Aesthetics of Everywhere

The urban scene, its people and processes. Based in DC.

Archive for the ‘oddities’ Category

Claims to Fame

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I love arriving at a new place that welcomes visitors with a sign that goes beyond the standard highway sign. They show off local pride and give you a sense of place that helps you distinguish it from any other town. Small towns in America often plaster their claims to fame on their welcome signs, ranging from the modest (Twin Bridges, Montana: “The Small Town That Cares”) to the baffling (Alexandria, Minnesota: “Birthplace of America”). I looked that one up later.

Birthplace of America

Many towns, of course, merely describe their physical location. Portland, Michigan, for example, calls itself the “City of Two Rivers,” which I suppose you won’t argue; it sits at the confluence of the Grand River and the Looking Glass River. Some towns pay respects to the local fauna, which I like to think may be more abundant than the people there. This could be the case of Norwalk, Wisconsin, “The Black Squirrel Capital of the World.”

Others were amusing to me when read in succession. We were welcomed by a sign to Fargo, North Dakota: “Gateway to the West” only to find that a few days of riding later we were in Mandan, North Dakota: “Where the West Begins.” I guess the gateway to the west is positioned two hundred miles east of where the west actually starts. It goes to show you how flexible place boundaries are depending on who you ask.

However, my favorite small town claim to fame may have to be the welcome sign for Marion, North Dakota: “Why Not Stop & Stretch” – simple and self-effacing. And a perfect suggestion if you’re cycling through.

Written by Crystal Bae

September 1st, 2013 at 5:04 pm

Choose the Path of Switchbacks

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Discovery of the day: Along California’s Route 1 between Pacifica and the new Tom Lantos tunnel, you can choose to ride this path of tightly stacked switchbacks. It’s a gentle grade and quite meditative to ride up this way, though it won’t save you any time versus continuing on Route 1. Heading south on 1, just turn right onto Rockaway Beach Avenue and left into a parking area that leads to the path.

Switchbacks alongside Route 1

The above photo is a view from the top, and you can see Route 1 on the right. It’s worth reclaiming a moment of calm on your ride.

Written by Crystal Bae

August 14th, 2013 at 11:44 pm

State-Specific Alcohol Laws

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Sometimes you come across strange laws or practices isolated to one place.

In Pennsylvania, for example, you have to go to the beer distribution store to get bottles or cans of beer in large quantities, but the beer store doesn’t sell smaller quantities such as six-packs. To get a six-pack, you have to go to a restaurant or bar with a liquor license, who can sell you a six-pack to go. And hard liquor is sold only through state-controlled stores. You potentially have to make several stops if you’re looking to stock up.

Several northern states we’ve passed through, like North Dakota, also advertise “on or off sale,” which for awhile I couldn’t figure out. Turns out it’s also alcohol-related, and that establishment can sell alcohol for both on-premises and off-premises consumption.

Montana, with its heralded craft brewery scene, also has some quirky regulations. Montana law limits customers to 48 ounces (or three pints) of beer in its brewery tasting rooms. Breweries can’t serve food in the tasting rooms, either – it’s purely beer tasting. In Billings, we visited Angry Hank’s Brewery, where they do make popcorn for you to enjoy with your $3 pints, but there’s no food menu to order from. The hours that a brewery can be open are also controlled by the state; every brewery we’ve seen has the same tasting hours posted, which were 4 to 8pm.

Angry Hank's in Billings

Written by Crystal Bae

July 13th, 2013 at 4:24 pm

Approaching Max Density: Kowloon Walled City

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The 99% Invisible podcast recorded an episode about the Kowloon Walled City, a fascinating example of a city block that reached unrestrained levels of density. From the 1940s to 1980s, Kowloon Walled City (KWC) was largely ungoverned, “autonomous from both China and Britain,” run mainly by various criminal groups. People built upwards as well as into any open spaces – the chances of daylight reaching into the lower levels grew slimmer as more people moved in. At its peak, over 30,000 inhabitants lived in an area the size of a single city block. Without regulation, KWC continued to grow ever more complex and interwoven as residents flooded in. It was known as the ”City of Darkness”. Trash was discarded out of the windows, electricity was pirated from the grid, and any business could set up without intervention from authorities. KWC was a massive city within a single block.

In the early 1990s, the Chinese and British governments agreed that it had to be torn down and the Hong Kong government began evicting residents. By 1994, Kowloon Walled City was demolished. Today there lies a neatly maintained park.

Kowloon Walled City (Photo by Ian Lambot)

Kowloon Walled City (Photo by Ian Lambot)

The 99% Invisible podcast episode on Kowloon Walled City is worth the listen, a good summary in only 15 minutes.

Further reading and more background available online:

Written by Crystal Bae

November 27th, 2012 at 12:04 pm

Strange Search Engine Terms

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Occasionally I’ll take a look at the search engine terms (what people input into say, a Google search bar) that first-time visitors use to find my site, producing a range of informative to downright confusing views into the intents of readers. These search phrases can be as puzzling as floccinaucinihilipilification photographers or how to have a story for every occasion (I certainly don’t).

Google - I'm Feeling Lucky

Plenty of people looking for cool maps or charts, and travel-related searches are common as well: mind map for london; time value of money chart; garbage manila bay; how to buy standing room tickets on ktxmap of states that florida’s coastline runs through (?). 

And many references to Modernist literature, and the “aesthetics of ___ ” searches abound.

Then there are the accidentally poetic: turn a factory into a home; prison money card; young buddhist let go.

If you have a WordPress blog, you can find these search engine terms – the most recent and the most frequently used – in the Stats area of your blog dashboard.

Written by Crystal Bae

February 8th, 2012 at 10:06 pm

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Everyday Lessons Learned: December 2011, Week 1

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Already a week into December, and I’m not looking forward to the holiday shopping season – I work near a mall, meaning traffic is nearly at a standstill for the last few weeks of the month. Fortunately, in December there are also a lot of distractions in the form of festive parties and visiting friends.

Things I’ve learned in the past week:

1. Dr. Cornel West is an inspiration. He could convince anybody to devote their life to activism.

2. Ever thought about regionally-specific hand gestures? I hadn’t until a friend from Michigan taught me what a Michigan hug is: two friends press their palms together and wrap their thumbs around each other’s hand. There’s another where you just greet each other by repeatedly slapping each others’ hands as if they were trouts flopping on land. And even more strangely, there’s such a thing as hand-based cartography.

Please Keep Hands Off Doors - NYC Subway

3: Bikram yoga, or “hot yoga” as it’s commonly called, is a highly-regulated form of yoga in which the room is heated to precisely 105 degrees Fahrenheit and its practitioners aren’t allowed to take even a sip of water during the 90 minute session. This is because Bikram yoga is copyrighted by its founder, Bikram Choudhury, who has sued a number of yoga schools and instructors for deviating from his method of practice when teaching Bikram.

4: Stop signs are fairly similar throughout the world, with the United States and many European countries abiding by the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways (MUTCD). There are a number of interesting differences between stop signs worldwide, collected on the Wikipedia entry for Stop sign.

5: Here’s a great primer about map design: “Web cartography… That’s like Google Maps, right?” (Via Axis Maps blog.)

6: Work at a job that has you looking at a computer screen all day? You can do things like dim your screen or turn up the brightness of the room’s lights to help keep your eyes healthy. As long as the ambient light in the room is brighter than the computer’s screens, your eyes should be fine. Try to minimize the glare on your computer screen as well. I’ve also heard you should occasionally focus on something far away from you, because if you spend a prolonged period of time focusing on close things, you may cause yourself eye strain.

7: In Silicon Valley, California (and maybe elsewhere), it’s common for people who want to start start-ups to go on co-founder dates. Before diving into a new venture, it’s important to try to minimize your risk by judging whether your potential co-founder’s personality and skill set complement yours.

Written by Crystal Bae

December 8th, 2011 at 8:49 pm

Everyday Lessons Learned: November 2011, Weeks 2 and 3

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Lots of topics the past two weeks about cool research. I’m deep in data these days, so it’s seeping into all of my thoughts…

8: Before the concept of homesickness came around in the 1750s, it was known as nostalgia and categorized as a medical condition – deaths could be attributed to this condition. Francesca Mari reviews Homesickness: An American History: “By two years in, two thousand soldiers had been diagnosed with nostalgia, and in the year 1865, twenty-four white Union soldiers and sixteen black ones died from it.”

9: A mondegreen is a mishearing of a spoken phrase that results in a more interesting take on the intended phrase. Here’s the origin of the mondegreen:

The term “mondegreen” was coined by Sylvia Wright in a 1954 Atlantic article. As a child, young Sylvia had listened to a folk song that included the lines “They had slain the Earl of Moray/And Lady Mondegreen.” As is customary with misheard lyrics, she didn’t realize her mistake for years. The song was not about the tragic fate of Lady Mondegreen, but rather, the continuing plight of the good earl: “They had slain the Earl of Moray/And laid him on the green.” (Source)

10: New research suggests that the middle class eats the most fast food – not the poor.

11: It’s no secret that bicycling keeps you fit. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin found that if residents of 11 Midwestern cities ran just half of their short-distance errands by bicycle for four months out of the year, it would save at least $3.8 billion from avoided mortality and reduced health-care costs, and lower the number of annual deaths by 1,100. Results of the study are posted here.

12: Natural Language Processing: Where linguistics meets computers. Check out some of the work by the Stanford Natural Language Processing Group here.

13: The debate around climate change has changed markedly in recent years. A Harris poll in 2007 estimated that 71% of Americans believed burning fossil fuels led to climate change. That number was only 51% two years later, and then dropped further to 44% by June 2011. But this shift in belief has been very one-sided: 70-75% of self-identified Democrats and liberals believe in climate change, while only about 20% of self-identified Republicans do. (The Nation)

14: Mexico City’s Metro officials reported that 23 to 35 people fall into train pits each year. Mexico City is working to install platform barriers in its stations, starting with just two of their busiest stations (due to budget constraints). From The Atlantic Cities blog.

15: A law student in Austria, Max Schrems, requested his Facebook data – and received a CD with a 1,222-page long PDF of his personal information including deleted private messages.

16: Number of people who have disappeared from cruise ships in the past decade? 171. And 19 people have already gone missing this year alone. Because cruise ships tread murky international waters, and it’s often not possible to stop the ship to search for a person fallen overboard, and there’s also a high incidence of suicide on cruises, many cases are unresolved. It’s true, some are likely to be on-board murders. It’s in the cruise industry’s interests to quiet any of these disappearances. The eerie story of Rebecca Coriam, the first public disappearance from a Disney cruise, is recounted in The Guardian.

17: Apples go through a trial by fire kind of process when they’re bred; the process is narrated in John Seabrook’s piece in the November 21 issue of the New Yorker, “Crunch.” This story’s a lot more compelling than it sounds at first. For instance, did you know that apples are often selected over time for their redness, despite the fact that the redder apples have less flavor? It’s called “red drift” – retailers believe customers buy with their eyes, so growers tend to select for redness while sacrificing taste. An all-red apple also hides its cosmetic defects better, meaning more of your apples will be sold.

18: The Love Parade Stampede was an incident in Duisberg, Germany, on July 24, 2010 in which 21 people were trampled to death and over 500 were injured in the underpassthat led to the Love Parade music festival area. This was the only entrance and exit, and long after the stage area had filled up past capacity, people were attempting to enter through this tunnel. Those who were already in the main festival area had no way of exiting, with the masses of people pressing forward to get in. I first saw video footage of this horrifying scene in the crowd-sourced documentary Life in a Day, which records the happenings of a single day as experienced by people all over the world. Al Jazeera coverage shows footage of the event.

19: Pierogies are made in essentially the same way as Korean mandu (dumplings), except the filling’s a bit different and you add sour cream to the flour. Our first batch came out decent, though the process was kind of long. It’s a learning process. I’d say every culture has their own form of dumplings – one of my favorite things to do at family gatherings is sit around with my mother and grandmother and form the mandu by hand, adding special flourishes to mark them as yours (like signing a work of art).

20: There’s a proposed plan to turn an abandoned trolley terminal in NYC’s Lower East Side into an underground public park: Delancey Underground, or “the LowLine”. It’d be like the subterranean equivalent of the High Line.

21: According to XKCD’s notes on the Money Chart, the EPA’s current dollar value on a human life is $8.4 million. Go spend some time exploring that chart.

Hope everyone enjoys their few days of rest and feast. Happy Thanksgiving!

Written by Crystal Bae

November 21st, 2011 at 9:07 pm

Everyday Lessons Learned: October 2011, Weeks 3 and 4

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The theme of the week is: mind control. And food, as usual.

15: Research by the Yale psychology department a few years ago found that the most persuasive word in marketing to consumers was the word You. The other most convincing words were: MoneySaveNewResultsHealthEasySafetyLoveDiscoveryProven, and Guarantee.

16: During a recession, teeth-grinding goes up; shark attacks go down. Teeth-grinding, or bruxism, is often triggered by daily stress, which increases during periods of financial stress. As this often occurs at night, it’s difficult for a person to control (that’s if they even know they’re doing it). And why fewer shark attacks? Fewer vacationers.

17: Less time for play might be causing today’s children to grow up more anxious and depressed. There’s no question that unstructured play time is essential for proper mental development in children, and psychology professor Peter Gray believes it’s even linked to rates of clinical depression and suicide.

18: The body of a dead whale can itself sustain a complex underwater ecosystem as it decomposes. The process of decomposition takes something like 50 years, meaning the whale’s dead body sustains life for around the same length of time as it was alive. A whale carcass that has fallen to the ocean floor is called a whale fall, and certain species have only been discovered at whale falls.

19: Corning is a glass company that is the manufacturer of Gorilla Glass (which protects smartphone touch screens), along with other specialty glass. I recognize the company from their very well directed, futuristic advertisement, “A Day Made of Glass” – meaning their advertising is pretty effective.

20: A vigilante group in Veracruz targets drug cartels.

Romanesco Cauliflower21: The Romanesco cauliflower is a broccoli-cauliflower hybrid. See image at left. It’s a naturally occurring fractal. Nature and math are awesome.

22: More math! I don’t think I can explain this better, but read on because it’s fascinating: NYC water towers (via kottke).

23: The jackalope is an imaginary creature that resembles a giant rabbit with antlers. Sad about the imaginary part.

24: Tacos are an amazing food, whether for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Especially for breakfast. Anybody know a good place to get a breakfast taco in Washington, DC?

25: Zombies = big business.

26: Rodízio is a style of Brazilian dining in which the waiters bring skewers of meat (or other foods) around to each of the tables, and the diners choose how much to receive. The meal is prix fixe, so one flat fee will get you as you want to eat.

27: The Occupy Wall Street movement has an app for informing those who need to know that you’re getting arrested.

28: Focusing one’s attention is a more daunting task than it seems - our brains receive over 1 billion pieces of information a second, but we can only consciously process about 40 pieces of information at a time.

29: The true size of Africa in relation to other countries: Top 100 Countries by Area.

30: I like these somewhat random finds. History of the Chinese Actuarial Profession, by Xie Z.

31: You can learn a lot about your neighborhood by sitting on your stoop/porch/stairs and greeting the people who go by.

Happy November, now. This entry’s shorter than usual because I’ve been swamped with work and moving house. Fall moving right into winter.

Written by Crystal Bae

November 1st, 2011 at 8:31 pm

Everyday Lessons Learned: September 2011, Week 2

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It’s been a busy week. Here are a few things I’ve learned in the past few days.

08: Specific to Washington, DC… DCist explains ghost buses! Ghost buses are those ones that seem to disappear off the NextBus online tracker (which uses GPS data for Metrobuses). The explanation is that not all of the buses are GPS-enabled, therefore some of the NextBus ‘tracked’ buses are simply predictions. There may be a specific bus that was scheduled for that time, but for whatever reason it never ran. So then there’s you, wondering why you’re standing at the bus stop with a prediction for “Arriving” with no bus in sight.

09: Here is probably the most plain-language explanation of your health plan: Health Savings Plans: Making Sense of HSAs, HRAs, and FSAs Unless, of course, you’re part of the 16.7% of Americans who are uninsured.

10: Go read this long-form story, On Change in India by Siddhartha Deb. It’s hard to point to a “lesson” here.

11: David Choe has a very entertaining documentary called Thumbs Up! about his adventures hitchhiking. He explores a lot of desolate places, plays a tiny travel drum set, and meets many people along the way.

'All back to dust' by Jiang Pengyi12: Jiang Pengyi makes miniature stills of the demolition and urbanization in Beijing. See image at left; click to see more.

13: Triskaidekaphobia is the fear of the number 13. It explains why many buildings don’t have a 13th floor (by name), instead numbering their floors from 1-12, skipping 13, then 14 on. This is true of many residential buildings and of my office building. Also, interesting to note that the 13th floor of hospitals is usually mechanical.

14: There’s a WiFi-free zone in the mountains of West Virginia, where people who have a debilitating fear of electromagnetic radiation go to live, as wireless technology is banned by law there. Here is an excerpt from the article:

The wireless association, CTIA, says that scientific evidence overwhelmingly shows that wireless devices, with the limits established by government regulators, do not pose a public health risk or cause any adverse health effects.

And the World Health Organization, while acknowledging that the symptoms are genuine and can be severe, says: “EHS has no clear diagnostic criteria and there is no scientific basis to link EHS symptoms to EMF (electromagnetic field) exposure. Further, EHS is not a medical diagnosis, nor is it clear that it represents a single medical problem.” (BBC News)

15: The biggest dam removal project in history, on the Elwha River in Washington, begins this week. Via Matador Network.

Written by Crystal Bae

September 15th, 2011 at 9:18 pm

Everyday Lessons Learned: September 2011, Week 1

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Happy September!

01: Your senses are delayed by about 80 milliseconds. Your brain can align inputs from simultaneous sensations (traveling from different distances through your body) so they’re experienced in sync – in a way, your brain waits before registering the information it has gathered from your body.

New Yorker cartoon posted on David Eagleman's blog

02: According to a recent CDC report, 5% of Americans drink over 550 calories of sweetened drinks daily. Teenage boys drink the most of the sugary stuff.

A spotted Furby03: Caleb Chung, the creator of the Furby, wanted to improve upon the electronic pet idea (like the Tamagotchi and Giga Pet – very popular in the 90s) by creating a toy that could appear to be responsive and emulate machine learning. The more you played with a Furby, the more its vocabulary seemed to grow. It was programmed to gradually move from an unintelligible “Furbish” language to the English language, though the toy itself couldn’t actually hear or understand anything that was said to it. The Furby’s emotional expression are tracked to its ears – essentially serving as both its eyebrows and its arms. (Radiolab)

04: Pickling cucumbers doesn’t require many ingredients: cucumbers, water, vinegar, sugar, salt, garlic, and dill. I haven’t tried making them myself but hope to soon!

05: Verbal overshadowing is a term used to describe the strange effect studied by Jonathan Schooler: those who wrote down a description of a bank robber immediately after a staged crime actually had a harder time remembering the details later than those who didn’t describe the person right afterward. But his data began to regress towards the mean… (This one’s fascinating. Listen to the whole story here.)

06: The first Piggly Wiggly supermarket opened in Memphis, TN on this day in 1916. It was the first of its kind: a fully self-serve grocery store, in which customers could pick their items off the shelves without having to write an order to the clerk. According to the commemorative plaque at that site, “shoppers presented their orders to clerks who fetched goods, ground coffee beans, measured flour and sugar, and then added the bills in pencil on the back of sacks.”

07: An interesting analysis of China’s dependence on tobacco:

Smoking in China remains a highly gendered behavior with 57.4% of men and 3% of women smoking, respectively (WHO, 2010). The concentration of smoking among men reflects advertising and marketing strategies that have linked tobacco to traditional notions of masculine identity (nanzihan - 男子汉), political leadership (imagery of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping smoking) and expressions of nationalism and patriotism (cigarette brands such as Zhonghua – 中华). Anthropologists such as Matthew Kohrman have described how exchanging cigarettes forms the currency of male networking and friendship in rural and urban China (Kohrman, 2007).

Written by Crystal Bae

September 8th, 2011 at 7:40 pm