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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

This is where you place an order. Please place an order. Please.

  I get some entertaining rants from a friend of mine, who has difficulty dealing with people who fail to emulate the urban model we identify with, which could be summed up in a word: decisive. We (like to think that we) walk in straight lines to specific destinations, rather than slaloming the sidewalk with our mouths hanging open; we exit through exits, rather than block them; we step completely off the escalator, rather than marvel that the ground is no longer moving; we know how to order coffee and other foods in venues that serve same, pay, and then step aside. We know these are skills. We value and respect these skills.

Not everyone does. Hence, fun rants, sometimes complete with phone photos of the offending parties.

Here is a sample, stripped of the photographic evidence:
The same two [expletive] people have been at the register for the past 5 minutes. I don't think they know what the [gentle expletive] they want and are asking the cashier to repeat the menu and then asking for substitutions. The [breakfast all day] menu is pretty simple. Not a [fancy pants European] restaurant serving small plates.

I am a control for the staff. My transaction takes about 80 seconds.
No, we should not switch to decaf. We are not addicts - we can stop anytime we wa...

But I digress. I also fail to understand people who go into restaurants - especially, but not limited to, CHAIN restaurants with limited and set menus - and want some dish that isn't really on the menu, but it is what they are in the mood for. I always assume these people were raised in places where they had to flat-bottom-boat their way to school, or where bears might have eaten their homework, and they simply don't know why restaurants have menus. Or perhaps their smart-ass cousin told them that there are 'wonderful restaurants where they serve anything you could want' in big cities, by which she meant that you can choose a restaurant that happens to serve what you want, not that ANY restaurant will serve ANYTHING you want, and that nuance was lost upon these folks when they left their caves.

I say these things for humor, but I know these people are not from caves, or swamps, or bear-country: they are from our own suburbs and even some of our own neighborhoods - they look the same as everyone else, they have our local accents, they have the same silly haircuts, they are only rarely dressed as lumberjacks. However, I still suspect this may be why cities used to be built surrounded by high walls: so people just outside the densest districts wouldn't be allowed in to waste everyone else's time while ordering food.

I've been in line behind people who had difficulty ordering a BAGEL. And I don't mean once they ask if you want it sliced or toasted, I mean they struggle to get to that phase.

I've heard people cite studies about how there are optimal LOW numbers of choices, after which people become vexed by having too many options. Because people are SILLY. But I didn't catch the details, because I had ordered my food quickly and efficiently, and was already enjoying my appetizer and beverage.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Monday, April 27, 2009

They don't charge you for being kind to them

  There actually is a website called Once you pick yourself up on the floor, you can enjoy such gems as:
Lawyers are just as good as bubble wrap and ice cream, in fact, they're better.
Obviously, this is hyperbole: when was the last time a lawyer kept your fragile package contents from breaking, or padded your thighs while curing your sweet tooth on a hot day?


posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Zombiefied Jane Austen plus Our Battlestar Galactica-obsessed President

  Recent spectacular highlights from the Onion (, "America's Finest News Source:"

l. Obama Depressed, Distant Since 'Battlestar Galactica' Series Finale ( The Onion has done a highly enjoyable job of giving our new president all manner of interests and personality traits, but there is something so special about Hamid Karzai discussing his insights on the President's favorite aspects of the series that just makes it PERFECT.

2. Tomato Genetically Modified To Be More Expensive ( This makes the most sense of any story about genetically engineered foods that I have ever read.

3. A review of the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith, a book review at The Onion's entertainment supplement which has just determined that THIS is the book I am reading next. From the review:
To the already-irresistible story of the prejudiced Elizabeth Bennett and the proud Mr. Darcy, Grahame-Smith adds only the lightest sprinkling of walking corpses, Shaolin training, katana duels, dojos on country estates, and young ladies succumbing to the strange plague. In his version, in addition to balls and officers and marriage, the Bennett sisters are committed to the defense of England against the undead armies of Lucifer, through their mastery of deadly Oriental arts. Yet such is the emotional power of Austen’s story and characters that not even revivified brain-chompers (easily fooled by cauliflowers, happily) detract from Elizabeth and Darcy’s rocky love affair.
Oh. My. Gawd. How do I not already own this?

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posted by Arlene (Beth)7:40 PM

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A few good books

  I am historically a voracious reader, but something about working in law and reading legalese all day has impaired the willingness of my eyes and brain to focus on other people's words at home, to a point. Despite this, I have enjoyed three very good books recently.

William Gibson's Spook Country is another one of his contemporary stories (like Pattern Recognition, which I wrote very briefly about here), with a few of his usual, clever perceptions about culture technology. It is the story of a woman who was once in a cult band, and is now trying to make a living as a writer. While hired to investigate some virtual art installations - very finely modeled, location specific, three dimensional scenes overlaid onto real space, invisible to those who don't have the right visual aids at the right time - she gets involved in international intrigue involving covert public and private operations, corrupt government "contractors," and paranoid computer techs. Especially clever ideas discussed include the atemporal nature of music in the file-sharing age, geographically specific virtual art (something that seems inevitable, yet still just out of reach, thanks to improvements in GPS and GPS-mimicking technologies), and a variety of observations about the modern art world.

The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson, is a roller coaster ride through, half-nanotechnology-dependent world, half virtual (narrated, illustrated, and imagined) world as experienced by one seemingly quite unlucky little girl. Her life is changed by an encounter with a book. Yes, you're thinking, that happened to me, too! No no no, this particular book is narrated by live actors, is responsive to questions and comments from the reader, is animated by computers, and is designed to develop one particular individual through a rigorous survival and technical training program over the course of about 16 years.

Don't be jealous.

Stephenson has all sorts of interesting details about this nanotech-built world: how drugs work, how ideas work, how personal and physical security work, all in a future where people put on group identities that are as strongly distinct as gang clothing or imperial fashions. Fun topics include tribalism, the implications of sex in a nanotech-saturated world, repression and rebellion in young girls, Confucian justice, Turing machines, undersea orgies, and thousands of Chinese orphans.

In addition, I just finished Stephenson's 900 or so page Anathem. This book is difficult to describe in a spoiler-free manner, and I really don't want to spoil it for you. But a safe overview might be: on a very earth-like planet, intellectuals lead a very formal, monastic existence in walled institutions that separate them from the petty distractions of so-called modern society. On this planet, whenever the intellectuals have allowed technology to exceed the bounds of society's ethical or conceptual limits, the intellectuals have been massacred and forced to start over, and for everyone's protection work only in primitive, low-technology conditions. Despite this, the intellectuals are the first people called upon when the world is under any sort of serious threat.

The book takes place during one such threat, and follows a rather unexceptional-yet-likable monk through some very exceptional circumstances.

This book is about: theory, practice, taking a long view, alternative realities, geometry, whether or not time is linear, pinhole photography, nuclear weapons, exploitative institutions, suspicions about your IT department, and whether or not it is wise to separate intellectuals from mainstream society for long periods of time rather than integrating them. Everything else it is about would be a spoiler.

This book made me think quite a bit about how my writing approach to certain topics differs from Stephenson's. This book was a completely engrossing read, but one of the main plot tools is so... grandiose I was rather stunned. Yes, for a book of this epic scope, it can work, and it does; yes, the tools are internally consistent with the narrative, and had been hinted at; yes, it was mostly satisfying, though I am apparently much more cruel to my characters than he is. Yes, there were other directions it could have gone. Yes, the book comes with a glossary and an appendix full of sample geometric proofs.

This is a book worth losing lots of sleep for.


posted by Arlene (Beth)11:30 PM

Monday, April 13, 2009

California landscapes: Sunol

  white tree in Sunol Regional Wilderness, photograph by A.E. Graves[This photograph is the best one I took while hiking in Sunol, though it is not representative of the overall landscape, which tends toward lush, rolling hills studded with spreading oaks.]

There is something about the name Sunol that just won't stick in my head. I cannot remember it: I am always convinced it should start with Sol- instead of Sun-.

Regardless, I went on a hike with my ex at the Sunol Regional Wilderness | East Bay Regional Park District ( because I had never been there, though I had biked through adjacent areas with the Fremont Freewheelers ( on their famous Primavera ride, which would have been our first century if it had not been raining for most of the riding, and hailing for key sections of it. So instead, we biked in rain and hail for a mere 100 kilometers on the 100k course instead. (Have I mentioned the remarkable sound that hail makes on a bike helmet? WOW.)

The Sunol Regional Wilderness has the classic, oak-studded, rolling-hill, lush-in-spring landscape you love in this state. And being there at midday was PERFECT for shooting images in infrared, when all of the new growth was positively glowing.

Did I mention that I've lost my infrared filter? I have. I can't find it. I wanted nothing more than to shoot in IR, and spent the entire day sighing as I looked at the world and knew that I wouldn't be able to capture that magical, magical glow. The time of day was perfect for it, the weather was perfect for it, yet... Yet... *sigh*

It was still a lovely hike.

There is an area of the park which is called the "Little Yosemite" area, because it has a creek with cascades and some granite boulders. It is nice in its own way, but it is nothing like Yosemite.

If you know the whereabouts of my IR filter, please let me know. And if you need some classic California landscapes, perhaps with a cow here or there, and lots of wildflowers at this time of year, this spot in Sunol is a good choice.


posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Mango Medley

  It sounds like a dessert place. It looks like a dessert place. But it is actually a full-service restaurant with a complete food menu, including a separate and extensive vegetarian menu! Mango Medley, at 3911 Judah St near 44th Avenue in the Sunset, was a place I popped into for lunch on a weekend photo walk. The vegetarian menu drew me in, but when I found out they make their own soy milk and have a hot ginger soy milk drink, I knew I'd picked the right place.

You can see the main Mango Medley Menu at, though there are a few dishes that seem to have been left out. Did I have a dish that claimed to be part Portuguese? Maybe? I think I did. I think it was amazing: powerfully redolent of garlic (and perhaps asafoetida?), full of potatoes and other filling veggies... it was heavenly, and nearly overpowering in flavor.

I highly recommend the "Tamarind Tofu And Veggies Over Rice," which is a fresh, spicy stir fry that is more interesting than nearly any dish I've ever had in any one-culture Asian restaurant. Then again, this is "Asian Fusion" in a really good way, so there are multiple influences that you can taste, without pinning a dish down as solely Thai, or solely Cambodian...

Did I mention the hot ginger soy milk? Get that. It is AMAZING.

I know the Yelp reviews complain loudly about the slowness of the service, because the restaurant is largely a 2-person, family operation. It was a little slow, but it was worth the wait. So, don't go there if you are about to faint. But do go there.


posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Really poor futurist prediction

  I cannot help but love this quote, from A Manual of Photographic Chemistry, Including the Practice of the Collodion Process, Sixth Edition, 1861 - Google Book Search:
Photographic printing has reached a point beyond which any further advance will be difficult. The Chapters relating to this subject have been once more re-arranged, but it is not anticipated that such a proceeding will again be necessary unless our present modes should be superseded.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)7:52 PM

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Artists Think

  I love photography and I love books, so I have been spending entirely too much time at the photo-eye ( website, and/or reading its newsletter. Wandering around the site, I came to a lengthy and really worthwhile interview: Photo-Eye Magazine: Hank Willis Thomas.

The interview covers many topics, and Thomas has many interesting things to say about how our culture works, how branding works, how African-American identity has been dramatically reshaped by advertising... All very relevant topics, with many quotable sections of the article along with his excellent work. But here's a quote I especially liked:
I think that when we go to look at contemporary art and we don't get it because it just a block of paint or whatever, we forget that our minds are trained to be organized and to think a certain way and we are not allowed to expand on simplicity or the absurdity of something. [Charles Long's] argument is that artists are really valuable to our society because they do what the society itself can not do, otherwise we turn into robots. We inform the world, we inform life. I don't know if it is directly going to affect change, but I think the fact that we have a certain portion of our society whose job it is to make us think about what we are looking at or the things we don't have time to think about in our daily life. We are pushing society forward and hopefully we can help to challenge things we disagree with, but in general I think we are working on the subconscious, and I am happy to be doing that.
This is a great way to describe one of art's many functions in society.

I recommend the entire interview: this is just a sample.


posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

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