Monthly Archives: August 2007

Last Day and New Beginnings

Music Millenium - Last Day sign

Today was the last day of the Music Millenium store in NW Portland, as noted earlier.  They had live music on their stage just about all day long, and this evening the store was packed.  The forty percent discount in the last few weeks has drawn the inventory down quite a bit, but tonight I still found a couple things.  So for the record my last purchases there were John Coltrane’s Live at Birdland (1963 recordings, both live and studio in fact) and Tom Verlaine’s Songs and Other Things (2006).

Below is store owner Terry introducing the second to last band, Stars of Track and Field.

Terry on Last Day

This certainly marks the end of an era in the neighborhood, and so we’ll see where things go from here!

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At Wit's End

Theresa Duncan

I think it was about a year ago that I came across the blog The Wit of the Staircase, perhaps there was a link on it back to DeLillo, I don’t quite remember now, but in any case I added it to my blogroll, and would take a look every now and then. The blog was run by a woman I didn’t know, Theresa Duncan, and it had a great visual look as well as intriguing posts.

My visit yesterday found a final posting on the blog by Glenn O’Brien, a eulogy of sorts for Duncan. I then remembered the stories recently about the artist couple that had apparently committed suicide, one after the other, Theresa Duncan first and then Jeremy Blake. In scouting around the web I find that the Duncan-Blake deaths seem to have inspired a large set of conspiracy musings; see here, and here and here. All very strange.

Bottom line is that sadly The Wit is now off the blogroll.

What can you walk to?

Walk Score

Via The Oil Drum I note this site called Walkscore, which is simply a Google map overlaid with a variety of everyday businesses and services in the local area, then scored to give a ‘walkability’ index for the address. It’s pitched as a real estate service, and it does seem like it would be helpful to scope out some neighborhood if you’re unfamiliar with it. But it does have (and acknowledge) a number of limitations, so obviously you need to look at a neighborhood for yourself!

It’s no accident that almost every previous address of mine scores very high on walkability – it’s one of the main factors I’m looking for in a place to live.

Of course preferences vary, and some folks would score walkability very low, though it will be interesting to see how gas prices relate to that preference.

A Distillation

Distillers Festival

Today I went to a distiller’s festival, sponsored by Rogue, featuring the products of local distilleries along with a set of talks on the subject. I never have quite gotten this topic straight in my mind, so this was very helpful and interesting, and I hope to get most of the salient facts into this post so I have a good record of it!

Some basics: the big classes of distilled drinks are whiskeys, rums, brandies and vodka. Distilling has been done for 500 years or more, and it involves boiling off the alcohol in a fermented brew, and condensing that steam and then producing a final product. There are various types of alcohol in a fermented brew, and they have different boiling points that are all less than the boiling point of water. The initial distillations are of pretty nasty stuff that is basically nail polish remover (called the ‘head’), so you don’t want to drink that. Then comes the ‘heart’ which is the drinkable alcohol. You can do many distillations, which tends to reduce the final product to just alcohol, and that’s essentially what they do for vodka – it is supposed to be distilled to 190 proof, then water (and other things) are added back in.

Whiskey is distilled from ‘beer’ – essentially some fermented grain brew, not what we buy in stores. Rum is distilled from a sugar brew, from molasses. Brandy is distilled from a fruit brew. Vodka can be made from virtually any brew, since it’s so distilled that the original flavor essentially disappears.

Details on whiskey: Scotch whisky is obviously from Scotland. Single Malt is the product of a single distillery, using a brew of malted barley. Blended Scotch is the product of a mixture of whiskys from multiple distilleries (there are currently about 90 distilleries in Scotland, but only about 3 in Ireland). Scotch often has a peaty flavor, from the fact that burned peat is used to dry the barley. The famous blended whiskys were made by shopkeepers with now famous names like Dewars, Chivas, Johnny Walker, and they really got established when there was a disease in the French grapes that devastated the wines and brandies (1880s). Single malts have come more into favor in recent years.

Bourbon comes originally from Bourbon county in Kentucky (originally one of three large counties in the Kentucky territory, now a much smaller county). Nowadays there are a number of rules that ‘define’ a bourbon: the brew must consist of at least 51% corn, along with some malt barley and perhaps some rye or wheat; it must be aged in new American Oak barrels; it must be aged at least 2 years; it must be distilled to no more than 160 proof; and surely some other things too. (Note that the ‘new barrels’ requirement results from some protectionist legislation). The amber color and various flavors come from the wood during aging; as temperatures vary during the year, the whiskey is absorbed into the wood and then comes back out. The used barrels are then often sent to Scotland for use in aging the Scotch whisky, which tends to make it the case that Scotch must age longer since some of the barrel flavor is already ‘used up’ from earlier use.  In Scotland they also use Spanish Oak barrels (those used for sherry, for example).

Canadian whiskey tends to be all blended, and there are not any very strict definitions of what it is, so a variety of things may be blended together, making it an almost ‘too smooth’ drink.

Distilling tends to be highly regulated. In the U.S. you need a federal permit as well as local permits, and you can’t get these unless you essentially already know the business and have the equipment. However there does appear to be a burgeoning local distilling movement afoot, one that’s getting a good start in Oregon, in part following the local brewing trend. Perhaps one day we’ll have an Oregon Whiskey that is as well known as the Scotch, Irish and Bourbon whiskeys!

The festival goes on tomorrow as well at the Gerding Theater in Portland.

Aug 30: Updated with a few extra details and corrections.

The Edifice Complex – Deyan Sudjic (2005)

The Edifice Complex

The Edifice Complex by Deyan Sudjic is a book on architecture, architects and their patrons. The subtitle, “How the Rich and Powerful Shape the World” may make you think it’s some sort of communist rant, but no, it’s actually quite literal. Overwhelmingly the choices of what buildings are erected are made by the wealthy and powerful people in society. The interesting question is to what end, and how well does it work?

The book examines the building programs of some of the more powerful political figures of the century, starting with Hitler, Stalin and Mao, and then moving along to related topics like the U.S. Presidential libraries, iconic structures like the Bilbao Guggenheim, other museums and government buildings, and ending with a chapter on high-rises, starting with the WTC. Sudjic is interested in the relationship of the patron and the architect, the egotism of both, and the impact of the finished work on both them and the rest of the world.

The book touches on interesting bits of history and biography. I’d recommend it, though I did find that the book jumps around quite a bit, as shorter bits on people like the Shah of Iran and the Marcoses get slotted in to various themed chapters.

Counter-intuitive?

Poor lighting

From the August 20, 2007 New Yorker, “The Dark Side” by David Owen (not online), about the decrease in true darkness at night due to all the lighting. Here’s the counter-intuitive (which of course makes sense once you think about it):

Much so-called security lighting is designed with little thought for how eyes – or criminals – operate. Marcus Felson, a professor at the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University, has concluded lighting is effective mainly if it enables people to notice criminal activity as it’s taking place, and if it doesn’t help criminals to see what they’re doing. Bright, unshielded floodlights – one of the most common types of outdoor security lights in the country – often fail on both counts….

In the early seventies, the public-school system in San Antonio, Texas, began leaving many of its school buildings, parking lots, and other property dark at night and found that the no-lights policy not only reduced energy costs but also dramatically cut vandalism.

Here’s an interesting page that shows examples of bad and better lighting solutions.

Devin Phillips – Mission Theater – 17-Aug-2007

Devin Phillips Quartet

I really enjoyed last night’s show by the Devin Phillips and the New Orleans Straight Ahead band at the Mission Theater. Devin is from New Orleans, and after Katrina came to Portland. He’s a strong young sax player, and he’s got a great band (Austin Oliver on keys, Eric Gruber on bass, Mark DiFlorio on drums), plus they were joined on several numbers by trumpet player Farnell Newton. They played two sets, covering several Joe Henderson tunes, ‘Lush Life’, ‘Misterioso’, and many more. I recommend you check them out if you’re a jazz fan!

25 Standard Deviations??

Bell Curve

From an Aug 13 Financial Times story on the losses at Goldman Sachs:

“We were seeing things that were 25-standard deviation moves, several days in a row,” said David Viniar, Goldman’s chief financial officer. “There have been issues in some of the other quantitative spaces. But nothing like what we saw last week.”

Now either the virtually impossible is happening on a regular basis, or the bell-curve models these guys are using are way off. I vote the latter. I think Taleb would agree.

via Brad deLong.

Update:  deLong subsequently posted a few other things on this topic, suggesting that it’s not a bell curve model – but the same principle still applies – it seems that too many folks in the business do not fully understand their risks.

Good Bumper Sticker

Saw it yesterday:

“Don’t Believe Everything You Think”

The Myth of the Rational Voter – Bryan Caplan (2007)

The Myth of the Rational Voter

The Myth of the Rational Voter gives you a pretty good idea of the contents from the title… Caplan is an economist at George Mason University, and his book argues that in most cases voters can afford to be irrational in their policy preferences because there’s so little personal cost. (As opposed to consumer behavior where you face the consequences of your actions fairly directly). Your one vote will very rarely make a big difference, so essentially you can vote based on your beliefs without influencing the outcome.

He’s arguing against the notion that voters act in their self-interest, in part because they are often confused about what would actually be in their self-interest; and it’s not that they are ignorant of the facts, it’s more that they’re confident in their systematically biased beliefs (and have little incentive to challenge their own beliefs).

Caplan’s argument runs on the basis of some of what he states to be economic ‘truths’ which are not well grasped by much of the general populace, leading to systematic bias in belief: antimarket bias, antiforeign bias, make-work bias, and pessimistic bias. He claims (and I think it’s generally true) that economists are in agreement that these biases are errors (acknowledging lots of exceptions). By voting based on these biases, voters favor policies that may not work well at all.

So, as his subtitle (‘Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies’) indicates, he’s arguing that politicians are in a bind; they must give the voters what they want, but the voters often want poor policies. If they implement poor policies, they’ll probably lose their jobs sooner or later, so politicians find ways to implement other policies sometimes (and break promises) without making all the voters mad.

It’s an interesting argument, and one that mostly makes sense to me. Now it may be that democracy is still the best solution available, but it does raise some questions worth asking (such as what other biased beliefs do most people hold?).