Thursday, September 30, 2010

Misuse of a Semicolon

Bumpersticker reading How to get to heaven; turn right and go straight
The semicolon is only problem number one.

Problem number two: The person who made this clearly doesn't realize that green-background-with-white-sans-serif-type appears to be the official design of Muslim-oriented bumper stickers.

Several photos showing various Islamic bumper stickers in green with white type
In fact, when I first saw the "turn right" sticker, I thought it was yet another message about Allah, until I actually read it. (From this, you can tell I frequent a part of the Twin Cities where there are a lot of Somalian immigrants.) Clearly, green is a symbolically significant color in Islam.

But whoever wrote it definitely deserves a few points for cleverness.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

From the Mind of M. Night Shyamalan

I've seen the ads for the recent elevator horror movie "The Devil" one too many times. Actually, I usually mute or skip them, but I'm still left with the feeling that I've seen the ads.

I became aware of my over-exposure when I saw this F Minus cartoon by Tony Carrillo on Sunday:

F Minus cartoon of four people sitting on the floor of an elevator. The guy by the buttons says OK, you guy are gonna hate me, but I don't think I ever chose a floor!
I wonder if there's a movie somewhere in that setup.

By the way, if you haven't already seen it, this College Humor parody called "No One Likes M. Night Shyamalan" is worth the two minutes:

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Accenting Stella

Snow peas, blue cheese, a toy snake and a toy frog
"Please call Stella. Ask her to bring these things with her from the store: Six spoons of fresh snow peas, five thick slabs of blue cheese, and maybe a snack for her brother Bob. We also need a small plastic snake and a big toy frog for the kids. She can scoop these things into three red bags, and we will go meet her Wednesday at the train station."

Nonsense, you say? No -- this is a text created to reveal regional and national accents on George Mason University's Speech Accent Archive. It's fun to listen to the many ways English can sound around the world.

Although I wish there were a lot more samples from places where English is the native language. It seems like only a small percentage of the American accents I've heard are represented, for instance.

And while I'm wishing, perhaps it could have a better interface. Clicking flags on of a tiny map is not my idea of a good way to sample recordings. But oh, well. It's fun anyway.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Persecuting Dissent

It wasn't a typical late Monday afternoon today. I headed into downtown Minneapolis during rush hour to join a group of people protesting the FBI raids on the homes of local anti-war activists.

According to the Star Tribune, the search warrants were signed by a judge, and were intended to find evidence of "material support of terrorism." From what I know, these activists have nothing to do with terrorism, but a lot to do with holding unpopular political beliefs. Some were organizers of the Republican National Convention protests. One is the editor of one of those socialist newspapers no one ever wants to read.

None of which was against the law, the last time I checked. But maybe that's changed.

Over a hundred people gathered across the street from the FBI office on Washington Avenue.

This woman's sign incorporated a copy of the Tea Party's favorite document.

I went to the protest because I think it's important to object to the intimidation of activists.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Cognitive Surplus Gets Personal

What do you do with your cognitive surplus, assuming you have one? (If you're not sure, take this test: If you watch any television at all, you have one.)

The term was coined by Clay Shirky, and it's the name of his latest book. (Which I haven't read yet, but it's on my list of Future Favorites.) The cognitive surplus is the amount of time and mental capacity left over among people who have eight-hour work days, gasoline-powered vehicles to move them around, and water, sewage, electricity, and labor-saving devices in their homes. Shirky credits the cognitive surplus with the creation of the Wikipedia, among other crowd-sourced innovations in recent years.

I spend much of my cognitive surplus on volunteer work, gardening, reading books and the interweb, and a little bit writing this blog. I admit to watching six to 10 hours of television a week (probably about the same amount of time I spend here). Despite the fact that I have a far-from-grueling schedule, there are evenings where I can barely gather the mental capacity to write something as Daughter Number Three. Why is that?

Science fiction writer John Scalzi -- who publishes at least one fiction book a year, does other paid writing, and has maintained a very active blog for 12 years -- had this to say in a response to the many folks who ask him how they can make time for writing, or how to find inspiration:

If you need inspiration, think of yourself on your deathbed saying “well, at least I watched a lot of TV.” If saying such a thing as your life ebbs away fills you with existential horror, well, then. I think you know what to do.
Which reminds me of the words of Tinkertown creator Ross Ward: "I did all this while you were watching T.V."

This is not about guilt over watching television. None of us needs anything else to feel guilty about. We need to transform that response, so that we don't feel guilt, but energy to create something, whether it's music, clothes, a garden, or words.


Earlier posts on Clay Shirky:

Here Comes Everybody

Reporters Trapped Inside a Burning Business Model

More from Clay Shirky

Working the Cognitive Surplus

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Shirt Whiplash

While getting a sandwich the other day at lunch, I saw a young man wearing a T-shirt that said:

Fear Nothing
Donate Everything

This made me think fondly of a college friend who had the habit of giving away everything he owned periodically. And it made me wonder who this young man with the shirt was, that he would wear a shirt with such a message. In my experience, it's older people who are often in the process of simplifying their lives, while young people are the ones who are more likely to furnish apartments or keep up with clothing fashions.

But then he turned a bit more toward me and I saw what the shirt actually said:

Fear Nothing
Dominate Everything

Which made me profoundly sad.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Thoughts on English Spelling Reform

There are half as many dyslexic Italians as there are English ones (source). Why? Because, while dyslexia is a symptom of differences in the brain, the way it manifests depends on how complicated the spelling system is, and Italian spelling is much simpler than English.

American schools spend 12 years teaching spelling, only to have half of American interweb writers misspell separate and definite. Italian schools spend two years on spelling. Imagine what kids could be taught if spelling only took two years! Maybe they'd have time for some statistics.

Cartoon showing student correcting teacher's spelling on the chalkboard
Because of these facts, I'm trying to put aside my crotchety resistance to English spelling reform. Like any endeavor, it's a complex undertaking with many approaches and advocates. My take on it, though, is that a new, more regularized spelling system would have to meet these requirements:

  • The new words would have to maintain as much similarity as possible to current spellings to aid the transition from current spellings to reformed ones.
  • No diacritical marks (accents, umlauts, etc.) and no introduced characters should be used.
  • The new spellings should be based as much as possible on the meanings of the words rather than just the sounds, although sounds will clearly be taken into account in many cases. For example, most plurals end in s. The fact that plural s is sometimes pronounced ess (as in cats) and sometimes z (as in dogs) doesn't mean the plurals should vary their endings to s or z, depending on pronunciation. Consistently signaling pluralness is more important than making the letters represent the sounds. (Whether we should get rid of the variant plurals such as oxen is another question.)
Two proposed systems that look interesting are called SoundSpel and Cut Spelling. In addition to regularization, they also shorten texts (4 percent for SoundSpel, 8 to 15 percent for Cut Spelling), which is an important side benefit in terms of paper-usage.

When transforming English spelling, the biggest challenge is the vowels. We only have 5 (or 6), used to represent over 20 sounds. Of course, there are pronunciation variations across English-speaking countries and regions, mostly in the vowel sounds. But one standard has to be chosen.

SoundSpel has been in development for about 50 years and is endorsed by the American Literacy Council. It uses all of the existing letters, and deals with the vowel shortage by creating two-vowel combinations. The Wikipedia entry lists all of the vowel assignments, including the basic five as a = sat, e = set, i = did, o = dot, and u = cut. Long vowels are made by adding an e to to the basic vowel: ae = sundae, ee = see, ie = die, oe = toe, ue = cue. Double vowels are used for some of the others sounds, such as aa = alm, oo = moon, uu = book.

All of the consonants are kept as is, including the wh in why, with the addition of zh to create the z sounding azure. C and K are both kept (not the simplest choice, but obviously better for the transition), and there is still no differentiation of the th sound in the vs. thing. Qu is simplified to Q.

Some exceptions are made, again for aiding the transition, I assume. No change is made to the short, common words was, as, of, the, he, she, me, we, be, do, to, and off. The letter s is used for plurals, whether it is pronounced ess or z (yay!).

Here's a sample:
It was on the ferst dae of the nue yeer the anounsment was maed, allmoest siemultaeniusly frum three obzervatorys, that the moeshun of the planet Neptune, the outermoest of all planets that wheel about the Sun, had becum verry erratic. A retardaeshun in its velosity had bin suspected in Desember. Then a faent, remoet spek of liet was discuverd in the reejon of the perterbd planet. At ferst this did not cauz eny verry graet exsietment. Sieentific peepl, however, found the intelijens remarkabl enuf, eeven befor it becaem noen that the nue body was rapidly groeing larjer and brieter, and that its moeshun was qiet different frum the orderly progres of the planets. – H.G. Wells (from the Wikipedia page)
Cut Spell, on the other hand, removes letters more than it reassigns them. Unpronounced letters are generally zapped, although the silent helper e at the end of words is kept and made more consistent (so peace becomes pece). Unstressed vowels (the source of all those misspelled examples of separate and definite) are also removed, so symbol becomes symbl, waited becomes waitd, and most disconcertingly to me, the becomes th. Most double consonants are also dropped, ph becomes f, g as in judge becomes j, and igh (as in high) becomes y.

Here's a sample:
Wen readrs first se Cut Spelng, as in this sentnce, they ofn hesitate slytly, but then quikly becom acustmd to th shortnd words and soon find text in Cut Spelng as esy to read as Traditionl Orthografy, but it is th riter ho really apreciates th advantajs of Cut Spelng, as many of th most trublsm uncertntis hav been elimnated. (from the Wikipedia page)
Of the two reform systems, I think I prefer SoundSpel because it appears to be more consistent in its changes, and less reliant on knowing traditional spellings. Some oddities from the Cut Spelling sample:
  • who becomes ho. How would anyone know how to pronounce that correctly?
  • Readrs isn't changed to Redrs? What good is that extra a?
  • The ys in slytly are pronounced differently. How would a new reader have any way of knowing that?
Despite this, reading the passages of Cut Spelling and SoundSpel is not horrendously hard (although it's also not comfortable). But I think I could get used to reading this way within six months or a year, maybe less. It would take me much longer (or maybe never) to write them.

But automatic translation such as this is what we have computers for, right?

Thursday, September 23, 2010


A not-so-great design, but I can't fault it on funny:

Seen in the parking lot at Seward Co-op.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Differences without a Difference

A recent Pioneer Press story about the Food Safety Modernization Act included a list of foods that are regulated by either the Food and Drug Administration or the United States Department of Agriculture.

It made for a head-shaking read (did you know that closed-faced sandwiches are listed under the FDA, while open-faced ones are under the USDA?), but these particular items made me think the list was actually part of a long-lost Monty Python sketch:

Beef broth, dehydrated
Chicken broth, liquid
Chicken-flavored noodle soup

Beef broth, liquid
Chicken broth, dehydrated
Chicken noodle soup

In case you don't believe me, here's the list as it ran in the paper (unfortunately, it's not on their website):

List of similar foods regulated by the USDA or FDA

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

How We Decide

Cover of How We DecideLast night's post about Marilyn vos Savant's envelope challenge reminded me I never got around to posting about Jonah Lehrer's neat book How We Decide. Here are a few quotes and choice bits.

Downsides of Dopamine

Lehrer devotes a chapter to dopamine, a neurotransmitter that regulates all of our emotions, from love to disgust. Rewards that arrive in a patterned way (think Pavlov's dog) trigger a dopamine burst in our brains. These patterns and our response to them are often what we think of as intuition -- we're recognizing patterns without realizing it. And when the pattern fails to behave as expected, the brain, in effect, gets annoyed and stops the dopamine response.

Lehrer gives the example of a woman who developed Parkinson's disease, which causes dopamine receptors to die. When she went on medication that imitates the activity of dopamine, it not only improved her movement ability, it also caused her to become addicted to slot machines. After a straight-arrow life of 52 years, she lost her retirement funds, possessions, and husband. When she went off the medication, her compulsive use of one-armed bandits disappeared.

This is because of the nature of slot machines:

while dopamine neurons get excited by predictable results...they get even more excited by surprising ones... The purpose of this dopamine surge is to make the brain pay attention to new, and potentially important, stimuli...

Most of the time, the brain will eventually get over its astonishment. It'll figure out which events predict the reward, and the dopamine neurons will stop releasing so much of the neurotransmitter. The danger of slot machines, however, is that they are inherently unpredictable...

At this point, the dopamine neurons should just surrender: the slot machine is a waste of mental energy... But that isn't what happens. Instead of getting bored by the haphazard payouts, the dopamine neurons become obsessed...

For Parkinson's patients on dopamine agonists, the surprising rewards of the casino trigger a massive release of chemical bliss (pages 60-61).
According to Lehrer, there are twice as many slot machines in the U.S. as there are ATMs. Sounds like a prescription for people wasting their money and possibly ruining their lives, huh?

Dopamine also fools us into thinking that basketball players can be shooting on a "hot streak," to think that we can beat the stock market, and to feel something called "loss aversion," where we experience losses as twice as potent as gains. Loss aversion is "part of a larger psychological phenomenon known as negativity bias, which means that, for the human mind, bad is stronger than good. This is why in marital interactions, it generally takes at least five kind comments to compensate for one critical comment" (page 81).

Loss Aversion

Credit cards exploit elements of our natural tendency toward loss aversion. When we spend cash, we feel as if we have lost something -- which we have, even though we have also gained the product we bought. "Brain imaging experiments suggest that paying with credit cards actually reduces activity in the insula, a brain region associated with negative feelings" (page 86). Pay with cash, feel bad; pay with credit, feel good -- as if you got something for nothing. Lehrer gives an examples of an auction for Boston Celtics tickets, where half the bidders were told to pay in cash, and half with credit. The average credit card bid was twice the average cash bid.

The idea that we are all "rational men" is clearly not a reality for the human brain. And it's not really anyone's fault if they fall for these illusions -- we're wired that way. The solution may be what's called "asymmetric paternalism," which Lehrer describes as "creating policies and incentives that help people triumph over their irrational impulses and make better, more prudent decisions" (page 91).

Contradictions Are Key

Another irrational tendency of our brains is the need to repress inner contradictions. Lehrer tells about experiments where people with no connection between their brain hemispheres are shown two different photos, isolated for view by only one of their eyes. Then the subjects are shown a number of images to both eyes, and asked to pick the one that is most closely associated with the previous image they saw. Subjects will point to two different images, one with each hand. So far, so to be expected. But then, instead of admitting the confusion, the subjects make up an additional connection between the two images:
Instead of admitting that his brain was hopelessly confused, the patient wove his confusion into a plausible story. In fact, the researchers found that when patients made especially ridiculous claims, they seemed even more confident than usual (page 211).
This may sound familiar (cognitive dissonance, anyone?). The only solution, of course, is to encourage your own inner dissonance. "We must force ourselves to think about the information we don't want to think about, to pay attention to the data that disturbs our entrenched beliefs" (page 217).

I encourage everyone to read How We Decide. And while you're trying to get your hands on a copy, you can get a head start by reading the blog You Are Not So Smart. YANSS is written by a young journalist who posts essays full of great examples, covering a range of brain illusions.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Thinking Outside the Envelope

Two white envelopesMarilyn vos Savant got my family talking yesterday. Her Parade column featured this question from a reader in Maryland:

Four identical sealed envelopes are on a table. One of them contains a $100 bill. You select an envelope at random and hold it in your hand without opening it.

Two of the three remaining envelopes are then removed and set aside, unopened. you are told that they are empty.

You are given the choice of keeping the envelope you chose or exchanging it for the one on the table.

What should you do? A. Keep your envelope. B. Switch it. or C. It doesn't matter.
The answer was B (switch to the one on the table), with this explanation: "The latter has a 75% chance of containing the $100 bill."

What? my teenager exclaimed. That makes no sense. It's obviously a 50-50 chance that either envelope could have the money.

No, explained her father. If you put your original envelope back on the table and completely mixed the two up, then chose again, that would be a 50-50 chance. But as the story has it, the one on the table has a 75% chance because it now includes all of the chances that used to belong to the removed envelopes.

He also gave an excellent example: Imagine it had been 100 envelopes, of which you picked one, then 98 empty ones were removed. Would you still think it was a 50-50 chance that yours was the full one?

At that point, she admitted the answer and the 75% chance made sense.

But I agree, it's funny how counter-intuitive it seems. Another fine example of the illusions our brains are more than happy to make real.

I wish school math programs spent more time on probability and statistics. We need a citizenry that can understand odds and critically read the many interpretations of data that are published every day.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Times, They Are a Roman

[Warning: Font geek moment ahead.]

If, like me, you read the Star Tribune and its letters to the editor, perhaps you noticed that both yesterday and today the last letter was lacking its signature:

Star Tribune letters showing copy cut off at the end

Star Tribune letters showing copy cut off at the endStar Tribune letters showing copy cut off at the end

Why? It's because the letters' headlines were set in the wrong font: Somehow, Times Roman has been substituted for the intended font, Whitman Display, even though the original layout was created using Whitman Display.

Whitman Display is slightly more condensed and more tightly spaced than Times Roman, so in the first headline of each set of letters, the words didn't fit in the number of lines allowed. Note the short second lines in those first headlines. The dangling words would and coverage were supposed to fit on the previous line.

Because of the extra line of headline, the copy flowed out of the end of the text box in the layout program the Strib designers use, omitting the final signature. No one noticed, despite the fact that the layout software has a way of visually flagging copy overflows. I don't know how the production process works at the Strib, of course, but it's hard to imagine how this error could have happened, since the same font is used in several other headlines on the same page.

Now that we know the technical reason for the mistake, we can begin to wonder why no one noticed it and fixed it before printing.... not just on the first day, but even more so on the second day.

P.S. In case you're curious, this is what a Whitman Display headline looks like:

Headline set in Whitman Display

Here is the same headline, reset at the same size in Times Roman. Look how much wider it sets. And how different it looks overall. Pretty noticeable (compare the letter y in the first line of each!) to anyone who's paying attention, such as a copy editor or proof reader:

Same headline set in Times Roman

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Fruit of the Bookhouse

Since 1976, the Book House has offered used books in the Dinkytown neighborhood of Minneapolis, along the edge of the University of Minnesota campus. It's one of those quintessential college places -- full of so many academically oriented books, you feel like your head will explode if you see one more piece of knowledge you'll never learn.

Basement of the Book House
The basement, home to sections on sociology, Marxism, military history, women's studies and more religions than I care to think about, is looking marvelous. It's well-lighted, dry and pleasant (unlike any other used bookstore basement I can recall).

Two book covers
My biggest finds were these two Cynthia Harnett books, to go with my other three. I'm getting close to a complete set of her works.

Cover of An Acceptable Time
Not quite as exciting, but I've never read the final book Madeleine L'Engle wrote about the Murray-O'Keefe clan. Plus, it has a cover by the illustrator Trina Schart Hyman (subject of a post I haven't managed to write yet).

covers of The Golden Geography and Golden Science
I couldn't resist these 1950s-era geography and science texts, which used to belong to the Leroy-Ostrander Public School.

Inside spread from the Golden Geography
It should be fun (perhaps painful fun) to read all the pithy details about the peoples of the world, as understood 60 years ago.

Cover of ShrinkLitsI also found a 1980 paperback called ShrinkLits, by Maurice Sagoff, featuring "seventy of the world's towering classics cut down to size" -- poetically, too!

If his opening lines for Beowulf are any indication, it will be an enjoyable read:

Monster Grendel's tastes are plainish
Breakfast? Just a couple Danish.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Minnesota Ties

Our local media like to use the phrase Minnesota ties when a national newsmaker isn't from Minnesota, but had some connection with the state at an earlier point in life. Usually, this means the person grew up here or still has family here.

The stories can be happy (designer Ramon Lawrence on Project Runway season 6) or sad (too many soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan). Lately, I've heard the phrase a lot because of Shane Bauer, one of the American hikers held in Iranian jails for over a year. Bauer's mother lives in Minnesota.

Clearly, these are often serious stories. But the Minnesota media's constant need to insist there's a Minnesota angle on national stories deserves a tweak, right? Maybe even a sartorial twist?

Four ties with Paul Bunyan, a loon, IDS tower and hot dishes on them
Maybe Ramon Lawrence can add them to his upcoming fashion line.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

As RNC 8 Trial Approaches, Some Charges Dropped

RNC protest shirt designAccording to the Twin Cities Daily Planet, charges against three members of the RNC 8 have been dismissed. Monica Bicking, Luce Guillen-Givens, and Erin Timmer are off the hook; another defendant, Erik Oseland, took a plea deal a few weeks ago.

Max Specktor, Rob Czernik, Garret Fitzgerald, and Nathanael Secor still face charges of conspiracy to commit riot. Their trial is scheduled to start October 25. The RNC 8's attorney, Bruce Nestor, says the remaining four have also been mailed proposed plea agreements. The Daily Planet paraphrased Nestor as saying the dismissals and pleas are being offered because the county has decided the trials would be "costly and time-consuming." Nestor had this to say:

"I don't think that Susan Gaertner should be allowed to hide behind this kind of justification," said Nestor. "For two years she and Bob Fletcher have claimed that the RNC Welcoming Committee was a criminal enterprise. It is absolutely shameful to charge them with conspiracy and terrorism charges and then dismiss those charges two years later because the trials are going to be time consuming. They [Gaertner and Fletcher] should stand up and say they were wrong."
Remember, this case is being prosecuted by Susan Gaertner, who showed such great judgment in the Koua Fong Lee case, and was investigated by Bob Fletcher, who (I hope) will be Ramsey County sheriff for only a few more months.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Dysmorphic Letters

Why don't sign-making businesses buy a damned condensed font once in a while, rather than condensing regular fonts to the point of unreadability?

Restricted parking sign with letters so condensed they are unreadable
Look at the capital Ts and Ls in that last word -- the verticals are about a quarter the width of the horizontals!

And would it be in bad taste to mention that the Emily Program treats people with eating disorders, particularly anorexia... who have a dysmorphic view of their bodies? What about these letters, huh? Why can't you let them be the size they were meant to be?

Here's an old, hand-painted sign, from the days when sign-makers had enough sense to make their condensed letters readable... because they we were actually thinking about how to draw the shapes, instead of relying on a computer to think for them.

Old gas station sign warning about turning off engines and now smoking, extremely condensed but readable
Seen at Famous Dave's, Roseville, Minnesota.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

DMX Revisited

Our current political situation made me remember an interview I wrote about back in spring of 2008. In it, the interview subject, a rapper named DMX, clearly hadn't heard that a black man was a leading candidate for president of the United States.

Once he was convinced by the interviewer that it was true, DMX had this to say:

What, they gon’ give a dog a bone? There you go. Ooh, we have a Black president now. They should’ve done that shit a long time ago, we wouldn’t be in the fuckin’ position we in now. With world war coming up right now. They done fucked this shit up then give it to the Black people, “Here you take it. Take my mess.”
His analysis sounds different to me now than it did back then, I have to admit.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Freak Observer

Cover of The Freak ObserverI've just finished reading Blythe Woolston's debut novel The Freak Observer. Twice.

I admit I was a little afraid to start it, because I've been reading her blog for a while and I wouldn't have known what to do if I didn't like the book. But as soon as I had read the first few pages, I knew that wouldn't be a problem.

The main character, a Montana girl named Loa, is a misfit whose life circumstances unfold throughout the book. I would describe them as painful (which they are), except that would make you think the book is all stress and trauma.

Stress and trauma are definitely key, but as promised on the book flap, Woolston interweaves astrophysics with life and death to create a resonant story of survival.

Some of the book's finest moments are in the carefully observed details of life, such as the grinding physicality of cleaning up after meals for a roomful of nursing home residents.

Another thing I loved was that, in a story that's so much about death, Woolston doesn't leave out the way that humor so often bubbles up inappropriately:

Reba isn't wearing the right kind of clothes [for a funeral]. She's got on a a black dress, too, but it's an LBD with sheer black sleeves and glittering beads that would attract magpies if she stood by the side of the highway.

Two things attract magpies: sparkly stuff and roadkill. This particular funeral is a jackpot for magpies (page 33).
And all with Loa's dry, dry voice as a constant companion:
Adults don't have nightmares as much, unless they have "thin-boundary creative personalities" -- or they are batshit crazy. It's nice to have options (page 127).
One final favorite quote, from when Loa goes to visit a university library for the first time:
There is the Dewey decimal section. It is a ghetto for old books that couldn't just be put in the dumpster but weren't worth the trouble of assigning new numbers and moving to new shelves. There are the shelves of oversize books, exiled from their natural clans by their gigantism. Atlases, anatomy books, fashion portfolios, they are all tossed together and expected to get along (page 86).
The Freak Observer is a book that gets along, too, despite its challenging subjects, because Loa is so compelling.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

It's Official: We Live in the Future

It may not be a hover car or a jet pack, but today I saw evidence that the future has arrived:

Billboard for a DNA-based paternity test, sold in drugstores
Over-the-counter DNA tests. What will they think of next?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

More Puffery from the Amish Heater Company

Last week, I heard from a reader that there was a new version of the Amish Fireplace ad. Today was my chance to see it for myself in the Star Tribune:

Full page ad headlined Amish Fireplaces win consumer evals
It has all the usual Universal Media Syndicate text and design elements -- the 48-hour, limited-time offer, the get-something-free-if-you-pay-for-something-else-plus-shipping price (at a price that any buyer would be wise to comparison shop first), and lots of photos of Amish men in straw hats.

What's new in this ad:

1. The claim that the fireplaces have won "consumer evals." Specifically, the photo and caption halfway down on the left claim that "The HEAT SURGE Fireplaces have received the certification of Underwriters Laboratories and the coveted UL listing." A listed number of E322174 is given. While it's good to know that the heaters have been certified by Underwriters Labs, it doesn't mean anything about their overall quality or whether they are a good buy -- it just means they're safe to use.

The second "eval" is much more vague and meaningless. Midway down the text on the right side, there's a subhead that reads "Rated a Consumer Best Buy":

Close up of ad text claiming the fireplaces earned a Consumer Best Buy Rating
What the heck does that mean? Rated by whom?

It appears they've mashed together some phrases potential buyers have in their heads (perhaps Consumer Reports and Best Buy?) and fabricated a phantom rating. Googling the phrase "Consumer Best Buy" turns up websites for Consumer Reports and a European organization called Ethical Consumer. It's extremely unlikely the Heat Surge "rating" is from Consumer Reports, because if it was, the ad would trumpet it the way it did the UL certification. And the Ethical Consumer organization seems equally unlikely, despite having something called an Ethical Consumer Best Buy Label, since their criteria appear to be mostly about sustainability and treatment of animals.

2. The claim that Heat Surge is offered at a low price so people can cut their heat bills... The reason? "It shows we care," the ad claims:

Close up of ad text where they claim they care
In my opinion, if they really "cared," they'd sell their product in a straight-forward, fact-based manner, without the advertorial layout and limited-time free offer.

Finally, it's not a new claim, but the idea that it's "like putting $500 bucks in your pocket right now" if you buy two Amish mantles is patently absurd. The mantles cost between $298 and $348 apiece. After paying shipping (however much that is), you get two "free" heaters that have a listed price of $249.

Other 1500-watt heaters with the highest ratings from Consumer Reports cost between $60 and $80, and are available at many fine retail outlets, so you wouldn't have to pay for shipping at all.

So how is buying at least $596 worth of mantles like putting $500 in your pocket, when you could buy two of the best heaters for $160? Even if you bought a heater that comes with a decorative mantle, your cost per heater is likely to be significantly lower than $298 plus shipping.

As always, Consumer Reports has the final word on the Amish heaters:

The Roll-n-Glow functions primarily as a fan-forced convection heater like those we've tested. Heat Surge says its heater produces "an amazing 5,110 BTUs," but that's just another way of saying it's a 1,500-watt electric heater..., like most we tested. And while the oak surround on the model we bought appears well-built, some pieces are actually veneers, and we saw some nail holes in the trim. So much for that "superior craftsmanship"...

How about those lower heating bills and Heat Surge's statement that the heater "can handle a 325 sq. ft. room for about 16 cents an hour"? Any similarly sized electric heater will do that, provided you use it in one room and keep others chillier—that's just basic zone heating. Note, however, that electricity costs roughly two and a half times more than natural gas, which is what most homes use [emphasis added]. So any electric heater will cost you more to provide comparable heat unless you cut down significantly on heating elsewhere in your home...

You'll find many less expensive but high-performing convection and radiant space heaters that will do a good job in a small space. In fact, David Baker, Heat Surge vice president, recently told The New York Times, "If someone would come to me and say, 'I need a heater and I want to spend as little as possible,' I would say go to a local big-box store and buy one for $29.99. Our heater represents a fireplace rather than just some space heater."

The Heat Surge Roll-n-Glow is not terribly overpriced compared with other faux fireplaces on the market, which start at about $250.
How's that for damning with faint praise -- "not terribly overpriced"!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Unnatural Maple Syrup

Log Cabin All Natural syrup bottle and close up of the ingredients list
Log Cabin's new "All Natural" syrup product is pretty clever, and intentionally deceptive, in my opinion.

It never even says "maple" on the front of it, but its packaging design implies it's pure maple syrup because real maple syrup producers in Canada, Vermont, and other northern states all use this type of bottle. In contrast, regular Log Cabin, Aunt Jemima and the other imitation brands all use clear, vertical bottles.

At less than half the price of the real stuff, you can be sure Log Cabin Natural's not pure maple. In fact, it has only 4 percent maple syrup in it. The rest is "all natural" rice, sugar, caramel coloring, and the thickening agent xanthum gum.

But people won't fall for this right? Wrong. A quick check of product review blogs turned up several folks talking about how natural and maple-y it was:

  • From Just Call Me Chaviva: "I don't think I'll be eating the Log Cabin Maple Syrup every day at breakfast, but I will tell you this: It tastes amazing. I think I forgot what real maple syrup tastes like, I haven't eaten it in so long. It's sweet and creamy and absolutely tasty. Log Cabin has been making syrup for 120 years, so it makes sense that they know exactly what they're doing!"
  • From Serendipity Mommy: After repeating a Log Cabin press release verbatim, she writes: "We actually live in a town that has a Maple Syrup festival because that is what its known for. And the bottles they sell the pure stuff in around here look just like this one!"
  • From Mommies with Cents: "Not only was it delicious but I felt good about it’s ingredients, or rather lack there of. Log Cabin’s new All Natural syrup, contains no high fructose corn syrup, preservatives, artificial colors or flavors. Just sweet natural sugar and maple syrup- Yum! Also, Log Cabin All Natural Syrup is gluten free if that is something you are looking for."
(The fact that it's gluten-free is one of those absurd fact decoys -- all maple syrup is gluten-free, so that doesn't differentiate this product at all.)

To any reasonable person, it's clear this product has been intentionally designed to impinge on the market for pure maple syrup by undercutting it on price while using cheaper ingredients. Despite this fact, I predict it will continue to be sold as is. The best the pure maple syrup folks can do is educate the public, and Googling this topic does reveal a whole lot of stories titled "Log Cabin All Natural Syrup not the real deal" -- so I guess they've been doing a good job so far.

There are two reasons Log Cabin will not have to change its product packaging or name:

First, the words "natural" or "all natural" are completely unregulated. Anyone can put them on anything. Just because consumers seem to think they mean something, doesn't mean they actually do or that the government cares enough to get involved. If you know anything about the huge process involved in creating and maintaining the USDA organic standard, you know what I mean. (I'm not even sure the phrase "pure maple syrup" is protected, but perhaps it doesn't need regulation since it would be hard to go into a court and defend that usage on a product like this.)

Second, the package shape is not protected in any way. Its use by pure maple sugar producers is merely a long-standing trade practice, and I'm actually a bit surprised Log Cabin or Aunt Jemima hasn't encroached on it before now. It was a little piece of consumer mind share just waiting to be exploited by Big Processed Food.

I first heard about the product in an AP story in the Pioneer Press today, but since the PiPress only leaves its stories up for a month, here's the AP story on another site, plus a second story to check out along similar lines.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Concrete Blooms

Gray sidewalk with dark gray shadows of coneflower blooms
Purple coneflower shadows. I wonder if the botanical name is Echinacea umbra?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Judging a Notebook by Its Cover

Honestly, when I saw this I thought it was something about emo music or some such.

Green notepad cover that says emo book emo bloc with a white M in a black square over to the left of the words
It had to be pointed out to me that it actually says "Memo." I didn't even see the M as part of the wording... I thought it was a logo or something.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Minnesota State Fair 2010, Part 2

I see that last year I did a post similar to this one, focusing on the Crop Art and Fine Art shows at the Fair. Oh, well. I guess it must be a good idea.

Fine Art Show

I have to say I agree with Mary Abbe's review in the Star Tribune (as well as some others I've seen), which found this year's Fine Art show particularly weak. There are always walls full of cows and so on, but this year there seemed to be a significant number of pieces that had nothing at all going for them: unoriginal concept, bad execution, boring composition.

Omitting the best-in-show works, which have already been played up in other reviews and which I agree were good, here are my few favorites:

Two paintings, one of reddish squash and the other of toy cars and dinosaurs
Maureen Sullivan's "Turban and Hubbard Squash" was juxtaposed with Sherri Ann Dahl's "Accumulated." Usually the curators' tendency to group works with similar subjects together is irritating, but in this case, these two compositions complemented each other. The natural shapes and colors of the squash, on a smaller canvas, were a fun accompaniment to the larger, chaotic-excessive composition.

Small portraits in cross stitch
This cross stitch on linen by Flannery Nolan appealed to me because of its detail and humor. Titled "The Process," it reminds me of tarot cards.

Close up of one person
Close up of one of the "cards."

Metal and wood dog with head made of vegetable steamers
Kyle Fokken's sculpture was untitled. Kind of a steampunk dog with wings.

Large wall hanging in green and other bright colors with dogs in a naturalistic setting
I spent more time than average appreciating Arden Harrison-Bushnell's quilted and bejeweled textile piece, "Dog Park."

Close up of a white furry poodle
I think it reminded me of Carmella's many trips to the dog park.

Crop Art Show

As always, the crop art show was fun, and often political.

Table with a shovel and pitchfork as legs, plants growing below
Jill Randerson won a best in show for "Grow Your Own Food," which was both a good illustration and a well-executed piece of crop art.

Oversized cow with a red white and blue blanket, being led by an elderly farmer in overalls
I enjoyed the exaggerated proportions of the cow and man in Dale Hoglin's dyed entry.

Cartoon of cat, bear and human labeled Bad seed with iffy friends
Linda Wing continued her "Bad Seed" series with this charming threesome.

Tim Pawlenty as Paul Bunyan, axing Minnesota into pieces
Our governor, Tim Pawlenty, shrinks to mythic proportions in Teresa Anderson's 3D piece. Babe the Blue Ox is transformed into a Blue Elephant... and the state is coming apart along the fault lines created by Pawl's ax.

The Mad Hatter coming out of a three-dimensional cup, labeled The Party's Over
Laura Melnick's execution is amazing, although I think this concept is weaker than her past work.

Crop Art Killers #2, with two mice chewing the corner of the picture away
Thomas Klein's joke is subtle but chewy.

Clock with a different type of seed for each number, each one labeled
And David Steinlicht's excellent crop clock tells you what time I saw the show. Bonus!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Minnesota State Fair 2010, Part 1

It's that time of year in Minnesota again... the State Fair.

Wall mosaic that looks like a classic Greetings from Minnesota postcard
A mosaic I hadn't seen before, even thought it's been up since the sesquicentennial in 2008.

Food Building sign
They have a new sign on the Food Building. It's bad enough that the Fair -- where every square foot of walking space is paired with a square foot of food -- would have a building with such a generic name. But this new sign is even dumber than the name. Papyrus, outlined and on a curve, with a bulbous blue cloud around it (with yet another outline!) on a background that's supposed to be.... what? Beer? Fish scales? Urine through a glass darkly?

Small sign explaining the US has the cheapest food in the world
You can always learn something at the Fair, usually in the Horticulture building.

Red basket with small sign labeled 2-inch male $1.00
The Fair is also good for the odd sight gag. (Seen at Choo-Choo Bob's train store... those are wooden train track pieces in the basket.)

Green sign with white letters reading It's clean. It's simple.
The maker of this earnest sign in the Eco Experience forgot all about the apostrophes until it was too late.

Close up of the green sign. The apostrophes in It's were added on top of the plexiglass
Well, almost too late. Someone with a bit of Post-It note paper rescued the display.

Woman holding a gigantic, pink round stuffed animal pig. Nearby a man wears a shirt that says Suck on this, which has an arrow pointing at the pig
The Fair is a place of excess. And I swear, some people dig out their most offensive T-shirts just for the occasion. Others go in groups wearing matching clothes so they can find each other in the crowd. On this visit, I saw five members of a white family all dressed in colorful dashikis. Wish I had gotten their photo.

Outdoor lunch counter with handmade sign above that reads Absolutely nothing on a stick
There's at least one food place that has nothing on a stick. This place is clearly not part of any chain.

Yellow plastic ducks with orange bills, some with black sunglasses
I couldn't resist this bit of childhood memory, except I don't think the ducks were wearing sunglasses back in my day.

Giant metal bear, part of a kiddie ride
This bear is kind of creepy.

Plus a few classic Midway-at-night shots:

Yellow ladder-like tracks overhead

Colored lights of a ride, Magic Maze sign lit in the background

Ferris wheel with primary colored seats

Techno Power ride lights at night