Thursday, January 29, 2009

a birdsday bridge to the future

Baby peregrine falcons on the Throgs Neck Bridge. See NY Times story here.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

ofessionalpray ournalismjay

A light article in the NYT includes an unexpected word.

THE earth held firm in its orbit. The continents did not founder. Martial law was not imposed. This, despite the fact that the “21” Club has loosened its tie for the first time since it opened at 21 West 52d Street 79 years ago.
Actually, “21” instituted the policy “after Labor Day, a soft opening if you will,” said Bryan McGuire, the manager for the last, yes, 21 years. “We wanted to be on a more level playing field with our competitors,” he said, adding, “We didn’t think it was that big a deal.” Especially since, during lunch, the tie policy was ixnayed in 1996, he said.

Goodness - the Grey Lady is using pig latin! Perhaps it helps capture the tone of the story, the ebbing of rigid expectations amidst economic spiral. But, still, definitely a surprise.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Bidengaffe Watch, Day One

Days in office: 1
Joe Biden gaffes: 1

Watch Obama's face, then his right arm. "No, Joe, none of that. We have work to do!"

Introducing Birdsday

Surely you know about Caturday (although some sects honor the holiday a day later).

Cats are wonderful in all sorts of ways, but what about birds? Birds deserve a day of blogospheric adoration too! So begins a new weekly feature - Birdsday.

This week I'll start to gently ween you from cats. But next week - birds alone!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

the world revolves around you

I've been thinking about geocentric cosmology today.

geocentric universeNowadays we all know that the Ptolemaic/Aristotelian model of the universe is silly. The earth (and the other planets) go around the sun. Copernicus was so awesome not because he discovered something truly profound, but because he (and Brahe and Galileo) provided the arguments and data that eventually forced a bunch of stupid reactionary authorities to stop setting fire to astronomers and to start acknowledging really obvious facts. What kind of moron would put the dinky little earth at the center of the universe?

But pretend you've never been taught anything about astronomy. Go outside and look at the moon and the sun and the stars for a couple days. Go ahead - I'll wait.

Okay, notice anything? The sun and the moon and the stars move. They move, and the earth doesn't move. You can tell it's not moving, because very rarely you do feel the earth move, especially in southern California. But most of the time you don't feel any earth movement. So all those things up in the sky move, and they somehow disappear over one horizon and then reappear over the other horizon later on.

Now, if you're really gullible and superstitious, you might think that the sun and whatnot do something magical, like teleporting back to where they started, or they die and are reborn every day. Or whatever. But, no, we're being scientific. So here's an experiment: get your friend to run around you in a circle while you keep your head still. Notice that she disappears at one side of your visual field but reappears at the other side... because... she's moving in an orbit while you observe from a stationary position! That's it - the sun and moon and stars go in a circle around the earth! This is scientific progress!

Hang on though, some friendless little nerd has an objection. Try a different experiment, he says: have your friend stay stationary, while you run around her in a circle. And while you are running, spin around, so that your back is sometimes toward your friend and your front is sometimes toward your friend. Notice that your friend disappears on one side of your visual field, and reappears on the other. But you are moving, not your friend. Couldn't the earth's relation to the sun or moon be like that? Couldn't the earth be moving?

What a lame idea! Why would I want to spin while running around my friend? I'd trip and hurt myself! And why would the earth - which certainly doesn't feel like it's spinning to me! - do something so stupid? This is a needlessly complicated theory, when good old common sense tells us that the earth is holding still. This idea is obviously the sort of babble you get from crazy people, or troublemakers.

Galileo before the holy office
Galileo before the Holy Office, Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury (via wikicommons)

Here's my point: geocentric cosmology was not an obviously false and stupid dogmatic position. It was, in fact, a scientific improvement upon earlier theories of planetary motion. And it was incredibly satisfying on an intuitive level. Copernicus and his friends were only able to overturn the view by providing a tight explanatory framework, and an increasingly demanding amount of data that finally overwhelmed extant accounts. Geocentric cosmology is the simplest explanatory theory when you're idly watching the stars one night, but it stops being simplest when you look at hundreds of nights' observations of all the celestial bodies. Which is to say - heliocentric theory is the best theory, but not at an intuitive level.

Except it certainly feels intuitive to us now. Of course the earth goes round the sun! But it only feels this way because we were raised on colorful planetarium displays. We were taught a heliocentric cosmology before we were able to develop an independent intuitive sense of the universe. That's why it now seems so obvious that Copernicus was right and the prevailing authorities were idiots. But they did not have the benefit of building a diorama of the solar system in elementary school.

So I wonder, now, which contemporary ridiculous and counter-intuitive views will be utterly obvious in the future. For what lapse of scientific common sense will our distant ancestors mock us? And who among our lunatic fringe will someday be a hero of rational progress? Just how much will we come to resemble the Inquisition berating Galileo? We are, after all, still plenty arrogant, even if we're no longer the center of the universe.

top image: Min Su Yun

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

urban renewal, the detroit way

News from my hometown:

Man says city of Detroit razed his fixer-upper


DETROIT (AP) — There are thousands of buildings that should be demolished in Detroit. Eric Roslonski says his house wasn't one of them.

Roslonski filed a lawsuit against the city Monday, more than two years after a house he was restoring suddenly was destroyed.

He said he put more than $30,000 into the property on the east side of Detroit after buying it for $7,000. One day in summer 2006, he couldn't find 13405 Flanders.

"I drove up and down the street three times — where is my house?" Roslonski said.

His lawyer, Jeffrey Dworin, said the house was taken off a demolition list, then apparently reinstated without Roslonski's knowledge.

"It happens," Dworin said.

A message seeking comment was left with the city's law department, which was closed for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday Monday.

Roslonski is suing Detroit for his losses under a federal civil rights law. He fixed another house on the same street and sold it for $85,000.

"I see all these boarded-up and burned-out houses. I'm trying to make the city a better place," he said.

Abandoned homes in Detroit are sad either way. They look miserable, of course, but their destruction (usually to be replaced by nothing at all) entails the irrevocable extermination of pieces of civic and domestic history. This case - a foiled attempt to salvage, not destroy - is especially sad.

Monday, January 19, 2009

nonsense sells?

I try to apply interpretive charity to just about everything, but I'm having a hard time with this ad: (hat tip - angry asian man)

Here's what seems to be happening: In each of the mirror panes, there is a different 'version' of the white customer - a black man (on the left), a Latino man (in the center) and an asian - evidently Filipino - man (on the right). Each of the reflections match up with the customer, except the last, who is inexplicably holding a bag of Skittles. This prompts a query from the customer and a shout (in Thai) from the tailor, provoking a bizarre exchange with the Tagalog-speaking reflection. Eventually the Filipino version of the customer kicks the mirror, shattering himself, and the tailor finds this funny.

So far as I can tell, that is what happens. But what on earth is going on? What is the ad's metaphysical conceit? Is the mirror a gateway to a series of alternate universes, each featuring a racial counterpart to the reflected subject? Why is the tailor's race consistent in each universe? (And why is he Thai?) Or is this is a weird sci-fi thing; are the reflections employees of the tailor, mimicking the customer before closed circuit cameras projecting to a series of screens? Does that explain why the tailor appears to be berating the Skittles-eater?

I doubt there is any correct answer to those questions, and I suspect this is part of the ad's strategy. The commercial is so strange that many viewers will attempt to puzzle out what they have just seen - to engage in interpretation - and will probably seize upon the plot-turning Skittles bag. (Notice that the only line of English dialogue explicitly references the product.) Which makes for a very natural question: what does Skittles have to do with what is going on here? The answer - a conceptual connection between the multiracial theme and Skittles' "Taste the Rainbow" tag line - isn't particularly satisfying (it certainly doesn't explain anything about the plot). But it does require the viewer to think about Skittles.

the absurd and the advert

Dave Munger at Cognitive Daily recently discussed a study regarding the relation between humor and memorability in advertisement. Viewers often remember funny ads, but do they remember the products advertised? The study's upshot seems to be that humorous commercials do work best when the product is directly relevant to the joke, but only if the brand is not previously associated with levity, and only if the audience is not high in "need for humor". Munger poses an interesting challenge:

Of course, this opens a paradox for advertisers. Clearly humor works best when it's unexpected and related to the product. But if an brand develops a reputation for producing humorous ads, whether it's Bud Light or Mutual of Omaha, won't viewers eventually begin to expect humor regardless of how serious the company's line of business?

Does the Skittles ad avoid such pitfalls? The commercial is not merely funny; it is bizarre. In order to (probably unsuccessfully) attempt comprehension of the message, a viewer must actively engage with the product. Presumably that hikes memorability, and it might also counteract any prior expectations of humor associated with the brand. Nowadays, it's hard to know what to expect from a Skittles commercial.

The Skittles ads come from TBWA/Chiat/Day, an agency known for its offbeat work (including the famous 1984 Apple ad and the contemporary and increasingly irritating 'Get a Mac' campaign). Seth Stevenson at Slate's Ad Report Card doesn't think highly of the Skittles ads (part of a sometimes creepy series), on the grounds that these days, "freaky-ass ads are a dime a dozen". But maybe that's because this thing works - people remember ads that just don't make sense, and they remember trying to figure out what the product has to do with the insanity.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

flight 1549 recovery photos

The plane is up! And on a barge bound for New Jersey.

These photos are nowhere near as good as my shots from the day of the crash, because (a) the police wouldn't allow us within 100 feet of the plane, (b) my camera doesn't do too well in low-light, and (c) I was shivering. But I thought some folks might still like to see how things look on the Hudson tonight.

crash recovery photo 1

crash recovery photo 2

crash recovery photo 3

crash recovery photo 4

crash recovery photo 5

Yeah, I know that the photos you've seen elsewhere are much better. The police allowed professionals (i.e. accredited news agency photographers) to get much closer. The really lucky ones rented rooms in the high-rise building overlooking the site, which is where those amazing aerial shots put up by the big news agencies come from. So much for citizen journalism, huh?

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Sully for Treas

Sully Sullenberger Do I have to be the first to say the obvious? Timothy Geithner should step aside, so that Obama may appoint heroic pilot Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger as the next Secretary of the Treasury. Sully will bring this economy to a safe landing on the Hudson and even do two walkthroughs to make sure we've all safely gotten out. And he will be the last one to leave before it sinks.

photo: AP via CBC.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Hudson river plane crash photos

This is normally a commentary blog, but today is a somewhat unique occasion. I managed to be on the Battery Park City pier to which US Airways flight 1549 was pushed, shortly after its incredible landing in the Hudson River.

Hudson River plane crash

More photos, in sequence as the plane drifted down the river toward, then past, me:

Hudson River plane crash

Hudson River plane crash

Hudson River plane crash

The tug boats barely managed to halt the plane's downriver drift before it would have struck the outthrust pier in the last image.

A moment after I took that last image, the NYPD made everyone leave the pier, very quickly.

I've put up a few more pictures here.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

a thoroughly modern presidential honeymoon

Obama wedding
Once upon a time, newly married western couples would get to know each other during a period known as a honeymoon, a ‘sweet month’. For most, especially those in arranged marriages, the weeks following nuptials required adjusting to a shared life together, a series of mutual compromises and sometimes unwelcome discoveries. But the inevitable personal friction could be mostly smoothed over by the sheer novelty of the experience.

Modern honeymoons are usually quite different, because many modern couples live together for months or years before becoming formally married. Nevertheless, there remain new challenges, especially the legal, financial, and emotional consequences of being bound to another person for (one then expects) the rest of one’s life. Perhaps this is why we have invented such elaborate rituals around marriage, and why so many modern honeymoons take the form of lengthy vacations to exotic places. For couples who already share a life together, novelty must be generated artificially.

The metaphorical ‘honeymoon period’ enjoyed by a new public figure, especially a new president, seems to be now undergoing a similar shift. Normally, the goodwill and cooperation a president receives for the first few months (the ‘first hundred days’ usually) follow in part from the novelty of regarding this unfamiliar person - and retinue of officials and advisors – as the nation’s leadership. We, the public and the congress, grant our new administration the benefit of the doubt, and we try to meet awkward adjustments with good humor.

Barack Obama’s incipient administration, however, has begun to look like the live-in boyfriend with whom the marriage is just a formality. Obama appointed nearly his entire cabinet weeks in advance. He arrived in DC earlier than most new presidents do (so that his daughters could begin attending school). He has already begun negotiating with congress for a new economic stimulus package. Despite the ‘one president at a time’ rhetoric, Obama’s administration has already leaked the imminent closure of Guantanamo Bay, and other foreign policy signals are emerging. Surely it means something that, two weeks before inauguration, Bill Richardson accomplished the functional equivalent of a cabinet resignation.

None of this is a mistake on Obama's fault. It would be irresponsible to sit idle while the economy teeters. The Bush administration’s discredit is so complete that Obama was sucked into the policy-making vacuum even before officially winning election. But the transition has been so competent and so thorough that we’ve now been thinking of him as the president for weeks. Do we now even get a honeymoon with Barack? Just like any modern marriage, we’ll need some artificial novelty to spice things up. There will be an enormous display for the inauguration, and reminders for weeks afterward just how special this new president happens to be. Mark your calendar: Barack Obama is taking the country to a suite in the Bahamas for a week.

(photo from

Friday, January 2, 2009

metaphysics on board

Here is the start of an AP story:

There were 124 passengers on Northwest Airlines Flight 59 when it left the Netherlands. There were 125 when it landed in Boston.

Phil Orlandella, a spokesman for Logan International Airport, says a woman went into labor and gave birth to an apparently healthy baby girl over the Atlantic Ocean on Wednesday during the eight-hour flight from Amsterdam.

The first paragraph (unwittingly?) takes a position on a rather contentious issue in politics, ethics, and metaphysics!

How many passengers were on the flight when it left the Netherlands? If you think that a fully-developed fetus is a person, then the answer is 125. If you think otherwise, then the answer is 124. The story appears to be taking sides.

I wonder if this occurred to the writer or editor at any point. Obviously the aim was to produce a punchy lede paragraph. But that’s not all that happened… You might say that this article was a human interest story when it took off, and a maneuver in the culture wars when it landed.