Tagged: Peter Barss
The New York Times this morning published a correction of a story it ran 161 years ago, on January 20, 1853:
The Times does take its responsibility for factual accuracy seriously. This whimsical correction of two, 161-year-old spelling errors was one of nine corrections it published today. Five years ago, at the urging of Contrarian and Provincial Court Judge Anne Derrick, the Times corrected its obituary of Donald Marshall Jr. The original version of the Times obit had incorrectly described the circumstances surrounding the killing of Sandy Seale, the 16-year-old boy whom Marshall was falsely convicted of murdering.
For all they criticize others, journalists have notoriously thin skins. They hate admitting error. Certain local journals all but refuse to do so unless someone credibly threatens litigation. Yet here comes the august New York Times publishing fistsful of mea culpas day after day. Far from diminishing its credibility or exposing the paper as sloppy, this willingness to admit and correct mistakes enhances its stature.
The Times published tens of thousands of words a day about fast-breaking, important, often controversial events. It is not humanly possible to do that without making mistakes. By correcting them forthrightly, the Times show readers a commitment to get things right.
To be sure, many critics say the Times gets a lot of big things wrong, such as its reluctance to apply the term “torture” to brutal tactics employed by the US Military. I agree with some of this criticism, but they are matters of editorial judgment and opinion. I am still grateful for the paper’s determination to ferret out and fix even the smallest factual mistakes.
The gold standard for correction goes to the Public Radio International program This American Life, which discovered it had been grossly misled by a freelancer in an episode that purported to expose abuse of factory workers in China. The program didn’t merely correct, retract, and apologize for the story. It did all of those things, but it also devoted a full hour to a meticulous examination of the fabrication, and its producers’ failure to realize they were being hoodwinked. The correction is a remarkable piece of journalism in its candour, thoroughness, and willingness to shine an unflattering spotlight on its own journalistic failings. Ironically, it gave me an almost unshakable trust in the program. You can listen to the correction here, and download the transcript here. You can subscribe to the podcast with iTunes or any podcast app.
Highway 103 between Halifax and Bridgewater is surely the dullest drive in Nova Scotia. For the last three or four years, motorists forced to traverse its dreary confines have enjoyed momentary comic relief near the Tantallon exit, in the form of a car-sized, more-or-less cubical rock outcropping, painted as a Rubik’s Cube.
“A jumbled Rubik’s Cube fixed in stone, really heavy stone,” said West Dublin resident Peter Barss, who waxed philoshical about its deeper artistic significance:
A monumental monument to confusion and frustration? A puzzle that never changes… and can never be solved? An implied order, an order that can never be realized? A metaphysical statement about some absolute truth about the universe?
This week, the nerdish joke got better when someone — Glooscap? Giant MacAskill? — solved the cube.
Contrarian does not condone the defacement of Nova Scota granite, but we are prepared to make an exception in this case.
Contrarian reader Peter Barss waxes philosophical about the primal draw of radio-storms and weather-porn:
It ‘s exciting to sit in our warm, safe living rooms listening to dire warnings of impending weather doom. It’s even more of a thrill to turn on our flat screen TVs and watch weather gals and guys get whipped by wind-driven snow as they stand outside yelling into their microphones so they can be heard over the howling “weather bomb.”
We live in a society that is soft and luxurious. One of the luxuries we indulge is the illusion that if we just do everything right we can avoid all of life’s unpleasantries. Obey weather warnings and no one will be hurt on the highways. Wear pink T-shirts and bullying will go away. Warning your kid every ten minutes on her cell phone will keep her out of the clutches of the perverts hiding in the bushes.
While society at large presumes nothing bad will happen if we just do the right things, there’s something primal in us that needs a thrill, a threat of danger. We manufacture dangerous situations and enjoy them vicariously. After we’ve stocked up with groceries and turned up the heat, we can slump back in front of our TV and get our adrenaline rush without ever getting wet or cold.
After the storm we can watch hockey players beat each other up, race cars smashed to smithereens, and ordinary people humiliated on “reality shows.”
Exaggerated weather drama and all the rest of it satisfies our need to flee or fight while we snuggle under a warm blanket several steps removed from any real danger.
After just 17 days on Mars, NASA’s Curiosity Rover has detected strong indications of life—and confirmed a familiar adage at the same time.
Photo credit: Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Photo-enhancement credit: Peter Barss
Peter Barss thinks newscasters overuse puns. In a letter to CTV, he wrote:
Like many news stations (radio and television) you seem inclined to use as many puns as you can fit into a story. The question I’d like to suggest that you ask yourselves is, “Why?”
Does a pun help to elucidate a story? I don’t think so. In fact, the use–overuse actually–of puns acts as a distraction from the news. Instead of helping to clarify a story, puns draw attention to the “cleverness” of the speaker. It’s like “Hey, look at me. I just found another pun.” Just because a pun can be made does not mean that it should be made.
Another thing to keep in mind is that puns are generally defined as a “humorous” play on words.
A couple of nights ago Jacqueline Foster was describing the incident in Mexico when a woman was badly beaten in an elevator.
Quoting a relative Foster said, “Prosser (the woman’s uncle) says every bone in her face was broken.” And then Foster added, ” The family also shattered…”
Clever? No. Humorous? Nope.
I don’t think it was Peter’s intent to single out Foster or CTV, since, as he points out, many newscasters are equally guilty. The habit is less irritating when it occurs in the banter among co-hosts, but puns, like alliteration, should be used sparingly in the news.
There are times, however, when puns are irresistible. Doug MacKay, former editor of the late lamented Halifax Daily News (celebrating its fourth deathaversary this weekend) recalls one from his days out west:
At the Winnipeg Free Press in the 1970s, there was a rough and ready sports deskman named Dallis Beck. Harold Ballard, the controversial owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, was on trial for his financial shenanigans. On the wintry day after Ballard testified in his own defence, Beck headed the story: “Hark, the angel Harold sings.”
At the risk of undercutting Peter’s point, with which I wholeheartedly agree, I’ll note that MacKay’s yarn appears in a roundup of news puns, intentional and otherwise, compiled by the late Charles Stough of the Burned Out Newspapercreatures Guild listserv, aka BONG. [Archive link, anyone?]
[Disclosure: Barss was once my brother-in-law and remains my pal; MacKay was never a relative but is always a pal.]
When I posted Peter Barss’s photos of tool-using nuthatches, it struck me as remarkable that two different species were using the same tool in the same location on the same day. I wondered if there could be some teaching and learning at work here, but figured I was getting getting over my head, animal behaviour-wise. Contrarian reader Bill Matheson had the same thought:
You may also have evidence here, even if anecdotal, to suggest cross-species cultural transmission of tool use. The red-breasted nuthatch seems to be gifted at learning from other species, according to the Nuthatch article on Wikipedia:
“The Red-breasted Nuthatch, which coexists with the Black-capped Chickadee throughout much of its range, is able to understand the latter species’ calls. The chickadee has subtle call variations that communicate information about the size and risk of potential predators. Many birds recognise the simple alarm calls produced by other species, but the Red-breasted Nuthatch is able to interpret the chickadees’ detailed variations and to respond appropriately.”
As Steve Martin might say, “Those nuthatches — they have a tool for everything!” Is there an animal behaviorist out there who can help us out?
For a long time, we humans flattered ourselves with the belief that tool use was among our defining and exclusive traits. In the last decades of the 20th Century, we grudgingly conceded the franchise — first to primates, then elephants, cetaceans, and birds. But who knew we had tool-using songbirds right here in Nova Scotia?
Sunday afternoon, two nuthatches, one red-breasted, one white-breasted, transformed a stump in West Dublin, Nova Scotia, into a vice. The birds wedged sunflower seeds into a crack in the stump, thus freeing their beaks to peck open the firmly secured meals.
Few things annoy the Contrarian more than cheesy anthropomorphism, (e.g.: the Weimaraner-abusing William Wegman), so I will tag this post sittapomorphism. Photos by Peter Barss.
As you look at these pictures and read the text panels from the book I imagine you’ll be asking yourselves the same question that has perplexed me for years: how did these men survive… without Wal-Mart?
Right after Myra and I were married we spent a few nights in the West Ironbound lighthouse with our friends Ingram and Lynn Wolf, the light keepers on the island. One evening Ingram set out to rake up some grass but couldn’t find his rake. So he made one. Drilled some holes in a narrow board, whittled wooden pegs for the teeth, and walked into the woods to cut a sapling for a handle.
Ingram had the grass raked up before the sun set.
That memory has remained with me as emblematic of the self-sufficiency and resourcefulness of the people represented in this exhibit,
If I had needed a rake it would never have occurred to me that I could make one. I would have headed directly to the hardware store.
These men could fix anything that went wrong with the engines in their boats with nothing more than a screw driver and a pair of pliers, they navigated through fog as thick as pea soup, and they could tell you what the weather would be in coming days more accurately than the forecasters of today who seem to believe that staring at computer screens will give them more information than stepping outside and learning what nature has to tell them.
These men lived at a time when communities were relatively isolated, families were closer and people had more time for each other. Neighbors depended on neighbors in good times and bad times. There were community dances and parties and when men were lost at sea –which happened all too frequently–the entire village grieved with the family.
They were not rich men and they didn’t own a lot of stuff. But they were only poor in an economic sense. One man told me “I remember back… there was nice feelings in them times. We had nothin’… but you was a millionaire.”
It’s easy to romanticize the era this exhibit portrays. No one wants to go back to those days… but maybe we should look back and think about what we have lost.
The show is up until August 4. After the jump, Peter describes the work a Halifax design shop put in restoring the images, the negatives for which had been lost in a house fire a quarter century ago:
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