Impossible shades of gray

We’ve all seen the same set of basic graphical illusions over and over since grade school, chestnuts like the Wife or Mother-in-Law image. After a while they seem lame and worn out; you’ve seen them all. But don’t give up yet. What you are about to see is, I feel safe in saying, the coolest illusion you have seen to date, perhaps the coolest you will ever see in your entire life. You will stare at it and stare at it and swear it can’t be so. You will call in your co-workers from the office next door. You will send it to your parents. The tired, old-fashioned version of the Checkerboard illusion is on display here (at Grand Illusions, which is nevertheless a very nifty site). The altogether new and truly amazing Checkershadow Illusion was created by Edward Adelson and lives at MIT. Once you have convinced yourself it can’t be so, peek here to see something that might make you believe. (seen on

Present at the Creation

Dean Acheson, who was the second Secretary of State under Harry Truman (George Marshall of Marshall Plan fame was the first), wrote a book called Present at the Creation in which he describes how, in the aftermath of World War II, one world order crumbled and a new one, largely defined by the Cold War, came into being. This year NPR has been using that same phrase,

Present at the Creation, to define its collection of reports on the origins of American cultural icons. It’s a great series. I have no idea how they chose the subjects, which run the gamut from the electric guitar to the Lincoln Memorial, but just about every one of them is a nifty little vignette of American cultural history.

For instance, the movie Animal House effectively defined much of what is now expected in the American university experience. It simply isn’t possible to consider your college education complete without having attended a toga party, all because of this movie. That kind of cultural impact represents real power. Who were the people behind it? Doug Kenney, a founder of National Lampoon magazine, was the primary writer of Animal House. The more you read about him, the more you realize that he was one of the most influential people in creating the modern ethos of cynically hip irony, the world view inherited by Jerry Seinfeld and David Letterman. As someone who presided over the downfall of one world view (a clean-cut, naive, Kingston Trio kind of world view) and the rise of another (Animal House, Saturday Night Live), Kenney is certainly worthy of being profiled in series called Present at the Creation. It’s only too bad Kenney didn’t live to tell his version of the story the way Dean Acheson did.

The Long Arm of Google

This is Jay Whittington Lewis, my great great grandfather (my mother’s mother’s mother’s dad). This image reaches me because a very nice gentleman named Mike Kelly purchased it and wanted to know more about it. As he said: “Back on 2 Feb 1995 I purchased a
framed 8×10 photograph of man in a UCV uniform wearing a Southern Cross of Honor from Mishoe’s Auction House in Columbia, SC. …I did a cursory investigation on this man back then and concluded that he was likely the J. W. Lewis who served in Co. B, 1 Bat’n NC Jr. Reserves. I got this person’s compiled service records but never really followed up too much farther. Sort of out of the blue I put his name into Google last night and up came your web page.”
Here is the entry he came across, although I have mentioned J.W. elsewhere on the site as well. Why am I obsessed with him? Partly because I share his middle name, and partly because he represents the most vivid link I have with a particularly colorful period of history. In fact, I dug through some family records, and found this account of his memories of his time in the Civil War. Read his story and hear about the first time he saw a railroad train, or how his grandpa spirited him out of the army hospital.

I owe this picture to a friend I made using Google. Now he knows more about his picture, I know more about my great great grandpa, and we have forged a small bond with each other. Do you have a web connections story like that? Soon everyone will.

You’re being robbed!

I once heard an interview with a labor organizer who said that the three most effective words for getting people to organize were “You’re being robbed!” Why are we so compelled to believe that we’re being jerked around whenever we go shopping? Does the fact that we have access to so much free product information on the web even help? Hell no! The greaseball who wrote that marketing shit is on the take! They’ll tell you whatever you want to hear and then rob you blind. Who are you gonna trust? Some sleazy ad-writing chiseler, or me, your friend?

There’s a fascinating article on the Knowledge@Wharton site called Pricing and Fairness: Do Your Customers Assume You Are Gouging Them? The upshot is this… Yes. Your customers will always assume you are gouging them. The authors were surprised to find that it is surprisingly difficult to convince people that the market generates fair prices for most goods. For instance, the test subjects believed that profit margins for grocery stores were around 30%, whereas they are in fact between 1% and 2%. This is the kind of reasoning that makes shoplifting so eternally appealing. “Macy’s is rich… look at all this stuff! I shouldn’t have to pay for it.” But Macy’s has it easy compared to, say, Atlantic Records. When it comes to music, anything above a token amount of money is considered a rip-off. As a denizen of the software industry, I see the Napster problem headed our way. When shoplifting is easy, free of risk, and easily justified then you’re talking about a sunset industry. Do you often feel like you’re being robbed because of the prices you pay? Now you can at least take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone.

Echoes of the Eleventh

My September 11th post generated a fair amount of email, which is always gratifying. Matt mentioned, after seeing my little cartoon of Osama bin Laden’s notebook, that you can see the real thing at the Smoking Gun. The manual on display concerns “Military Studies in the Jihad Against the Tyrants.” A lot of it is standard Anarchist’s Cookbook kinds of advice: wear sneakers, hide in the dark, be careful with explosives, and so on. What makes it disturbing is the fact that it probably really was used by the people who did the deed. It contains a strange mixture of Islamic fundamentalist cant along with boring high school textbook pedagogy. Here’s a sample:

Islamic governments have never and will never be established through peaceful solutions and cooperative councils. They are established as they always have been: by pen and gun… by word and bullet… by tongue and teeth. In the name of Allah, the merciful and compassionate.

This book belongs to the guest house. Please do not remove it from the house except with permission.

What do you suppose the punishment is for removing it from the house without permission?

Another good friend, colleague, and poetry aficionado extraordinaire pointed out that when Andrei Codrescu mentioned Allen Ginsberg, he probably had the poem America in mind. As my friend said “It’s at least one model for the form Codrescu chose, and the contrast in their endings heightens the poignance of Codrescu’s, at least insofar as poems resonate further in the way they play off of one another. And Codrescu’s is plenty poignant on its own.”

September the Eleventh

It is a worthwhile thing to mark this day (“altogether fitting and proper,” as George Pataki says), but there’s not much new to say. When the newscasters have bleated themselves hoarse saying the same thing over and over, it’s time to listen to the poets. It takes the poets a while to digest the newspaper, but we sure need what they cough up. As William Carlos Williams said

It is difficult to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably everyday
for lack of what is
found there

It was William Carlos Williams who wrote the introduction to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, and it was “with Allen Ginsberg in mind” that Andrei Codrescu began his poem on this evening’s All Things Considered: “Nine-eleven, I can barely remember you, they have buried you in so much hype.” Listen to it. Codrescu is noticeably moved by the end of the reading. It was a helpful tonic in a news-weary world.

Drawing on my own words, I feel much as I did last October when I set down these words in an essay on this site. It was therapeutic to write them then, and it was therapeutic to reread them today. Still, one disturbing thought that came to me soon after the attack haunts me to this day. We will chasten and gird ourselves. We will chastise our offenders when we find them. We will prevail. But the final insight about our changed world may be this: These kinds of things will happen from time to time.

The Height of Ambition

The New York Times magazine has an in-depth report on the World Trade Center, past and future. It starts with The Height of Ambition: Part One. But there is also some multimedia and video material worth looking at. I find the file footage of the towers going up in the early 70s to be enthralling. I’m impressed that sites like the Times and NPR continue to invest in dynamic media even though they’re no longer being pecked at by the dot-com competition. Don’t burn out on 9/11 anniversary reflux until you give this site a look.


I see that Stefan Fatsis is doing the book circuit again now that the paperback version of his book about competitive Scrabble, Word Freak, is out. I heard Fatsis do a good piece on NPR about the origins of Scrabble. It was part of NPR’s Present at the Creation series (which is itself worth a detour to see). I figured the paperback release of the book must be coinciding with the Scrabble Championships, and sure enough they finished up on August 22nd in San Diego. This year’s winner, Joel Sherman, figures prominently in the book, which is fun to see (if you’ve read the book). Incidentally, here is the NSC 2002 player profile for Stefan Fatsis.