Is It Just Me, or Is It Hot (in) Here?

This past year, 2016, was the hottest recorded year on earth, according to a bunch of scientists. The previous record was set in 2015, which broke the record set it 2014. If one year is an anomaly, two might be a coincidence, and three might indicate a trend, right?

New York Times: How Much Warmer Was Your City in 2016?

The New York Times has compiled the data and made a fun tool that lets you search for how much warmer (or cooler) many cities were than their normal. As much fun as this tool was, the results were pretty chilling for some places that I searched. Not only were the temperatures all above normal, there were multiple records set. Here’s a sampling of some places I searched. (All temperatures are in Fahrenheit because I don’t speak Celsius.)

New York City
Average temperature of 57.2°, 2.2° above average. No wonder we played softball in early February.
Record highs in March at 79°, and in October at 85°, and record low in mid-February at -1°
Los Angeles
Average temperature of 67.1°, 1.6° above normal.
A bunch of record highs in February around 90° and another record high in July at 97°.
Santa Barbara
Average temperature of 60.8°, 1.7° above normal.
The always mild Santa Barbara set a few records in February, April, and July at 87°, 86°, and 94°, respectively.
Palmdale, Calif.
Average temperature of 65°, 0.5° above normal.
My parents town experienced some serious heat in February at 82° and tied a record at July at 108°.
Portland, Ore.
Average temperature of 56.5°, 2.1° above normal
Record highs abound with 62° in February, many days in the 80s in April, a couple of days at 98° in June, a whole lot of days between 90° and 99° in August, and days in the upper 60s in November.

Clearly, I have a coastal bias so I asked my friend for his hometown. It’s Detroit and despite its northern latitude, it was also considerably hotter than before, but it was still pretty darn cold.

Average temperature of 52.9°, 2.5° above normal
Record highs set in February at 56°, in March at 71°, in November at 73°, in December at 53°, and tied a record at 98° in July. Note: don’t move to Detroit! Is it really that cold?!?

This is all something to think about as we enter a new age in US history, where climate change is something either a Chinese hoax intended to depress the American economy or something that is actually real but not something cause by humans.

LOL…it’s totally our fault!

2006 vs. 2016, Flash Memory Edition

Just before the end of the year, people in my social network—and likely yours—were posting pictures of themselves from 2006 and 2016, ostensibly to compare their contemporary selves to their appearance ten years ago.

Rather than gaze at myself ten years ago, I thought it would be fun to compare a recent purchase of removable flash memory to another similar purchase from 10 years ago.

2006 USB Memory Stick

In 2006, I bought a removable USB memory stick, which was all the rage at the time in the days before Dropbox and other cloud storage solutions. The capacity was one (1) gigabyte and I paid $51.29 on Amazon. It might have seemed like a good deal at the time.

2016 SD Card

A few weeks ago, at the end of 2016, I ordered an SD card for my SLR camera. The capacity is thirty-two (32) gigabytes and I paid $14.99 on Amazon. In some ways, even this purchase seems a bit dated. SD cards seem like a niche product these days since the days of the compact digital camera, which drove those sales, seem to be over. Also, 32 GB is not a lot of capacity. Consider that I could buy 64 GB, 128 GB, and even 256 GB for about $25, $60, and $120, respectively.

To really summarize the difference between the two over the last ten years, consider that I bought something thirty-two times bigger, that is orders-of-magnitude faster, for less than a third of the price.

I may have changed over the last ten years, but I don’t think I can say I changed as much as flash memory.

The Inevitable Experience of Having Your Bike Stolen in New York

Earlier this week, my friend Danny had his bike stolen outside of his apartment building in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. In broad daylight. And with a security camera recording the whole thing.

Danny bought this bike at the end of the summer and just a few months later had it stolen. He’s experienced both the joy and agony of owning a bicycle in New York City. A bicycle provides an unparalleled level of mobility if you live in certain (expensive!) parts of New York City. A bicycle makes getting around a lot quicker and more pleasant, which is odd considering that the first emotion you probably feel when you ride a bike in the city is heart-stopping terror.

But with the dizzying high that accompanies bicycle ownership, there is the crushing blow that we all experience: the agony of having that bicycle stolen. It’s a surprisingly deflating experience, something much worse than losing your phone. I’ve described the emotion of having your bicycle stolen as somewhere between losing your wallet and the death of a cherished pet.

Because he has surveillance footage of the theft, he has attracted some attention from the local media. But despite the minor celebrity Danny has become, I feel his pain and further empathize with him for a couple of reasons.

  1. He believed in the kindness of witnesses to stop the crime. After reviewing the video, he noticed that his mail carrier walked past the theft in progress. Casey and Van Neistat taught us, back in 2005, that nobody will stop a bike thief in progress. Nobody.

    I can attest to this as I had broken my bike key inside my lock some years ago, and I spent several hours picking the lock to remove the broken piece. I was on the corner of First Avenue and 61st Street, in front of the Bed Bath and Beyond store, where there was a lot of foot traffic. Only one person asked what I was doing. He accepted my explanation at face value and went on his business. No one else—not even the security guards at the store—took any action as I attempted to pick my bike lock.

    Casey Neistat recorded an updated video in 2012 and found that some witnesses would intervene. In his video, he found that the police did stop him from stealing his own bike but only after he used a conspicuous angle grinder for several minutes mere feet from several police officers at Union Square. The officers he spoke to admitted that none of them had ever stopped a bike theft-in-progress until Neistat all but screamed “hey, I’m stealing a bike!”

  2. He hopes that the police will catch the bike thief. NPR’s Planet Money did an enlightening story on bike theft in 2012. In the report, we learn that, on the streets, a bike is a form of currency. Cash, drugs, and sex are the others, and a bike can be exchanged for any of them. But unlike other crimes, bike theft carries no risk of being caught or punished. None.

As with death, taxes, and hard drive failures, having your bicycle stolen is sadly inevitable. One bicycling accessory entrepreneur claims that the ratio of bicycles sold to bicycles stolen is one-to-one.

And like all of us who have had a bike stolen, Danny has learned a hard lesson. Treat your bike like your wallet and your pet. Like your wallet, keep it within your control at all times. And, like your pet, and don’t keep it outside.

Or just sign up for the local bike share program.

Shopping Lists for Holiday Cooking

Sometimes you feel like homemade pizza among all the other holiday fare.

The holidays are upon us, and in the last few years, I’ve been tasked by my family to handle a lot of the cooking. Shopping for a bunch of different recipes at a number of different grocery and specialty stores can be stressful. Preparing a list makes this manageable. I have a two solutions: a sheet of paper with rows and columns, and a recipe manager app.

Low-Tech Solution: Paper

Most shopping lists consist of a series of ingredients that you’ll use for a recipe. That works until you find that you have to go to multiple stores and you can buy at more than one store. I used to have separate sheets for each store and list the ingredients on each sheet where those ingredients are available. However, that led to a lot of flipping between pages and often missing things.

My new solution is to list the ingredients I need in a series of rows, as one usually does. My big breakthrough came when I added a column for each store I planned to visit. I would make a mark, such as an “X,” in each “cell” where that ingredient is available. It looks like this…

Ingredient Store A Store B Store C
Flour x x
Zucchini Squash x x
Poblano Pepper x x x
Soy Chorizo x

When I buy that ingredient, I cross it off my list. That way when I visit other stores, I skip past that ingredient.

High-Tech Solution: Paprika Recipe Manager

I’m not an expert cook, but I can follow a recipe pretty well and can make some effective on-the-fly improvisations.

One tool that has been really helpful with this particular workflow is the Paprika Recipe Manager. The app can very accurately read a recipe from a webpage and parse the ingredients and directions into its own database. When it’s time to cook, you can browse the ingredients list to prepare your ingredients and then read the step-by-step directions. My favorite feature of the latter process is that Paprika detects times. Tap on the time, and your device starts a timer. You can have multiple timers going at once.

Paprika can also help you make a grocery list.

When reviewing a recipe, you can add the ingredients you don’t have to your shopping list.

  • tap the shopping cart icon
  • uncheck the items you already have
  • add it to your list

As you shop, mark ingredients as complete.

No matter which way you chose, it’s important to remember that you shouldn’t rely on your memory. This is a stressful time of year, and you’re going to forget items if you don’t write them down, either on paper or with a digital tool like Paprika.

Happy holidays, everyone.

It’s Time to Get Rid of “Security” Questions

Since 2009 or so, I’ve been using and preaching about using a password manager to generate and track all of your usernames and passwords. Until some other system comes along, the only way to safeguard your user accounts is to use a complex and unique password for every one of your accounts. If hackers steals a site’s user database and can decipher your credentials for that site, they can use those credentials to log in to other sites where you use the same password. But with a password manager, it’s easy to create strong and unique passwords for each site. And should hackers ever breach a site you use, you only need to change the password for that site because all your other accounts use a different password.

Yahoo Hacked… Again

Yesterday, Yahoo revealed that in 2013 hackers stole user information for about one-billion Yahoo accounts. By the way, this is a separate theft from the one the company disclosed earlier this year where thieves stole information from 500 million users in 2014.

The stolen user information includes (emphases are mine):

  • name
  • email addresses
  • telephone number
  • date of birth
  • hashed passwords
  • security questions and answers

Ordinarily, I would just change my password for any Yahoo account I have. The password manager would generate and store a new unique and complex password, and it would alert me if I had other accounts on Yahoo that needed the same treatment. It turns out I have two Yahoo accounts, although I haven’t used one of them since the 2008 or so.

Because so many people use the same password for multiple sites, it’s fairly common for sites that store usernames and passwords to hash (or encode) the passwords so that thieves can’t read them and use them to log in to your accounts. Apparently, Yahoo has done this but used a hashing technique that is cryptographically broken.

“Security” Questions Aren’t Secure

However, what seems even more troubling to me is that Yahoo might not have hashed the security questions and answers that act as workarounds to access your account when you forget your password. These “security questions” are a very primitive way of verifying a user. Twenty or so years ago, when you phoned your bank, they would verify your identity using your mother’s maiden name or your date of birth. But today that seems quaint because it’s not really secure: a close friend or relative easily knows that information.

Nonetheless, many websites have used similar security questions to “safeguard” your account:

  • where were you born?
  • what is the name of your favorite teacher?
  • what is the make of your first car?
  • what is your high school’s mascot?
  • what was the name of first street you lived on?
  • what was your first job?

With a little detective work, someone can learn all these bits of “secure” information about you.1 As a way to strengthen this system, I use fake answers for these security questions: some are random bits of text or some are just random names. I record these in a password manager.

However, since Yahoo didn’t appear to hash those security questions and answers, instead storing them as plain text, these could be used to reset your passwords on your accounts.

Time for Two-Factor Security

If I learned something from this breach, it’s that the time has come to get rid of security questions and instead force users to use two-factor authentication.2 This requires you to enter your password and a temporary code that is either generated by an app on your mobile device or sent to you by text message.3 This provides a small safeguard because if hackers learn your credentials, they still need a code to access your account.

It’s certainly more secure than the name of your childhood pet.

  1. Some sites force you to choose from a list of answers. For example, United Mileage Plus asks “What is Your Favorite Sea Animal?” and offers about forty choices. United chose this method because it would prevent a hacker from logging your keystrokes and users from revealing their password in a security question. Some users need to be saved from themselves. 
  2. Last year, Google found that security questions weren’t actually secure and encouraged users to use a second factor to authenticate. They are phasing them out. 
  3. Once you activate two-factor on your Apple account, you no longer authenticate with security questions. Good riddance! 

Starbucks Reserve is the New Budweiser Select

Not quite two years ago, I learned that Starbucks was introducing a high-end line of stores known as Starbucks Reserve. At the time, I thought it was an exercise in brand disassociation:

For years, Starbucks has become more or less the default coffee shop in most of the world and certainly in America. However, there’s been competition coming from cafes that feature baristas with fancy hats among other accoutrements. That’s right, instead of serving coffee that has been “roasted within an inch of its life,” as The Awl’s Matt Buchanan refers to it, Starbucks will serve single-origin, small batch coffees that will be prepared by hand.

Indeed, the Reserve stores disassociate themselves from other Starbucks stores by largely “banishing” its green mermaid logo in favor of a more refined-looking star logo with an “R.”

Last month, I found one of these Starbucks Reserve cafes, located in the heart of NYU–New York, on the southwest corner of Mercer St and Waverly Place. Like the Green Starbucks-branded location a few blocks away on West 4th Street, the place was packed.

Starbucks Reserve at 10 Waverly Place, New York City

It also felt a lot like every other Starbucks location I can remember as it included a lot of what you see at each location: the drip pourers of their Verona Blend, the warm food offerings, and the same point-of-sale experience you’ve probably had at every other Starbucks location (Apple Pay, FTW!).

But unlike the Green Starbucks, this Starbucks Reserve location featured brewing equipment not seen at any shopping-mall location: a siphon pot, Hario pourover cone, a Chemex, and the infamous Clover cup-at-a-time machine.

IMG 6691

Each method was available for the featured coffees, but the price varied according to the process. I inquired about a siphon pot but didn’t order it because it cost $10. The Chemex was a little bit less, and the Clover method was $5. Feeling more thrifty than picky, I opted for the $5 Clover-made cup.

The coffee came in a cup bearing the star-and-R logo and feeling heftier than other paper, coffee cups. The heftiness, I realized, was from two layers of paper, with a layer of air in between, that was designed to act as a heat shield, replacing the need for Java Jackets.

IMG 6370

The coffee, however, tasted exactly as I remember Starbucks coffee tasting like. The roast overpowers any flavor the coffee might have had. The cup-at-a-time brewing method only made that unpleasant flavor all the more noticeable. Think of the taste less as Starbucks Reserve than Starbucks Plus. It reminds me of what Budweiser did with Budweiser Select: all the “flavor” of a Bud, just more intense.

If you drink Starbucks, you’ll feel right at home. The difference in the Reserve stores is that they use a lot innovative brewing methods made popular by indies over the last decade. But Reserve tastes like plain Starbucks, except you’re paying $5 for a Clover brew or $10 from the siphon pot.

Starbucks Reserve
With the crazy markup for the artisanal brewing methods, you’re better off visiting an indie.

Apple Pay Offers a Free Suburban New York Train Ride

Despite using Apple Pay since getting an iPhone 6 in 2014, I didn’t know until today that Apple maintained an offers page, or at least that they posted one for the holidays.

There’s some very compelling offers, such as…

That last one comes about a week too late for me. I did take an MTA Metro North train after Thanksgiving, returning from an short bike ride to Tarrytown, but this offer didn’t take effect until December 1.
Also, the offer expires on January 1, which is a shame. I would have appreciated a discount on the $36 round-trip fare to Greenport or Montauk when cycling season begins anew next year.

When Saving Time and Money Costs a Lot of Time and Money

Earlier this week, I had one of those moments when I realized that the system I was using to save time and money was costing me a lot of time and my employer a lot of money.

Then I remembered something that happened back in college.

As an undergraduate student at UCSB in the 1990s, I worked at the on-campus computer labs. At the time, our IT people were trying to figure out how to charge students to print at the labs.

What sounded like a simple process of procuring and installing a payment system, turned into an endless series of trials for one system after another…and a lot failures. Exasperated, the lab manager suggested that we abandon our efforts and take the paper out of the printers. “Can’t we just give students 50 sheets of paper each term and show them how ‘manual feed’ works?”

I don’t exactly remember what the final solution, but I wasn’t the “manual feed” solution. Regardless, I’m sure it doesn’t exist today.

If Two Unnamed Cops Say Traffic is Bad Because of a Conspiracy, Then It Must Be True, Right?

Earlier this week, The New York Post published a front-page propaganda piece about the reason why vehicular traffic in Manhattan has been getting worse. The story claims that it’s a conspiracy, between two different mayoral administrations, to “shift as many drivers as possible to public transit or bicycles.” Talk about blatant lies.

Of course, the story quotes two unnamed sources within the NYPD to base this conspiracy, and you should be really suspicious about the story. First, the whole story relies on anonymous sources. Who are these guys? Traffic beat cops? Second, these sources don’t point to any directive or mandate from one of their superiors or from the mayor’s office. They just know…like in their gut. Or maybe they overheard something at a station house. We don’t know because they don’t say.

Not only that, the article lets one of the sources claim that traffic is being engineered for partisan reasons to “blame congestion on President-elect Donald Trump, whose Trump Tower in Midtown is now ringed with security.”

But again, how do they know this? Do they have a proverbial “smoking gun” for a partisan plot to cause a massive traffic jam?

Clearly, the whole traffic-engineering conspiracy theory is partisan propaganda: to support the flooding of Manhattan streets with automobiles and reverse just about every traffic calming measure the city has undertaken to make the streets safer for pedestrians and bicyclists—and other automobiles, too.

Since what this story propagates is bullshit, what is the real reason for traffic? According to De Blasio spokesperson, Austin Finan, who was the only official source to go on the record, the increased traffic is a healthy sign of “economic growth, record tourism, construction activity and a growing population.” The streets, he continues, “are overburdened like never before.”

But since The New York Post is listening to crackpot theories, here is my list of reasons behind the insane gridlock on Manhattan streets:

  1. Deliveries: It’s the Christmas season, and there are an insane number of delivery trucks circling the streets to drop off your Amazon purchases. That’s a lot of additional traffic. And in Manhattan, it’s not like they can pull up to a parking lot. They usually have to double park.
  2. Double parking: I don’t understand how on-street parking is legal in Manhattan. When all those spots are taken, others resort to double parking to pick up and drop off passengers or goods.
  3. Dignitaries: And, even if Trump wasn’t President-elect, Manhattan streets were already crowded with all kinds of VIPs who drive and park as if they’re above the law. These dignitaries take up bike and car-traffic lanes to park their vehicles.

Those who complain about traffic forget that the purpose of streets is not to maximize the number of cars it can carry, but to transport a maximum number of people and goods.

One thing that certainly won’t ease traffic is to undo the pedestrian plazas and bike lanes to add more traffic lanes.

For example, Los Angeles learned this lesson after spending five years and $1.6 billion on expanding the perpetually congested Sepulveda Pass on Interstate 405. Adding 15% more automobile capacity on that stretch of freeway didn’t reduce commute times. They actually increased, on average, by a minute. How is that possible?

According to Juan Matute, who is the Associate Director of UCLA’s Institute for Transportation Studies and also spoke on the record, “increases in traffic generally correlate to economic activity. When construction on the Sepulveda Pass began in 2009, the country was in the midst of an economic recession. As the recovery progressed, more people began traveling for work or to go shopping or out to dinner.”

“Moving more people,” he says, “is a social benefit in and of itself.”

It’s not a conspiracy. It’s the economy, stupid…

Help Launch the only Non-Profit Film Lab in the United States

New York City has a rich history of supporting experimental filmmaking. One major reason is that filmmaking is a collaborative effort, and the city is home to many artists and resources to nurture a filmmaking community. It’s one of the reasons I moved here: if not to produce such work, I was looking forward to being around it.

However, filmmaking has changed dramatically over the last twenty years, and now it’s almost impossible to find resources for making film.

Mono No Aware, a non-profit cinema arts organization founded a decade ago by a cadre of experienced experimental filmmakers, has sustained independent filmmaking in New York since 2006. They are currently nearing the end of their fundraising campaign to start the nation’s only non-profit film laboratory. This will also be, believe it or not, the only film laboratory in New York City.

The campaign ends on December 6. Support independent filmmaking in New York City. Otherwise, the only films made here will be cheesy rom-coms and indulgent HBO series that block access to your home and local bodega.

Contribute to Mono No Aware