Monthly Archives: May 2012

Who says our government is sterile and soulless?

It is a political year (which suggests that some years are not political?) and a popular view is that government — local, state, national, international — is enriched in extravagant luxury.

Those who work in government have a different view. Far from luxury, government offices — except those of elected officials — tend to be austere. Supplies are limited. Office automation is basic. The buildings are frequently placed in locations no one else would build, limiting access to restaurants and parks.

There are some exceptions. Take, for example, this brand-new government building:

Soulless government building

Soulless government building

Who says government buildings lack soul? Can there be anything more cheerful and vibrant than this hallway, part of a new facility built in a swamp in Northern Virginia? If you look real hard, you’ll notice a spot of color way, way down that hallway.

It has all the latest features, including vending machines that charge 25 cents per purchase if you use a credit card to buy something.

Bumper sticker versus Nissan Leaf

Bumper sticker

When you have a car and you are willing to ruin the paint job by sticking a bumper sticker on the car, you obviously have something to say. It may be something temporary, such as “Vote for Gus Gusterminendorf for Sheriff ’02,” which looks a tad dated in 2012, or it could be something eternal such as “Life! Live it!”

But generally speaking, a bumper sticker message should be brief. Brevity is desirable for a number of reasons, such as:

  • Size. Your standard bumper sticker is about a foot wide and about four inches long. Some are larger, some are smaller, but the size alone dictates that the message shouldn’t include the entire text of the Magna Carta, to take one example. (Though that would be way cool.)
  • Font size. Related to physical size is font size: letters on a bumper sticker should be seen at a distance. While cars spend most of their lives parked (instead of automobiles, they should be called semimobiles), they don’t attract a great deal of attention when they aren’t moving. When they are moving, cars are dangerous, and you should pay attention to them — but from a distance. Hence, the need for a decently large font size.
  • Attention span. Since you pay attention to cars when they are in motion, but mostly from a distance, this dictates that you generally do not have the time to examine them in detail. For most of drivers, other cars are generally lumped into one of two categories: threats, and non-threats. Threats are vehicles that may, in the next 30 seconds or so, kill you or dent your car or delay you from whatever you were trying to do. Non-threats are all other vehicles.
  • Competing distractions. Related to attention span, driving is complex. Not only are there other vehicles trying to kill you, but there are (depending on where you are driving) magnificent coastal vistas, or beautiful mountains, or torrents of rain falling from the sky, or neon lights flashing brightly, or flurries of signs (especially on weekends) announcing every home in your neighborhood seems to be “For Sale!” Your bumper sticker should stand out from the noise, even if it is on a car that is not immediately in the threat category.

Given the competing design considerations for a bumper sticker, this sticker:

"We must all rise above --- aiiie!" Crash

“We must all rise above — aiiie!” Crash. Photo taken by Lawrence I. Charters with an iPhone.

flaunts convention:

  • Size. The size of the bumper sticker does not match the message.
  • Font size: the font size is too small for anyone to follow at a safe distance. This, combined with being entirely in UPPER CASE, makes it all but impossible to read by anyone not standing immediately behind the parked car, as I was.
  • Attention span: this is way, way too long a message for a bumper sticker. In fact, at 108 characters, it is on the longer end of the average Tweet. While it might fit nicely on a giant billboard, trying to read it while driving would be a challenge.
  • Competing distractions: It is a green bumper sticker on a green car. “Hey! Look at my bumper sticker! It is cleverly hidden on my car somewhere!”
  • Neatness counts: Note that the bumper sticker isn’t exactly evenly applied. In order to fit on the vehicle, it starts in an area that is reasonably flat, crosses over a ridge, and descends into another area — but even then the right edge is not cleanly attached.

Nissan Leaf

For contrast, consider the Nissan Leaf. The Leaf is an embodiment of the “less is more” movement when it comes to automobiles. It isn’t particularly large, and it doesn’t use up much gasoline. Or diesel. In fact, it doesn’t use any at all: it is 100% electric. While it lacks the iconic body style of the Prius (possibly because the Prius is a priori?), you can’t drive one of these without proclaiming “I care about my children and don’t want to use up 100% of the world’s oil in my lifetime.”

Nissan Leaf: a moving bumper sticker for conserving resources

Nissan Leaf: a moving bumper sticker for conserving resources. Photo by Lawrence I. Charters, taken with an iPhone. And yes, I was parked; the light changed just as I pushed the button.

Admittedly, it is something of an understated message. The “Leaf” name is not particularly large. There is no giant logo shouting this to be a petroleum-free vehicle. Yet the style is sufficiently different from most cars to make you wonder “What is that?” And after you discover it is a Leaf, you might notice the bumper sticker stuck in the corner of the back window: “This is what the end of gasoline looks like.” Or, from a greater distance, you might notice the license plate: “GAS SUX.”

On the whole, while the message on the bumper sticker is perfectly fine, I’d rather have a Leaf.

Comforting kid-friendly sign

Anyone living in Japan is impressed with how far the country goes to be kid friendly. There are children’s parks in even the most crowded neighborhoods. The calendar has a number of formal and informal holidays and festivals dedicated to children.

Then there is the United States. In a semi-rural “bedroom” community, with scerene vistas of green spaces and bike paths, what could be more comforting than these three signs in a tot lot telling parents or guardians that they are (a) on their own and (b) here’s the information you need to call the cops or an ambulance.

Children's playground notice

Children's playground notice

So cheerful and comforting.

Literate scam artist

Pretty much everyone on the planet that is both literate and has an Internet connection has purchased something from Amazon. And if you purchase something from Amazon, there is an excellent chance you have a valid, active credit card.

Having a credit card, in turn, makes you a valuable target of Internet scam artists. Internet scams now rake in more money than bank robberies, and they do so without the risk of being shot and killed committing the crime. The conviction rate for Internet scams is also lower. And if you are going to commit an Internet crime, you might as well pick a big, juicy target.

Like Amazon. But not Amazon the company, since Amazon itself plays no role in the scam. Instead, the scam victim receives a message that appears to be from Amazon, and in fact several of the links in the message point back to Amazon:

Your Amazon order that you never ordered comes to $82.99, and includes an $80 Kindle book.

Your Amazon order that you never ordered comes to $82.99, and includes an $80 Kindle book that normally sells for $12.99 and a $2.99 gift certificate, clearly for someone you don't care about.

The links that point to Amazon: at the top, in the Order Information section plus the Learn More link on the same line, in the Oder summary section, the book title, the advertisements across the bottom, and the bolded at the bottom.

The links that work and point to scum bag scammers: Your Account at the top, and Your Account at the bottom. Click on these, and you’ll be prompted with an Amazon-appearing page that requests your name and password.

And that’s it: you’ve now provided the scammers with a name and password tied to an active credit card. Using this information — and nothing more — the scammers can log into Amazon and spend your money buying gift certificates for themselves and others, or pots and pans, or almost anything else Amazon sells.

Isn’t technology wonderful?

Adventures in grocery shopping

In the old days, all shopping was organic. You went to the store and got flour and beans and other dry goods in 25 or 50 pound sacks, got fruits and vegetables in baskets or bushels, and then went home and spent all day washing, soaking, peeling, and otherwise preparing the organic food to be consumed by organic people.

Today, we have prepared foods, designed to reduce the pain and suffering of shopping. Sometimes.

According to legend, I am allergic to nuts. I have no knowledge or memory of this, but allegedly I once consumed three of my favorite nuts, stopped breathing and passed out.

Second important fact: I like brownies. Put these two facts together, and I think Giant Foods is trying to kill me:

Deadly brownies on sale at Giant Foods.

Deadly brownies on sale at Giant Foods. Or possibly nutty signage.

On the other hand, the mislabeled poisonous brownies cost the same as the non-deadly versions.

In other news, I discovered Giant also sells milk from condensed goats. Condensed goats are perfect for an urban area. In scientific terms, I suppose they have a reduced x-height and are more tightly kerned (and possibly churned):

Condensed goats, perfect for urban living

Condensed goats, perfect for urban living. Gourmet, even.

Gourmet taste, no less. And apparently organic, though I’ve never heard of an inorganic goat.

Finally, I found a possible cause for Frank Herbert’s Butlerian Jihad, mentioned in his Dune novels:

Where will you find Erewhon cereal?

This either caused Herbert's Butlerian Jihad in "Dune" or a novel approach to utopia.

Or maybe that was Samuel Butler. In any event, nowhere around here. But organic.

Of chocolate and wasabi

One of my coworkers recently took a trip to Japan. She’s always been fascinated with Japanese life and culture, and even went there on her honeymoon.

As I, too, am fascinated in Japan, though my fascination extends more into the scholarly fields, she brought me back a memento. The memento is also something of a challenge:

KitKat bar from Japan - with wasabi

KitKat bar from Japan - with wasabi. It is both a candy and a challenge. (iPhone photo by Lawrence I. Charters)

She was (and is) most curious to see if I would eat it. I share her curiosity; it is still sitting on my desk.


PowerPoint and Tufte

Not sure of the original source, but half a zillion people sent me this:

For those of you unfamiliar with Edward Tufte, he is a professor emeritus of political science, computer science and statistics at Yale University. He is famous for his graphical analysis and depiction of statistical information, and for his work in visualization.