I’ll get to the regularly scheduled links in a bit, but I wanted to lead off with some recommendations from my 2019 media diet (a term I’ve borrowed from Jason Kottke, whose blog always makes for tasty consumption).
The new PBS Frontline documentary, In the Age of AI, is a solid and sometimes scary overview of the near future of self-driving vehicles, facial-recognition technology, cancer detection, and what the researcher and author Shoshana Zuboff calls “the age of surveillance capitalism.” In other words, a little bit optimistic but mostly alarming. (Full transcript here.)
Early on, the program introduces us to Yoshua Bengio, an artificial-intelligence researcher at the University of Montreal. I was curious about his work, so I looked him up online. One entry in his bio was unfamiliar to me: “h-index.” It clearly was something positive, or it wouldn’t be included. But what does it mean?
“If you believe, wherever you are, clap your hands, and she’ll hear you. Clap! Clap! Don’t let Tink die! Clap!”
If you’ve seen any version of Peter Pan, or read the original J.M. Barrie book, you know that this exhortation yields a happy ending. Fervent belief, accompanied by vigorous clapping, brings a dying fairy called Tinker Bell back to life.
Disneyfied Tinker Bell, via Disneyclips. In stage productions of Peter Pan, Tinker Bell is represented by a darting light and a tinkling bell. The character’s name is spelled with two words, Tinker Bell: “Tinker” because she has tinkering skills, such as mending pots and pans; and “Bell” because of the sound of her speech, understandable only to other fairies.
The term was coined by a Swarthmore College psychology professor, Frank H. Durgin, in a 2002 paper about “the illusory perception of coherent motion in dynamic noise,” published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies. He titled the paper “The Tinkerbell Effect,” and gave this explanation:
Now that the sale, possession, and use of recreational cannabis have been legal in California for a full year, what’s happening with weed branding? Well, cannabis ads are still outlawed on San Francisco’s Muni buses, streetcars, and cable cars. On the other hand, I’ve been noticing a lot of outdoor advertising in strategic locations around the Bay Area: big, bold billboards near freeway on-ramps and bridges. Some are for companies that were founded before full legalization took effect on January 1, 2018, like Eaze (a delivery service) and Weedmaps(“a community where businesses and consumers can search and discover cannabis products, become educated on all things cannabis, review cannabis businesses and connect with other like-minded users”).
But one new brand caught my attention when I saw it on a billboard on the Oakland side of the Bay Bridge: Blunts+Moore. Merely descriptive was my first thought. After all, blunt has been a slang term for “marijuana cigarette” for at least 30 years; the Random House Dictionary of Historical Slang connects it to Phillies Blunt*, a trademark in use since 1958 for a brand of inexpensive cigars.
San Francisco’s new Transbay Transit Center, a 1.2-million-square-foot hub for four Bay Area counties’ bus systems plus intercity Greyhound buses (and light rail, too, eventually), officially opened on August 11 to huge crowds. I skipped the festivities but heard rave reports from friends who'd gone, and so on August 13 I took an AC Transit bus from Oakland to San Francisco to see it for myself. I was not disappointed. Indeed, I was elated by the light-filled Grand Hall, the clear signage, the well-integrated public art, the pristine restrooms (every fixture is touchless), and the astonishing 5.4-acre rooftop garden, officially called Salesforce Park. (The software company bought the naming rights to the park and transit center in 2017; the adjacent 1,070-foot-tall Salesforce Tower, which opened earlier this year, is the tallest building in San Francisco.)
During the eight years of construction, I’d frequently driven beneath a filigreed white overpass that marked one of the center’s boundaries. While researching the completed center I learned that the filigree’s distinctive pattern has a name: Penrose tiling. And it’s not merely some designer’s fanciful grace note: it’s a mathematical marvel discovered in the 1970s and defended in a famous lawsuit.
Filigreed Penrose tiling outside the new transit center.
After important events, people often rush to look up unfamiliar words in news coverage. As a public service, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary Twitter account often publicizes the top searches. Last Monday, after the two-party summit and press conference in Helsinki, thetop look-ups were, in order, treason, abase, traitor, collusion, and presser. The last word is jargon for “press conference”; the other words reflect opinions about the behavior of the American president toward his Russian counterpart.
If the list had been a little longer, another, more exotic word might have been included: quisling.
What do you call politicians who betray their country for transitory political and financial advantage by working for a corrupt regime?
You call them quislings. And neither history nor irate citizens treat them well.
“We kind of gave him—‘All right, you get a mulligan. You get a do-over here,’” Tony Perkins, the president of the conservative Family Research Council, told Politico’s Isaac Dovere last Tuesday. By “him” Perkins meant the president of the United States. Perkins used the same term in an interview that day with CNN’s Erin Burnett: “Yes, evangelicals, conservatives, they gave him a mulligan. They let him have a do-over. They said we’ll start afresh with you and we’ll give you a second chance.” And he repeated it twice on Thursday in a post he published on FRC.org under his own byline titled “On Morals and Mulligans…” He meant mulligan in its “political” sense, he told his evangelical followers:
I’m not saying his performance as president can buy him grace -- only Christ can do that. And while evangelicals can give him a mulligan regarding their political support, only through repentance and God's forgiveness can he have a totally new start.
Yes, Perkins called in to CNN from Pride, Louisiana. His Twitter bio gives Washington, DC, as his location; it’s where the FRC is headquartered.
My new column for the Visual Thesaurus considers a batch of new brand names, including Mr. Cooper (the insurance company formerly known as Nationstar), Penny (a personal- finance app), Dave (another personal-finance app), Oscar (a health-insurance company), June (an “intelligent oven”), and Alexa (the Amazon device). All of these names are eponyms – derived from proper nouns. But unlike previous generations of brand eponyms – Wendy’s, Ben & Jerry’s, Mary Kay, Sam’s Club – these eponyms aren’t taken from the names of founders or founders’ relatives. Instead, they’re wholly fictional.
The illustration on Mr. Cooper’s website isn’t identified as the fictional Mr. Cooper, but it could be.
Full access to the column is restricted to subscribers. Here’s an excerpt:
A corporate press release for Mr. Cooper said the name was selected from among thousands of candidates “to personify the next generation of home loan servicing and lending for the company”: It “represents a more personal relationship customers can have with their home loan provider.”
But can you really have a personal relationship with a fictional persona? Dave and June and the rest of the crowd are counting on it, but the assumption strikes me as disingenuous. The new eponyms are less suggestive of living, breathing humans than of characters in a play or – even more to the point – mascots.
We often think of mascots as representing sports teams or events: the San Francisco Giants’ Lou Seal; “Olly” and “Syd” from the 2000 summer Olympics in Sydney. But a mascot can be any person or thing that is supposed to bring luck. The word came into English in 1881 from French mascotte, a talisman or sorcerer’s charm; an 1880 French play, La Mascotte, popularized the word, which may have its origins in Latin masca, or “mask.” (It’s worth noting here that personal and person also come from a root – in this case, Greek – meaning “mask.”)
If we’ve learned anything in the last nine months, it’s that there’s no such thing as a slow news day anymore. Take yesterday, a midsummer Sunday. At about 4:30 Eastern Daylight Time, the New York Times published a front-page story that astonished even those of us who thought we’d become inured to astonishment.
According to the Times, the American president’s first-born son and namesake “was promised damaging information about Hillary Clinton before agreeing to meet with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer” at Trump Tower in June 2016. The Times cites five sources, and Don Jr. himself confirmed the account – a mere 24 hours after claiming that the subject of the meeting had been “primarily about adoptions” of Russian children by American families. He changed his story after being confronted with the Times’s information, confirming in a written statement that he’d attended the meeting in hopes of obtaining some dirt on his father’s opponent in the presidential race. But, according to the statement, “it quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information.” Bait and switch!
Someone be a dear & tell stupid @DonaldJTrumpJr that "I went there to commit a crime but the mean lady didn't let me!" isn't a great defense