Emoji magic

This Emoji Mosaic site is really incredible. I don’t know how someone on a free github install created something so magical, but it takes any image and turns it into a mosaic made up of emoji. It works best with high contrast photos of recognizable things, so I fed it a bunch of plain giant emoji on a black background and what I got back was close to art.

Cars are boring af now

My legs don’t fit in a new Subaru BRZ. At all.

At the Portland Auto Show last night, I spent hours jumping into and out of pretty much every car on the show floor from every manufacturer present showing off their lines. Growing up in Southern California at the heart of car culture, I’ve been enamoured with cars my entire life. In high school my dream was to go to the automotive design program at the Art Center College of Design. Ever since, I’ve owned a dozen different cars of all shapes and sizes and continued to follow car news. Some of my favorite websites still to this day include things like Jalopnik and Bring A Trailer.

But here’s the thing: the writing is on the wall. The auto industry is less important and central to American life than it once was. It’s responsible for quite a lot of damage to the environment and it turns out single drivers in passenger cars aren’t the most efficient way to move people around. Cities are choked with cars and parking and traffic all around the world, and the only ones showing progress are the ones that expell cars from city centers and instead offer better alternatives in light rail and buses and return streets to people on foot and bikes. That’s not even taking into account our grim economic future, and how car ownership may be quickly moving towards a niche hobby for the rich.

It was never more obvious than when I was walking a massive convention show floor, having trouble telling the difference between small crossovers from 6 or 7 different car brands that I sat in and looked around and were all completely interchangeable. Zooming out, the majority of the show floor was all crossover SUVs of the small, medium, and large varieties, and looking at the finest new four door sedans I had trouble even entertaining the thought of why someone would want to own a sedan in this day and age.

I think it’s a good thing that Americans are prizing versatility. One and two car families are more the norm these days and if you’re going to have just one car, it better work at shuttling people around, but also running errands and bringing home the occasional sofa. It should work ok in the snow if you drive up to the mountains, and if we’re being honest it needs to be safe and offer a good vantage point and driving position to be able to see pedestrians at night. So it’s not a surprise that a small SUV is kind of the do-everything-but-nothing-extraordinarily-well option that most people settle on. I remember being shocked to hear Ford is discontinuing pretty much every passenger car they make to focus on SUVs and trucks starting next year, but looking at an auto show today it makes logical sense. It’s a good financial decision to constrict a car brand since that’s what consumers are doing with their buying choices.

The highlights

75% of the cars on the show floor were forgettable. They were mostly mid-market small SUVs that were certainly safe bets for any car company to sell. I was interested in things at the edges, or designs that break the mold in some way. So here’s what still felt interesting to me.

PHEVs

Plug-in hybrids might be the best-of-both-worlds cars for now. You take a regular car with a small efficient engine and you add a battery pack and electric motors to offer 10-30 miles of all-electric driving before the gas engine kicks in. For most short car trips, this means never touching fuel and it’s an attractive option for people with short commutes that live in suburbs where 2-3 mile long trips to run errands are the norm.

Just a few years ago you had only a couple options on the market but the industry is catching up with demand and there were a couple dozen options in all shapes and sizes.

The most exciting option to me was the new Subaru CrossTrek PHEV. It’s a bit more bad weather capable than a typical crossover, it has some of the flexibility and utility of a wagon, and it offers up 17 miles of electric driving. If Subaru ever moves PHEV power up their line, a future PHEV outback or forester might be the perfect all-arounder car to own.

Of all the other PHEV options I’d put the Kia Niro PHEV as another interesting mix of affordable pricing along with ample EV mileage that though it’s quite small, could be another good family car option. It’s the first car I’ve seen that reliably posts MPG numbers in the 70s and 80s for most city driving.

Wagons > SUVs

I can’t explain why I find every form of station wagon infinitely more interesting than most crossover counterparts (maybe it’s a chromosomal trait). I checked out every wagon I could at the show, and the only fascinating option was a new Volvo V90 Cross Country.

The thing is a beast, huge on the inside and out, extremely comfortable and well appointed at the top of Volvo’s line, and has some impressive ground clearance to tackle any sort of weather. If I had a garage big enough to house it and enough money to afford it, it’d be a great versatile family luxury car that could still go anywhere.

It’s a bummer there’s no hybrid or diesel option to help the fuel economy, but I realize the market for a wagons is extremely small, so I’ll take what I can get.

There is nothing interesting in the world of trucks

Someday I might replace my current truck with something more capable, so I took extra care when looking at the trucks on offer from every company. Boy has differentiation and innovation gone out the window in the world of trucks, even though trucks are the leading seller for the companies that produce them.

Everything is big and getting bigger. What we used to call compact or mini trucks are all considered mid-sized now, but even at mid-size, the physical differences between a new Ford Ranger and a Ford F150 or a Chevy Colorado and a Chevy 1500 or a Toyota Tacoma and a Toyota Tundra are not that vast. The bigger versions feel maybe 10% bigger, and while trying to find parking for my own mid-sized truck the point wasn’t lost on me that it’s not easy to move these beasts around most US cities (even the mid-sized ones).

Nothing stood out, because there were virtually no new ideas on display. Big trucks are big sellers especially in huge vehicle fleets so all the American large trucks were out in force but no one is pushing boundaries and they all seemed interchangeable. Center dash screens and seating materials are getting bigger and better at the high ends, but there were no fuel economy standouts or new ideas on storage options. The off-road ready souped up 4x4s from Chevy and Ford and Ram were vaguely more fun and capable looking but priced way, way above the trucks they are based on.

Trucks should be an area ripe for innovation given their huge market. I think an all-electric or PHEV truck could be a gamechanger. I think an overland/expedition-ready truck could appeal to owners that never need to work at a construction site. I’d love to see more ideas for seating and layouts to ramp up the versatility beyond just a short cab or a crew cab.

Sports cars are the new Cessnas

I grew up surrounded by middle aged guys with sports cars. My neighbor was a CHP officer that collected Porsches. Across the street, my teen neighbor took a rusty barn find 1965 Mustang to showroom quality over the course of ten years. When I was a kid, every well-off white haired retired guy seemed to drive a new C4 Corvette.

Those days are long gone, and so the sporty offerings from each car company were pretty slim on the show floor. A fast fun car isn’t versatile, isn’t good at hauling family around or running errands, and is definitely trending towards being a luxury item. Even if they’re cheap, having an extra car for throwing around twisty roads on sundays is something most people don’t have the extra space or money for.

I jumped into every sports car I could but still about the only ones that seem interesting are the Civic Type-R (I will always be a sucker for cars with red interiors and especially red seat belts), The Kia Stinger (a BMW M5 clone at half the price of a new M5), and on the high end the Audi A7 is still a beautiful design as well as the new huge BMW 8-series coupe (if money is no object). The retro muscle cars from Chevy and Dodge and Ford were all yawns from me. I also found out my 6’3″ frame doesn’t even fit in most small sports cars I’ve long coveted. There will never be a BRZ/86 or a WRX STi or a Audi TTRS in my driveway because they’re too damn small.

Ten years from now, I don’t know who will be buying BMW M3 or M5 cars or laying down nearly six figures for a Nissan GTR or double that for an Acura NSX. Will any of these cars even still be made? Sports cars that don’t serve a broad purpose in our resource- and space-constrained lives feel like my weird neighbor growing up that was into his Cessna small plane. It was an expensive strange hobby that required him to drive far away to a small garage where he’d spend every weekend doing extensive upkeep while only getting to fly maybe once a month. People who race cars in parking lots might fit that same description but it feels like in 10-20 years having any kind of sports car at all will be a weird luxury fewer and fewer will be equipped to take part in.


Anyways, cars are boring and very same-same now. That’s a natural progression of a constraining market that is trending towards an identical answer for a similar set of needs, but as a fan of car design, I really miss the attempts to try new things, figure out new solutions, and see new answers to our everyday problems.

I used to pride myself on being able to identify nearly any car on the road by name, manufacturer, and year/era/generation based on silhouettes and tail lights. But today I honestly couldn’t tell you the difference between a HRV or a CX-3 or a Sportage or a RAV4 or a Tuscon or a Rogue if one flew past me on the highway.

The sharing economy

I stayed in my first airbnb in SF last night (hotels were sold out because of a urology conference)

Thoughts after an eventful first night:

  • It came with a Nest thermostat, which hundreds of random people have used, making the task of guessing what temps everyone wants at what time rather difficult for the AI engine behind it because no two people are alike and it was designed to sit forever in the same house with the same people attached to a Nest account. At 3AM it promptly cranked the temp up to 79ºF and I woke up overheated wondering what the hell was going on.
  • I didn’t notice there was a motion sensor on the only light in the bathroom. Also there were no windows in the bathroom. So what I did notice was that after ten minutes, while I was in the middle of a shower in a strange bathroom, it went totally pitch black like I was in a cave. On the plus side, I was also barefoot on a slippery floor plus naked so it was super safe and fun to finish out the shower and fish around for my towel in the empty blackness. I’m sure the unit saves a lot of money on lighting costs, so that’s good.
  • The ducting system would scream out about once an hour as air rushed through it whenever the heater turned on. It sounded like cries of help from my cursed elders who died tragically hundreds of years ago and were demanding that I avenge their deaths. 2AM AAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH then at 4AM AHHHHHHHHHHHH and at 5AM AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH and 6AM AAAAAAHHHHHHH.

My year in movies

Late in 2017 I remembered I’d always had an account at Letterboxd, but I barely used it in the past and didn’t know what I’d ever use the site for. But in early January, I decided that I’d log every film I watched during 2018 and I would leave a quick rating along with a simple review.

Now that it’s 2019, I am really happy with the results. I watched 93 films in 2018, and about half of those were new films in movie theaters, as I made it a nearly weekly habit to check out new movies.

Going through my list of films and my reviews, it reminds me of the first time I started keeping a journal in highschool or started blogging in 1999. I can glance back at my list of ratings and reviews and remember where I was when I saw each one, and recall what was going on in my life. Looking at the lists, it made the year feel longer as I can’t believe how many things I got to watch and enjoy.

The only film I gave a perfect 5 stars to was Free Solo, but to be honest I think it was 5 stars for a documentary. It’s one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen but it wasn’t 100% perfect. I saw lots of 4.5 and 4 star films.

I watched three entertaining, almost perfect films a lot. About once a month I watched either Logan Lucky, Magic Mike XXL, or Baby Driver. They’re all three punchy, fun, good looking films with well-written stories and when I’m bored and want to enjoy something light, I watch them. I’ve seen Thor: Ragnarok several times as well and it’ll likely end up on that list too.

In the process I found out I really like Letterboxd for tracking my own films, and seeing reviews from my twitter social graph as well. One of my favorite things is to see ratings and reviews from someone I follow on twitter and have great respect for their work, but their taste in films baffles me. Stuff I love, they hate, and stuff they love I don’t get at all. It’s a fun game to see what their take is on new films because I can never predict it.

Lastly, I found a true gem on Letterboxd is everyone’s favorite comedian on Twitter, Demi Adejuyigbe. His reviews are honest, punchy, fun to read, and hilariously funny. He has an infectious love of movies that comes through in his reviews. They’re not deep, they’re visceral, but they’re always great.

For 2019, I’m going to keep it up. I paid for Letterboxd pro and I intend to use it. Also I like round numbers so I’m going to try and hit 100 films in 2019, and like last year, see as many as possible in the theater.

How are stories kept a mystery in your mind?

I woke up from a nightmare where my daughter was injured and it “shocked” me awake. I was having a pleasant dream about a day walking around with family in Montreal, a city I’ve never visited before. It was lovely and fun for what seemed like ages, until a freak accident ended it.

How was this a surprise to me? The story unfolding all came from my brain. But the accident storyline did as well. What’s the mechanism that “hides” the nightmare ending from my conscious mind in order to surprise me? How are dreams ever unknown to us? How did my brain convince me I was in Montreal when I’ve never been and what did it use to fill in the blank spaces? Are storylines simply health related? After my nightmare I had to pee fairly urgently, so was that my autonomic system throwing a wrench in my happy narrative to get me up to relieve myself and feel better?

Are our brains and bodies a bundle of parts of competing systems that all fire independently at random times or is it a brilliantly orchestrated single cohesive system above it all that chooses what to reveal to me along with what it should hide?

How could you even begin to design an experiment to figure out how stories unfold in our dreams?

A visit to the Olympic Peninsula

I’ve lived in Oregon for over 15 years now, and I realized in all my trips to Seattle, I’d never explored anything further west than Olympia, in the middle of the state. I’ve always wanted to visit Olympic National Park and I knew it’d be cold and wet in the winter, but it’s only a few hours drive and I’ve heard lots of good things before, so last week we took a family trip up to Astoria, Oregon, then over the bridge and along the coast north into the Olympic peninsula.

Here are my favorite shots from the trip. Click/tap any to see them larger.

We spent a couple nights at Kalaloch Lodge, which was a fine base to explore the region. We stayed in the old 1960s hotel building, but I wish we could have had one of the cool standalone cabins that surrounded the grounds (they’re often booked many months in advance). The hotel restaurant had pretty good food but fairly slow service. And the Lodge isn’t messing around when they say there is no WiFi, no TVs, and very little cell service. Though we surprisingly had good LTE phone connections all the way up the coast no matter how remote the roads seemed, the moment we stepped off highway 101, our phones went to 3G, EDGE, or no network, including in the hotel room.

The “tree of life” just north of the Kalaloch Campground is not to be missed, If you can catch it on a sunny day, the ground remaining underneath it just glows.

The towns that dot the 101 highway were quite tiny. The city of Forks where all the Twilight movies were filmed was remarkably small and forgettable. The area around Crescent Lake was sublime and looked like any random mountain lake in Switzerland, flanked on all sides by snow capped peaks and giant trees. Definitely check out the Marymere Falls trail there. Port Angeles had great restaurants and is worth a visit.

The lodge told us a few days before that despite the government shutdown, they would remain open and Olympic National Park would be open for most access. I called the information hotline and they said to follow their road closures page on their site, which showed a great number of roads blocked by debris from a recent storm, but unfortunately, they stopped updating the closure list at the start of the shutdown, so there was no way to know what roads were open and closed without the website updates.

We found ourselves enjoying a few beach hikes and some hiking trails to see big trees, but the big Hoh Rainforest road was closed 11 miles up from the highway with no visitors allowed (and unfortunately with no signs on the highway alerting you to it, you had to drive up into the hills to find the closed sign yourself). I was really looking forward to seeing the trails around the Hoh Rainforest but I guess I’ll try visiting again in the future.

One last bit of advice is to take the idea of a rainforest seriously. I’ve always sort of half-believed that Western Washington was one of the wettest places on earth, it seems a bit far-fetched when you think of tropical rainforests, but the area around the Hoh gets nearly a half inch of rain per day, every day on average. We had a couple days of sporadic drizzle, then our last day up there featured driving rain propelled by 20mph winds and the hikes we did that day soaked us to the core. Water resistant shells and gore-tex were no match and I would suggest buying cheap plastic/rubber slicker type pants and jackets to wear as your outer layer to have any hope of staying dry.

It was a great trip overall, and I’m kicking myself for not visiting it earlier. It’s a gorgeous section of the state that doesn’t see too many visitors and I’m definitely going to check it out next summer when hopefully everything is open again.

X-treme BMX Mary Poppins

The new Mary Poppins has been out for a week so I’m gonna talk about the only WTF moment for me: the extreme sports moment in it (skip this if you consider a critique of a scene a spoiler)

At one point in the film, they need to get across town and decide to go by bicycle and they need help to accomplish their goal so all the other lamplighters on bikes join in, and then it happens: pointless bike stunts.

To be fair, I thought the styling of the obviously modern bmx jump bikes were fairly close to the relic that Lin-Manuel Miranda was riding, and most people wouldn’t catch they were modern bikes since they were styled to match the look of older classic bikes.

The stunt riding cracked me up. For no reason, there’s a double peg grind on a handrail. Then a few tabletop airs off some quarterpipes built into the scenery. And then Emily Blunt does a Blender! Madness I tell you, all of it.

Here’s a proper Blender done by an old friend Pete Brandt that rides regularly to this day outside of the Ferry Building in SF. I used to ride with him in high school and early college when I still did flatland bmx (I used to have a tiny blog dedicated to me trying to keep it up, that’s me in the header graphic). It was hilarious to me that they made it appear that Mary Poppins was doing this.

Anyway, my main beef is this: the new film was made like a timeless classic, and it felt like a throwback to the style of the original film, but then there’s a moment of modern BMX thrown in for no reason. It’s like as if it was filmed in 1996 and you had a big set of rollerbladers in a scene for no reason.

Pointless BMX is going to date this film instantly as something from the 2010s while adding nothing to the story. It didn’t ramp up the excitement for me, it just felt out of place and weird.

Aside from this minor point, the film is beautiful looking and the costumes are great as well as the choreography and music. The songs aren’t catchy as the originals and the film goes a bit slowly for my tastes but overall it was a fun time at the theater.

It just didn’t need any BMX in it.

The Great War

I saw Peter Jackson’s WWI movie They Shall Not Grow Old where they restored clips frame-by-frame and colorized them, and then combined those visuals with audio recordings of soldiers talking about the war, and on the surface it was an interesting project that really brought home how young everyone was and how brutal the war was. Being limited to audio interviews meant it had no historical context besides what someone told an interviewer 50-60 years ago. Thanks to a 30 minute short that played after the film, Jackson shared stories of how the movie was made and assembled and after getting more context and information, I felt ultimately it was kind of a big dumb vanity project for Peter Jackson that fell short of the mark.

He set out to make a movie for non-historians to watch, made by non-historians, and that’s an interesting concept and I get that making a big Ken Burns style exhaustive historical film would add a ton of work and become a different beast. But ultimately through the 30min follow-up extras, Jackson makes it clear he chose to cut out any archive film about the navy ships and battles, cut the entire story of the first airplanes in war, and chopped out any war front footage besides that from the fields of Belgium and France.

The moment that crystallized it for me was when he showed his own research photos he took during the colorization process, including a scene we saw of soldiers looking scared in a gully below a field, and he located the exact field and the exact gully and took a photo from the same angle and casually mentioned the look of horror on the young soldiers’ faces was due to them getting ready to storm the field above them which was filled with German soldiers in camp, and how almost certainly 90% of people in that piece of film died about 30 minutes after it was captured.

That’s quite a revelation to pick up in a small aside, and reframed the bit of film and explained so much that was lost in how the movie was ultimately made. By adding no historical context, the segment of scared soldiers just felt like an odd moment among hundreds of other clips, notable only for the frightened looks on a couple faces that are unexplained and entirely left to the viewer.

We should never forget the horrors of war. If we ignore the lessons we are doomed to repeat them, and I think the concept of the project was a wonderful one, but the execution fell far short of the mark. It didn’t have to be an exhaustive Ken Burns style project that takes 5-10 years to complete, but on the other hand, 90 minutes of daily life footage combined with soldier stories isn’t quite enough to tell a full picture of what took place.

I wanted to like this more than I did, and I wanted it to be a great piece of history, but ultimately, it was not.

hashtag rich guy goals

Lately I’ve thought of all the ways my life would change if I ever became a rich guy. Think of this as an action plan, if I ever got to act this way. It’s sort of like becoming a prepper, it’s just I’m prepping for opulence instead of post-apocalyptic annihilation.

I’ve come up with three things so far.

Number one is easy. Guac on everything. Yes, I would like to add avocado to my omelette. I’ll take chips and guacamole as soon as I sit down anywhere serving it. Yes I know it’s extra, but I’m fine with that. Always and forever going forward.

It’ll be the first immediate switch that flips in my life. No hesitation, no delay, I want guac in everything and I’m going to order it that way. Every chef wants to offer it, but it costs a little more. With such low-level worries in my rearview mirror, I’ll finally be ready to always say yes to extra fat and flavor from then on out.

Two. This might not be universal, but pebble ice is the best ice in drinks on planet earth and I want a personal ice maker in my house that makes perfect pebble ice on demand. I know this isn’t that outlandish. I might have even tracked various sales on Amazon and remember a tabletop pebble ice maker once dropped to about $250 down from $600, but I still couldn’t make myself pull the trigger. Two hundred and fifty dollars (on sale) just for ice? Are you kidding? What am I, some kind of rich guy?!

A real pebble ice maker fit for a bar or restaurant runs in the two to three thousand dollar range new. Trust me, I’ve looked. On eBay, you can find shuttered places selling off their pebble ice makers for less, often around $1500, sometimes as cheap as $900. But they’re big, about the size of a hotel ice maker from the 1970s. As much as I love pebble ice, I can’t justify that, but a tabletop maker? Someday, I hope to make one mine.

Third, and perhaps most indulgent on the lifestyle change list is buy the entire dessert menu, whenever the opportunity arises. Let me explain.

Often you’re at a nice place and you had a good meal and you’re asked if you’re interested in dessert. I never know how to convey how very much interested I am in dessert, always. I love talking about it, thinking about it, and eating it. I think about it more than I think about steaks or appetizers or cocktails.

Every time I go out, near the end of the night I’m presented with an impossible quandary. Here are six things. Here are eight things. Here are five things. Almost all of them sound amazing, but most importantly for almost everyone: you may only choose one.

A bunch of years ago, I took a group of friends out for a special dinner and at the end we realized there were eight different desserts that sounded good and there were eight of us. And even though all eight people wanted a mix of 5 or 6 of the options I got to utter the most powerful words to our server I’d ever wielded inside a restaurant: “I’d like to order all the desserts. Yes. We’ll take the entire dessert menu for the table.”

Everyone got a bite of all eight things. And of course we all loved two or three things more than the rest and maybe one or two options were deemed unsuccessful, but it was the principle of the thing.

“I’ll take one of everything, my good sir.”

I’ve only been in two other situations in the last twenty years where it worked out that we had enough people to match the number of dessert menu items and I got to order the entire lot. And let me tell you I remember each one of those three meals and all the desserts entailed within each.

So, my new rule once I become a rich guy is when the dessert menu arrives I’ll wave it away with a flourish of my wrist and I’ll say “yeah, I’ll have them all.

To be clear, I don’t want to eat all of them—a bite of each is the perfect amount to figure out what works and doesn’t and why. It would be tremendously wasteful but I’d finally get to leave no stone unturned at the end of any posh meal.

I’m so ready for this someday rich guy thing.