Entries for January 2007

January 31, 2007

60 Seconds in the Life of Seagulls

Part 21 in an ongoing series of (approximately) 60 second films.

For some reason, I just found these two birds fascinating.

January 29, 2007

“Dear Sophina” — An amazing follow-up to “The Astoria Notes”

A couple weeks ago, I posted an entry I called The Astoria Notes. It included scans of several notes slipped under my door by my downstairs neighbor in my first apartment in Astoria, Queens, complaining about noise and leaks from my apartment. Her name was Sophina, and if you haven’t read her notes yet you should really check them out.

Among the responses I received was an e-mail from Ryan Meehan, an English teacher at Santa Fe High School in Gainesville, Florida. He wrote, “I teach High School English to kids who really struggle with reading. I am always trying to create reading assignments they might actually enjoy. I think your post, and the notes, would be a delightful assignment. Would you mind if I used it for two of my classes?”

I gladly gave him permission, and a week or so later I received this response:

So your blog went over great with my kids. They are all, for the most part, kids who really struggle academically (especially with reading), so to see them tear through your story with a sense of urgency was extremely rewarding.

In addition to the active reading exercises and comprehension questions I had them complete, their final assignment was to write a letter to Sophina. They were to imagine what they would have done were they in your shoes.

I brought in my microphone today, and we recorded the responses in Garageband and mixed in a music track as well…

Thanks again for granting me permission to use your story. This is my first year teaching high school, and though I’m 6 months in, I felt like this was the first week I really connected with the kids.

It’s equal parts touching and surreal. Somewhere out there, a group of high school kids I don’t know wrote letters to my old neighbor, sticking up for me. And they set it to music. Ryan set up a wiki for the class project where he posted the classes’ spoken word performances. Here they are:

Period 2 Period 5
Emotional Emotional

5 mins 33 secs

6 mins 37 secs

I was a bit taken aback by these, I must confess. The students were much angrier with Sophina than I ever was. But then Ryan followed up by having the students write more respectful letters to Sophina:

Period 2 Period 5
Respectful Respectful

6 mins 3 secs

4 mins 45 secs

I have to imagine that, in the entire history of neighborly feuds, I’m the first person to get letters to my neighbor recorded by two high school English classes and set to music. It’s too bizarre. I love it. Thanks, Santa Fe High School English periods two and five!

January 24, 2007

Idea: Paintings of descriptions of the paintings

Painting Information

If I had the time, the means, and the resources, I’d make a series of large paintings of those little cards that describe paintings in museums. They would be paintings of the cards that describe themselves. For example, I’d do a painting in oil on canvas that describes itself as being an oil painting on canvas. Then I’d hang it in a gallery next to a little card that’s identical to the painting, but is actually there to describe the painting. I’d do a whole series, with different materials. Oil on canvas, Acrylic on wood, etc. See the photo illustration above for an idea of how it might look.

January 23, 2007

Idea: “CNN Fortune Cookie” Greasemonkey script

[Note: This entry has been re-written for clarity]

You remember when you were a kid, and someone taught you that trick where you add “in bed” to the end of a fortune cookie fortune and hopefully make it funny? So a fortune that says “Your great imagination will serve you well” becomes “Your great imagination will serve you well in bed.” You get the idea.

Well, I’ve written a Greasemonkey script that only does one thing: It adds “in bed” to the end of the main headline at CNN.com. Just install it, visit CNN.com, and wait for the entire page to finish loading. Then read the headline. I haven’t decided yet whether or not it’s funny, but it sure amuses me.

I call it The CNN Fortune Cookie script. (Link goes to the script).

For those who don’t know what Greasemonkey is, here’s the scoop. The Firefox web browser allows people to write plug-ins to make it more useful. One of those plug-ins is called Greasemonkey, which allows people to write short scripts that make specific websites more useful, or slightly changes the web browsing experience, without writing a full plug-in. Greasemonkey doesn’t do anything on its own without a script installed. You can see what kinds of scripts are available by visiting userscripts.org. Some of them are pretty nice.

Caveat: I’m not much of a scripter, so I can only hope this works.

January 22, 2007

Every ad in Times Square

[Update: All the photos are now available in larger sizes on flickr.]

Times Square AdsSometimes I get dangerous thoughts in my head, like “I wonder what it would look like to see every ad in Times Square all on one page.” So when I knew I’d be passing through Times Square this weekend, I made sure I had my camera. For the purposes of this nearly purposeless project, I considered storefront signs the same as ads if they were flashy and glitzy like Times Square ads tend to be.

I’m sure I missed a few, and there may be some I got more than once. I do know that some appear to be duplicates, but are actually similar billboards in different spots. Also, if an ad took up more than one billboard, I usually shot each billboard separately, unless it was a wraparound billboard on a corner, in which case I tried to get it in one shot.

So without further ado, here is every ad in Times Square. More or less.

Times Square Ads

Times Square Ads
Times Square Ads
Times Square Ads
Times Square Ads
Times Square Ads
Times Square Ads
Times Square Ads
Times Square Ads
Times Square Ads
Times Square Ads
Times Square Ads
Times Square Ads
Times Square Ads
Times Square Ads

Right now, you’re probably thinking one of two things. Either you’re thinking, “Does that ad really say that there’s a musical version of Legally Blonde coming to Broadway?” or you’re thinking, “Someone has too much time on his hands.” Well, I can tell you, it took about 20 minutes to take the photos, and about 2 or 3 hours to crop the images while I was listening to the pundits on Sunday morning TV. It wasn’t as bad as I feared.

And yes, there is a Legally Blonde musical coming to Broadway. I don’t know what they’re thinking, either.

January 18, 2007

60 Seconds in the Life of Summer

Part 20 in an ongoing series of (approximately) 60 second films.

Brrr. It’s cold outside. So I thought today would be a nice day to revisit summer:

January 17, 2007

The Astoria Notes

[Update: Be sure to read the surreal follow-up in which a high-school class in Florida gets involved.]

The Astoria NotesMy first year in New York, I lived on the top floor of an old building in Astoria, Queens, with rotted wood floors that creaked every time I took a step. I didn’t mind so much, because my schedule was so hectic I was rarely home. I got up early every day to get to my job by 9:00 a.m. I was happy to work in a photo studio, but it didn’t pay enough to survive in this town. So at 5:30 p.m. each day I left the studio and went to a bookstore across town, where I worked until 12:15 a.m. in order to make ends meet (and another 8 hours on Sundays). By the time I got back to Queens every night, hopefully before 1:30 a.m., I was beat. I’d take an hour to wind down before finally going to bed, getting a few hours sleep, and starting over.

One night, I came home to find the first in a series of notes slipped under my door. Small writing filled both sides of a sheet of loose leaf paper. I didn’t know what to make of it. The note began, “Dear Neighbor. When you arrive late every night, you are probably concentrating on your chores and don’t realize that this building, this street, the traffic, the people are all very still, very quiet.” The care and craftsmanship that went into writing this note was beyond anything I’d ever heard of from an angry neighbor. I continued reading.

Click the images below to see them larger for easier reading:

The Astoria Notes

The Astoria Notes

Wow. I had no idea I was keeping them up. But what could I do? I had to come home at that hour, and it wasn’t my fault the floor was squeaky. More importantly, who bothers to write such a long and detailed letter just to say “Keep it down up there?” It seemed like every word was carefully chosen, written, re-read, and reconsidered. I tested the floor in different areas, trying to find the creakiest spots so I could avoid them when I walk, and made an effort to be quieter when I came home from work.

Months passed. Then one night, I found a greeting card slipped under my door. A greeting card. They took the time to shop for the appropriate card to say exactly what they wanted to say.

The Astoria Notes

I opened it. Inside it read:

The Astoria Notes

Wow, that’s touching. They picked out the card, and even went through the trouble of using White Out to make it more relevant to the situation. Who does that? Who were these people? How did they know my name? After all this time, I’d still neither met them nor seen them. Well, I was sorry to hear that I was still keeping them awake, but I was honestly doing everything I could possibly do within reason to minimize my noise.

Several more months passed with no notes about the noise. I guess all my extra efforts to be quiet were paying off. Then this arrived, slipped under my door:

The Astoria Notes

A leak? That’s much more serious than just some noise. I called the number on the note and left a message, explaining that I’d been having no plumbing problems, and no water was pooling in my bathroom or kitchen, so the water must be coming from somewhere else. I don’t recall exactly what I said, but I must have put forth some specific theory about water condensation and the shower, because later this note was slipped under my door:

The Astoria Notes

Woah. Not only was I still too noisy for them, but they were taking advantage of my noise to entice an unwanted guest to leave. And that was so sweet of them to comment on my health. I guess they could hear that I was hacking up a lung when I had that cold. Well, at least the leaks had stopped. Or so I thought. A few weeks later, there was another note:

The Astoria Notes

The Astoria Notes

A waterfall? Coming from my apartment? Please! I’d had enough of this. No more notes. No more phone calls. It was time to march downstairs, knock on Apartment 5, and have a real conversation with these people face to face. I went downstairs and knocked. The door opened about 2 inches, and an eyeball stared at me. We had a brief conversation that way, through the crack in the door. I confess that I couldn’t pay attention to the conversation very much because I suddenly found myself wondering what it was that this woman didn’t want me to see. I remember she said something about her privacy and her beliefs being nobody’s business, and she didn’t want me to see what her apartment looked like. Okay. I told her I had no idea what the cause of these leaks were, and suggested she bring it up with the building manager to see if they can figure it out. I went back upstairs to my apartment.

It wasn’t long before I received another note:

The Astoria Notes

That was the last note I ever received from Apartment 5. A few weeks later, I moved.

Update: This story now has a very interesting and surreal follow-up, which you can read here.

January 16, 2007

Have your own millionaire Picasso experience

This is the story of a Picasso painting, an art auction, celebrity multimillionaires, and a disastrous blunder that put a hole in the most expensive Picasso ever sold. If you keep up with news of the art world, you may have heard it already. But this is also the untold story of an original poster connected with the original auction, why I have it, how you can get it, and how you can make your own experience similar to those celebrity multimillionaires.

Le Reve The Dream Auction Poster
The poster of the auction of the painting
The story begins in New York City in 1941, when Victor and Sally Ganz spent $7,000 to buy a painting called “Le Reve” (also known as “The Dream”) by Pablo Picasso, depicting his lover Marie-Therese Walter. This purchase began a lifetime passion of collecting works by just their five favorite artists: Picasso, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, and Eva Hesse. Over 50 years, the Ganzes spent around $2 million building their entire collection. Victor Ganz died in 1987, and Sally died 10 years later.

In late 1997, their art collection went up for sale at Christie’s auction house in New York. Le Reve sold for a record-setting $48.4 million to an anonymous buyer — the most ever spent on a Picasso, and the second highest amount paid for any painting ever (the record was held by Vincent Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet, which sold at Christie’s for $82.5 million in 1990 and has since gone missing, an interesting story itself). The entire 58-lot collection sold for $206.5 million, setting a record for the sale of a private collection.

At the time of the Ganz sale, I worked at Christie’s in the photo studio, where I photographed fine art and other collectibles for the auction catalogs. I’ll get back to that in a minute.

The anonymous buyer who purchased Le Reve sold it to casino magnate Steve Wynn in 2001. He in turn sold it to hedge fund mogul Steven Cohen for $139 million, setting a new record for the most money spent on a painting. All the formalities of the deal were finished, but the handover of the painting had yet to take place when a terrible event occurred. Just a few months ago, before turning the painting over, Wynn had several famous friends over to show it off. Among the guests were Barbara Walters, Nicholas Pileggi, and Nora Ephron, who described on Ariana Huffington’s blog what happened next:

The Ganz collection went up for auction in 1997, Wynn was saying — he was standing in front of the painting at this point, facing us. He raised his hand to show us something about the painting — and at that moment, his elbow crashed backwards right through the canvas.

There was a terrible noise.

Wynn stepped away from the painting, and there, smack in the middle of Marie-Therese Walter’s plump and allegedly-erotic forearm, was a black hole the size of a silver dollar - or, to be more exactly, the size of the tip of Steve Wynn’s elbow — with two three-inch long rips coming off it in either direction. Steve Wynn has retinitis pigmentosa, an eye disease that damages peripheral vision, but he could see quite clearly what had happened.

“Oh shit,” he said.

Oh shit, indeed. As recently as last week, the story remained unsettled, as Wynn sued Lloyd’s of London in dispute over how much insurance is required to cover the damage.

As I mentioned, I worked as a photographer at Christie’s auction house from 1997 to 2000. It was pretty cool photographing priceless collectibles for every department at one of the most prestigious auction houses in the world. I photographed thousands of paintings and sculptures, including many by Picasso, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Alexander Calder, and hundreds of other artists. I photographed documents hand-written by Presidents as far back as George Washington. I shot movie memorabilia including Edward Scissorhands’ gloves, the amulet from Raiders of the Lost Ark, and one of the Robocop costumes. I got to see the Archimedes Palimpsest first hand. And I shot photos of Neil Armstrong’s space suit. Okay, it wasn’t the one he walked on the moon in, it was just the one he did his training in, but still it’s pretty cool.

And I was there to see Le Reve sell for $48.4 million.

Working at Christie’s, I occasionally kept mementos of high profile auctions. I have a bookshelf overflowing with catalogs I photographed, but I only kept posters from one auction, the first high profile auction to happen during my time there. I kept the poster for the auction of the Collection of Victor and Sally Ganz, featuring Le Reve.

And now, history repeats itself on a much smaller scale as I am putting one of these original posters up for auction on eBay. I guarantee that as of right now, Steve Wynn has not punched a hole in it, and I will do my best to make sure that he does not punch any holes in it before the auction ends.

If you are the winning bidder, the poster will be sent to you in the same cardboard tube in which it has sat rolled up since I took it home nearly ten years ago. This poster has not been hanging on my wall, and is in excellent condition. It has no folds. There may be slight wear and tear on the edges, as might be expected of a poster rolled up in a tube for ten years. But you’d hardly notice unless you look closely.

Once the poster is yours, you are free to do with it as you please. Sell it to an investment banker at great profit. Hang it up. Invite your celebrity friends over to view it. Recreate a historic moment by shoving your elbow through it. I’m not sure whether or not you’ll be able to get Lloyd’s of London to insure it, but you’re welcome to try.

The auction can be found here.

January 11, 2007

Idea: Fun with facial recognition

A few years ago at Superbowl XXXV in Tampa Bay, police set up digital cameras at strategic points in the stadium, and used computers to compare everybody’s faces to a database of known criminals on the loose. The city of Tampa used the same system to scan faces on the city streets for the same purpose. The system was unsuccessful and no arrests were ever made, according to an ACLU press release, but a controversy arose over whether or not it was an invasion of privacy to subject everyone to a virtual police lineup.

Between a poor success rate and the controversy over privacy, facial recognition software got a bad rap.

Facial RecognitionBut maybe that could have been ameliorated if the technology had been used for entertainment purposes. What if the cameras scanned the crowds at the Superbowl and built a new database as it went, instead of using a database of known criminals, to find the two people in the audience who looked the most alike? It would be interesting to see, in a crowd of 100,000 people, how close a match can be found among strangers. Then, at halftime or during breaks in the action, the Jumbotron could showcase the closest matches in a series of “Separated at Birth?” moments.

How cool would that be to find your dopplegänger sitting just a few sections away at the Superbowl?

January 9, 2007

Animated Manhattan: The Wild

Part 15 in an ongoing series looking at New York City in animation.

The WildYou know how sometimes you see a movie that’s supposed to take place in Manhattan, but in order to save money they filmed it somewhere else, like Toronto, and since you’ve been to New York you can totally tell that there’s no way they filmed that in Manhattan, except for the one scene that takes place in Times Square? Well, that’s what The Wild was like. Except, being a cartoon without location expenses and made by Disney, they really have no excuse.

The WildThe movie is about a bunch of animals in a fictional New York Zoo who go on an adventure whose plot was ripped straight from Finding Nemo, then had all the humor and charm stripped out of it. When the animals leave the zoo to find a missing lion cub, I expected some amazing Manhattan humor before they left the city, just like in the nearly identically-themed movie Madagascar (link goes to that film’s review from this series). But the only specific places they go to are Times Square, which I’m sure was picked so that Disney could satisfy all its product placement obligations in one scene, and the Statue of Liberty, which is shown multiple times, and only from afar.

The WildWhere are the other landmarks? Where’s the sweeping skyline? No Empire State Building? No Chrysler Building? No Brooklyn Bridge? The only recognizable buildings that jumped out at me were the Citicorp Building and 17 State Street, which I think might have been partially visible in one scene. The Wild might be the first cartoon I’ve reviewed that doesn’t have a scene at Rockefeller Center. Have the animators even been to New York?

Instead of showing real places, there were awful scenes in generic settings like alleys and sewers, with killer poodles and friendly crocodiles. Sounds hilarious, right? The pickings were slim in finding New York scenes, so here’s the movie poster, which depicts New York City better than any scene in the movie:

The Wild

And since I went through the trouble of taking a few more screen captures, here’s the remainder of the film’s Manhattan depictions:

The Wild The Wild
The Wild The Wild

IMDb Rating: 5.2/10
BCDb Rating: N/A
My Rating: 2/10

(My rating is for the depiction of NYC only)

January 8, 2007

Idea: Word balloons as quotation marks

I noticed the other day that word balloons have the same basic shape as quotation marks. It’s interesting because both are used to convey that a person is speaking. That got me thinking of an instance where word balloons could be used as quotation marks, as a design element.

Word balloons as quotation marksIt would probably be weird to have them as part of a font set, but maybe it would look neat used for a pull quote in an article about comic books. It seems like every three years or so there’s another article about how graphic novels are finally getting respect as literature, so maybe the next time one of those pieces runs they can try out my idea.

For the example above, I thought it looked weird with open word balloons, so I made them solid black. And double-quotes looked odd to me, too. I decided a solid single-quote word balloon worked best. For actual use, a typographer or graphic designer could probably play around and find other variations that work even better.

January 6, 2007

Ironic Sans 2006 in Review

I feel kinda cheap pointing out that the 2007 Weblog Awards are open for nominations until January 10, and humbly noting that Ironic Sans would make an excellent nominee for the Best New Weblog or Best-Kept Secret Weblog categories. But it does give me a good excuse to review some of the highlights of the past year, as Ironic Sans approaches its first anniversary. It all started with one little idea and has grown so much from there.

A particularly nice accolade came recently when Gawker Media’s founder Nick Denton e-mailed me. He wrote, “Can’t believe I’d never seen your site before… spent half an hour browsing around. Thanks for wasting my morning!” A comment like that from Nick Denton made my day almost as much as the post I saw on one reader’s livejournal page. She wrote, “I went to the site to dip my toes in, and came out an hour later soaking wet.”

Ironic Sans was put on the map when I posted my idea for pre-pixelated clothes for reality TV. I thought it was a funny idea, but I didn’t expect all the attention it received. I was taken completely by surprise when it got mentions by MSNBC, USA Today, Wired, Entertainment Weekly, Defamer, Fark, Digg, Kottke, Consumerist, the Morning News, Boston.com, C|Net, New York Magazine, and even Stuff Magazine, which recently asked for photos of the shirts for an upcoming issue. And next month, the shirts will be seen in a new book called The Big Book of Irony by Jon Winokur.

Here are some of this year’s other entries of note:

The ones that got the most attention

A few that I thought deserved more attention

In all, it’s been a good first year. I try to periodically feature some of my favorite entries in a Favorites page, so if you’re new to Ironic Sans you can check there for more highlights. And you can browse the complete archive for the rest of this year’s 150-or-so entries.

When I started this site, I had to figure out what exactly I want it to be. I thought about all the blogs that already exist. There is no shortage of excellent sites that just point to all sorts of interesting things on the web. The world doesn’t need any more of those. Instead, I aim to be one of those interesting things on the web that all of those sites can point to. So far, I hope I’m off to a good start.

January 4, 2007

Celebrity Patents

Harry Houdini patentLast month, Google introduced its new Patent Search feature (in beta), allowing users to dig through 7 million US patents from 1790 to mid-1996. On-line patent searching has already been possible through the US Patent and Trademark Office website, but Google makes it fast and easy using their already familiar interface.

So, inspired by Google’s new easy-to-use patent search, I decided to dig up some of the celebrity patents that have been issued over the years. The following 18 20 patents are all by celebrities not usually known for being inventors. You can follow the links to the actual patents to learn more about each one.

1. Eddie Van Halen, Musician.
Patent #4,656,917 — Musical instrument support

Eddie Van Halen patent

2. Zeppo Marx, Actor/Comedian.
Patent #3,473,526 — Cardiac pulse rate monitor

Zeppo Marx patent

3. Harry Connick, Jr., Musician/Actor.
Patent #6,348,648 — System and method for coordinating music display among players in an orchestra

Harry Connick Jr patent

4. Penn Jillette, Magician.
Patent #5,920,923 — Hydro-therapeutic stimulator (for, um, sexual stimulation)

Penn Jillette patent

5. Michael Jackson, Singer.
Patent #5,255,452 — Method and means for creating anti-gravity illusion

Michael Jackson patent

6. Abraham Lincoln, President.
Patent #6,469 — [Method of] Buoying vessels over shoals

Abraham Lincoln patent

7. Julie Newmar, Actress (“Batman” TV Show).
Patent #3,914,799 — Pantyhose with shaping band for cheeky derriere relief

Julie Newmar patent

8. Marlon Brando, Actor.
Patent #6,812,392 — Drumhead tensioning device and method

Marlon Brando patent

9. Lawrence Welk, Musician/Bandleader.
Patent #D170,898 — Welk ash tray (design)

Lawrence Welk patent

10. Jamie Lee Curtis, Actress.
Patent #4,753,647 — Infant garment

Jamie Lee Curtis patent

11. Gary Burghoff, Actor (Radar on “M*A*S*H” TV Show).
Patent #5,235,774 — Enhanced fish attractor device

Gary Burghoff patent

12. Mark Twain, Author.
Patent #140,245 — Improvement in scrap-books

Mark Twain patent

13. Hedy Lamarr, Actress.
Patent #2,292,387 — Secret communication system

Hedy Lamar patent

14. Walt Disney, Animation Innovator.
Patent #2,201,689 — Art of animation (method of filming animation cells with a shadow on the background)

Walt Disney patent

15. Harry Houdini, Magician.
Patent #1,370,316 — Diver’s suit

Harry Houdini patent

16. Danny Kaye, Actor/Singer/Entertainer.
Patent #D166,807 — Blowout toy or the like (design)

Danny Kaye patent

17. George Lucas, Director.
Patent #D265,754 — Toy figure (design)

George Lucas patent

18. Charles Fleischer, Actor (voice of Roger Rabbit).
Patent #4,219,959 — Toy egg

Charles Fleischer patent

UPDATE: Here are two more celebrity patents, courtesy of comments on this blog and others:

19. Prince, Musician/Singer.
Patent #D349,127 — Portable electronic keyboard musical instrument (design)

Prince patent

20. Paul Winchell, Ventriloquist.
Patent #3,097,366 — Artificial Heart

Prince patent

January 1, 2007

I see R2-D2

I saw this garbage can the other day. It reminded me of R2-D2.

R2D2 Garbage

Previously: I see storm troopers.