Saturday, January 27, 2007

NYT take note: Photoshop lies aren't the only kind of photographic distortion

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

The New York Times and other mainstream media outlets make a lot out of the fact that they don't allow their photographers to fiddle with their pictures in Photoshop. What you see is what you get, supposedly.

That's why I was so startled last night when I saw the photo the New York Times ran in their online story about Serena Williams winning the Australian Open (not in print, must have been too late for the deadline). WTF? That lady hasn't just put on pounds, she's been putting away the steroids. Look at that upper right arm. A linebacker would be proud.

Then I looked more closely. Look at the tennis ball. It's a double exposure. There are two images of the ball, blurring together. The same thing is happening with Serena's right arm. Two exposures, perhaps a 1/000 of a second apart. In the first, her arm is pressed against her torso, as she draws back for a two-fisted backhand. In the second, it's flared out and away as she begins her stroke.

The photo could be the result of two different photographers' strobes happening to go off a millisecond or so apart, but I don't know that they allow flash during an indoor tennis match. If not, it would seem to be an artifact of the shutter somehow taking two exposures a fraction of a second apart. Everything in the picture that is more or less at rest during that brief interval is fused into a single image. The picture elements that are in rapid motion appear as two separate but merged images: her upper right arm, the ball, and to some extent, the head of the racket. So, although I'm sure the file integrity of the digital image was totally preserved, without Photoshop hankypank, the final result is as distorted as if the photographer had deliberately stretched the upper arm horizontally in Photoshop.

I'm left wondering why this happened. In all likelihood, the image was selected by an art director for its graphic impact. And it certainly does create a powerful image of raw power, of the sheer physical strength needed for today's power game (even though some of that power comes from modern racket technology).

But what about Serena Williams, the subject of the story, the former champion capping an incredible comeback as an unseeded player in the Australian Open by humiliating Maria Sharapova in the final? Her achievement wasn't primarily a physical feat. Like all great victories against the odds at this level of professional sports, it was primarily mental.

The real distortion here isn't just photographic. By representing Serena Williams, a great athlete, as having the physique of a hulking bodybuilder, the Times is perpetuating an old stereotype of black athletes, one the Williams sisters have been battling for years in the mostly white world of pro tennis. Just what sort of stereotype are we playing with here? Think Jimmy the Greek expounding on the unique musculature of black athletes. This comes close to being a visual equivalent.

Can anyone imagine the Times having run the same sort of photo showing Maria Sharapova? Wouldn't they have gone for a look of physical grace more than brute, animal strength?

Friday, January 26, 2007

Serena: 6-1, 6-2, wow. Maria: 1-6, 2-6, oops.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Top-seeded Maria Sharapova ran into a force of nature in the Australian Open final -- Serena Williams, who entered the tournament two weeks ago as what seemed to be a washed up has-been, unseeded and ranked 81st in the world, although thought to be a potentially dangerous spoiler in the early rounds. Despite playing only three matches at a pre-Open warmup tournament after sitting out most of 2006, Serena seemed to grow stronger with each match and blew away the U.S. Open Champion, who will gain the #1 ranking Monday despite the loss.
MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) -- Serena Williams won her eighth and most improbable Grand Slam title, overwhelming top-seeded Maria Sharapova 6-1, 6-2 in the Australian Open on Saturday.

Only the second unseeded woman to win the Australian title in the Open era, Williams came into the tournament ranked No. 81 after spending most of last season on the sidelines because of a knee injury.

"I'm really enjoying this!" said Williams, who will jump to No. 14 next week.
A tough, gritty performance by a great champion.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Administrators at Wisconsin high school struggle to tell bad USA from good USA

Talk about the eye of the beholder -- nearly four years into an increasingly unpopular war, it was bound to come down to something like this. The exuberant chants of blind patriotism that accompanied the exultant, early days of the war are long behind us. It's reached the point where school administrators in Baraboo, Wisconsin have made national headlines for banning the USA chant for signifying a vulgar expletive, apparently unable to distinguish the bad USA and the good USA.
Administrators have discouraged student fans from shouting the "U.S.A." cheer, which some use as a three-word acronym beginning with "You" directed at the opposing team. Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association rules state only cheers supporting one's own team are permitted.

Students have said that the chant began innocently and not everyone uses it as a smear. But administrators said once they became aware of its hidden message — and other teams complained about Baraboo's poor sportsmanship — it had to stop.
How to distinguish the bad USA from the good USA? The rule is clear, according to Channel 15 in Madison.
Students are allowed to say USA only after the national anthem, if they use it any other time they will be punished.
Imagine -- being punished for saying USA. Kind of makes you wonder -- do words mean what they say or what people say they say? Have our patriotic slogans become so drained of meaning through overuse that we can no longer distinguish the authentic from the counterfeit? Is this how the American empire enters its decline -- not with a bang, not with a whimper, but in a tangle of double entendre?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

'Ping-pong game with American lives'

"Bush Iraq Plan Is Condemned by Senate Panel" is how the NYT described the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's vote today for a nonbinding resolution opposing Bush's troop surge in Iraq. Chuck Hagel, the only Republican to join Democrats in the 12-9 vote, doesn't think there even is a plan to condemn. From his blistering remarks this morning, via TPM Muckraker:
I don't think we've ever had a coherent strategy. In fact, I would even challenge the administration today to show us the plan that the president talked about the other night. There is no plan. I happen to know Pentagon planners were on their way to the Central Com over the weekend. They haven't even team B'ed this plan. And my dear friend Dick Lugar talks about coherence of strategy. There is no strategy. This is a ping-pong game with American lives.
Russ Feingold wants to end the game. Although he voted for the resolution, Feingold said it did not go far enough. He wants Congress to use its power of the purse to end the war. He said he would introduce a bill "to prohibit funding at a date certain to get this thing done."

Randy Newman's unique defense of America

I was feeling rather dispirited after last night's State of the Union address. More of the same old same old. More American soldiers will be killed and maimed. More Iraqis will be killed and maimed. The Forever War will continue with no end in sight, an expansion to Iran looming dead ahead on the road we're following.

Do nations really get the leadership they deserve? What sort of country ends up with someone like George Bush in the White House? It was as if Randy Newman could read my thoughts. He offers a unique defense of America in a song that the NYT ran (in abridged form) as an Op-Ed this morning.
I’d like to say a few words
In defense of our country
Whose people aren’t bad nor are they mean
Now the leaders we have
While they’re the worst that we’ve had
Are hardly the worst this poor world has seen...
Who was worse? Well, Newman goes on to point out, George Bush is no Hitler. He's no Stalin. And he's no Caligula, who was said to have thought about making his horse a Roman consul. Made me feel much better.

The song will be available on iTunes Jan. 30. There's more information at Newman's website, along with a link to the unabridged lyrics of "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country," which include some lines about the Supreme Court the NYT apparently found too tasteless to print. Imagine that -- Randy Newman, tasteless.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

State of the Union, Jan. 23, 2007

I passed these yard signs this afternoon, sad but colorful sentinels in the snow, reminders of the only real issue on people's minds as George Bush presented his latest iteration of a wartime State of the Union address, with his war nearly four years old now and no end in sight. Once again, he laid out the case for prolonging the Forever War. If you ask me, the references to Iran spelled out the name of the battleground where he clearly believes this conflict will be decided.
A thinking enemy watched all of these scenes, adjusted their tactics, and in 2006 they struck back. In Lebanon, assassins took the life of Pierre Gemayel, a prominent participant in the Cedar Revolution. And Hezbollah terrorists, with support from Syria and Iran, sowed conflict in the region and are seeking to undermine Lebanon’s legitimately elected government. In Afghanistan, Taliban and al Qaeda fighters tried to regain power by regrouping and engaging Afghan and NATO forces. In Iraq, al Qaeda and other Sunni extremists blew up one of the most sacred places in Shia Islam — the Golden Mosque of Samarra. This atrocity, directed at a Muslim house of prayer, was designed to provoke retaliation from Iraqi Shia — and it succeeded. Radical Shia elements, some of whom receive support from Iran, formed death squads. The result was a tragic escalation of sectarian rage and reprisal that continues to this day.

This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we are in. Every one of us wishes that this war were over and won. Yet it would not be like us to leave our promises unkept, our friends abandoned, and our own security at risk. Ladies and gentlemen: On this day, at this hour, it is still within our power to shape the outcome of this battle. So let us find our resolve, and turn events toward victory.
The Jim Webb rebuttal for the Democrats was the first rebuttal I've heard in years that wasn't mushy pabulum written by a committee. Webb wrote it himself, and his words were focused, eloquent and determined.
The war's costs to our nation have been staggering. Financially. The damage to our reputation around the world. The lost opportunities to defeat the forces of international terrorism. And especially the precious blood of our citizens who have stepped forward to serve.

The majority of the nation no longer supports the way this war is being fought; nor does the majority of our military. We need a new direction. Not one step back from the war against international terrorism. Not a precipitous withdrawal that ignores the possibility of further chaos. But an immediate shift toward strong regionally-based diplomacy, a policy that takes our soldiers off the streets of Iraq's cities, and a formula that will in short order allow our combat forces to leave Iraq.
It's a stark contrast: Escalate, or de-escalate. We're entering a dangerous time, with the clock running out. Bush won't get another chance in Iraq, and he won't accept defeat. All that's left to him is to escalate the conflict by taking the fight to Iran, positioning it as a defensive reaction to a provocation that will either be provoked or manufactured. Will Congress have the spine to stop him? Stay tuned.

The universe sings to her from afar

NYT science writer Natalie Angier writes about -- what? life? time? the universe? -- and turns it up a notch.
We are poised between the extremities and homogeneities of nature, between delirium and ad infinitum, and our andante tempo may be the best, possibly the only pace open to us, or even to life generally. If we assume that whatever other intelligent beings that may be out there, in whatever alpha, beta or zepto barrio of the galaxy they may call home, arose through the gradual tragicomic tinkerings of natural selection, then they may well live lives proportioned much like ours, not too long and not too short. They’re dressed in a good pair of walking boots and taking it a day at a time. And if you listen closely you can hear them singing gibberish that sounds like Auld Lang Syne.
In case you were wondering.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Don't have a gold-plated health plan? Why not try one of the credit card plans instead?

One of the most promising ways to make private health insurance more affordable is by reforming the Federal tax code. Today, the tax code unfairly penalizes people who do not get health insurance through their job. It unwisely encourages workers to choose overly expensive, gold-plated plans. The result is that insurance premiums rise, and many Americans cannot afford the coverage they need.

We need to fix these problems, and one way to do so is to treat health insurance more like home ownership. The current tax code encourages home ownership by allowing you to deduct the interest on your mortgage from your taxes. We can reform the tax code, so that it provides a similar incentive for you to buy health insurance. So in my State of the Union Address next Tuesday, I will propose a tax reform designed to help make basic private health insurance more affordable -- whether you get it through your job or on your own. -- George Bush Radio Address, Jan. 20
So, there's one thing the Decider will be talking about tomorrow night in the SOTU -- his favorite conservative fantasies about solving the healthcare crisis through individual responsibility shaped by tax incentives. And curbing costs by incenting health-care consumers to cut back on those "expensive, gold plated plans." Paul Krugman, among others, isn't buying it.
While proposing this high-end tax break, Mr. Bush is also proposing a tax increase — not on the wealthy, but on workers who, he thinks, have too much health insurance. The tax code, he said, “unwisely encourages workers to choose overly expensive, gold-plated plans. The result is that insurance premiums rise, and many Americans cannot afford the coverage they need.”

Again, wow. No economic analysis I’m aware of says that when Peter chooses a good health plan, he raises Paul’s premiums. And look at the condescension. Will all those who think they have “gold plated” health coverage please raise their hands?
On the same day that Krugman was slamming Bush on healthcare, fellow NYT columnist Bob Herbert was attacking another aspect of the healthcare debacle under the headline "Your MasterCard or Your Life" -- the growing resort, not to gold-plated plans, but to "credit card plans" by people who are either under-insured or have no insurance at all, trying to get treatment from medical institutions that demand payment up front.
Americans are increasingly living in a house of cards — credit cards.

A disturbing new report shows that with health care costs continuing their sharp rise, low- and middle-income patients are reaching for their credit cards with alarming frequency to cover treatment that they otherwise would be unable to afford.

This medical debt, to be paid off in many cases at sky-high interest rates, is being loaded onto consumer debt that is already at dangerously high levels. Many families have been crushed by the load, driven from their homes, forced into bankruptcy, and worse.
Take your pick: In George Bush's world, Americans have too much health insurance. In Bob Herbert's world, they don't have enough. Which sounds like the world you live in?

Welsh Boffin says today most depressing day

Other news sources reported this story about today being "Blue Monday," the most depressing day of the year.
A Welsh boffin has discovered the worst Monday of the year - and bosses beware, it's next week.

Psychologist Dr Cliff Arnall of Cardiff University has christened January 22 'Blue Monday', when post-Christmas fatigue kicks in, resolutions fall by the wayside and spring seems ages away.

What's more, the academic says the feeling will last all week as the lethal combination of miserable weather and astronomical credit card bills affects even the super-happy among us.
But this one is the only version of the story I've seen that credits the discovery to a boffin. Helps keep things in proportion.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

During the NFC championship, we pretty much had Olbrich Gardens to ourselves

While Da Bears were nailing down their Super Bowl berth this afternoon, we escaped to a sparsely attended Olbrich Botanical Gardens. Inside the Bolz Conservatory, we not only enjoyed the botanicals and the moist, oxygen rich air, but the "Living Glass" installation of glass sculpture by Grant Zukowski. Glass fish mingled with real koi in the ponds, and glass flowers hung magically from the trees.

Outside, the garden was both absolutely deserted and totally inviting.

The gold of the Thai Pavilion glowed through the snow-covered trees and the gardens blanketed in white.

Future Madison arts incubator?

Some in the Madison arts community have big hopes for this old, empty feed mill behind Olbrich Botanical Gardens on the city's east side, which provided a picturesque background for the snow that fell Sunday.
The former Garver Feed Mill may look like a ruin to most people, but Madison's arts community sees an incubator waiting to be chipped from the crumbling brick and mortar.

A grass-roots movement to convert the century-old building, adjacent to Olbrich Botanical Gardens, to a place for artists of all kinds to create, exhibit, perform, teach and perhaps even live emerged Thursday at a meeting of a city panel charged with charting its re-use.

If the Madison community can come up with $205 million for the Overture Center, a "showplace" that does not embrace local artists, it can find the money to recast the old industrial building into a place where artwork is crafted, poet Esther Cameron said.
You can find out more about the plans here.