First look at Dogfish

The place was packed for the opening last night, with 30 minute waits and a crowded bar. People in Virginia really like their Dogfish Head.

The food was all right, but it’s the beer in the spotlight here, and that’s fantastic. They offer a happy hour from 4-7, flights of 6 ales for $8, and an extensive list of Dogfish beers, with lots on tap and many harder to find ones in the bottle (including some that are out of season).

My only complaint: no prices on the beer menu. I don’t mind buying a $13 bottle once in a while, but I like to know about it first! Luckily the Immort Ale is a tasty brew, and at 11% abv I was feeling too good to worry about it.


What’s holding back the DC coffee scene?

In a late night post he later regrets, Ezra Klein wonders why DC has such a dearth of good coffee shops:

Cities like Portland and Seattle are trying to create a livable city to retain and attract a certain type of resident. Namely, educated, young, white people. Portland’s 78% white, Seattle’s a bit under 70%. So you structure the city thus that there’s lots of educated white people bait, including cafes, bookstores, wireless internet spots, bike trails, etc.

DC, by contrast, has a lot of white people working in it, but is actually only 39% white, and has a city government that does not derive primary political support from transient white voters. So the character of the city actually does more to represent its inhabitants. Which seems rational. Moreover, the white people there basically have to be there. You don’t move to DC because it’s awesome, you move because it’s where your work is. So there’s little need to construct an affirmative agenda to attract residents.

Race issues aside, I agree with Megan McArdle that it’s weird to look to the city government for an explanation of the character of the city. (Unless we’re talking about the licensing issues that plague small business owners, which as far as I know are as equally a pain in the ass here and in the Northwest.)

But Ezra does have a point. Why are there so few good coffee shops in this city? I link it to three reasons:

1) History is the big one. As with wine, craft brewing, spirits, and seasonal cuisine, the West Coast was way ahead of the East when it came to great coffee. Sure, espresso bars were initially successful in New York in the 50s, but it was Peet’s in Berkeley that led the way on artisinal, single origin roasting. And of course Starbucks and the Seattle style followed later, along with lots of smaller, high-end roasters and obsessive espresso tinkerers. When it comes to building a customer base, Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco have a huge head start over DC.

2) The same applies for the labor force. I can attest from experience as a trainer in two DC coffee shops that finding talented baristas is difficult here. In the Northwest you’ve got a lot more people who know their way around an espresso machine.

Perhaps even more importantly, coffee shop jobs get more respect in the Northwest. Whenever I would be asked the inevitable “What do you do?” question at DC happy hours, “And what do you really want to do?” would almost always follow my response that I worked as a barista. The idea that I actually desired to get up early and make espresso confounded a lot of people. Coffee jobs here tend to be necessary or transitory, rarely a long-term aspiration. This makes it difficult and expensive to train employees. Advantage: Starbucks and its superautomatic push-button espresso machines.

3) Finally, and this is more speculative, but DC’s Metro system strikes me as being very good at shuffling people from the suburbs and residential parts of the city to the work-oriented core and to a few social hot spots, but not so good at encouraging long stretches of mixed use neighborhoods. The result is that retail space near Metro stops is very expensive while the less pedestrian friendly, less accessible parts of town are more in the budget of a startup indie coffee shop. Given the importance of foot traffic to a cafe, advantage once again goes to the hyper-efficient Starbucks or to the lunch-oriented Cosi. I don’t have numbers to back this up, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the distribution of rents is flatter in the Northwest.

The good news is that things are rapidly getting better here. There are many better options now than there were four years ago, Counter Culture Coffee is spreading the gospel through its new DC training center, and there a few other exciting shops in the pipeline. Consumers’ tastes are evolving and the market is responding.

This is also a good time to plug Big Bear, the new Bloomingdale cafe that’s taking great coffee into an underserved neighborhood (previously reviewed here). DC bohemians looking for an off the beaten track coffee shop should check it out.


Speed read with ZAP Reader

Interruptions and distractions can make reading long articles on the web a time-consuming task, so I was intrigued to come across ZAP Reader, a site that outputs text by flashing words one at a time at whatever rate you choose. The default is 300 words per minute, which I find a bit slow. (According to this test, that’s about the speed I naturally read web pages.) At 375 I can still keep up and understand what I’m reading; 400 seems doable with a little practice.

The reader works because it forces you to stop subvocalizing words and ignore incoming distractions, and because most of the time you can miss a few words and still comprehend meaning. It’s not a service you’d want to use all the time, but for when you just want to mainline a lengthy, factual article, it’s a handy tool. Cut and paste to give it a try.

[Hat tip: David Tufte.]


Magic and IP roundup

The debate over magic and IP has continued this week in a few interesting directions. In the comments on Tim Lee’s TechDirt post, magician Andrew Mayne and I go back and forth over a few points, and he also responds in a podcast at iTricks. Head over to those sites if you’d like to follow the discussion.

The Economist covered the paper last week as well. On this I agree with Andrew that the magazine put an inexcusable lack of research into it. The debate amongst magicians was already going strong by its publication date, but no mention is given to criticism from within the magic community. That’s some very credulous writing from such a good magazine.

Finally, since in all of the recent discussion no one has published comments from Jacob Loshin, the paper’s author, I got in contact with him to see what he thought of the online reaction. While he’s unavailable to dive into the debate right now, it’s worth clarifying a couple things:

1) He is not an outsider to the magic community, and in fact performed semi-professionally for six years.

2) His point in the paper was not to argue that magic is an IP wonderland. Rather, he was more interested in the fact that the norms have evolved and function reasonably well — quite likely better than a regime of IP law would. This nuance has been lost in much of the paper’s coverage.


Hot dogs and beyond

I’ve often wondered why DC, a city with dense districts of office workers and a good restaurant scene, has such a lackluster selection of food carts. Turns out there’s an obvious reason: it’s the government, stupid! The city council suspended new food cart licenses in 1998, leaving the existing hot dog vendors to hawk their wares without much competition for nearly a decade.

Fortunately, the city is starting to see the light and has authorized 21 new licenses. One of them belongs to L Street Catering, a new Korean barbecue cart located at 14th and L. I read about it in Tom Sietsema’s review and checked it out on Monday, then followed it up with repeat visits on Tuesday and Wednesday because it’s just that good. The specialty is bulgogi, beef marinated in soy sauce and other spices and served over rice. They also offer teriyaki chicken and will spice things up with chili powder and sriracha if you ask them to. Everything is served up fresh from two woks handled non-stop to keep up with demand. At just $6.75 with salad and kimchee, it’s one of the most affordable and tastiest lunches around my office right now .

Most of the other carts aren’t open yet, but I’m looking forward to trying out the city’s new diversity. “Wings and Waffles,” anyone?

Speaking of DC hot dogs, I’m also really excited by PS7. The year-old restaurant at the edge of Chinatown offers a gourmet take on the district staple, making them in house with high quality, fresh ingredients. They’re incredibly juicy and taste fantastic, available both as standard dogs or as slightly spicier half-smokes.

PS7 also has a great bar with a new manager who’s rolling out some very cool new cocktails this month. Among them is a beet infused vodka cocktail that’s perfect. Even if you don’t like beets, it’s worth ordering. The drinks are on the pricey side, but during happy hour you can get them for $7 — a great deal for drinks this good.


Global warming –> more cats

Global warming leads to more cats. That’s the claim of Pets Across America, who says warming has lengthened the feline mating season. I’m normally opposed to taking drastic action to fight climate change, but if this dubious claim is true I might have to support some massive CO2 reductions. Or perhaps we could just use the excess kitties as a source of biofuel? Whatever’s cheaper.

On a more serious note, here’s what’s new at A Better Earth:
The new push to revive CAFE standards
Should cities tax car sharing services?
“Choice editing” not an apt choice of words
The “Skeptical Environmentalist” returns
UK food miles debate heats up
Yet another downside to ethanol
Wealth and skepticism
Recycling and incentives
We’re all eating mutants!
Floating nuclear power plant
The Woz on efficient housing


The stapler’s secret

And now for what may be the most prosaic post in Eternal Recurrence history: examining your stapler! Yes, your stapler. A simple object you’ve used thousands of times and probably feel like you’ve mastered. Well, think again. Your stapler may possess a mysterious feature…

Here’s what the base, or anvil, of a stapler looks like prepared for normal operation:

Normal stapler anvil

But push up on that metal plate and it rotates:

Stapler morph

Turn it 180 degrees and it displays an anthropomorphic smiley face:

Oh hai i stapled ur paperz

But that’s not the point! Now the staple bends outward instead of inward, like this (top normal, bottom reversed):

Crazy, man

Wow! My friend Caleb showed me this yesterday, though even he was unsure of why staplers do this. Wikipedia has the answer:


This method is by far the least known and utilized stapling method. It is used to temporarily bind documents or other items, often cloth or clothing, for sewing. In order to pin, the anvil must be shifted so that the staple bends outwards instead of inwards. The staple binds the item with relative security, but can be easily removed by pulling the staple along the plane of the paper. This method varies between staplers, as some anvils need to be simply pushed forward to allow pinning, while others must be rotated. Some staplers implement pinning by bending one leg of the staple inwards, while bending the other outwards. Some modern staplers do not even include support for pinning.

Since learning of this feature I’ve shown it to lots of people and only one of them was aware of it. So informal poll time, blog readers. You’re an intelligent mob and have been around your share of staplers. How many of you knew they could do this?

Bonus link: I’m sure you’re dying to go play with a stapler now, but you may not have one nearby. No worries, the internet offers a handy virtual stapler for all of your virtual stapling needs.


Take that outside!

And don’t smoke it there, either! Scanning the news today I came across not one but four separate articles about proposed outdoor smoking bans.

1) An Oakland city council committee has voted to ban smoking in ATM lines, ticket lines, outdoor dining areas, public trails, parks, golf courses, child care centers, hotels and bus stops. The proposal also initially prohibited smoking in newly developed apartments and condos, but in a rare showing of deference to individual liberty that measure was dropped.

2) In Vancouver, a staff report to the city council recommends banning smoking in all outdoor restaurant seating areas.

3) Quincy, MA, is considering banning smoking in the area outside city hall. Smokers who work there are naturally opposed and there’s some suggestion that the true purpose of the law would be to give police a reason to shoo away loiterers.

4) And local governments in New South Wales are contemplating bans at beaches, parks, and outdoor dining areas.

So for those of you who mocked my slippery slope argument against indoor smoking bans, I would just like to point out… I told you so.


Google’s Lunar X-Prize

Building on the success of the Ansari X-Prize, the foundation announced today the new Google Lunar X-Prize. Google will award a $20 million purse to the first group that successfully sends an unmanned rover to the Moon.

I wrote about the X-Prize’s award for a practical 100 mpg car at A Better Earth a few months ago. Also, check out this Marginal Revolution post for an interesting story of how the prize’s funders cheaply insured the purse thanks to “experts” at Boeing and McDonnell-Douglas declaring that it had virtually no chance of being won.


Pulling IP norms out of a hat

The methods or “secrets” of magicians are of paramount value in the trade. We conjurers work in a wonderfully creative community, awash in a steady stream of new sleights, props, tricks, books, and videos. Yet because our numbers are small, the protections of intellectual property law are often non-existent or too expensive to enforce. How do we get by without it?

That’s the question addressed in a fascinating paper called “Secrets Revealed: How Magicians Protect Intellectual Property Without Law.” It’s been making the rounds on a lot of weblogs as a case study of how innovation can thrive in the absence of IP law. The author, Jacob Loshin, outlines a very good model of the magic community; if he’s not a magician, he must have done a great deal of research to understand it so well. Here’s his basic thesis:

[Neither] copyright, patent, nor trade secret law offers significant protection for magicians’ intellectual property. Many of IP law’s qualifications and limitations flow from the assumption that intangible property is non-rival, and therefore that intellectual property holders should get something less robust than a full-fledged property right. Yet, IP law’s partial property rights ill-suit the unique characteristics of magic secrets, which require more protection than intellectual property law can spare to afford. Copyright law might prevent some stealing of magic routines, but it cannot prevent stealing or exposure of magic methods; patent law can prevent stealing of magic methods, but it cannot prevent exposure of them; finally, trade secret law might prevent some stealing and exposure of “proprietary magic,” but it cannot prevent the exposure of “common magic” without chilling the salutary practice of sharing among magicians…

The lack of protection from intellectual property law, however, has not stopped magicians from innovating and thriving. Intellectual property law leaves the most damaging threat to magic — exposure — undeterred. Yet, despite a few high profile incidents, the magic community’s intellectual property has not been subject to constant exposure. In this Part, we discover how magicians manage to create and enforce intellectual property rights without the help of formal intellectual property law. In short, the magic community has developed a fairly effective informal, norm-based IP regime which limits access, establishes use and exposure norms, and enforces violations — all outside the purview of the law.

The paper fleshes this out in much greater detail, so please read the whole thing for more information.

Loshin makes a strong case for the superiority of IP norms over IP law within the magic community, but not all magicians agree with his conclusions. An editor at writes:

“The paper lacks any actual economic research and most of all lacks input from magic creators. Creative people are constantly pulled from magic to places where intellectual property is better recognized,” said Andrew Mayne, who has worked with David Blaine, Penn and Teller and David Copperfield… “I’ve always felt that magic should be used as a negative example of what happens when the only power rests in the people with the most money and rule of law is nonexistent. By comparison, the music industry with its system of royalties and tracking for song writers looks like a wonderful utopia filled with chocolate rivers, bubble gum trees and cotton candy orchards.”

Economic research on magic product sales would indeed be interesting, but I think the paper holds up well without it. I’m curious who these people are that Mayne claims have been drawn away from magic because of a lack of IP protection. My impression is that the most creative magicians invent because they love the art, want to improve their acts, and seek acclaim from other magicians. Copying is a problem, but not, as far as I know, one that’s significantly driving out innovators.

An ongoing and bitter dispute between two high profile gaff makers provides a telling example of how creative magicians deal with theft. The props in question are difficult and expensive to create, but once developed they can be reverse engineered. The more established of the two craftsmen has alleged that the other has copied many of his original designs. But he’s not giving up. This is what he had to say about the conflict on a magicians’ forum:

Now some good things have come out of all this. I think that the feud/competition has actually increased my business by a rather large margin. And the competition has certainly been a catalyst for me to improve my products. That is good for the consumer, and also I have developed more pride in my work over the course. However, I really have to shake my head when I see these blatant copies of nearly everything I do. Not only that, [his] prices are substantially higher than mine, and I feel that I can safely say that I am putting a lot more time into making stuff than he is. Now I am getting advice to increase my prices to match his. Some think that higher prices mean better product, at least to those that aren’t in the know.

This strikes me as the typical response of a truly creative individual for whom making money off of his ideas is just one of many motivations.

None of this is to say that magic’s IP norms work perfectly. There are many cases of theft, some businesses have been hurt, and at times magicians keep innovations to themselves rather than risk seeing them knocked off by copycats. However, it’s far from clear that IP law would work better. Mayne envies the royalties and tracking of the music industry, but I can’t imagine applying that system to magic. In addition to being ineffective, it would risk a chilling effect on performances and inhibit the sharing that brings new magicians into the fold and fertilizes new ideas and methods.

If anything, it’s much more common to hear magicians complain about the tremendous glut of new products on the market rather than of a dearth of innovation. Despite the inevitable frustrations of being ripped off, the market is doing well.

One last observation: Though Loshin’s paper presents a thorough analysis of IP laws and norms among magicians, there is one new approach that, while relatively untried, is worth noting. A high profile magic creator and retailer recently introduced an innovative, very expensive (nearly $2000) prop system. The complexity of the craftsmanship renders it difficult to copy. However, to further protect the idea he is leasing, rather than selling, the system. Some details of the lease:

1. The system is leased without term and subject to a confidentiality agreement.

2. It can be sold and assigned only to another magician under certain conditions and subject to approval of the lessor. The price can be whatever the seller likes, but the new licensee must sign and notarize an assignment and release agreement. The original licensee will still be bound by the confidentiality agreement.

3. The license is similar to a software license. It grants rights to use the training materials and hardware but it is not to be shared.

I don’t know how effective this approach has been. Even if it is effective, my guess is it will only be affordable for very high-end products. In any case, it’s an interesting attempt at bringing legal IP protection into the magic community.

Update 9/17: Follow the debate at Techdirt.


Absurd latte art

The crowd was thin and the barista was late when I walked into the cafe for my bartending shift, so for a little while tonight I got to work on the espresso machine for the first time since trading in my tamper for a muddler. It was the perfect evening for it: I’ve been missing making espresso and have been wanting to get to know the new La Marzocco at Open City a little better. And more importantly, I wanted to whip up some contributions to barista champ Jim Hoffmann’s “slightly absurd latte art challenge.”

The challenge is to pour latte art into something unusual. There are some great entries already, including a ladle, a cash register, and bare hands(!). So I poured mine into the last place one would expect to see latte art…

It hides under the lid

Not that I have the right to be snarky. After all these months off the machine my latte pouring hand is pretty wobbly. Still, by the time I got around to the martini glass I was steady enough for a decent rosetta.

Goes well with olives

I actually like the way this drinks as the art slides to the bottom with every sip. Could be the start of a new coffee cocktail…

Needs a garnish

And finally, one more bar-centric latte showing up where the olives are supposed to be.

Art in a bukkit