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free variable

a weblog by Will Benton

Published: 2015-07-30T14:16:14Z


Flax pancakes


Earlier this week, I wanted to see if I could make decent pancakes exclusively from flax, with no grains whatsoever. They turned out really well.

Chocolate cheesecake


I made a chocolate custard cake last night and it was pretty good. Here's the recipe.

Bike data analysis talk


I gave a talk about making sense of my bike data using Apache Spark at the beginning of the month. Video of the talk is now online.

Thile records Bach


I highly recommend Chris Thile's mandolin recording of Bach solo violin sonatas and partitas.

Making sense of bicycling data


I've recently done some work to visualize road cycling data.

Should have seen that one coming


You know when you try to keep something from happening and it happens anyway?

House Industries + Cyclocross


I always appreciate email blasts from House Industries; their digital typefaces are great and regularly seem to find their way into cool physical products. But this post detailing their design work for Richard Sachs cyclocross bikes was a particular delight.

That awful Yahoo! logo


Wordmark snark.

Regarding TdF doping


Some interesting perspective on what was different about the Tour de France this year and last year.

Father’s Day gifts


A story about cycling badly, in which the best part about Father's Day remains being a dad.

Cycling signs of the apocalypse


“You got your decadent wastefulness in my boring hybrid bicycle!”“No, you got this hilarious ‘urban’ cycle in my conspicuous consumption!” Two great tastes that taste great together? In any case, Gucci and Bianchi have done a great public service to cyclists everywhere by introducing this 22-pound, carbon, $15K “urban bike.” Every time a new bike […]

Visualizing recurring jokes with the Bluths


An amazing visualization of jokes and themes across the original three seasons of Arrested Development.

Proxima Nova’s ubiquity


We hate it when our favorite fonts become successful.

Spring classics, Wisconsin style


I often joke that Cross Plains, WI could host a Spring classic if they would just build a velodrome at the end of Church Street, but I suppose potholes and cobblestones aren’t exactly interchangeable. The weather in Madison is gradually moderating and — while it’s still too wet for mountain biking — we’ve had about […]

Welt, geh aus, laß Jesum ein!


Steve Reich’s legacy for popular music


Tim Rutherford-Johnson does a spectacular job of tracing the elements of contemporary popular music that are commonly ascribed to Steve Reich's influence.

Sigur Rós on art and craft


This interview with Sigur Rós is over a decade old and the gear-specific details might not be of general interest even if they were current, but I thought the discussion of their aesthetic and the unusual steps they take to serve it — for example, recording in swimming pools and other large, untreated spaces — […]

Common-sense font licensing


I consider the intellectual-property issues surrounding typefaces and the value of clarity in contracts, motivated by my recent purchase of a license for a very nice font that I may never be able to use.

Essential reading for Wisconsin alumni


Architecture magazine Clog recently published a 176-page reflection on brutalism.

Supply-side hipsterism fails


The architect of contemporary cargo-cult urban planning admits that it doesn't actually work.



A really nice new typeface from the makers of Chartwell.

Really impressive polyphonic dictation


Ableton Live 9 features some very cool and surprisingly effective music technology (with brief audio example).

The World Wide Web is moving to AOL


Parodying aqui-hire paralipsis.

Massive produce attack


Massive Attack's “Teardrop,” performed on fruits and vegetables.

Things go better with vihuela


A wonderful vihuela performance of Claude Sermisy's “Tant que vivray” will almost certainly improve your Monday.

Switch phone carriers, get a $500k fine


An early candidate for most ridiculous law of 2013 has the effect mentioned in the title of this post.

Visualizing my road cycling from 2012


I plotted all of my road cycling from 2012 and made a nice picture of it.

When genres become zombies


Fashions change quickly in popular music, but the decline of the once-promising dubstep genre is still sort of puzzling.

Perverse incentives


Emily Esfahani Smith indicts undergraduate hook-up culture while reviewing Nathan Harden’s Sex and God at Yale. What strikes me most about the current state of affairs is not whether or not it makes moral sense (it does not), but that it doesn’t even make microeconomic sense.



Mark Simonson revives Bookman, with spectacular results.

The nihilism of irony


“Obviously, hipsters (male or female) produce a distinct irritation in me, one that until recently I could not explain. They provoke me, I realized, because they are, despite the distance from which I observe them, an amplified version of me.”

Happily ever after


We've discovered a surprising infringement of one of Apple's latest patents.

Meet Rolf Joseph


I’m pleased to introduce you to Rolf Joseph Benton, who is one week old tonight! He arrived at 7:17 PM on All Saints’ Day, weighing 8.25 pounds and measuring in at 20 inches. Mom, baby, dad, and siblings are all doing well and thoroughly delighted. I’ve posted some newborn photos below; more are available in […]

Regarding poisoned Halloween candy


Yet another scare story from my youth has no basis in fact.

Dirty minimalism


I haven't written much music lately, but I was able to put together a short demo for this week's Disquiet Junto project: “Produce an original piece of music that fits the genre “‘dirty minimalism.’” Includes some composition process discussion for the nerds and a download.

Static analysis


Matt Might has a nice blog post introducing the neighborhood of computer science in which I spent almost all of graduate school. Static analysis is especially interesting during political campaign seasons, because the fundamental idea behind it is to handle questions that you can’t answer at all by substituting ones that you know how to […]

Ironic optics


Business Insider fails hilariously at reporting on Apple's tribute to Steve Jobs.



“Sure, kids may like [the Berenstain Bear books]—but kids will drink detergent if you leave it in a cup placed on a low table. They aren’t the best judges.”

Coptic fragments


In which mass-media coverage of church history continues to be as stupid as mass-media coverage of everything else.

Goudy bloomed late


Did you know that hyper-prolific type designer Frederic Goudy “didn’t start making type seriously until after he was 40”? Truly amazing.

Wheatless pancakes


In honor of the first day of school, I'm finally posting my wheatless pancake recipe.

Product recall criteria


If all products had to meet the same safety standards as the Bumbo baby seat, there would be no cars.

On indie-rock criticism


Four women react to Pitchfork‘s best-albums list: “Honestly I think it takes some things to have the energy to make one of those: a) some degree of narcissism to assume that literally anyone cares what albums you like b) enough self esteem to believe your choices are correct or to not care if people disagree with you or think […]



I thought that regarding undergraduate tuition as ludicrously inflated was uncontroversial. (Indeed, my alma mater has increased tuition by over 275% in 15 years and eliminated any claims of being a good value from its marketing collateral.) But when the New York Times is publishing op-eds arguing that $50k private high school tuition is unsustainable […]

Ozment on the Euro crisis


Steven Ozment on Martin Luther and the Euro crisis.



Taken in Grinzing, Austria on our honeymoon in 2001.

They’re playing our song


Happy anniversary, Andrea!

Iced coffee notes


How to make excellent iced coffee.

Best Wikipedia entry ever?


“In the opening verse, Sir Mix-a-Lot professes his affinity for large buttocks and his inability to disguise this fact from others. He goes on to describe other desirable physical attributes, such as a trim waistline, tight-fitting garments, and unblemished skin.” Read the whole thing.

Cleaning the basement


It’s amazing what hangs around in your basement when you’ve lived in the same house since finishing college. I also found some 5.25″ floppies, including ones that contained some of my oldest extant programs, which I wrote while taking a Logo course in the summer before third grade. (Like most nerds of a certain age, […]

The end of Sibelius?


Avid’s death spiral continues and has claimed the development team for Sibelius. This is terrible news. I was very good with Finale in college but switched to Sibelius for my (presently very limited) music-typesetting needs after I got my first Mac in 2002. The notation software world, which is not a likely candidate for disruption, […]

The end of passwords?


An interesting proposal to manage login-related pain and suffering.

Making scientific sausage


I confess that I am wholly looking forward to discussing this episode, and many like it, with my children after they’ve encountered it as a case study in an undergraduate philosophy-of-science class.

Infographic horror


While on a recent vacation, I encountered one of the worst infographics I've ever seen.

Black boxes for bicyclists


Helmet cameras can capture accidents, but will they improve outcomes for accident victims?

Lifehacker’s unusual appeal


I’ve never understood the appeal of, but I now suspect that it is the premier web destination for people who can read sentences like “if this elegant and useful $3 phone app is too expensive, buy a crummy ripoff for $2” without laughing (or crying).

Wiggins on Doping


Boy, I sure hope Bradley Wiggins isn’t actually doping.



FontBomb is a very cute web hack. Visit the link, or (if you’re viewing this post in a web browser and not a feed reader) click here and then click anywhere else on this page. (via Hoefler & Frere-Jones on Twitter)

Kevin Drum on high-speed rail


Kevin Drum at Mother Jones doesn’t like California’s high-speed rail plan, and he is extremely skeptical of absurd ridership projections: “We are rapidly exiting the realm of rose-colored glasses and entering the realm of pure fantasy here.” But keep your chins up, flyover friends: the fact that a high-speed rail line between densely-populated major world […]

Walter Russell Mead on higher-ed reform


Walter Russell Mead on higher-ed reform: “Those who like myself are the products of the traditional elite educational system are naturally and properly concerned about the future of liberal as opposed to utilitarian education as this transformation takes place. But even we have to recognize that the first priority of state governments has to be […]

Waterskiing notes


Waterskiing firsts for father and son.

Who would have guessed?


Apparently traffic circles are dangerous for cyclists. I’m always glad to see groundbreaking research with shocking conclusions.

This year’s goals at the midpoint


Progress on my personal goals for 2012, halfway through the year.

Now WT is six


My annual letter to WT on his birthday.

VeggieTales, Christianity, and morality


Via Gene Veith, VeggieTales creator Phil Vischer has recognized the biggest problem with the cartoon series: I had spent 10 years trying to convince kids to behave Christianly without actually teaching them Christianity. And that was a pretty serious conviction. You can say, “Hey kids, be more forgiving because the Bible says so,” or “Hey […]

Backlit strawberry


Backlit sunflower


First and last days


…of kindergarten:

Teachout on DFD


Terry Teachout discusses the controversies surrounding Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s approach to performing, as well as what made him so great: Mr. Fischer-Dieskau’s style of singing was so individual, even idiosyncratic, that it left some people cold. Unlike the generation of recitalists that preceded him, he sang like an actor, not a storyteller. In his hands, each […]

How to Not Kill a Cyclist


Here’s a must-read article for pretty much anyone who uses roads: How to Not Kill a Cyclist. One tip it includes is to be patient and measured in your efforts to pass cyclists while driving, lest you “wind up in that worst of all worlds: a quantum state of simultaneously passing and not passing.” (Link […]



Logistics regressions


We were rear-ended at a stop light a couple of weeks ago. Thankfully, no one was hurt and our car appears to have escaped major damage, but our hitch-mounted bike rack was totaled in the impact. The other driver’s insurance company offered to reimburse us for the cost of a new rack as advertised on […]

The sweeping clarity of rock criticism


I often enjoy Pitchfork‘s reviews of popular and semi-popular music, but a description of subpar verse as having “the sweeping clarity of a dissertation, the galvanizing fire of a sermon, and the forcefulness of a hurled brick … [with the] the cleansing power of a confession” is the sort of thing that someone can only […]



DFD, RIP. What a gift that his entire career was within the recorded-music era.

Sunset on the Ridge


In my experience, it’s hard to pay attention to nagging worry or ennui when presented with a scene like this: Indeed, in these situations my only difficulty is avoiding singing something like this too loudly I sail along in the cool evening air: Om levende blev hvert træ i skov,og var så hvert blad en […]

What Maurice Sendak Can Teach the Church


What Maurice Sendak Can Teach the Church: a nice reflection from Russell Moore on fear, wildness, and redemption — and on how some truths are universally written on human hearts.

Translating across cultures


I’ve been idly thinking about translation lately, so I was happy to run across Scott Cairns’ poem “Adventures in New Testament Greek: Nous” this morning. If you’ve spent time in the neighborhoods of the liberal arts that I used to haunt — or even if you haven’t — you’ll probably find it as delightful as […]

What to do with your liberal arts degee


From McSweeney’s: “This is NASA, not Grinnell. I don’t have the time or patience for your renegade attitude and macho bravado.“

The sad decline of Bleecker Bob’s


Back when people still used to go to record stores, I’d make a point of going to this one whenever I was in Manhattan.

Unfriend me not in the time of old age


Lately I’ve been thinking of Facebook and Twitter as a sort of digital Pompeii — evidence of peoples’ past activities will persist, barely-comprehensible and frozen in time, even after the posters have stopped writing about the great runs they just had, the hilarious and poignant antics of their kids, the dated pop-culture references they share […]

Land of perverts and Nazis


If reading The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo wasn’t enough to remove any doubt in your mind that Sweden is absolutely chock-full of perverts and Nazis, maybe this story about the Swedish culture minister’s baked-goods preferences will clarify matters somewhat.

Parenting successes: real-food edition


Andrea was out of the house at suppertime today, so I ate with the kids by myself. I made them grilled cheese sandwiches and steamed carrots, but I made myself a spinach salad with avocado and salmon. They ate all of their carrots and most of their sandwiches before taking about a third of my […]

Dear St. Olaf College


Dear St. Olaf College, Although I may never totally let you off the hook for selling WCAL, ignoring the myriad helpful suggestions I offered you in the enthusiasm of youth, and raising tuition and fees by over 250% in the last 12 years, I still love you — after all, you introduced me to my […]

Mulch omelet




I bet you were thinking that your day wouldn’t be complete unless you could hear ABBA’s “Waterloo” performed in the style of the Ramones. Well, consider your day complete.

Lessig on Scalia and PPACA


I’m a big fan of Lawrence Lessig — especially his generally excellent work on copyright and technology policy — but many of his public statements of the last few years seem to betray an increasing naïveté. His credulous 2008 endorsement of Obama could have been written by a particularly enthusiastic high-school junior and this weepy […]

Kids are awesome


Kids are awesome because they don’t yet know that you can’t always just point out when something is horribly wrong.

Advice to young computer science students


Here’s my best advice to young computer science students, especially those who are interested in building systems: “I will engage in a heroic engineering effort and …” is always a far worse starting point for a course or long-term project than “I will engage in heroic system characterization and ….” The sooner you learn this, […]

Web services for improved web application usability


Via DF, Ziptastic is “a simple API that allows people to ask which Country, State and City are associated with a Zip Code.” This is truly excellent, and it addresses a longstanding pet peeve of mine. In a similar vein, I’m pleased to announce my latest project. Ageist is a simple API to determine whether […]

It’s not you, it’s me


We recently cancelled our pay television service because we have watched approximately 90 minutes of live or time-shifted TV1 in the last six months and six months’ worth of subscription fees amortizes extremely poorly2 over 90 minutes of programming. This isn’t a knock against our former pay-television provider, which has always provided a good product […]

Perception and Today Records


BBE recently released a two-disc compilation of soul, funk, and jazz from Perception and Today Records. It’s great and a total bargain as a $10 download. Highly recommended.

Simpler cue sheets


I can’t possibly be the first person to have had this idea. With that said, I like it a lot: As for the ride itself, it was overcast and certainly too cold to refrain from second-guessing wardrobe choices. (Bibs and knee warmers: bad idea. Shorts without knee warmers: worse idea.) Even so, we were doing […]

“The Beauty of Creation”


Richard Dawkins on parsimony: “What I can’t understand is why you can’t see the extraordinary beauty of the idea that life started from nothing—that is such a staggering, elegant, beautiful thing, why would you want to clutter it up with something so messy as a God?” Read the rest of the article for a different […]

Interaction design failure


I recently registered for an athletic event using a ubiquitous online-registration service that will remain nameless. Sadly, the process was embarrassing even by the low standards of the domain. First, it required me to enter my birthdate twice on consecutive forms. This is pretty ridiculous by itself, but the second form also asked me for […]

On the influence of indie music blogs


The Economist‘s Prospero blog reflects on the declining importance of indie-rock blogs like Pitchfork, using the story of Lana Del Ray as an example. If (like me) you don’t pay much attention, the article is worth it for its discussion of Ms. Del Ray’s career arc alone; I was awfully confused by her sharp transition […]

Inappropriate commuting gear


Dear Amazon, you know I’m your pal. I still have that handwritten thank-you card you sent me on my fridge, although my motivation for keeping it is at least 60% ironic. So when you do something like this, it hurts me all the more: As someone who has been nearly maimed by clueless aero bar […]

The dumbest generation


“… half of [Millennial voters] either do not know ‘how Washington works,’ or they are stupid.”

Abandoning common sense


I was in the “sports nutrition and quackery” aisle at Target last night buying Kind bars and was dismayed to notice that the “hCG diet” craze has apparently made its way out of email spam and on to store shelves. Certainly, the desire for weight loss often causes people to abandon common sense, but I […]

Technology, Bible translation, and linguistic survival


Alan Jacobs writes about the boom in crossplatform e-book technology driven by Bible translators, and its (positive!) implications for the survival of dying natural languages. (Be sure to read the passage he cites from the Hawai’i Pidgin translation of Acts 1.)

Norman Ramsey likes Lua


High praise for the Lua programming language from a respected PL and runtime-systems researcher. Ramsey’s observation that the design effort surrounding Lua “could not have been done at a North American university” rings especially true.