Sunday, August 31, 2008

Traffic Report

Cover of TrafficHere are my favorite parts from Tom Vanderbilt's book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us).

"The a place where many millions of us ... are thrown together ... There is no other place where so many people from different walks of life -- different ages, races, classes, religions, genders, political preferences, lifestyle choices, levels of psychological stability-- mingle so freely." (page 6) This reminded me of the snapshot of American life created by the collapse of the 35W bridge in Minneapolis last year: 13 people died, and as I noticed at the time, two were Somali (a mother and child), one Mexican, one Native American, two Asian, one a "classic Minnesota" Scandinavian, and six with names indicating various European ancestors. Of these, about half were male and half female, and one was developmentally disabled. You couldn't get a more representative example of the Twin Cities anywhere else, not even the State Fair.

The term "traffic" originally meant trade and the resulting movement of goods. Now, the primary usage we have related to that is "trafficking in stolen goods" or "drug traffic." And, of course, our primary concept of traffic has shifted to clogged roads that we would rather not be driving on. (page 7)

"We spend more on driving than on food or health care." (page 15)

Driving generally and highway driving in particular is set up to push our buttons. Humans are programmed to communicate, which involves looking at each other, while traffic makes us look at everyone else's back. "This muteness...makes us mad. We are desperate to say something." (page 24)

"...surveys have shown that most people [in the U.S.], given the choice, desire a minimum commute of at least twenty minutes. Drivers desire this solitary 'me time' -- to sing, to feel like a teenager again, to be temporarily free from the constricted roles of work and home." (page 26) That seems so crazy to me. They want to drive at least 20 minutes every day?

Driving is "the most dangerous thing most of us will ever do." (page 60) That sure puts it in perspective!

An insurance investigator from the 1930s named Heinrich found that for "every one fatality or major injury in the workplace, there were 29 minor injuries and 300 'near-miss' incidents that led to no injury... the key to avoiding the one event...lay in tackling the many small events..." This is now called Heinrich's Triangle, and it is being applied to driving as well as workplace accidents. (pages 63-64)

One of the coolest sections of the book tells about these researchers who put a Drive Cam into volunteers' cars. The camera is in there for a year, so after a few weeks, the driver basically forgets that it's there (as evidenced by much "nasal hygiene" captured on camera). The camera records all the accidents that almost happened, many of which the driver is never aware of -- the 300 incidents at the bottom of Heinrich's Triangle. (page 64) By using the feedback from their own driving, people who are caught on tape all became better, more attentive drivers, because the camera didn't let them forget or not realize the many times when they had driven unsafely.

Most "accidents" are not accidents in the true sense of the word -- the vast majority result from driver inattention or worse. The British Medical Journal no longer uses the term to refer to car crashes because most were not unpredictable, which is what the word accident implies. The term "accident" confuses the idea of unintentional with not predictable, which results in a true accident (page 66).

The more pedestrians or bicyclists there are on the streets, the safer they are per capita -- because drivers are less likely to hit something they are used to seeing. (page 86)

People talking on cell phones (whether hands-free or not) tend to fix their attention at a point just beyond the hood of the car, rather than shifting it frequently to cover the full view in front of (and inside of) the car. (page 88)

"Studies have shown that pedestrians think drivers can see them up to twice as far away as drivers actually do. According to one expert, if we were to drive at night in a way that ensured we could see every potential hazard in time to stop ... we would have to drive 20 miles per hour." (page 99) This reminds me of driving to my parents' rural home at night -- I think I was going at most 20 mph, knowing that there are a lot of deer at all times along the road.

Cities (before horse-based mass transit and cars) show a consistent pattern of being no more than 5 kilometers wide, so that a person could walk from anywhere in the city to the center of the city and back in one hour. We still maintain the same rule to this day, but instead of basing it on walking, we base it on driving. "Studies have shown that satisfaction with one's commute begins to drop off at around thirty minutes each way." (page 132)

In the 1950s, work accounted for 40 percent of daily car trips. Now, the figure is only 16 percent. The difference is made up by taking kids to school, child care, soccer, eating out... Average miles per American per day went from about 21 in 1960 to over 32 in 2001. And who is making most of those trips? Women, of course. And all of this "trip chaining" decreases the possibility of carpooling. (pages 135-136)

Only 15 percent of children walk to school now. "Parents on the 'school run' are thought to boost traffic on the roads by some 30 percent." (page 136)

"Each year, the amount of driving we do for shopping would take us across the country once and almost all the way back again." (page 137) As stores have gotten larger and farther from our houses (beyond that magic 1 hour walking rule), the number of people who would consider walking to the store plummeted. (page 138)

"...people tend to underestimate the time it will take to get somewhere in a car and overestimate the time it will take to walk somewhere." (page 144) People tend to think parking is too far away in core cities, but convenient in large parking lots at malls. This is because "people tend to overestimate distances on routes that are 'segmented,' versus those where the destination is in sight. Thus, a football stadium a half mile away in a big parking lot seems closer than a half-mile walk involving multiple turns in a city." (page 147)

Donald Shoup (author of The High Cost of Free Parking) found that on an average day near UCLA, cars in a 15-block area drove nearly 3,600 miles searching for a parking spot.

The bigger and more complex the intersection, the fewer cars per lane can get through it. A two-lane road can handle 625 vehicles per lane per hour each way. Adding a second lane in either direction allows another 483. A third results in 463. And a fourth, just 385. "The more you spend on new lanes, the smaller the return -- and the faster it becomes recongested." (page 163)

"Traffic congestion is a kind of two-way trap. Because driving is a bargain (drivers are not picking up the full tab for the consequences of their driving), it attracts many more people to roads that are not fully funded; this not only makes them crowded, it makes it hard to find revenue to build new ones." (page 164)

The "safer" the road in terms of engineering, the more dangerous it usually is because drivers' attention is not demanded to remain safe: "wider lanes, which are presumably safer, have been shown to increase speed and may encourage drivers to drive less cautiously." (page 185)

"A Florida study found that a pedestrian struck by a car moving 36 to 45 miles per hour was almost twice as likely to be killed than one struck by a car moving 31 to 35 miles per hour, and almost four times as likely as one struck by a car moving 26 to 30 miles per hour." (page 207) What a great argument for an enforced 25 mph speed limit in cities! (Minneapolis and St. Paul both use 30 mph as their base speed limit, with some streets higher. Many suburbs use a base of 35 and go up from there.)

Trees and other signs of livability in a community are seen as hazards by traffic engineers, but have actually been found to correlate with lower fatality rates compared to treeless, "safer" roads in the same community. (page 209)

"The longer pedestrians have to wait for a signal to cross, the more likely they are to cross against the signal. The jaywalking tipping point seems to be about thirty seconds (the same time, it turns out, after which cars waiting to make a left turn against traffic begin to accept shorter, more dangerous gaps)." (page 225)

"Studies have shown that the less densely populated a place, the higher the risk of traffic fatalities." (page 234) Interestingly, the higher the level of corruption in a country, the greater the fatality rate. (page 235) In the same way that increasing women's literacy rates decreases family size, decreasing corruption in a society may cause fatality rates to drop. (There's a lot more discussion in the book that clears up the possible confusion of correlation with causality.)

"If the number of deaths on the road were held to the acceptable-risk standards that the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration maintains for service-industry fatalities ... there would be just under four thousand deaths a year; instead, the number is eleven times that." (page 250)

"In a crash at 50 miles per hour, you're fifteen times more likely to die than in a crash at 25 miles per hour -- not twice as likely, as you might innocently expect from the doubling of the speed... A crash when you're driving 35 miles per hour causes a third more frontal damage than one where you're doing 30 miles per hour." (page 252)

"... researchers found that SUV drivers were more likely to be talking on a cell phone than car drivers, more likely not to be wearing a seat belt, and -- no surprise -- more likely not to be wearing a seat belt while talking on a cell phone." (page 269)

Driving a new car means you are more likely to have a crash. (page 270)

That's a lot of facts all at once, I know. That's what reading the book was like, although Vanderbilt's full version flows a lot better! Definitely worth picking up a copy, and also checking out his How We Drive blog.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Love Triangle?

Tailgate of a black pickup truck with I love my wife and I love Jesus bumper stickers at either end
Okay, so I know it's hard to read in this photo (it's not easy to shoot a decent photo in rush hour traffic on an urban highway, darn it, even if you're not the one driving), but see if you can read it.

On the left side of the tailgate: a bumper sticker that says I [heart] my wife.

On the right side of the tailgate: a bumper sticker that says I [heart] Jesus.

You be the judge.

Friday, August 29, 2008

To Green or Not to Green at the Fair

Took a bike ride over to the Great Minnesota Get Together today. There are definite signs of awareness about ecological responsibility all over the place at the Fair... most of them successful or at least inspiring.

Large receptacle labeled Don't toss your corn cob! Compost it here.
Across from the corn-on-the-cob booth near the Grandstand.

Poster showing the AFL-CIO building and describing its green aspects
The AFL-CIO just completed a new building that's the first LEED-certified one on the Fairgrounds. It's built to require no lighting during the day, and has a white (reflective) roof, rain garden plantings, and permeable concrete pavements outside. Plus 75 percent of the previous building's materials were recycled.

Dark gray gravel like surface under picnic tables
Yeah, I thought this was gravel, too, until I walked on it. It's ground up tires. It looked good, and was wonderful to walk on.

Birdhouse with a green sponge roof vs a birdhouse with a sandpaper roof, both sitting in a tub of water
Inside the Eco Experience (which is, of course, intended to highlight Parts of the Solution), I'm always attracted to the green roof displays. I loved this simple demo of how a green roof works. I poured water over both, and was really surprised how much water soaked into that sponge, considering the angle of the roof!

Roof with plants on it
This small demo green roof was fun to look at. The thing I learned from the demo is that a green roof can actually be put on a typical house -- it doesn't have to be flat or near-flat.

Yellow futuristic-looking mini car
There were a lot of alternative vehicles at the Fair. This one is called a Coco Super Mini Car. I think it has something like a scooter motor in it, and it's not really a car, but a low-speed vehicle (limited to 25 mph, so it can't go on highways). It supposedly gets up to 70 mpg. But I wasn't sure if it came with inserts for those holes in the doors and roof or not! Might be a bit of a problem in... Minnesota.

But there were a number of other interesting vehicle options (all found at the Eco Experience):

  • The Zenn Car, my favorite neighborhood electric vehicle. Like the Coco, the Zenn is limited to 25 mph, and can only go on city streets. But it's electric, so it's cheaper to operate and less polluting. It's very cute, seats two plus cargo, and costs about $12K or so.
  • The Smart Car. It sure is snazzy looking. 40 mpg city, 50 highway. Not as good as a Prius, but it sure is cheaper: about half the cost (although you could argue that it's half as much car, too!).
  • A $10,000 kit for converting a gas-fueled car to all-electric. The interesting thing here was that the one on display was a $2,000 used Geo Metro (from California, so the body was in good shape)... so for $12,000 you got an electric car that can go beyond the neighborhood. This display outlined the ongoing operating cost as well, including the cost of replacing the batteries every 40,000 miles. With the electric usage cost, the total came to $.08 a mile. A car that gets 40 miles to the gallon costs $.10 a mile (based on $4.00-per-gallon gas). And the electric car doesn't need tune-ups, if I'm not mistaken. Plus, of course, it emits no pollutants.
Blue semi truck with people standing outside
Here's one of the things that was perhaps less successful. Toyota had a display about their hybrid vehicles and the "highway to the future," located inside this blue semi... which was running continuously (perhaps to provide power and air conditioning to the display?). I should acknowledge that Toyota's website tells me "the tour is nearly paperless, features recycling, and up to 50,000 trees will be planted to help offset the truck's environmental impact." (I don't recommend the website, even though I linked to it above, because it's got a nausea-inducing moving background. Mmmmph. Time for some Dramamine.)

Purple blazing star flowers with orange monarch butterflies feeding
Finally, in the native rain garden outside the Eco Experience, there were dozens of monarchs on the Liatris. Photo op!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Punctuation &mdash Get Hooked on It.

White sign with red letters reading quote Education-Get hooked on it. unquote
My daughter (and I) attended freshman orientation at her new high school tonight. In between the thrill of opening her locker and finding all her classrooms, I couldn't help noticing the red and white signs posted throughout the building.

While obviously intended to be inspirational, the signs would have benefited from a final once-over by someone acquainted with the rules of punctuation.

White sign with red letters reading quote Respect-that's the way to life. unquote
Can you say "em dash"? I'd even be OK with a double hyphen in this case... at least it would indicate the sign-maker knew the difference. (This error was repeated on a number of other signs.)

And, of course, every one of the aphorisms was set inside a pair of quotation marks. What do they add? The words are not actually quotations from anyone, are they?

Just more fodder for the "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks, I guess.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Cake Wrecks

A few weeks ago (while checking out the "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks), I discovered another blog that fits into the "I must shake my head because I can't believe people create things like this" category: Cake Wrecks.

It's run by a woman named Jen, who is not a professional cake decorator, but has apparently taken some classes on the subject. The cakes are grouped into categories such as Beyond Bizarre, Creative Grammar, Creepy Cakes, Just Funny, Mithspellings, and Oh-So-Ugly. Jen only allows cakes made by professionals. Which I suppose is the sad part of it.

White cake with red letters that say quote Olympic rings unquote
This gem was the one I first saw, linked from the "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks site.

White cake with black drawing of a man slapping a woman's behind, with a red circle and slash over it. The words Sexual Harassment are at the bottom of the cake
This more recent entry also struck me as particularly funny.

The posts on Cake Wrecks average 100 comments. Geez. That's a lot of people looking at pictures of cakes.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

That's the Way to Sell It

Empty parking lot and boxy store with green awning that reads Manitowoc's Busiest Jewelry Store
In case you can't read this awning I saw in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, here it is a bit closer up:

Close up of the awning wording
I don't know which is worse -- the empty parking lot that contradicts the words, or the words themselves. What kind of marketing claim is that? Why would they think customers want to go to the busiest store?

Perhaps people in Manitowoc like to wait for service, rather than be served right away.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Viva Scott Seekins

Black and white bumpersticker on a black car. It says START SEEING followed by a drawing of a bespectacled man with a funny hairdo
While at the Farmers' Market yesterday, I was amused by this bumpersticker I saw in the parking lot. Does everyone in the Twin Cities know about Scott Seekins?

I guess I should fill in those of you who are not from around here.

Scott Seekins in his black suit, with wavy hair dangling over his headband and dark, round horn-rimmed glasses
Scott Seekins (above) is an artist who is best known for wearing the same two suits all the time -- a white one in the summer and a black one in the winter. His hair is always done up as shown here (with a white headband to go with the white suit, of course). He's been doing this for about 30 years.

He has turned his very existence into a work of performance art, and many people who don't know him are quite fond of him (such as Alex Starace, writing on the Twin Cities Daily Planet). As Starace says:

He is Waldo in Minneapolis’s metaphorical game of Where’s Waldo -- he’s in the scenes we all walk through. And so when we find him, we find ourselves: a person, living, strange, full of yearnings and ideas, heavily influenced by pop culture, and surprisingly private (he has no Web site or blog and the jocularity in his paintings hold the viewer at arm’s length). He is, then, no different from the rest of us, except in that he’s devoted a good portion of his life to showing us as much.
I get a warm feeling, just knowing that Scott Seekins exists. Not totally sure why. But he's one of the things I like best about Minneapolis.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Andy Singer at the Black Dog

Visiting the St. Paul Farmers' Market this morning, I got the chance to drop into the Black Dog coffee house to see the Andy Singer exhibit. (For those who didn't read DN3 back in December 07, here's my older post on Andy.)

There are dozens of his "No Exit" cartoons up on the walls. They appear to have been selected to represent Andy's most political material (in honor of the upcoming Republican National Convention in St. Paul starting on Labor Day). There are a lot of good ones, but here are a couple that particularly appealed to me and that I could manage to photograph semi-decently.

Black and white cartoon of a man and woman driving over a cliff. They look very happy, and their car is filled with consumer goods
Sometimes I think I like his wordless work the best. This one is a good example of why.

Two panel cartoon titled History of Technology. At left, a caveman surrounded by nature, saying Me not happy! At right, a business man, surrounded by technology, saying Still not happy!
Then again, there are the ones with words! This makes me think of the work of Robert Costanza and the Genuine Progress Indicator, about which I've written earlier.

This Friday, starting at 5:00 p.m., Andy will be at the Black Dog, selling cartoons while they also sell posters from the Poster Offensive, which are on display on the other side of the room. I'm a little vague on how they're doing the sale exactly (and it's not particularly clear on the Black Dog website), but if you're interested, drop in and check it out. The Black Dog is at the corner of 4th and Broadway in Lowertown, right at the corner of the Farmers' Market.

The posters will be sold, but will remain on display for another couple of weeks. So if you don't get the chance to stop during the sale, you can still see them until the middle of September.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Jack Bristow Was Jesus!

Victor Garber at 25 in his Jesus clown get up
To understand this post, you need to know that I was a big fan of the musical Godspell back in the '70s (yes, I was a teenager then). I think I only saw the movie once, but my family had a tape of the soundtrack and I knew all the lyrics. To top it off, Daughter Number One and I were in an informal production of it one summer.

So it's understandable that when I saw a DVD of the movie for sale at a cheap price, I picked it up. Imagine my surprise when I realized that the Jesus character is played (and sung!) by Victor Garber, whom I know much better as the father of Jennifer Garner (Sydney Bristow) on Alias.

Lynne Thigpen in her Godspell costume, looking very young
Also featured in the film was Lynne Thigpen, an actress whose career I became aware of in the early '90s when she was on L.A. Law. Later, I saw her frequently on Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? Thigpen died suddenly in 2003 at the age of 54.

I spent a bunch of time on IMDB while I was watching Godspell, trying to figure out what the other actors had been up to since 1973. Many of them were in no or a very minimal number of films or television shows. Merrell Jackson, the 20-year-old tenor who sang the song "All Good Gifts," died in 1991 at the age of 39. Jeffrey Mylett (the one with the recorder and slide whistle) died in 1986 at age 37. David Haskell, who played John the Baptist, died in 2000. So four out of the 10 actors in the film are dead, one from HIV/AIDS, one from a cerebral hemorrhage, one from brain cancer, and one from undisclosed causes. Whoa.

In this watching, the music seemed as good to me as ever (although I obviously have a major sentimental attachment to it, so my opinion may not be worth much), but the script that attempted to tie it together was pretty corny and silly. It's definitely a period piece.

However, I still strongly recommend it because it's shot on location all over New York City, and there's one incredible location shot after another. Central Park (of course), including the Delacorte Theater, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, the docks, and I'm sure many others that a native New Yorker would recognize that I did not.

Most amazing of all is the fact that the song "All for the Best" is shot on top of the World Trade Center, which was still under construction at the time. First you see the cast dancing away with Manhattan as a backdrop:

Cast dancing on a rooftop with Manhattan in the background
Then the camera, which must be in a helicopter, pulls back to reveal the edge of the roof (and the construction cranes).

Cast on edge of roof shot from the side
And then it keeps moving back until you see the twin towers. Neither is complete, but the one on the right has a bit more work still to finish than the one on the left.

Camera pulls back in helicopter shot to reveal the Twin Towers
You can see all this for yourself in a clip of "All for the Best" that's available courtesy of copyright violation on YouTube.

One final note... Lynne Thigpen and Victor Garber were on the same episode of Law & Order in 1995. I think he was the suspect and she was the judge, so they probably got the chance to shoot some scenes together. Still more proof that Law & Order is the Kevin Bacon of television shows.

Friday, August 22, 2008

I Take Acception to That Sign

I've been saving a few inept signs I saw during the summer until I just saw this gem, and knew it was time to post the lot of them:

Long texty sign giving instructions. The text ends with NO ACCEPTIONS WILL BE MADE!!
As seen at Ragstock in Rosedale.

No wonder they don't allow photography inside the store.

Che'z Carole' open for breakfast
Along the streets of Niagara Falls, New York.

Poor, poor Carole. So much misunderstanding of the role of the apostrophe in one name.

Sign from a dumpster reading Cardboard Only Breakdown Boxes
In Highland Park, St. Paul.

I get an interesting mental image of "breakdown boxes": Large cardboard boxes full of passengers, pulled over along the edge of a highway, each one with a busted radiator or dead transmission.

Black letters on a white plastic sign board EXPERIENCE COOK WANTED
In my home town, upstate New York.

I wonder if they sell a lot of experience at this restaurant? Can you get it rare, or does it only come in well done?

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Why I Hate Postal Abbreviations

Blue and yellow Minnesota route sign with large white MN on a blue fieldOne of my pet peeves is when people use the two-letter, all-caps abbreviation for a state in the midst of a normal sentence.

People in Minnesota seem to be particularly fond of this shorthand. If I had a dollar for every time I've seen MN used inappropriately, I could afford to fund my own chapter of Cranky Grammarians Anonymous.

Do people in other states do this just as much? Let's see. "We're waiting for the results of the IA caucuses." "What the matter with KS?" "I wish they all could be CA girls." Hmm. Maybe not.

I have no problem with postal abbreviations as part of a mailing address, but when they're used in place of a proper noun in a sentence, I confess I can be left a few letters short of a full alphabet.

Why does it bother me so much?

First, words generally shouldn't be abbreviated in normal writing. This isn't text messaging I'm talking about -- it's full sentences in newsletters, reports or websites. Just as you wouldn't abbreviate any other word in the paragraph, you shouldn't abbreviate the states' names.

Second, even when it's acceptable to abbreviate a state's name (such as when it is used as a brief identifier linked with a city), you shouldn't use the postal abbreviation, but rather the abbreviation that was in use before the postal service came up with the two-letter codes. Why? Because having those two capital letters in a row looks bad, that's why: Minneapolis, Minn. vs. Minneapolis, MN. Blocks of copy that are strewn with multiple capital letter pairs suffer from uneven typographic "color" -- each one of those MNs pops out of the background and subconsciously distracts the reader.

Third, I think this need to abbreviate represents the increasing rush rush rush of our society. Slow down! Take a second to spell out the name. You don't live in MN, you live in Minnesota -- all four syllables of it.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Akavar Can't Prove Its Claims -- Big Surprise!

In an earlier post, I wrote about a "diet drug" called Akavar that was featured in a two-page ad in Parade magazine. What particularly caught my eye was the ad's headline: "We couldn't say it in print if it wasn't true."

Well, retired physician Harriet Hall asked Akavar to prove its claims, and she writes about her experience in September/October issue of Skeptical Inquirer. (You can see it online at Science-Based Medicine, a medical blog to which she contributes)

In the article, Hall includes her emails to the company, their responses, and lack thereof. Her main point is that the company's ads claim there is published scientific research that showed 23 out of 24 patients using the active ingredient in Akavar lost weight in a controlled, randomized trial. If that were true, one could possibly consider using the product.

After a month and a half of emails, Hall wound up in contact with the company's legal department, which requested that she sign a non-disclosure agreement before they could give her citations for the published research. (Since "published" means "to make public," requiring an NDA seemed just a bit odd.)

When she refused to sign the NDA, they begrudgingly gave her citations for two articles and threatened her with this bit of tortured logic:

Any represesentation on your part that the published studies [whose citations they had given her] comprise the full substantiation for Akavar 20/50 or that the substantiation is lacking in any way would be false and intentionally misleading on your part since your [sic] were not privy to the full documentation.
Cup of coffee with words Drink Me and Lose Weight! superimposedHall then read the cited articles and (big surprise) found that neither one actually provided substantiation for the company's claims. Happily, she didn't let their threatens keep her from concluding that their product is no more effective than a cup of coffee.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Quote Unquote

If you're a bad grammar spotter (like me, I must admit) and you don't already know about The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks, be sure to check it out. I spent about 45 minutes reading it one morning and couldn't stop laughing.

Its creator, whom I gather is a 20-something woman, posts photos of signs that use quotation marks incorrectly. Most are the hand-written ephemera that decorate public places everywhere, but others are "professionally" created. People from all over the country send in photos to her.

Here are some of my favorites.

Laserprinted sign reading Please, Please, Please, do not rinse off 'Sandy Bathing Suits in this Tub' Please use the beach showers located by the walkway
Read the original post and be sure to look through the comments that follow this entry. Many of them are funnier than the original post.

Blue sign reading PATIENT CHECK IN If you are having 'Chest Pain' or are in 'Labor' please inform representative at desk.
The medical workers in this emergency room must be really jaded. Read the original post

Laserprinted sign reading NON-PORTABLE WATER 'DO NOT DRINK'
I think the misspelling is actually funnier than the misused quotation marks on this one. Read the original post

Suburban church with a cross over the door. Quotation marks around the cross.
I hate to admit it, but I didn't get this one on first glance. Read the original post

White van with many phrases in quotes on the side. Most prominent is 'NO SEX POLICY' CAMPAIGN

Other side of the white van. Some quotes include 'SELF ESTEEM' and 'ABORTIONS'
Once again, the comments on this pair are priceless. Read the original post

Monday, August 18, 2008

Weird Ads of August

In the August 22/29 issue of Entertainment Weekly (the one with Harry Potter on the cover), there is not one but two ads in the back of the issue that brought me up short. First was this visually disturbing paean to beef:

Ad featuring three brown shiny surfaces with what appear to be crevices between them
They call this place "The land of lean beef," believe it or not. They also refer to it as a "beefscape." Seriously.

I can't imagine the creative team that came up with this concept. "Hey, I know! We'll shoot close-up photos of cooked pieces of meat so that they look like landscapes. That'll really sell some meat!" Somehow, a portrait of food as if it were a big, glistening (rocky?) desert strewn with unidentifiable color bits doesn't strike me as hunger-inducing.

A bit of quick research turned up this article, which tells me the campaign was done by the respected (if old-school) Leo Burnet agency. According to the article, "The new ads’ messages link beef with 'passion, protein and strength.' "

And get this:

“It’s cutting edge,” Nebraska Beef Council Executive Director Ann Marie Bosshamer of Amherst said last month when describing the 2008 ad campaign to Beef Council directors at a meeting in Kearney. “... There’s nothing like it out there.”
This is probably the only thing the Beef Council and I can agree on.

Then, a few pages later, I saw this ad:

Two skeletal, bald people a la Road Warrior. Lettering looks like scribbled writing
In case you can't read it (you'll see a larger version if you click on the image), it reads:
Caw! Caw! That's how you say "Help, it's so painfully hot" when you're one of the SHRIVELED FALCON PEOPLE of the Cleveland Desert circa 3023 A.D.

Switch to energy-efficient CFLs and LEDs now and prevent far more disturbing changes down the line.
The contrast with the beef ad just about gave me whiplash.

First, I'm encouraged to eat lots of beef (each pound of which required 16 pounds of plant-based nutrition and used 2,500 gallons of water), and then I'm told if I don't use compact fluorescents, Cleveland will be a desert inhabited by post-Road-Warrior scarecrows. A fine moment, indeed, in the history of freedom of speech.

Now, I've read my share of post-apocalyptic fiction, but this ad struck me as a grotesque turn-off. Clearly, it's targeted at youthful readers, and I guess they have a high threshold for shock, but isn't it possible to play a bit too much to despair? Like, you know, my one little bit of effort can't possibly keep Cleveland from turning into a desert?

The website is pretty out there, too -- all Flash and animation, trying to be so cool it hurts. Although it's a softer sell than the print ads! I guess the site has gotten some discussion among the technorati for its animation... some people like it, some people hate it (like the commenter on StumbleUpon who said, "sorry, the design is cool, but functionally speaking, it's a mess. can i just get a freaking site map thats not an interactive cartoon?")

Me, I was mostly annoyed by it. It's like Yellow Submarine without the Beatles. And to top it off, there's not much substance there on the subject.

But I know very well that I am not its intended audience... since I'm somewhere around three decades off in the age department.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Bizarro Redux

I've already written about Dan Piraro's Bizarro once before, but when you see something that strikes you funny, what can you do? Here's one from this week.

As an excuse, I can also point out that Piraro has a different, newer website than the one I had linked to before. On this one, he's posting a color version of his daily comic with about a week's lag (so this one will probably run around 8/22), plus some commentary on the strip. Plus other writings about what's going on with his life, work and activism.

It looks like he launched the new blog right around the same time I wrote about him in January, so Google didn't find it for me then. I've just spent the last 45 minutes reading through his entries for the past six months. Some great stuff there! A fine example of a personal artist's blog.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Lark Toys

Yellow letters on side of building reading TOYS
During our annual trip to La Crosse, Wisconsin, we stopped off at one of our favorite places: Lark Toys in Kellogg, Minnesota (just south of Wabasha on highway 61 along the Mississippi River).

We've been going to Lark for about 10 years. It has a great miniature golf course, which is about as naturalistic as miniature golf gets. The layout is extremely well planned, so that you flow very easily from one hole to the next, even though there are no visible numbers at the tee of each hole. There are several water features running through the course, and large rock formations. (No interesting kitschy items to look at or play around, but the fact that the water has been colored cyan probably could count as such, I suppose.) It's a very playable course that is well maintained -- no ripped carpeting or holes that poke up out of the green. Pretty good plantings around it, too.

Lark is known for its museum of toys, great toy stores, and especially its hand-carved carousel. While the carousel is only 11 years old, the fantastic animals could easily have been crafted in an earlier era.

A particular favorite animal of mine is the ostrich, which is not one of the animals that goes up and down as the carousel moves. Instead, it pulls a cart for small children to sit in. Along the back of the cart are several ostrich eggs, which are hatching. I couldn't get a picture of it today, though, because the light was all wrong on that side.

Here a few others.

Colorful carved pellican on carousel
The pelican's mouth is spilling fish.

Sandy colored buffalo
Not just any buffalo, but the unusual (and revered) white buffalo.

Carved Charlie Chaplin holding a role of toilet paper. Letters on the paper read Toilets
Lark is all about the details. I don't remember this sign from previous trips. Note the toilet paper!

I just found out the store and all its magical contents were sold in the last year, with the founders (and carvers of the animals) retiring to Illinois. It has been taken on by a new family of entrepreneurs and toy-lovers. Good luck to them in continuing the legacy of this Minnesota gem.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Good Luck with that Search

Having a blog allows me a glimpse into the vast pit of silliness that the average Google employee must see on a daily basis. By that I mean, I get to see how people worded their searches when they found this blog (and another site that I maintain).

Mostly they are reasonable search queries -- a couple of words that are relevant. I like to think these searchers have found what they were looking for.

But a number of others seem to think that they are supposed to ask Google questions, using complete sentences--including articles, prepositions, pronouns, and sometimes even question marks. All of which are ignored by the search engine, of course.

Here's a sampling of searches from Daughter Number Three:

  • what happens at a rainbow gathering
  • on brat day are they going to have something in fountain park sheboygan wis (DN3 says: Isn't "something" is a great word to throw into a search engine? Wish I'd thought of that.)
  • sheboygan, what does it mean
  • what is the quote that hangs in "susan b. anthony house"?
And a few more from my other site, which is gardening-related:
  • "elsa bakalar" has she died?
  • are mexican sunflowers supposed to be deadheaded?
  • how do I find some photos of my friends from school?
  • show me pictures of growing cucumber plants in south florida
Some of these make me think of that scene in Star Trek IV (the movie where the crew is stuck in 1980s San Francisco, saving the whales) when Scotty picks up the mouse of a Macintosh and says, "Hello, Computer."

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Anne Taintor and the "Taintorettes"

Fresh-faced 1940s woman, with headline Stop me before I volunteer againI was in a "pack and ship" store recently, when my eye fell upon a rack of greeting cards that remixed vintage advertising images of women and juxtaposed them with witty (or catty) headlines. And so I discovered the work of Anne Taintor.

Taintor creates collages from old catalogs and advertisements with fun, funky backgrounds and objects, then adds her own verbal fireballs. I don't know if she was the first person to do this, but she certainly is one of the best at it!

"Stop me before I volunteer again" is my personal favorite--the one that I should really buy for myself. I laughed out loud when I saw it.

Woman reclining in bed, thinking I love not camping"I love not camping" is the one I should buy for my mother. I think she will find it amusing.

The site features a very nice e-commerce interface. It would be very easy to buy things!

But the thing that I liked best on the site (aside from the products themselves) is the page where Anne tells about some of the women she has met who were the models for the vintage photographs. The women in the photos are (of course) real people, and some of them have made themselves known to her, often because their son, daughter or grandchild saw one of the cards in a store the way I did.

Photo of an older woman in a wheelchair, holding an Anne Tainter collage with her photo from the 50s. Headline Someone was going to have to set a bad exampleAnne calls them Taintorettes, and tells a few of their stories on the site. This is Susann (now and then), whose image is used in several of Taintor's pieces.

The site tells us, "Susann graced the covers of fashion magazines like Vogue, Look, and Mademoiselle. She posed as a bride for Vogue more than 1000 times. She was called "The Most Beautiful Woman in New York City" by the print press reporters organization. In 1943 she appeared in the movie "Cover Girl” with Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly."

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Bizarre Iconography of Diaper-Changing Tables

There are aliens among us.

Or, at least, that's what you'd think if you based your mental image of humans on the way they are portrayed in the graphics on the fold-out diaper changing tables found in the public restrooms of America.

Lumpy two-headed shape
What species is that? Is that an udder at the bottom? (From an Ohio highway rest stop. )

Red baby and parent, with pointy baby legs
Check out that baby's legs. They look like the top of a soft serve cone!

Classic international symbols. Baby's arms are raised as if to defend from the parent, bending over with arms raised also
"No, mom, don't hit me! I'm tied to this table!" (Photo from the restroom on the waterfront in Buffalo, N.Y.)

Pink child and parent elephants with label that reads Sturdy Station
Oh, yes, my child is an elephant. Isn't yours? (Taken along I-86 in western New York.)

Cute orange tiger in a diaper, label says Baby Quick Change
No, mine is a tiger. (Taken along an interstate in Michigan.)

Koala Bear Kare logo
I must disagree. My child is a koala bear. Note the alteration here: "Baby hanging Station." (From Wisconsin.)

Silhouetted profile of a young child, very stylized, large skull
This is perhaps the progeny of a Star Trek alien. Or possibly the spawn of the silent cartoon character Henry. (From D'Amico & Sons, Saint Paul.)