What A Waste of Gas

I left work in Mountain View, drove south for Sunnyvale to my evening ultimate league, hung around there for half an hour while waiting for enough people on my team to show up to play a full game, got bored of throwing, drove north to San Francisco for a film festival movie, waited in the rush ticket line because the movie was sold out, managed to be be in the last group of five people allowed to purchase tickets for movie, realized I would have to sit in the front row on the side, asked how far the screen was from the front row, received the answer "six feet," decided I didn't want to watch the movie under these conditions as I'd recently seen a good movie from the front row and still found the experience unpleasant, and drove back south to home in San Mateo.

One might think I'd be irritated by all this. But I'm not. Really, I wasn't that excited today about either activity so I don't mind missing them. And the driving isn't that big a deal.

Westfield and Hillsdale Mall Pre-Christmas Shopping

Over the Christmas "holiday," I went on a shopping spree, looking for a coat, a television, a bookcase, and some other minor items. I put holiday in quotes because I spent more time shopping over the course of these four days than I work in a normal week.

Since I went without a coat the previous winter and vowed not to do that again, buying a coat was my highest priority. I figured the best way to do it would be to go to the Westfield Mall, the new flagship mall in San Francisco. Many major department stores have their regional headquarters in the mall, along with many mid and high end retailers.

For the first day of my holiday, I drove to a BART station, took the train into the city, and spent ten hours on my feet (except for two twenty-minute breaks for meals) exploring the Westfield Mall, trying on jackets, and taking countless notes. The next day, I spent a similar quantity of time browsing the web sites of every major clothing retailer, attempting to find jackets I hadn't seen and discerning whether jackets I saw and liked but that weren't in stock in my size were available elsewhere in my size. The third day, I returned via BART to the city, reevaluating items I liked and tracking down items I saw online but originally missed in person, eventually buying three jackets. At the end of the day, I had trouble with my credit card, as the number of purchases in addition to jackets over the last week was so anomalous, the credit card company worried my card was stolen. It occurred to me earlier that my account might get flagged and indeed it was. Finally, on the fourth day, I went to Hillsdale Mall to return and repurchase one jacket, since the price dropped after Christmas. And since I was in the habit, I explored this mall as well.

But the point of this blog post isn't to describe my purchasing experience in detail; rather, it's to serve as a repository of hopefully interesting thoughts I had while shopping.

Random Observations While Shopping:
* Looking around Abercrombie & Fitch's store was unpleasant because the music was so loud and bassy it gave me a headache. Don't they realize it drives customers away?
* Painted With Oil is a cool store. One doesn't usually see high-end art stores in malls. It makes me wish I had a place in which it'd be appropriate to hang paintings.
* A store named Chico's only sells women's clothing?!
* I stumbled upon the Rosetta Stone booth, with an enormous quantity of software designed to teach you any language you want to learn, including ones like farsi and tagalog.
* In a similar vein regarding an absurd variety of items, Lupicia Tea specializes in teas. It has insanely many teas, including some flavored with unusual ingredients like lychee.
* Further in this vein, I found a store that seems to only sell calendars. It had piles of animal calendars, even one for each breed of dog. Not that I'm a calendar user, but I was surprised to notice they only had two food-related ones: one of peppers, the other of assorted fruit.
* Brookstone sells a ball-shaped, wireless, rechargeable speaker called Podz. It made me want to play catch or soccer with it. Probably not the intended use.
* A vending machine in the basement near the food court sells iPods and digital cameras! The last time I saw something like that was in one of the big shopping centers in Manhattan.
* Nordstrom sells some jeans for $300. That's absurd.
* No one carries pants in my size! I'm not that unusually sized, but most stores don't carry pants shorter than 30 inches. Sure, most stores sell my size over the web. But they don't carry my size in their stores. (And I hate buying clothing without trying it on...) Lucky Brand, with its unusual sizing, might be one of the few stores at which I can buy pants.
* I'm particular. And peculiar. Usually I don't like buttons near the end of sleeves (because it looks too formal), but a few times it's fine because I don't notice. Sometimes a jacket is too suit-like that it puts me off. Another I discarded because of an inch-long green line. Wrong buttons are common. Zippers often don't feel right. And a few I can't believe I have to admit I skipped simply because I didn't like the look of the stitching.
* I spent some time paralyzed with indecision. After I'd already bought a leather jacket and a long wool one, I was tempted to buy a particular top-coat. It was the only top-coat I've ever seen that I liked and fit me. And they had it two colors: gray and brown. I couldn't decide which. And it was on sale. But I found out that meant it couldn't be returned, meaning if I showed it to friends and they disapproved, I'd be stuck with it. I debated about paying full price so I could later return it. In the end, I passed on it. As in the last few months I've never felt the need for a coat in that style, I don't regret it.

One day for lunch I headed to 'wichcraft, a semi-fancy sandwich shop in San Francisco. I had the only sub-eight-dollar sandwich, its version of grilled cheese: cheddar, mustard, pear slices, ham on cranberry rye. They worked well together; I enjoyed it.

At another time, I managed to make my way to Beard Papa, a popular chain that specializes in cream puffs. Originally from Japan, it's now expanding into North America and getting the same sort of press and buzz that Krispy Kreme did when it started expanding. I'm not normally a fan of cream-filled items like eclairs, but I really liked this one and now understand what all the talk is about. My puff was hot and light and made a wonderful and messy contrast with (also light!) cool vanilla filling.

For dinner one day, I headed to Wolfgang Puck Express because someone I know whose taste I trust swears by it. I had a good pesto chicken sandwich on focaccia, a huge side Caesar that was almost a meal in itself, and a large amount of water because I was seriously dehydrated by the end of the day. I was satisfied with the quality. They have much better quality control than chains of similar size.

Westfield Mall:
Westfield Mall has a nice, ornate dome, only visible from the top two of its five or so stories. It'd be nice to sit at one of the tables in the space, read, and enjoy a break from the shopping commotion. Sadly, I didn't have time for it.

In another part of Westfield Mall, there's a columnar atrium with circular escalators spiraling up the perimeter. Think about that. Yes, the escalators are curved. It's a subtle but cool engineering feat. I wonder if I'm the only person shopping there that thought about it.

Pretty lights on cords over twenty feet long dangled into the atrium. I thought this was impressive until I went into Nordstrom.

Nordstom's central atrium had blue lights on cords over a hundred feet long. I know; I counted stories. Now that was impressive! Bulbs were spaced every six inches or so along each cord.

Hillsdale Mall:
Hillsdale was remarkable to me for two reasons.

One, I'd normally have thought Hillsdale was a respectable mall given its size and variety. However, after shopping at Westfield, I now see all the things I'm missing in a non-headquarters mall. All the department stores are a quarter to half the size of their Westfield counterparts. And Westfield has the general bonus of having some uncommon, primarily European retailers.

On the other hand, Hillsdale has a Lego retail store. I didn't know these existed. Among all the kits in the store, it also has numerous bins of pieces of whatever shape one needs. This would've been unimaginably useful when I was a kid building stuff with legos.

Interesting Articles: January 23rd-March 11th 2007

For all the Science News links, if the article isn't freely available online, I try to provide a link to the original article on which the Science News one is based. If you want a copy of the Science News article itself, feel free to e-mail me and I'll get you it to you.

Food and Health:
* Food smells reduce diet's life-extending benefits (Science News). An amazing result seems to demonstrate that it's not calorie restriction that extends an animal's lifespan but rather exposure to fewer smells of food. The abstract of the source article, Regulation of Drosophila lifespan by olfaction and food-derived odors (Science), is available online.
* Heating releases cookware chemicals (Science News). The evidence is mounting against non-stick pans, even when used properly (i.e., no high heat and always only heated with food in them). The most disturbing aspect of the study to me was that two of five pans leeched a chemical when simply being used to boil a liquid. The abstract of the source article, Quantitation of gas-phase perfluoroalky surfactants and fluorotelomer alcohols released from nonstick cookware and microwave popcorn bags (Environmental Science & Technology), is available online.
* A Trans Fat Substitute Might Have Health Risks Too (Science News). Food producers are thinking about substituting one non-naturally-occurring fat that's been proven to be unhealthy for another non-naturally-occurring fat for which the case hasn't (yet) been proved. hmmmm...
* Folic Acid Dilemma: One vitamin may impair cognition if another is lacking (Science News). A friendly reminder that overdoing anything is a bad thing. It's true even for vitamins: don't supplement one vitamin without increasing others in similar proportions. And this is part of the law of unintended consequences, as the vitamin in question that can have negative effects is, by law, added to grain products in the U.S. The editorial, Folic acid fortification: The good, the bad, and the puzzle of vitamin B-12 (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition), reviews the science and the situation.
* Unhappy Meals (New York Times). Decries the reductionist approach to nutrition, looking at each food item as the set of nutrients that it contains. Also filled with appropriate warnings about the power of the food industry and its lobby, and generally good advice on what to eat.

Urban Design:
* Weighing In on City Planning: Could smart urban design keep people fit and trim? (Science News). I always presumed that having more walkable cities made for healthier people. This article reminds me the science isn't so clear about the possible causal relationship.

* Big footprints (Science News). Most of the arguments I heard for being a vegetarian or vegan involve ethnics (animal cruelty) or health. This piece describes a new one: the environment. It calculates the environmental impact of livestock production, along with the agricultural requirements to feed all the livestock. It's large. The source article, Livestock's Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations), is available online.
* Longer work hours may warm climate (Science News). An unexpected though not surprising result. In short, Americans are roughly as productive as Europeans but work longer hours, meaning they use more energy, requiring more fossil fuel to be burned. The source article, Are Shorter Work Hours Good for the Environment? A Comparison of U.S. and European Energy Consumption (Center for Economic and Policy Research), is available online.

* Vice Vaccines: Scientists give a shot in the arm to the fight against smoking, drug abuse, and obesity (Science News). Vaccines for addictions. What'll they think of next?
* Counterintuitive Toxicity: Increasingly, scientists are finding that they can't predict a poison's low-dose effects (Science News). Although obvious in retrospect, it never occurred to me that small doses of poisons, radiation, etc. could have a positive effect in the same manner as vaccines.

* Open Call From the Patent Office (Washington Post). The patent office will call for public comment on patents before they're issued. It seems like a smart idea to me, helping to clean up the patent system by preventing the issuing of non-novel patents by overworked patent officials. If you don't want to read the article, listen to Marketplace's story (American Public Radio).
* Digital Fingerprints: Tiny behavioral differences can reveal your identity online (Science News). Patterns abide everywhere. It's easy to verify someone's identify. On the other hand, you have no privacy. Corollary: anonymous comments aren't really anonymous.

Science and Religion:
* Darwin’s God (New York Times). A decent though long-winded piece about the possible adaptive nature of belief in a higher power. Although it starts off slow, it's at least worth scanning through the entire piece. There's nuggets, such as the section on cognitive tools.

* The mystery of the missing mass (Science News). One subatomic particle, the phi meson, weighs less (whatever that means) when part of a nucleus than in free space. Other particles likely exhibit similar effects. I must admit I don't understand it. Judging by the Science News article, most physicists don't either: "If [it is true], 'it's a paradigm shift in the way you view nuclear structure.'" The abstract of the source article, Evidence for in-medium modification of the j Meson at normal nuclear density (Physical Review Letters), is available online.

* There's a photo I found striking. While I can't link to the Science News article that has it, I found the photo duplicated in this press release, better titled Astronomers Discover Eye of Mordor. You can download a huge (around 4000 x 4000 pixel) version of the image if you want...

Reheating Pizza

Many bulletin boards on the web debate the best technique for reheating pizza. One evening a few weeks ago, I had half a pizza left over, medium-thickness, and decided to do some experimentation. Here's the four techniques I tried, listed from best to worst, and how each turned out.

  1. Heat a skillet on the stove top on low or at most medium-low heat. Place the slice of pizza cheese-side down. Pushing it around occasionally so it doesn't stick, leave it there for as long as possible. i.e., don't let the cheese melt off the pizza or otherwise let the slice lose structural integrity. Flip the pizza so the crust is down and loosely cover the skillet with aluminum foil. This reflects the heat, helping keep the top warm even though it isn't in direct contact with the skillet. Push the slice around occasionally so it doesn't stick. When quite hot, remove the aluminum foil and flip the slice once again, heating the cheese side directly for as long as possible. Then eat! Although it takes a while and requires some attention, this makes a good slice with a slightly crispy crust, without any of the flaws of the other techniques.
  2. Place a cookie sheet in the oven and turn the heat as high as it can go. Once it's preheated, put in the slice of pizza. Remove when the cheese is bubbling. This method is as close as one can get to how pizza is made. It yielded a decent slice with a very crusty, browned bottom, a bit too crusty/crunchy for my tastes.
  3. Preheat oven to 325. Put in slice. Remove when hot. This slice ended up with dough that, while not dried out, had no crispness anywhere. Perhaps a compromise between this technique and the previous one would would work quite well.
  4. Microwave. Microwaving pizza produces a too-soft slice with dried-out dough. Not good.