The New York Times ran a piece about a pho­tog­ra­ph­er who built a big cam­era. I can’t stand this kind of writ­ing. Because the author is so tech­ni­cal­ly unaquaint­ed with the sub­ject, the aver­age read­er would come to the con­clu­sion that the sub­ject is a genius or a mad sci­en­tist for cre­at­ing images that “con­tain 100 times as much data as the aver­age pro­fes­sion­al dig­i­tal cam­era.” To make mat­ters worse, the writer drops the name of San­dia Nation­al Labs with the impli­ca­tion that they’re study­ing him.

Well guess what. This guy built a real­ly cool cam­era out of spare Cold War-era parts. That it pro­duces images that are unbe­liev­ably sharp is per­fect­ly believ­able: he uses 9×18″ sheet film with vac­u­um hold-down. There is no mag­ic to build­ing a view cam­era. The big­ger, the bet­ter, and this one is just ridicu­lous­ly big.

Using the same met­ric, the pic­tures that Ansel Adams took 70 years ago (on 8×10″ film) con­tain 50 times more infor­ma­tion than today’s dig­i­tal cam­era. Can we learn any­thing from this? No. It’s an entire­ly dif­fer­ent kind of pho­tog­ra­phy, alto­geth­er.

(It’s an entire­ly dif­fer­ent kind of pho­tog­ra­phy.)

December 9, 2004 December 9, 2004 archives by Scott No Comments

All prob­lems from the orig­i­nal quiz have been solved. The air­plane ques­tion pro­duced 6 answers, result­ing in 4 win­ners, 1 los­er, and 1 smar­tass. The clock prob­lem has proven intractable. Answers fol­low.

Which side of the plane? Run­way 36R, by def­i­n­i­tion, has a mag­net­ic head­ing of 360 degrees. Thus the air­plane would be point­ed north dur­ing its final descent. Since the sun was in the west, the shad­ow of the plane fell to the east, mean­ing that my win­dow seat had to lie on the right side. (Quinn also fig­ured out which rows would have a view of the flaps extend­ing, but this might be overkill because you can hear and feel them too.)

Words. Deny, defer, demand, read, record, ref­er­ee, reg­u­late.

May­ber­ry? North Car­oli­na.

Age? 90-ish. The always-slight­ly-wrong Inter­wang places the debut of the Bic pen in the range 1951-1953.

Loca­tion of the mis­la­beled clock? Bark­er Library read­ing room.

jcbar­ret? Sucks.

December 8, 2004 December 8, 2004 archives by Scott No Comments

Five min­utes ago I was sit­ting under a mag­nif­i­cent clock which, despite the author­i­ty giv­en by its posi­tion in a huge wall and the weight of its iron hands, is set wrong. Also, the Roman numer­als on the face are incor­rect­ly marked “I, II, III, IIII, V.”

Q: Guess where I am.

Also, not a sin­gle per­son has cor­rect­ly answered the air­plane ques­tion. Here’s an impor­tant clar­i­fi­ca­tion: in that we skimmed “above the warn­ing strip of run­way 36R,” you should under­stand that we were land­ing on run­way 36R.

The give­away hint will be post­ed in a day or two.

December 7, 2004 December 7, 2004 archives by Scott No Comments

In the prop­er end-of-term spir­it, all entries shall be pre­sent­ed as quiz ques­tions. Sub­mit answers via e-mail or in per­son. Catch­ing up now…

Nov. 25, 2004
The autumn after­noon sun begins its descent to the hori­zon while our flight atten­dants pre­pare the cab­in for final approach and descent into CVG. Star­ing dream­i­ly out my win­dow, I spot the tiny sil­hou­ette of an MD-88 flit­ting grace­ful­ly over tree­tops and tobac­co fields. The flaps and gear extend. We drop faster. The shad­ow grows omi­nous­ly larg­er, faster, mov­ing gen­tly toward us in pur­suit, col­or­ing help­less ware­hous­esand high­ways and emp­ty lots in its wake. Sud­den­ly, as we skim above the warn­ing strip of run­way 36R, the unre­lent­ing umbral shape over­takes us. Tires meet tar­mac in their force­ful embrace and the shad­ow engulfs the view.

“Wel­come to the Cincin­nati-North­ern Ken­tucky Inter­na­tion­al Air­port, where the local time is now 3:15 PM,” intones the flight atten­dant auto­mat­i­cal­ly.

Q: On which side of the plane was I sit­ting? You have enough infor­ma­tion to answer this ques­tion with­out any spe­cif­ic knowl­edge of CVG.

Nov. 28, 2004
I eat lunch at a restau­rant in Danville, Indi­ana themed after The Andy Grif­fith Show. A repli­ca May­ber­ry Sher­iff squad car is parked out­side on U.S. 36.

Q: In which state is the fic­tion­al town of May­ber­ry locat­ed?

Nov. 30, 2004
I depart from Cincin­nati at dawn. The Boe­ing 757 cab­in hums loud­ly, as they always do, at 400 Hz.

The flight atten­dants employ a new trick to get us to watch the pre­flight safe­ty video: they turn off pow­er to the cab­in lights and the read­ing lights. This prompts a good deal of moan­ing from the coach cab­in, and the read­ing lights are switched back on before the tape repeats in Span­ish.

The pro­duc­ers of pre­flight safe­ty videos are wel­come, any time now, to stop con­clud­ing their tapes with shots of gleam­ing air­craft eclips­ing an orange sun accom­pa­nied by a dra­mat­ic crescen­do of eth­nic drum­ming.

On the ground in Boston, the flight atten­dant informs us that we will be “deplan­ing” through the most for­ward door. I want to explain that if “deplane” were actu­al­ly a verb—it is not—it would take one of these mean­ings:

  1. To cease trav­el­ling along the sur­face of water.
  2. To make a sur­face rough or uneven.
  3. To ren­der an object unlike an air­plane.

I favor #3. Tak­ing the wings off would in fact make a 757 look more like a big Tylenol.

Q: It is like­ly that the orig­i­na­tor of “deplane” did not intend the word to be the nega­tion of a verb “plane.” In Eng­lish, many verbs that appear to use pre­fix­es indi­cat­ing nega­tion (“de-“) or rep­e­ti­tion (“re-“) do not actu­al­ly have a mean­ing­ful root form. “Refrig­er­ate” is one exam­ple. Name anoth­er.

Dec. 1, 2004
Sit­ting in the mag­nif­i­cent read­ing room at the Boston Pub­lic Library, I am thumb­ing through orig­i­nal doc­u­men­ta­tion of Boston’s water sys­tem from 1882. The yel­lowed pages are in ter­rif­ic shape. The fold-out engi­neer­ing draw­ings are remark­able. The tex­tured leather cov­er of this vol­ume is embossed with the gold-leafed seal of the City of Boston. I won­der if this is what 1882 smelled like.

Both extant copies of a lat­er vol­ume on the Boston Water Works came back from the stacks as “miss­ing.” A bespec­ta­cled research librar­i­an lat­er informed me of the irony: they were like­ly destroyed in “the flood of 1998.”

The inside cov­er of this vol­ume is adorned with a B.P.L. book­plate filled in mag­nif­i­cent flow­ing script from the foun­tain pen of a long-deceased librar­i­an.

Q: If the librar­i­an were 20 years old when he penned this inscrip­tion, how old would he be upon the debut of the Bic ball­point pen? (This is a bad ques­tion because it requires you to know an utter­ly irrel­e­vant fact, but as such it is more like a real quiz.)

December 5, 2004 December 5, 2004 archives by Scott No Comments


December 2, 2004 December 2, 2004 archives by Scott No Comments

Bruce Schneier, the man who [lit­er­al­ly] wrote the book on cryp­tog­ra­phy, has some things to say about Bush’s push for machine-read­able pass­ports using RFID tech­nol­o­gy.

If you are will­ing to put aside debate over the wis­dom of embed­ding bio­met­ric data in your pass­port, con­sid­er a tech­ni­cal argu­ment. The ques­tion he raises—which, you may recall, is pre­cise­ly one issue I have with the MBTA’s “Char­lie Card”—is this: why insist on a radio-based solu­tion when a con­tact-based read­er (elec­tron­ic con­tacts, mag­net­ic stripes, or a high-den­si­ty bar­code) works just as well, costs less, and is more secure? The respon­si­ble offi­cials at the State Depart­ment are clear­ly either:

  1. Utter­ly obliv­i­ous to the full spec­trum of com­pet­ing tech­nolo­gies.
  2. Being bait­ed by the RFID man­u­fac­tur­ers.
  3. Part of a vast Bush admin­is­tra­tion con­spir­a­cy to wire­less­ly mon­i­tor your move­ments.

I cur­rent­ly favor #2, but Schneier leaps for #3. You decide.

The bru­tal tech­ni­cal details of the pro­pos­al favored by the U.S. State Depart­ment can be found here (odd­ly enough, on the web site of the ICAO). The offi­cial argu­ments for adopt­ing RFID in lieu of oth­er tech­nolo­gies are inter­est­ing. The prob­lem with mechan­i­cal con­tacts, appar­ent­ly, is that they “may suf­fer from fail­ure due to dirt or mois­ture.” Well, duh. My cur­rent pass­port, which is made of a mate­r­i­al called paper, is also prone to dirt and water fail­ure. Their argu­ment against bar­codes is even more spe­cious: they can­not be repro­grammed. Isn’t this data sup­posed to rep­re­sent your offi­cial iden­ti­fi­ca­tion? Why would you want peo­ple to be able to repro­gram it?!

November 30, 2004 November 30, 2004 archives by Scott No Comments

Explod­ing cell phones a grow­ing prob­lem?! Appar­ent­ly in the last two years, the CPSC has received 83 com­plaints of cell phones explod­ing or catch­ing fire. Many inci­dents involved burns to the face, neck, or hips.

This hol­i­day trav­el sea­son, pon­der this: why the hell are you allowed to bring a cell phone on a plane, when golf clubs, pool cues, screw­drivers, and “Trans­form­ers” brand toys are pro­hib­it­ed? (When was the last time a Philips screw­driv­er explod­ed?)

So I’m writ­ing a let­ter to the TSA: this is a new threat which demands imme­di­ate action. Ban cell phones from air­ports and air­planes before it’s too late. We don’t have much time before the ter­ror­ists act!!!

November 24, 2004 November 24, 2004 archives by Scott No Comments

This past Veteran’s Day, 66 ABC-affil­i­at­ed tele­vi­sion sta­tions pre­empt­ed ABC’s nation­al broad­cast of Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan, cit­ing con­cerns of being fined by the FCC for air­ing the F-word.

To be con­sid­ered inde­cent by the FCC, a word such as “fuck” must be used in con­text in ref­er­ence to a sex­u­al or excre­to­ry act. This is pre­cise­ly why Bono was let off the hook for hav­ing said “real­ly, real­ly fuck­ing bril­liant” on live TV in 2003.

I haven’t seen the movie, but I won­der if it actu­al­ly fails this test.

November 23, 2004 November 23, 2004 archives by Scott No Comments