Filed under “Favorites”

April 18, 2013

Cell Phone Inventor Marty Cooper

Cell phone inventor Marty Cooper has a lot of interesting thoughts about cell phones and related technologies. It was tough distilling our 40 minute conversation into such a short video, but I’m pleased with how it turned out. This month marks the 40th anniversary of the first ever cell phone call, which he describes in the video below. Enjoy!

See more episodes of my PBS INVENTORS series here!

March 21, 2013

An Inventor For Math And Magic Fans

This week’s episode of INVENTORS is about Mark Setteducati, a magician, artist, and one of the founders of the Gathering For Gardner (the biennial festival honoring mathematician and writer Martin Gardner). His clever toys and puzzles incorporate principles of math and magic.

In the video, he talks about hexaflexagons. If you’re at all a curious person, be sure to check out Vi Hart’s fantastic three part series about hexaflexagons on her YouTube channel.

February 20, 2013

The Gutenberg Eyebrow

There’s a story being told around the internet this week about a 15th Century manuscript which was recently found to have paw prints across two pages from a cat that must have walked across it while the ink was still fresh. I’m reminded of a little-known story about another 15th Century book that was found to have evidence of its creation embedded in the pages: a Gutenberg Bible.

A complete edition of the Gutenberg Bible is very rare. Only a couple dozen are still known to exist (the Morgan Library in Manhattan is hogging three of them). But some copies were broken up and sold piecemeal over the years, so individual pages are not as rare and are occasionally sold at auction.

About 14 years ago, while I was a photographer at Christie’s auction house, a particularly interesting Gutenberg Bible page came up for sale. While it was being prepared for auction, someone noticed a tiny hair resting on the page. Upon closer inspection, it was found to have become dislodged from where it was embedded beneath the ink. There was a clear line left behind on the page from where the hair had lifted the ink when it became dislodged.

This meant that the hair had been there since the ink was put on the page.

What if it was Johann Gutenberg’s hair? Could you imagine what that would mean for the value of this page? More likely, we guessed it belonged to someone who worked for him, or perhaps even an animal that was hanging around the printing press. But still, it was an incredible find.

I recall that the hair was delicately handled so that it could be analyzed.

This is how it was eventually described at auction:

Eyebrow hair, 12 mm, COMPLETE with bulb at one end and natural taper at the other, blond or white, [middle of the 15th century]. Soiled with printer’s ink over a segment approximately 2 mm in length.

Provenance: The present hair was formerly adhered to the surface of this leaf of the Gutenberg Bible, where it was held to the paper by the printing ink. It lay under the ink when the leaf was received by Christie’s and was inadvertently dislodged in the course of cataloguing for this sale. The impression left by the hair in the surface of the paper is clearly visible at II Cor. 7:10, as is the furrow of white across the first letter “t” of the word tristitia, where the ink which lay over the hair came off with it.

The hair must have dropped onto the forme after it was inked and before the page was printed. It is therefore presumably a body hair, probably an eybrow hair, from one of the pressmen in Gutenberg’s shop — conceivably from the master himself.

The estimate for the page including eyebrow hair was $10,000 - $15,000. The final price was $64,625.

February 13, 2013

Behind The Post: The Luke Hope Poster

You may remember that about four-and-a-half years ago, I made this image:

By popular demand, I sought to make it available on posters and t-shirts. But I wanted to do so through proper channels, and ended up partnering with Zazzle, which had an existing licensing agreement with Lucasfilm. (They no longer do, so don’t bother looking.)

But in order to get formal permission, I had to jump through some hoops. One question that came up — and I confess I found it a bit insulting — was whether or not I could prove that I actually made this poster, and wasn’t just passing off someone else’s work as my own.

I came up with a way to prove I did the work. I had kept all the layers intact from the Photoshop file I used to create the image (much later it was turned into vector art). Using all those layers, I created an animated gif showing the steps from start to finish.

I always liked how that animated gif came out, so the point of this story is to share the process gif with you:

February 7, 2013

Inventor Portrait: Esther Takeuchi

One issue I’m conscious of in my Inventor Portraits series is that it’s not very gender balanced. Of the forty-something inventors I’ve photographed and interviewed so far, only eight are women. There have been other women under consideration, but in an effort to keep the inventions varied, I’ve passed on some that were too similar. I can only have so many women who invent products for the closet, baby room, or kitchen before it begins to give the impression that women only come up with domestic inventions. Those kinds of inventions are certainly important and useful, but my project strives to be broader in its subject matter.

So when I reached out to Esther Takeuchi, a chemical engineer whose life-saving developments in batteries for implantable medical devices have saved millions of lives, I was delighted that she said yes. She’s a terrific role model for women in science, and yet she expresses her own frustrations with exclusion in her field.

Note: If you like these videos, it would mean a great deal if you subscribe to the YouTube channel and/or share them with other people who might find them interesting. Thanks so much.

January 24, 2013

The First Software Patent

The latest episode in my PBS Digital Studios series “INVENTORS” is about Martin Goetz, the man who got the first every software patent. There’s a good chance that you’ve heard about the current controversy over software patents, but you may not know why we have software patents to begin with. Here’s the story:

I found it especially interesting that today software patents in the hands of patent trolls are said to stifle innovation in small companies, but the first software patent was a tool that enabled a small company to compete against a big corporation. That seems to me more in the spirit of what patents are for.

November 8, 2012

“Inventors” series debuts with PBS Digital Studios

I’m very excited to announce that my occasional series of inventor portrait videos is about to get a lot less occasional, as it’s now part of PBS Digital Studios. I will be releasing a new video every two weeks and you can find them at the new Inventors Series YouTube channel.

Here’s the first episode:

[Note to self: I’ve really got to redesign this website to allow for embedding larger video.]

Going forward, a new episode will go up every other Tuesday. They will mostly be new episodes you haven’t seen, but I’ll throw in a few that I’ve posted here in the past, perhaps with some slight changes. They’ll be new to most people.

Oh, also: one of the best things you could do for me today is share the video — here’s the direct link — and/or subscribe to the YouTube channel. Thanks so much.

I hope you like what I’ve got planned!

November 29, 2011

Keming Revisited

In early 2008, I coined the term keming, defining it as “the result of improper kerning.”

It’s a nerdy graphic design joke, and it became one of my more popular posts. Readers suggested that I create some keming merchandise. So I did. The t-shirts are the most popular items, but my favorites are the mug and spiral notebook (both of which make excellent stocking stuffers).

I began to dream that the word would be widely adopted and become an actual part of graphic design language. How awesome would it be to coin a word that people actually use?

Well, it turns out that the word has caught on in some circles, and has become common enough that it’s somewhat disassociated with me. I occasionally meet people surprised to discover that I coined it. Well, if you weren’t reading this blog four years ago, I guess you wouldn’t know. So I thought I’d reconnect with the word in a follow-up post examining some of the places I’ve seen it used.

A Design Reference Book

In 2009, Armin Vit and Bryony Gomez-Palacio of the design firm UnderConsideration published a comprehensive reference book on all things design.

It’s called Graphic Design, Referenced: A Visual Guide to the Language, Applications, and History of Graphic Design and it has nothing but 5-star reviews on Amazon. It looks like a pretty nice book. You can see details and sample spreads on their site where they call it “a comprehensive source of information and inspiration by documenting and chronicling the scope of contemporary graphic design, stemming from the middle of the twentieth century to today.”

They reference keming on page 74:

Here’s a detail of the page:

Urban Dictionary

Urban Dictionary, the online resource for made up words, has an entry for keming where three people have submitted examples of the word used in a sentence. They are:

What the helvetica, your kerning has turned into one massive keming fest. What the font were you thinking?

The typographer who worked on that film just pulled a keming by not having equal spacing between each letter in each word in the opening credits.

I ’ mtryingtosetspacing, butIcan ’ tseemtogetthekemingright.

I’m not sure I would say that someone “pulled a keming” but maybe that’s a regional use.

A Whole Blog About Keming

Earlier this year, a designer in the Netherlands named Kilian Valkhof started a tumblr called Fuck Yeah Keming, “a celebration of horrendous kerning all over the internet.” He has some good examples. Check it out.


My old posts don’t usually get that much traffic, but the original keming post still gets hits on a regular basis from one site in particular: reddit.

Redditors have taken a liking to keming, and it comes up often in the comments. Usually the submitted article features some sort of keming, which prompts someone in the comments to say “Nice keming there.” Then someone replies, “WTF is keming?” And then someone else replies with a link to my site.

Update: There’s now a keming subreddit.

So, thanks for keeping keming alive, redditors!


It appears that on three occasions, different people (not me) created Wikipedia pages for keming. All three were later deleted. According to the Wikipedia deletion log the reasons were as follows.

The first time: “Not enough context to identify subject”

The second time: “Patent nonsense, meaningless, or incomprehensible: db|WP is not a dictionary”

The third time: The page was set up to redirect to the entry for kerning, but was deleted after discussion decided that “‘Keming’ is a joke word invented by David Friedman… When the redirect was created the target article referred to the joke, but it’s since been removed due to lack of coverage in any reliable source so the redirect doesn’t serve much purpose any more.”

Indeed, the wikipedia page for kerning has had references to keming written in (not by me) and deleted over the years. According to the revision history, the reference was changed to clarify that “keming is not what ‘improper kerning is called’; it’s a joke” and then removed completely because “the Ironic Sans blog does not appear to be an authoritative source.”

Who, I ask, is a more authoritative source on a word that I made up than me?

Currently, the Wikipedia entry for keming is a disambiguation page, which says “Keming may be… A satirical misspelling of kerning, referring to bad kerning which causes the letter pair ‘rn’ to appear as ‘m’”

If you have to explain it…

Other People’s Products

I occasionally hear from people telling me that they saw keming on someone else’s merchandise. Sometimes people just take my definition and put it on a shirt. That bothers me. But sometimes people come up with other clever uses for keming in joke form. My favorite is the Leam to kem shirt by Able Parris.

What else?

Do you use keming to mean improper kerning? Do you ever see or hear anyone else use it? Where else is it being used that I’ve overlooked?

A note about coining this word.

When I wrote the keming post, I first did a Google search to see whether or not the joke had been done before. All I found were a couple references to people with the name Keming, and other proper nouns (a school called Keming, for example). But it was hard to search because the vast majority of results were actual cases of keming the word kerning! A search result would contain the word “keming” but clicking through to the page would show an article about typography scanned in from a book or magazine and put through OCR. Every instance of the word “kerning” turned up as “keming” in Google. Here’s a typical example.

UPDATE: Here’s another great usage. A reader just wrote to tell me that he named his whole company after keming. It’s a technical design studio called Keming Labs. He says, “I really like the term and I ended up using it in my company name (I hope you don’t mind). We do data visualization stuff on the web, and ‘Keming Labs’ sounds serious enough when we meet with clients. It’s easy to tell clients who get the joke though, because they usually chuckle immediately.”

UPDATE 2: This is perhaps the most awesome keming update ever. I’ve known for a while that Google has a hidden joke in their search engine where, if you search for the word kerning you’ll see the word appear in the search results with too much space between each letter. But it was recently brought to my attention that a Google search for keming has the opposite joke. Everywhere the word appears in the search result listing, the letters are spaced too close together!

@ironicsans Did you see Google’s special formatting for “kerning” and “keming” searches? You changed Google.

— Andy Baio (@waxpancake) June 7, 2012

March 30, 2011

I wrote an article for

I wrote an article for that just went up. It’s about the New York Times Magazine of 100 years ago. Go read it!

Permalink | Comments (1)

February 22, 2011

Soylent Green is People Magazine!

Soylent Green Magazine

February 11, 2011

I wrote it, you made it: The Make-out Hoodie

Back in August, I envisioned the Make-out Hoodie, a pair of his-and-hers (or whatever combination you’re into) hoodies that form a complete picture when the couple kisses with the hoods up.

This was my concept sketch:

I recently heard from a reader named Nate who said, “Thanks for the idea! My gf and I sewed some simple patches onto some hoodies and they turned out great.”

Here’s their photo:

Thanks, Nate!

February 8, 2011

A 30-Year Contact Print on Construction Paper

[cross-posted from my too-infrequently-updated photography blog]

I was in Arizona a couple weeks ago to shoot two more people for my Inventor Portraits Project. My parents live in Arizona, so I took the opportunity to visit them and go through some old boxes that have been taking up space in my old bedroom.

In my closet, I found a photo of me that was taken almost 30 years ago. It had been taped to a piece of green construction paper and placed in a cheap plastic frame around 1982. It hung that way on a wall in my bedroom for about 15 years. When it was hung up, it looked like this:

By the time I took the photo down in 1997, indirect sunlight had faded the construction paper from green to a sort of salmon-like orange. I digitally restored it to the original green for the image above, but actually the background had faded like this:

When I found it in my closet during my recent visit, I decided there was no reason to keep the photo in the bulky plastic frame any longer. It should go in an album, or a better frame. When I separated the photo from the paper, this was revealed hidden underneath:

How wonderful is that? Over all that time hung on the wall, sunlight had bleached the construction paper everywhere it could. But since it couldn’t penetrate the darker areas of the photo, the corresponding parts of the construction paper underneath remained their original color.

Any light-sensitive surface can be used to make a photo, and I’ve seen everything used from leaves to grass. But I don’t remember seeing photos printed on construction paper, even though I know they’re sometimes used to make photograms as an activity for kids. But I did a little googling and found a couple other people who made a print on construction paper using similar methods, although deliberately and not over quite so long a time.

January 10, 2011

Idea: The fab key.

The fab key

Macintosh keyboards are typeset in VAG Rounded, a font which happens to have very similar “t” and “f” letterforms. Except for the curve of the “f” they are identical.

The word “tab” on the keyboard is really small. The tallest letter — “b” — is only 3 millimeters tall. Unless you get your eyes really close to the key, it can be hard to see the details of the individual letters.

So I propose that someone should sell novelty replacement keycaps that say “fab” instead of “tab.” It’s pretty easy to swap out keycaps, and you could do it yourself at home in minutes.

Why? Because working at a computer can get monotonous and boring, and this would give you a little secret that only you know, and you could giggle about it in your head every time you press it. Sure, someone else might notice your fab key, but they probably wouldn’t because the letters are so small. And if they do notice, you’ll become known as the person with the quirky keyboard that says “fab” and I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.

But maybe you don’t have a Mac, and your tab key has the more common capital “T” that doesn’t resemble an “F” at all. Well, then get a fab key for a Mac-using friend. They make excellent gifts for Beatles fans, people who work at Farnborough Airport, those in the Bolivian Air Force (Fuerza Aérea Boliviana), or anyone named Fabrizio.

December 15, 2010

A standpipe disguised as a rooster

Pretty sneaky, standpipe. Pretty sneaky.

October 21, 2010

This Hotel Has A Lot Of Rooms

Must be a really long hallway.

August 2, 2010

Mad Men Don’t Lie

I’m pretty good when it comes to grammar, but my wife is better, as I’m reminded every time I misuse the word lay and she corrects me. Some bad grammar sticks out like a sore thumb for me, but lay/lie misuse goes past me every time. My wife never fails to catch it, and she seemed to be pointing out lay/lie misuse every time we watched Mad Men. We wondered whether it’s the fault of the actors, or if they’re saying the lines faithfully as they’re written.

I decided to turn it into a learning opportunity. If I could catch every use and misuse of lay and lie in every episode of Mad Men so far, surely that would pound the lesson so firmly in my brain that I will never confuse the words ever again.

And so I made the video embedded above. Here is a list of every quote, from each episode in the first three seasons, in the order they appear in the video:

2.10 Joan: “Go ahead. Lay down. I’ll keep the drunks away.” (incorrect)
3.06 Joan: “Go lay down.” (incorrect)
1.10 Peggy: “Maybe you need me to lay on your couch to clear that up for you again.” (incorrect)
2.05 Peggy: “Do you mind if I lay down?” (incorrect)
2.05 Peggy: “I have to lie down” (correct)
1.03 Betty: “I’m going to go and lay the kids’ food out.” (correct)
3.01 Pete: “I should just lay down and we should run together holding hands.” (incorrect)
3.08 Pete: “I’d lie in bed at night, hear horses going by.” (correct)
1.13 Pete: “I think I should lie down.” (correct)
2.02 Don: “I’m going to lie down for a minute.” (correct)
2.12 Don: “Can I take a shower and lie down?” (correct)
2.10 Don: “Do you want me to lay everything out for you?” (correct)
3.09 Don: “I’m going to go lie down.” (correct) [Note: The subtitles for episode 3.09 say that Don says “I’m gonna go lay down” which is incorrect. But it sounds a lot to me like he says “I’m going to go lie down,” so I gave him a pass.]
3.11 Don: “I’m going to lie down.” (correct)
3.12 Don: “Take a pill and lie down.” (correct)
2.08 Ken: “You need someone to lay down on the barbed wire so you can run over them.” (incorrect)
3.07 Henry: “Victorian ladies would get overwhelmed. Corsets and things. They’d need a place to lie down.” (correct)
1.04 Client: “I hate to be a pain in the ass, but if they didn’t just lay there so flat.” (incorrect)
3.03 Carla: “Maybe you should lie down. Sally!” (correct)
2.04 Sally: “Do you lay on top of her?” (incorrect)
2.11 Jane: “I lay on my pillow at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel.” (incorrect)
2.03 Jennifer: “I need to lay down.” (incorrect)
2.04 Katherine: “And I don’t care if you have to lay there. Put your shoes on!” (incorrect)
2.04 Gerry: “I’m sorry, I’ve gotta lay down.” (incorrect)
3.12 TV: “Then Governor Connally, after slumping to the left for a moment, lay on the floor of the rear seats.” (incorrect) (correct) — My mistake. The reporter is speaking in past tense.

I originally included three clips that I later decided to remove:

In episode 3.01, Sal says, “Our worst fears lie in anticipation,” which is correct. But he’s quoting Balzac so I wasn’t sure if he should get credit for it. In fact, he even follows up the line by pointing out, “That’s not me. That’s Balzac.” (The actual Balzac quote is “Our worst misfortunes never happen, and most miseries lie in anticipation.”).

In episode 3.05, Don uses the same Balzac quote after hearing Sal say it. Again, I was unsure whether or not to include it for the same reason. But I did like that the character he’s talking to replies, “Are you sure about that?”

In episode 3.09, Sal says, “I think if I get away from Lucky Strike and lay low from Roger for a day or two, everything will be fine.” I wasn’t sure if the common expression lay low is grammatically correct or not. So I looked it up. says that lay low means to overpower or defeat (as in “to lay low one’s attackers”). The phrase Sal should have used is lie low which means to conceal oneself (as in “Until the dispute is settled, you would do best to lie low.”). So Sal’s usage is technically incorrect. But “lie low” falls strangely on my ears, and lay low is a common enough expression that I couldn’t decide whether to give it a pass or not, so I chose to simply not include the clip at all.

July 26, 2010

How much for lower case?


April 13, 2010

Announcing a new blog:

Short version:
I’ve launched a spinoff blog from Ironic Sans called Sunday Magazine. Every Friday I post the most interesting articles from the New York Times Sunday Magazine that was published exactly 100 years ago that weekend. You can get each week’s articles (probably one to six per week) by subscribing to the RSS feed, or following @sundaymagazine on Twitter, or by becoming a fan on Facebook.

It is not in any way affiliated with the New York Times. All of the Times articles I post are from before 1923, which means they are in the public domain.

Long version:
The New York Times Sunday Magazine is full of interesting articles about politics, science, crime, life, language, and human interest. It features fantastic writing and photography. It’s my favorite section in the paper.

It turns out that no matter how far back you go towards the supplement’s 1896 debut, the Magazine Section (as it was called back then) was always filled with amazing long-form articles, including many that are as interesting today as they were then. Some even more so. I stumbled upon this fact on April 1, when I began to get annoyed with every website’s need to pull some sort of prank. I wondered if companies did this sort of thing back at the turn of the last century. Searching for old articles about April Fool’s Day, I found this great article published in the Times on March 31, 1912:

(Note: All images of articles in this post can be clicked to enlarge; even bigger PDFs available via links below each image)

Now April Fool Originated And Some Famous Pranks


Everything about that article is wonderful. The writing style, the stories, and the illustrations are all quaint by today’s standards, but that makes it all so charming. It’s worth downloading the PDF to read it all, or any portion of it. Here is one of my favorite passages:

A hundred years ago [children] used to say, “Sir, your shoe’s unbuckled.” Today, their successors cry out, “Mister, your shoe’s untied!” A more elaborate piece of waggery has endured up to the present time practically its original form.

“Sir, there’s something out of your pocket.”
“Your hand, sir!”

Or again a boy and a lady enter into this dialogue.
“Ma’am, you have something on your face.”
“Indeed! What is it?”
“Your nose, ma’am.”

In all cases the ultimate rejoinder is accompanied with a burst of laughter and the shout of “April fool!”

Another passage describes a prank pulled by the Evening Star newspaper in London, which comes closer to the kind of corporate pranks we see today, although a bit more mean-spirited:

On March 31, 1846, that paper solemnly informed its readers that a magnificent collection of asses would be exhibited in the Hall of Agriculture at Islington. A great crowd of staring and struggling human being filled up the hall long before noon, and not for some time did it dawn upon anybody that they themselves were forming the collection that had been advertised.

Could you even fill a room today by advertising a donkey exhibit? The article is full of stories like this, pranks and characters long forgotten. I thought I might sit on it for a year, and post it next April Fool’s Day. But I wanted to learn more about the article so I could post it with context. I needed to research the various background characters and then-famous pranksters mentioned in the article to provide annotation. And the more I thought about it, the more I began to wonder: could I find other interesting articles in the Times from around the same period?

I originally found the article on the NYTimes website, where all of their content pre-1923 is freely available, having fallen into the public domain. But their online archives are difficult to browse unless you have specific keywords you’re searching for. I noticed that this article was published on a Sunday, but I didn’t know what section it was in. I didn’t know if the Times even had a magazine back then. To find out, I went to the Microforms Room of the main branch of the New York Public Library.

Sure enough, the article was in the “Magazine Section” of the newspaper. I wondered what other interesting articles I could find the in the Magazine Section. So I rewound the microfilm one week and found the Magazine Section for March 24, 1912.

I think my jaw actually dropped when I saw this:

French Savant Tells of Life on Venus and Mars

FRENCH SAVANT TELLS OF LIFE ON VENUS AND MARS: Conditions Resemble Those on the Earth (PDF)

What the hey-now? Check out those awesome drawings. They depict the zoologist Edmond Perrier’s descriptions of “frogs as big as cows” on Venus and “beautiful plumage” of birds on Mars. It’s almost like he imagined the world of Avatar 98 years ago, a bit closer to home. And look at those large-chested Martians with headlights on their fingertips!

Here’s how Perrier described Venus:

The dampness of the atmosphere on Venus favors the growth of ferns. The development of flowers from the more primitive forms of plants must be slow and probably has not yet been accomplished on Venus. This lack means the absence also of bees, butterflies, perhaps of ants and of other insects which depend partly or entirely on flowers for their food.

Venus, then, is the home of insects like grasshoppers, or dragon-flies, or roaches, grown to an enormous size; of large batrachians, frogs as big as our cows, of innumerable and gigantic reptiles like those which once filled our earth, ichthyosauri, pterodactyls, iguanodons. Man is absent; indeed the race of mammals may not yet have appeared, in even the humblest form.

That’s not the case on Mars, where people evolved similarly to Earthlings:

[The Martian] is very tall, because the force of gravity is so feeble; he is very fair, with blue eyes, because there is so little light or heat; his jaws are narrow and the top of his head is large, because he has been evolving away from the animals for a much longer period than we. The Martian noses would be long and the ears large. The Martian’s lungs and consequently his chest would be enormous, on account of the thin atmosphere, and his legs would be very slender, because little effort is needed to walk.

What a find.

This fantastic article seems like something out of Amazing Stories, and it’s just been sitting there in the New York Times Magazine archives for the past 98 years. As far as I can tell, nobody has written about it. A Google Search for the article brings up only one result: the PDF buried in the archive. It hasn’t been mentioned anywhere else that Google indexes, although a little more information is available about the French scientist. (I’ll have more to say about that on the new blog on March 24, 2012.)

I was eager to find other gems like this. But with so many years of archives available, where would I begin? I decided to start with the New York Times Sunday Magazine from exactly 100 years ago, and make my way forward. So I found the microfilm reel for April, 1910. In just the first week’s issue, I found several interesting articles. Zooming ahead, I found several more. Every week there were articles that made me think I just had to write a blog post about this treasure trove of fascinating reading material.

I started working on a post featuring some of the articles I found covering a two month period of Sunday Magazines. Omitting all but the ones I found most interesting, I was able to pare it down to just 30 articles. But that’s still too many to reasonably expect any of you to read at once. That’s 30 articles stuffed into one blog post.

And so I decided the best way to share my findings is to dole out a few of my favorite articles from each week on a new blog: I have a couple weeks’ worth of posts up, and the next two months’ worth already in the hopper. They range from historically interesting to downright bizarre. I hope that you’ll see it as a new source of reading material. You can find out about new articles, posted every Friday, by subscribing to the RSS feed, or following @sundaymagazine on Twitter, or by becoming a fan on Facebook.

February 23, 2010

They Don’t Make Computer Manuals Like They Used To

My family’s first computer was a Franklin Ace 1000. I think we got it in 1983. Franklin Ace computers were clones of Apple II computers, which eventually prompted a lawsuit from Apple and a court ruling that operating systems can be protected by copyright. The computers may have been clones, but the Franklin manuals were definitely original.

I recently found copies of manuals for the Franklin Ace 1000 and its predecessor the Ace 100. They were similar computers, so the manuals share a lot of content in common. Both are pretty incredible.

For example, the manual for the Franklin Ace 100 begins with about 40 pages of computer basics (What are they? What can they do? etc). And then, on page 40, two thirds of the way down the page, there is a chapter heading called “The Ancestral Territorial Imperatives of the Trumpeter Swan.” Here’s how the chapter begins:

I like how low-tech the manual is. The whole thing is done in a Courier typeface, with chapter headings in all-caps. Here’s how the same chapter heading appeared in the manual for the later Franklin Ace 1000:

You can see that this manual is more designed. There are friendlier fonts. There are cute cartoons of Benjamin Franklin throughout. But some of the written humor is lost. Gone is the reference to a “disgustingly cute phrase.” The chapter heading is cushioned with “A good title for this section might be…” This version of the joke is a bit too on-the-nose for me.

But the Ace 1000 manual isn’t just a watered down version of the Ace 100 manual. It has its own jokes, including several humorous glossary entries. For example, the first chapter of the manual lists things you can do with a computer, including “get a list of recommendations for wines to serve with Terrine Maison.” In the glossary, you’ll find Terrine Maison helpfully defined between entries for source and utility program:

Reading through the Ace 100 manual, I came across a section so shocking that I can’t imagine a modern computer company even considering putting it in a manual. In this section, you are advised to circumvent copy protection to make personal backups of programs you lawfully purchased:

And it still hasn’t happened.

The Ace 100 manual goes on to describe three categories of crooks in the computer world. The first category is “Them,” the computer salespeople who overhype their products with advertising gimmicks. The second category is “You.” Franklin isn’t actually calling you a crook, but they say that software manufacturers will treat you like one:

The last category of crooks is “US”:

Well they weren’t, technically, until the court ruling.

Most of the “Crooks” section is omitted from the Ace 1000 manual. A condensed version still appears in the section about copy protection.

Both manuals make 80s pop culture references, explaining the concept of computer programs by comparing them to TV programs like Hill Street Blues, The Dukes of Hazzard, or Live at the Met with Itzhak Perlman (who the glossary helpfully defines as “a violinist”). Former Good Morning America host David Hartman is described as “nothing but reconfigured electronic signals [you watch] over coffee in the morning.”

In both manuals, the author tries to explain what kinds of programs are useful and which to stay away from. He states that “the sole purpose of many of these wonders in programming is to separate you from your money.” And then he gives this warning:

This strikes me as a reference to Damon Runyon, whose stories of 1930s New York hustlers were the basis for the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls. Damon Runyon wrote, “One of these days in your travels, a guy is going to come up to you and show you a nice brand-new deck of cards on which the seal is not yet broken, and this guy is going to offer to bet you that he can make the Jack of Spades jump out of the deck and squirt cider in your ear. But, son, do not bet this man, for as sure as you are standing there, you are going to end up with an earful of cider.”

I wondered what other inside jokes the manual has that I wouldn’t know about. The manuals are uncredited, but I figured out that they were written by a guy named Sal Manetta, who later went on to work for Unisys and Intel. He is now retired. I couldn’t reach him, but I did get hold of Bob Applegate, a programmer who was at Franklin at the time.

Bob wrote:

We hired this tech writer guy who knew nothing about personal computers named Sal Manetta. He was the manager of the Publication group. Sal hired a funky artist [Frank someone-or-other] who did most of the drawings of Ben Franklin in the user manual. Sal was supposed to learn about computers like an average person back then, such as reading magazines, talking to salesmen at stores, etc. Sometimes Dave and I would head over to a local place where I used to work (where Franklin discovered me), would “introduce” ourselves to Sal and give him advice on buying his first computer, much to the annoyance of the sales staff there. Sal would get back to the office and tell us what the sales folks said about us once Dave and I left :)

Bob mentioned that many of the cartoons are based on real events and people Sal encountered at Franklin. Here are some of the cartoons along with Bob’s comments:

“Engineering was in a long, narrow building with no windows, nicknamed ‘the cave’. Sal was never exposed to engineers before Franklin, and we sometimes overwhelmed him. He often said ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter’ to people on their first visit to our building.”

“Look for the one of the boy soldering with an evil looking computer… that’s me… I wore Converse sneakers to work back then; look at the star on the side of his sneaker.”

“The computer salesman speaking BASIC code was my old boss at a local computer store.”

“The guy smoking a cigarette and dumping ashes onto the computer is a repair guy from the same local store.”

And where did the trumpeter swans come from?

“The ‘Territorial Imperatives of the Trumpeter Swan’ was also real. Resumes came pouring into Franklin, and we’d all look through them. One guy had written a research paper with that crazy title, and we all thought it was pretty interesting. So, Sal worked it into the manual as a chapter title.”

After Franklin lost their lawsuit with Apple, they continued to sell computers that were similar to Apple’s, but without any infringing code. I found the manual for one of those computers, the Franklin Ace 500. Sadly, there is nothing creative to be found within. It reads like stereo instructions. I was disappointed to see there’s even a chapter with the disgustingly cute name “Getting Started.”

Want to read the manuals in full? Here they are:

Franklin Ace 100 (PDF) - via
Franklin Ace 1000 (PDF) - via
Franklin Ace 500 (PDF) - via

That last “via” link also has the original Apple II manuals, for comparison.

Update 3/21/10: Sal has weighed in, leaving a lengthy comment here

January 26, 2010

60 Seconds in the Life of a Subway Window

Part 39 in an ongoing series of (approximately) 60 Second Films.

January 21, 2010

Remaindered Ideas Part III

I don’t always have time to flesh out an idea as much as I’d like for a post. Or I might decide an idea doesn’t stand on its own for one reason or another. Instead of letting them wallow in obscurity, I occasionally purge several of these ideas in one post. Here is my latest list of remaindered ideas:

1) A sitcom about a ghost and a zombie… of the same guy.

In the pilot episode, Joe’s roommate Ted has a terrible accident and dies. He’s buried in the old cemetery by the town’s nuclear plant. A few days later Ted’s ghost comes home, much to Joe’s surprise. Later that day, Ted’s zombie corpse shows up to. How will the three of them get along, with all the problems inherent to being a zombie, a ghost, and a single twenty-something grad school student, in an apartment that was just large enough for two people? Hilariously.

I only have one line written so far: “Hey! The brain in the fridge was for biology class!”

Has there ever been a story about a ghost and zombie of the same person before? Does that violate the rules of undead characters in fiction?

2) A map of Earth inverted.

What would Earth look like if it were inverted? The lowest valleys become the highest peaks and vice versa. Where would the lakes and oceans be? How high would the highest mountain be? And what would the new land masses, trade routes, and waterways suggest for an alternate history on this inverted Earth?

3) Shel Silverstein’s “The Missing Piece” reimagined as a pie chart.

I thought this idea had potential as something, but it never went anywhere.

4) Twitter as a simulation of OCD

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder sometimes manifests itself as a need to count words and letters. Some people who suffer from OCD need to make their sentences end on a certain word count. I’ve never been this way. But one day as I was having a hard time recomposing a Twitter message to make sure it fits within the 140-character limit, it occurred to me that this may somehow be similar to the frustration a person with OCD feels.

What do OCD sufferers who need to count letters think of Twitter? Does their OCD make it more frustrating? Or is it no more frustrating than any other task? Is there anyone out there whose particular manifestation of OCD already means that they have to write in 140 characters or less?

5) A mashup of “Back to the Future” and “Speed”

“You built a Time Machine? Out of a city bus?”

It seemed like a good idea until the Libyans rigged the bus with explosives to get back at Doc for stealing their plutonium. Now if it goes below 55 MPH, the bus explodes. But if it goes over 88 MPH, it travels through time.

6) A tribute to Bib Fortuna, set to the song “O Fortuna”

I don’t really have any interest in doing this. I just like the idea of it.

December 2, 2009

The Bulbdial Clock is now available!

I’m very excited to announce that the Bulbdial Clock I envisioned almost two years ago is now available in time for the holiday season!

The geniuses at the Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories have done all the hard work to make the Bulbdial Clock available as a kit that you can put together yourself with just basic soldering skills*, or give to a loved one for the holidays. Check out their blog for an article about the kit, showcasing some of its features.

Then head on over to the ordering page for information on availability, styles, accessories, and prices. Here are some of the other styles:

*If you’re not sure you have basic soldering skills, visit this page to learn what tools and knowledge are recommended for assembling this type of kit. There are a few YouTube videos you might find helpful, too. This one covers basic soldering technique, and this short clip demonstrates soldering a component to a printed circuit board like the Bulbdial Clock.

September 29, 2009

Quiz: So you think you can tell Arial from Helvetica?

It seems to be the consensus that Arial is a substandard alternative to Helvetica. But just how bad is it? What if the logos we’re used to seeing in Helvetica were redone in Arial? Would you even notice if the next time you saw the American Airlines logo it was redone in Arial? Here it is in both fonts. At a glance, can you tell which is which?

The top one is Arial. If you know what to look for, it probably jumped right out at you. If not, you may see that they’re different but still not know which is which.

To test your skills, and help you learn to recognize Arial vs Helvetica, I’ve taken 20 Helvetica logos and redone them in Arial. (Blasphemy!) A lot of them are just plain awful in Arial. But a couple of them are actually tough to tell apart.

Take the quiz here!

You’ll get half of them right by just randomly guessing, but if you don’t do much better than that, here are some good resources for you to check out that will teach you the differences between Arial and Helvetica:

Link: How to Spot Arial

Link: Arial and Helvetica overlayed

Link: The Scourge of Arial

August 20, 2009

Migraine Typing

I type pretty well, and I sometimes get migraine headaches. They seem unrelated, but they weren’t a few weeks ago when I had a neurological event I’d never experienced before. I’ve been thinking about it a lot since then, and since I’m a fan of science writing about neurology, I thought I’d make a contribution to the genre. But I’m not a scientist, so it’s more of a personal anecdote than a science essay. This case study is more case than study.

migraine typing

I can go for years without a migraine, and then get one out of the blue. Sometimes I get a cluster of migraines spread out over a few weeks, and then nothing for several years. I have yet to figure out what triggers my migraines. None of the common triggers — caffeine, stress, cheese, etc — seem to affect me. When the headaches come, they last about 6 to 8 hours. From what I hear about other migraine sufferers, I’m lucky they only last that long.

My migraines are almost always preceded by about 30 minutes of visual phenomena that neurologists call “auras.” I’ve never liked the word because saying that I see auras is too loaded with supernatural suggestions. But I know it’s the accepted medical term, so I’ve taken to using it.

Auras are not atypical for migraine sufferers. In fact, migraines with auras are referred to as “classic” migraines. For me, an aura usually starts out as a tiny shimmering spot in the center of my vision. It looks a bit like the after-image you see when someone takes a flash photo of you. Instead of fading like the after-image from a flash would, the spot slowly grows. As it gets bigger, I can see that it has details: it is a colorful shimmering crescent wrapped around a white circle. Gradually, over the course of 20 minutes or so, it grows until the white center fills my entire field of vision. I’m temporarily blind. And then, over the next few minutes it slowly fades away until my vision is back to normal.

I try to consider these auras as early warning systems. If I take medicine as soon as they begin (in my case Excedrin Migraine can do the trick) the headache might be mild or even abort altogether. But if it doesn’t work, then awful pain and sensory hyper-sensitivity kick in for the next 6 to 8 hours.

Before the particular migraine episode that this story is about, I don’t think I’d had a migraine in about five years. Sometimes I would accidentally glance at a bright light and confuse the after-image for the beginning of a migraine, but happily those incidents all turned out to be false alarms. So I certainly wasn’t expecting a migraine on this particular morning when I was sitting in the living room typing a business e-mail on the laptop computer.

I’ve been touch typing for the past 20 years in a manner that would please Mavis Beacon, with my fingers resting on the home row and my eyes on the screen. I don’t think about what my fingers are doing. They move quickly across the keys on their own, tapping out words like it’s second nature as I merely think about what I want to write. When I mistype something, I can feel it in my fingers before I notice it on screen, and sometimes I instinctively backspace to correct it before I even realize I’ve made the mistake.

On the morning in question, I was a few words into a sentence several paragraphs into the email when I realized that nothing I intended to type in that sentence actually made it to the screen. Instead there was just a stream of gibberish. Sometimes this can happen when my fingers accidentally start out in the wrong position; I might type a few words before realizing that my fingers are positioned one key to the right. So I erased the sentence, repositioned my fingers, and started over.

Again, my fingers were typing nonsense. Could I have made the same mistake twice? No, I was definitely starting out in the correct position. I watched my fingers move as I typed. Nothing looked wrong. The sensation was just as familiar as any other time I typed. My fingers moved with the same confidence, as though they knew exactly where they were going to reach the letters they needed to hit. And yet: gibberish on the screen.

I concentrated on typing just one word correctly. Nope. Gibberish.

In the space of a few seconds, I wondered several things. It seemed to me that something neurological was happening. Was it a stroke? I began to see the beginning of a visual aura, and concluded with relief that a migraine was affecting my typing. But I’d never had any early warning other than the visual auras before. Why was I having this now? Is it possible that I would have experienced this if I had been typing during the onset of previous migraines, or was this migraine just manifesting itself differently?

If my fingers were just typing gibberish, how did they know what particular gibberish to type? For example, why did my left middle finger, which only types the letters e, d, and c, know that it was its turn to type the wrong letter instead of another finger’s turn? Were the correct signals still being sent, but to the wrong finger? In retrospect I wonder, if I had kept the gibberish instead of erasing it, would it turn out to be a simple substitution cipher for whatever I meant to type, or was it truly complete gibberish?

The famous neurologist Oliver Sacks, himself a migraineur, wrote a book called Migraine in which he describes a variety of interesting symptoms of migraine sufferers. It’s not unheard of for some people to experience language disorders during their auras, a condition known as aphasia.. They may be unable to speak even though they understand people clearly. Or they may have trouble understanding what people are saying, as though they are hearing a foreign language. I wonder if this extends to written language. Is it possible that I was actually typing correctly all along, but the words were simply unrecognizable to my brain?

I had planned on writing about this last week, but I didn’t get a chance. Life intervened in the form of another neurological event totally new to me and with which I’m now equally fascinated: amnesia. On Tuesday afternoon, I was lying on the couch in my living room, surfing the web with my iPhone. That’s the last memory I have before waking up in the bathtub, dry and clothed, with my glasses broken and my head bleeding, and no idea how I got there.

Don’t worry. I’m fine now. But that’s a story for another time.

Further reading:
An article by Oliver Sacks about migraine auras in the New York Times.
A slideshow of migraine art that accompanied the article.’s web page about migraine aphasia.
The Daily Headache, the blog of a migraine sufferer who has headaches much worse than I do, and links to other migraineurs who blog about their symptoms.

July 16, 2009

Inventors Tom and Jerry

Some of you know that I’ve been working on an ongoing photography project about inventors. Recently I began experimenting with video to supplement the photos, and I’m pretty pleased with how it’s going. I set up a couple web pages showcasing two particular inventors to show some people in my photography world what I’ve been doing, and I thought I’d share with all of you, too. These inventors are named Tom and Jerry, and you can click the images below to see more about them.

Incidentally, if you or someone you know is an inventor, please get in touch about possible participation in this project. I think I’m heading to Northern California next, so I’m particularly interested in inventors in that area.

Click here to see Jerry:

Click here to see Tom:

June 16, 2009

Idea: The Outlet Wall

Instead of hiding your outlets behind furniture and worrying about the mess of wires tangled behind your entertainment center, consider making an entire wall that’s nothing but outlets. Then you can artfully plug in your appliances wherever the cords look pleasing to you.

Imagine no more crowded outlets or multi-plug adapters.

Of course you don’t have to actually wire all the outlets on the whole wall for electricity, but you’d better come up with a good way to remember which ones are live.


April 27, 2009

Post-it Note inventor watches Sticky Note Experiments

I recently photographed Art Fry, the inventor of the Post-it Note, for an ongoing photo project I’m doing about inventors. After the shoot, I asked if he’d ever seen the Sticky Note Experiments video by Eepybird (the Mentos and Diet Coke guys). It turned out he hadn’t. Well, I just happened to bring a copy of the video with me on my iPhone so I could show it to him.

I filmed his reaction as he watched it:

If you haven’t already seen it, this is the video he was watching:

April 15, 2009

First Look: Citizen Kane 3D

Have you heard? Citizen Kane is getting the IMAX 3D treatment!* From the press release: “Finally audiences can see Citizen Kane the way Orson Welles intended. From the halls of Xanadu to the Chicago Opera House, audiences will feel like they’re really there. Through a revolutionary process, Citizen Kane has been masterfully converted to 3D. No longer will some characters seem smaller than others on-screen, an unfortunate side effect of projecting images in two dimensions. Now audiences will finally see that the smaller characters are really just further away.”

Get out your 3D glasses. Here are some promotional stills from “CK3D”:

*not really.

April 8, 2009

I wrote it, you made it: The Bulbdial Clock

Just about a year ago, I came up with a concept for a clock whose hands are shadows projected by bulbs shining on a center post. I called it the Bulbdial Clock, and my concept design looked like this:

Well, I’m thrilled to see that the evil mad scientists over at Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories have actually built a working model! They posted lots of pictures, and it’s pretty awesome:

Head over to their site and see how they made it. They’re considering making a kit available so people can build their own Bulbdial Clocks. If you’d like to see that happen, let them know in the comments on their blog.

Update: Kits are now available! Visit EMSL for more info.

March 23, 2009

Idea: T-Shirts for Hairy-Chested Men

As the weather gets warmer, smooth-chested guys nationwide will be hanging out shirtless in parks and on beaches. A hairless chest is so trendy these days that it’s practically a fashion accessory. But what’s a guy with a hairy chest supposed to do? How can he incorporate his hairy chest in his own fashion?

Well, that’s why I’ve come up with T-Shirts for Hairy-Chested Men, with strategic cutouts that allow your hairy chest to show through. They could feature portraits of famous curly-haired celebrities like Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and Harpo Marx (for blondes). At last, the Hairy-Chested Man can finally showcase his own natural chest hair with style.

February 12, 2009

Real Life Multitouch

Maybe this is a sign that I’ve been using my iPhone too much.

January 16, 2009

First Line

For some reason I’ve had this line in my head for months now. So I decided to finally draw it and post it:

In my mind, this means something specific. Can you figure out what? And if so, how far can you continue the line?

January 5, 2009

The Breakfast Cereal Club

“You see us as you want to see us, in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a leprechaun, a monster, a cap’n, a tiger, and a rabbit. Sincerely yours, the Breakfast Cereal Club.”

The Breakfast Cereal Club

November 11, 2008

At 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

As George Bush prepares to move out of the White House at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, and Barack Obama prepares to move in, I thought I’d take a virtual trip around the country and see what’s going on at other locations with the same address.

The following photos come via Google Street View:

1600 Pennsylvania Ave in Baltimore, MD

1600 Pennsylvania Ave in Glendora, CA

1600 Pennsylvania Ave in Wilmington, DE

1600 Pennsylvania Ave in Bremerton, WA

1600 Pennsylvania Ave in Savannah, GA

1600 Pennsylvania Ave in Terre Haute, IN

1600 Pennsylvania Ave in West Mifflin, PA

1600 Pennsylvania Ave in Los Angeles, CA

1600 Pennsylvania Ave in Croydon, PA

1600 Pennsylvania Ave in Brooklyn, NY

1600 Pennsylvania Ave in Des Moines, IA

1600 Pennsylvania Ave in Oreland, PA

1600 Pennsylvania Ave in Prospect Park, PA

1600 Pennsylvania Ave in Colton, CA

1600 Pennsylvania Ave in Dallas, TX

Note: For my British readers, here’s where else you can find Number 10 Downing Street

November 6, 2008

Murder in the Hundred Acre Wood

I recently came across this story in my archives. It’s the first chapter of a whodunit parody I wrote ten years ago. Enjoy.

Murder in the Hundred Acre Wood

In Which Owl Is Killed.

   It was a wintry Wednesday in the Hundred Acre Wood, and Roo was stuck indoors. He knew it was a Wednesday because he smelled banana bread baking in the kitchen. His mother only baked banana bread on Wednesdays. He knew it was wintry out because his mother made him wear a sweater. And a scarf. And mittens. His mother only made him wear mittens when it was wintry. And she would not let him go to Owl’s to play.
   “Please, mom,” pleaded Roo as he hopped into the kitchen.
   “Now, Roo,” Kanga said to her son, “it is far too cold outside to go bouncing over to Owl’s house.” She gracefully jumped about the room, doing motherly things. “You can go over to play tomorrow.”
   “But I’m bored,” Roo whined. “I wanna go over to Owl’s. You promised.” Roo bounced around the kitchen, knocked over a sack of flour with his tail, and hopped into his mother’s pouch.
   Kanga sighed. When she and Roo moved to the Hundred Acre Wood, she did not know what a hard time Roo would have finding playmates his own age. She was forced to move out of Oscar’s Fields so quickly that she had little time for planning and looking into such things. She picked up what belongings she could carry and moved with her son to the Hundred Acre Wood, a place where she could start over.
   Of course, being a single mother, and moving into a forest where she was the only woman around, word quickly spread about the new neighbor and her son. As she settled in and began making her new home cozy, her neighbors stopped by to meet Kanga and Roo, and deliver housewarming gifts and salutations.
   She got a jar of honey from the odd little Bear who lived just down the creek (rather, the jar looked like it once contained honey, but it was empty upon delivery). His stuttering roommate Piglet offered flowers to “b-b-b-b-brighten up” the new home. Noticing the way Piglet flung his pink scarf over his shoulder, and the tender way the Bear took his roommate’s hand as they walked away, Kanga wondered whether or not there were more to the roommates’ relationship than meets the eye.
   When the Rabbit down the road came to meet the newcomers, the only thing he brought with him was a lecherous stare and a warning: “If I catch your son playing in my garden, I won’t be held responsible for whatever happens next.”
   But when Tigger pounced into their home for the very first time, that’s when Kanga knew that her boy would have at least one playmate. The black and orange striped creature seemed to have springs in his tail. He bounced around happily, a bit too hyper for Kanga’s taste, but just right for her little boy. Roo, still learning to hop on his own, was eager to play with Tigger. The two quickly became friends, and hopped together nearly every day. Kanga noticed that in recent weeks Tigger seemed to be leaving the Hundred Acre Wood quite regularly, often for days at a time. As far as she knew, Tigger had no job or relatives to speak of, so where was he always going? She asked him once, but he didn’t want to talk about it.

   And then there was Owl. Kanga and Roo had been living in the Hundred Acre Wood for about a month before they met Owl. Owl lived in a house at the bottom of the Wood, across the creek, and over a hill. Kanga first heard mention of him from Christopher Robin, the polite boy who lived behind the door at the top of the Wood, and understood that Owl was old and wise.
   “He is very old and very wise, I think,” Christopher Robin had said. “If he hasn’t yet come to introduce himself, I’m certain it is with very good reason.”
   “Just how old is he?” Kanga asked.
   “I would say at least a year older than I am,” said Christopher Robin.
   “What does wise mean?” Roo asked.
   “Wise,” Christopher Robin explained, “means that he can spell a great many words.”
   That very evening, Owl came knocking at the door of Kanga and Roo’s new home.
   Roo opened the door and found himself staring at the sharpest Talons he’d ever seen (Roo had certainly never seen Talons so close before). Gazing upwards, Roo was fascinated by the colorful feathers, the sharp beak, and wide eyes of the wise old (and unbelievably tall) Owl.
   Owl looked down at Roo and said, “Hello. Is your mother home?”
   “Mom!” shouted Roo. Kanga came bouncing to the door.
   Owl removed his top hat and pulled from it a bottle of wine. “I apologize for not coming to welcome you sooner to the Hundred Acre Wood,” he said, offering the wine. “I assure you I would have come previously, but I have been counseling a very depressed ass and have nearly reached a breakthrough point in his therapy. It is very time consuming. But now that I see just how beautiful you are, I regret that I did not come on your first day here.”
   Kanga blushed. She was used to men complimenting her, but somehow Owl seemed more sincere than most. It might have been his age (which Kanga couldn’t quite figure), or his accent (which Kanga couldn’t quite place) or the tender manner with which he put his wing on her shoulder when he talked, but she took an instant liking to him. She was sure that if he had lips, Owl would have a friendly smile.
   “Come inside,” Kanga said. “We’ve just finished dinner, but I can offer you some banana bread I’ve made for dessert” (it was a Wednesday).
   “I’m afraid I cannot stay,” Owl replied. “I really must get back home to finish my report on the ass. But far too much time had passed already since you moved in, and I did not want to be a stranger.” Owl felt Roo tugging at his feathers. He looked down at the young boy.
   “Mr. Owl?” Roo asked.
   “Just Owl,” Owl replied.
   “Mr. Owl,” Roo repeated, “why are you so wise?” Roo still wasn’t sure what that meant.
   “I am so wise,” Owl replied, “because I have eyes on the back of my head.” Owl spun his head all the way around so it was resting backwards on his shoulders.
   “Wow!” Roo stared, his eyes almost as big as Owl’s.
   Facing forward again, Owl picked up Roo in his wings. “If you think that was neat, have your mother bring you over soon and I will show you some more of my tricks.” Owl winked at Roo and put him down again.
   The next day, Kanga did bring Roo to visit Owl. And many days after that, too. Kanga was happy to see her son get along so well with the wise old bird, and figured that Owl would be a good role model for her son. An obvious scholar, counselor, and learned bird would have a lot to teach a little boy. And even though Roo eventually stopped being amazed by the head spinning, Owl seemed to always have a new trick up his sleeve.
   Eventually, Roo began going over to Owl’s without his mother. He would come home with fascinating stories that Owl had told, tales of what it was like growing up a young scavenger bird, hunting for his meals by night and educating himself by day. Roo spent almost as much time with Owl as he spent with Tigger (even more so in recent weeks, with Tigger out of town so much). Which brings us to this particular wintry Wednesday, when Kanga wouldn’t let Roo go over to Owl’s to play.

   Across the creek and over a hill from Kanga and Roo’s home was Owl’s treehouse. Owl sat in his den, in a chair by a window, reading a book on tracking prey and wondering if Roo would be coming over that day. Roo came to visit most days when Tigger was out of town, and Owl quite enjoyed the visits. But being such a wintry day Owl suspected that Kanga might not be letting her boy out to play.
   The daylight through Owl’s window dimmed as heavy clouds blocked the sunlight and blanketed the Hundred Acre Wood. Owl moved his chair to the desk and turned on a lamp to continue his reading. He was slightly distracted by the sound of raindrops on his roof, but quickly blocked out the noise and focused on reviewing the best places to find worms after a winter rain.
   Owl didn’t hear the Intruder climb up his tree.
   Owl didn’t notice when the door behind him opened and the Intruder entered the den.
   Owl was thinking to himself, “I wonder if Roo would like to learn to catch worms,” when the Intruder brought the brick bluntly down on Owl’s skull.
   Owl’s scream was muffled by a crack of thunder. He dropped the book and his body tensed. His talons curled and he flapped his wings in pain. The Intruder jumped back to avoid being hit by the long feathers, then jumped forward and brought the brick down again.
   This time, Owl’s skull split. His body fell to the ground, landing on one of his wings with its weight. From his head, blood ran across the den floor. His beak opened and closed, gasping for air. Milky fluid ran from his nostrils, mixing with the blood. His eyes glazed over as every last bit of wisdom left his body. His talons unclenched.
   And the next day, when Roo came over to play, that’s exactly how he found him.

September 11, 2008

In a political campaign far, far away…

Update: The Luke “Hope” Poster is now available for purchase with Lucasfilm’s blessing. Also available as a T-shirt.

Update: It’s not available anymore. Sorry!

A long time ago, in a political campaign far, far away, this poster was hanging in campaign offices across the galaxy…

Star Wars Obama

…and these logos were on bumper stickers from Alderaan to Yavin:

Star Wars Politics

August 25, 2008

5 More Remainder Ideas

Last summer, I posted my Top 5 Remainder Ideas, a sample of the many ideas I’d jotted down as potential posts but decided weren’t worth fleshing out for one reason or another. Instead of letting them wallow in obscurity, I purged them in one post. Well, it’s time to do it again. Here are 5 more ideas that didn’t get fleshed out enough to stand on their own.

Remainder Idea #5: TypOs Cerael

There are a lot of “O”s cereal names out there: Cheerios, Toasty-Os, etc. I had this idea that there should be a Typos Cereal. It would be made of all the letters of the alphabet, like Alpha Bits cereal, but you wouldn’t spell anything correctly with it. I only got as far as this rough illustration before I remembered that “O”s cereals don’t use the whole alphabet. They only use the letter O. Then I considered a soup called “Type O” Soup. It’s tomato soup with alphabet noodles. But that’s just too many layers of wordplay.

Remainder Idea #4: “Dear Juno”

At the end of the movie Juno (spoiler alert), Juno gives her baby up for adoption. I found myself wondering what will happen, fourteen years later, when that little girl decides she wants to know more about her birth mother. Her mom will say, “I guess you’re old enough to know that shortly after you were born, some people made a movie about how you came to be with me. The movie is called Juno, which is your birth mother’s name.” So the kid watches the movie, and then goes through the proper channels to get Juno’s mailing address. She sits down and writes a letter to her birth mother where she says she has so many questions now that she’s seen the movie. Questions like, “If your hamburger phone worked so poorly, why didn’t you just get a normal phone?”

Remainder Idea #3: Unsuccessful Children’s Books

I once doodled a drawing of Clifford the Big Red Log. I figured that must be the most dull children’s book ever. Then I began imagining other unsuccessful children’s books like Charlie and the Chalk Factory, Reverend Horton Heat Hears The Who, and The Berenstein Bears (about a family of burly gay men).

Remainder Idea #2: An Armored Bear Rug

Did you see The Golden Compass? I don’t advocate killing animals to decorate your home, but I couldn’t help imagining that those Armored Bears would make great rugs. Throw a cushion on the big helmeted head and you’ve got a nice seat, too.

Remainder Idea #1: The other Six Degrees of Separation

We’ve all heard the theory that every person on this planet is separated by every other person by six degrees. But one day I realized that something else is separated by six degrees. Every minute on a clock face is separated from the previous and next minute by six degrees. I think there might be something interesting that an be done with that concept. I tried coming up with a clock design incorporating the idea, playing with the six on the bottom of the clock in the designs, but I wasn’t crazy about anything I came up with.

Bonus Remainder Idea: Blabacus, the Blogging Abacus

I have no idea what I was thinking when I wrote down “Blabacus, the Blogging Abacus.” I must have though it was a good enough idea to write it down, but now I just stare at it wondering what I could have possibly been thinking of. Blabacus the Blogging Abacus. Is that an Abacus that has a blog? Is that an Abacus that is used as a tool for blogging? I have no idea.

July 8, 2008

Idea: Thsrs, The Shorter Thesaurus

Popular new social networking services like Twitter, where users write extremely short messages about whatever’s on their minds, present a challenge: How can you intelligently get across a complex thought in just 140 characters without needing to use ugly abbreviations (e.g. “w/o needing 2 use ugly abbrev’s”)?

If only there were a service that helps with the struggle of rewriting a 146-letter message to fit in a 140 character limit. Well now there is: Thsrs, the thesaurus that only gives you synonyms shorter than the word you’re looking up. Just enter one of the longer words in your message, and Thsrs will suggest shorter words to use instead.

Try out the embedded version below, and bookmark so it’s always handy when you need it.*


1. Enter a long word.

2. Receive shorter synonyms.

* I considered calling it Sesquipedalian but I can never remember how to spell that. Thsrs was developed using the Big Huge Thesaurus API, and coding help from my friend Jay. This is a beta version, of course, so let me know if things go wrong.

Update: Thsrs is now available as a plug-in for your browser! Check out the Thsrs page for details.

Update: I thought I’d make a note about the word source, as some people have commented that Thsrs sometimes returns surprising results. Thsrs currently uses the Big Huge Thesaurus, which is based on the Princeton University WordNet Database, and has the distinction of being the only thesaurus I found with an API. If you know of a better easily-accessible Thesaurus word source, let me know and I’ll see about switching over. In the meantime, additions to the database can be suggested by visiting the BHT, looking up a word, and using the “Suggest” form at the bottom of the results page.

June 10, 2008

Idea: A Bar in Silicon Valley

I once decided it would be a good idea to name a bar in San Antonio “The Basement” so tour guides at the Alamo actually have an answer when jokesters ask where the basement is. But it turns out there actually is a bar in San Antonio called The Basement. This time I’ve got a name for a bar that doesn’t seem to exist already as far as my Google Search can tell (I’m sure someone will tell me if I’m wrong). This bar would probably best be located in Silicon Valley:

The Progress Bar

May 17, 2008

60 Seconds in the Life of Commuters

Part 32 in an ongoing series of (approximately) 60 second films.

May 1, 2008

Googlyi: An iGoogle Theme

[Update: Googlyi is now an officially listed theme on iGoogle.]

This week, Google debuted a new series of iGoogle themes created by “world-class artists and innovators.” Somehow they managed to miss me when they sent out invitations asking people to create a theme, but I decided to create my own theme anyway.

I present: Googlyi, an animated iGoogle theme.

That’s right. Not only does it change throughout the day, but those googly eyes watch you while you work and generally creep you out.

I’m going to submit it to Google for inclusion in their gallery, but in the meantime you can preview it here [update: use the official listing instead]. Let me know if anything doesn’t work for you throughout the day so I can fix it before I submit.

Note: I think you need to be signed in to Google to see the preview.

April 4, 2008

Eyeglasses and the pushing up thereof

I’ve noticed lately that there seem to be three four distinct ways that people push up their glasses, and yet not a single study has been done about this. “10 Things You Can Tell About Your Man By How He Pushes Up His Glasses” seems like a perfect headline for a women’s magazine in the supermarket checkout line, and yet nobody is doing this important research. So here’s an overview:

Method 1: Placing one hand on each side of the frame, use the fingertips or midfingers of both hands in concert to raise the glasses into a comfortable position.

Celebrity who uses Method 1: Actress Tina Fey

Method 2: Using the fingers of just one hand, grab the frame front securely on one side and push the glasses up into a comfortable position.

Celebrity who uses Method 2: Magician Penn Jillette

Method 3: Using just one finger, press upward on the bridge of the frame, raising the glasses into a comfortable position.

Celebrity who uses Method 3: Journalist Clark Kent

Method 4: [Added after being mentioned by Pavel in the comments] Spread the hands across the face, with a thumb on one end of the frame and a finger on the other. In one motion, push the glasses up into a comfortable position.

Celebrity who uses Method 4: Pavel in the comments below

I think method 2 is the inferior method, because it raises the glasses unevenly and could cause strain on the end pieces or hinges. Method 3, meanwhile, may be the simplest and most efficient method, but seems to be associated with nerd behavior for some reason. Do people deliberately use method 2 over method 3 just to look cooler? Method 4 is efficient, but I’m not a fan because it temporarily obstructs one’s vision. But perhaps there is a refined technique I haven’t considered. I have not yet formed an opinion about method 1. But surely there is a university out there looking for some useless research to do, right?

March 17, 2008

Idea: The Bulbdial Clock

Update 12/4/09: In conjunction with Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories, I’m pleased to announce that you can now buy a kit to actually build Bulbdial Clock! Visit the product page for more information.

I think we can all agree that sundials pretty much suck. They only have an hour hand, they don’t work at night or indoors, their accuracy changes with the seasons, and if you happen to live in the Southern hemisphere they run backwards. And yet, we all would love to be able to tell the time by looking at shadows, right?

That’s why I’ve come up with the Bulbdial Clock.

The Bulbdial Clock has no hands — just one pole in the center of the clock, and three light sources of varying heights which revolve around the pole casting shadows. In the model illustrated above, the light sources are each attached to a ring which rotates around the pole. The innermost ring rotates once per minute, casting a “second hand” shadow. The middle ring rotates once per hour, and casts the “minute hand” shadow. And the outer ring rotates once every 12 hours, casting the “little hand” shadow.

The Bulbdial Clock can be used flat like a traditional sundial, or mounted vertically on a wall. A variation on the design intended for large-scale installation (such as in a museum) involves a pole sticking up in the middle of a room, while the light sources are mounted on the ceiling, shining down on the pole as they rotate around it.

The Bulbdial Clock solves most of the sundial’s problems, but it still has a problem of its own: It doesn’t work in bright light. So the Bulbdial Clock is best suited for dim spaces such as restaurants and nightclubs.

Update: Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories has built a working model and posted several photos of the process. (4/7/09)

Previously: An Orange Clockwork

March 4, 2008

The Other Art of Courtroom Sketch Artists

In 1996, Supreme Court Justice David Souter told a congressional panel that “the day you see a camera come into our courtroom, it’s going to roll over my dead body.” While the controversy over whether or not cameras should be allowed in courtrooms rages on, sketch artists remain fairly non-controversial, covering even the most important trials. The general public sees their artwork on the news, online, and in print. These artists see the trials for us, and often their artwork is our only glimpse into the proceedings.

I found myself wondering who these artists are. Is courtroom sketching a full time job? Are these people fine artists or commercial artists? And what kind of artwork do they do outside the courtroom? I decided to contact a range of courtroom sketch artists and see what I could find out. There are many more talented artists in courtrooms than just the seven I contacted, and I present them in no particular order. (All artwork shown with permission of the artists).


In the courtroom: Mona has been covering celebrity trials in Los Angeles for more than 25 years. Her courtroom sketches have appeared on ABC, CNN, Entertainment Weekly, the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere. She recently released a book called Captured! featuring sketches and commentaries from a quarter century of celebrity trials.

Outside the courtroom: Before she began sketching trials, Mona was a fashion illustrator. She has illustrated several fashion books and has taught fashion sketching at UCLA. Some of her fine art is available in posters from Winn Devon. I think she conveys a lot of elegance in seemingly simple lines.

On the web:


In the courtroom:In 1975, Steve was passing through Philadelphia on his way to Hollywood, when a photojournalist friend offered him a press pass to watch the moving of the Liberty Bell with him. As luck would have it, the bad weather that day prevented the photographers from getting the shots they needed, but the fact that an illustrator was present meant that the media could at least get an artist’s rendition of the event. The Philadelphia Daily News was impressed by his work and asked if he’d ever done courtroom sketching before. He hadn’t, but he was willing to give it a try. For nearly 30 years since then, Steve covered court cases for every major media outlet, drawing his courtroom pictures with color markers. A drawing Steve made of Judge Lance Ito, his staff, and all the major players from the OJ Simpson trial hangs framed above the juror box in Judge Ito’s courtroom.

Outside the courtroom: Steve finally made it to Hollywood, where he has a prolific career drawing storyboards for major motion pictures including The Day After Tomorrow, Along Came Polly, and Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. Steve also does fantasy and sci-fi illustration and is working on a book of stories from his illustration adventures. Here’s an example of his storyboard work for The Day After Tomorrow:

On the web: and


In the courtroom: From 1973 to 1998, Marilyn worked for WABC in New York, covering some of the city’s most famous trials. She was there for the courtroom appearances of Woody Allen, Martha Stewart, Don King, Sid Vicious, Mick Jagger, and more. In a 2006 interview, she recalled drawing notorious mob boss Jon Gotti: “He was always turned out in his Armani suits with his hair blown out and back, he exuded charisma. I saw him as terrifying. I used to watch him through binoculars. And one day he wagged his finger at me and pointed to his neck. I had been drawing his fat neck, and he didn’t like it.” Marilyn recently released a book called Art of Justice recounting 30 infamous trials from the artist’s perspective.

Outside the courtroom: Besides her illustrious career as a courtroom sketch artist, Marilyn is an accomplished painter whose post-impressionistic work has earned several solo exhibitions. Here are some examples:

On the web: and


In the courtroom: Patrick recently moved to a state that allows cameras in the courtroom, which pretty much put the kibash on his courtroom sketch art. But for 10 years prior to the move, Patrick’s courtroom art appeared in numerous regional and national press. I quite like his style, which he executes in chalk pastels and colored pencils (“very messy” he notes) because it’s not exactly what I imagine when I picture typical courtroom sketch art. These sketches are from the Kirby Puckett trial and the Marilyn Manson trial:

Outside the courtroom: Patrick describes himself as “a reality-based artist” adding, “I do still lifes, landscapes, and illustrations that make wry comments and witty observations on modern life.” His website features oil paintings depicting Bob’s Big Boy, a series of Pez Dispensers, and a cow-shaped creamer. Others depict seemingly mundane corners of suburban landscape. And his portfolio is rounded out with commercial work showing both creative and technical illustration skills.

On the web: and


In the courtroom: Dana says that the most memorable court case she’s sat in on was NBC Sportscaster Marv Albert’s sexual assault trial, which she describes as “one big surprise after the next.” In that case, Albert was accused of biting a woman, and it was revealed that he sometimes wore women’s underwear. Sometimes, Dana says, time restraints don’t allow her to finish her sketches in the courtroom, so she adds the finishing touches afterwards, even if that means setting up shop in the courthouse bathroom, using the sink for her watercolors. Dana’s courtroom art has appeared on CNN, ABC, FOX, and elsewhere.

Outside the courtroom: Dana’s illustrations have been featured in national publications like Newsweek, which used her work extensively for its article “The Day That Changed America” about the attacks of 9/11. On a more local scale, Dana does commissioned portraits for clients, and is even available as a caricaturist for events.

On the web:


In the courtroom: Paulette says about courtroom art: “Being a courtroom artist is like capturing lightning in a jar. The artist must grasp the image of the moment, hold it, and express it onto an 11x14 drawing pad in their lap without spilling ink, paint or supplies onto the lap of the person sitting beside them. The composition must tell the story at a glance. In all my art I go for essence. The essence of my subject in the mood of the moment is my goal. I have written a biography with artwork of the great radical criminal defense lawyer J. Tony Serra, and I’m working on a book about the world’s greatest mime, Marcel Marceau. I learned about essence from Marceau and about drama in the courtroom from Serra.”

Outside the courtroom: In addition to being a courtroom artist and author, Paulette is also a photographer, a magician, a mime, and a fine artist who work was first exhibited in a joint show with her father, designer Paul T. Frankl. Here are two of her portraits:

On the web:


In the courtroom: The United States Supreme Court is Art’s regular beat, drawing for NBC News. But he has covered cases across the country, and even as far south as Guantanamo Bay where his sketches are the only visual records of various military proceedings. He began doing courtroom sketches in 1976, and works mostly with colored pencils and watercolor markers. I asked Art what he thinks of cameras in the courtroom. He said, “My fear is that trials could become reality shows. The viewing public, not realizing that the trial they are witnessing, with commentary from pundits and sandwiched between commercials, is very different from the case the jury gets.” Here is Art’s sketch of last week’s Supreme Court arguments in the Exxon Valdez case:

Outside the courtroom: Art’s courtroom work make up most of his visual artistry these days, but he does practice two other kinds of art that I think are worth mentioning. First of all, he writes an interesting blog where you can see Art’s latest drawings, along with commentary about the cases he covers. And until recently, Art was playing Mandolin in the Baltimore Mandolin Orchestra. You can see Art in this photo, partially obscured, third from the left:

On the web:

Thanks to all the artists for their participation!

February 19, 2008

Idea: A new typography term

keming. noun. The result of improper kerning.

Update: Now available as a t-shirt.

Update 2: I’m writing this update several years later. Since I coined this term, it has made its way into textbooks, a Google easter egg, and other places. So I’ve written an updated post to catalog all the places people are using keming.

February 18, 2008

Idea: The last product Polaroid should make

You may have heard the recent announcement that Polaroid will stop making instant film soon. They’re manufacturing just enough to last through 2009, and then they’re shutting down the factories. That gives them almost two years to develop what I think should be the last Polaroid product: a digital picture frame that makes sure the familiar look of a Polaroid photo lives on.

You just put your memory card in a slot on the bottom of the frame, and navigate using the touch screen to select whether you want to view your photos in “Standard” mode, which functions like any other digital picture frame, or in “Classic” mode, where each photo slowly fades into view over the course of a minute or so while you watch and wonder what photo is coming up. (In Classic mode, you can try shaking the frame to make the photo fade into view more quickly, but it won’t really do anything).

If you’re the sort of person who prefers to pin your Polaroid pictures to your cork board in your cubicle, you can take advantage of this innovative feature: The stand on the back of the frame can rotate to an upward position, sticking up above the top of the frame and revealing a hole for you to stick a pushpin through. The rechargeable internal battery allows you to showcase your photos that way even if you don’t want a wire dangling down from your cork board.

The bottom portion of the frame features a dry erase surface, so you can write your own title for your slideshow by hand, using a dry erase marker. Because sometimes it’s nice to preserve at least a little bit of the old way of doing things.

Previously: Idea: The Digital Jewel Box

February 11, 2008

Idea: Scientist Valentines

Thursday is Valentine’s Day, a holiday where it’s customary to give a card to your loved one just to say “I Love You.” But even before the Catholic Church decided to honor one of its Saints with a holiday on February 14, this month was celebrated as a month of fertility festivals going all the way back to ancient Greece and Rome. I’ve decided to honor an entirely different group of people with this collection of romantic cards you can e-mail to your loved ones on February 14th, or any other day of the year. It’s Scientist Valentines!

You can click on these to get larger versions:

Previously: You say you want an evolution…

November 1, 2007

Halloween on the Upper West Side

Every Halloween, West 69th Street closes to traffic, and thousands of kids go trick or treating from building to building. This year, I set up my camera in one building’s lobby and photographed some of the kids in their costumes. I thought I’d share a few of the shots (I particularly liked the little girl named Dalia who was dressed as the “Dalia Lama”):

September 27, 2007

Idea: The Histogram as the Image

Yesterday, I posted the image seen here and told you that there is another picture hidden somewhere within it. I challenged my readers to find it. After a bit of confusion in the comments, someone finally declared that they found it: “Hahahaha! Cool! It’s the NY skyline!” Another reader noted, “The first thing I did was to try to tweak the image using the Levels command. I was greeted with a surprise right there in the dialog.”

Yes, the New York City skyline is hidden in that picture’s histogram. It looks like this:

Several people have asked how I did it. So I’ll explain, but I might get a little longwinded in my attempt to be clear. Feel free to just skim and look at the pictures if you don’t want to read it all.

The idea for this project started with a question: Is it possible to create an image that depicts its own histogram? (A histogram, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a bar graph representing all the tones in an image — it typically looks something like a mountain range). I played around a little bit in Photoshop and the closest thing I came up with was this image:

…which has this histogram:

Yeah, okay. That was neat I guess. But I couldn’t come up with any other shapes that worked. But all this thinking about histograms and what they represent got me wondering if I could control what a histogram looks like by manipulating the image. Could I create something recognizable? To try it, I would need to find something that would be entirely black, horizontal in orientation, and not require any holes or vertical gaps. A skyline seemed perfect.

I did a Google Image Search for “manhattan skyline silhouette” and was tickled to see that the perfect image came up in a result from my own site! I once posted an entry about New York City as depicted in the animated film Antz. Google showed me this image from that entry on the first page of search results:

A typical 8-bit grayscale image can have 256 possible shades of gray. A histogram represents the amount of pixels at each level from 0 to 255, and is 256 pixels wide. So the first thing I did was shrink down the Antz skyline to 256 pixels wide. This meant that each vertical band of black pixels in the skyline represented a value from 0 (black) to 255 (white).

Then I created a new document. The first column of pixels in the skyline image represents value “0” and has 43 black pixels. So my new document needed 43 pixels with the value “0.” Column 2 of my skyline represents value “1” and has 46 black pixels. So my new document needed 46 pixels with the value “1.” And so forth.

Another way to think of it is to say that I took all of the “skyline” pixels from this image:

…and put them in a new document, with no other pixels. Then I rearranged all those pixels into a square from dark to light. The result was very close to perfect. The histogram looked pretty much like the skyline, but it was stretched vertically.

Normally, a histogram is scaled vertically so that whatever value has the most pixels reaches all the way to the top of the graph, and everything else is sized proportionately. In this case, it is the shade of gray which forms the World Trade Center antenna that has the most pixels. So this is roughly what the histogram looked like:

I was thrilled that it worked, but I didn’t want it stretched vertically like that. In order to prevent the WTC tower from being too tall (and everything else scaling upwards with it) I had to put extra pixels of one value in my image, so there would be more pure of that value than any other value, which would push the others down so that the graph remains proportionate. I chose pure white, because this creates a thin black line at the far right side of the histogram where you don’t notice it.

I could have added this row of white pixels at the bottom of the new image, but instead I typed my website name in white, and placed it within the image. In doing so, I copied over some other pixels, which altered the skyline. So I had to put it in a place where the “damage” to those buildings wouldn’t be that noticeable. It took trial and error, but I found a good spot. It changed the skyline on the left side a little bit (compare to the “Antz” image). But it still looks like buildings, so I accepted it. Also, this way I get some credit if the image gets passed around without attribution.

I did it all tediously by hand, but I think with a little tinkering, someone could write a program to simplify the process, taking a 256 x 100 silhouetted image and extrapolating a new image with that as the histogram. And the final image file doesn’t need to be a square with a gradient, either. Those pixels could be in any order. They could be completely scrambled. Or they could be laid out in a way that shows an image of an Apple (as in “The Big Apple”). As long as no new pixels are introduced or deleted, the histogram remains the same. But that is a lot more work than I was prepared to do.

Oh, I almost forgot: I doubled the image size so it would look a little better on the website. As long as I resized it using the “Nearest Neighbor” method instead of some other interpolation method, every pixel (and therefore every shade represented in the image) would be duplicated identically, keeping the proportions in the histogram the same.

Update: A reader has taken this idea even further!

August 30, 2007

The Beetlejuice House


Beetlejuice HouseThe Tim Burton movie Beetlejuice takes place mostly in one location — a house in Connecticut where Adam and Barbara Maitland lived, and which the Deetz family moved into after the Maitlands died in a horrible car accident. The house is also featured prominently on the poster. But a story that takes place in one location doesn’t present very many options for establishing shots throughout the film. How many ways are there to shoot the same house?

It turns out, there are at least ten ways, including the opening shot of the Maitland House as a miniature. A subplot in the movie about a hideous remodeling of the Maitland home by its new residents lends variety to the shots of the house as construction progresses throughout the film.

Here are the 10 different establishing shots, in chronological order:

Beetlejuice House

Beetlejuice House

Beetlejuice House

Beetlejuice House

Beetlejuice House

Beetlejuice House

Beetlejuice House

Beetlejuice House

Beetlejuice House

Beetlejuice House

The movie takes place in Connecticut, but was filmed in East Corinth, Vermont. The house shown in these shots is not a real house; it’s just a facade built for the movie.

August 22, 2007

Dog Day Anniversary

Update 9/23/09: Google just made a large collection of old LIFE Magazine issues available for viewing on-line. You can now read the original article that inspired Dog Day Afternoon in its entirety on-line.

35 years ago today, a couple guys named John Wojtowicz and Sal Naturile held up a Chase Manhattan bank in Brooklyn at the corner of Avenue P and East 3rd Street. At the time, New York City was experiencing one or two bank robberies per day. But before it was over, this one became the hottest thing on TV. The police were alerted, hostages were taken, and 12 hours later the ordeal finally came to an end after several strange turns.

dogday09.gifI don’t want to go too much further into what happened, because the story was turned into the excellent 1975 movie Dog Day Afternoon, starring Al Pacino and directed by Sidney Lumet, and some of you may not have seen it before. I don’t want to spoil it. I highly recommend it as a great movie to watch during these dog days of summer.

The movie was based on a Life Magazine article about the holdup called “The Boys in the Bank.” I dug up the original article, by PF Kluge and Thomas Moore, and was amazed to discover that the photos of the event looked surprisingly similar to stills from the movie. I knew that Lumet had strived to achieve a realistic look to his film, but there were many details that were nearly identical to the real events.

Here are some side-by-side comparisons. On the left, we have photos from the actual crime scene. On the right, we have images from the movie.

John (called “Sonny” in the movie, played by Al Pacino) talks to cops outside the bank:

dogday01.jpg dogday02.jpg

Ernest (called “Leon” in the movie, played by Chris Sarandan) arrives at the scene:

dogday03.jpg dogday04.jpg

Sal (called “Sal” in the movie, played by John Cazale) was actually 18 when the events took place. I think Cazale looks quite a bit older. But I can forgive them. Because it’s John Cazale.

dogday07.jpg dogday08.jpg

Cops (called “cops” in the movie, played in part by James Broderick) huddle behind a car across the street with reporters, watching events unfold:

dogday05.jpg dogday06.jpg

I should have an original copy of the magazine coming my way soon, and when it does I’ll try to add a couple more side-by-side comparisons using more photos from the story. In the meantime, as further encouragement for you to watch this movie, here’s a famous scene (that’s relatively spoiler free) to tease you. Enjoy.

August 1, 2007

Photos from the Galapagos Islands

By now you may have seen my 60 Second Videos from the Galapagos Islands. As promised, here is a sample of photos from the trip. The rectangular photos were shot by me, and the beautiful ethereal square photos were shot by Ellen. I think several of her photos, which she shot with a $23 Holga camera, are far more beautiful than mine, which I shot with equipment that cost a hell of a lot more. You can see more of both our photos in slide-show form here.

Marine Iguana
Marine Iguana

Trees on North Seymour Island

Sea Lions
Sea Lions

Flightless Cormorant
Flightless Cormorant

Isabela Island
A Darwin Bush grows through the lava on Isabela Island

Marine Iguanas
More Marine Iguanas. I love these guys.

Santa Cruz Island
Scalesia trees on Santa Cruz Island

Soccer Break
The crew from our boat plays soccer on Floreana Island

Blue Footed Boobies
Blue Footed Boobies

Bartolome Island
Bartolome Island

Nazca Booby
Nazca Booby

Waved Albatrosses
Waved Albatrosses

Tuff Cone
A tuff cone lava formation

Giant Tortoise
Giant Tortoise

Back to the Beluga
Back to our boat, the Beluga

You can see more of both our photos in slide-show form here.

May 23, 2007

Idea: You Say You Want An Evolution (T-Shirt)

Today I had an idea for a t-shirt. Here’s the artwork I came up with:

Evolution Road

I decided to make it available with or without the caption, in designs suitable for dark t-shirts or light t-shirts. I like it both ways:

Evolution Road

It’s Charles Darwin meets Liverpool and it’s available now in dozens of styles and colors for men and women in the Ironic Sans store!

April 27, 2007

Idea: Uncensor the Internet with Greasemonkey

Uncensor the InternetThere’s an article on-line from Money Magazine called “50 Bulls**t Jobs.” That’s right. Bulls**t. With those two asterisks in there. Come on. We know what word they mean. So why not just say it? If they think we’re adult enough to be reminded of the word, why don’t they think we’re adult enough to see the actual word? (The article is based on a book by the same name, but without the asterisks)

Oh, I know. It’s the kids. They might be reading. Sh*t. I didn’t f*cking think of that. It would be terrible if they would see the word “Bulls**t” in print, but it’s okay for them to see it with the asterisks, right? They’ll have no idea what that means. And I’m sure they have no idea what “the F word” is, so let’s just keep calling it that.

But what about us adults who can decide for ourselves whether we want to see foul language or not? Is there a way for us to avoid all this f****ng unnecessary self-censorship littering the internet?

There is now. I’ve created the “Uncensor the Internet” script for Greasemonkey (a Firefox plug-in that lets you add all sorts of useful functionality to your web browser, available here). If you’re running Firefox with the Greasemonkey plug-in, just install this script, and see all the foul language that people are pretending they don’t use.

It’s also available as a standalone plug-in for those of you who aren’t running Greasemonkey. Right-click on the link to save it to your desktop, and then drag it into your browser window.

To see an example of the script in action, reload this page after you’ve installed it.

Previously: The CNN Fortune Cookie Greasemonkey script. It automatically adds the phrase “in bed” to the end of headlines.

Update: I’ve fixed the script so it knows the difference between “a whole” and “a**hole,” and it knows the difference between “batch,” “botch,” “butch,” and “b*tch.”

April 9, 2007

Idea: The Digital Jewel Box

I love having my music on my hard drive or iPod, but one reason I still buy CDs and then rip them is that I enjoy holding the jewel box in my hand and reading the liner notes while the music plays. I just hate how much space all those jewel boxes and liner note inserts take up.

Digital Jewel BoxSo how about making a Digital Jewel Box? Here’s how it would work: The DJB sits next to your stereo or computer in its charging dock. Similar to a digital picture frame, it syncs wirelessly to your home network via WiFi, syncing itself with iTunes or whatever digital player you use. When a new song comes on, the DJB’s screen shows the album cover art for that song.

At any time, you can take the DJB out of its dock, sit on the couch with it, and use the controls on its side to flip through the rest of the liner notes, including track listings, lyrics, song credits, acknowledgments, and whatever else is included in the paper version. The pleasure of flipping through liner notes doesn’t need to go away just because CDs do.

You can also use the DJB as a remote control, as long as your media player supports it. The DJB has an infrared transmitter, and the charging dock has an IR receiver. So if you’re sitting on your couch flipping through your favorite album’s liner notes and you decide you’d rather be listening to a different track, you can skip forward or back by pressing buttons on the DJB itself. If you want to hear a different album entirely, use the DJB’s menu to flip through your music. The songs themselves aren’t stored on the DJB, but the track listings are.

When you’re not playing music, you can set your DJB to turn off completely, or double as a digital picture frame, displaying your personal pictures.

Here’s another mock-up of what the DJB might look like, but probably with fancier transitions than these:

Digital Jewel Box

April 1, 2007

New species of falcon named after Millennium Falcon

Millennium Falcon Press ReleaseAs a Star Wars fan, I was excited to read this e-mail from my friend Hugh who’s doing an apprenticeship studying birds in Madagascar. The lab he’s working at recently discovered a new species of falcon, and they’ve decided to name it the “Millennium Falcon.” From his e-mail:

The scientific name is falco milleannus which means Millenium Falcon. How cool is that! The “official” explanation has nothing to do with Star Wars, but we’re all getting a good laugh out of it here because of the double meaning. My boss came up with the name. Check out the press release, they even quoted me at the end!


You can read the whole press release here. Very cool.

February 27, 2007

50 States in 10 Minutes

50 States in 10 MinutesOccasionally during downtime on a particularly slow photo shoot, I’ve played this game with my assistants. Everyone takes out a piece of paper, and numbers it from 1 to 50. Then you get 10 minutes to write down every state you can remember. Finally, you compare it to the master list and see who got the most answers. 10 minutes seems like more than enough time to remember a list of 50 items, right? And yet somehow I’ve never managed to get more than 48 of them.

Well, you don’t need to get out a piece of paper or a timer. I’ve put together an on-line version of this game. It’s a bit low-tech [see update below for high-tech version], but it works.

Have a go at it and then post your score in the comments.

Update: Thanks to reader Erik Wannebo, we now have a nifty interactive version which keeps track of your progress as you go and tallies your score for you. Check it out!

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 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 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 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

December 19, 2006

Receipts of Unusual Size

K Mart ReceiptHow many customers do you think it takes before K-Mart goes through a mile of paper in cash register receipts? It may not be as many as you think.

On Sunday, I found myself needing to purchase a cheap lamp. So I went down to my local K-Mart and picked one out. I also bought a light bulb. Upon checkout, along with the merchandise, I was given this ridiculously long receipt. I measured it. It’s 21 inches long. I bought two items and got a receipt that’s 21 inches long. Is wasting that much paper really necessary?

I couldn’t even get the whole thing to fit on my scanner. I had to scan it in pieces and then stitch it together in Photoshop.

I did a little math. If every customer purchases exactly two items (an underestimation, I’m sure), then K-Mart goes through approximately one mile of paper every 3,017 customers. Only the top 6 inches of the receipt contains information relevant to the purchase: the date, items purchased, price, store number, etc. The remaining 15 inches contains ads for things I could have purchased if I’d known about them before I went to the register, and also a list of store hours. I don’t know about you, but when I want to know a store’s hours or what they sell, I never dig out old receipts to find the answer. I never even glance at that information. Are there people who read their old receipts? It seems like a big waste of paper to me. 15 wasted inches of paper per customer. That comes to one mile of paper wasted every 4,224 customers.

How many miles of paper must K-Mart waste every day?

I wasn’t going to attempt to answer that question, but then I realized that once I had my receipt scanned in and resized and placed alongside the text on this page, the image was longer than the text. And that was messing up the layout of this page, causing my browser to do some weird things. So I decided to do some more digging and see what I could learn. K-Mart’s corporate website has all sorts of information about the number of stores they have, but not the number of customers. The most recent data I could find was in a BusinessWeek article from 2000, where K-Mart’s CEO referenced K-Mart’s “30 million store customers a week.” By now, many of those store customers are probably shopping on-line in greater numbers than before, and the number of K-Mart stores has surely changed since they filed for bankruptcy in 2002, but even if only half as many people still shop in the stores, that comes to 507 miles of paper wasted by K-Mart every single day in useless cash register receipt ads.

I think I see an easy way for K-Mart to become a bit more eco-friendly.

December 4, 2006

Idea: A building shaped like Godzilla

Godzilla Building
The Godzilla Building - Artist’s Rendition
The people of Tokyo should construct a giant building shaped like Godzilla. Imagine what it would do to the city’s skyline, and to the tourism industry. People would come from all over to take pictures. His eyes could flash red so airplanes don’t hit him. There could be an observatory in his mouth so people could look out over Tokyo. One of his arms could house a bar, and the other arm a restaurant. They could serve drinks called Mothra Martinis and dishes like Grilled Gamera Steaks, with a side of Mashed Potatoes.

Godzilla Building
The Godzilla Building - Artist’s Rendition
Conversations could take place like this one (translated from Japanese):

“Hey, I just got a new job!”

“Oh, really? Where do you work?”

“You know the Godzilla Building? I’m just a couple blocks South of there.”

Or maybe it could be partially residential. And then people could talk about that famous artist who used to live in the Godzilla Building in the apartment right above Godzilla’s left nipple. And then they could argue over whether or not Godzilla even has nipples.

Godzilla Building
The Godzilla Building - Artist’s Rendition
Monster Movie conventions could be held in the building’s grand ballroom. A concert hall could be built between his legs. The Tokyo Philharmonic could call it their home. Season Ticket holders could get discounts at the Godzilla Gift Shop. There could even be a park at the bottom of the building, with Godzilla’s tail circling around it. They would call it Godzilla Park, naturally. And it could have a fountain in the shape of his footprint.

November 13, 2006

Interview: Louis Klein, audience member of nearly every episode of Saturday Night Live

(The fourth in a series of occasional interviews with people I find interesting or who work on interesting projects.)

Fifteen years ago, I spent a Friday night camped out on the mezzanine level of 30 Rockefeller Center, hoping to get one of the standby tickets to Saturday Night Live that are handed out on Saturday mornings. The line forms at around 8:00 Friday night. That’s when I met Louis Klein, the SNL fan who had seen almost every episode of Saturday Night Live in person, going back to the very first episode.

Last Friday, I decided to go back to the SNL Standby Line and see if Louis was still waiting in line to get his ticket. In the years since I camped out there, the line had moved from the warmth of the indoor mezzanine to the chill of 49th street, but Louis was still there, right behind a group of teenagers who beat him to the first spot (one of the teens asked about my website, “Ironic Sans? Does it have anything to do with Horatio Sanz?”). When Louis stands in line these days, he is accompanied by his wife Jamie, whom he met on-line around six years ago. And by “on-line” I mean on the internet, not the standby line.

I spoke with Louis about his SNL Standby hobby.

When Saturday Night Live started, nobody knew it was going to be a big hit. Why did you go to the first episode of a new show that nobody really knew?

Louis Klein
Louis Klein with his wife Jamie
Prior to SNL, I was going to a lot of game shows. Like, I watched the game show called Jackpot, which was done in Studio 8H prior to SNL. It ended its run in the summer of ‘75, hosted by Geoff Edwards. I was also going to the Pyramid — any one of them, whether it was 10, 20, 25, 100 thousand, 2 cents, you know, whatever it was. I went to all of them over at TV-15 which doesn’t exist anymore. Any game shows that were done here, if any, I went to them also. So I was notorious as far as NBC was concerned. They knew who I was because I went to all the shows.

Then in April of ‘75 I found out that the show SNL was coming up, so I went to the Guest Relations department and said I hear you’re doing this show. They said, Well, they want 500 people in 8H. They want to do a show that’s going to be a run through for sound purposes. We’re going to have an audience for that, and you can float around the building and find somebody who’s going to give out standby tickets. So I come over here right after work, and I found the standby ticket and I got it and I went inside and I stood in line.

I got upstairs. I saw a full fledged comedy routine by George Carlin. I saw a full fledged comedy routine by Billy Crystal. I saw performances by Janis Ian and Billy Preston. I saw comedy by the Not Ready for Prime Time Players including Jon Belushi and Gilda Radner among others. Now that’s three and a quarter hours of pure entertainment for free. And I could come back tomorrow night. And I did. And I got in a second time. I came back the following week and I didn’t get into the second show but I wasn’t going to give up at this point. This is a great thing to do on a Saturday night. I went to the third show, I got in, and in the first 5 years I’ve seen 59 out of 106 [episodes].

At what point did you realize it was turning into something you were making a regular routine?

I never really thought of it that way at that particular time. It was just something to do on a Saturday night. I just came over. If I got in, I got in. If I didn’t, I went home.

My memory from meeting you 15 years ago was that you had seen every episode live except for a few. But I guess you’ve missed more than that.

In the first 5 years I’d seen 59 out of 106. So I missed 47 shows then. To date I’ve missed I think 83. That means in the last 27 years I’ve missed 36 shows.

How many have you seen?

This is my 528th show.

The original producer, Lorne Michaels, is still with SNL. But he left the show for a few years in the middle. So is there anyone who outnumbers you in the number of shows attended?

Don Pardo. He only missed one year. It was the ‘81 season.

How come after all this time you still have to wait in the Standby Line? Why don’t they just give you season tickets?

They do. I’ve had season tickets since 1990.

But you just enjoy the Standby?

When they gave that to me, they asked me to do Standby anyway, just in case the tickets didn’t come through. So I have the standby tickets to back it up. However I never needed them, and now I just walk in. But I still do standby because I’m helping NBC out watching this, make sure people don’t jump and things like that. It helps them out. If something goes wrong they know that I’ll take care of it. And then I give the details to them later in the evening. If they have to do something about it they’ll do something.

What’s the worst thing you’ve seen go wrong while on standby?

Jumping the line, and having people join the line. That’s a no-no, because basically the people who are joining are jumping the line. Once somebody tried to get me off the line. This was for the Soundgarden and Jim Carrey episode. We were all standing inside because there was nobody out here, and then all of a sudden somebody let me know that somebody was out here and so I came out, and he was standing over by the pole over here, two guys, and I said all the standbys are inside. He said, Oh, I’m sorry. This is where the line is and I’m going to be number one and two. Well I said, No, I’m number one. He says no, we’re going to be number one. And he argued with me all night at this pole. And I was a little perturbed about it because they weren’t really nice about the whole thing. Well when they didn’t take any standbys for the dress rehearsal, these two guys nearly blew their top to NBC. They said, A standby got upstairs! So NBC checked to see if any standby tickets were upstairs, but I went up on my regular ticket. Little did they realize, I went to the party that night!

Do you get to go the after-party often?

Only the season finale, if they ask. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.

When I was here 15 years ago, the line was inside. When did they move it outside?

‘93. Letterman was still here at the time, and according to what I’ve heard, somebody did damage to the building inside in the mezzanine. So Rockefeller Center said no you can’t be up here anymore, because they have to protect their tenants. And as a result all the lines were put outside. The line started at that time on this side of the building. And then NBC put it on the 50th street side because the Rainbow Room was complaining that we look like homeless people. Now we’re back on this side. We’d love to be inside the building again. They’ve got plenty of room on hand. But that’s not going to happen.

I seem to remember that 15 years ago you told me Tim Kazurinsky mentioned your name during a Weekend Update segment.

No, no. Not Weekend Update. It was in a sketch that he did. The Guru sketch. His name was Havnagootiim Vishnuuerheer [pronounced “havin’-a-good-time wish-you-were-here”]. What he was doing was he was answering Unanswered Questions of the universe. So he invited everybody in the country to write in unanswered questions that they had, and he picked one of mine, and all of a sudden I’m at dress rehearsal and he says, “Louis Klein from Ridgewood New York wants to know, does God wear Pajamas when he sleeps?”

And what was the answer?

The Guru says, “No he doesn’t. All he wears is a t-shirt. and on the t-shirt it says I created the universe and all I got out of it was this lousy t-shirt.” That was a Flip Wilson show in December ‘83.

Did they mention your name on any other episodes?

Yes, they did. And Jamie too. This was in April of 2004. Will Ferrel was the host. And he was doing the Pepper Sketch, where Will was putting pepper on Will Forte’s salad. And the character’s name was Dr. Louis something, and his wife Jamie. In honor of my 500th show.

Who was the writer that wrote you into the script?

Will Forte.

Have you seen “Studio 60” and Tina Fey’s new show “30 Rock”?

I have.

What do you think?

They’re both great.

Which do you like better?

Oh I don’t know. I love Tina. I love Tracy [Morgan], too. And I relate more to 30 Rock than I do Studio 60 because of that. But I definitely like both shows.

Do you get to know the SNL cast members?

They all know me. They all come and say Hi. I’ve met most everybody. I was invited to the 25th anniversary show, and I went to that. I had to ask for a ticket, and they said that they already have a ticket for me. I was fairly shocked.

Do you have a favorite season of SNL? Or a least favorite season?

That’s a hard question. A favorite season? You know, I don’t remember what all the hosts and musical guests are, and it’s hard. I love them all. I mean, yes, you’re going to have somebody that doesn’t do too well, especially sports figures. I mean, if you want a show that I thought the host was terrible, okay, um… uh… there was… uh… I can’t even say that. I mean, I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings.

Thanks, Louis! As I packed up my notes and my recorder, Louis pointed out that he would be there for several more hours if I had any further questions. And if you have any questions, I’m sure you can find Louis exactly where I did, near the front of the Standby Line outside Rockefeller Center on Friday nights.

[The preceding transcript has been edited for space and clarity].

October 16, 2006

Idea: The Mr. T Virtual Playset

I saw a poster the other day advertising Mr. T’s new talk show on TV Land called I Pity The Fool. It got me thinking. Mr. T has had basically the same look for the entire time he’s been in the public spotlight. What if he shaved his mohawk? What if he shaved his beard? What would he look like?

After having trouble imagining it, I decided I might as well use Photoshop to help. A little cutting and pasting and — Wow. He sure looks different without the beard. Of course, once I had Mr. T without any facial hair, I found myself wondering what he would look like with different kinds of hair.

What would he look like with a pompadour? Or a handlebar mustache? Or a John Bolton mustache? What if Mr. T was wearing a hardhat and big goofy sunglasses? And so, with apologies to Mr. T, the Mr. T Virtual Playset was born.

Mr. T Virtual Playset

Click the image above to launch. Make sure JavaScript is enabled.

September 27, 2006

Interview: Seetharaman Narayanan

This is the second in a series of occasional interviews with people I find interesting or who work on interesting projects.

Seetharaman NarayananBy now, you either recognize the name, or you’re wondering who Seetharaman Narayanan is, and the difference probably depends on what you do for a living. If, like me, you have a job where you launch Photoshop on a daily basis, then maybe, like me, you can’t stop staring at this guy’s name on the Splash Screen every time it launches. Seetharaman Narayanan. It’s hard to look away. Sure, other people worked on Photoshop. But nobody else has a name like Seetharaman Narayanan.

If you too have been unable to look away from his name as you open Photoshop, you may be thinking, “I thought I was the only one!” Take comfort in knowing you’re not alone. Back in 2004, a simple comment was posted on the forum. It said, “Every time I open up photoshop I am mezmorized by this guy’s name. It’s all I can look at. Don’t know why…” Six pages of “Me, too!” responses followed.

He has gone on to inspire a Seetharaman Narayanan fan club group on Flickr, and being unable to get his name out of your head has been recognized as a sign of Photoshop addiction.

So I decided to find out just who this mysterious Seetharaman Narayanan is. What does he do? What does he think of his notoriety? And what’s interesting about him other than his name? Mr. Narayanan, who goes by the much shorter name “Seetha,” was nice enough to answer these questions and more.

When did you become aware of the fascination with your name among Photoshop users?

Jeff Schewe [Photographer] sent me an e-mail sometime in the fall of 2005 about the existence of Seetha’s fanclub thread from

What do you think about it?

I thought it was funny and was amazed at the amount of free time people had at their disposal. I always thought that I was fortunate in getting hired by Adobe at the right time since any Tom, Dick or Harry would have done the same thing I did and perhaps better than what I did. They may not have become famous unless they had some weird last name that is almost un-pronouncable.

How long have you been at Adobe?

I have been with Adobe for 15 years to date. I joined Adobe as a peon on Photoshop 2.5 on September 23, 1991. Peter Merrill (who now works on Acrobat and is still with Adobe) was the lead engineer on the task of making Photoshop run on Windows 3.1 and I was his deputy in the early days. Peter is one of the brightest engineers I have ever worked with in my 20 year career (he may just be the smartest of all!). I still remember the interview I had with Peter before I got hired at Adobe. Peter had this toy application (that later became Photoshop) with ugly Icons and Cursors he showed me and mentioned to me that he had that code ported over from the Mac and he could even open an image (Flower.psd which by the way, shipped as a sample file with Photoshop 2.5) on Windows. I had previously worked at CrystalGraphics and we had just ported over Crystal’s TOPAS over to the Mac platform just weeks prior to my interview with Adobe and I was totally under whelmed by Peter’s demo of Photoshop on Windows. In spite of my lack of enthusiasm, Peter hired me anyway and the rest is history.

What are you responsible for in Photoshop?

Lots of things. I joined Adobe as an engineer responsible for making the Windows port happen. After laying the foundation for the Windows effort, one of the first things I did for the product was to make it multi-threadable. Those days, Mac did not support multi-threading but Windows NT did. In my spare time, I wrote the multi-threading plug-in that took advantage of multiple processor in Photoshop. Peter was of immense help here. When I was re-writing the image processing algorithms in the plug-ins, he pointed to me that there was no need to do any image processing in the plug-in since the plug-in need not know about algorithms and it would be sufficient to just split the tasks and call the functions that knew how to do image processing. It just shows how stupid I was and how much of a genius that Peter was in pointing me to that simplicity. After we shipped 3.0, the Mac and Windows teams got merged and I worked on several things in the core product. Since the team always viewed me as the Windows guy, it would be interesting to note that I was one of the key persons responsible for the Photoshop port to Mac OS/X.

What is your professional background?

I have a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from Regional Engineering College, Tiruchirapalli, India. I came to the U.S to pursue my Masters in Engineering at the Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Since that place was so much fun (Playboy’s number one Party School in 1987), I decided to get another Masters from there in Computer Science. I joined CrystalGraphics (I think they are still around) as an engineer on Crystal TOPAS and after a few years at Crystal, I joined Adobe.

Do people express fascination with your name in the real world? Or is this just an on-line phenomenon?

Not really. I had to spell my name a few times before they get it. I got used to it now.

Are there other names on the Splash Screen that you think deserve more credit and get overlooked because people can’t stop staring at your name?

Every one of the engineers and QE deserves as much credit as I do. But I took the cake because of my long name. Too bad Joe Ault, Chris Cox and Scott Byer don’t have the long names as I do.

Are you working on any new projects we can look forward to seeing your name on in the future?

I worked on Bridge 1.0 (I had the opportunity to work on that since I championed the cause for the FileBrowser in Photoshop 7.0 and CS) and am currently working on getting Adobe Lightroom ported to Windows. But Photoshop is always my home.

Everyone knows about your interesting name. What’s one interesting thing about you that people don’t know?

I bike to work every day, rain or shine. My bike route is 20 miles round-trip and I have been riding to work for the past 10 years. I even influenced my mentor Peter Merrill into biking to work. Since Peter is a maniac, he is now doing double-centuries on weekends.

Thanks, Seetha!

Previously: Interview with illustrator and author Adam Rex

September 14, 2006

Idea: Dunder Mifflin branded paper

Dunder Mifflin PaperI was recently shopping for paper at Staples when I had this thought: NBC should really license the “Dunder Mifflin” name to some paper company, and put it on real reams of paper. I don’t have brand loyalty when it comes to 8.5” x 11” paper, so it’s not like I can’t be persuaded to buy one ream over another. If I were buying paper at Staples and I saw the Dunder Mifflin brand name on a ream of paper, I’d totally get it. Just because it’s funny. Even if it cost a few cents more than the other brands.

They could even co-brand, for those people who haven’t heard of Dunder Mifflin or are afraid to try new things. The reams could say, “Staples [or some reputable paper company] presents Dunder Mifflin Paper” or something like that. And they could put a one-sheet ad for “The Office” in the packaging.

(Dunder Mifflin, for those who don’t know, is the fictional paper company whose day-to-day goings on are documented in the TV show The Office)

August 29, 2006

Agassi vs. Pavel vs. Agassi vs. Pavel…

Last night at the US Open…


Click for larger version. Details here and here.

Update: Lots of people have asked me how I did this, so I’ve agreed to put together a little tutorial for Photojojo in the next few weeks. I’ll announce it on this site when it’s done, so keep an eye out.

August 9, 2006

Idea: Take “jowlers” to the next level

JowlersHave you seen It’s a website featuring pictures of people captured while shaking their heads back and forth really fast. It makes me laugh out loud every time I see it. They encourage people to shoot their own “jowler” photos using point-and-shoot cameras and send them in. I love it.

So I was thinking, what if I took jowler photos with more just a point-and-shoot camera? What if I set up lighting and a backdrop and treat them like more formal photos? Do they work just as well when they’re this stylized, or does the spontaneous look of a point-and-shoot camera work best? Well, it turns out that I can’t stop laughing when I shoot them, and I think they look absurdly great when they’re done.

Jowlers Jowlers
Jowlers Jowlers

But I need more volunteers. So naturally, I turned to Craig’s List in my search. But for the first time ever, Craig’s List let me down. I once used Craig’s List to get rid of a used bag of dirt (someone came to get it in less than an hour), but I couldn’t find anybody willing to pose for a Jowler photo. So I now turn to the blogosphere. If you are in New York City, and are willing to stop by my place for 10 or 15 minutes for an extremely silly project, drop me a line and we’ll set up some time for one of these weekends. I’ve got ideas for more elaborate jowler setups if you have even more time. You’ll find my e-mail address on the right side of this page.

August 7, 2006

Idea: The Ant Desk

The Ant Desk

What do you get for the eccentric executive who has everything? How about the Ant Desk? It’s part desk, and part Ant Farm. How creepy is it to work at your desk while hundreds of ants scurry all around you? Is it distracting? Fascinating? Did some of them get out? Do you think you feel them crawling on your legs? It’s the ultimate desk for nature lovers, bug lovers, and, well, other people who want a weird desk.

The Ant DeskHow does it work? It begins with a thick layer of glass or clear plastic. This protects you from the ants, and protects the ants from you. Below the glass is an open space with a thick layer of dirt, allowing the ants to crawl in, out, and around their tunnels, caves, and hills. This all rests on top of a sturdy base layer, which doubles as the bottom of the desktop. Small holes around the sides of the desk provide air, while being too small for the ants to escape.

Hundreds of ants will live happily for months, with just a little food and water periodically inserted through the feeding portals. For cleaning, the base layer can be built to slide out on casters like a large drawer, or the glass top may be hinged to open. I haven’t worked that out yet.

And when you get home, you can cuddle up with your loved one in front of the TV and rest your wine glasses on your Ant Coffee Table. The perfect oddity for any living room.

July 17, 2006

The Art of 1010 WINS

1010 WINSThe radio station 1010 WINS is for New York City what CNN Headline News is for cable television. It’s just nonstop headlines, weather, and traffic, repeating every 22 minutes. Their slogan is, “You give us 22 minutes, and we’ll give you the world.” Their website,, features local headlines and news stories mixed in with syndicated newswire stories.

But for me, the real treat is the unintentional art gallery at Sometimes, 1010 WINS uses photos from the newswire. But often, some Photoshop Whiz Kid Artist at 1010 WINS smashes together some stock photos with a Photoshop filter and makes some of the greatest image mashups on the internet.

So I now present a small gallery of artwork from 1010 WINS that I call, “You give us 22 news stories, and we’ll give you bad art.”

The Featured Exhibit

1. Peace Grannies on Trial for Times Square Protest

1010WINSThe crown jewel of the 1010 WINS Art Collection is Peace Grannies on Trial for Times Square Protest. For a story about a group of senior citizen war protesters, the artist placed a black shadow behind one of the so-called “Peace Grannies,” representing the plight of the protester during a deadly war, even while she herself is heading to her grave. The cane represents the narrow band of freedom on which we all lean, while her hat signifies oppression from above. Her coat, of course, is the cloak of dignity. A powerful image indeed.

2. Man Charged with Having Crack in Sundae

1010WINSIt’s a classic struggle for every artist. How do you illustrate a news story about a man caught smuggling two rocks of crack cocaine in an ice cream dessert? Well, the artist at 1010 WINS found a creative way to solve that problem, using photos of crack cocaine and an ice cream sundae. By superimposing them both on a pile of powdered substance — representing both the popular drug and the sweet sugar used in making delicious desserts — he unifies the images thematically, while the black background represents the health problems implicit in too much of either substance.

3. Forecast Predicts Another Rough Hurricane Season

1010WINSThe influence of conceptual artist Barbara Kruger is obvious in this piece, which uses imagery and words in montage. When the AccuWeather Hurricane Center predicted a strong hurricane season, the 1010 WINS artist chose to ironically juxtapose two simple sandbags hurricane warning flags with the power of one giant hurricane, representing the futility of man against nature. The disproportionate scale of the flags represent mankind’s desire to hold back the winds, even as they overtake us. The label “2006 Hurricane Season” acts as a forecast, but may in the future be seen as an accurate description of what the image depicts.

4. Final Moments on Tape. Family Hears WTC Call

1010WINSNearly five years after the tragic events of September 11, 2001, audio tapes were released featuring conversations between 911 operators and people trapped in the World Trade Center. For the event, the 1010 WINS artist created this commemorative work. On the day the tapes were released, a cell phone was so clearly important — a modern technological luxury but also an icon of this day in history — that it seemed like an object as large as the towers themselves. Or perhaps slightly larger, in black and white, looking a bit like it was photocopied and then faxed a few times before being scanned in for a montage.

5. Rockland County Joins Gas Sales Tax Capping

1010WINSThe ashy, veiny hand reaches out, gas pump nozzle in hand, a stream of “S”es pouring forth from its spout like precious drops of gasoline. Together, the hand and pump give off an eerie glow as Honest Abe looks onward, his gaze obstructed by an exaggerated dot screen. George Washington is barely visible, shrouded by an orange shadow of depression. The message is clear: Rockland County joins gas sales tax capping.

The Extended Gallery

6. Fatal Shooting in Brooklyn


7. Murders on the Rise in NYC


8. Untitled


9. Westchester Law Locks Down Wireless Networks


10. Jury — Merk Liable for Vioxx Users Heart Attack


11. Subway Stabbing in Brooklyn


12. NJ University Drops SAT Scores, Gains Applicants


13. Conn. Officials - Lyme Disease up 26 Percent


14 & 15. The “Police Line” Diptych.

1010WINS 1010WINS

Individually titled, “1 Killed, 4 Injured, in Parkway Crash (Blue)” and “5 People Struck in Hit and Run (Red).”

16. FBI Commish Orders Review of 911 Tapes


17. Strong Earthquake Strikes Central Indonesia


18. Quick Thinking Student Saves Teacher with CPR


19. Rockland County Woman Arrested for ID Theft


20. Fatal Car Crash in Brooklyn


21. NYC HDC Earmarks $179m for Apt’s


22. Study - Less Time, Passengers Reduce Teen Crashes


June 12, 2006

You got your picture in my logo

I’ve been noticing logos lately that have replaced letters with pictures. I think it’s fascinating how the brain just fills in the blanks, whether or not the pictures actually resemble the letters they replace. Various studies have shown that we don’t look at the letters which make up words as much as we look at the shapes of the words as a whole. In fact, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht frist and lsat ltteer is at the rghit pclae. The brain just takes care of the rest.

Here are examples where the letter isn’t completely gone, but a picture is formed by stylizing and embellishing a letter:

PictureLogo PictureLogo


And here are examples where the letter is totally gone, completely replaced by a picture that resembles the missing letter:

Sopranos Signs
Tarzan Empire
SeaWorld SouperBowl

It probably helps that the picture in the word is often a representation of the word itself. Something like the Stroop Effect may be going on here (or maybe the opposite of the Stroop Effect, whatever that would be called. The Poorts Effect?). Take this example, for instance:


The strawberry doesn’t look anything like the letter “a” but we know what letter is supposed to go there because we recognize the rest of the word, and after all, it is a picture of a strawberry.

This is one of my favorites:


We know it’s supposed to say “CIGARS” even though the picture neither looks like the letter “C” nor depicts a cigar! Perhaps the association with some tobacco product is enough.

And then there are the movie logos that replace letters with numbers:

PictureLogo PictureLogo

And of course movie logos that replace numbers with pictures:

PictureLogo PictureLogo

But Google takes the cake. They frequently swap out their traditional logo with one paying to tribute to a holiday or celebrity birthday. Their substitute logos often replace letters with picture, relying on our familiarity with the Google name and logo. They use color to remind us of the original logo, too.


And the granddaddy of all is this Google logo celebrating the Persian New Year. Only one letter remains as a reminder of the original logo:


June 6, 2006

Georgia O’Kleenex

Georgia O'Kleenex

This is what I saw when I reached for the last tissue in the box.

May 31, 2006

Idea: Lexidiem, the word of the day.

Why isn’t there a word that means “Word of the day?” Well now there is.

Lexidiem. n. sing. lek-si’-dee-im. (preferred) lek-si-dee’-im (altern. accepted) 1. Word of the day. [Modern American English, from Greek lexis (word) and Latin diem (day), reflecting the hodgepodge of international roots that make up Modern American English words].

Example 1: “Lexidiem will probably be this blog’s only lexidiem.”
Example 2: “ features a lexidiem section.”
Example 3: “Webster’s Dictionary on-line has a lexidiem section, too.”

May 24, 2006

Idea: The Correlation Project

I want to see a website that lets me keep track of something simple for a set period of time, and then compares it to a database to search for correlations. For example, over the course of a week or month or year, or even on an ongoing basis, it could ask, “What did you have for breakfast today?” or “What color shirt did you wear today?” or “How many calls did you get on your cell phone today?” Maybe a daily e-mail would remind you to log in with the answers.

Then it would compare the answers to other things that are already tracked such as the stock market, phases of the moon, sports scores, etc., and spit out some correlations.

It could tell you “On 93% of the days on which you ate eggs for breakfast, the stock market went up.” Or, “When the moon is waxing, you are 88% more likely to wear a green shirt than when it is waning.” Or, “On days when you get more than 7 phone calls, the Yankees win their games.”

Or, if you opt in to share your information with others, it could tell you, “For the past year, you’ve been on the same Green Shirt Schedule as Joe Shmoe of Hackensack, NJ, who has worn a green shirt every day that you did.”

There would need to be a notice reminding people that there is no causation implied by these findings, just correlations. People have a tendency to apply too much meaning to these sorts of things, and think they are evidence of paranormal phenomenon or conspiracy. But I think it’s interesting just to look at these things for the sake of seeing how easy it is to find coincidental correlations retrospectively. If such a project existed, maybe it could show people just how common coincidence really is with an experiment they can participate in themselves.

May 1, 2006

Idea: A remake of “Fred Ott’s Sneeze”

OttIt seems these days that Hollywood scrapes the bottom of the barrel for movie material. Of the movies opening this summer, 7 are sequels and 17 are remakes or adaptations.

Well I’ve decided to do Hollywood one better. I’ve gone back further than anybody ever has before to remake a movie. I’ve remade one of the earliest known movies, an 1894 film called Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze, also known as Fred Ott’s Sneeze, starring Thomas Edison’s assistant Fred Ott. You can view the original film here, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

My remake is more of a re-imagining, really, than a remake. I’ve decided not to make a period piece, but instead to modernize the story of one man’s struggle to remove an irritant from his nostril, setting it in the present day in a small apartment in New York City.

Here is my film, simply called Ott. Enjoy.

Bonus: Watch the extended Director’s Cut of Ott.

April 18, 2006

The Google Maps Guide to Ghostbusters

NOTE: After two years working just fine, the map is having problems. I’m trying to fix it. Sorry for the inconvenience. Should be fixed now. Let me know if you have any problems!

Click to launch map in new window
Hey! There’s a Ghostbusters symbol in my Google logo! What’s going on? One’s a movie, and one’s a search engine. Next thing you know, fish will be flying, trees will be swimming, cats and dogs living together — mass hysteria!

Welcome to the Interactive Google Maps Guide to Ghostbusters. You can click the Google logo above or the map image below at any time to launch the map in a new window, or read on for more info.

Click to launch map in new window
I’ve created a mashup of Google Maps and every New York City location used in filming the movie Ghostbusters and its sequel Ghostbusters 2 that a person might be likely to visit on a trip to Manhattan. It’s my first time using the Google Maps API, but I think I’ve come up with a slick way to use it. But still, let me know if anything doesn’t work right.

Also, if you’d like to link to the map, please link to this entry’s permalink instead of the map itself. Thanks.

Ready? Check it out! The map will open in a new window.

April 11, 2006

Boris Vallejo’s palette

Vallejo paintingIf you’ve ever walked through the science fiction and fantasy section of a bookstore, you’ve seen the artwork of Boris Vallejo. This weekend, I got to watch him create one of his paintings, a rather detailed picture of a dragon that he completed in only four hours.

I attended an event called Art Out Loud at the Society of Illustrators where Vallejo, Julie Bell, Jon Foster, Dan Dos Santos, Gregory Manchess, and Adam Rex demonstrated their techniques to aspiring illustrators, and answered lots of questions. I think proceeds from the event go to the Society’s student scholarship fund, so it’s great that the artists were all so gracious.

When Vallejo finished his painting, and everyone gathered around to admire the finished product, I noticed his palette sitting there. I realized that while millions are familiar with his work, few have probably seen his palette. So I took a picture of it. Perhaps it will provide insight or inspiration for those who were unable to attend the event this weekend.

Boris Vallejo palette

I’m told that his use of disposable palettes is significant, as the romantic notion of an artist would have him using a permanent wooden palette. Take note, students.

Artist links: Boris Vallejo, Julie Bell, Jon Foster, Dan Dos Santos, Gregory Manchess, and Adam Rex.

Bonus: Here are the palettes of Dan Dos Santos and Julie Bell:

April 4, 2006

60 Seconds in the Life of Landing Gear

Part 7 in an ongoing series of (approximately) 60 second films.

If you only see one 60-second movie this year, see this one. Seriously. I think it’s my favorite. It actually gets my heart racing every time I watch it.

April 3, 2006

Idea: The Pacifist Chess Set

Pacifist Chess

Chess is a game of war. So for those who disapprove of war, I’ve come up with the Pacifist Chess Set. The concept is illustrated above.

At first glance, it looks like you could play a legitimate game of chess with this set. But once you start playing you realize that you can’t play for very long — at least not very easily. As you play, and your pieces get closer to your opponent’s pieces, it becomes apparent that one side’s pieces are indistinguishable from the other side’s pieces. They are all the same color.

It’s not really a functional chess set. It’s more of an art or conversation piece. It makes the statement that, no matter what side of the battle we’re on, we have in common that we are all human.

[I got this idea while wandering through the Imagery of Chess Revisited exhibit at the Noguchi Museum in Queens. The exhibit is only around for two more weeks, but if you get a chance I highly recommend a visit. It features works by Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Alexander Calder, and others. A book is also available, in case you miss the show.]

March 29, 2006

Idea: The Ishihara Triptych

The Ishihara Triptych

Remember when you were in third grade and the school nurse gave you that test to see if you’re color blind? The one where she shows you a circle made up of smaller colored circles and asks you what number you see? That test is the Ishihara Test of Color Vision.

I’m fascinated by perception, especially by the uncommon traits that make some people’s perception different than the rest of us — color blindness, tetrachromatism, synesthesia, monocular vision, etc. I also enjoy original art. I decided to combine the two interests by making a triptych out of three Ishihara color vision test plates.

At greater expense than I anticipated, I obtained a set of Ishihara color vision test plates. I picked out three plates that I felt looked good together, and blew them up to a size suitable for framing. The entire finished triptych, seen above, hangs above my bed. I think it makes a compelling piece of art.

It’s titled “57-74-8, or 35-21-3”

Want to make your own? Click each thumbnail below to download a high-res image you can download, print out, and frame.


March 27, 2006

Idea: Design for a WTC Monument

I know, designing your own WTC memorial is so 2002. But it’s been years since the World Trade Center Site Memorial Competition, and there’s been next to no progress on actually building anything. Last week, some dirt was moved around and people got angry about it. So I’ve been thinking again about my own monument design that I came up with a few years back, but never actually rendered. It’s nice to finally get it out of my head and on paper. Er, pixel.

WTCWhen viewed from one direction, my memorial resembles the original towers. It stands tall and proud. It’s big and bold. Its height depends aesthetically on where it will be placed — in a memorial park, I assume — but I imagine it being really tall, the tallest thing in the park, peaking out above the tallest trees, or (since the tallest trees will eventually grow) in the middle of a clearing. The names of the September 11 victims who lost their lives are engraved in lines on the faces of the towers, like the lines of windows on the buildings.

WTCSo viewed from one direction, it looks like the towers themselves. But when viewed from another direction, the monument becomes an empty shell. It’s a reminder of how fragile the towers were, and of the empty space they used to occupy. It’s very, very simple. Hopefully it’s also poignant.

In my original vision, these were as big as the original towers, becoming part of the city’s skyline in the same way the original towers were. Viewing Manhattan from one side, you’d see the towers’ silhouette and the skyline looks just like it used to. Viewing from another direction you’d just see the outline of where they were. It’s a grandiose vision. But probably not realistic, so I shrunk it down to a size suitable for placement in a park.

To get the best view of the monument, and really convey how it looks, I’ve put together an animated fly-around that shows it from all sides.

And for those who might be interested, a note about how I created these images and the animation is after the jump.

A note about how I created these images.

I used a program called SketchUp. I loved it enough to heap the following unsolicited praise.

I’d never heard of SketchUp before I read last week that Google acquired them. And neither, apparently, had the Google Toolbar spellchecker, which thinks I’m writing about ketchup.

Anyway, when I came up with this monument idea several years ago, I drew sketches of it, but none of them really did the idea justice the way a 3D rendering could. But I knew nothing about CAD and the learning curve seemed steep. I considered building an actual 3D model, but what would I do with it once I’d made it? I have no room for such a thing in my apartment. But after viewing SketchUp’s demo on their website, I realized I’d found a tool even I could use. SketchUp makes 3D rendering easier than sketching. Seriously. I downloaded the free trial version (fully functional for 8 hours), watched the tutorials for about 15 minutes, and put all this together in about an hour. None of my sketches of this concept ever looked this good. It’s a cool product. I congratulate them on their recent successes.

March 23, 2006

Idea: Advertisements on the overhead bins

The overhead bins

Look, I didn’t say it’s a good idea. I admit that it’s ugly as sin. Every bit of empty space in our lives is slowly being taken over by ads, so why would I want even more? Well, have you noticed how expensive your airplane tickets are getting? Airlines are filing for bankruptcy protection, seats are getting less comfortable, and you’re asked to pay $6 for a box of stale crackers on a flight.

I was on a plane yesterday, and I noticed that with all the ads they were showing us on the overhead TVs, and all the ads crammed into the in-flight magazine, there was all this prime advertising real estate overhead that wasn’t being used. You already see overhead ads on the subways, on buses, in taxis, and on trains. Sometimes you’re even glad it’s there so you have something to look at to avoid eye contact with the person sitting across from you. So what’s a little more advertising on another mode of transportation?

I’m not even sure I should file this under “Ideas.” Maybe I need a category called “Predictions.” This seems sort of inevitable to me.

March 20, 2006

Idea: Pre-pixelated clothes for Reality TV shows

Pixelated ClothingI don’t watch much Reality TV, but I’ve seen enough of it to notice an on-going phenomenon: Someone wears a garment with a trademarked logo or artwork on it, and the producers have to pixelate it beyond recognition in post-production. Of course no Reality TV star wants their shirt, which displays their well-chosen article of self-expression, senselessly pixelated so nobody can see it. But no Reality TV producer wants to deal with the headache of removing said article of self-expression to avoid trademark violations. The pixelation process seems like an awful lot of trouble to go through for something that could have been avoided with a little pre-planning.

Pixelated HatSo I’d like to introduce my new line of pre-pixelated clothing for Reality TV shows. If you’re going to be on a Reality TV show, you can buy one of these fine products and save someone a lot of headaches later. In fact, if you live in an area where a reality TV show is taping, you should think about getting one of these shirts in case you get caught in the background of a shot. And if you’re heading to audition for a Reality TV show, maybe you should wear one of these shirts to the audition so they know that you’re really serious about Reality TV.

Available here in these and other fine styles:

Update: Hey, this little post has become popular! So now I get to say, “As seen on: TVGasm, MSNBC, USA Today, Wired, Entertainment Weekly, Defamer, Fark, Digg, Kottke, Consumerist, the Morning News,, C|Net, and about a hundred other blogs.” Thanks!

Update: And now I’ve made the New York Magazine Approval Matrix!

March 15, 2006

Balabananza, the Convention for Bob Balaban Fans.

BalabananzaThere should be a convention for Bob Balaban fans called Balabananza. Imagine:

People show up dressed as their favorite Bob Balaban character. “Look, I’m dressed like Enid’s Dad from Ghost World!” “Hey, check out that guy who’s dressed like Bob’s character Ted Marcus from that episode of The West Wing that he guest starred in during the 2000 season.” “Woah, that guy has every detail perfect from Bob’s costume in Gosford Park!”

There could be panel discussions with topics like:

  • Warren Littlefield vs. Russell Dalrymple - An examination of how one actor plays two NBC executives

  • The Wallace Shawn Controversy - Was it right for Bob to play William Shawn in Capote, when his own son Wallace Shawn is such an accomplished character actor?

  • My Boyfriend’s Back - What went wrong?

Bob’s costume from Close Encounters on display at Balabananza 2005
Celebrity guests on the panels could include people Bob’s worked with, like Brian Sawyer, director of Tex the Passive-Aggressive Gunslinger and that guy who played Guffman in Waiting for Guffman who I can’t picture for some reason right now (not Paul Benedict).

And there could be a whole area for vendors. You know, companies that sell Bob Balaban merchandise. Vendors like Balabanana Republic — the finest purveyor of octagonal-framed glasses — and Elmerson Entertainment, the video game company whose long-awaited terrorist-hunting game “Balaban vs. Taliban” is scheduled to finally hit stores.

It would be great. I can’t wait to go.

Update: Merchandise from Balabananza ‘96 is now available as part of the “Merchandise from Events that Never Happened” series.

March 14, 2006

Idea: A commercial for batteries

A commercial I’d love to see, using borrowed footage from the movie “Say Anything…” with new footage integrated. Picture this:

battery adIone Skye is upstairs sleeping in her bedroom. Outside, John Cusack stands below her window with a boombox held up high over his head. He’s blasting “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel. Ione wakes up. “…the light, the heat (your eyes), I am complete (your eyes)…” Where’s that music coming from?

Down below, the batteries die in John’s boombox. He can’t believe it. Now, of all times! The camera pans over to a shorter, geekier guy standing a few feet away, holding a boombox over his head, too. It blasts, “Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love For You” by Glenn Madeiros. We see that it’s powered with [whatever brand] batteries. Ione goes to her window and sees geeky kid down below. His boombox blares. “One thing you can be sure of, I’ll never ask for more than your love…” She swoons.

[Whatever brand] batteries. Nothing lasts longer.

March 12, 2006

60 Seconds in the Life of Steam

Part 2 in an ongoing series of (approximately) 60 second films.

This one is called “60 Seconds in the Life of Steam” and was filmed at 42nd Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan.