Archive for May 2017

The acoustics in my apartment are lousy. I have too many work deadlines. The dollar-to-euro exchange rate is depressing. It always rains when I want to go for a walk.

It’s not hard to come up with things to complain about, but who wants to listen to someone else complain? The surprising answer: just about everyone, as long as the complaints are set to music and delivered in four-part harmony by a choral ensemble. In the past few years, musical groups called complaints choirs have sprung up all over the world, drawing sell-out crowds (and Internet fans by the hundreds of thousands).

Let’s Give ‘Em Something to Complain About
The idea was the brainchild of a Finnish couple, performance artists Tellervo Kelleinen and Oliver Kochta Kalleinen. They were discussing the Finnish term Valituskuoro, which literally means “complaints choir” but refers to a situation in which numerous people are complaining about something at the same time. Tellervo and Oliver thought it would be interesting to make an actual choir of complainers. They circulated flyers and posters in Birmingham, England in 2005 and soon got together a small but enthusiastic group of participants. Each one contributed some random complaints, the list was set to music, and the resulting performance was an instant hit (both in Birmingham and around the world, thanks to YouTube).

The couple proceeded to organize similar choirs in numerous other cities, including Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Jerusalem, and Melbourne. In each locale, group participants create their own litany of complaints in their local language and with a unique vocal arrangement. Some complaints choirs are quite theatrical, while others stick to traditional choral performances in black gowns and suits. But the end result is invariably funny.

Grievances A-plenty
What do these musical complainers complain about? Anything and everything, ranging from the trivial to the profound. In fact, it’s the very randomness of the complaints that often makes the performances so funny. A few examples…

In Birmingham, the catchy chorus begins, “I want my money back. My job is like a cul-de-sac. And the bus is too infrequent at 6:30.” The St. Petersburg choir complains, “Yesterday the waitress was so rude to me.” “Shoe shops never sell size 35.” “My heart is so full but my wallet is empty. And anyway she wouldn’t love a poet like me.” In Chicago, the complaints include “I can’t stop thinking about sex,” “airport security took my mouthwash,” and “only tourists like deep-dish pizza.” The Jerusalem Complaints Choir sings, “”My bags don’t open and there’s passionfruit in everything.” “Bananas are never in the right state of ripeness.” And “football players only date models.” In Helsinki, they sing, “Old forests are cut down and turned into toilet paper, and still all the toilets are out of paper”; they also gripe that “our ancestors could have picked a sunnier place to be.” In addition, the Helsinki choir expresses my very favorite complaint: “Ringtones are all irritating,” sung several times in a row to the tune of that hideous default Nokia ringtone that we all know and hate.

If You’re Going to Complain, At Least Do It in Tune
The choirs organized so far have ranged in size from fewer than a dozen to nearly 100 members. In some cities the singers are all experienced and the compositions are top-notch. But in most cases, participants aren’t turned away for being tone-deaf as long as they have something to complain about. The Penn State group, for example, seemed to have an interesting concept but was just too painful for me to listen to. But hey, if I ever decide to start my own complaints choir, that’ll be the perfect thing to complain about. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Complaints Choirs…

The official Complaints Choirs Worldwide site lists complaints choirs around the globe, and includes instructions for starting your own.

YouTube has tons of videos of complaints choirs.

Among the many articles on the web about complaints choirs are these:

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For decades there has been a popular belief—alternately debunked and defended by various linguists and anthropologists—that there are a great many Eskimo words for snow. More specifically, the belief is that while there are lots of specific words for different kinds of snow, there is no word that can be used to refer to any type of snow generically—that is, no direct synonym for the English word snow. Some accounts claim that there are nine different Eskimo snow words; some say there are dozens; others insist there are hundreds of distinct words for snow. Critics argue that there may be just two Eskimo root words for snow (from which all other words are derived), and that in any case, English, too, has plenty of different terms for snow—flake, flurry, powder, blizzard, avalanche, and so on. I do not intend to resolve this debate here, but I would like to show that when it comes to talking about a snow crust—a thin hard layer on top of snow—English can more than hold its own.

First, a brief discursus.

The Snowball Effect
To even begin to fathom how many Eskimo words there may be for snow, one must define what is meant by Eskimo—a term sometimes regarded as offensive when applied to people of certain ethnicities. Linguistically speaking, the word Eskimo properly refers to two language groups: Yup’ik (which consists of five distinct languages) and Inuit. Although Inuit is technically a language, it’s also a dialect continuum, meaning that dialects spoken in neighboring areas are mutually intelligible, while dialects whose speakers are separated by great distances are not. Meanwhile, some people use Inuit to refer to the people themselves while reserving the term Inuktitut for the language they speak, but this is not entirely accurate either. Depending on how you count, there are four or five major Inuit dialect groups, not all of which use the term Inuktitut to refer to their own language. And by the time you count all the individual dialects and the variety of names they use…well, you have almost as many names as you do people—the total number of people who speak any Eskimo language is less than 80,000. In any case, my point is that saying there are many “Eskimo” words for snow is sort of like saying there are many “European” words for love: trivially true but irrelevant.

So let’s suppose we narrow the question down to just one particular dialect of one Eskimo language. Surely there must be one of them with lots of words for snow, right? Well, maybe. Eskimo languages are notoriously complex, and it takes someone with serious training and experience to be able to tease apart which utterances even count as distinct words. Consider that the English words snowflake and snowfall, although they appear as separate entries in the dictionary, are really just compounds based on a single root word for an underlying concept. Eskimo languages make it much harder to spot derivatives like these, and once you do find them, you’re back to making an arbitrary decision as to whether they should appear as separate entries in your snow dictionary.

Eight Is Enough
Interesting as this puzzle is, I would like to point out that in any case, individual Eskimo languages have only one or two words for snow crust. For example, Western Greenlandic has one word for snow crust while in the Norton Sound, Unaliq subdialect of Central Alaskan Yup’ik there are two—which, by the way, look suspiciously like derivations of the same root. How anyone can get by with so few terms I’ll never know; in English, we seem to need a lot more—eight, to be exact. And OK, they’re all two-word phrases, but still—I think they put the whole debate in an entirely new light. Here they are, courtesy of the Glossary of Meteorology at the American Meteorological Society:

  1. snow crust: the general term for any hard surface on snow
  2. sun crust: a crust formed when the sun melts the top layer of snow, and then it refreezes
  3. rain crust: a crust formed when rain falls on snow and then freezes
  4. spring crust: a crust formed when warmer weather (but not necessarily sunshine) melts the top layer of snow and it refreezes
  5. wind crust: a crust that forms when wind packs down a layer of snow that has already been deposited
  6. wind slab: a crust in which the wind packs the snow at the same time as it’s being deposited
  7. ice crust: a crust that forms when water (from whatever source) flows onto the surface of snow and then freezes
  8. film crust: a very thin ice crust

Snow there. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Snow Crusts…

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Read all about the Eskimo snow controversy in linguist Geoffrey Pullum’s book The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax, and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language. For a very thorough discussion about the Eskimo “snow” debate, see Do the Inuit really have 200 words for “snow”? (a discussion with Alana Johns, a linguist at the University of Toronto) and Eskimo Snow on Gene Expression. Cecil Adams also tackled the issue in his inimitable style—not once, but twice. See What are the nine Eskimo words for snow? on The Straight Dope, and the follow-up article Are there nine Eskimo words for snow (revisited)?.

To learn more about Eskimo languages and where Inuit and Inuktitut fit in, see the Ethnologue or the Inuktitut entry in the Wikipedia.

You can get definitions of all the English words for snow (and everything else weather-related) from the Glossary of Meteorology at the American Meteorological Society.

To read about the effect of snow crusts on skiing, see Snow Types at Some people consider crusted snow to be the very best skiing surface, at least if the crust is thick enough to support your weight. One such enthusiast’s report is The Magic of XC Skiing on the Crust of March by Bob Kovar.

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La Flute Gana in Paris

Last spring my wife, Morgen, and I had the great privilege of spending a month in Europe. Our goal for that trip, unlike ordinary vacations, was not primarily to see lots of museums and tourist attractions; instead, we wanted to live like locals and see what ordinary daily life would be like in another part of the world. We rented an apartment in Paris so we could shop for fresh foods and cook our own meals rather than eating out all the time. What I was looking forward to most eagerly about this arrangement was the ready availability of fresh baguettes every day, direct from the bakery.

Your Daily Bread
In France, going to your local bakery to buy fresh bread every morning is as normal as putting your socks on before your shoes. How else would it be done? And yet this simple ritual is utterly foreign to most North Americans. Here, we expect our bread to be rectangular, pre-sliced, and treated with preservatives so that it will stay “fresh” (i.e., mold-free) for two weeks. We perceive this as a benefit, a convenience. After all, bread is not usually eaten by itself; the point of bread is to provide a vehicle for butter and jelly or to keep your ham and cheese off your fingers. It’s only proper that it be as bland and easy to use as the individually wrapped slices of the stuff we generously refer to as “cheese.” Not so in France, where people take bread very seriously, with high expectations of quality. Baguettes, the quintessential French bread, are by their very nature best when fresh out of the oven—or at least consumed within a few hours of baking. Within 24 hours, most baguettes are too hard and dry to eat. But this isn’t a problem that calls for a technological solution (or a loosening of standards); it’s just The Way Things Are. And it’s worth it, because a fresh French baguette is a truly glorious food.

I have eaten many baguettes in my day, from countless bakeries and supermarkets. Amazingly enough, for such a simple food, very few bakers get it right. By “right,” I’m referring to the crucial combination of inside and outside texture. Contrary to what your local grocer may want you to believe, it is not sufficient that bread be long and skinny to qualify as a baguette. The inside of a baguette should be moist yet airy (with plenty of holes) and moderately chewy. But the crust is the most important part. It has to be, well, crusty. That is to say, firm enough that when you break the baguette in half, it makes noise, yet soft enough that it doesn’t break apart completely—you’re not looking for a giant breadstick. The crust of a fresh, properly made baguette is soft enough to chew easily without making a lot of crumbs, and hard enough that if you hold the bread horizontally by one end it won’t flop over.

The Stuff of Legend
It was with these exacting criteria that I searched the bakeries of Paris for baguettes. I found some real winners and also, sadly, a few serious losers. But my most memorable baguette experience was at a bakery called La Flûte Gana. The word flûte is another term for baguette, and Gana comes from Ganachaud, the family name of the owners. Isabelle and Valerie Ganachaud took over the business from their father Bernard, a legend by the time he retired in the late 1980s. We had heard about this bakery from an article written by Naomi Barry, a contributor to Gourmet magazine. She said they made the best bread in all of France, so we had to check it out.

There was a long line, even in the middle of the day: always a good sign. We waited patiently, deciding we’d have to succumb to a pain au chocolat in addition to the baguette. We bought two of the eponymous Flûtes Gana, thinking we’d eat one while we walked and save the other for supper. Standing on the corner across from the bakery, we broke into the first baguette, which made the mandatory “crunch” sound. We started eating, a process that was accompanied by a great deal of moaning and sighing. It was such a perfectly delicious bread that to have added butter or cheese would have been an insult. Within minutes it was gone, so we immediately returned to buy another. The staff did not seem surprised to see us again; I’m guessing this sort of thing happens pretty often.

That was a truly magical day. I was reminded of that experience recently when I saw, to my horror, a popular national brand of bread on the shelf packaged with the crust removed, presumably so your kids will eat it. What a sad thing: if bread is made properly and eaten promptly, the crust is the best part. I can’t even imagine a baguette without a crust. That would be like, I don’t know…maybe an M&M without the candy coating. Sort of missing the point. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about A Perfect Baguette…

For more about baguettes, see our recent posts on Truffles for Breakfast and The Geeky Gourmet.

La Flûte Gana has its own Web page, naturally, in French (rough English translation by Google). The bakery is located in the 20th arrondissement at 226 rue des Pyrénées (Métro Gambetta).

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You can read Naomi Barry’s essay “A Saga of Bread” in Paris: The Collected Traveler: An Inspired Anthology & Travel Resource, compiled by Barrie Kerper (pp. 266-276). Interested in learning to make your own baguettes? Try Knead: Expert Breads, Baguettes, Pretzels, Brioche, Pastries, Pizza, Pastas, Pies by Carol Tennant.

The popular usage of the term “upper crust” comes from the days when bread was baked in stone ovens by the household servants of well-to-do families. In the absence of wire racks to keep the bread from touching the hot surface, the bottom crust of each loaf would usually burn. So it was cut off (and sometimes eaten by the kitchen staff), while the nicely browned upper crust was presented to the family. Because it took some wealth (and a certain amount of snootiness) to hire people to bake bread and cut off the burnt parts, “upper crust” came to be associated with those who occupy the upper echelons of society. As for paddles—what do you think they call those long, flat things used to remove baked goods from ovens? You guessed it.

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Although in general I have tremendous faith in science, there are a few concepts I’ve always had some trouble grasping. For example, textbooks have told us for decades—with great certainty—details about the interior of the Earth. We know how thick the crust and mantle are, what the core is made of, and how hot it is (among many other facts), even though no one has managed to dig or drill even halfway through the crust—the thinnest and outermost layer of the planet. How do people figure this stuff out? Yes, I know it’s all about earthquakes. When the ground shakes, sensitive instruments all over the world make detailed measurements. By carefully analyzing the way vibrations move from one point to another, scientists are able to infer a great deal about the planet’s structure. Although I accept that this is true, the actual physics and mathematics involved are so far beyond me that I can’t help harboring a slight doubt. Maybe the core is really made of flubber or, say, chocolate pudding, rather than iron.

If I wonder at proclamations about the composition of our own planet, you can imagine how I felt when I read that astronomers are now making claims about the interior of the Sun. Not only that, these claims are based on measurements of sound, which I am reliably informed does not travel through space. After a few minutes of eye rubbing and brow furrowing, I began the long, slow process of trying to wrap my brain around the emerging science of helioseismology, the study of vibrations that occur within the Sun and what they tell us about its interior.

Light Music
Helioseismology is a branch of the more general science of asteroseismology, which is not limited to our Sun in particular. But as the Sun is conveniently located much closer to Earth than any other star, it gives us the best opportunity for detailed study. Observers have noticed periodic changes in the brightness of the Sun and other stars for centuries, but a more detailed study in 1960 showed that the Sun’s surface has a very complex pattern of oscillation. In 1970, astronomer Roger Ulrich theorized that the oscillations were due to sound waves traveling through the interior of the Sun. Further research in the decades that followed has confirmed that hypothesis.

How exactly does one observe oscillations on the surface of the Sun? By measuring the Doppler shift of light coming from a given location on the Sun’s surface using specially designed spectrometers, astronomers can tell whether that spot is moving inward or outward, and at what rate. This data can be used to create computer models that graphically depict the waves on the surface. And this information, in turn, reveals what’s going on under the surface of the Sun. Some people liken helioseismology to a sonogram: using sound waves to “see” inside a body—in this case, a celestial body. In the case of the Sun, the vibrations are affected by temperature, density, and convection, meaning that by studying the patterns of sound waves, astronomers can create surprisingly detailed, dynamic maps of the interior of the Sun—not just its surface.

Weather Forecast: Sunny
Helioseismology has produced some interesting results. For example, astronomers now know that the Sun contains plasma “rivers” or “jet streams”—massive convection currents that produce what you might think of as solar cyclones thousands of miles below the surface. In addition, the research has shown that the Sun has a number of layers that rotate at different speeds, contributing to the formation of powerful magnetic fields. And helioseismology can even detect sunspots on the far side of the Sun—quite a neat trick if you think about it.

All this information can help scientists evaluate theories of stellar evolution. Of more immediate practical concern, helioseismology is the best tool currently available for predicting solar weather patterns. The solar flares and coronal mass ejections that often accompany sunspots can disrupt satellites in Earth’s orbit and damage electrical grids. The more we know about the timing and location of these events, the better we can prepare and adapt. The moral of the story? Although you should never look at the Sun, you should always listen to it. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Helioseismology…

This article was featured in the first edition of panta rei.

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Sunquakes: Probing the Interior of the Sun by Jack B. Zirker is a good layperson’s introduction to helioseismology.

The cover story in the July, 2004 issue of National Geographic was called “The Sun: Living with a Stormy Star,” and included an extensive discussion of helioseismology.

For more details, see:

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Perched atop my computer is a shiny, high-tech video camera. Through the miracles of modern technology, I can have live video chats with friends or business associates on the other side of the country or the other side of the world, without even paying long-distance phone charges. Although I could opt for an audio-only conversation or even the text-only format of email or instant messaging, there’s something about seeing another person’s face that makes communication much richer and more satisfying. Using similar technology, I’ve participated in countless videoconferences involving multiple people in each of two or more locations, using cameras mounted on large video monitors and special microphones so that we can all see and hear each other. This is all good. But there’s one thing about the current state of the art in video communication that still bothers me greatly: the inability to make eye contact with the person or people on the other end. This was never a problem on Star Trek, which was of course the source of all my technological expectations.

Look at Me When You Say That
If you have ever tried video chats or videoconferencing yourself, you undoubtedly know what I mean. If not, let me describe what’s going on. The camera that’s pointing at your face is positioned above, below, or to the side of your display. This means the angle at which you’re viewing the screen is different from the angle at which the camera (and therefore the person on the other end) sees you—an effect known as parallax. Only if you were looking directly into the camera would the viewer have the impression you’re looking into his or her eyes. As a result, while you see your friend’s image on the screen, your friend appears to be looking down (or in some direction other than right at you), and you appear the same way on your friend’s screen. You could, of course, position the camera directly in front of your own screen, but then, the camera itself would block your view of the person on the other end.

Eye contact is extremely important for meaningful communication, and after all, seeing the person you’re talking to is the whole point of videoconferencing. But if you can’t look that person in the eye, this eliminates much of the advantage of video over a regular phone call. Guides to effective business videoconferencing usually say you should look at the camera when speaking, to give the people on the other side the sense that you’re speaking directly to them. But this is unnatural, and prevents you from seeing their reactions as you speak. What we really need is exactly what they have on the starship Enterprise: video displays that also somehow function as cameras, such that wherever you direct your gaze on the screen, that’s where your eyes will appear to be looking on the other end. Sure enough, engineers are trying to achieve this effect right now, working from several different angles (as it were).

It’s All Done with Mirrors
One fairly easy way to get eye-to-eye contact over a video link is to use technology borrowed from the television industry: the teleprompter. If you watch a news broadcast on TV, you’ll notice that the announcer is looking directly at the camera. TV news anchors don’t memorize their reports in advance; they read them from a special video screen that appears to be directly in front of the camera. In reality, the screen (an ordinary CRT or LCD) is positioned face-up just below and in front of the camera lens, with its text displayed as a mirror image. Above this display, and thus in front of the lens, is a partially silvered (or two-way) mirror positioned at a 45° angle. The announcer sees the text reflected onto it from below, while the camera sees only the announcer.

Teleprompters are a simple and tested technology; they’ve been around for more than 50 years. When similar designs are used for video communication, they’re sometimes referred to as video tunnels. They do, however, have some problems. One issue is size: the equipment is by nature quite bulky, because it requires that angled mirror in front of the camera as well as special shielding to protect the camera from glare. So even a design that uses an LCD panel will end up being at least as large as a CRT display. Teleprompters also tend to be heavy, fragile, and expensive—all factors that make them unattractive for ordinary consumers.

There’s yet another problem, which comes into play when more than two people are involved in a videoconference. If I look directly into a camera, all the people who see me on the screen will perceive that I’m making eye contact, even if they’re in different locations. So the participants will not have the impression that my gaze shifts as I turn my attention from one person to another—nor can I tell who is looking at me (or my image) at any given time.

Just Like Being There
One solution to the problem of gaze direction, being developed by researchers at Keio University in Tokyo, is called MAJIC (multi-attendant joint interface for collaboration). This system replaces the two-way glass mirror of the teleprompter with a large, curved screen made of a thin, perforated material that provides a reflective surface on one side and from the other side is mostly transparent. Cameras behind the screen record the participants in one location, while ordinary video projectors display the images of other participants (in one or more locations) on the front of the screen. What’s unique about MAJIC is that behind each person’s image on the screen in each location is a separate camera that functions as that person’s virtual eyes for that location (along with a speaker to reproduce the person’s voice). The result is that I always appear to be looking at whichever participant I’m facing at the moment, and I can even tell when one participant is looking at another. An additional bonus: the life-size projections make it feel as though you’re really sitting across a table from the other participants. This is pretty much the effect we’re all looking for, but with all those cameras and projectors, the cost of such a system is quite high, and it also uses a tremendous amount of bandwidth to transmit all that video data. Not quite what we need for desktop or laptop use.

A very different approach, called gaze correction, is being studied by researchers at major companies such as HP, Microsoft, and AT&T. It starts with one or two ordinary video cameras mounted near a conventional computer display. A special video processor digitally modifies the image of each person’s face in real time so that it appears that his or her eyes are looking straight at the camera, even though they’re not. Early demonstrations of these systems appear relatively convincing—maybe even a bit spooky—but they are not yet ready for commercial use. They also have not yet been adapted to work well with multiple participants in a single location, or to permit selective eye contact with just one of several remote participants.

Yet another method of correcting for gaze is a system called GAZE-2, under development at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. GAZE-2 uses multiple cameras in a video tunnel design along with a device that tracks eye movement. The system detects which part of the screen a user is looking at (corresponding to one of several remote participants), then automatically switches to the camera behind that part of the screen—thus ensuring that each participant is always making eye contact with the others, regardless of which image any person is looking at. The system can even rotate the images of other participants on the screen to show who is looking at whom.

It’s exciting to see progress being made, but I’d still like to see a slim, flat-panel display with cameras mounted invisibly inside and seamless gaze correction for any number of users. I have an idea for a completely novel design that just might provide all that, but it would require a few hundred thousand dollars and several months of experimentation to prove the concept and develop a working prototype. Since those resources are far beyond my means for the foreseeable future, my idea will have to remain speculation for now. But with or without my help, I expect to see eye-to-eye video displays long before starships. —Joe Kissell

UPDATE #1: In January 2006, Apple was awarded a patent for an eye-to-eye video system in which a large array of microscopic cameras is embedded in a monitor along with the display elements; software combines all these thousands or millions of images into a single picture. Time will tell if, when, or in what form this technology becomes available to consumers. Apple’s approach wasn’t quite the idea I had in mind, but it’s nice to see that they have been worrying about the same problem and applying their considerable resources to solving it.

UPDATE #2: Bodelin Technologies’ See Eye 2 Eye (SE2E), introduced in 2007, brings teleprompter-like features to most desktop and laptop computers with either built-in or add-on video cameras. The SE2E is inexpensive (US$50–60) and relatively compact, but also has a rather small viewing area.

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More Information about Eye-to-Eye Video…

Manufacturers of teleprompter equipment and software include:

Digital Video Enterprises manufactures high-end teleprompter-design videoconferencing equipment based on plasma displays.

You can read an abstract of MAJIC and DesktopMAJIC conferencing system a conference presentation given by MAJIC developers Ken-ichi Okada, Shunsuke Tanaka, and Yutaka Matsushita. Gaze correction research is also being carried out by Microsoft Research (the “StareMaster” or “GazeMaster” project) and a joint project by the University of North Carolina and Microsoft Research (using two cameras).

For information about GAZE-2, see GAZE-2: An Attentive Video Conferencing System (PDF) and GAZE-2: Conveying Eye Contact in Group Video Conferencing Using Eye-Controlled Camera Direction (also PDF).

For reasons the company never disclosed, Apple discontinued its popular external iSight camera. New MacBook, MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, and iMac models feature integrated iSight cameras, however. Unfortunately, Bodelin’s See Eye 2 Eye device does not work with the iMacs’ built-in cameras.

Apple’s new patented system is covered in Invention: Apple’s all-seeing screen by Barry Fox in New Scientist.

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