What makes a good bike lane?

I came across this website called Streetsblog today that shows  examples of good bike lanes.  If you go to the link you will notice that they are all separated from traffic by some sort of divider.  This is often ignored in America; here a bike lane is just an extra small lane that is set aside for cyclists.  The idea is that a bicycle belongs in the street just like any other vehicle, and that extra accommodations (beyond a slower lane) for bicycles are simply unnecessary.  Madison is a perfect example of this; most bike lanes here are either in the parking lane or between the normal lanes of traffic and the bus lane.  This makes one feel extremely vulnerable most of the time; either you are dodging parked cars (and their doors) or have cars and buses motoring past you on either side.

There is a feeling among many cyclists that even though there may be bike lanes on some main streets, the unsepereated traffic makes it far too dangerous to actually use the lanes.  And this is considered to be an adequate bicycle accomodation by those who design streets.  It seems to me that if we actually want to make cycling a practical method of transportation we need to build infastructure that makes it safe.  Simply drawing lines doesn’t do that.  The lines only accomodate the cars by getting the slower bicycles out of the way.

Cappuccino Review #1 – Starbucks

Starbucks on the capitol square

Across the street from the state capitol; many suits are found inside.
1 E Main St # 101
Madison, WI 53703
For an intro about how and why I am trying the cappuccinos of Madison, go here

It was a beautiful day in Madison today (topping out at 54deg F, which is amazing for Madison in February), so I met Taryn downtown after work and decided to start my series of cappuccino reviews with Starbucks.  You may love or hate the place, but you can’t deny that Starbucks has forever changed the the coffee shop businesses.  It is often times argued that they come into towns and attempt to drive out locally owned businesses.  However, in my experience (I am from suburban Wisconsin) Starbucks has only increased the quality of local shops that could get away with substandard espresso drinks before the competition.  Starbucks does set a certain (though perhaps low) bar of quality.

I went to the Starbucks on the capitol square because I had not actually ever been in there, though there are many of them around town.  For all my reviews, I’ll rate shops by 6 criteria; I explain them fully in a previous post.  I’ll list my final ratings at the end, but here is my non-numeric impression of the Starbucks cappuccino.

I ordered a ‘short’ cappuccino, the mystery size that does not appear on their menu.  In my experience a ‘tall’ (12 oz) cappuccino is little more than a latte; you get the same 1 shot of espresso but with way too much milk.  However, the ‘short’ is still 8 0z (which is about 3 oz too large), but I’ll take what I can get.  I was pleased when I got the drink though; previously at Starbucks I’ve only gotten cappuccinos to go.  The drink certainly looked like it might be a pleasant surprise.

It is a pretty (though large) cappuccino
It is a pretty (though large) cappuccino.

One good sign, as can be seen in the picture, is the ‘espressoized’ milk peeking through the foam; this usually means that you will at least be able to taste the coffee over the milk.  However, it is a tad too big (by about 2 or 3 oz) so I sort of expected a rather weak cappuccino.

And flimsiness is exactly what I got.  Although the foam was quite silking, sweet and good, the rest of the drink was weak and unremarkable.  The espresso that I did taste was just ok, a tad bitter and without much complexity beyond the stereotypical espresso flavor.  So overall, this was a serviceable cappuccino; I might get it again if I found myself in a Starbucks (though I’m not sure I would do so in Madison given my other options), but otherwise I wouldn’t come here again.  However, I have to say that their toffee almond bars are really good; I might be back just for that!  In other news, Taryn’s Chai latte was also “ok”, a bit weak and average.  Here are the numbers for the cappuccino; all scores are out of 5 possible points:

Smoothness: 2

Presentation: 4

Strength: 3

Complexity: 2

Foam: 4

Correctness: 3

Mean score: 3 /5

SD: 0.89

Something about Ecocities

I’ve just finished reading a book about ecological city building by Richard Register. In Ecocities, Register proposes that the current methods of city planning, which advocate single use zoning and great distances, are horribly inadequate. The cities most of us live in are zoned such that people live far from where they work and shop; each human activity has its own area in the modern city; this makes car travel the most practical method. There are of course some exceptions (if one lives in Manhattan, for example, it would be quite easy to never leave the island) but for the most part, this is an accurate model of the suburban city.

It doesn’t take too much effort to realize the problem with the single use zoning. It is tremendously inefficient. Most people travel with their car every day to and from work; they are not using the space that the automobile provides; in order to simply move themselves, they have to bring along something that weighs a ton or so. Why do we agree to live with such an arrangement? Well, suburbs promise to be pleasant, for one; after all, cities can be rather stressful places to live. And it seems like a good idea to have a plot of land to oneself (though it seems like this land is so often wasted by planting huge tracts of grass….). Compound this with the abundance of cheap energy in the form petroleum and you get the current trend for civilization to sprawl over all the landscape. Driving to far off places is cheaper than buying land in the polluted and noisy city, so it is hard to see an argument against such a sprawl.

Register seems to think that the main problem with our current arrangement is the way it ruins lives, both animal and human. It devastates ecosystems as well as creates a dangerous and violent environment in which heavy objects (automobiles) whizz through the air at great speeds. People also become emotionally separated from each other because of their great physical distances from one another. I think these are all good reasons for hating cars (though I’m not sure the last one is so true, given how much New Yorkers despise each other) but the most pressing concern originating from the petroleum induced sprawl is the imminence of ‘peak-oil’ .

Reaching ‘peak-oil’ means that we have reached the point where petroleum production will begin to decline. This is built into the concept of a finite resource like fossil fuels; we will someday run out. This is why they are not sustainable sources of energy. Fossil fuels are truly amazing in most respects. In case you haven’t stopped and thought about it, try to imagine how much it would cost you to have your car towed across town by a team of animals. Beasts of burden are very expensive to feed and take care of, but this could be accomplished for a few dollars using an internal combustion engine. With this in mind, it isn’t a stretch to consider the cultural and technological boom of the 20th century to be a result of petroleum. And now imagine the disaster that could ensue if it is used up.

In my opinion, Register’s most important point (one that is also expressed by other people concerned about peak-oil) is that we must re-structure our cities in order to survive after oil is gone. It will no longer be economical to drive to work if you live 30 miles away; therefore we need to build communities that are ‘walkable’, in which you could walk to work, to the store, and home again. He also would like to see extensive use of bicycles in his ‘ecocities’ but they should not be the primary method of transportation. He advocates a major movement of people from the suburbs and non-productive rural areas (places not involved in agriculture) to inside the city. This would cause the density of cities to increase dramatically, though he wishes to mitigate this problem by ensuring that architecture produces cities in which people would want to live. This includes numerous natural spaces and gardens that would also have the effect of increasing biodiversity. To get an idea of what this would entail, I calculated the density that would result from the current population of Madison moving into an area similar to (though quite a bit larger than) Register’s vision of an ecocity; I found that the density would be about 12,000 people /square mile. This is similar to the density of a city like Chicago.

Whether the sort of population density envisioned by Register would be desired by people is not clear. He seems to portray this arrangement as some sort of Utopia; I have my doubts as to whether people are capable of creating such places (there certainly are few examples in history of society working this well). However, I do not doubt that a radical increase in density will be required given the coming scarcity of transportation fuels. I don’t think it is likely that we will be able to completely replace our current levels of fossil fuel energy with sustainable sources, and therefore, a radical reduction in energy consumption is almost certainly necessary. But how do we accomplish this without displacing large populations who will be short of food and other resources? I’m not sure that we can shove density down the throats of citizens who are, for the moment, enjoying very cheap energy. Hopefully, people will slowly come to realize the unsustainable nature of suburban living and migrate to communities that have all the necessities of life within a reasonable distances. If this does not happen, and there is a sudden oil ‘crash,’ then it might be best to obtain a nice piece of land and a whole lot of guns; because if large groups of people are not prepared for the sudden drop of energy availability, and must fight to survive, things could get quite ugly. This is clearly what Register hopes to avoid.

I have many other thoughts about this topic, but hopefully this serves as an adequate introduction. There are other voices in this debate, including the more moderate ‘New Urbanists‘ who have been far more successful than Register.   I’ll certainly see what they have to say as well.

Cappuccino Run

How a coffee shop makes its cappuccinos says a lot.  One can drown bad coffee in sweet milk, but when a cappuccino is made properly it shows off (or exposes) both the quality of the bean as well as the skill of the barista.  I’m not trying to be a snooty douche, but cappuccinos really are tasty and also seem to brighten my day (though that is probably just the effect of a copious amount of caffeine….).

There are many coffee shops in Madison, though I typically only frequent a few; so, I think it might be fun to have an excuse to visit some of the others.   For this reason, I’m going to start reviewing the cappuccinos made in every Madison coffee shop.  I won’t venture into the suburbs (anything outside of downtown and the ‘near’ sides) because I don’t like it there.  A Cappuccino ‘crawl’ has been done before in Madison by an espresso snob (the kind that compares everything to how it is in Italy) but he did not comment extensively on shops individually.  So,  perhaps I’ll be contributing something to useless human knowledge of the internet.

Here is the list, derived from the Annual Manual:


Barriques Coffee Trader


Electric Earth Cafe

Escape Java Joint and Gallery

Espresso Royale

Fair Trade

Froth House

In the Company of Theives

Indie Coffee


Mother Fool’s


Steep and Brew

Café Soleil

I’m going to try to be as scientific as possible but I’m not sure how easy that will be for such a subjective activity.  I’ll rate them on the following criteria:

Smoothness: Bitter cups will get a low score.

Presentation: How the cappuccino looks.

Strength: A sufficiently robust cup will get a high score, a milky one will earn a low score.

Complexity: If the cup seems to have hints of several flavors it scores highly.

Foam: How smooth and sweet the foam is.

Correctness: How much the cappuccino matches the typical specifications of a 5oz   drink of 1/3 espresso, 1/3 milk, 1/3 foam.

This may take a while…..

And never take the bus again!

Perhaps I merely want to justify my large purchase, but this year I am attempting to keep my bike running throughout the cold Wisconsin winter.  This isn’t all that difficult if you are dressed properly, but snow and ice makes running with slicks a bit perilous.  Luckily, while I was rummaging around in my parents’ basement over thanksgiving, I came across a set of mountain bike tires with sizable knobs.  The great thing about the Surly ‘Long Haul Trucker’ (my bike) is that it has smaller diameter tires (26″) than a typical road bike (the same size as a standard mountain bike) and , as it says on my bike’s chain stay, ‘fatties fit fine’, meaning that you can put tires on it that are far wider than standard road bike tires.  So, those knobs are keeping me quite safe through the winter.  You can’t do that with a Trek!

bike with knobs

Some bread

I have been trying to write a continuation of some of my thoughts I presented about ethics in a previous post.  But, I don’t want to throw anything online until the post doesn’t suck.  However, life goes on and we must eat, so maybe I’ll just share a really good wheat bread recipe that I found.  Yes, everyone is capable of making fresh bread!

The link is here, but I’ll just repeat it below:

  • 1 cup warm water (110 degrees F/45 degrees C)
  • 2/3 (.25 ounce) package active dry yeast
  • 1 tablespoon and 2-1/4 teaspoons honey
  • 1-2/3 cups bread flour
  • 1 tablespoon butter, melted
  • 1 tablespoon and 2-1/4 teaspoons honey
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup and 3 tablespoons whole wheat flour
  • 2 teaspoons butter, melted
  1. In a large bowl, mix warm water, yeast, and 1 tablespoon and 2-1/4 teaspoons honey. Add 1-2/3 cups white bread flour, and stir to combine. Let set for 30 minutes, or until big and bubbly.
  2. Mix in 1 tablespoons melted butter, 1 tablespoon and 2-1/4 teaspoons honey, and salt. Stir in 1 cup and 3 tablespoons whole wheat flour. Flour a flat surface and knead with whole wheat flour until not real sticky – just pulling away from the counter, but still sticky to touch. This may take an additional 1 cup of whole wheat flour. Place in a greased bowl, turning once to coat the surface of the dough. Cover with a dishtowel. Let rise in a warm place until doubled.
  3. Punch down, and form into loaf. Place in greased 9 x 5 inch loaf pans, and allow to rise until dough has topped the pans by one inch.
  4. Bake at 350 degrees F (175 degrees C) for 25 to 30 minutes; do not overbake. Lightly brush the tops of loaf with 2 teaspoons melted butter or margarine when done to prevent crust from getting hard. Cool completely.

The ingredient amounts are a little odd because the original recipe calls for 3 loaves, and the version above will give you 1.  Also you can substitute maple syrup for the honey.  Anyway, it was super easy and delicious!

I didn’t roll mine into a log completely so it had a bit of a ridge…..

dinosaur bread

I guess you could call it dinosaur bread…but it tasted great!  I think I’ll make another loaf tomorrow, and I’ll make sure not to deform that one.  This also brings to light the fact that I’ve acquired the use of a digital cameras during Christmas; so, maybe I’ll put more pictures on this blog when I get around to it.

Now go and learn how to make your own food; it is a far better skill than philosophizing!

Fun with R

I have been playing around with R the last few days.  This is an open source mathematics software that comes with Linux systems.  It is a bit esoteric; it is a command prompt program (meaning that there is no graphical user interface) and the syntax is a bit odd, so it is nowhere near intuitive to use.  However, I find the process of figuring out such systems quite satisfying.  I have similar feelings toward psychological research; there is certainly a feeling of empowerment that develops from discovering real patterns in experimental data.  Philosophy is far less concrete; you can run in circles all day without discovering anything.  However, when you find effects from empirical studies, there is no doubt (as long as there were proper controls) that the results reflect some sort of real difference between the conditions.  Though, of course, the proper interpretation of that data can be far less clear.  And it is also quite nice to figure out how to use technology to model empirical data.  Too bad I’m not all that talented at it…

A couple days of geek

I’m trying it again. A couple years ago I experienced that slight naiveté of the intermediate windows user; I thought I could throw aside the windows that seem so confining. I tried to give them up entirely and instead use Linux. Ubuntu seemed to be an opportunity for just such a freedom; it beckoned as only open source can to someone who hates commercialism.

However, it was not meant to be.

I tried to dual boot it with XP on my main desktop, which had the side effect of making boot times longer. There were problems; I tried out the 64bit version of Ubuntu (may as well use those extra bits!) but flash didn’t work in 64bit Firefox (and it still doesn’t!) so I had to get help from a computer savvy friend in order to get flash videos to work. I don’t want to list all the problems, but they were there, and to top it off, OpenOffice 2 wasn’t quite as good as my copy of Office XP. Sometimes freedom is quite frightening, after all. Mistakes were made, and I eventually found myself not logging into Ubuntu as often as I had planned. Finally, when I got a new desktop I only installed XP.

But perhaps things will now be different.

I’ve formatted my laptop’s hard drive (a Dell Inspiron 600m from 2004 that is still going strong) and Ubuntu 8.10 is now its only operating system. So far, I am quite impressed. Installation was a snap, the open source drivers seem to work quite well, and OpenOffice 3 has improved enough so that I don’t even miss that copy of Office XP that now only exists on a CD. Though, I don’t think Ubuntu has changed all that much; mostly I think I’m making a more realistic choice of how I’m going to use it. My laptop is primarily for ‘work’ (words and data) and isn’t my primary computer. I’ll still be able to use all those unsupported (and sort-of supported) devices on my XP desktop; and, of course, the desktop will be able to play video games. I’m also a bit excited about learning more about R, the free statistical software, as SPSS is such a farce.

I’m sure glad all those programmers spent time making me free software!

I hope to post some potentially interesting things here….

This is my new blog and, although I don’t expect many to read it, I hope some find it interesting.  First it might be helpful to give you some information about myself…

Googling my name won’t help much.  Your more likely to come up with a rather prominent German pain researcher.  I have done some research in visual perception at UW-Madison but I’m pretty much at the beginning of my life/career therefore the web has little to say about my existence.  For the time being I’m an employee of the psychology department here in Madison, working in the visual perception laboratory of Prof. Rick Cai.  This means that I’m quite interested in the entire puzzle of perception.  However, the more work I’ve done in psychology, the more I’ve realized that I’ll probably end up doing PhD work in philosophy instead; it takes a certain attitude to do intensive studies in an empirical science…because getting data really is quite a pain.  So although I greatly appreciate those who do enjoy doing the empirical thing, I’m not sure it is something I would like to do for the rest of my life.

I will likely comment soon enough on some of my philosophical views, though they are mostly skeptical in nature.  I recognize that it is a bit cheap to mostly be a critic but it all sort of goes along with a general principal that I’ve favored lately; the world is a really strange and confusing place so if you think you have a theory about it, you are likely wrong.  This goes along with another general thought which I favor; don’t be a jerk about your views because you’re probably wrong.  I am by no means saying that we can know nothing, or that science is a waste of time; I simply think we should be humble with our views, lest we turn into….. well…. jerks.