The New Television

Television sucks.

Well, not entirely: most television sucks.

But to paraphrase Sturgeon’s law: of course 90% of television is crap; 90% of everything is crap.

Despite my general opinions, not all television shows are horrible, even though most of them are. But even if you find a show which is a good match for your preferences, television as a medium has some severe problems:

  1. excessive advertisements
  2. time restrictions of the broadcast model: you watch when they broadcast it
  3. poor broadcast quality of analog TV
  4. requirement for a cable subscription to watch certain shows
  5. serialization: new episodes are only available once per week

For many people, Tivo and other DVR’s solve the first two problems adequately: they allow for both time shifting, and skipping ads. But they don’t solve problems with either broadcast quality or cable subscriptions. Tivo is not the new television.

I enjoy digital broadcast TV slightly more than analog, but in reality I think it’s irrelevant. Like Blu-Ray, it’s too little, too late, and possibly even solving the wrong problem. Digital TV solves problem #3, but basically nothing else; this only mattered for people who didn’t already have digital cable anyway. Digital broadcast is also not the new television.

For a long time, our solution to all of these problems has been Netflix. We borrowed the TV series we wanted to watch, after they had already hit DVD. We watched episodes when we wanted, and as many as we wanted, without commercials. But then, we ran out of episodes we wanted to watch on DVD. In terms of content and delivery, DVD’s are roughly equivalent to the 1980’s technology of VHS tapes of TV shows; they are definitely not the new television.

For watching an ongoing series, our next obvious step was the Internet. Individual channels, including cable channels such as the Sci-Fi channel, put their broadcast shows on the Internet a day or a week after their broadcast date. Web sites such as Hulu aggregate various shows and stream all of them from a central location. This allowed us to watch episodes whenever we wanted, long before they became available on DVD, while avoiding most (but not all) of the commercials. But this is just a new distribution channel for shows which are produced in long-entrenched Hollywood tradition. The Internet is a necessary afterthought, but not the primary distribution mechansim. This is very close to the new television, but not quite.

The new television isn’t television at all: you don’t need television, to create a good video production. Broadcast and cable television are expensive broadcast media. They pay for content to be created, but they don’t create content. Often, they stifle others’ creative efforts in the name of the bottom line, because national network broadcast is a very expensive part of allowing a show to succeed.

As a broadcast medium, the Internet is enough by itself: television is not required. The Internet is a much cheaper broadcast channel, and its cost is proportional to its audience. The proportional cost to broadcast, combined with inexpensive Internet marketing, can allow shows to succeed even if they have a small audience. Allowing a show to cater to a smaller audience allows it to follow its creative vision more closely, instead of trying to appeal to a “least common denominator” audience.

In some ways, Youtube is the new television: it certainly replaces “America’s Funniest Home Videos” without any problem. But it is, by all accounts, quite amateur and unpredictable in its production qualities.

There are other Internet-only productions, which have met with various degrees of success. These are the New Television.

Video podcasts have already had success as Internet-only video talk shows, but this is not what I think of when I consider high quality television shows. I think of fictional drama or comedy, well written and well produced. I will admit that currently, the best Internet productions are aimed at an audience which is geekier than average. But geeks are early adopters. Other less geeky shows will follow in the footsteps of the geek, and take the limelight they desire (but that the geeks do not).

If you want to witness the future of television, I have a few recommendations:

  • Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is a musical produced by Joss Whedon, who became famous for the television shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly. It was produced with a low budget during the Hollywood writer’s strike, and released directly to the Internet.
  • The Guild is an ongoing serial show based on the trials and tribulations of a guild of online video gamers. The show just finished its second season, and the episodes range anywhere from 3 to 10 minutes in length. This points out another problem with Old Television: “43 minutes plus 17 minutes of commercials” is an extremely limiting format. There’s no reason, from the perspective of a show’s creator, why every episode must have the same length with commercials in the same location. That restriction is imposed by the broadcaster, not the content creator.
  • Escape from City-17 is an online short (hopefully, a series) inspired by the video game Half-Life. It is notable for having an extremely small budget, while using video effects which surpass anything available on network television 10-20 years ago.

Eventually, calling shows like these “Internet TV” will seem as quaint and anachronistic as using an icon of a floppy disk for the “save” function, or using an icon of an envelope to signify “e-mail.” In the end, The New Television isn’t television at all, and that is what makes it new.

Beer Batch #24: Lager? I don’t even know her!

Brewing in our house in the winter is problematic. Ale yeast usually wants temperatures above 65F, and lager yeast wants to ferment at under 55F. Our limited climate control generally varies the house temperature between 65F in the day, and 60F at night, and even the basement gets above 55 regularly.

So, I found White Labs San Francisco Lager Yeast. This is a lager yeast that ferments best from 58F to 65F. My theory is, this is the Anchor Steam yeast; Anchor Steam beer is theoretically a lager brewed at Ale temperatures. I have no evidence for this, but Anchor is from San Francisco, and their Steam Beer is a well known and resepected brew.

“Lager?” is a fairly generic beer, and just happens to use this yeast so it would ferment well in my house. For this batch, I wasn’t trying to create a specific style, I basically just used ingredients I had on hand.

Lager? I dont even know her!

Brew Date: Feb 8, 2009

Ingredients for a 5 gallon batch:

  • 1lb Munton Crystal Malt, 60L
  • 1oz Millenium hops, pellets 15AA
  • 6lb LD Carlson Breiss DME, Pilsen Light
  • 1oz New Zealand organic Hallertau hops, 8.6AA
  • 1tsp Irish Moss (for clarity)
  • White Labs WLP810 San Francisco Lager Yeast


  1. Steep crystal malt in 2.5-3 gal H2O for 30 minutes, approximately 160F
  2. Add Malt Extract
  3. Boil for 60 minutes total
    • Millenium hops boil for 60 minutes
    • Hallertau hops boil for 15 minutes
    • Irish moss boil for 15 minutes
  4. Chill wort, aiming for to 65-75F final temperature for 5 gallons
  5. Pitch yeast starter

Original Gravity: 1.056

  • I started the yeast on Feb 3rd, using more DME than I expected, G=1.090 in the starter!
  • The yeast worked really well, both in the starter and in the primary fermenter.
  • Pitched yeast with the wort at about 65F; lower than I had hoped.
  • Fermentation was obviously active by 2am that day
  • Once again, Marla had to replace the airlock with a blowoff tube while I was at work, to avoid a huge mess.
  • February 15: rack to secondary fermenter; Gravity = 1.026
  • March 2: Gravity = 1.020
  • March 5: Keg it. Gravity = 1.019

So far, this beer basically tastes fine; it’s not extraordinary or different than much of anything, but it’s pleasantly drinkable. And, it fits with my general tastes: not too hoppy, with a bit of sweetness. My apparent attenuation (percent of sugar which was fermented; different yeasts act differently in this regard) is slightly less than expected for this yeast, so it might ferment a bit more in the keg and change over time. The bitterness is a bit odd, I’ve never used Millenium before.

Overall, I’m happy with this beer.

A note about the name: Marla introduced me to the “I don’t even know her!” line of jokes. Daniel’s variation seems to be “I just met her!” I was more familiar with the “yermom” line of dubious humor in college. “Lager? Yermom doesn’t even know her!”

Elitism vs. Progress

I had been thinking lately about the divisiveness I see in the attitude held by some “cool” bicyclists about cars. I don’t like the “us vs. them” (bicyclists vs. cars) mentatlity some cyclists tend to have.

Today, I read a piece by Paul Spinrad which describes my thoughts much more succinctly than I could hope to:

In politics, I think there are two competing motivations for voters to support a cause publicly. One is to influence the majority to agree, to make changes that you believe in, and the other is to distinguish your opinions as superior to most other peoples’. These two motivations generally cause people to act in similar ways, but I’ve found some “tells” that reveal the underlying elitist motivation.
Under a democracy, the elitist motivation is self-defeating: If your true aim is to distinguish yourself from the masses, you really don’t want your side to win– your aim is better served when more people vote the other way, and then you can be disgusted with most peoples’ stupidity and wash your hands of responsibility.

Paul goes on to use this example to criticize anti-religious atheists for their counterproductive, divisive tactics. I think this principle applies much more widely, especially anywhere elitism and the “cool factor” can be found. In order for a movement to be worth joining, it must be worth it for that movement to succeed; anything else is fashion and a waste of time.

Bringing this back to bicycling and bicycle commuting: Some people fear their pastime might become popular or trendy, and believe this will somehow lower its value. I don’t commute by bicycle because I’m cool, or better than other people. I do it because I enjoy it. I want more people to enjoy it.

Walnut Stool: Finished

The walnut stool is finished! I’m very happy with how it turned out.

Using naturally finished woods is in Windsor chairs generally not done, for a few reasons: strength, and aesthetics. I think on a simple stool with fairly plain turnings and without spindles, the grain doesn’t make the piece too busy. This stool is entirely walnut, except for the seat wedges, which I made from Cherry for a bit of contrast. There was quite a bit of variety in color in the different pieces of walnut, so I tried to arrange them with similar pieces nearer to each other. Even the seat isn’t a large expanse of “just brown.” It has stripes of color ranging from orange and pink, to grey.

Again, I used Minwax wipe-on poly finish. For the legs and stretchers, I applied the finish on the lathe, which protects the legs from damage a bit during construction. In areas where the wood is rubbed, it’ll stay polished even if the finish wears off. Everywhere else, the wipe-on finish is just shiny enough.

I’m happy to say that my “catalog of mistakes” helped a lot. I didn’t break any parts, or have to remake anything, and did everything in a better order. I built a test joint to make sure I made the stretcher tenons the proper size for the holes. Now my future challenge will be improving my ability to cut the tenons the correct size, and smoothly.

I’ll include a few pictures I took of the process, but most of the time I don’t feel like stopping to take pictures. Unfortunately Marla is usually asleep when I work, so I can’t enlist her help much either. Most of this stool was constructed between 11pm and 1am on any particular weekday.

Here’s the setup used for reaming leg holes. The tapered reamer is in a leghole, and I’m checking the angles with a bevel and a square. My reamer doesn’t have a very long body section parallel to the axis of rotation, so I adjust my bevel angle by half the taper angle, and line up with the tapered part of the tool instead. To use the square, you move your head sideways so the square and sight line are in line. Then you check the top of the the reamer in relation to the square/sight line, and adjust it accordingly.

This kind of reamer cuts slowly, but allows for a surprising amount of adjustment (I found out, on the previous stool). That means it also allows for a surprising amount of screw-up if you do it wrong, so it’s good that it cuts slowly.

By the way, I am really happy with these squeeze-activated clamps. They hold well, don’t mar surfaces, and are much easier to use than pipe clamps. They also have slightly more reach than pipe clamps, which comes in handy.

Here, I have glued up the undercarriage and glued it into the seat. This part of the process is a bit of a race against glue drying, so it’s hard to stop and take pictures. The standard construction order is to construct the H shaped stretchers first, aligned in one plane. Then add one leg, and make sure the stretchers are aligned properly. Add a second leg, and test with the seat. Then, add the last two legs, always making sure they’re aligned correctly. Finally, apply glue to the leg tapers and mortises, hammer them into the seat, and apply wedges (also glued). I happened to let the undercarriage dry between those steps.

If you think my bench looks messy in this picture, you should see it when I’m not in the middle of a project. It turns out that for building chairs, you really don’t need much actual working space on the bench. But having convenient tool storage would be a much better solution than just shoving stuff down the bench until things fall off the other end.

Here’s a closeup of the seat. You can see some of the interesting coloration here, but it’s better in person of course. I cut the walnut seat out of one thick piece, in a “book matched” arrangement. Unfortunately, the grain doesn’t match anymore since the seat is carved out, and book matching makes is a bit more difficult to carve the seat where the two planks meet. This was harder to carve than a pine seat; I don’t think I’ll be doing another hardwood seat.

I managed to mangle only one small section when trimming the legs, where I dug out too much wood near one leg. I’m also very happy with how well the scraper cuts across the end grain of the legs. With all the wood the same hardness, it doesn’t just cut the seat and skip across the leg. After scraping, I lightly sanded with 400 grit paper, and it was ready for finish. I probably didn’t need to go down to 400, but it did smooth out a bit of the raised grain after scraping. The seat still has a slightly wavy texture across the surface from the compass plane cuts, but it’s hard to notice.

I generally don’t sand the edges of the seat, I prefer to leave the facets from the spokeshave. Unfortunately, the end grain ends up slightly rough in some places. This isn’t too much of a problem under paint, but I did use some fine sandpaper to knock off the rough spots between coats of finish on this stool.

I’m very happy with how this stool turned out, and I might even still have enough momentum to build a perch. At that point I’ll be getting close to stool overload, though. If Marla loves the perch more than the stool, and I like it enough to work in front of a computer with it, I might make another one, but otherwise I’ll attempt to move on to another Actual Chair.

Bad news, Good news: Penn Brewery

The bad news: last fall, Penn Brewery on the North Side had their rent raised, and declined to renew their lease. They’ve already contracted their brewing out to Lion brewery in Wilkes-Barre, and the restaurant’s last day open was Friday.

The good news: the owner and the landlord came to an 11th hour agreement on Friday, which renews the brewery’s rent for 5 years. Hopefully the restaurant employees haven’t all quit yet.

By the Keg: EEBC’s Session Ale #21, “Grisette”

Last year I got sick of recycling beer bottles, and the tremendous waste associated with this. Recycling glass is better than throwing bottles away, to be sure. But fifty years ago (or today, in almost any other country) bottles were regularly cleaned and reused. Why not now?

Some consider the “give a hoot, don’t pollute” ad campaign, and its modern “recycle” replacements to be nothing more than a giant exercise in externalizing costs. Companies reduce the cost of their products by using inexpensive disposable/recyclable containers, and forcing taxpayers to pay for their disposal. After moving to disposable packaging, companies had so much money left over they could afford TV ads to tell people not to throw trash on the ground.

It turns out that in some cases, bottles are still reused today. I started making an effort to buy my beer in refillable Growlers (half gallon jugs) as often as possible. I rode my bike to East End Brewing Company on growler days, and filled up at D’s occasionally out of convenience.

But growlers have their own problems. The beer is relatively expensive: you nearly pay bar prices, at D’s. And you need to refill them fairly often. This led me to consider filling one of my soda kegs (aka “Cornelius Kegs” or “Sixtels”) at EEBC, but I never got around to it.

Then, I tried Session Ale #21: “Grisette.” This is a small (low alcohol) Belgian style beer. It is excellent! It’s spicy and flavorful, and doesn’t send me under the table (or my foot into my mouth?) too quickly.

Both of my homebrew kegs were empty, so I got one filled with Grisette (well, Marla did: thanks!) and it has been great. The beer stays carbonated (with some help from my CO2), and I won’t need to refill it often. Even better, a 5 gallon keg costs as much as 5 half-gallon growlers, so it costs as little as an average beer in a case (in Pennsylvania, anyway).

For anyone who brews beer, I definitely recommend considering kegging your beer instead of bottling it. It’s faster, more convenient, and when you use CO2 to dispense your beer, it stays fresh almost as long as in bottles. I bottled my Gruit, the first bottling job I’ve done in a long time, and it was no fun at all: label removal, bottle washing, and then floor washing after the mess of filling everything up.

The main downside of kegging is the startup cost. Luckily, Dad found some kegs at a scrap metal yard around the time they were being phased out in soda vending locations, and bought them by the pound. But knowing what I know now, I’d still invest in kegs if I had to buy them.

And as a side perk, you can probably get your keg filled at a local microbrewery, for only slightly more than the cost of brewing a batch.

Mon Wharf Trail

Work is ready to begin on an important section of the Great Allegheny Passage trail.

This section of trail will be in downtown Pittsburgh, and will pass through the current location of the Mon Wharf parking lot. It is intended to connect to the Smithfield Street bridge on one end, and Point State Park on the other. This will connect downtown and the north side trails to the south side trail, and Eliza Furnace trail (Jail Trail).

Although this section of trail won’t be very useful for me, it will encourage at least one of my coworkers to ride his bike to work.

I’ve been extremely happy with the Hot Metal Bridge pedestrian/bike span since it opened a year and a half ago. It has seen constant use year-round, and they’ve even started clearing snow from it.

Anything that gets more people using bicycles as transportation is a good thing, in my mind. More cyclists on the roads make the roads safer for all cyclists.

Order vs. Chaos

12: 45 Restate my assumptions.

  1. Mathematics is the language of nature.
  2. Everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers.
  3. If you graph the numbers of any system, patterns emerge.

Therefore, there are patterns everywhere in nature.

Max Cohen, in Darren Aronofsky’s Pi

It all started with a simple observation

My friend Daniel enjoys abstract strategy games, but this is one of the few types of game I just can’t seem to enjoy very much.

Next came an exception which clarified the rule

Mike and Elly introduced me to Zendo. This very interesting game is a pure distillation of an inductive logic puzzle, in a multi-player format. I enjoyed it very much, even though it was an abstract strategy game.

In Zendo, the master decides on a rule which distinguishes between “koans” (sculptures built of the plastic pieces shown here) which have the buddha nature, and those which do not. An example rule: “Only koans which contain an orange piece have the buddha nature.” The students (other players) try to discover the rule, by observing previous examples and constructing koans to test their hypotheses. Technically, the first student to induce the correct rule “wins;” but as in most good games, “winning” provides a convenient stopping place more than a reward for good performance.

Reconciling my enjoyment of Zendo with my general distaste for abstract strategy games ended up being a bit of a realization. The games I don’t like tend to have simple rules which result in complex gameplay (if you’re lucky). The games I enjoy tend to have a larger, more chaotic system, and part of the fun for me is to find the order behind that chaos.

Zendo is a crossover. It has simple rules with interesting emergent properties, which I don’t tend to lke. But the game creates a chaotic-looking system with the goal of discovering the rule which generates those seemingly chaotic results: exactly matching my preference.

Trying to find a rule which explains a set of observations is called “inductive logic.” In contrast, “deductive logic” starts with the rules, and generates outcomes consistent with the rules. To me, the difference between inductive and deductive logic seems to mirror the sort of games I enjoy.

The problem with inductive logic in practice, is that it is easy to get stuck on a false rule which is consistent only because not enough observations have been made. Inductive logic can be applied with a greater degree of success, in cases where you know there is a simple rule which explains the chaos, such as in Zendo.

To be useful, inductive logic must be combined with a strict process to weed out the false rules. The game rules of Zendo define the process used for this during the game. In real life, the process typically used is something like this:

  • Make as many observations as possible
  • Hypothesize a rule which explains and is consistent with all observations
  • Test the hypothesis by trying to find counterexamples
  • Revise the hypothesis to match new observations

When applied to observations made about “The Real World,” this process has a name: The Scientific Method.

Finally, a pattern started to emerge

Once I settled on this explanation for my preferences within the realm of board games, it became evident to me that not only do these preferences match my abilities, but they also apply to many other aspects of my life. I’m relatively good at finding the patterns behind chaos, and I also enjoy it.

As I said before, there are problems with getting stuck on invalid rules (superstitions and myths), or finding patterns where there are none (paranoia). The movie A Beautiful Mind tells the true story of mathematician John Nash, who was both a mathematical genius and a paranoid schizophrenic. This correlation between madness and genius has become almost stereotypical, but most normal people end up with the problem of superstitions, instead. Without thinking much about it, they attach themselves to simple explanations for their observations which do not hold up to tighter scrutiny.

I tend towards paranoia, and constantly questioning other peoples’ explanations, rather than settling on inconsistent rules. I’m no genius, but at least I don’t have the madness which goes with it.

I’ll write more in the future, indirectly related to these concepts, but I wanted to describe my general thoughts first so I could refer to them later.

A Finished Stool

A somewhat belated update: I finished the stool.

I applied maybe 3 or 4 coats of the Salem Red milk paint, but as I usually find with with red paint, it still didn’t cover perfectly. I decided that if I wanted perfect coverage I should’ve just used a can of Rustoleum. Actually… although impatience did enter into the equation, I also decided this looked Good Enough. Since “better is the enemy of good,” I stopped.

After the paint, I applied 2 coats of Minwax wipe-on poly finish. This changed the color from a completely flat pinkish color, to the deeper red seen here. This is the first time I’ve used the wipe-on polyurethane instead of a Watco danish oil finish. I like the results: it has a bit of sheen, but not too much, even in the places which haven’t been worn smooth by sitting yet.

The color looks fine from a distance, and “interesting” close up. The paint is slightly transparent, and shows the brown stain underneath in places. As it wears, I expect this will become more apparent, but also more interesting.

Truthfully, this is a practice stool, and it will most likely end up in the basement, if the natural walnut stool turns out as well as I hope it will.

The next image is a family picture. Moving counterlockwise from the upper right, there’s the Sack Back chair I made in 1998 in a class I took with my dad at the Windsor Institute; the Bow Back chair I made in a class run by Brian Cunfer in Lancaster in 2007; and the stool I just finished by myself in my own shop.

I like them all for different reasons. I’m most interested in making chairs we’ll use, not just decorations. This is a “large” hobby, and we don’t have a lot of space for chairs we aren’t using; but I have no interest in selling them, either. That would be too much like a job, and I already have a job I like. So, I’ll have to either start making some more chairs of the same pattern, or live with the fact that I’ll never have a matching set.

My hobbies run in cycles (a topic for another blog post), but my hope is that my interest in chairmaking will last at least until I can complete the walnut stool, and hopefully long enough to build one of Peter Galbert’s perches.

In the slightly longer term, I anticipate building another actual chair. That would require tools and supplies I don’t have yet. Mainly, I would need very straight stock, preferrably oak, to split into spindles and bows for the back, and a steam box for bending the curved parts. Bending wood is quite fun, when it doesn’t break.

I’m considering starting with a rodback chair, because it has only one relatively small bent part in the back. This wouldn’t match any of my other chairs, of course. And, it would require a pattern, which I don’t have. However, I bought a very good book by John Kassay with measured drawings, which I think I could make a suitable pattern from.

But this is getting ahead of myself a bit. In the mean time, a few other small updates:

  • I found some more logs. I’m pretty sure these are Cherry. They’re quite wide, over a foot, but only 18-20″ long. I’m not yet sure what I’ll use them for.
  • I also found some very nice, but very large logs: perfectly straight, 2’+ diameter and 4’+ long. I have no way to lift them, let alone get them home. I’m considering how I might split them enough to carry eighths home, without anyone raising a fuss.
  • We’ve been having problems with our DSL download speeds, so I connected our modem directly to the NID in the basement with a short cord. This instantly doubled our download speeds: our “internal” wiring was the problem. Now I’ll have to wire some outlets into the basement ceiling and find a place to put a server.
  • I have a new batch of beer in the works; the recipe will come after it’s ready to drink.

Have fun!