Escherian puns

Five years ago (February 2009), I took a photo of two geese on a frozen pond, standing in identical poses. They were both balanced on only one leg, with their heads turned back over their left shoulders. The one-leg thing was presumably to keep the other, uplifted foot off the ice. Their heads may also have been turned in a heat-conserving tuck, but I suspect that it was synchronized preening. After all, the Vancouver Winter Olympics were only a year away, and the Geese were Canadian.

En Escherlon

When I posted this on Flickr, I entitled it ‘En Escherlon’. This was an allusion not only to the en echelon parallelism of their poses (from the fortuitous perspective of the camera) but also to ‘Puddle’, a woodcut by the Dutch artist M.C. Escher. Of course, like all such references the analogy breaks down because you can see both the geese and their reflections in my photo, whereas Escher’s genius was to show us the moon and trees solely mirrored from above in the puddle.

Escher Puddle

I think my photo is pretty good, but the title, well, that was something special, even among my small offering on Flickr where I value the words at least as much as the images — ‘A voice from the past(e)’ and ‘Troiseaux’ are among my other favorites. There things rested — quite smugly and immodestly, I admit — until Friday (two days ago) when one of my feeds turned up this digital drawing by Vijay Arunkumar:


The caption begins with the title, ‘What Creator?’, and then adds, “I just got my Pencil by fiftythree.” Whoa! I had a Pencil on order from FiftyThree and was expecting it to be delivered that day! Was it a sign?!! Probably not. Still, that synchronistic element did add to the sense of mutuality that I felt with Vijay over his less subtle but far more clever evocation of Escher. His inspiration was the famous lithograph ‘Drawing Hands’:


Some significant things are absent in Vijay’s drawing — the detailed shading on the hands, the shirt cuffs, the paper tacked on the backdrop — and it’s rotated 90 degrees compared to Escher’s work. But these differences are irrelevant to the two impactful elements of the visual pun. Firstly, the pencils have been replaced by Pencils, the elegant walnut ones at that, which allowed those two eye-catching stripes of color. Secondly and more importantly, the lower hand has turned the Pencil around and is erasing its own “creator,” the upper hand, which it obviously must have drawn first, before having a change of heart.


This wonderful aspect of Vijay’s drawing will be lost on viewers who are unfamiliar with Paper (above), FiftyThree’s app for the iPad, and how it plays with Pencil. All drawing apps, including Paper, have an erase tool, usually activated with an icon that must be tapped so that your stylus or finger can then go back to the drawing and unmake mistakes. In the screen shot of Paper (above), the eraser is just to the left of the yellow drawing tool with the white fountain pen nib. But the battery-powered, bluetooth-enabled, accelerometer-equipped Pencil allows you to turn it around, just like a real pencil, and this tells Paper that you are now going to erase! It is simple, familiar, and magical, all at the same time. And, as someone who usually has a lot to erase, I can assure you that it is also precise, even with just one day of use so far.

Finally, there is one more thing that is the strongest resonance for me with ‘What Creator?’ It’s the act of self-erasure that evokes not just Escher’s play with the visually impossible but also a deeper existential issue. It reminds me of Marvin Minsky and Claude Shannon’s Ultimate Machine (now sometimes erroneously referred to as the Useless Machine). If you are not familiar with it, I discuss it at the foregoing link, or you can just watch this video on YouTube:

The essence is encapsulated in the young girl’s last comment: “That’s all it does.” The Ultimate Machine is a device whose sole purpose is to turn itself off. Obviously, in order for ‘What Creator?’ to display this nihilistic flavor in full, the upper hand should flip its Pencil and start erasing, too. If Pencil has enough built-in intelligence to continue erasing even after the rest of the drawing is gone, then its creators at FiftyThree will have to answer one remaining question: Which of the two Pencils is smarter, in other words, which one will get the upper hand?

Posted in Art | Design, Pens | Ink | Paper, Photography, Technology, Words | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Oh My, A Helicopter Above!”

One of the most memorable moments of Super Bowl XLVIII occurred very near the kickoff. Perhaps you can picture it as Peyton Manning, the quarterback of the Denver Broncos, turns to watch something passing overhead; and the television closeup of his eyes hints at how completely unexpected the moment was. I watched it and thought, “Wow, I hope that didn’t rattle him,” and then “What else isn’t he prepared for?…”

The second flyover

There’s only one problem. You and I are almost certainly thinking about two different moments. If you watched the game from the outset, you undoubtedly think I am describing the well-documented first play from scrimmage (above), in which the Denver center, Manny Ramirez, snapped the ball prematurely, not realizing that Manning was stepping back up to the line for one of his oft-of-late “Omaha moments.” The ball flew past his head, which the cameras captured, and for the briefest instant his eyes registered… what? Surprise, disbelief, terror? But that was Manning’s second flyover, to which I’ll return below.

His first flyover, which was the subject of my opening paragraph above, had occurred a few minutes earlier. Renée Fleming’s singing of the national anthem was followed climactically by fireworks and the abrupt, noisy, very low-altitude appearance above MetLife Stadium of three clusters of helicopters from the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division. There is no denying the thrilling impact of this display on the crowd, to judge from amateur videos taken inside the stadium by fans and from inside one of the helicopters by a crew member. But the impact on Manning? Not so thrilling. Chilling might be more like it.

Here is an animated GIF created by Next Impulse Sports from the Fox Sports feed:

“Oh My, A Helicopter Above!”

Pete Blackburn of Next Impulse Sports offered only this fun-poking afterthought about the animated GIF: “…Peyton Manning was catching a glimpse of the first helicopter he had ever seen in his life.”

Maybe there is no disbelief or terror, but there is surprise for sure (as the quote above implies), plus a furrowed-brow hint of annoyance, of something not quite going according to plan. And, if we know one thing about Peyton Manning, it is that he plans and prepares thoroughly, perhaps like no other quarterback ever. Nonetheless, watching it happen live, I felt certain that he didn’t know this flyover was coming. Broncos Coach John Fox ran practices with loud crowd noise, but apparently not with helicopters overhead. While I’m not suggesting that this first flyover was premonitory for the second one, like radon leaks or snakes crawling out of the ground before an earthquake, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a psychological (not psychic!) connection when that errant snap from center went sailing past his head a few minutes later. Something like, “OK, maybe he is a bit distracted.”

After that, it was all downhill. The Seattle Seahawks were simply overwhelming, and the Denver Broncos never recovered. Nor did Peyton Manning, perhaps from either flyover.

As for an explanation of the second flyover, after the game Manning told reporters, “We were using the snap count on the play and due to the noise no one could hear me. I was walking up to the line of scrimmage to sort of make a change and get us on the same page and then the ball was snapped.” Manny Ramirez (Broncos center) concurred: “It was real loud and we’re trying to go on a cadence and I thought I heard him [emphasis added]. I didn’t, you know. He was already walking up to me because he had already said the cadence and I snapped it.”

12thManOr maybe he did hear “Peyton.” The only thing that has gone more unnoticed than Manning’s reaction to the helicopters is a brief interview on KIRO-TV (Ch. 7, the CBS affiliate in Seattle; direct link here) with Seahawks fan Mark DeRawls[?], who was seated in row 15 behind the end zone where the safety was scored. According to the interview, DeRawls, a self-proclaimed Manning-sound-alike, shouted “Omaha!” as the Broncos were lined up, and he is sure that his shout “got through [to Ramirez], and he hiked the ball.”

Interestingly, there is an independent observation and analysis that is compatible with this version of events. In a February 4 article, the CBSBoston duo of Feiger and Massarotti reported this comment from former Patriots tight end Jermaine Wiggins:

I put [the fault] squarely on Peyton Manning’s shoulders. I looked back at it over and over from different angles, and it’s one thing when the center snaps the ball and he thinks it’s on a different cadence and he’s the only one that moves. But when you got the whole offensive line moving in concert, everyone from left tackle to right tackle, everybody is moving – so that’s on the quarterback.

Put those two things together, and perhaps the Broncos line moved on the snap because they heard a Peyton, rather than the Peyton. This is potentially testable, by seeing if DeRawl’s 12th Man shout of “Omaha!” can actually be identified as a component in the soundtrack of the game, at precisely the right moment to have triggered the snap. Profound, if true. [Aside to John Brenkus: How good is your waveform analysis equipment?]

All of which leaves one final question: What does “Omaha!” actually mean? What is so important about shouting this word that a false hearing of it might have started the Broncos down the slippery slope of losing the Super Bowl? John Breech of CBS Sports gave us Peyton Manning’s answer as of mid-January:

I know a lot of people ask what Omaha means…. Omaha is a run play, but it could be a pass play or a play-action pass, depending on a couple things: which way we’re going, the quarter, and the jerseys that we’re wearing. It varies, really, from play to play. So, there’s your answer to that one.

Yeah, and it also depends on whether the day of the week ends in “y.” Thanks for nothing, Peyton. But your words no longer matter. Your actions give us the real answer. Regardless of the cause of the second flyover, the answer was obvious from the first one. Omaha is not a real or fake audible, but an acronym, OMAHA: “Oh My, A Helicopter Above!”

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Go real-istic: a timeline of the Chobani crowdsourced recall

As I was writing yesterday’s post about the “non-recall recall” by Chobani of some of its Greek yogurt, I wondered briefly how this all started. Who actually took the time to explore, research, and investigate this, and then pulled it together for the rest of us? Watching more of the Twitter stream today, there was the answer at 9:17 am from John Sowell, self-described as a public safety reporter at the Idaho Statesman:

John Sowell ‏@IDS_Sowell
Six days after I broke the story that stores removed Chobani yogurt from shelves, the company admits to a recall.

His story, Chobani yogurt removed from store shelves, was published on September 1st (Sunday).

He had spent the previous day tracing the problem back: “The first three complaints questioning yogurt quality were posted Aug. 22 on Chobani’s Facebook page.” That was ten (10) days prior to his published story, and there were other complaints subsequent to those first three from which he quoted.

I only started following all this on Wednesday afternoon, but at that time Chobani was in quasi-denial, for example, in this reply: “@foodscitech No recall here!” A search on Twitter for the combination @Chobani and the phrase “no recall here” yields about 80 tweets on September 4th (Wednesday) that begin with that exclamatory phrase. The last one is at 6:00 pm, which presumably is the demarcation between unreal (“No recall here!”) and real (Oooops, well maybe we should issue just a little one — my words, not Chobani’s).

Going farther back, the denial is there still earlier — two tweets on the 3rd, one on the 2nd, and one on the 1st. Here is that very first one on Sunday (the 1st) at 11:01 pm:

@tcruzmo No recall here. For more information check out our blog post. We’re glad you got in touch with us!

It does make you wonder if @tcruzmo had read the Idaho Statesman earlier in the day, doesn’t it? [Update on September 7th: Alas, nothing that dramatic. @tcruzmo subsequently indicated receipt on the 1st of an email mentioning a "Class III recall."]

At the end of that same week (August 30th), Spartan Stores of Grand Rapids, MI, added a list of about 50 Chobani products to the “Recent Recalls” page on the websites of all six of its supermarket brands — D&W Fresh Market, Family Fare, Glen’s Fresh Market, Glen’s Market, ValuLand, VG’s Fresh Market, and VG’s Grocery, numbering collectively nearly 100 stores. As an example, here is the page for D&W Fresh Market (10 stores). The list is followed by an explanatory paragraph that begins with this sentence:

Chobani has issued a voluntary product withdrawal of Chobani products manufactured at the Twin Falls, Idaho facility due to premature swelling or bloating.

As an aside, I can’t help asking this irreverent question: Would there be some timing for or version of “swelling or bloating” that would not be “premature” and hence by implication could be deemed acceptable?…

Now return to mid-week and, according to Candace Choi’s article on Thursday in the Huffington Post, “the Food and Drug Administration said Wednesday that it was in talks with the company about the matter.” That would be September 4th, at the height of the “No recall here!” mantra. On Thursday morning, she (@candacechoi) tweeted that “Chobani CEO tells me it was company’s decision to enact a recall. But did not know if FDA first reached out to company or vice versa.”

For the record, here is the FDA’s posting of Chobani’s “Recall — Firm Press Release,” dated September 5 [Thursday] and entitled “Chobani, Inc. Voluntarily Recalls Greek Yogurt Because of Product Concerns.” So now there is a definitive answer to the rhetorical question on Chobani’s website, “What is real?”: the recall.

At least two lawyers who were watching and tweeting weighed in, hinting (or more) at legal issues. Michele Simon (‏@MicheleRSimon) tweeted “lawyers at work (being one I can smell it). Prob worried about legal implications of ‘recall’”; and Bill Marler offered 140+ characters on his blog: Chobani, here is the difference between a Recall and a Withdrawal and some Questions, which begins with the phrase “According to the FDA….”

They are understandably seeing the world through law-colored glasses, and I don’t doubt the role, however much behind-the-scenes, of the FDA. But, as I said in my previous post, this was arguably the world’s first crowdsourced recall (at least by that name). It is very unlikely that all of this would have happened on the timescale that it did without the visible, strident, sustained commentary — and embarrassment for Chobani — on Twitter and Facebook (unless there had been some serious public health impact to speed up the result, which thankfully seems to have been absent).

For clarity and emphasis, here is a recap of that timescale:
• August 22, first customer comments or complaints on Facebook;
• August 30, Spartan Stores announce Chobani’s “voluntary product withdrawal”
• September 1, John Sowell’s story in the Idaho Statesman
• September 1, first tweet using “recall” re: Chobani
• September 4, revelation of FDA “in talks” with Chobani
• September 4, cessation of “No recall here!” mantra
• September 5, press release from Chobani on voluntary recall

To put the Twitter stream in perspective, here it is for the past month with data for “Chobani” (orange) and “Chobani recall” (blue) taken earlier today from Topsy (but note that the right-hand most datapoint is for the 5th, not the 6th):


[click on the image above for a larger version]

As I said in a tweet earlier today, the “pressure” had been building since Monday, and not just in Chobani’s cups. Nothing to do with the FDA, though we should be glad they were also active. But the larger implication is clear: In the social media era, if you manufacture things we put in or on our bodies, it would behoove you to pay real-time, fine-grained attention to your customers, as well as long-term attention to rules and regulations. Otherwise, you are liable to be awarded a de facto crowdsourced recall (or similar penalty) instead of being able to wait for or even avoid a de jure one.

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Chobani awarded first-ever Crowdsourced Recall

During the past 24-36 hours, the major social media sites have been lit up by the news that Chobani, one of the major manufacturers of Greek yogurt, had quietly asked retailers last week to remove some of its products from grocery store shelves because of a problem with mold — actually a non-problem in their early recounting — in “less than 5% of its total production.”

I learned of this yesterday (Wednesday) afternoon when I came home with a four-pack of my favorite, the 3.5-oz Raspberry + Chocolate Chips. And then my wife noticed the “bloating” of the unopened-yet-unexploded containers….

Bloated Chobani cups

Charming. That sent me searching on Google and then Twitter. Here are a few links to get you started, on the off chance that you are reading this for some other reason:

• From the Huffington Post: Chobani Pulls ‘Fizzy,’ ‘Swelling’ Yogurt Off Shelves (09/03/13, 6:43 PM);
• From a real-time Twitter search: “Chobani recall”;
• From the Social Analytics page of Topsy: a graph of tweets/day (which I suspect is running way behind the real-time stream, at least as I am writing); and
• From a Google search: “Chobani recall” (556,000 hits at time of writing).

The tweets are predictably all over the map, from supportive to scathing. Most people have been concerned to alert their friends and followers; a few have had “Ah ha!” moments as they suddenly understood an unusual taste or an exploded container or some sickness. So far, there are thankfully no reports of serious illness, though the verdict may still be out for those who tweeted things like, “Great, I literally just ate a cup of this!”

Then there were those of us who wondered why the persistent claim from @Chobani of “No recall here!” hadn’t already turned into a for-real recall. Ironic aside: Take a look at their website and the occurrence of that one little word “real,” including their tag line “Go Real” and the prominent question “What Is Real?” Apparently not the “recall.”

I tweeted this on Wednesday at 3:47 pm:

@chobani keeps repeating the mantra, “No recall here!” Really? If not, maybe it should be!!!

And then, with the intent of a humorous jab, this at 3:53 pm:

Multi-choice quiz for @Chobani: (a) it’s a recall; (b) it’s a PR disaster; (c) both (a) & (b); (d) none of the above except (c).

Now, on Thursday morning, the reports and tweets seem to indicate that, with the FDA looking into the situation, Chobani has decided that, uh, maybe there should be a real recall after all. So this will play itself out somehow, refunds/coupons will be emailed, and we will move on to fretting — and tweeting — about other crises. Hopefully, we can all look back in a few weeks and be thankful that no one became seriously ill.

Notwithstanding the opportunistic tweet last night from @YoplaitGreek — “Now’s the time to try NEW delicious Yoplait Greek” — most of us, including me, will be thankful if Chobani itself survives. But I think there will be another legacy that seems to have gone unnoticed thus far. Here it is in a nutshell from last night at 8:32 pm:

@Chobani – “No recall here!” Sorry, but word weaseling aside, you have been awarded the world’s first crowdsourced recall. Congrats!

Before I sent it, I searched for the phrase “crowdsourced recall” on Google. Nada. So while there may have been other product “incidents” since the emergence of social media that could be retrospectively labelled with this phrase, it appears that none have been. Until now.

So congratulations to Chobani indeed. (And Yoplait, don’t get too smug. You could be next.) But especially, congratulations to all the Twitter and Facebook users who made this happen.

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