Monday, July 26, 2010

The Internet Is A Vast Wasteland

This should be a revelation to few. While studies are not conclusive, for every man-hour saved by being able to immediately determine the availability of King Ding Dong lunchboxes for home delivery, at least another man-hour is wasted, filling up our brains with information about things that have no value whatsoever. Such as Sarah Palin's children's wedding plans. And King Ding-Dong lunchboxes.

Almost 50 years ago, then-FCC chairman Newton M. Minow declared television to be a vast wasteland. He's 84 years old today. I wonder what he would have to say about the Internet? With the hindsight of someone born moments after the first human being is known to have stepped on the moon, who still remembers such things as 13 channels and black-and-white programming, I can tell you it's a hundred thousand times worse. Maybe more.

But this thought didn't just occur to me out of the blue today. I subscribe to upwards of a hundred different blogs. I don't read them all regularly, but skim a lot of them. Many are personal blogs, that I happened to read once and I found interesting or well written or funny, and so I susbscribed. Two different posts on two absolutely unrelated (and indeed, almost diametrically opposed) blogs touched on this. The first is from a blog called the committed parent which is written by a "social neuroscience educator." I'm not exactly sure what that is, but he writes about child psychology. His last post discusses the downsides of having so much information available and its consequences on creativity, intellectual development, and wisdom.

The other is from a personal blog written by some Canadian guy who calls himself The Real Johnson. I know nothing about this guy except from some of his posts, but he writes well and is often funny. Oh yeah, he likes to drink, too. His last post is called "Internet Killed The Artist" and, from a totally different perspective (possibly drunk) from our PhD child psychologist above, comes to much the same conclusion.

I happened to read these two posts back-to-back and was stunned by the parallelism. In real life, these two individuals could be arch-nemeses. Yet separated by thousands of miles, several decades of life experience, 8 or so beers a day, and a Royal Mounted Police border crossing, they both wrote about the same notion today.

Internet usage is supposed to surpass TV watcing in 2010, at least in Europe. I am not sure exactly how you'd define "internet use," though, since a lot of people watch TV online. If I download a movie from the internet and watch it on a TV, does that count? Anyway, the distinction is fuzzy because "internet usage" could be doing stuff on your iPhone, or playing games, or all kinds of things that can be done on a variety of devices, or may be essentially similar to what you used to do on a TV. The mediums are merging and changing constantly.

But at the end of the day, wherever all this goes, I think that watching television (just watching it) will soon be something that is so passive, that fewer and fewer people will be able to do it. Our collective attention span gets smaller every year as technology invades every aspect of our lives. We lack the patience needed to immerse ourselves in any single pursuit, because we can achieve the kind of gratification we seek from the shallow alternatives that technology make available.

The television is no longer a stage, it is an extension of a the information matrix that weaves through every part of modern life. There is no need to sit and watch it, when you can take it with you and interact with it. We aren't interested in being passively entertained, we want our entertainment to actively engage us and respond to our feedback or we will lose interest.

Historically, anthropologists have demonized television for its passivity. It demands little of its users to entertain them. But could it be that the opposite problem is no better? As people become accustomed to instant gratification from life connected to the Internet, we are losing our ability to pay attention to anything. Even crappy television.

I predict that just sitting on your couch and watching television will soon be a lost art. Parents will beg their kids to unplug from the hive and just try to do something that doesn't give them any "likes" or comments for an hour or two. Television, once predicted to destroy the world, could be the last hope for saving it.

The child psychologist, in this post, says that we need to "spend time in nature, meditating," among other things. While I think his advice is good, the chances of getting most kids to unplug long enough to meditate is about zero. After all, there are a lot of wifi dead spots in nature.

So let's all do our best to get out in nature. I bet few of us can say we've been more than 200 feet away from the nearest automobile in the last month. But barring that, let's at least all pledge to stop checking our email for a couple hours and watch some good old fashioned TV.

Friday, July 9, 2010

First Impressions: Meridian Pint (Updated)

Update, July 9, 2010

N. and I went to Meridian Pint again last night with a couple friends and I am happy to say that we greatly enjoyed our food this time, and the service and overall experience was excellent again.

I had the steak, and I have to say, it was a damn good steak. As I mentioned before, I'm always a little skeptical about a steak, especially something like a New York Strip, from a restaurant that isn't a steakhouse. Meridian Pint did a bang up job. I ordered it medium rare, and it was perfectly cooked, barely warm in the middle, juicy and delicious. The sauce it was served with was subtle and did not overwhelm or conflict with the natural flavor of the beef. The mashed potatoes and spinach were also very tasty. At $21 it's actually a pretty damn good deal for a steak!

N. had the grilled trout, and loved it as well. Cooked perfectly. Out guests had the double-cut pork and the burger respectively. I didn't try either but they both raved about them.

So I'll chalk my first experience up to either opening day, or maybe the beef rib sandwich just isn't a winner, but for last night's return visit everything was great.

I still think the menu could use a little fleshing out for carnivores, but there's no question that the chef knows what he's doing and the food was delicious.

We also took a look at the basement area last night, which we did not on our first visit. What a cool bar room. This is where the famous table taps can be found, as well as a long bar and two pool tables. The space is dark, cozy and sure to be a hit - a welcome addition to the watering holes that we already have in columbia heights, and having a couple pool tables down the street rocks!

Cheers to Meridian Pint - I expect to be a regular customer.

Original Post Follows

N. and I decided to embrace the glorious weather last Thursday with a ride on Merdian Pint's inaugural cruise. We've been watching the slow progress for what seems like an eternity now, and it's wonderful to see the place has finally opened it's doors for business.

The restaurant, which replaced the abanonded Bi-Rite Supermarket that was an icon of times past, is more than just another eating option. It's symbolic of the transformation of the 11th Street commercial corridor, which has been slow to evolve even as downtown Columbia Heights has turned on its head in just a few short years. The last significant opening on the block anchored by Wonderland was Red Rocks, across from Meridian Pint at 11th and Park. Red Rocks was the pioneer of this important yet languishing commercial strip. But despite their success and endearment to the neighborhood, there were few followers in the nearly three years since their opening.

So how was it?

The space is great. The front of the restaurant is flanked by two roll-up garage doors that create an indoor-yet-outdoor dining experience. It's got a mix of tables, high-top, booths and bar seating. This is surrounded by blonde hardwood floors, what looks like a tin or replica tin ceiling over the bar, paneling around the bar area, and beige-painted walls. The overall effect is a little conflicted style-wise but very inviting. It's warm, airy, and doesn't feel too crowded, even as a dozen people milled around in the entrance area.

Our service was good. Actually, considering it was their first day, it was excellent. We started with chicken wings which I thought were pretty good and N. was less enthusiastic about. Bear in mind, though, that I make the BEST DAMN chicken wings in Columbia Heights, if not the free world, so there is a very high bar to reach for there.

Food Foibles

We both seemed to have a little trouble choosing our entrees, and where we landed was a bit rough. I had the beef rib sandwich, which came topped with a purple cole slaw and no sauce of any kind. Unfortunately, it was entirely bland. I actually put ketchup on it. I am not sure if it was supposed to have come with some sauce, but it was pretty flavorless.

N. had the salmon salad with curried lemon yogurt dressing. The curry flavor was overwhelming to the point where you could taste little else. It was just kind of weird. Perhaps we just didn't like the salad, but the sandwich was unquestionably missing something.

Overall, I think the menu is a little tricky for me because I'm not a vegetarian, and it has a strong bent towards crunchy-friendly items. Among the ten entrees, three are vegetarian, two are fish, one is roasted chicken (who gets chicken at a restaurant?), and one (turkey and potato hash) is entirely unappealing to me. That last one sounds like something you would get at the end of the food drop cycle in an Iraq military base.

The remaining menu items are a steak, a pork chop, and short ribs. I have no problem with any of these, though steaks outside of steak houses can be risky. I suspect these three items are where I'll end up most of the time. Though I am not adverse to fish and chips once in a while either... I just wasn't up for the fried fest when we were there.

On the sandwich side, there's also not much that grabs me. The rib sandwich I had looked the most interesting. I'm not likely to order a $10 half-smoke when I go out to eat, and everything else is either veggie/wierd (soy smoke??) or boring (chicken salad sandwich and a hamburger).

Take all this with a grain of salt

I don't want this to be taken as overly negative, because I made one visit and we had a couple things, none of them entrees, that were less than stellar. But everything else about the experience was good. My overall criticism has mostly to do with the fact that I didn't click with the menu, than with one beef rib sandwich that needs some help.

I think expanding the sandwich options to include a couple more items that are NOT a hot dog, veggie, or a hamburger would solve the problem at that end. For the entrees, it would be nice to include a couple of interesting non-veggie, non-fish options. If you're a meat eater and you aren't feeling the fish, and you write off the chicken from the get-go as many do, the choices you're left with just don't seem that interesting. I think this could easily be corrected by just adding one or two more items.

I am looking forward to returning and trying these some of the other items that actually DO grab me when I return, actually, tomorrow. We have plans for dinner with a couple friends... and we're going EARLY since it's supposedly been packed every night since opening.

Other reports I have been hearing and reading about the food seem mostly positive, too. So I'm optimistic, even if my first experience was not earthshaking. The prices generally seem about right, too, so at the end of the day, I really only need to love a couple things on the menu to make it a regular stop for me. Tweaking the menu just a little would make a big difference, though, in terms of making the selection feel less constrained for carnivores. I am sure that it will evolve in time like any new restaurant.

Oh yeah, the beer: I loved my Founders Red's Rye IPA! The tap beer selection is awesome and they also have some decent wines by the glass. Don't change a thing here, the drinks are a win.

Window Victory!

In what could be the shortest period of time that a gaping hole has remained open in my house, I have finished the window frame and the hole is closed up again. Time from destruction to installation: 6 days. And the weather gods blessed me with no rain, so the only consequence was a minor fly infestation.

The window temporarily installed. The diagonal
piece of wood at the bottom is nailed there
for now to hold up the upper sash.
The project is by no means done, but the hard part is. The rest is just finish work: painting, staining, reinstalling trim, tying the weights on, and so on. But the window is back in (temporarily)... and not a moment too soon, since the weather seems to be turning a bit.

This was a learning experience, but it was a fun project too. A lot of rather tricky work with the table saw was required to reconstruct the frame, but in the end, everything seems to have worked out nicely. The sashes are a little bit tight right now, so I will need to sand or plane the edges to ensure they slide smoothly. Since it's the dead of summer, though, and wood swells when it's hot and humid, this is a good time to be doing this. They should fit snugly in July, and there will definitely be no problems in December.

This slightly imperfect fit is because when I was making the frame, I discovered that a $99.99 Ryobi table saw isn't exactly a precision instrument. And this was my first try at making something like this. So I erred on the side of too snug rather than too loose. It's easy to sand down your window sashes 1/16 of an inch or so, but it's much harder to correct the opposite problem.

I also need to do some exterior finish work - seal all the gaps between the frame and the brick with expanding foam, put in brick molding and caulk, do some minor brick mortar repair, and so on. All pretty straightforward stuff. Hopefully there won't be any hurricanes over the next few days, since it's not sealed right now, but it's good enough to keep out the birds and most of the water that may come its way.

In the end I will only be re-using a couple boards from the old frame (to cover the front of the weight boxes) -- everything else was unsalvageable. However, I was able to reclaim part of the old frame to use to rebuild the rotted piece of the upper sash, so the sashes themselves are still made entirely out of 100 year old pine.

Below are a few more pictures of the frame and the project in progress.

The frame put together in a dry run on my pool table/workbench

Close up of the corner. I cut dadoes (grooves) into each piece where they interlock to ensure a tight, precise fit. Those are the old pulleys set into the frame. A trim piece will go into the groove between the two pulleys which separates the upper and lower sashes.

Just the frame installed in the rough opening. The weights hang inside the boxes that form each edge of the frame. You can see the outside of the bathroom glass block from last year's project through the opening too.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Freedom from Windows

DSC_0036No, I did not buy a Macbook. In what is rapidly becoming a July 4th weekend tradition, I have liberated our home from the shackles that prevented birds, flies and hot air from entering it: a window. Exactly one year ago, I demolished the bathroom, creating the cavernous hole you see at left. That hole remained a fixture (or a void) in my life for some time, a testament to the truism that there is no construction project that cannot be dramatically underestimated in ways that you never dreamed possible.

In the case of the bathroom, my original estimate was something like 4 days. It took six months. Eh, I blame the economy. For 2010's reprise, my substantially lowered expectations for the long weekend were to restore a single double-hung window.

The window in question was directly adjacent to the bathroom window, and is (was) by far the worst-off window in my house. The upper sash was badly rotted and needed to be rebuilt. One of the panes was broken and held together with duct tape, barely. The lower sash was OK but also needed some help. The exterior window sill was also a goner, but I'd already made and finished a new one, so that didn't worry me.

Unfortunately, the frame itself turned out to be in pretty bad shape, too. As I started deconstructing things to get the sashes out, I realized that it was probably going to be easier just to completely rebuild the old frame.

After three days of weekend work, and three trips to Strosniders related to my incompetence in handling 32" x 18" pieces of glass, I just about finished restoring the sashes. That involved:

  • removing all the old window glazing and broken glass
  • masterfully removing the 3 intact panes from the decrepit frame, intact
  • stripping off all the old paint and varnish, scraping, sanding, cleaning
  • crafting a piece of wood to replace the rotted part of the upper sash, which required about 6 passes on the table saw, a router, a miter saw, some drilling, hand chiseling, and filing to reproduce it
  • removing the old rotted piece without damaging the rest of the frame, and installing the new replica, which miraculously seemed to fit properly
  • Repairing some other rotted parts of the frame with Bondo, which I left out and N. discovered later (she referred to it as "weird grey putty smelling up the house")
  • succesively breaking each one of the 3 original panes while trying to reinstall them, and, finally,
  • reglazing the four new panes in a quasi-professional manner.

This is not my window frame.
But it's about what I was dealing with.
That took, basically, 3 half-assed days of work. That is to say, I did stuff other than just work on this over the weekend. But that is, I hope, the hard part. What is left is reconstructing the frame itself.

The frame, luckily, is not quite the precision piece of woodworking that the sashes are. However, nor is it slapping a couple boards together, either. It needs to be reasonably precise in order that the windows work well, and to construct it properly involves making grooves into 6' long pieces of wood. Into these grooves will go the strips of wood against which the windows slide.

For this trick I will need to use a tool called a stacked dado set on my table saw, which I have never done before. I've cut grooves using a router in the past, but my experience with the router for such long grooves as this is that I will screw it up 3 times for every one I get right. So, a new tool: the dado set. This, my friends, I will be attempting over the next two nights. If I do not succeed at this, I will be installing a piece of plywood in the window, as I am going away this weekend.

When this is done, you will know the answer to whether a carpenter of moderate skills is capable of rebuilding an antique window frame. I have never met my match before on this old house, so I am optimistic, though I am sure it will come with much cursing and several trips to Home Depot to buy more pieces of wood.