Did I Mention that I Spit the Dopest Rhymes?

Posted March 10, 2008 at 8:39 pm | 23 Comments
Dan and John, in high school and today. 10 years later, and we are pimper than ever.
My first foray into recording rap songs was back in 1995. I was a sophomore in high school, and my buddies Chris and John and I got it into our heads that we would start a rap group, which for some ridiculous reason we named the “Big Booty Bass Mad Klown Ho Posse.” We began recording a series of truly terrible rap songs. Our “studio” was my bedroom, and our equipment consisted of a 486SX PC with a copy of CoolEdit, a cheap Casio keyboard, and a Radio Shack microphone. We would try to cut down on the background noise in our tracks by recording most of our vocals with blankets over our heads. We actually cranked out an entire album that way, with tracks that touched on a variety of nerdy topics. Some of the album’s song titles that spring to mind are:

  • Ghetto Mathematics, a tribute to our high school math team, of which I was captain. Sample lyric: We’re loced-out gangstas and we’re looking for some action / As we decompose these functions into sets of partial fractions.
  • Gandhi, a rap chronicling the life and times of Mahatma Gandhi. I seem to recall that it closed with the line “An eye for an eye makes a blind India, motherfucker!”
  • Ode to Hazel, a rhyming tribute to Hazel O’Leary, the energy secretary under the Clinton administration, who came to visit our high school. Thankfully we did not attempt to perform it in her presence.
  • Pizza Crazy Fool, a song describing the tribulations of a pizza delivery boy who leads a secret life as a DJ in the evenings. Sample lyric: Pizza, pizza, tastes so good / Get some pizza for your hood!

I hesitate to call any attention to the fact that these songs exist, because they were so embarrassingly awful that I still cringe when I think of them. I certainly won’t be posting any of them here, but if you dig around enough in the monzy.com archives you may be able to unearth an old recording or two. I suppose it is unremarkable that my 16-year-old self did not have a particularly mature or refined sense of humor, but I still feel ashamed of my early rapping efforts.

Fortunately, around the time that Chris, John, and I went off to college, we realized how feeble our rapping attempts were, and resolved to put down our microphones for good. I still see Chris all the time, and he has stayed true to this promise (we both ended up in grad school at Stanford, and share an apartment now). John and I gradually drifted out of touch… until about a year ago, when we discovered each other on YouTube.

It turned out that John and I had both independently decided to pick up the mic again, after a ten-year hiatus, and begin recording nerdy rap songs with renewed vigor. When I saw John’s debut music video, Lips and Assholes, I knew that we would have to “get the band back together,” as it were, and collaborate on something again.


The result of our first tandem effort in more than ten years is a music video called “So Fucking Pimp.” Perhaps you remember that I was once quoted as saying that “geeks are the new pimp”. To me, nerdcore is all about the idea that everyone is pimp in their own way. Naturally, geeks are not pimp for the reasons traditionally cited in rap songs (wealth, women, jewelry, cars, strength, etc.) — but certainly everyone has their own special skills to be proud of, and nerdcore is all about embracing the things that make you unique, even if they are not widely appreciated.

John recorded two great verses for this song too, but we still have to shoot video for those, so stay tuned for the remix, with 66.6% more pimpness.

In other nerdcore news, my amigo Doctor Popular is dropping his new album today, entitled Me Geek Pretty One Day. I listened to it last night and I heartily give it the monzy.com seal of approval. DP is very talented and is one of the most original voices in nerdcore, so you should definitely check out his album if you are thirsty for more geeked-out hip-hop.


Hooray, Brussels Sprouts!

Posted December 15, 2007 at 12:46 pm | 11 Comments

Last year at Thanksgiving, we had some amazing Brussels sprouts in mustard sauce, and I emailed my mom this year to ask her if the Brussels sprouts would be making a repeat appearance. She confirmed that our Thanksgiving menu would indeed include Brussels sprouts, and I replied with a heartfelt “Hooray, Brussels sprouts!”

Her reply: “This message did make me smile. Given their reputation, the phrase ‘Hooray, Brussels sprouts’ may never before have been uttered in human history.”

nodocuments.png This is perhaps an exaggeration, but a quick Google search for the phrase “Hooray, Brussels sprouts” returned 0 results. Searching for the phrase “Hooray for Brussels sprouts” returned only two results. So although the phrase, or some variant thereof, may have been uttered at some point in human history, it is certainly not a particularly common sentiment in the blogosphere. I decided I needed to remedy this immediately and give Brussels sprouts a little more of the Internet kudos they deserve.
My mother went on to dispense two interesting tidbits of Brussels-sprout-related knowledge, culled from Wikipedia:

  • According to a survey in 2002, Brussels sprouts are Britain’s most hated vegetable, and it has become a cliché there and in the United States that children dislike the vegetable. Overcooking releases sulfur compounds in the vegetables that give it a distinctive smell commonly found unpleasant. If correctly cooked, the unpleasant smell is avoided and the vegetable possesses a delicate nutty flavor.
  • Belgians claim that if you take the time to eat Brussels sprouts at the beginning of a meal, you’ll avoid getting drunk.

The second factoid sounds awfully dubious (which “Belgians” are these, exactly?) but perhaps I now have grounds for another controlled scientific experiment.

yummy.jpg The first point is a good explanation for why Brussels sprouts have their undeserved ill reputation. If you have shied away from Brussels sprouts in the past, I encourage you to give them another try. This is the right time of year — pick up a few pounds at the local farmer’s market, and try out a recipe like “Fried Ssäm Bar Brussels Sprouts” or “Brussels Sprouts with Shallots and Mustard Seeds”. You won’t be disappointed.
bs1_small.jpg I was complaining to Culyba about Brussels sprouts not getting any respect, and he agreed with me wholeheartedly. “I LOVE Brussels sprouts,” he said. “In fact, I would say that Brussels sprouts and the related cabbage family are the evolutionary pinnacle of deliciousness.”

“Yeah man,” I agreed, a little confused by his statement, but happy to have found a like-minded compatriot in the struggle for cruciferous vegetable recognition, “those veggies are where it’s at. Think about it — you got your arugula, Swiss chard, bok choy, broccoli, turnips, collard greens… ALL good stuff.”

“People make a lot of noise about how good things like strawberries are,” Dave continued, “but what they don’t realize is that fruit is an evolutionary dead-end.”

“Yeah,” I said, warming up to this admittedly bizarre line of reasoning, “Fruit is old news. CABBAGE is the future.”

I have little doubt that long after the human race is extinct, the earth will be ruled by hyperintelligent life forms descended from Brussels sprouts and their Brassicaceae brethren. cabbage-man-small.jpg

It Is a Real Meat!

Posted March 6, 2007 at 11:44 am | 3 Comments

For the past year I’ve divided my time between northern California and New York City, and people sometimes ask me how I would characterize the difference between the two places. I usually talk about how intense I find New York compared to the Bay Area, how everything in Manhattan is noisy and fast-paced and high-energy, and when I come back home at the end of the day, I feel drained. I love how many things there are to do in New York, but there’s something about the bustle and the crowding and the noise that can wear you out, and it’s nice to escape to the relative calm of Palo Alto for a while.


What amazes me about Cairo is that it makes even New York seem soothing. People call New York the city that never sleeps, but in my experience certain neighborhoods take the occasional catnap. Cairo appears never to pause in its caffeinated, adrenaline-charged frenzy. Spend a night wandering through the narrow streets of Khan al-Khalili and you’ll see what I mean.

You begin to notice the first time you step into a taxi. After an impassioned negotiation session over fares and routes, involving a great deal of scowling and arm waving (fortunately, we generally had Egyptian friends with us who could handle these deliberations on our behalf), you embark on what is sure to be a memorably death-defying adventure. Cairo’s road system was originally designed to accommodate 1 million cars, but there are 2.5 million vehicles on the road today. In the chaotic congestion that results, Cairo drivers seem to follow their own peculiar set of rules. el-fishawy.jpg
Iman and I hanging out at el-Fishawy, a 250-year-old coffee shop.

Stop lights are rare, and where they do exist, drivers consider their signals more as suggestions than commands. Lane markings are more common, but these are ignored completely; Cairo’s drivers make use of every available inch of space, so a three-lane road is often packed in six cars wide. Drivers dart to and fro through seemingly non-existent gaps, narrowly avoiding collisions mostly through liberal use of their horns, which seem to have much the same function as the echolocation chirps used by sightless bats to navigate in the darkness. Honking your horn in Cairo is an essential part of driving, and it can mean one of many different things:

  • I’m passing on your left
  • I’m passing on your right
  • I’m in your blind spot (just thought I’d let you know)
  • Greetings random pedestrian! If you try to cross in front of me I will probably hit you.
  • Hello nearby motorist/donkey cart/bicycle stacked impossibly high with gigantic pallets of baked goods! If you continue in your current trajectory we will most likely collide.
  • Greetings!

All told, the usage of the horn seems much more varied and meaning-laden than in the United States, where honking your horn typically means one of only two things: (a) move faster, asshole; or (b) fuck you.

I was impressed by the casual adroitness with which our courageous taxi drivers would navigate the maddening maze of Cairo streets. No matter which city you visit, taxi drivers are a special breed, but Cairo taxi drivers are clearly in a class of their own. I’m looking forward to the release of the English translation of the Egyptian bestseller “Taxi, Tales of Rides” by Khalid Al Khamissy. It’s a book based on many different dialogues with taxi drivers conducted over a year-long period. I find the idea compelling: taxi drivers come from many different walks of life, and interact with a broad cross-section of people from day to day. Taken together, I imagine that the stories give a fairly thorough picture of contemporary Egyptian life. One book review I read quoted Galal Ameen, an economics professor at the American University in Cairo: “No one person or group has the entire pulse of Egypt,” she said, “but a Cairo taxi driver is the closest to having it all.” ashodsburger.jpg
Awesome, real meat!
Roughly 260 USD a month for a 1BR apartment.
One day we hired a friendly fellow named Aziz to take us around the city. He was a comfortably retired businessman who took people on tours because mostly because he enjoyed interacting with foreigners, and not because he particularly needed the money. He was well traveled — he mentioned having driven around the United States — and I recall discussing Cairo’s driving situation with him. I asked him if he found Cairo driving stressful.
“Well, of course,” he said, “but I find it more stressful in the US, because the police actually bother to pull people over. Here you don’t have to worry about that as much.”

This was an unusual attitude, I felt, but I chalked it up to the distrust Egyptians seem to have for their government and its staggeringly inefficient and corrupt bureaucracy. Near the Egyptian museum is a monolithic government office building, 10 stories tall and the size of several city blocks, and taxi drivers can apparently spend days navigating its labyrinthine corridors before they find the right sequence of officials to bribe in order to renew their licenses. While I was in Cairo a rather depressing article appeared in the New York Times (title: “In Arab Hub, The Poor are Left to their Fate“) that began to give me a better understanding the Egyptians’ lack of faith in their government.

While the Egyptian government is the country’s largest employer, it is by all accounts an utterly unreliable source of help for the average citizen. That combination, social scientists say, helps create a system that has stifled political opposition and allowed a small group to remain in power for decades.

So I suppose that if you look at it from this perspective, driving somewhere where there is a real threat of being detained by authorities might be more nerve-wracking than driving someplace where collisions are narrowly avoided every few minutes. This lack of faith in the system seems depressing, and the article as a whole painted a rather somber picture of the situation of Cairo’s residents.

Fortunately we got to see a lot of the more positive aspects of the country as well. I’m glad that we had the chance to spend some time with my parents’ colleagues — they were fantastic hosts, and it was refreshing to see people who believed in the future of Egypt and were working on making things better. They took us to visit the Association for the Protection of the Environment, a nonprofit that runs workshops for young women from the local community of garbage collectors, teaching them to quilt, weave, make paper out of recycled garbage, and most importantly to read and write. potter.jpg
Potter and kiln in Tunis.
We visited a girls’ school in Al-Fayoum, and stopped in Tunis, a small village on the shores of the Qaroun Oasis, to admire the beautiful pottery made by the community of artists living there. And we had a wonderful dinner with Marie Assaad, an anthropologist and activist who was profiled recently in a far more optimistic and encouraging Times article about the turning tide in Egypt in the struggle against female genital mutilation. girlsschool.jpg
Shakshouk Girl-Friendly School
pyramids.jpg So yeah, the pyramids that have survived for five millennia are now crumbling from air pollution, and there’s a Pizza Hut a stone’s throw away from the Great Sphinx, but there’s still hope for a brighter future. In the meantime, if you go to Cairo, be careful crossing the street.

Science Fridays at Google

Posted February 2, 2007 at 10:57 pm | 17 Comments
I spent last summer working for Google at their New York office. Working at Google is great because it’s sort like being in school, in that you’re surrounded by lots of smart, creative people who are doing interesting projects… but also the pay is much better, and they give you free gourmet meals. Google NY
kitchen Google definitely knows how to pamper you with creature comforts. I’m sure everyone has already heard about the pantries stocked with free snacks and the the well-equipped game rooms. In addition to the regular company events like Tuesday afternoon tea, the company picnic, and TGIAF, there were a slew of intern events.

I attended some of these, but my favorite at-work leisure activity was actually an unofficial event called “Science Friday.” Every Friday afternoon, a small group of science enthusiasts would gather to perform various Bill Nye-esque “science” demonstrations. These experiments would not generally advance the state of science, but they would often involve cool explosions, electronics hacking, or goopy slime. I organized two Science Fridays during my internship at Google, and I that think in the interest of disseminating scientific knowledge, I should publish the results. I hope that posting these experimental results does not violate my nondisclosure agreement.

Experiment 1: How Much Can Craig Possibly Suck?

Craig Sucks This experiment answered a question that had weighed heavily on our minds for some time: “how much could our co-worker Craig possibly suck?”

Suppose we gave Craig a straw that was 40 feet long, and asked him to drink water through it. Would it be possible? To know the answer, we need to understand some basic scientific ideas about air pressure.

Perhaps you are familiar with the scientific principle behind a mercury barometer. Building one is quite simple: after filling a clear tube with mercury, quickly upend the tube into a container of
mercury. The mercury inside the tube will begin to descend, leaving a vacuum behind, until the force of air pressure outside the tube is equal to the weight the column of mercury inside the tube. By measuring the height of the column of mercury, we can determine the air pressure.

A straw works in a similar fashion: after you suck the air out of the top of a tube, a low pressure area is created inside your mouth, and ambient air pressure pushes the liquid up the straw. (Fun Fact: A straw would not work on the moon because there is no ambient air pressure!)

Monzy sucks

In this experiment, we built a sort of barometer, but since mercury is a dangerous poison, we used water (tinted with Gatorade) instead. Naturally, since water is much less dense than mercury, the experiment required a much longer tube. Some quick calculations suggested that standard air pressure at sea level should be capable of supporting a column of water 10.3 meters high. This means that Craig couldn’t drink through a straw longer than 10.3 meters, even if his mouth were capable of producing a perfect vacuum!

Straw We met on the 21st floor of Google’s Times Square office building verify this hypothesis. We started by dangling a 40-foot length of vinyl tubing down a stairwell, all the way to the 17th floor.

We then immersed the bottom of the tube in a bucket of water, and measured how far up the tube Craig could suck the water. We compared this distance to the theoretical maximum based on an official measurement of the air pressure that day.

Here’s a video demonstrating the experimental setup:
Our experiment revealed how much Craig could suck, compared to a perfect vacuum. The rest of us decided to try sucking as well, see who sucked the most. The results are shown below in a highly scientific graph. Note that we have scientifically determined that Craig does not actually suck very much — Mike sucks much more. We would not have known this without SCIENCE. Experimental Setup

Suckage Graph

Experiment 2: Microwave Heat Distribution

Mallow Grid A microwave oven heats food using high energy radio waves, with frequencies of roughly 2450 MHz. Radio waves in this frequency range have an interesting property: they are absorbed by water, fats and sugars, and converted into molecular motion, or heat.

In the high-voltage section of a microwave oven, a transformer increases the typical household voltage of about 115 volts to approximately 3000 volts! This intense voltage is converted by a magnetron tube into undulating waves of electromagnetic cooking energy.

This microwave energy is transmitted into a metal channel called a waveguide, which feeds the energy into the cooking area where it encounters a slowly revolving “stirrer blade.” Some oven models use a type of rotating antenna, while others rotate the food through the waves of energy on a revolving carousel. The desired effect is to evenly disperse the microwave energy throughout all areas of the cooking compartment.

But some ovens are designed better than others, and this even dispersal of energy is not always successful. Perhaps you can attest to this if you have tried to cook a burrito and found that some sections of it were scalding hot, and others icy cold. In this experiment we attempted to observe this uneven distribution and evaluate our microwave oven’s capacity to heat food evenly.

Monzy Marshmallows


  • 3 Pounds Jumbo Fluffy Marshmallows
  • Toothpicks
  • Microwave Oven

Experimental Procedure:

Construct a 3D lattice of marshmallows, with toothpicks for struts, with one marshmallow at each point on the lattice. Place this lattice in the microwave, and cook for 30 seconds. Each marshmallow will expand in proportion to the intensity of microwave energy at its location. By observing the size of the marshmallows across the lattice, we can construct a 3D graph the distribution of electromagnetic energy within the microwave oven.

Check out this video to see the results of our experiment.
Eating the Results
Our results were informative and delicious.
Mounting Malleaux
We even produced a beautiful marshmallow work of art that we hung on the wall for our fellow Googlers to enjoy.


What you gon’ do with all that donkey

Posted June 27, 2006 at 9:40 am | 8 Comments
I’m currently sitting at a small desk on the second floor of this building with my laptop plugged into a 10Mbps hub, surrounded by teenage Fassis using MSN Messenger to chat with their friends in a mixture of French, Moroccan Arabic, and emoticons.

Cyber Cafe


Fes is a city full of striking contrasts between old and new. Parts of it seem suspended in time; while wandering around the Medina-city of Fes el Bali, you feel transported to the Middle Ages, but then you’ll be yanked rapidly into the present when you notice that the donkeys traversing the narrow streets are loaded down with cases of Coca-Cola and propane canisters. While marveling at the picturesque skyline of gilded mosque towers and ancient buildings, you’ll notice that the roofs are peppered with antennas and satellite dishes as far as the eye can see.
One minute you’ll be admiring the extravagant zelij tilework of a 14th century medersa, imagining the lives of craftsmen ages ago, and then you’ll suddenly hear the crackly refrain of “My Humps” drifting out the window of a nearby fondouk. I find it paradoxically amusing that a few minutes after riding a donkey through the Dyers’ Souk I can wander into a cyber cafe and update my blog.

Cost for a five-minute donkey ride: 15 dirham. Cost for one hour of broadband internet access: 10 dirham. I’m not sure what this says about the local economy.


Already Tried a SIGQUIT…

Posted June 5, 2006 at 7:25 pm | 39 Comments

I have to admit that when I released my debut rap single about a year ago, I never considered “nerdcore” a legitimate musical genre. I may have presented it as such in my blog post, in which I linked to other nerdy rappers whom I admired, but this was mostly because I’ve been indoctrinated into the academic tradition of giving credit to “related work.” Certainly there were a variety of geeky rap artists writing songs about topics like anime, computers, video games, and role-playing, but I doubt that most of them would have identified themselves as “nerdcore.” At that time, many of these artists were not aware of the other nerd rappers populating the Internet, and I suspect that some of them would have taken offense at the “nerd” label. MC Plus+, for example, did not identify his music as nerdcore, describing himself instead as a “CS gangsta.”

But then came the Wired article, which adopted the same tone as my blog post and declared that a variety of artists were “nerdcore” whether they knew it or not. Another item in the Daily Tarheel followed suit, and then one on cool.com.au, and more like them that began with greater and greater frequency to portray nerdcore as a genre, a musical “scene,” or even a nerd “movement.”


My performance at Geekapalooza.

These descriptions in the media were not particularly accurate, given that the nerdcore “movement” was really just a handful of people with web pages and blogs who emailed MP3s to each other. Nevertheless, they gave a certain credence to the idea of a collective of nerd artists banding together to start a musical trend. Artists increasingly began identifying themselves as “nerdcore,” and as awareness of the nerdcore label increased, many aspiring rappers jumped in and began recording songs.

I regard the nerdcore “movement” with a certain ambivalence. The great thing about nerdcore is that anyone can do it — its self-publishing ethic means that all you need to be a “nerdcore artist” is a microphone and a pirated copy of Adobe Audition. The horrible thing about nerdcore is that anyone can do it — even those with little originality or talent.

MC Frontalot, who is generally portrayed as the “godfather” of nerdcore (having coined the term many years back) is an extraordinarily skilled rapper who puts a tremendous amount of effort into his lyrics and his recordings. Meanwhile, scores of copycats have jumped onto the nerdcore bandwagon by recording low-quality tracks with little artistic merit, diluting the genre with their hackneyed rap attempts. I shudder to imagine what the average person might think of the nerdcore “movement” were his first exposure to the field to be the music of a goofball like Rappy McRapperson (consciously atrocious) or an uninspired imitator like Ill Engineer (also shitty, but unintentionally so).

There’s also the larger question of whether nerdcore is a parody of hip-hop or an homage. Much of mainstream rap music is insipid and unimaginative, constantly repeating the same tired themes, so I can understand the appeal of satirizing it. However, there’s a lot of great rap out there as well, and as someone who regularly listens to and thoroughly appreciates “real” rap music, my personal intent is not to ridicule the genre as a whole, or to poke fun at hip-hop culture. While the majority of nerdcore hip-hop does incorporate humor, the type of nerdcore that I admire the most has lyrics that are funny in their own right, and not because they mock mainstream rap music.

Above all, it’s in the nature of nerds to be inclusive. When a new kid transfers to your school, if he tries to sit at the lunch table with the cool kids, they won’t have anything to do with him, but if he sits down at the nerd table, they’ll welcome him. Being at the bottom of the social hierarchy leaves nerds little room to criticize, and the tendency to be tolerant and non-judgmental is one of the nerd traits I admire. So on one hand I understand why the new nerdcore compilation features a whopping 55 artists, many of whom had never previously produced a single track; on the other hand, I fear that this policy of blanket inclusion may cause the rappers with actual talent to be buried amidst a tide of crap. Rhyme Torrents (Beefy Cover)
So, with that decidedly mixed review, I direct you to the first ever nerdcore compilation album, Rhyme Torrents, slated for release tomorrow and soon available for download. I will say that despite my misgivings about the project, the first disc contains some awesome hip-hop. I was blown away by the hilarious rhymes in Shael Riley‘s tightly produced “Miss Information,” which spreads outrageous lies about some of nerdcore’s major players (apparently I am actually Ice Cube). I was also immensely impressed by ytcracker‘s “White Warrior,” a hard-hitting dis track targeted at mc chris, who has recently taken some flak in the nerdcore community for declining to participate in the compilation project. The infectious tracks by Beefy (“Tub of Tabasco”) and MC Hawking (“Rock Out with your Hawk Out”) are definitely worth a listen, and of course I recommend you check out the new song that I recorded for the compilation, Kill Dash Nine (lyrics here). Invoking the kill command with the -9 flag is the Unix equivalent of “terminate with extreme prejudice,” and I think it also makes for a catchy hook. Crank up the volume and shout along the next time you need to vent some of your repressed geek rage. Rhyme Torrents (DJ Snyder Cover)

Vodka Research

Posted June 1, 2006 at 12:14 am | 32 Comments

Perhaps you saw the Internet meme about vodka filtration that was circulating last year. An enterprising group of young “scientists” purchased a bottle of extremely cheap vodka and a Brita filtration pitcher, and after pouring the vodka through the charcoal filter several times, they claimed that the result was indistinguishable from expensive “top shelf” vodka.

Original Vodka Experiment

I admired the ingenuity of these researchers, but I found their experimental methods somewhat suspect. They began by tasting the cheap vodka, which they all thought was horrible. Next they filtered it once and drank some more. “Much better,” they agreed. They ran it through the filter again and found that it tasted even better! I’m sure you realize that this experimental design has certain confounding factors.

So naturally, I was skeptical of the findings; after all, if all that were required to produce good vodka was plenty of filtration, it’s hard to believe that cheap vodka would be so repugnant. Even so, if their results were borne out by further study, the potential gains would be staggering. Instead of wasting my money on Chopin or Grey Goose, I could purchase a $9 plastic handle of Vladimir vodka, run it though a filter, and mix up deliciously smooth martinis at a fraction of the expense.

So, in true scientific spirit, I replicated the vodka filtration study at our weekly Computer Science Department social event, but under revised conditions that I believe produced more reliable results.

First Experiment

We began by filtering a bottle of “Pavlova,” a foul-smelling but extraordinarily inexpensive brand of vodka (cost: $8 per liter). We decided to compare the filtered Pavlova to Ketel One, a Dutch vodka that is generally very highly regarded (cost: $27 per liter).

Pavlova and Ketel One

We set out two pitchers of vodka labeled A and B along with small cups for tasting. Our subjects sampled the two varieties, wrote down their preferences on small sheets of paper, and cast their votes in a ballot box.

This initial vodka filtration experiment seemed a success. Of the 24 people who participated in the blind taste test, two-thirds preferred the inexpensive filtered vodka (Pavlova) over the expensive premium vodka (Ketel One). I myself preferred the Ketel One; I wasn’t sure whether to be pleased with my refined taste in vodka, or disappointed that I couldn’t use the filtration trick to reduce my monthly martini budget.

Experiment 1 Chart

Second Experiment

Although our preliminary results were encouraging, we decided that further experimentation was required before drawing any definitive conclusions. In our next experiment, conducted several months later, we investigated two additional factors:

  1. The first experiment failed to establish that people would choose the more expensive vodka in the absence of filtration. In the second experiment, we ran an initial baseline in which participants sampled unfiltered versions of both vodkas, to ensure that the taste preference could be attributed to the filtration.
  2. It is possible that the filtration process actually removes alcohol from the vodka. This would certainly account for the improved taste, but it would make the procedure much less valuable. In the second experiment, we used an alcoholmeter (a modified version of a hydrometer that measures percentage content of alcohol) to see if the filtration removed alcohol from the liquor.

Our second experiment used four pitchers, labeled A through D. Pitchers A and B contained unfiltered Pavlova and Ketel One, respectively. Pitchers C and D contained Ketel One and filtered Pavlova. In the first experimental condition, subjects compared the vodka in pitchers A and B, rated each vodka on a 5-point Likert scale, and indicated which vodka they preferred. In the second condition, the same set of subjects compared pitchers C and D, marking their preferences the same way.

We recruited 26 subjects for the second experiment. Our results were as follows:

First Comparison
Subjects preferring A to B: 12
Subjects preferring B to A: 12
Subjects with no preference: 2
Second Comparison
Subjects preferring C to D: 11
Subjects preferring D to C: 13
Subjects with no preference: 2

Our hydrometer readings showed significant differences in alcohol concentration between the three varieties of vodka: Ketel One measured 88 proof, unfiltered Pavlova 82 proof, and filtered Pavlova 78 proof. We suspect that the reduced alcohol content in the filtered vodka was not actually a result of the filtration, but rather evaporation during the filtration process, as it was repeatedly poured from container to container.

Ketel One

Ketel One: 88 Proof

Filtered Pavlova

Filtered Pavlova: 78 Proof

Although our second experiment still demonstrated a minor benefit from filtration, the effect was far less pronounced than in the first experiment, and in fact the difference may be attributed to the lower alcohol content of the filtered vodka. In the first experiment we filtered the vodka the night before and left it in a pitcher overnight, which may have resulted in even greater alcohol evaporation, accounting for the more pronounced differences.

Experiment 2 Chart

There are a variety of ways in which our data could be interpreted, but our general analysis is that most people can’t tell the difference between expensive vodka and cheap vodka, regardless of whether or not it has been filtered. Of the 12 subjects who preferred Ketel One in the first trial, only 7 preferred it in the second trial; meanwhile, 4 of the 12 subjects who preferred unfiltered Pavlova in the first trial decided they preferred Ketel One to filtered Pavlova during the second trial. This seemingly haphazard set of preferences would be consistent with the hypothesis that our subjects were in general unable to discriminate between the vodkas in either condition.

Despite this confusion between vodkas, our findings imply that Ketel One is superior to Pavlova, at least by one metric. If we assume that a simple way to make vodka taste smoother is to reduce its alcohol content, then we would expect weaker vodkas to come out ahead in taste tests. The fact that many people preferred Ketel One during both trials, despite its significantly higher alcohol concentration, suggests that it is of generally higher quality.


To summarize our findings,

  1. Given a particular brand of vodka, people prefer its taste after it has been filtered, but this is most likely because filtration reduces the alcohol content.
  2. Most people can’t tell the difference between an expensive vodka with high alcohol content and a cheaper vodka with lower alcohol content.

Our second experiment demonstrated approximately equal preferences for Pavlova and Ketel One. Although Pavlova contains 3-5% less alcohol by volume than Ketel One, it is also 70% cheaper, so it would seem a clear winner.

Do our results indicate that you should always buy cheap vodka for your parties? Not necessarily. Vodka distribution at parties is rarely administered in a double-blind fashion. In situations in which the taster is aware of which brand of vodka he is drinking, his preconceived notions of its quality will likely provide a strong influence on his perception of its taste.

Future Work

In the second experiment, we chose two side-by-side comparisons rather than a single three-way comparison because we felt it would be too difficult for subjects to rank three alternatives. Unfortunately this meant that our second experiment never gave us a direct comparison between filtered and unfiltered Pavlova. There was no significant difference between the average Likert scale ratings for filtered and unfiltered Pavlova (2.85 for filtered and 2.87 for unfiltered), but a more thorough experiment might add an additional condition in which the two were compared.

We observed differences between the alcohol contents of the three vodkas, and we assume that alcohol concentration is closely connected to taste preference. In our next experiment, we may attempt to control for alcohol concentration by diluting the stronger vodkas with water. We would also like to control for the size of each vodka sample; in our experiments we allowed subjects to pour their own samples, and a large sip of vodka may be perceived as tasting worse than a small sip of the same vodka.

We also hope to investigate the influence of preconceived notions of quality on perceived taste. In a future study, we plan to pour the same variety of vodka into two different bottles, one labeled with an expensive brand like Ketel One, and one labeled with a cheap brand like Pavlova. By ensuring that the bottle labels and price tags were visible during the taste test, we could measure the effect of brand reputation on perceived quality.

Collin finishes the vodka
Our experiment complete, Collin polishes off the remaining vodka.

Fukuro Irimasen

Posted April 7, 2006 at 12:28 pm | 4 Comments

Tokyo is an extraordinarily clean city, a fact that is all the more striking once you realize that there are no public trash cans anywhere. In Manhattan, there is a trash can on nearly every corner, but it is evident from the waste littering the streets of Midtown that the half-block of traveling required to reach a waste container is still not sufficiently convenient for many New Yorkers. In Tokyo, I often found myself carrying an empty cup or candy wrapper around for hours without finding a place to toss it out. I usually ended up bringing my trash home with me; I suppose that’s what everyone else was doing as well, since I certainly didn’t see any garbage on the sidewalks.

In Japan, all trash must be sorted into combustible and noncombustible waste, so my Tokyo apartment had three wastebaskets: one for recyclables and two for garbage. At times I was confused as to whether a particular article of trash could be burned or not; when in doubt I tended towards classifying garbage as noncombustible, since it was my understanding that combustible waste taking up space in a landfill was a less severe problem than the fumes that could be created when non-combustible garbage was sent to the incinerator.

I developed the habit of sorting my garbage fairly quickly, but I still ran into confusing situations on occasion. When I went to dispose of my empty cup at the Starbucks in Ikebukuro, I was confronted with a somewhat bewildering array of compartments and receptacles: separate openings were designated for liquids, paper cups, plastic cups, leftover ice, lids, trays, and dishes, as well as burnable and non-burnable garbage.

Starbucks Receptacles

Now where does my cup go?

The waste stations at the World Expo in Nagoya were even more exhaustive, with separate bins for newspapers, paper cups, burnable waste and unburnable waste, plastic, compost, PET bottles, chopsticks, and leftover drinks. While I imagine that this situation was taken in stride by the Japanese Expo attendees, I found it a bit overwhelming. Fortunately, the Expo organizers had anticipated the confusion of foreign visitors, so each waste station was actively staffed by a uniformed attendant who would examine your garbage and assist you into classifying it into the appropriate bin.

World Expo Bins

At least the labels are in multiple languages…

On the 50th floor of Mori Tower in Roppongi, you will find an urban planning museum called the Mori Urban Institute for the Future. On display there are exquisitely detailed 1/1000 scale models of three of the world’s great cities: Tokyo, New York, and Shanghai. Each tiny building replica is individually hand-sculpted from foam, its surface covered with composite on-location photographs of the actual building. Above these amazing models, which occupy a room the size of several tennis courts, is a screen displaying statistics comparing the three cities. I found the format in which the statistics were presented to be rather entertaining: first, a heading was shown, such as “average cost of a hotel room,” or “ambient carbon monoxide concentration,” and time was allowed for the viewer to speculate as to which of the three cities came out ahead. The numbers were then displayed, accompanied by graphs, against which you could check your guesswork.

Some of the statistics were fairly easy to predict; for example, Japan is the most expensive city to buy a meal, followed by New York and then Shanghai. New York has the highest incidence of violent crime, and Tokyo has the lowest. Other facts were less obvious; for example, New York has far more space devoted to public parks than the other two cities. And some information took me completely by surprise: while Tokyo’s average energy consumption per capita is less than half of New York’s, its municipal waste output per capita is slightly higher.

Cute Trash Cans

At Tokyu Hands, even trash cans can be cute.

Perhaps this should not have surprised me given the Japanese obsession with beautifully wrapped products. Consider the lemon tart that I bought from the French bakery in the basement of Tobu. The tart was set on a small cardboard tray, and this tray was placed inside of a box with a cardboard insert to prevent it from sliding around, accompanied by an individually wrapped plastic spoon, a napkin, and a bag of desiccant. After the box was closed and sealed with an elegant gold sticker, an additional label was affixed on the lid which was stamped with the date. The box was then placed in a glossy bag with a fabric handles and the bag was taped shut with an adhesive ribbon bearing the name of the bakery. Finally, since it was a rainy day, this paper bag was in turn draped with a fitted plastic covering and taped shut.

While I couldn’t help but marvel at the attention to detail and the dedicated service accompanying my 320-Yen piece of cake, a part of me protested the extravagant use of packaging materials. The elegant wrapping might make sense if the cake were a gift, but what if, minutes after leaving the store, I planned to sit on a bench outside the subway station and eat the cake right there?

If you plan to spend any amount of time in Japan, a useful Japanese phrase to learn is “fukuro iranai” — “I don’t need a bag.” When I first asked my friend Makoto how to politely refuse a bag, he looked puzzled, perhaps because he was trying to think of a phrase that I wouldn’t be able to butcher too badly. Finally he suggested that I simply bring my own bag, hold it up, and proudly proclaim, “My Bag Campaign!” In English!

“Campaign” is one of those English words that has crept into common Japanese usage, but acquired a distinctively Japanese meaning, similar to “saabisu” (something free that is included with a purchase), “manikyua” (nail polish), “mentaritii” (intelligence), and “manshion” (a luxury apartment, giving rise to the somewhat confusing phrase “one room mansion”). I’ve seen the word “campaign” on various signs in the subway describing advertising promotions, so I assume that there must be a conservationist effort called the “My Bag Campaign” that advocates bringing your own bags to the store.

A Plastic Bag

Oddly enough, this was printed on a plastic bag I received at a convenience store.

It’s a timely crusade to mount in Tokyo, where any purchase you make, no matter how small, will be carefully packaged. You can run into the 7-11 to buy one package of chewing gum or a single can of beer, and unless you request otherwise, the typical checker’s devotion to customer service will ensure that it is placed in a plastic bag, the handles carefully rolled together and the top taped shut for your convenience.

So let’s hope that the “My Bag Campaign” takes off. In the United States, where we have cheap acreage to spare, we can simply hide away our trash in vast rural dumps. But in a country no larger than the state of California, waste disposal must be handled with the systematic precision that is so typically Japanese.

A Selection of Splendid Shirts

Posted March 8, 2006 at 6:59 pm | 6 Comments

Nintendo DS Colors


The Japanese version of the Nintendo DS comes in colors not available in the US (turquoise blue, candy pink, and graphite black), so naturally I needed to buy one while I had the opportunity. Then I needed some games to play on it, but I had to make sure that the games I bought didn’t rely too heavily on knowing how to read Japanese.

I first game I picked up was Castlevania DS, which I found fairly playable in spite of the Japanese dialogue — of course I couldn’t really follow the plot, but I was still able to make it through the game, and I felt pretty cool for completing it several months before its US release date. The next game I tried was Yawaraka Atama Juku (“Gentle Brain Exercises”), a cute and surprisingly addictive quiz-style game.


Yawaraka Atama Juku offers a collection of puzzles and brainteasers, separated into five categories: think, identify, compute, memorize, and analyze. Once you’ve completed a run of tests, the game displays a radial graph showing your brainpower in each category. This “brain map” is accompanied by a letter grade that describes what type of brain you have — a “doctor’s brain,” or “artist’s brain,” for example.


Yawaraka Atama Juku

Brain Map

Here is my brain diagram. You’ll notice that I did well in identify, memorize, and analyze, but my score in think was terrible. The reason for this is simple: the think category consisted entirely of word puzzles in Japanese. Given that I study computer science, my 66% in compute may seem strange, but there’s a simple explanation for this as well: one third of the problems in the compute category were word problems in Japanese. So really the main piece of information we can take away from this brain map is that I totally suck at Japanese.

I felt obligated to point this out before posting another round of Engrish pictures, just so you understand how difficult it is to translate between the two languages. As I mentioned in my earlier post, I’m really in no position to criticize Japanese attempts at English; if I were asked to design something in Japanese I’m sure I would produce something even worse than these specimens. Still, I think that some of them are just too interesting to keep to myself.

I had spent some time browsing engrish.com before leaving for Japan, but I was under the impression that the photos it contained were examples of rare and precious Engrish gems. What I soon discovered was that these examples of Engrish were simply everywhere, T-shirts being the most prominent example. First there were the shirts with simple typos or R/L inversions — shirts that said “Jesus Crist,” for example, or the shirt I saw with a stylized picture of some palm trees, beneath which was written “MARIBU.” But then there were examples like these, which really go a step beyond and lead you to wonder what exactly the shirt designer was thinking.

Knights of Round Table
Funny, I thought they were around earlier than 1986.
Valid to Mod New York
"Valid to Mod New York"
"It goes to get a haircut after a long time."
Light of a Town
"An orange Streetlight Very much."
Excite Action

"Die instead of those who also perform etal. shedding tears, this bacillus guy Waste! It returns to the country, inhales and sleeps also on a mama’s milk!  It is crazy!  Therefore, local of is diagreeable!  EXCITE ACTION and it is waste and there is no existence value and war and anything is those guiltless!  Brains of fucker! Shrewd smell a crow. This mother complex guy!  It will kill a front Terrible impudent shelf. It is shaken if you etc. and, naturally is what! Also do masturbation, It sex with that child in the face of you."
"Like flowers love the sun but even more
And fill my heart with love
for only you… When she grooves"
Wakeful Terrors

Pure Fragile

Invaluable to Me
Stepping it Hotter
"Creation of new world standard, clearing previous
I think it’s supposed to say "UPGRADE," as in, "Time to upgrade my elegance with this awesome shirt."
I’m not sure what a "drilling convention" is, but it appears that if you attend one, 139 is a respectable score:
"The drilling convention WAS done all together LAST NIGHT. My SCORE was 139. It is not BAD!"

Directions to Impressive

I once heard of a Japanese guy who came to study in the US and paid his way through college by selling American toys to wealthy Japanese collectors who were fascinated with American oddities. He would go to the Toys ‘R Us and take pictures of all of the cheap toys, and post them for sale on the Japanese equivalent of eBay at hugely inflated prices. Whenever he got a buyer, he would go back to the store, purchase the item, and ship it to Japan. This allowed him to distribute a large selection of toys with no initial investment. I could imagine a operating similar business with strange Japanese T-shirts, crossing the Pacific in the opposite direction. Now I regret not buying any of them — they would have made great novelty gifts.

Tokyo Container Quartet

Posted February 27, 2006 at 8:49 pm | 3 Comments


Tokyu Hands is my second favorite Tokyo retail chain. It is narrowly edged out of first place by Don Quixote, which offers a comparably dazzling assortment of bizarre and outlandish merchandise, but is slightly cheaper and has a cuter logo. Though I didn’t consider this a factor in my comparison, Don Quixote is also the only store I’ve seen in which sex toys and pornography are shelved only a few steps away from children’s toys.

In any case, while browsing Tokyu Hands (an activity that can easily occupy an entire afternoon), I happened upon these fabulous containers:

Tea     Sugar

Salt     Coffee

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