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