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Archive for August, 2011

The Irene Diet

The ravages of Hurricane Irene, other than those that made it into the mainstream news, were many. My housemate’s hometown in New Jersey, for example, was turned into a flood plain:

But what’s not available for people to discover, even on YouTube or in small local papers, was the effect that Irene had on individuals like me, those of us completely out of the flooding, power-outage and evacuation zones. Some think I had it pretty easy, but with no transport and everything closed it was very difficult not to look into the alcohol collection and make some bad decisions.

The damage from that seemed to clear up by Sunday afternoon, but I’m sure there were longer-term effects on my health from the hurricane too. I’m particularly worried by the impact that spending two and a half days eating nothing but nachos, chocolate-chip pancakes and bacon will have. Most people in the city I’ve talked to have a similar story to tell: a weekend of junk food and at least one night of debauchery. That may say more about my friendship groups than anything else.

However, if, for fun, we assume that each of the >8 million residents of New York City proper gained a mere 3lbs from the hurricane, then that’s about 10 gigagrams (109 grams) of weight gained overall. This, incidentally, is equivalent to 10 kilotons of TNT, which could produce only slightly less heat energy than the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and is the generally-believed size that a terrorist tactical nuclear weapon would be.

If you prefer a different analogy, then we could also say that the (hypothetical) combined weight increase of New Yorkers was equivalent to two-and-a-half times the weight of the army Hannibal famously marched through the Alps, according to my rough calculations.

Fortunately, chocolate chip pancakes aren’t as explosive as Trinitrotoluene and war elephants have a five-day waiting period in this state.


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Cabin Fever

It’s the calm before the storm right now, and despite my natural tendency to brush off the warnings as overly-conservative measures, people really do seem to be taking Hurricane Irene seriously. Parts of New York other than the low-lying Zone A areas have also been evacuated, and shops are actually starting to run out of more than just booze and coffee: things like bottled water and batteries.

I’ve also taken the opportunity, given my enforced day staying at home, to take stock of the damage done by Irene to other parts of the country. Pictures of flooded homes and roads in North Carolina, alongside some of the devastation done in the Bahamas already by Irene contribute to making this something more than an Internet joke.

In his most recent press conference though, Michael Bloomberg gave every impression of a mayor in charge of his city, being very realistic about the fact that the subway and power grid might not be back up by Monday and having every fact to hand: there is space for 75,000 people in the evacuation centres, only 1,400 are there now; 80% of people in NYC evacuation zones have left already (over a million people have evacuated the Jersey shore); we can expect to lose power in areas but water should be unaffected. He even repeated the key points in Spanish, rather than relying on a translator, in a genuine appeal to the Spanish communities in NYC.

The balconies and gardens around me are cleared of all movable items. Windows are taped up, shops boarded and shuttered up and the streets a lot quieter than I’m used to on a Saturday afternoon. I’m still not worried — in the worst realistic case I don’t expect anything worse than a power outage, but I do now have a respect for hurricanes beyond being an occasional tragic event that happens to someone else, somewhere else.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a hurricane party playlist to prepare.


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Natural Disasters

I experienced my very first earthquake last Tuesday. Or at least, I was present at the time it occurred – eating lunch in a park. I didn’t actually feel a thing, other than an overwhelming sense of curiosity as to why hordes of people were standing around looking up at buildings and not taking photos of them. For once, it wasn’t tourists who believed they were at Ground Zero because they saw a sign for the World Trade Center PATH station, but office workers evacuated from their buildings. Maybe I’m just desensitised, having lived half a block from the subway for the past few months.

Some people felt a bit of a shake, and there was even structural damage done in New York city (below), but I’m not entirely sure the panic-stricken reaction was quite justified, certainly not in the city anyway. My friends in California were in hysterics watching the east coast reactions.

NYC Earthquake Damage

And so, it’s hard for me to take the upcoming hurricane particularly seriously, especially when I’m gathering most of my news from Twitter. Trending topics right now include “GET THE HELL OFF” [the densely crowded beach] and “Trader Joe’s” — it’s reported that the line at Trader Joe’s Wine Shop is over 250 people long, and that in Brooklyn, Trader Joe’s has run out of coffee. Home Depot is practically empty. New Yorkers really know how to panic buy.

The entire subway system has been shut down for the weekend, and the city split up into evacuation zones in an idea that seems like it came straight from zombie films. Zone A, the most at risk, has been evacuated already – at least 275,000 people, including my old apartment. People are also being advised to prepare to evacuate any residences above the 10th floor, lest the rip through the windows. New Yorkers have adapted to this new system well:

Once Zone A evacuates us Zone B and C’ers should go take all their stuff

I will only date Zone B men from now on. Less dangerous than Zone A, but edgier than Zone C

And hundreds upon hundreds of variations upon the below. I wish I lived on one of the borders so I could join in the competitive drinking that’s doubtless happening on all the borders.

Zone B represent!

I’m safe and well though. I have a hurricane-songs playlist, a lot of alcohol, and unread books about physics. Sounds like a good weekend.


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Pre-boarding, Manhattan Distance, and Graph Theory

One of the things that makes me very cool – aside from my etymological skills and ability to name all members past & present of Fleetwood Mac – is that I’m very good at optimising repetitive tasks in my day-to-day life. I can tell you’re impressed already.

There are easy tasks in life I apply this to daily: transposing my bartending skills to make a cup of tea and pour some juice at the same time; creating scripts to bypass any security or login screens; and writing on a website so that I don’t have to call multiple friends and tell them what I’m doing individually. However, not all challenges are this easy to solve, and one in particular can take many weeks of analysis before it is optimised.

Pre-boarding is a subset of the travelling problem space and involves being at just the right place to get on and off some form of transport at just the right time. In my case, this is on the New York City subway. There are many factors to consider, and the majority of these are temporal in nature. There are factors that can be solved with minimal trial and error, such as knowing where to stand on the platform, which door to board the train on, where to stand within the train, which staircases and exits to take and which parts of the journey are so noisy that you can blast Huey Lewis & The News in your headphones with no-one judging you.

However, before beginning this research, the initial problem is that of actually planning a route. Where locations are directly outside subway stops, or only near one particular line, this becomes easier, but in Manhattan, especially when walking is involved, there can be many options, and so a study of geometry and graph theory is needed.

The space we are all most familiar with is what is called Euclidean Space, and contains three continuous dimensions: x, y and z (or if you prefer: upwards, forwards and sideways). There also exist alternative spaces, one of the easiest of which to understand is taxicab geometry. I recommend Taxicab Geometry: An Adventure in Non-Euclidean Geometry if you’re interested, but in brief, this considers space as being represented by a grid structure. In the below, then, the green line is the Euclidean distance and route, and the purple line the Manhattan distance (or taxicab distance) and route. Many different taxicab routes would share the same minimum distance. Circles therefore become squares, spheres become cubes and accurate route-planning can be achieved in New York.

Manhattan Distance

However, should we wish to compare the time taken between different subway stations, or to penalise parts of a walking route (e.g. walking through Times Square takes twice as long as any other street), then we have a pathfinding problem. Whilst these are often associated with artificial intelligence, they are in large part simply the application of graph theory, and often Dijkstra’s algorithm will provide the optimal solution.

Graph theory tells us to represent all of the points – be these cross-streets, subway stations or others – as verticies (or nodes) and to join them, where appropriate, with edges (or arcs). These edges may have a weight, for example, the time it takes to move between them. Below is a simple representation of part the London Underground as a weighted graph. As a bonus game for my British friends, I’ve removed most station names, see if you can complete them. In this very fake example, you can see that it’s actually quicker to go on two different lines to get from the blue to the pink dot, rather than take the direct route. When delays and weekend service come into play, however, examples like the below aren’t so far-fetched.

Tube Map Graph Theory

There are many types of graph, and many properties within them. A trail goes from one point to another without going along the same edge twice, a path is similar, but never visits the same point twice, and a cycle is a path that returns to its start point. I work with graphs daily, although my research is more to do with their semantics rather than their structure, so I actually deal very little with graph theory. Still, it’s a fascinating area with many challenges.

The seminal problem in graph theory was that of the Seven Bridges of Königsberg, which asks if there is any way to cross all the bridges in Königsberg exactly once on the same walk (without swimming). In 1735, Leonhard Euler proved this was impossible and in doing so laid the foundations of graph theory, and in 1944, frustrated maths students in the RAF rendered the problem void by blowing up a couple of the bridges.

Making such a journey is only possible where a Eulerian graph (a graph containing a Eulerian trail) can be made. If one can also return to one’s start point, then a Eulerian cycle exists. One of the major challenges in contemporary mathematics is finding someone other than Euler after whom to name things.

For those of you who’ve read this far, clicked all the links and ordered an Euler poster for your bedroom wall, I have, to finish, a less mathematical, but endlessly fun Flash game built on these concepts — Planarity, which challenges the player to separate a tangled graph into one where no two edges cross.

For those who skimmed to the end, however, please stop reading here. The kisses below aren’t for you.


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Diners, or: How to Make Tea

Diners in America are a magical wonderland that exist in a dimension quite apart from that in which we live our normal lives. Twenty-four hours a day, come rain, shine, plague or hangover, they’re willing to welcome you into their leather-clad booths and present you with an eight-page menu filled with everything from omelettes and toast through to filet de bœuf, served with three crab-stuffed lobster tails.

The advice I’ve always received is, however, that one should never be tempted to order anything past the first page or two of the menu. The various combinations of eggs and bacon will be pleasing, the burger and sweet potato fries delicious and the breakfast sandwiches will cure what ails. Follow this advice, and nearly everything about eating at a diner will be an unparalleled pleasure.

Except the tea.

Americans don’t really know how to make or drink tea. They put honey in Assam tea, milk in Earl Grey and ice in…tea. Really, they put ice in tea. They put ice in tea. This is something I’ve learned to deal with at home, by dint of making my own tea, but I have very little recourse when weakened, hungover, and waiting on the whim of short-order cooks for much-needed bacon.

So, for diner employees nationwide that believe it’s acceptable to bring out a teabag, a warm cup of water and some cream, and then to later add more water to the cup once the bag has been discarded like a differentiated isolated constant, here is how to serve tea.

Théière and tea leaves

  1. Select an appropriate blend. Beginners should stick to breakfast tea (before 2pm), afternoon tea (until 6.30pm) or Earl Grey (post 6.30pm).
  2. Place the leaves in a warmed teapot or théière (see above). A simple rule of thumb is one teaspoon per person, plus one for the pot.
  3. Add freshly boiled water.
  4. Wait. At least three minutes.
  5. Bring the tea to the table, with cups, saucers, teaspoons, and a strainer if necessary. If serving breakfast or afternoon tea, bring milk. For Earl Grey, bring slices of lemon. Do not pour the tea.
  6. Comment on the weather as you leave.
  7. After an appropriate interval, around 20-30 minutes, return with a fresh pot of boiling water.
  8. Comment on the weather again.

A follow up post entitled ‘Iced Tea, or: How to Tie a Noose’ will be forthcoming for those of you tempted to alter the above set of instructions.


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Flip Cup

Some of the beautiful things about visiting another culture are the opportunity to experience their way of life, the ability to see their outlook on the world and being able to appreciate and understand the values that matter most to them closer to home. However, the main reason for travelling in the 21st century is, as far as I can tell, to learn new swear words and drinking games. American television and the Internet had entirely educated me as to their profanity before I got here, but the latter category is still serving up some gold.

I’ve taught you about sake bombs, and shared with you the time I made a clumsy mess of losing my beer pong virginity (but hey, it was my first time, and I’m getting pretty good now), and as of last night I’ve now been initiated into yet another American tradition.

Flip Cup is a simple game. Avoiding the myriad rules of card- or language-based drinking games, flip cup focuses directly on plastic cups filled with cheap ‘beer’ (as they insist on calling it). Teams line up opposite one another along a long table, and one pair of competitors facing eachother begin drinking at a mutually agreed sign. Upon finishing one’s drink, the aim is then to place the empty cup on the edge of the table and flip it so that it rests upside-down on the table, using only one hand and a graceful motion. Swiss Toni would doubtless have an appropriate analogy for this action. The next person along may then begin drinking, until the winning team wins by dint of winning.

In related news, I’ve discovered that my local diner will cook me breakfast at any hour of the morning. What’s not to love about this city?


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