Drag is waste. Reduce it.


Down with the Duke

As you have no doubt heard, Representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-CA) has admitted to accepting bribes in excess of $2.4E6 in exchange for showing favoritism in the awarding of military contracts.

The whole debacle is summed-up nicely in this New York Times article.

In addition to losing his seat (actually, he stepped down, but what's the difference?), Cunningham will likely be subject to heavy fines and/or jail time. Not to mention the fact that no one will trust or respect him ever again.

Harsh? Yes. Deserved? Absolutely.

We give public servants the authority to make decisions on our behalf. This system is grounded in the fact that we trust public servants to use their power for the common good. Abuses of that trust undermine the system, are detrimental to the common good, and should not be tolerated.

To make matters worse, Cunningham "forgot" to report all that bribe money as income on his tax forms, so you can add the IRS to the long list of people who are angry with him.


Thank you, Google.

I'll second that.

That Starbucks Magic

I picked up a cup of coffee from Starbucks on my way in to the office this morning.

My office has free coffee in the kitchen. Starbucks coffee, in fact. We have boxes and boxes of "Starbucks House Blend" grounds, and a big carafe-style drip brewer and pots.

I admit that it feels wasteful to spend the buck-and-change at Starbucks when I can nominally get the same thing gratis down the hall. Nominally.

After a few months of switching back and forth between what my colleagues like to refer to as "house" (brewed here) and "industrial" (brewed at Starbucks), I can say with authority that industrial is much better coffee.

I can see how this would be in Starbucks' best interest — they make more money on serving coffee than selling grounds or beans, I'm sure, so they want to keep you coming back — but how do they do it? A few possible explanations for this phenomenon come to mind. Clearly, the point at which my office's house coffee diverges from Starbucks' industrial coffee could occur at any stage in the coffee-making process, which goes, for the uninitiated, like this:

1. get some coffee beans;
2. grind the beans to get grounds;
3. brew the grounds in hot water to get coffee; and
4. serve the coffee.

A divergence at stage 1 would imply that the beans Starbucks uses when they make their coffee are not the same as the beans they sell for other people to use when making their coffee. This would be an unconscionable (read: evil, but clever) thing for Starbucks to do, but you never know. Unfortunately, it's also untestable — it's unlikely that I'll get my hands on any un-brewed Starbucks beans or grounds from behind the counter. For the sake of further speculation, we're going to have to assume that this is not the case.

The issue at stage 2 is not so much a matter of whether there is a divergence, but of the significance of the divergence. It is a fact that Starbucks grinds their beans immediately prior to brewing their coffee, whereas ours were ground and packaged an unknown amount of time prior to brewing, and it is a fact that fresh-ground beans make better coffee. The question is: can this account for the drastic taste differece? Correct me if I'm wrong, but I seriously doubt it.

There are two possible discrepancies at stage 3: the grounds-to-water ratio and the brewing method. Any sort of definitive analysis here is going to be tricky.

The grounds-to-water ratio is not known for either case, and while it could be directly measured in the house case, the industrial case is hopeless. Furthermore, experimentation is limited by the fact that the grounds-to-water ratio is not easily adjustable with large, automatic brewers. The method by which the brewer determines the rate at which it should add water to the grounds is unknown, and if the rate is fixed, as seems likely, then an increase in the amount of grounds in the filter could lead to an Overflow Issue. If there is an optical sensor or something, then it would probably work out fine... but what are the odds of that? I could use my personal Brewing Device (the small french press) and play with the grounds-to-water ratio, but french press coffee is sufficiently different from drip coffee that the results of such a test would be difficult to interpret.

Regarding the brewing method, the industrial situation is again unknown. Here, however, simple Covert Observations and/or Questioning of Barristas could prove fruitful. I will investigate this issue further, and report back.

And this brings us, at last, to stage 4. Perhaps it's all mental. Maybe it's more satisfying to trade hard cash for one of those classic Starbucks disposable hot-beverage cups filled with steaming coffee than to simply pump your mug full and walk back to your desk. Then again, maybe they're slipping a little something into the half-and-half.

I intend to continue my investigation, but in the end, I think, it is a moot point. Even if they did taste the same, sometimes you just need to go to Starbucks.


"Check it out" of the Week

Album Cover:  A Grand Don't Come for Free - The Streets

A Grand Don't Come for Free
The Streets.

I won't blame you if the Streets aren't your speed, but I think they're great. Catchy, smart, and a little bit wacky. What's not to like?

Album cover courtesy of Amazon

Today I have achieved absolutely naught.
By just being out of the house, I've lost out.
If I had wanted to end up with more now,
I should have just stayed in bed like I know how.
- "It Was Supposed To Be So Easy", The Streets


Irony vs. Coincidence

The concept of irony is oft misused. Because this happens to be a pet-peeve of mine, I've been attempting to educate my friends on the subject. Thanks to my campaign, they now look over their shoulders to see if I'm around before calling anything ironic. Admittedly, this is not exactly the result I was going for... but it's a start.

A thorough entry here seems like a good way to reach a broader audience — and if even one of you thinks twice the next time the word "ironic" comes to mind, then the world will be a better place. So — let's set the record straight.

Several different concepts fall under the umbrella of irony, and this is, perhaps, one source of confusion. The concept I will focus on here is called situational irony1. From now on, whenever I say "irony," I'm referring specifically to situational irony. When I say something is "NOT IRONIC," though, I'm probably talking about irony in general. OK... that said, here we go.

Situational irony is the type of irony you are most likely to come across — or use — in conversation. As used here, situational irony is defined as:

Incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs.

It sounds harmless, I know. The big issue, in my experience, is that the concept of situational irony is often confused with that of coincidence.2 As used here, coincidence is defined as:

A sequence of events that, although accidental, seems to have been planned or arranged.

Pay close attention now, because this is where it gets confusing. To call a fact or event ironic is to make a statement about the relationship between the actuality of a fact or event and one's expectations regarding that fact or event. To call a fact or event coincidental, on the other hand, is to make a statement about the relationship between that fact or event and another, independent fact or event.

I know it sounds confusing, but it really isn't. Consider the situation described below as an example of what I'm talking about.

Person A and Person B are driving; they approach an intersection at which there is a traffic light, and collide.

Bystander C reports the accident, and Police Offer D arrives at the scene shortly. D finds that while B is clear and coherent, A is fairly tipsy.

Based on this information, D makes the following statment to C: "Well, it's pretty clear what happened here. Drunk drivers... what a menace."

As it turns out, though, B is as much to blame as A. B was not paying attention, and ran the light when it was red; alcohol-impaired as he was, A could not stop in time to avoid the accident.

C, having witnessed the collision, responds thus to D's statement: "Ironically, officer, B is as much to blame as A. It's really an unfortunate coincidence that B ran the light right in front of a drunk driver."

So... raise your hand if you followed that. Ooooookay, I'll explain. C knows what he's talking about (har har har). Because A was drunk, one would expect the accident to have been entirely his fault. The actuality of the event — the fact that B is also to blame — is incongruous with the expectation, and is thus ironic. What one must keep in mind, however, is that B's crime (running the red light) and A's (driving drunk) were completely independent events that happened to interact in an unexpected way — quite a coincidence.

See? It's easy. For another simple example, check out this quote from the homepage of Purity Ice Cream:

Purity's home office is located in Ithaca NY, ironically the birthplace of the American ice cream sundae.

Purity is an ice cream company based in Ithaca, NY? Fact. Ithaca, NY is the birthplace of the American ice cream sundae? Fact. The relationship between the two? Coincidence. Coincidence. Coincidence.

And for some reason, people never call ironies coincidental. It is a one-way mistake. No, I don't get it either, but here's a little trick. Next time you are about to say "Gee, that's ironic.", do me a favor and think first. Ask yourself: "Gee, is that coincidental?" If the answer is "yes," then it is probably NOT IRONIC.

Now for a more advanced example (my personal favorite) — the song "Ironic," by Alanis Morissette. "Isn't it ironic?", asks Alanis. "No, it isn't.", answers Drag Reduction.

To fully appreciate this blasphemy, I recommend checking out the complete lyrics. There is a relatively good copy available here. Below are some choice examples of Alanis' little "ironies":

1. A death row pardon, two minutes too late;
2. Rain on your wedding day;
3. A free ride when you've already paid;
4. A traffic jam when you're already late; and
5. Ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife.

These are only five of the many events Ms. Morissette uses as examples of irony in her song, and with maybe one minor exception,3 they just aren't. They're not necessarily coincidental (although most are), but that doesn't mean they are ironic.

But here's a little meta-irony for you. In a song entitled "Ironic", Ms. Morissette gives numerous examples... none of which are ironic. Isn't that ironic? Yes. Yes it is.4

1 The wonderful Wikipedia has an excellent entry on irony here.
2 Dictionary.com has an interesting "usage note" on this issue here.
3 The plane crash might qualify as ironic, if properly interpreted. Maybe.
4 Apparently I'm not nearly the first person to point this out. Wikipedia has an entry on Alanis' "Ironic", describing the whole situation in great detail.


Riots in France

Gated communities operate based on a small-scale social contract. As a resident, one implicitly agrees not to commit crimes against others within the community. The penalty for residents who violate this contract is simple -- above and beyond being subjected to traditional legal troubles, violators are expelled from the community.

Upon becoming a resident of a nation, a similar social contract applies. Similar but different. Commit a crime, and your nation will punish you to a greater or lesser extent. What your nation will NOT do, is deport you.

That is, most nations would not. According to this article in the New York Times, France is taking a somewhat different route. For those who aren't aware, "youths" in France, many of them foreigners, have been rioting for about two weeks now -- burning cars, smashing windows, and whatnot. The riots were supposedly spurred by the somewhat questionable deaths of two of young men who were electrocuted while fleeing police.1

As of today, French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy -- who has been widely criticized for labeling the rioters as "scum" -- has announced that foreigners caught rioting will be deported.

According to the article, humans rights groups are already calling for this order to be rescinded, saying that it is "illegal and needlessly provocative."

Illegal? Doubtful.
Provocative? Certainly.
Needlessly? I don't think so.

Riots are nothing but violence and destruction. They accomplish nothing, and there is no excuse. None. If you want to live in a civilized country, try acting like civilized human beings. I say throw them out, and good riddance.

1 Details about this incident are decidedly lacking. My personal feeling is that anyone who chooses to "flee police" was probably causing trouble in the first place, and is asking for more by running. Unless there is more to it, I don't have much sympathy.


Pod Racket

For those who weren't aware, it's somewhat difficult to find a reasonably-priced, single-serving coffee maker. As my girlfriend does not partake, I found this to be a bit of a problem when looking to brew my own coffee a few months ago.

There aren't many options on the market, and the majority require proprietary one-use coffee capsules. The names and geometries of these capsules vary by manufacturer -- Keurig has their K-Cups, Braun's Tassimo uses T-DISCS, and Phillips' Senseo takes Pods -- but the one thing they all have in common is that they cost substantially more per cup of coffee than buying grounds or beans.

It's the classic razor and blades business model. Buy one of those coffee makers, and you are locked in to that company's capsules... which is exactly what they want, because that's where they make their money. They will gladly give the coffee makers away if it gets you to start buying the capsules... and, in fact, they are. Flipping through the paper the other day, I came across an advertisement for the Senseo "Drop the Drip" campaign. The gist of it is that if you bring in your old drip-style coffee maker, they'll gladly take it off your hands and, in return, give you a brand new Senseo coffee maker... for free. It's marketing brilliance! Not only do they get you started on their product, but they take away your old one to leave you with no alternative.

No thank you, says Drag Reduction. What a racket.

I ended up buying a small french press, in case you were interested. It is working out fairly well, though muddy coffee takes some getting used to. More on that later.


ab initio

I've decided that it's time for me to share my opinions with the world.

I hope you're ready to listen.


  • Purpose: user-interface critique (ranting), among other things.
  • Justification: I use things; I have opinions; I have a blog.