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Going briefly friends only to try and figure out what I want the public face of my journal to look like. Nobody really wants to read my entries from 2004 about how I felt about my physics class when they could be reading my writeup of my visit to the Pez museum, my review of the Double Down, or my poll about how best to spell "grey". Entries will be reappearing to the public as I have time to selectively unlock them. To see all my content, feel free to send a friend request.

Pez Museum

Jul. 3rd, 2009 06:33 pm
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I took a trip today (solo, as it turns out) to the Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia in Burlingame. I got a little bit lost getting there as my directions ("Step 1: Go to Burlingame. Step 2: Get off the highway. Step 3: Find the Pez Museum") turned out to be a bit lacking. I parked in front of a random but friendly looking church and walked through Burlingame's small downtown to find the Pez Museum.

It turned out to be randomly in the middle of a strip mall by the Burlingame CalTrain station, with a Honda dealership and a world music place on one side, and a fancy looking art gallery and rug place on the other. It looked like a pretty small space, but PEZ dispensers are pretty small, so it wasn't too surprising.

It's a cute little storefront, inadvertent self-portrait of the artist aside. You walk into the front room, which could be the Pez Museum all on its own, but turned out to be the gift shop. It was almost evenly divided between sets for the hardcore collector (the entire set of Lion King/Asterix/Tom&Jerry/Elvis Pez dispensers, replicas of some of the more rare Pez dispensers) and impulse buys for the casual and/or ironic visitor. Hiding in the corner, almost not wanting to be seen was the World's Largest Dispenser of Pez. They've done some very careful rebranding to distance themselves from the official Pez company. The owner, curator, and head fanatic greeted me almost as soon as I stepped through the door. Hanging out there for a little while, it was clear exactly how well he had this pattern down. He greeted me enthusiastically, asked if I was a collector, then very politely asked me to pay my $3 and brought me into the museum itself. The museum is about the size of my office at work, crammed full of glass topped display cases and the walls covered with Pez memorabilia of all shapes and sizes.

To save you the trouble of visiting, the tour starts over at the advertisement for Pez.

Pez was originally marketed to adults rather than to kids. The first ad for Pez (out of view on the right hand side) encouraged you to have a Pez after you eat or have a cigarette for minty fresh breath. At the time of that ad, Pez was sold in tins like Altoids, but the revolutionary new idea was to put it in this automatic dispenser that looked like a cigarette lighter. At the time of the first Pez dispensers, the candies were only sold in a single flavor: peppermint or Pfefferminz in German. Take the first, middle and last letters of Pfefferminz and voila, Pez.

I got rushed across to the other side, which is a huge wall of Pez.

You can see the first Pez machines with heads ever produced down at the bottom. I remember it was Bullwinkle and Casper, but I don't remember who else. Every Pez machine ever produced is now at the museum. That's why he started branching out into other historical toys, including the ViewMaster, Tinker Toys, Legos, and Lincoln Logs. He even has ridiculously rare ones, like the bride and groom produced and only given to Pez employees, the one that the owner made for the Lions club in Austria in the 1960s, and two different ones given to Austrian schoolchildren when they opened bank accounts. The last one to finish out his collection was a pineapple with sunglasses, and the rarest was a 1950s era one where you could attach things to its head like a Mr. Potato Head. It was a horrible choking hazard, basically unbelievable.

Before I came, I loaded up the museum tour podcast on my iPod. After he gave me the speed tour, I flipped it on and was tremendously embarrassed to find I was listening to the same guy! Of course the owner/proprietor/curator is going to be the guy who's doing the audio tour. He probably also changes the lightbulbs and sweeps the floors. It allowed for a much more leisurely tour of the museum with the details that he doesn't have to repeat 100 times. Here are the highlights from least to most interesting:

This appeared on eBay one day and the guy who owns the museum was looking at buying it. (An aside, Pez dispensers were critical to the formation of eBay. The creator of eBay started a site for his girlfriend, who was a Pez fanatic, to buy/trade Pez dispensers with other fanatics. One of the Pez dispensers from the museum was actually used in an early eBay ad.) He thought the sign was a hoax/replica of the one outside the Pez headquarters in Austria until a friend who had been there to see it showed him pictures of the original. Both of them have a crack in the lights in the top of the P in the same spot. So either it's an incredibly careful forgery, or it's the real lighted sign from Pez HQ.

This is called the "Psychedelic Eye" and was produced by Pez in the 1960s for less than a year. It was only sold with "flower" flavored Pez. I don't know exactly who they thought wanted to buy that. Maybe the easy to convince stoner market?

See the telephone girl in there? She was sent out to stores advertising the "double pack", which is literally just putting two packs of Pez together and selling them for 10 cents. This didn't happen until 1973. The box contained a little phonograph (that funny looking pink thing below) and it played the following message. (Let's hope it doesn't break!)

She's very erotic sounding for talking about Pez, right? "Oh oh Ohhhhh". According to the curator, this is the only working one of these audio ads, so this message was almost lost to the ages!

You can see souvenirs of the guy who runs the museum on To Tell the Truth, a Jack in the Box Pez dispenser autographed by Jack himself, and the history of guns which shoot Pez candy, but you have to leave something for people who are bored in Burlingame one fateful afternoon.

After all that, I headed back into the gift shop, took one last longing look at the World's Largest Dispenser of Pez, grabbed myself a souvenir R2D2 Pez Machine and hit the road.

Bye, everybody!
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Below is an account of my haute dining experience in New York. It contains pretentious food writing from a person grossly unqualified to do so. There are more adjectives here than are deserved, tempered with some unfortunate analogies which likely should not appear on the internet in any form. Don't say I didn't warn you.

wd~50 -- January 2009 Tasting Menu )
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Ryan, Lori's friend who is now working at Bridgewater Capital in Stamford, made a very interesting comment when we were sitting around ordering tapas. He said that when he went out with people from work, this process of collective ordering never happened. "Food just got ordered," he said. And it's funny, because it was what I was thinking but just couldn't put my finger on. The biggest culture shock of my vacation was a movement from a top-down decision making process/environment to a communal or, as I kept thinking about it, a consensus based decision making process.

When I hang out with friends from work, the decision making tends to happen before we ever get out the door and it's done on an opt-in/opt-out basis. I'll call up a friend from work and say "I'm looking at going for Ethiopian food this weekend; you want to come with?". The implied question: would you like to get Ethiopian food [yes/no]. At the outset, there's kind of a broad expectation of what's going on. A bunch of us get to the restaurant and the first question is some variation on "family style or no?" If there's a bunch of people, mostly family style but excepting a couple of people is to be expected. If there are basically no dishes everyone wants to try, we go single plates. Consensus is maintained in the process, but mostly through giving numerous opportunities to opt-out with no social cost as the event goes on.

It's never stated explicitly, but the underlying mechanic is that someone is in charge. Someone suggests the cuisine, someone suggests the restaurant, someone suggests an ordering style, and other individuals either voice concerns or tacitly approve. (Approve through their silence, for those unfamiliar with the phrase. It's a good one.) It feels to me like when you get an assignment from your boss at work, you either jump to it or you express concerns at that point. I guess it's that I frequently assume when I'm surrounded by smart people that if one of them holds a strong opinion on a topic I'm indifferent to, I defer to them. They care more, they've probably given it more thought, etc. I'm not saying this is a 100% rule, but it feels logical to me.

Now, increase the social cost to opting out but maintain the importance of consensus. "We're all going to a bar, and you're coming whether you like it or not." It's now critically important for it to be the bar that you like. You want the drink that you want. You need to leave when you need to leave. Right? As this sense of "we" is imposed on you by your lack of opt-out option, you have to ratchet up the sense of buy-in to the group decision. But this can become complicated. The more people you have, the more difficult it is to pick one outcome that satisfies all of them.

This brings me to another problem. I'm pretty sure it's from The Paradox of Choice. There are two kinds of decision-makers on any given topic. There are "maximizers" and "satisficers". A maximizer wants the best car. He's going to look at all the cars on the market, optimize them over gas mileage, safety rating and price, pick the best location for pickup, and empirically determine the best color for picking up girls. A satisficer's mantra is "Is it good enough?" She'll try out a couple of different places, test drive a couple of different cars, and decide on one.

Introduce maximizers and satisficers to the last example. The more maximizers you're ordering with, the more likely you are that one person will say (implicitly, usually not out loud) "That's pretty good, but we could do better". Instead of the rest of the table saying "You know what, get whatever you want for yourself, Max [as our maximizer will be called for the rest of this example], but leave us out of it", the rest of the table does not want to be seen as excluding Max and Max does not want to appear anti-social. Plus, Max benefits from tasting many more dishes than he could order on his own, so he doesn't want to opt out. Imagine now that we have Max and Maxine, each of whom like different dishes.

Using a concept from computation here, think about what happens to the difficulty of an optimization as the number of choices grows. It's obvious for any group that increases the number of choices makes the decision harder, but increasing the number of choices for someone attempting to maximize makes the decision exponentially harder.

You might think I'm shooting myself in the foot pointing this out, but the more maximizers you add shrinks the universe of acceptable choices. Max doesn't want any fish dishes, Maxine is a non-drinker and won't have anything cooked in wine. Less choices, so better! What's the cost? Time and energy. XKCD, do my work for me! Picking out the best option takes time. A lot of time sometimes. In Boiler Room, they talk about "starting from yes". Ben Affleck gives the speech to his new charges about asking questions you know will get yes answers because they lead to more yes answers. If the implicit question is "Is this the best menu for me", you're starting from no. If the implicit question is "Is there enough stuff I like on this menu", you're starting from yes.

Discussing this problem with Katy earlier gave another interesting situation in collective decision making somewhat different from those above. Basically, it's the "I don't know, what do *you* want to do" scenario. When n gets big enough ("We can go anywhere for dinner"), it becomes one person throwing out ideas and other people shooting them down -or- nobody throwing out ideas and everyone just sitting there.

(I just noticed number of choices above is kind of ill defined. If the menu is n items long and we plan to order k of them allowing repeats, I would say that increasing n makes the problem much more difficult for maximizers and about the same for satisficers and that increasing k makes the problem more difficult for both. Though, I just did thought experiments for those, and I could actually see it going either way for satisficers on both cases. If n increases, a satisficer who didn't see anything good on the menu before could see a good new item. If k increases, a satisficer whose favorite dish didn't get ordered before can suggest it.)

So here's the tapas scenario. 12 of us go to a restaurant to get tapas. The party is no less than 1/3 maximizers, it's a birthday party (a traditionally bad opt-out situation), n is large (Tapas places have a big menu) and k is large (Tapas dishes are small). How do we solve this problem? Our actual solution: split into two groups. Although, God help me if getting people to move down so that people could sit with who they were ordering with wasn't a problem. It made the problem manageable, or at least moved the noise to a part of the table I wasn't sitting at. Ryan went with the flow for the first round of tapas and picked a dish he really wanted for the second round to eat himself, which was not a problem.

What's the general solution? There isn't one that I can see. Mostly, I just think the question is interesting. The one my family opted for (there are 6 of us: Mom, Dad, me, and my three younger brothers) was generally to stick to a smaller number of vetted options. We had places that we would go for family dinners out and a set menu of family dinners we'd have at home. It kept infighting low at home, but me becoming a foodie seems to be a rebellion from this tradition. Also, decision making was frequently deferred to someone in particular, because it's so-and-so's birthday or because we're in that neighborhood.

I don't know even if the basic idea is sound, but that's what I've been thinking about.

Also, the tapas plates aren't big enough for 12 people to get a taste of every dish. Even if everyone agreed, you couldn't get the dishes all the way around the table.
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As I was IMming at Robin, who was too busy doing her hum paper / avoiding her hum paper to notice, LJ is very much a different kind of Time Suck from the others out there: the Shmack, the video games, chasing each other with things made out of duct tape both large and small. Already, LJ seems to be a place where one can talk about feelings. This doesn't sound remarkable until you think about the day to day interactions of Easties. Feelings that I remember people sharing recently: good, bad, sleep-depped, glad that thesis is over, working, avoiding work. People constantly are concealing their anger, their annoyedness, their excitement, their sexuality, just everything. I don't think we're trying to be hyper-rational, but it certainly looks that way a lot of the time, and the emotions that people feel either internally or at each other get swept under the rug. How much of that is okay? It really depends on the person. But, something inside me is aching right now. I want to talk to people and listen to people. I want a conversation to go on for hours into the night talking about home or family or happiness or truth or religion without dissolving into something about definitions or maps from r-n to who gives a crap. This is a place of growth, but that growth shouldn't always have to be inward.

This all reminds me of a conversation that I had in the lounge this weekend. I was arguing with someone who said that there were no redeeming features of Microsoft Word. They said that after Mudders graduated, they would never have use for a program that couldn't edit equations and didn't have math character sets. They said that Mudders, when left up to their own devices, wouldn't read non-technical things. It bugged me at the time, but now I see it even more. There are places in every person for the math and the science, but if you let it rule your life, control who you are and what you are to become, you haven't learned anything from here. If you leave here unbalanced in your knowledge base, you haven't taken anything of value from this giant neo-Mayan school.

I may be off base. I may be ridiculous. I may be speaking for a minority of one, but tough. Right now, I feel starved for emotional connection, and that very much doesn't mean I need a relationship. We are all adrift here, alone but together, and sometimes, you just need to talk to a fellow traveller.


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