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Thursday, September 14, 2006
11:04 AM      

A question on Jeopardy
reminded me of Pachelbel's Canon in D, which practically haunted me after I saw the movie Ordinary People. Pachelbel's greatest hit, according to Wikipedia, ‘...may represent the most extraordinary instance of the crossover phenomenon in all of music. During a short period in the early 1970s it went from being a quite obscure work of early music to a universally familiar cultural item.’

That's the movie that introduced Elizabeth McGovern. I thought she was going to be huge.

The song is playing in my head right now.

[ link | e-me ]

10:05 AM      

Finally!, You Might Say
I updated the navigation sidebar today. It's been a long time since it was current, and considering that some people actually search my archives, it makes sense to give them a way to access older posts.

My archive navigation is implemented as an include file. Until I can figure out a way to script it, the formatting requires that I manually code the HTML. That's actually not particularly difficult — Blogger generates a raw set of archive links that I can copy and paste from, and Transmit has a text editor built into it.

I open the nav file right on the server, edit, and save. I usually have to fix a typo or two after that, and I'm done. So, the only issue is making it a habit to update the nav... Apologies for being so erratic. I can hear my friend Chris saying I should script the thing (more like use someone's already-built widget) and be done with it.

Well, I may just do that, but right now I've got other fish to pan fry. I throw back the little ones.


More Semiotics
A few weeks ago, I'd never heard the term metonymy. On my last visit to Barnes & Noble, I nearly tripped over Denise Green's book Metonymy in Contemporary Art: A New Paradigm. Green talks about the concept of metonymic thinking, which was developed by the late A. K. Ramanujan and which she applies in her practice of art. While the book is largely about painting, I suspect that it could apply very powerfully to photography.

I recently mentioned that we often use metaphors, but they're invisible as metaphors to us. The Daily Show had a lot of fun with Ted Stevens' metaphorical argument about how the internet carries information: It's not a big truck, he says, it's a series of tubes. In one segment, John Hodgman illuminates a number of the metaphors at play.

Michael Reddy has distinguished a Conduit Metaphor:

  • Ideas are objects
  • Linguistic expressions are containers
  • Communication is shipping

I remember once having a conversation with someone about whether a mechanical send/receive model was really the best way to think about how communication works. We'd bumped right into the metaphor, but I don't think either of us were really recognizing it as such. The other aspect worth noting is how seductive the metaphor is. Neither of us could even propose an alternate model for communication.

But the shipping model really does fall short of what happens in actual communication. Miscommunication happens all the time. ‘Natural language’ computing efforts have largely failed, because of complex problems in linguistic representation.

In the simplest conversation, the speaker generates a verbal representation of the idea (perhaps itself a representation...) they want to convey. As soon as the speaker starts talking, the listener begins to construct a representation of that representation, spontaneously adding and subtracting from it as the speaker continues. One could say that successful communication happens when there is a high correlation between the resultant representations in the minds of the speaker and the listener. The more complex the idea, the more complicated the communication. Listeners get distracted, speakers have trouble ‘finding the right words,’ and both parties begin with sometimes conflicting assumptions. So maybe shipping isn't such a good metaphor for communication. Perhaps it's better represented as a kind of asynchronous collaborative construction.

There is debate over whether synecdoche [si-nek-duh-kee] is a sub-class of metonymy, or its own class of representation. Common substitutions in synecdoche are:

  • Part for whole: get your butt over here, two heads are better than one
  • Whole for part: I fought the law and the law won
  • Species for genus: e.g. using ‘bread’ to mean ‘food’
  • Genus for species: I'm having some problems with my machine [computer]

I tried to think of a synecdoche using the word ‘Schenectady,’ but all I came up with were metonyms.

[ link | e-me ]

Wednesday, September 13, 2006
10:14 PM      

Browser Wars Redux?
About a week ago, I made a little Flash movie, and embedded it into a page using Dreamweaver. When I checked the page in Safari, I couldn't see the Flash. I checked my settings, and everything looked right. When I looked at the HTML used to embed the .swf in the page, I started to get a whiff of something odd. For starters, the <object> tag was nestled inside a <noscript> tag. Next came some fairly opaque script code. Moving the <object> code outside the <noscript> caused two copies of the movie to show up... WTF????

I went back to Flash, and published a basic HTML page along with the .swf — I figured I'd made some sort of mistake when I embedded the .swf, and this would give me cleaner code to check. I got a surprise when I opened that HTML file in Dreamweaver: a message appeared saying that the script might not work with the latest version of Internet Explorer.

If I click Yes and allow the script to be updated, I get the same broken code that I get directly in Dreamweaver. If I click No, the page works fine in Safari.

Adobe has explained the change — it's in response to an interface change implemented by Microsoft. The code is supposed to get around having users click on the Flash object to get it to play in IE. Great, except the script apparently has some browser-specific flaws... I haven't tested to see if this is only a Safari problem. I wonder if the resolution will be with Dreamweaver or Safari.


is a project that Richard Branson (Virgin Airways, etc.) helped set up. It uses a blimp and ground-penetrating radar to map minefields at about 1000x the speed of previous methods. The sobering news is that even with this technology, Mineseeker's website says that the problem can be fixed ‘within our lifetime.’ That's still a long time. The problem breaks down this way:

    • There are over 100 million land mines on or beneath the surface of this planet.
    • They kill or maim someone every 20 minutes, usually women and children.
    • They render over 800 thousand square kilometres of land useless.
    • The cost to human life is horrific and the economic effect is devastating.
    • It is a man made disaster that is bigger — in terms of lives lost, civil disruption and economic deprivation — than the Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina or the Pakistan earthquake.
    • Using current technology and strategies, the UN has estimated that it could take up to 600 years to rid the planet of these devices.

It takes a mine clearance operative one day to clear 40 sq meters. However, a new technology is now available, developed by the British Ministry of Defence and licensed to Mineseeker: A ground penetrating radar that, when carried on a stable aerial platform, can scan the ground at 100 meters per second, detecting all mines-plastic and metal.

Mineseeker deployed the system in ravaged Kosovo and proved it in live conditions.

Mineseeker's aim is to raise sufficient funds from Governments, commercial concerns and funding agencies to survey and map mine-affected areas, and through its "The Sole of Africa" initiative, to return liberated land back to food production.

A pretty worthy set of objectives. The land mine issue came back into the spotlight recently, when it was reported that Israel used US-made cluster bombs in populated areas of Lebanon. These bombs can scatter hundreds of unexploded grenade-sized ordinance over a large area. Unwitting civilians are often maimed or killed long after the ‘cessation of hostilities,’ as is the case with land mines.

Mineseeker is not fully funded. Hopefully, it will be. This project deserves a lot more publicity.


I got a report showing that someone had searched this blog recently, and it reminded me of how I'd had problems with the automatic indexing feature a while ago: I'd sign into my account, set it to automatically index once a week, do an immediate update for good measure, and find some time later that my automatic settings didn't stick. A quick check of my account showed that indeed, my index hadn't been updated in a long time, so the person who did the search probably came up empty.

I tried to rebuild the index, and got an error — apparently, the spider doesn't like being redirected. I fixed the problem, and about a minute and a half later, the new index was done.

In case you're wondering, I originally signed up for Atomz search; Atomz having been acquired by WebSideStory some time ago. My search tool has now become WebSideStory Express Search. I like it when it works. It's completely customizable, and pretty simple to use. I'll let you know if I still have indexing problems next week.

The next automatic update is scheduled for Sunday at midnight. I'll check back Monday to see if it worked.

[ link | e-me ]

Monday, September 11, 2006
4:34 PM      

I just heard a newscaster on CNN talking about the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania on 9/11/01. He described a ‘heroic struggle, of course, where some of the passengers brought the plane down.’

The problem is that cockpit recordings from that flight make it clear that the passengers never made it inside the cockpit — the official story is that the terrorists themselves cratered the plane. The reporter may simply be extending the supposition that the pilot felt compelled to crash the plane for fear of being overpowered by the ‘heroic’ passengers, or he may simply be fudging (or lazy).

I expect more from the ‘most trusted name in news.’

It's funny, because I was re-reading my last post, and thinking about another part of the Semiotics book that I hadn't discussed: Semiotics rejects the possibility that we can neutrally represent things ‘the way they are.’ While I think that statement speaks mainly to the transmission loss inherent in representation, it also acknowledges that subjectivity and the motives of the speaker further cloud the issue.

Though many of us readily dismissed Fox News' pretensions to being ‘fair and balanced,’ the controversy illuminated the bigger lie of the entire news industry: there is no such thing as neutral.

[ link | e-me ]

4:00 PM      

Sometimes, it seems like even the milk is talking to you.

I only watched a tiny bit of the CNN ‘minute by minute’ coverage this morning. It's hardly a rebroadcast of footage from 9/11/01. It's more a series of heavily commented clips, with call-outs to the precise moments when the towers were struck, the towers collapsed, United Airlines grounded all their planes, The Pentagon was hit... etc. All of the ads are current ads. The CNN promos made a big deal about how the coverage would be unedited. It's perhaps more accurate to say that anything that wasn't edited away will be aired intact, but it looks like a CNN anchors' greatest hits thing to me.

Five years on, they're still quibbling over how and what to build on the site of the trade towers. I think I heard them say on TV that a marine who was recently killed in Iraq was an impressionable thirteen years old when the WTC came down. It's reported that witnessing that destruction was what motivated him to become a Marine. As of today, nearly as many military personnel have died in Iraq as died in the towers, and while terrorism seems no less a threat than before, the threat of terrorism has certainly become a choice football of our political system.

‘Political football’ is a kind of trope — a metaphorical expression. Another example: ‘Experience is a great school, but the tuition is steep.’ Foucault argued that the dominant tropes of a given historical period determine what can be known. In Semiotics: The Basics, Daniel Chandler goes on to point out that certain metaphors (e.g. ‘terrorists?’) have become naturalized, and we do not tend to notice the ways that they can channel our thinking, giving rise to taken-for-granted ways of looking at things.

Have you ever noticed how exercised some of the talking heads on TV get over who gets to declare whom a terrorist? Ever notice how many of the same people will not engage in a discussion of precisely what is meant by ‘terrorism?’ It's often dismissed as ‘semantics’ — one of the default put-downs for discussion deemed out of bounds.

Perhaps it is simply semantics, but then, too, it could be semiotics; and rather than being beside the point, it could well be the main point. After all, if language shapes our perceptions, the people who frame what can be talked-about [and how it can be talked-about] are in essence making our minds up for us. You hear the pundits on TV almost saying as much when they acknowledge that the two parties are battling to ‘frame the issue.’ Have you ever heard someone say ‘well, when you look at it that way...?’ It's a demonstration of how important context is, and context is built out of tropes.

That begins to explain how forty-some-odd percent of people polled last week could think that Saddam Hussein had anything to do with the World Trade Center attack of 2001. I use the word ‘think’ loosely. It's more like ‘feel’ or ‘believe.’ So much of this operates at a gut level (another metaphor), without any critical thinking brought to bear.

There's a more intriguing trope: metonymy. It works by connection, association, or substitution. Examples of metonyms:

  • The White House => the presidential administration (substituting place for institution)
  • plastic => credit card (substituting material for form)
  • ‘Don't get hot under the collar’ => don't get angry (substituting effect for cause)
  • Plumbers often advertise with an illustration of a wrench (substituting one tool for an entire trade)

You can see that saying ‘September eleventh’ or ‘9-11’ implies 9/11/01 which in turn connotes the attack on the WTC, which opens up a can of worms to use a well-worn metaphor... The mechanism is a classic metonymic substitution of date for event, and event for something much larger.

Photography and television/film can be used to create visual metonyms. Rather than depicting the thing itself, a related object is depicted. The nature of depiction in photographic media also makes the photograph/film/video itself a metonym for the things represented: ‘Ceci n'est pas une pipe,’ indeed.

An example of metonymy in advertising imagery: a woman in a sexy outfit (perhaps even looking a bit aroused) is shown holding a glass, with a superimposed image of a bottle of some alcoholic beverage. The viewer connects the drink depicted to sex, which is not depicted.

In many (a majority of?) ads, the image of the woman herself is used as a metonym for sex. If you live in New York, you can see the phenomenon ‘outed’ by graffiti makers on subway posters all around the city. Next time you ride somewhere, take note of the common ways that images of women are, uh, embellished: nipples and pubic hair are often drawn in, but far more often, a drawing of a penis is placed near the mouth or the crotch.

Metonyms are powerful, because they go down easily. The metaphor draws attention to itself, while the metonym focuses on the subject, often suppressing aspects that are inconsistent with the metonym. With a metaphor, you actually have to engage in a form of translation: the political football example is pretty straightforward, but what do the two roads and the yellow wood or the dust of snow from the crow's wing stand for in Robert Frost's poems?

Because realism in imagery is highly reliant on metonymy, it becomes very problematic when the viewer is sensitized to the presence of props in an image. Knowing that a prop is present in the image destroys the illusion of realism, because every representation of the image – direct or indirect – becomes suspect. Consider the photo from the recent Lebanese conflict where smoke was added to make it more dramatic, or where it was reported that Bush was photographed in a mess hall in Iraq carrying a plastic turkey. We don't think of news as being manufactured until artifices such as these turn up. When that happens, news-making becomes news.

One could consider every presidential photo-op an exercise in metonymy. The images are crafted to sell a particular idea about the president. In that context, it becomes clear why so much spin arises around these events.

This brings us full-circle to the milk carton in my refrigerator. An imprint that's supposed to be an indicator of freshness instead becomes a pointer to a network of complex problems that will challenge several generations to come. How refreshing is that?


Boudreaux, a Cajun highlander from Rapides Parish in central Louisiana, was an older, single gentleman who was born and raised a Baptist, living in South Louisiana.

Each Friday night after work, he would fire up his outdoor grill and cook a venison steak. Now, all of Boudreaux's neighbors were Catholic ... and since it was Lent they were forbidden from eating meat on Fridays. The delicious aroma from the grilled venison steaks was causing such a problem for the Catholic faithful that they finally talked to their priest.

The priest came to visit Boudreaux, and suggested that Boudreaux convert to Catholicism.

After several classes and much study, Boudreaux attended Mass and as the priest sprinkled holy water over him, he said, "You were born a Baptist and raised a Baptist, but now you are Catholic."

Boudreaux's neighbors were greatly relieved, until Friday night arrived and once again the wonderful aroma of grilled venison filled the neighborhood.

The priest was called immediately by the neighbors and, as he rushed into Boudreaux's yard clutching a rosary and prepared to scold him, he stopped in his tracks and watched in amazement.

There stood Boudreaux clutching a small bottle of water which he carefully sprinkled over the grilling meat and chanted: "You wuz born a deer and you wuz raised a deer, but now you a catfish."

— Thanks, Warren!

In case you're wondering, I just tossed-in the sketch I did of Taz. It's got nothing to do with the joke.


Remember Floyd?
News cycles differ dramatically. A couple weeks after the Tour de France, Landis had pretty much faded from television coverage. It'll be interesting to see how he's spoken of a year from now, but he's more or less invisible to the broadcast media right now. It was striking to see how much slower the news response is for monthly cycling magazines.

A little more than a week ago, I was browsing Barnes & Noble, and came upon three cycling magazines. Velo News depicted a sober-faced Floyd with the headline ‘Dark Days: Landis case compounds cycling's woes.’ Pro Cycling was completely out of touch, showing a smiling Landis on a bike. The cover proclaimed ‘It's Floyd! Landis wins the Tour of Anarchy.’ How fitting that they used the word anarchy. Cycling Sport America ran a big portrait of Floyd with the question ‘Guilty?’ for a headline. The cover montage was completed with a smaller background image of Oscar Pereiro on a bike and the caption ‘Tour Winner?’

At least Velo News seemed to be covering the bigger picture, which gives them the opportunity to present more than the raw data of daily developments served up so efficiently by the 24-hour and weekly news outlets. I wonder how the other two publications could even begin to assert that they were offering anything we haven't heard already.

[ link | e-me ]
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