Why isn't North Point Park open yet?

At least once a week I run by the as-yet-unopened North Point Park, part of a three-city effort to spruce up the space at the junction of Cambridge, Charlestown, and Boston proper. It looks beautiful, about the same as it did last summer when it was in roughly the same visible shape. But there's no sign it's going to open anytime soon. Instead it's surrounded by foreboding fences and "DO NOT ENTER" signs.

What's going on here? The latest Globe article I can find is from last November, with a promised slated opening of "Spring of next year". Well, that's come and gone, as I'm sure this blogger has noticed as well. And it's not like the place is abuzz with activity. Whenever I peek around, there are maybe a few contractors milling around in one corner. You'd think they'd be in a rush to get this finished, given that it's been delayed by years from its scheduled opening (2004!) and that the peak park season will be over in a month or so.

DCR and the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority need to get their act together.


Dining at the woodfinish abode

First, hopefully, in a series. The woodfinish abode (tm) is increasingly given to more complicated recipes than your basic frozen pizza or Kraft Macaroni and Cheese (not that we should disparage those oh-so-convenient sources of deliciousness). Vanity requires that I occasionally record the latest culinary exploit.

In this instance, it was a recipe from nancy silverton's sandwich book. Imagine a Pritchard Scale of cooking, wherein we plot the difficulty of the recipe along the X axis, then the gustatory appeal along the Y axis, and measure the total area to approximate a recipe's greatness. Ms. Silverton's book would blow the lid off. Every sandwich sounds delicious, but almost every one involves 5 sub-recipes, each about the amount of effort I put in for a really good Sunday night dinner. Luckily there are a few low-X recipes that can be managed with the encouragement of a Beefeater and tonic. In particular, her grilled cheese with marinated onions and whole-grain mustard was pretty straightforward and absolutely delectable.

The first step is to marinate sliced yellow onion in a mix of olive oil, white wine vinegar, salt and pepper at room temperature for about 20 minutes. This nicely softens up the onion without cooking, while at the same time mellowing the flavor... oh, and incidentally getting it soaked through with olive oil. Buttered sourdough bread (in this case, Iggy's) is spread with whole grain French mustard and layered with thin sliced gruyere and the onions. Pressed on a Cuisinart Griddler for about 8 minutes, the result was crispy on the outside with molten cheese enveloping savory onions on the inside. It went perfectly with a Dogfish Head Burton Baton. Highly recommended.


Let the snack obsessed be thankful...

...at least for the time being, there's a new flavor of Combos available in at least some parts of the country: Zesty Salsa Tortilla (the link goes to e-bay since they're not listed on the official site).

I found a bag (the last one!) at a rest stop on the Maine Turnpike this weekend. The "tortilla" shell is interesting: kind of gritty, with some corn flavor. The filling is spicy-licious: similar to the Pepperoni Pizza Cracker variety, but hotter and with more tomato underpinnings.

As far as I can tell, this is the first new flavor since the ill-fated mustard variety, which showed up about 10 years ago. I never got to try it. Hopefully these have better luck, since they're quite good. Combos are my absolute favorite junk food: like pretzels and dip or cheese and crackers without the effort!


NFL coaches shouldn't call timeouts

In 2004, the NFL changed the rules to allow coaches, not just players, to call timeouts from the sideline. The idea was to make precision clock management easier and avoid confusion during hurry ups at the end of each half.

Unfortunately, it's given coaches an unintended power that has a deleterious effect on the game. A coach, unlike a player who has to get set and worry about minding the play, can often get the timeout in mere moments before the opposing team snaps the ball. The result is frequently that the snap goes ahead. In field goal situations, this often means a kicker will nonetheless get the now meaningless kick off, and then have to retry the attempt. Icing is one thing, but deliberately attempting to force a "non play" seems unsportsmanlike, not to mention extremely annoying for the crowd and TV audience.

Similarly, coaches have used these "just in time" timeouts to get an unfair preview of offensive plays. Once again, right before the snap, a coach calls timeout and the play goes ahead, usually for several seconds before the whistles stop it. Bill Cowher in particular seems fond of this technique.

I think the old rules should be restored, and players forced to call timeouts themselves. A compromise might be to allow only sideline timeouts by the offense.

If the NFL keeps this rule, I guarantee there will one day be controversy when a seeming game-deciding kick is called back because of a coach's timeout, followed by a re-kick miss.


Life's Annoyances, Part 2

Second in a series.

OK, so let me start by saying that I don't hate bicyclists. Some of my best friends are bicyclists. Everyone on the road should do everything they can to keep the commute safe and fun for all.

With all that out of the way, I've finally realized what it is that annoys me most about bicyclists on city streets. Many times have I been out driving on a reasonably wide street with light traffic and find myself behind a biker in the dead middle of the lane, making no effort to move to the side so I can safely pass, and forcing me to slow to the breakneck speed of 10-15 MPH. OK, OK, "share the road" is the mantra. Fine, then how to explain that when I do hit traffic, these same bikers are now zipping along past the traffic on the side of the road, mere feet from my passenger door?

Either you use the lanes like regular traffic because the side of the road isn't safe, or you use the side of the road to facilitate traffic flow. You can't have it both ways.


Life's Annoyances, Part 1

First in a series.

Why is it that some mobile phone carriers (I'm looking at you Verizon Wireless) insist on making you listen to a 15 second spiel before you can leave a voice message? Somehow we got by for years with answering machines that said, "I'm not home right now, please leave a message after the beep...<beep>". Straightforward and efficient.

Now, after I wait for the phone to ring 12 times--just in case it's in a combination safe underneath a sofa rather than in a pocket--I spend a quarter minute of my life I'll never get back hearing again about all my wonderful choices in case I didn't actually want to just leave a message. Maybe I'd like to leave a callback number. Maybe I'd like to hear more options after I leave a message. Maybe I'd like to send electric shocks into the eyeballs of whatever moron decided that they'd make literally millions of people listen repeatedly to a message that maybe four of them will ever use. Oh, I guess that's not an option.

Sprint nicely lets you work around this by pressing 1 as soon as the prerecorded message starts. I haven't found a similar trick for Verizon. Maybe it exists, but systems like this shouldn't be designed so that only through esoteric knowledge can you make them work the way they're supposed to.


Lady in the Water

I saw Lady in the Water last weekend. I am not someone who thinks everything M. Night Shyamalan has done since The Sixth Sense is crap. I actually liked Unbreakable a lot more than Sense, and Signs had its moments. Lady, though, plays like an exercise in self-justification.

Shyamalan wants to tell a culturally incongruous "fairy tale" in a setting overloaded with artifice: the apartment building as a zoo of modern society. Perhaps he could have pulled this off, but at the same time, he wants to tell a "meta" story outside of the usual narrative framework. Here he is far too heavy-handed, and the result is a collapse of that narrative framework, preventing the audience from suspending disbelief and taking his fairy tale seriously.

To being with, there's the way the fairy story is injected into the film. None of the plot evolves organically, every new element is introduced and explained by way of the hackneyed wise old grandmother, who might as well have been named Madame Exposition. Surely Shyamalan recognized this as over the top, and the audience is expected to recognize this as well. After all, we're given a complete summary of the mythos behind the story as an animated short before the film begins! This has the (obviously intended) effect of removing any mystery at all from the story. The remaining mystery lies only in what parts of the story will be played by which characters. The character with the most transparent role is, of course, named Story. The characters are the story, get it?

If that weren't distractingly "clever" enough, Shyamalan wants to comment on the state of cinematic art, and particularly the corner of it he's been painted into. Subtlety not being the hallmark of this film, of course, he does this by adding a film critic as a secondary character. Played by Bob Balaban, the critic seems meant to be an object of amused scorn (and even self-referentially refers to himself as such shortly before being eaten). Ironically, I found the performance and the character the most enjoyable element of the film. He's the only character who doesn't appear simply as a puppet of the writer/director. He has no part in the fairy story, and seems to exist only to remind the audience that the "real" story has something to do with identity, and the roles created for us by, among other things, Hollywood.

It's only natural, then, that Shyamalan would place himself in a major role. I don't think he's so arrogant as to expect us to take his role in the fairy story as the savior of the world as analogous to his role in the meta story, but his presence is another indication to the audience that the fairy story is just a vehicle to get to the points he's trying to make. If the fairy story is just a vehicle, though, how is the audience to take it seriously? Suspension of disbelief takes effort. We have to believe there will be some payoff for it, and Shyamalan neither promises, nor delivers any, aside from a few easy scares. The fairy story unfolds exactly as we're told it will before the title.

The result is that the audience spends most of the film nearly embarrassed by the absurdity of the fairy story, which rather severely undercuts our interest in taking what Shyamalan has to say in the meta story with anything less than a big grain of salt.

Technically, of course, the film is terrific, with excellent use of the confined spaces and indoor/outdoor contrast of the complex. Outside of shots of television suggesting war and terror in the outside world, we never leave the confines of the poolside apartments, and it's a credit to Shyamalan that the setting never gets boring. It's just too bad there wasn't a more interesting story, fairy or otherwise, to tell there.

Charlie Card Rant #1

The MBTA's transition away from monthly passes and tokens to the Charlie Card is so far a complete fiasco. I'll save my rant about the Rube Goldberg-style gates for another day, but the way they're managing the switchover has to be about the least optimal way they could have done it.

The stations are being converted in a seemingly random order, with no posted information on which stations are converted and which ones aren't. This wouldn't be so bad, except that other than monthly passes there is no common fare between the stations that are converted and those that aren't. Did you do what the MBTA ceaselessly bothers you to do and buy a token for your return trip? If your return trip starts at a Charlie Card station, you're out of luck. Same with the poor tourist who buys a "stored value card" and discovers it's useless at some of the most popular stations on the T.

I honestly can't believe they thought this was something consumers would appreciate, especially in summer: Boston's tens of thousands of tourists have enough trouble figuring out the T when it's not partitioned into two totally incompatible fare systems.

There have got to be half a dozen completely practical (if slightly more expensive) ways to deal with this. Why not have a single portable Charlie Card reader at every station that hasn't been converted? You could put it by the gate used for senior/student fare and exact change, where the collector could monitor its use. We know they have these portable card readers on all the Silver Line buses (and soon all buses, presumably), so why not order a dozen or two so there's a universal payment system. Ditto for leaving a temporary gate at converted stations that still takes tokens.

I want a modern system: stored value cards will save me money since I buy a monthly pass mostly for convenience. But the way the transition is being handled makes me wonder if this conversion isn't going to end up as a white elephant.


Yelp and Dodgeball

I'm having a lot of fun writing and reading reviews on Yelp, a well-done personal reviews site focused on metro areas. The target market of young, urban, dare-I-say professionals who go out a lot seems to line up pretty closely to what Dodgeball (now owned by Google) is going after, and certainly it would be nice to tie Dodgeball's messaging infrastructure in with Yelp's community and reviews.

You could pull up Yelp reviews via SMS, send messages out to yelp.com to set up impromptu meetups, etc.

The problem is that this is unlikely to happen, even in the "Web 2.0" world, unless Yelp gets bought by Google and integrated on their end.

There's just way too much redundant work going on when every site with a social dimension has its own "friends" system: both the development cost to the site, and the cost to the users who have to reestablish their social networks over and over again just to use cool new features like Dodgeball's messaging stuff.

Maybe Google should develop a basic "friends" API similar to their now ubiquitous Maps API? Orkut seems to have crashed and burned outside of South America; I certainly don't hear much about it. But there have got to be dozens of "Web 2.0" startups who would love to be able to say, "Log in with your gmail account and we'll show you all your friends that are already using our service, and let you invite the others."


Foodie heaven

A new addition to the blogroll: The Boston Globe's new Dishing. Pretty snooty, as you might expect, but just about every entry is tempting in one way or another.

Hopefully they'll have more entries like great cheap eats in Vermont than how connected food writers get free premium steaks. OK, I'm just envious!

Scare science

Isn't it useless to know that 85 of 905 Swedes with brain tumors were "high users" of mobile phones without knowing what proportion of the Swedish population overall are "high users" of mobile phones? It's hard to believe it would be so much less than 9% that it would justify the claim of a link.

The study wasn't even posted on the "National Institute for Working Life"'s web page before they blabbed to Reuters, so it's hard to take seriously.

UPDATE: As always, the British have the right response.


The Horror: Fooling Thunderbird's Spam Filter with Stephen King

I really like Thunderbird, the Mozilla mail client, but the spam filtering is not particularly useful. I keep getting the same luxury watch and prescription drug emails over and over, and maybe 5% of them are actually filtered, despite training the Bayesian "learning" filter for months.

The spammers seem to be fooling it by including invisible text of a non-spam-sounding nature. At least in the one I looked at this morning, it was a sequence of rarely appearing words ("operatic hermaneutic escherichia") followed by some text from Misery:

With Annie Wilkes that is a question which has no sane answer. Being such a straight arrow was part of the reason for this amazing fecundity, but Annie herself was a bigger one. "You don't want to write my book and so you're making up tricks not to start."

I have to say this is pretty clever, in that it's not obvious to me that there's a good solution, short of filtering any HTML message with a certain percent content of "hidden" text (figuring that out would be a little tricky, as they vary the font color in a range of "invisible"). And even if Thunderbird did that, there are probably lots of places to hide text that doesn't scan like spam. Has Bayesian filtering failed? What say you Paul Graham? Or is Thunderbird's implementation just broken because it doesn't pay enough attention to my "good" mail and is too concerned with false positives filtering things I actually want to see?


World of Warcraft

Dead-on assessment of the barriers to fun in World of Warcraft.

I'm grinding my way up to level 60 now, and while there's certainly an addictive aspect to the "get quest, kill monsters, gain level, get harder quest, kill harder monsters..." cycle, I really wish I could spend more time just wandering around "doing" stuff. The in-game economy seems kind of stale, since low-end skills are so common, what they produce is next to worthless. High-end skills and patterns require jumping on the 40-main raid train. I agree with the article: that doesn't seem particularly appealing.

On the other hand, maybe it would be a good thing to walk away before it's too late.