Eternal Recurrence

Coffee, commentary, and card tricks since 2003

October 11, 2007

Food, wine, and magic

This Saturday the Georgetown BID hosts the Taste of Georgetown festival, a day for Georgetown restaurants to hit the streets and show off their menus. There will be some delicious food available, including baked goods from my old employer, Baked and Wired. In addition, there will be free wine tastings provided by Bacchus Wine Cellar, the French Wine Society, and Potomac Wine and Spirits.

There’s also going to be live entertainment — including me! I’ve been hired to perform strolling close-up magic throughout the event. It looks to be a beautiful fall day on Saturday, so come on out if you’re free from 11-4. Tickets are $5 per taste, 5 for $20.

This is also a good time to mention that I have a new regular bartending night: Monday evenings at Open City in Woodley Park. The slow pace of Mondays makes it a great night for experimenting with obscure, labor-intensive cocktails and the occasional card trick. Consider this an open invitation to stop in at the bar after work, 6:30-11:30.

Posted by Jacob Grier at 1:44 pm in Magic| Alcoholic Beverages| DC| Restaurants

October 10, 2007

Mr. Sulzberger, rebuild this wall

Seriously, rebuild the Times Select wall, now. Before dreck like this infects the internets any further.

[Via Volokh.]

Posted by Jacob Grier at 5:17 pm in Politics

Belmont ban passes

It’s official: Belmont, CA has gone from banning smoking in workplaces to intruding into private homes and balconies:

The law, which prohibits smoking in almost all public establishments, will go into effect in 30 days. Property owners will have 14 months to enforce the law via lease agreements.

The city made international news last year when the council began talking about an all-out ban of smoking within its borders. After months of discussion, the council settled on what will become one of the nation’s strictest smoking laws.

Smoking will be prohibited in all individual apartments, condominiums and townhouses and their patios or yards which share common floors or ceilings with at least one other such unit. City law already prohibits smoking in common areas of multi-use buildings such as apartments. The law makes no distinction between leased and owned units.

The ordinance will ban smoking in all workplaces, except in sole-proprietorship smoke shops. It will also ban smoking in all outdoor work places like outdoor cafes and restaurant patios.

Smoking will be also be prohibited 20 feet from any non-smoking areas.

Slope? What slope?

Posted by Jacob Grier at 10:23 am in Smoking Bans| Nanny State

October 9, 2007

Bad server! Bad!

The servers that host this site have been badly overworked the past few days, resulting in very slow page loads and some downtime. Dreamhost has addressed the problem with an additional file server and things seem to be working better now, but I’m told issues could reappear while they set up a more long term solution. Apologies if the slowness continues.

Posted by Jacob Grier at 11:22 am in Site Changes

October 8, 2007

Atheists and libertarians, same boat

Via Andrew Sullivan, is there a “problem with atheism?” Sam Harris thinks so and explains why in a challenging essay:

Attaching a label to something carries real liabilities, especially if the thing you are naming isn’t really a thing at all. And atheism, I would argue, is not a thing. It is not a philosophy, just as “non-racism” is not one. Atheism is not a worldview—and yet most people imagine it to be one and attack it as such. We who do not believe in God are collaborating in this misunderstanding by consenting to be named and by even naming ourselves…

While it is an honor to find myself continually assailed with Dan [Dennett], Richard [Dawkins], and Christopher [Hitchens] as though we were a single person with four heads, this whole notion of the “new atheists” or “militant atheists” has been used to keep our criticism of religion at arm’s length, and has allowed people to dismiss our arguments without meeting the burden of actually answering them. And while our books have gotten a fair amount of notice, I think this whole conversation about the conflict between faith and reason, and religion and science, has been, and will continue to be, successfully marginalized under the banner of atheism.

So, let me make my somewhat seditious proposal explicit: We should not call ourselves “atheists.” We should not call ourselves “secularists.” We should not call ourselves “humanists,” or “secular humanists,” or “naturalists,” or “skeptics,” or “anti-theists,” or “rationalists,” or “freethinkers,” or “brights.” We should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar—for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them…

We will have won this war of ideas against religion when atheism is scarcely intelligible as a concept. We will simply find ourselves in a world in which people cease to praise one another for pretending to know things they do not know. This is certainly a future worth fighting for. It may be the only future compatible with our long-term survival as a species. But the only path between now and then, that I can see, is for us to be rigorously honest in the present. It seems to me that intellectual honesty is now, and will always be, deeper and more durable, and more easily spread, than “atheism.”

As Harris tells it it, libertarians strike me as facing much the same dilemma. On the one hand, by identifying with a political ideology we make it easier for others to dismiss our policy arguments rather than confront them on the merits. On the other, if we eschew the label for something more generic we miss out on opportunities to express our opposition to the dominant, pro-state views of modern conservatives and liberals.

I agree with Harris that using the atheist label concedes too much to religion, as if we atheists should also call ourselves “aghostists” and “aNessiests” and “aESPists” when asked our opinion of other irrational beliefs. I, too, would love to live in a world where the basic ideas of major religions are considered so bizarre that it would be silly to assign a label to non-belief. Similarly, I wish proposals for socialized medicine or federal marriage amendments were viewed with such ridicule that I could simply call myself a liberal and be done with it. But we’re far from that state of affairs, both in religion and in politics.

Thankfully, as Harris points out, people of sound mind don’t have to join the “non-racist” club to express their lack of irrational prejudice. But in a previous century they did and organized a movement around abolition. The shedding of labels is a luxury for the victors. We atheists haven’t won acceptance yet. As I wrote last year:

…we ought to be speaking up more. I don’t mean by forming advocacy groups or adopting pretentious new words like “brights,” but by being forthright when people inquire about our religious beliefs. I’m as guilty as anyone of equivocating by saying I’m “not religious” when asked rather than matter of factly admitting to atheism. This polite ambiguity prevents some awkwardness, but keeps atheism outside the boundaries of what is publicly acceptable and, ultimately, shows a lack of respect for ourselves and the people we interact with. Enough of that. We’ve got catching up to do.

Strategically, I think Harris is right that we should work harder at debunking specific religious beliefs rather than always declaring war on religion as a whole. But the need for a label isn’t something we control; it’s forced upon us by a religious society that expects people to fit into religious categories. Much of the time, refusing the category means ducking the conversation, and thus foregoing an opportunity to normalize unbelief.

Even so, Harris’ essay does have me rethinking when to use the label. I know there are a few other atheists reading this site. What do you think?

Posted by Jacob Grier at 10:21 am in Libertarianism| Philosophy| Religion

October 7, 2007

MtP ignores Ron Paul

Meet the Press this morning focused its discussion in large part on candidates’ fundraising reports. In typical fashion, the show failed to give any mention at all to the impressive $5 million raised by Ron Paul. I sent this letter in response:

Your discussion today about GOP fundraising results omitted the surprising $5 million raised by the Ron Paul campaign. Combined with the campaign’s reserves, Paul now has significantly more funding than McCain, whom you did cover.

Regardless of one’s political views, the success Paul has enjoyed mobilizing the peaceful, small government wing of the Republican party and bringing in anti-war supporters of all stripes is one of the more interesting stories to come out of the presidential race so far. You do your viewers a disservice in failing to mention it.

The feedback form is here if you’d like to write in as well.

Posted by Jacob Grier at 12:53 pm in Libertarianism| Politics

October 5, 2007

Ron Paul on Wolf Blitzer

In case you missed the news, the Ron Paul raised a whopping $5 million this quarter. This is finally getting the mainstream media to take notice, garnering Paul an interview with Wolf Blitzer. This is the best appearance I’ve seen so far:

Posted by Jacob Grier at 2:13 pm in Libertarianism| Politics

October 4, 2007

Google docs gets presentable

Grant McCracken notes that with little fanfare Google has added presentation software to its documents suite, finally filling the Powerpoint void:

This is a momentous occasion. It marks the end of the Microsoft hegemony. Between them, Google and Firefox now give us an entire suite, a web browser, a word processor, a spreadsheet, gmail and now Powerpoint. God almighty, we are free at last.

I haven’t used presentation software since 2003 or so, but if you do and want a web-based alternative, this looks pretty good.

This is also a good time to mention the improvements in Google Analytics, the web stats tracker. They’ve been around for a while, but since I wasn’t all that impressed by the initial launch it took me a while to check them out. It’s great! The map overlay is especially cool, and the stats offer much more depth than the free version of SiteMeter (though no convenient monthly comparisons that I can find). If you’ve got a website, I highly recommend it.

Posted by Jacob Grier at 11:07 am in Internet and Computing

October 2, 2007

Unfortunate headlines

Liberty council debates possible smoking ban

Psychiatric patients challenge smoking ban

Damn it, I’ve got the wrong team on my side.

Posted by Jacob Grier at 12:42 pm in Smoking Bans| Nanny State

October 1, 2007

Enviro blogging

Last roundup of these for a while…

The greening of the rich
Eat an animal to save an animal
Coffee chains battle to be the greenest
National Geographic hopes for better biofuel

Posted by Jacob Grier at 5:16 pm in General| Writing| Environment

September 27, 2007

First look at Dogfish

The place was packed for the opening last night, with 30 minute waits and a crowded bar. People in Virginia really like their Dogfish Head.

The food was all right, but it’s the beer in the spotlight here, and that’s fantastic. They offer a happy hour from 4-7, flights of 6 ales for $8, and an extensive list of Dogfish beers, with lots on tap and many harder to find ones in the bottle (including some that are out of season).

My only complaint: no prices on the beer menu. I don’t mind buying a $13 bottle once in a while, but I like to know about it first! Luckily the Immort Ale is a tasty brew, and at 11% abv I was feeling too good to worry about it.

Posted by Jacob Grier at 5:53 pm in DC| Restaurants

Obama men don’t neg

Quote of the day:

Lindsay Schaeffer, 25, may even skip the rally for the nighttime bash.

“Look, you never meet good guys in a bar,” she reasons. “Something like this naturally weeds out the losers for you. You aren’t going to get some pickup artist at a political after-party.”

Has Lindsey ever been to a political event?

Posted by Jacob Grier at 10:26 am in Politics

September 26, 2007

What’s holding back the DC coffee scene?

In a late night post he later regrets, Ezra Klein wonders why DC has such a dearth of good coffee shops:

Cities like Portland and Seattle are trying to create a livable city to retain and attract a certain type of resident. Namely, educated, young, white people. Portland’s 78% white, Seattle’s a bit under 70%. So you structure the city thus that there’s lots of educated white people bait, including cafes, bookstores, wireless internet spots, bike trails, etc.

DC, by contrast, has a lot of white people working in it, but is actually only 39% white, and has a city government that does not derive primary political support from transient white voters. So the character of the city actually does more to represent its inhabitants. Which seems rational. Moreover, the white people there basically have to be there. You don’t move to DC because it’s awesome, you move because it’s where your work is. So there’s little need to construct an affirmative agenda to attract residents.

Race issues aside, I agree with Megan McArdle that it’s weird to look to the city government for an explanation of the character of the city. (Unless we’re talking about the licensing issues that plague small business owners, which as far as I know are as equally a pain in the ass here and in the Northwest.)

But Ezra does have a point. Why are there so few good coffee shops in this city? I link it to three reasons:

1) History is the big one. As with wine, craft brewing, spirits, and seasonal cuisine, the West Coast was way ahead of the East when it came to great coffee. Sure, espresso bars were initially successful in New York in the 50s, but it was Peet’s in Berkeley that led the way on artisinal, single origin roasting. And of course Starbucks and the Seattle style followed later, along with lots of smaller, high-end roasters and obsessive espresso tinkerers. When it comes to building a customer base, Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco have a huge head start over DC.

2) The same applies for the labor force. I can attest from experience as a trainer in two DC coffee shops that finding talented baristas is difficult here. In the Northwest you’ve got a lot more people who know their way around an espresso machine.

Perhaps even more importantly, coffee shop jobs get more respect in the Northwest. Whenever I would be asked the inevitable “What do you do?” question at DC happy hours, “And what do you really want to do?” would almost always follow my response that I worked as a barista. The idea that I actually desired to get up early and make espresso confounded a lot of people. Coffee jobs here tend to be necessary or transitory, rarely a long-term aspiration. This makes it difficult and expensive to train employees. Advantage: Starbucks and its superautomatic push-button espresso machines.

3) Finally, and this is more speculative, but DC’s Metro system strikes me as being very good at shuffling people from the suburbs and residential parts of the city to the work-oriented core and to a few social hot spots, but not so good at encouraging long stretches of mixed use neighborhoods. The result is that retail space near Metro stops is very expensive while the less pedestrian friendly, less accessible parts of town are more in the budget of a startup indie coffee shop. Given the importance of foot traffic to a cafe, advantage once again goes to the hyper-efficient Starbucks or to the lunch-oriented Cosi. I don’t have numbers to back this up, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the distribution of rents is flatter in the Northwest.

The good news is that things are rapidly getting better here. There are many better options now than there were four years ago, Counter Culture Coffee is spreading the gospel through its new DC training center, and there a few other exciting shops in the pipeline. Consumers’ tastes are evolving and the market is responding.

This is also a good time to plug Big Bear, the new Bloomingdale cafe that’s taking great coffee into an underserved neighborhood (previously reviewed here). DC bohemians looking for an off the beaten track coffee shop should check it out.

Posted by Jacob Grier at 11:56 am in General

September 25, 2007

Cupcakes for liberty

From the NYT:

As food, though, cupcakes are democratic; everyone gets one. And they are libertarian; individual and independent compared with communal cakes, which may not have enough slices for everyone.

I knew there was a reason I worked at Baked and Wired.

Baked and Wired cupcake and latte

[Hat tip to Erin.]

Posted by Jacob Grier at 11:29 pm in Food and Drink| Libertarianism

September 24, 2007

Finally, Dogfishing in Falls Church

Virginia’s beer scene keeps getting better. Slated to open on Wednesday: the much delayed, much anticipated Dogfish Head Alehouse in Falls Church.

[Via DCist.]

Posted by Jacob Grier at 2:05 pm in Alcoholic Beverages| DC| Restaurants

Speed read with ZAP Reader

Interruptions and distractions can make reading long articles on the web a time-consuming task, so I was intrigued to come across ZAP Reader, a site that outputs text by flashing words one at a time at whatever rate you choose. The default is 300 words per minute, which I find a bit slow. (According to this test, that’s about the speed I naturally read web pages.) At 375 I can still keep up and understand what I’m reading; 400 seems doable with a little practice.

The reader works because it forces you to stop subvocalizing words and ignore incoming distractions, and because most of the time you can miss a few words and still comprehend meaning. It’s not a service you’d want to use all the time, but for when you just want to mainline a lengthy, factual article, it’s a handy tool. Cut and paste to give it a try.

[Hat tip: David Tufte.]

Posted by Jacob Grier at 9:30 am in Internet and Computing

September 23, 2007

Magic and IP roundup

The debate over magic and IP has continued this week in a few interesting directions. In the comments on Tim Lee’s TechDirt post, magician Andrew Mayne and I go back and forth over a few points, and he also responds in a podcast at iTricks. Head over to those sites if you’d like to follow the discussion.

The Economist covered the paper last week as well. On this I agree with Andrew that the magazine put an inexcusable lack of research into it. The debate amongst magicians was already going strong by its publication date, but no mention is given to criticism from within the magic community. That’s some very credulous writing from such a good magazine.

Finally, since in all of the recent discussion no one has published comments from Jacob Loshin, the paper’s author, I got in contact with him to see what he thought of the online reaction. While he’s unavailable to dive into the debate right now, it’s worth clarifying a couple things:

1) He is not an outsider to the magic community, and in fact performed semi-professionally for six years.

2) His point in the paper was not to argue that magic is an IP wonderland. Rather, he was more interested in the fact that the norms have evolved and function reasonably well — quite likely better than a regime of IP law would. This nuance has been lost in much of the paper’s coverage.

Posted by Jacob Grier at 12:24 pm in Magic

September 22, 2007

Stapler blogging is an untapped market

For four years I’ve tried to write interesting stuff here and sustained only a small readership. But check out the traffic stats from the previous 30 days, up to two days after the stapler post:

Have you seen my stapler?

The people have spoken. From now on it’s all staplers, all the time.

[Thanks Stumblers and Lifehackers!]

Posted by Jacob Grier at 3:00 pm in Site Changes

September 20, 2007

Hot dogs and beyond

I’ve often wondered why DC, a city with dense districts of office workers and a good restaurant scene, has such a lackluster selection of food carts. Turns out there’s an obvious reason: it’s the government, stupid! The city council suspended new food cart licenses in 1998, leaving the existing hot dog vendors to hawk their wares without much competition for nearly a decade.

Fortunately, the city is starting to see the light and has authorized 21 new licenses. One of them belongs to L Street Catering, a new Korean barbecue cart located at 14th and L. I read about it in Tom Sietsema’s review and checked it out on Monday, then followed it up with repeat visits on Tuesday and Wednesday because it’s just that good. The specialty is bulgogi, beef marinated in soy sauce and other spices and served over rice. They also offer teriyaki chicken and will spice things up with chili powder and sriracha if you ask them to. Everything is served up fresh from two woks handled non-stop to keep up with demand. At just $6.75 with salad and kimchee, it’s one of the most affordable and tastiest lunches around my office right now .

Most of the other carts aren’t open yet, but I’m looking forward to trying out the city’s new diversity. “Wings and Waffles,” anyone?

Speaking of DC hot dogs, I’m also really excited by PS7. The year-old restaurant at the edge of Chinatown offers a gourmet take on the district staple, making them in house with high quality, fresh ingredients. They’re incredibly juicy and taste fantastic, available both as standard dogs or as slightly spicier half-smokes.

PS7 also has a great bar with a new manager who’s rolling out some very cool new cocktails this month. Among them is a beet infused vodka cocktail that’s perfect. Even if you don’t like beets, it’s worth ordering. The drinks are on the pricey side, but during happy hour you can get them for $7 — a great deal for drinks this good.

Posted by Jacob Grier at 8:10 pm in Alcoholic Beverages| DC| Restaurants

September 19, 2007

Global warming –> more cats

Global warming leads to more cats. That’s the claim of Pets Across America, who says warming has lengthened the feline mating season. I’m normally opposed to taking drastic action to fight climate change, but if this dubious claim is true I might have to support some massive CO2 reductions. Or perhaps we could just use the excess kitties as a source of biofuel? Whatever’s cheaper.

On a more serious note, here’s what’s new at A Better Earth:
The new push to revive CAFE standards
Should cities tax car sharing services?
“Choice editing” not an apt choice of words
The “Skeptical Environmentalist” returns
UK food miles debate heats up
Yet another downside to ethanol
Wealth and skepticism
Recycling and incentives
We’re all eating mutants!
Floating nuclear power plant
The Woz on efficient housing

Posted by Jacob Grier at 10:48 pm in Writing| Environment

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