g r o t t o 1 1

Peeve Farm
Breeding peeves for show, not just to keep as pets
Brian Tiemann
Silicon ValleyNew York-based purveyor of a confusing mixture of Apple punditry, political bile, and sports car rentals.

btman at grotto11 dot com

Read These Too:

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James Lileks
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As the Apple Turns
Entropicana
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Capitalist Lion
Red Letter Day
Eric S. Raymond
Tal G in Jerusalem
Aziz Poonawalla
Corsair the Rational Pirate
.clue
Ravishing Light
Rosenblog
Cartago Delenda Est



Cars without compromise.





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12/27/2004 -   1/2/2004
12/20/2004 - 12/26/2004
12/13/2004 - 12/19/2004
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11/29/2004 -  12/5/2004
11/22/2004 - 11/28/2004
11/15/2004 - 11/21/2004
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10/25/2004 - 10/31/2004
10/18/2004 - 10/24/2004
10/11/2004 - 10/17/2004
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12/29/2003 -   1/4/2004
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12/15/2003 - 12/21/2003
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11/24/2003 - 11/30/2003
11/17/2003 - 11/23/2003
11/10/2003 - 11/16/2003
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10/27/2003 -  11/2/2003
10/20/2003 - 10/26/2003
10/13/2003 - 10/19/2003
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12/30/2002 -   1/5/2003
12/23/2002 - 12/29/2002
12/16/2002 - 12/22/2002
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11/25/2002 -  12/1/2002
11/18/2002 - 11/24/2002
11/11/2002 - 11/17/2002
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10/28/2002 -  11/3/2002
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10/14/2002 - 10/20/2002
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 1/28/2002 -   2/3/2002
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12/31/2001 -   1/6/2002
12/24/2001 - 12/30/2001
12/17/2001 - 12/23/2001
Sunday, April 6, 2008
14:30 - Be it known

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Qdoba < Chipotle.

I maintain this even in the face of the latter's increasing hippification and explosive nationwide growth and ubiquity as a result of McDonald's' fostering it as an investment property through 2006. The fact remains—and I persist in asserting that it is a fact, editorial correctness be damned—that their burritos freaking rule. And Qdoba's, though their formula is almost identical to Chipotle's and their pedigree almost as long, puts one in mind of a cargo-culty clone that gets all the basics right but misses all the flair.

I mean, the rice is just rice—whereas Chipotle's is a lime-cilantro concoction that I could eat as a side dish. And the steak, while tasty, is dry and lifeless, whereas Chipotle's is fresh and moist, straight off the grill, with enough spice in its marinade that you hardly need any salsa to get it building up on you.

The main thing is that I should still be tasting the burrito four hours later. In this case, though, by 2:00 I've forgotten what I had for lunch. And that's a sad state of affairs.

'Tis a fine burrito, English, but sure 'tis no Chipotle.


Friday, April 4, 2008
19:57 - Chocolate Reviews: Dove Origins (Dominican Republic, Ghana, Ecuador)

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Dove Origins (Dominican Republic): Richly fruity
Dove Origins (Ghana): Nutty and spicy and melty
Dove Origins (Ecuador): Astringent and metallic; definitively Arriba


I just noticed that Dove is getting into the single-origin chocolate market, with three 100g origin bars they're selling in supermarkets in fairly long, tall formats. The ingredients list more components than your typical "purist" dark chocolate bar, comprising milkfat and "natural flavor" into what they're calling "semisweet chocolate", yet the bars are all labeled as 61% cacao without any additional flavors picked out on the packaging.

Even a perfunctory tasting reveals that whatever they're doing to this chocolate by adding natural flavors doesn't seem to have any negative effect on its taste or, indeed, its single-origin character. Something I notice from all these bars is that they're very smooth-melting and rich in mouthfeel, making me wonder if it's the milkfat that's adding something to the texture that other bars lack, or if it's just a side effect of the bar's shape which lends itself to rather thick chunks of chocolate instead of the broad, flat pieces you get from (say) a Lindt bar of the same weight but in a much wider package. The lightish brown color of all these Dove bars (compared, at least, to the inky blackness of a Lindt 70% or 85%) makes me suspect the former.

My favorite of these three, flavor-wise, has got to be the Dominican Republic one. It's intense and engaging, with lots of harmonious fruity notes, a well-balanced blend of tart and sweet and herbal and nutty. It all flows together very nicely, and reminds me of nothing so much as the hot chocolate I had at Fleur de Cocoa shortly before I left Silicon Valley: a hot drink that you have to chew. The label describes it as having a "rich taste of fruit and wine", and I can certainly see that as being accurate.

The label on the Ghana bar is a little less so, though: "intense, robust, full-bodied chocolate flavor." Sure, it's a full-bodied chocolate flavor, rich and nutty with its own fruit-basket of undercurrents, but it's not quite as intense as I'd like—a little slow to develop, but once it does it's certainly got a good head of steam built up, and a lot to say all at once. In fact, I was intrigued that Ghana is popping up a lot in single-origin chocolate lineups from Theo to Pralus, and thought to compare it to the Choxie 58% Ghana single-origin that you can get at Target in a tasting box with several other origins (wrapper at right). To my surprise, as someone who's become used to labels that don't really prepare me for a flavor I can match to a geographical name, they both taste almost exactly the same: nutty, toasty, ice-creamy, a bit like the ubiquitous Callebaut 60%, but with a bit more fruit to it. Interestingly, the Choxie is just a slight bit less perky and forthright—the Dove jumps out with more robust and complex flavor notes than the Choxie does, yet is subdued compared to the Dominican Republic. Still, on its own I wouldn't call the Choxie "bland"—it's actually pretty rich and interesting in its own right. I think what this tells me is that the Dove DR bar is really unusually flavorful, when next to it even this lively and aromatic Ghana bar seems dull. But I'm reassured that the Dove and Choxie Ghana origins taste so similar—they're clearly, even obviously, of the same varietal, though the Dove seems to stand out quite a bit more in the flavor department, like switching to an HD version of The 5th Element after spending the first half-hour at broadcast resolution in a 4:3 ratio. I'm liking what Dove's doing here, "semisweet" or no.

What gives me the most positive impression of Dove, though, in this tasting is that the third bar, the Ecuador, is (rather paradoxically) that it's so intense and bitter as to be almost inedible except slowly and in small doses. That's because of all the Arriba bars I've tried in recent months—Arriba, remember, being the characteristic flavorful Forastero variety that's grown exclusively in Ecuador, and what nearly all "Ecuador" bars you'll encounter are intended to showcase—is perhaps the most characteristically "Arriba" that I've ever yet encountered. I've come to expect a certain harshness from Arriba, a bitter, astringent, almost metallic hollow tang, modulated by prune-like fruitiness and an almost alcoholic aftertaste. Some bars, like the Hachez Cocoa d'Arriba, are very heavy on this pruniness, even to the exclusion of real chocolate flavor; others, while being billed as "Arriba", don't taste much like this characteristic profile at all (Choxie's "Ecuador" origin, for example, which to me just seems blandly and inoffensively coffeelike). But this Dove bar just comes right out and thwacks me in the face with its "Arribaness"; it's a flavor I'd recognize anywhere by now, as easily as I'd distinguish Coke from Pepsi, and it's unalloyed by any of the complicating extra notes that other manufacturers seem to stir into their Arribas. This is not, however, to say that I like this Dove bar, particularly—again, its bitterness and astringency make it a bit of a challenge to enjoy properly, especially in any volume. But the fact that they can come right out of the gate and put "Ecuador" on the label, and have it taste so immediately and recognizably like "Ecuador" to me, makes me think their late entry into the single-origin game is based on some very attentive taste-profiling and market-watching on their part, and I must salute them on a job well done. If only the label on this one wasn't so badly off: "light floral and fruity notes"? Nnnnno, I don't think so. But then, that's how everybody seems to describe Arriba, and I simply can't reconcile what I taste with words of that sort. Ah well—I know what it tastes like, is the point, and perhaps the larger point to be drawn from all this: words just don't do these flavors justice, which makes these blog posts an amusing exercise in ironic futility.

On a recent order that I put in by phone to Chocosphere, I talked with the lady who puts the orders together and we had a mini-brainstorming session as to how future offerings might be structured. I thought that a Chocosphere-selected lineup of bars of related lineage, such as four or five different Arriba bars, might make a really interesting offering to people who are fine-tuning their taste buds to detect chocolate by origin. If they do, I think they'll have to give Dove a serious shot at being included among the boutique brands they usually focus on; because despite the supermarket-shelf aim that the Dove brand usually stands for, and the milkfat-and-natural-flavors laxity of the ingredient list, they've done a damn fine job capturing the flavors they're trying to promote here, and might well be counted on to illustrate those flavors as a "standard" by which to judge the purist-oriented variances of the more exclusive manufacturers.

I hope Dove continues this effort and brings out a few more single-origin bars to try; if they're as definitive and tasty as these are, I'd love to see what they make of a Venezuelan Criollo or a Madagascar Sambirano.



15:48 - Mall of the Damned
http://www.deadmalls.com/?/malls/nanuet_mall.html

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I've been to this place; it's not too far away. And it's largely deserted. The food court is a desultory mixture of inattentive, ill-staffed hot dog vendors and yogurt shops that offer a little bit of everything from fish & chips to turkey paninis to draw attention from the fact that there are no well-known vendors there to take up the slack—no Subway, no McDonald's, not even a Sbarro. The shops are a weird bunch of seemingly surreal and/or useless niche players: piano stores, Tae Kwon Do studios, even a store selling nothing but socks. The only people eating or shopping there seem to be ... not all there.

But... a "Lifestyle Center"? Is that what happens to malls that overstay their welcome?

The Nanuet Mall opned in 1969 in it's namesake town, which is just north of New Jersey, in New York's Rockland County. Rockland County is a largely affluent area that is home to tens of thousands of commuters who work in the greater New York City metropolitan area. This sounds like an ideal area for a Mall, but things have gone wrong...

Via this post at Strange Maps, a blog that stands to consume a great deal of what limited free time remains to me these days...


Thursday, April 3, 2008
06:44 - Let the numbers fall where they may
http://finance.yahoo.com/tech-ticker/article/9813/Apple-Confirms-iPhone-Shortage-a-S

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Apparently, if an anonymous commenter at Yahoo Finance with seemingly encyclopedic statistical data at his fingertips is to be believed, the rather subtle, aw-shucks, sidelong-glancey iPhone penetration one might see in a crowd in a US city is as nothing compared to the frenzy with which it's taken hold in emerging markets, where apparently Apple stands to become the immovably entrenched supplier of technology, whether through their intended sales mechanisms or not:

The iPhone is relatively cheap to emerging market customers used to paying $500 for a BlackBerry and a cheap US Dollar makes it an even better deal. For example in Russia, at $499, a16GB iPhone translates to around 12,000 Rubles. An 8GB Nokia N95 costs $815 or 20,000 Rubles. The value-for-money perception with iPhone is absolutely huge.

5. Zero or minimal compatibility issues on GSM Networks. I have used my iPhone with SIM cards from 32 different networks in Europe and developing countries. It works seamlessly. The iPhone is a quad-band GSM phone, meaning that it supports all four major GSM frequency bands, 850 and 1900 MHz bands which are used in the Americas, and 900 / 1800 MHz bands used in most other parts of the world, making it compatible with all major GSM networks worldwide. 2 billion people around the world use GSM phones.

To give you an idea of international demand; There are Nigerians shipping more than 500 phones a week from New York to Lagos and Nigeria is a third world country.... If you define a potential user as someone who can afford (or is used to) paying twice as much for an iPhone and double what an AT&T subscriber pays per month, there are at least 7 million potential iPhone users in Nigeria, 9 Million in South Africa, 80 Million in India, 25 Million in Russia, 25 Million in Brazil, 8 Million in Indonesia and 100 Million in China. Not all of them will be users but just 5% of this number is way more than 10 million. Considering mobile phones are some of the most universally adopted products on the planet, a good GSM phone reaches Iran and Iraq much faster than people on Wall Street can ever imagine. I predict iPhones will be available to elites in Cuba (which has both GSM and TDMA) within the next 30 days.

From research I’m conducting. we have conservative numbers of grey market as follows:
Russia 2000-4000 phones/week
China 4000 -6000 phones/ week

Demand from Western Europe is substantially slower but still significant, averaging anything from 2000 -3000 units/week from New York and other big cities with international airports. Now, not all the phones shipped from New York are bought in NYC but the export pattern is clear and very strong. I have completely ignored the cash-flush Middle East where Dubai has always been a world-leading port in grey market clearing and forwarding for consumer electronics.

Conservatively speaking, something is sucking 15,000-20,000 iPhones/week out of the United States. If this phenomenon is coinciding with steadily growing adoption among US customers, suddenly the slack Apple had is drying up.

And it's not like these are pirated DVDs being sold at roadside stands in China. Apple gets paid for every one of these iPhones.

Many of the millions of visitors coming to the United States every month are going back with a packed iPhone in their luggage. It’s one of the things people are expected to buy when they come.

I think that's funny as hell. Don't bring jeans to sell next time you go to Russia—bring iPhones.

Via Damien Del Russo, who says—and I gotta agree—that this would not be an especially good time to sell off one's AAPL.



05:56 - Triforce of Tomfoolery
http://movies.ign.com/dor/articles/863515/legend-of-zelda-movie-trailer/videos/legen

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Man... I used to think the Peasant's Quest Movie Trailer was the pinnacle of these things. And I guess at one time, once, back in the mists of 2005, it was...

But now people like IGN can make fakeouts that look better than some people's best legitimate efforts. CG is really changing the face of dishonesty.

Via Mark.


Monday, March 31, 2008
12:46 - Punch in the presence of the passenjare

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One of the philosophies that I tend to live by is that everything happens for a reason—not in some kind of "preordained fate" way, but as an illustration of simple mechanics and sociology. Things happen because they make sense to. Personally, I find it fascinating to observe the myriad things in daily life that we encounter often without thinking twice about them, everyday items that illustrate a long history of design through consensus, where something—be it a traffic light pattern, a teapot, a burrito, a sewing machine bobbin, a representative democracy—exhibits characteristics that show that over decades and centuries, we've all converged on an understanding of how a particular thing is supposed to work.

It's difficult to explain precisely what I mean by this, but part of it was expressed (somewhat indirectly, in service of a slightly different point) by David Mamet in that recent Village Voice essay that got so much attention:

And, I wondered, how could I have spent decades thinking that I thought everything was always wrong at the same time that I thought I thought that people were basically good at heart? Which was it? I began to question what I actually thought and found that I do not think that people are basically good at heart; indeed, that view of human nature has both prompted and informed my writing for the last 40 years. I think that people, in circumstances of stress, can behave like swine, and that this, indeed, is not only a fit subject, but the only subject, of drama.

. . .

Strand unacquainted bus travelers in the middle of the night, and what do you get? A lot of bad drama, and a shake-and-bake Mayflower Compact. Each, instantly, adds what he or she can to the solution. Why? Each wants, and in fact needs, to contribute—to throw into the pot what gifts each has in order to achieve the overall goal, as well as status in the new-formed community. And so they work it out.

That's it exactly. I love seeing this principle in action in the world from day to day, and I love it in particular because it's so easy to find examples of it. It's so easy, in fact, that if called upon to do so, often I lock myself up just trying to pick which one is the best example to offer up. Traffic lights go at a certain interval because people trying to solve a common problem (how to direct traffic through a crossroads) had to figure out what the most efficient way to move people through the system is. They had to analyze what the best timings and light phases might be, test it out in practice, and adjust according to how well people liked it. Obviously some would dislike getting red lights at any time, but anyone would grudgingly accept that in order to get people through the intersection there had to be some red-light time—and over time a consensus arose as to what the most appropriate phase sequence and light timing should be. Eventually it becomes infrastructure, invisible and unchanging except when new technology comes along to change the game entirely (electric traffic lights replacing those signpost flags you see in Popeye cartoons; freeway interchanges replacing intersections that grow too large in volume).

Mamet talks about this principle applying primarily to people and governmental systems; but I see it everywhere. A microwave that's built into the cabinets above the stove. A deli menu where you order by number. A parking lot payment machine where you remember your slot number and stick folded-up bills into a numbered slot, instead of—at one extreme—a computerized payment-processing machine that takes credit cards and prints out a ticket and is subject to breakdowns and vandalism and software failures, and—at the other—a permanent employee who sits in a booth and enforces parking restrictions and collects a full-time salary. We converge on solutions that make sense. And an awful lot of things make sense to me.

That's why I bristle reflexively whenever I hear someone grouse about some household item being designed stupidly, or that someone on the road is driving poorly, or that any significant number of happenstances in the world can be ascribed to good old-fashioned stupidity and incompetence and malice. I know there are idiots and mischief-makers out there; but I also know that they don't make up that big a percentage of the population. Otherwise we'd live in perpetual chaos. We'd be fighting our way through dozens of car accidents every single morning. We'd be under siege from knife-wielding muggers even on suburban sidewalks. We wouldn't be able to trust in anything we couldn't control directly, be it an online ordering system at an e-commerce website not to steal our credit card numbers or a gas pump not to fill our tanks with Gatorade. Never mind iPhones—this world would never have produced a telephone if it weren't for the fact that even when acting at their most self-indulgent and swinish, people are just out trying to get by, trying to get along in a world that works a certain way, that we all have come to presume will act in the way we expect so that we can get on with our own business, whatever that might be.

Some of these bits of infrastructure have been they way they are for so long now that even our grandparents wouldn't find them surprising—they're problems that have been solved so long ago that there's literally no need to try to improve on our existing solutions. Even modern technology can't improve on what we've come to know and love. The case in point that I wish I could have brought up at any of a dozen times in the past when I've tried to describe this philosophy is now something I encounter on a daily basis: the ticketing system on trains.



A hundred years ago Mark Twain popularized a set of rhymes about the way conductors punched tickets on a train line:

Conductor, when you receive a fare,
Punch in the presence of the passenjare!
A blue trip slip for an eight-cent fare,
A buff trip slip for a six-cent fare,
A pink trip slip for a three-cent fare,
Punch in the presence of the passenjare!
Chorus.
Punch brothers! Punch with care!
Punch in the presence of the passenjare.

And today, in 2008, you can get on a train without having bought a ticket, and a conductor in a round, high-sided cap, a uniform with epaulettes, and a genial smile, will sell you a ticket and punch out your destination and fare paid with a hole punch. A hundred years and more, and not a damn thing has changed.

Oh, sure, they'll try to encourage you to buy your tickets beforehand from a vending machine, by hiking the fare by $5 for an on-board purchase. They'll put magnetic stripes on the tickets so you can put them through reader machines. But ultimately even these tickets mean the same thing to the guys shuffling their way down the train cars that they did in 1915 and before: something to check, to ask each passenger to present, and a slip to punch indicating where you're going and that you've paid the appropriate amount to get there.

The most fascinating thing about all this, to me, is how for a long commuter train ride, there is literally no more efficient way to handle this—or else it would have been put in place years ago. They're not just doing this because people like epaulettes, or out of some kooky sense of nostalgia; people on a train are some of the most practical people you'll ever have the privilege of sitting wordlessly next to and not acknowledging each other's existence. Nostalgia and style are the absolute furthest things from these people's minds. And yet surely you're thinking to yourself, y'know, there has GOT to be a better way to do this than punching tickets, what with computers and all. And maybe there is. Maybe people can carry RFID tags that can be read by train car doors, ensuring that they get on and get off at the stops they're entitled to. Maybe you could put LCD readouts above every seat and turn the conductors into enforcers who just read the displays and herd people up and down the cars. But any such solution would be expensive, and complex, and subject to all kinds of gamesmanship and subterfuge such that it would not be anywhere remotely near worthwhile. Turns out—I assert, given that we're still using a system that Mark Twain would have zero trouble using if he were beamed to the present day's commuter train system by the Enterprise crew—that the perfect storm, the perfect system for dealing with large crowds of people getting on a train at any of dozens of different stops and mostly but not all) getting off at a particular stop to transfer to another station, is the one where the conductor walks up and down the aisles, checks your ticket, punches in your route and fare, and memorizes your presence and paid fare along with everyone else's for the duration of the trip.

I'm absolutely won over by nothing so much as the little metal clip on the seat back in front of you, allowing you to stick your ticket there so the conductor can pick it up and punch it for you without your having to look up from the work you're doing or the nap you're taking. It even serves as a place for him to put the little slip that helps him remember your destination. Low-tech. Simple. And absolutely ingenious.


It's a system that can easily be simplified if your service is simplified, too. For example, on the leg of the journey between Secaucus and Penn Station, there are no stops, and so fares can be enforced by magnetic strip and electronic turnstile—you put in your ticket, and the act of getting into the platform area gives you leave to get from there to the only other station on the trip, so there's no point in even having a conductor for that segment. Similarly, in the subway system, there's so much getting-on and getting-off in the sprawling network of train lines that not only is it impossible to enforce specific station-to-station fares based on distance traveled, it's pretty much pointless; it would all come out as a wash in the long run, so they put a flat $2 fare on entry gates and let you ride all day long if you want, as long as someone else has to spend $2 to get three blocks. It all evens out—especially as the ones who get screwed by that system will find other and more efficient means to their ends, whereas the people who would ride the train all day long don't have any good reason to do so and there's really no problem of people being so patently impractical. It's an amazingly self-optimizing system, and a flat fare works perfectly for it. But for long commuter train lines, where you're just radiating out from a central depot and occupying a seat for as long as it takes you to get where you're going, fares vary with distance, as well it should—and a conductor is the only sensible and practical way to make it work, punching in the presence of the passenjare.

I don't know about you, but I look at things like this and think, "You know, we're doing okay. And everything is not always wrong."

Perhaps that's naïve. But like Mamet, I find myself more amenable to looking for evidence in favor of such a sentiment than otherwise these days. It certainly is reassuring to think that so much clear and obvious evidence of it surrounds us so thoroughly that we hardly need look further for it than the seat back in front of us.


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© Brian Tiemann