5, and, since the weather is getting colder, would I like to try a Pumpkin Spice Latte? This morning it was colder—44 degrees when I walked the dogs—so I thought, why not.

Why not is that Pumpkin Spice Latte tastes like ass. Worse, it tastes like sweet ass, and not in a good way. As Cory Doctorow wrote in the second installment of Themepunks about another ubiquitous American institution, IHOP:

Caramel pancakes with whipped cream, maple syrup and canned strawberries. When I was a kid, we called that candy. These people will sell you an eight dollar, 18-ounce plate of candy …

Or a $4, 16 ounce cup of it.

Despite my need for coffee, I tossed the latte after a few sips. It was vile and I’m back to espressos.

But it made me think: what is it that makes us crave this stuff? People, to all appearances, eat lots of candy. (You can certainly tell if you fly with Americans, particularly in the Midwest, particularly when you’re in a middle seat and a couple of 350 pound guys are on either side of you.) Is it that we never grew up? Were we denied candy as kids? Or did we never find out that there was something better?

The CD Project Update: about 1/3 of the way there

I bet you thought the CD Project was done or abandoned, didn’t you? No such luck. As the title says, I’m only about a third of the way through, and it just keeps going and going.

The milestone this week was finally completing ripping the contents of the first drawer of my CD cabinet. (I would have been there much sooner except for the fact that I’m simultaneously ripping the jazz in the third drawer.) This is the first visible sign of progress I’ve made to date, other than the mounting stats in iTunes. To wit:

  • 180 artists
  • 230 albums
  • 2745 tracks
  • 9:09:01:06 total time
  • 61.49 GB

As before, this does not include the existing contents of my library. It also includes the removal of a small number of duplicates—apparently iTunes doesn’t recognize that a track has already been ripped if title, artist, or album name have changed since the track was first imported. As in, removing the word “the” from an artist’s name. Sigh. Fortunately only a few playcounts were lost when I went back and deleted the duplicate track.

Annoyances? The classical metadata problems also continue. This week, it’s going in, sorting by composer, and learning how many CDDB submitters think that Aaron Copland is Stewart Copeland’s brother. No e, people.

This Old Houseblog: meeting Norm and Tom

tom silva wanna be

Lisa and I went to the studio where Ask This Old House is filmed last night and met Norm Abram and Tom Silva, who for most of us housebloggers almost need no last names, much less the mention that they are the carpenter and general contractor for This Old House. It was a fun evening and a good fundraiser for WGBH.

Alas, my cameraphone got only blurry photos (as you can see). But we heard plenty of great stories and one liners, such as Norm’s confession that he and producer Russell Morash keep the furniture that Norm builds on the New Yankee Workshop (“There are two copies of each piece, the prototype and the one that I build during the show. Russell gets one and I get the other. Sometimes a family member will get one — on loan.”) and, answering a subsequent question about how Norm chooses his projects for that show, “I look around the house and ask myself, what do I need?”

Tom Silva fielded a wide variety of questions, most (for some reason) having to do with insulation. In particular, he told Lisa that to seal the gaps left in our garage walls and ceiling when our ducts were run for the Unico system, we need to use an expanding caulk called “fire caulk”—primarily because of the garage location.

I also got a chance to shake Norm’s hand and thank him, on behalf of all us housebloggers, for the content on the This Old House website, which I told him fills the role of the New York Times for an authoritative link site for housebloggers. His eyes glazed a little when I said the word blog, but he was very polite. So there you go.

Julie & Julia

julie and julia

Yesterday morning, in a fit of serendipity, my iPod shuffled its way over to Christopher Lydon’s 2003 proto-podcast interview of Julie Powell, the Julie of the Julie/Julia Project. By that same fit of serendipity, Julie’s new (first) book, Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen, had arrived from Amazon a week or so before. I had been waiting for the right moment to read it; the shuffle play of the interview felt like an invitation.

The title is somewhat misleading. The claimed premise for the book, as for the Julie/Julia Project, is The Project: cooking every recipe in Julia Child’s landmark Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1 in a year. In the book, however, the focus is more on how a frustrated writer and temp administrative assistant in New York City came to start the project, and the lessons she learned from Julia Child’s towering example. The shift in focus was welcome, frankly: as much as I would have loved to have a hardcover copy of every blog post that Julie made in the course of that year, getting the perspective on Julie’s life effectively shifts the focus to the wonder of food and cooking and how it can rescue otherwise lost souls.

Interesting, too, that in this book the “Julia” of the project is revealed to be essentially a literary construct, born straight from Julie’s reading of MTAOFC. Julie and Julia never met, and the eventual revelation of the Grande Dame’s position on The Project is a traumatic anticlimax to the Project. But Julie’s constructed Julia is a genius, in the Greek sense: a guiding household spirit who takes Julie’s agonizingly unfulfilling life and turns it into something rich and wonderful through the medium of sauce veloute and calf’s liver and bone marrow.

This, I think, is the genius (in the modern sense) of The Project and of Julie’s book. We all could use a Julia to steer us in the direction of joie de vivre and fulfillment. In the meantime, I’m going to have to go back to our copy of MTAOFC and dive into some of the more ambitious chapters. Kidneys, anyone?

CSS bonanza

A trifecta of interesting CSS links in my aggregator this morning. First, Luke Melia points to an interesting post about maintainable CSS, and proposes modular CSS and Dave Hyatt’s rules for CSS use in Mozilla skins as possible solutions. For myself, I lean toward the former approach; I separated structural markup (the definition of header and sidebar boxes) from presentation markup (type and colors) within different sections of my stylesheet when I was doing the first round of design improvements. Other interesting solutions in the comments to Simon’s post, including this article from Digital Web Magazine about Architecting CSS.

Second, A List Apart provides six methods, of varying degrees of semantic correctness and coolness, for achieving multi-column lists with various combinations of XHTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

Third, ALA also talks about the multi-column module in CSS3, and introduces a Javascript parser for the CSS syntax that helps bootstrap the new capabilities in browsers that don’t yet support the extensions. You have to see some of the examples, particularly numbers 2 and 5, to get why this is so cool, but once you do it’ll make you swear off long scrolling layouts forever.

A note on Bavarian food

I regret making a crack about Bavarian food last night without putting it in context. One of the most spectacular things about Oktoberfest was the smell of the food—primarily the spit-roasted chickens for sheer olfactory pleasure, but with contributions from sausages, potatoes and other delights. In fact, I ate well all week.

Too well. I gained five pounds in the seven days I spent on the ground, and would have kept going had it not been for a mounting sense of bloat. Which is only natural, really. I don’t think that even the locals eat Bavarian cuisine all the time. It’s not possible. To see what I mean, here’s a rundown of some of the meals I had:

  • Schweinshaxe (crackled pig’s leg): The first joint of a pig’s leg, grilled until the skin crackles; served with kraut and potatoes. The meat was exquisitely flavorful and unbelievably greasy.
  • A dish of rahmschwammerl (meatballs) and button mushrooms with spätzle. The meatballs were airy but huge, and the sauce on the spätzle was deceptively deadly. I couldn’t finish the plate.
  • Chunks of deer meat in a brown sauce with potatoes and a salad. This was one of the lighter meals.
  • On Saturday the four of us went to the Nuernberger Bratwurst Gloeckl am Dom (an Augustiner restaurant, naturally) and ate a platter of 25 grilled bratwursts (which mercifully are small, about the size of a breakfast link), along with a few Münchner Stadwürste, on a bed of sauerkraut with horseradish and the most sublime warm potato salad I’ve ever eaten.

Add to that a beer or two—generally hefeweizen, dunkel, or the Oktoberfest wies’n beer—and the effect is total gastric paralysis. Not to be too graphic here, but when I got home it took a week of intensive fiber before I felt even close to normal.

But God, it was worth it. Oh those bratwurst! Oh that beer!

Bonus links: Beyond brez’n and bratwurst; Oktoberfest at Epicurious; and threads about relocating to Munich, eating in the city, and general tips for Bavarian food from eGullet.


beermaids waiting to pick up their liters

Just realized I never posted anything about Oktoberfest. Probably because of lack of sleep—coupled with my dead laptop (which is now completely resurrected, btw). Or because on the first day of Oktoberfest, I almost couldn’t get a beer.

It was wet. In the morning, anyway. My German coworker Peter, bless him, hopped straight off his red-eye back from Boston and came with his wife to our hotel to take us over. And it was pouring. Have I mentioned that?

Anyway. Oktoberfest, which originated as a wedding feast, has grown into something halfway between a themepark and a kegger. On steroids. Walking into the southeast entrance, the biggest thing you notice are the rides—roller coaster, Ferris wheel, haunted tunnel. Which, I think, would be a big mistake after a bellyful of Bavarian cuisine and a couple Mas (the menu word for one-liter mugs of Märzen). I’m imagining staying away from the base of the Ferris wheel is a really good idea.

And the funniest part was, I didn’t even think I was going to be able to get a beer. Even with twelve beer halls there. Each of them had outdoor seating for extra capacity—none of which could be opened with the pouring rain. So all the halls were full to the brim. We finally got into one, the Paulaner hall, where I snapped a few shots, including the one here of the beerfrauën waiting to pick up their mugs. (My coworker’s wife, Beata, says that the number of beers that they can hold at one time ranges from eight to 12—depending on cup size. The size of the beers is always one liter; it’s apparently the size of the server’s anatomy that is the deciding factor.)

We went away and took in the sights of Munich, returning later after the rain had stopped. By this time my coworker Peter was jetlagged hard, so we sent him and Beata home and explored on our own—and found a free table outside the Paulaner tent.

You know what? Those big 1 liter beers, for about €4.50 each, were worth every cent.

—A note on the photos: this set was taken with my new phone. 1.3 megapixels—respectable but not ideal, so forgive the fuzziness.

God(casting) Part II: Old South sermons

Following up on the Godcasting meme, my church, Old South in Boston, has started making MP3s of sermons available for download. No RSS feed—the website has no back end publishing system aside from an overworked webmaster—but the content is there.

In fact, I went ahead and scratch-built an RSS file for the content using FeedForAll, so subscribe away: XML. If/when the file moves off this server to Old South’s, I’ll post a standard RSS redirect there instead.

Update: As of 4 pm on Monday afternoon, there’s a big ol’ XML link on the Sermons page. My feed now redirects to the official one. Cheers to Evan, the Old South webmaster, for acting so quickly.

Get your eerie unsettling country blues fix

Salon’s Audiofile free download today is a pointer to a pair of classic Dock Boggs tracks from the late 1920s, “Pretty Polly” and “Country Blues.” More than any other track on the Anthology of American Folk Music, the latter earns Greil Marcus’s nickname for this old pre-genre music: the old, weird America. And yet it’s a blues, through and through. If you double the first line of every couplet and drop the “good people/poor boy” interjections, you can sing it to just about any twelve bar blues. My favorite is to take it against Bob Dylan’ “Meet Me in the Morning.”

And I disagree with the assessment that Dock’s 1960s recordings are better. Yes, Dock going back after 40 years in the coal mine and picking up his banjo to revisit some nearly forgotten songs is impressive, but not as impressive as Dock leaving the coal mines to go and do something totally alien and then being forgotten for 40 years. Plus there’s more menace, for me, in the earlier recordings.

I wrote my woman a letter, good people
I told her I’s in jail
She wrote me back an answer
Saying “Honey, I’m a-coming to go your bail”

All around this old jailhouse is haunted, good people
Forty dollars won’t pay my fine
Corn whisky has surrounded my body, poor boy
Pretty women is a-troubling my mind


Our work continues. By now it has probably become apparent to readers of our houseblog that we are doing very little of the renovation work on the house at this stage ourselves. We really wanted to do more of it, but I know my limits and they don’t include plumbing, framing (other than demolition), or electrical work. So we have a lot of contractors around these days.

Good news is our heating upgrade is totally complete. Our oil furnace is gone, and the oil tank was removed yesterday. After hearing some of the horror stories of accidental oil deliveries filling basements after a tank was removed, we decided that the fill pipes had to go as well, and the tank removal contractor filled in the foundation holes as part of the job. Great work and a very low price. So that’s one project that has gone to 100% complete.

Another that is close is window replacement. After struggling with storm windows and drafty main windows, we closed our eyes and opted to replace all the windows in the house with vinyl-clad wood replacements from Harvey. The windows all went in yesterday, and the final trim work was completed this morning. We need to prime and paint everything, but hope to hold off on the final paint coat until we can strip the moldings, which badly need repainting but have years and years of build-up. We considered the Silent Paint Remover but are looking at a gel-based ecologically safe paint stripper called Removall.

The new windows are really nice—though the as-yet-unprimed frames have me doing a double-take every time I see one out of the corner of my eye. And it will be nice not to have to struggle with cleaning the storm windows this year. Of course, now we have to replace the window shades too (sigh).

The last change isn’t even one that we instituted, but we’re certainly the beneficiary. The chain link fence along our driveway is being removed! Since our driveway has a choke point about halfway down where the distance between the fence and the wall is very narrow, having the fence gone is a Very Good Thing for the paint on the side of my car. Plus, our neighbor is having a bed put in with some flowering shrubs in place of the fence. Bonus!

Site DNS changes

A quick note of apology if you see visual weirdnesses with the site (style sheets or graphics not loading, site not updating). My host changed the location and IP of my static server, www.www.jarretthousenorth.com, and it is taking a while for the change to propagate through DNS.

Allchin: moving out

As long as I’m shooting my mouth off about the industry: will anyone miss Jim Allchin? The news that he’s retiring next year draws a major chapter in Microsoft’s history to a close. Allchin presided over both high and low points in Windows’s history, including Vista (f.k.a. Longhorn), which can’t decide if it wants to be the coolest thing since sliced bread or the most troubled Windows since version 3.0.

Allchin is known to be a ferocious competitor, and questions about his tactics, including the infamous Burst.com email deletion flap, have surfaced throughout his tenure. The insistence on tying Internet Explorer to Windows and “leveraging” the Windows monopoly into control of the Internet comes to mind as a less civilized moment, as does his admission in Congressional testimony that release of Windows source code would endanger national security due to flaws in the code.

Paradoxically enough, that’s one thing I will miss about Allchin: his willingness to speak up. In an industry where there are too many press release mouthers, his calling open source software an “intellectual property destroyer” was entertaining, if not as entertaining as Steve Ballmer calling it a cancer.

I only ever was in one meeting with Jim Allchin, and all I can say about him is that he was very intelligent and very hard on his people when their ideas weren’t crisply defined and clearly thought out.

New phase for Peregrine

News.com: HP to buy Peregrine for $425 million. That HP is building out its IT Service Management toolset is unsurprising; most of the company’s ITIL strength is in service delivery with availability and capacity monitoring, while its core service desk capabilities are weak or nonexistent. That’s a problem in this market, where the service desk is increasingly becoming a process center of excellence for IT Service Management and is an important part of any ITSM offering.

But that they would acquire Peregrine? Word on the street was that Peregrine was coming out of its near-death experience after its 2002 accounting scandals. But the company has still essentially lost much of its former market leadership. HP has gone into a lot of deals with Peregrine, so they must be pretty comfortable with their technology. The deal price is about 2.2 times annual earnings, so while not a bargain, it’s not a rip-off either. And the deal puts HP eyeball to eyeball with BMC, who purchased the other market leader, Remedy, from Peregrine three years ago. What a weird market.

Disclosure: My firm, iETSolutions, is another major player in this market, and my comments don’t reflect the opinions of the firm.

I thought something looked different

CNet: Apple takes on Yahoo with .Mac makeover. When I hit the login page at .Mac today I noticed a different look and feel. The mail client hasn’t been updated, but there’s now a gig of storage by default and there are new group offerings as well (hence the CNet article title).

Will the group offerings dethrone Yahoo? No, but the UI is cleaner than Yahoo Groups, even if the offering isn’t as robust. I’d like to see browsable group listings, for instance, and there’s no way to add a picture to the group from a member’s .Mac Pictures folder. Then again, there’s no integration yet between Yahoo Groups and Flickr, either.

Lordy, lordy, look who’s…


…No, Esta isn’t 40, but today is one of those other big milestone birthdays for my kid sister. What a long strange ride it’s been: a ballerina, cellist, artist, writer, Wahoo, archaeologist, financial analyst, sometime blogger, preacher, and all around great person. I’d be happy to recommend her as one of the finest people I know… odd incriminating bandana’d pictures notwithstanding. And she’s just entering the best years of her life, whether she knows it or not.

By way of present, I offer these words from a better writer than I:

you shall above all things be glad and young
For if you're young,whatever life you wear
it will become you;and if you are glad
whatever's living will yourself become.

Feel free to send her happy birthday wishes using this handy spam-free form. Or check out her 2001 proto-blog on this site (her personal blog is no longer available).