Proof that it’s never to late to correct a factual error

The New York Times this morning published a correction of a story it ran 161 years ago, on January 20, 1853:

Screen Shot 2014-03-04 at 6.11.33 PM Screen Shot 2014-03-04 at 6.11.59 PM

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.

Rubric one LR

“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.

Rubik's two

Contrarian does not condone the defacement of Nova Scota granite, but we are prepared to make an exception in this case.

A thumb on the weather scale — more reaction

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.


Slinky physics (cont.)

In previous installments, we brought you video of the amazing levitating Slinky, and Peter Barss wondered how the Slinky had been calibrated to work exactly this way. I asked physicists to come forth, and they have—not just physicists, but an astrophysicist. (Who better to explain levitation?)

Saint Mary’s grad Jonathan Dursi, now a senior research associate with the Canadian Centre for Astrophysics, furnished this detailed by elegant explanation:

Sometimes you hear that there’s three things taught in first year Engineering (or Physics, or whatever); things fall down; F=Ma; and you can’t push on a string.* It’s exactly those three things at play here, and it’s fun to see how they play out.

“How does this happen without calibrating the force exerted by the energy stored in the “spring” of the slinky to match the force of gravity?”

This calibration is done by the slinky itself, or in fact, any spring (or string, or…)

The spring stretches to the point that the tension in the spring — the force pulling the lowest link up — is exactly equal to the force gravity exerts on it to pull the link down. If those weren’t in balance (say, gravity was pulling more), then the lower parts of the spring would stretch out, and the tension would grow, and they would balance. (Hooke’s law, that the tension in the spring is directly proportional to how far it is stretched: F = k x, larger k means harder to stretch out the spring, is often a good approximation for these sorts of problems; but those are details. As long as the tension increased in any manner as you stretched out the spring, this would play out the same way). If it was the spring force which exceeded that of gravity, the spring would pull back, tension would reduce, and again things would end up calibrated.

This is F=ma; when you’re holding the top of the slinky, the fact that the parts aren’t accelerating upwards or downwards (a=0) means that at every point in the spring, the tension pulling upwards is the same as the gravitational force pulling downwards, so that the net force is zero (F=0, so m g = k x). If you went somewhere with a different gravitational acceleration (g), or placed a weight at the end of the spring, the spring would stretch out to achieve the same balance under the new force — the final length would be different, but the balance would again be met.

That much is true of really anything – an iron rod, or a slinky. But they all behave pretty differently when you hold them and drop them. If you hold up an iron rod vertically, it is also true that the bottom of the rod is being pulled upwards by a tension inside the rod and downwards by gravity, each perfectly balanced: but when you let go of it, the bottom does *not* stay in place until the top catches up!

This is where the “you can’t push on a string” bit comes in. The iron rod has a lot of internal rigidity; just try and squish one. When the top starts falling, not being suspended from above by any tension, it can’t catch up with what’s below it; it pushes what’s below it down with it, and the whole thing falls as a single rigid body.

But back to springs — the slinky *is* carefully built to _not_ be rigid. (It has to be able to flop over itself, after all, to climb down stars, alone or in pairs, and make a slinkity sound).

So imagine a three-link slinky, each link having a very small mass, and the whole thing is held up by the top, and there’s no internal rigidity. Each link is feeling a force of gravity down (m g) and a tension from the spring above it (k x) where x is the distance between links. The spring constant of a slinky, k, is really small — you can pull a slinky apart without exerting a lot of force.

Now let go of the top link. It immediately starts accelerating downwards, under the force of gravity. (The acceleration is g = kx/m). This *doesn’t* start _pushing_ on the bottom link — there’s no way to push! — but it slowly starts reducing the upwards tension on the second link, because the distance between them is reducing.

*But*, because the spring force is so small, the distance between links is large, and we’re accelerating from a full stop, this whole process takes a while. So it slowly starts falling, and as it falls, the tension pulling the second link upwards starts lessening — but only proportional to the amount of that distance the top link has fallen so far. Let’s say it would take the top link 1 second to fall the whole distance to the second link. It will take 0.5 second for it to drop even 1/4 of that distance, lessening the upwards force on that second link by only 25%. It will take 0.7 seconds for it to drop 1/2 of that amount, lessening the upwards force by only 50%. It’s only as the top link gets quite close to the second link that the second link looses most of its upwards support, and itself begins accelerating downwards in earnest, repeating this pattern to the lower link.

So, roughly speaking, the n’th link in the chain doesn’t start moving much until the n-1’st link has caught up to it.

Now imagine a more tightly wound slinky, so that it’s significantly harder to stretch it out. That means when you hold it up, it’s much shorter (harder to stretch it) so there’s a much smaller distance between links. There’s still no internal rigidity (say), but this whole process happens much faster, because the distance between links is much faster; the bottom “levitates” still but for a much briefer period of time. Keep tightening your mental slinky, and it happens faster and faster and faster until there’s no obvious moment of levitation at all.

This is what is meant by the “bulltwaddle” about information transfer and signals. The “We’re falling now” signal is sent from one link to the next by removing the upwards tension force. That signal travels at the same speed as the wave of now-collapsed top links moving downwards.

Quite generally, a wave travels at a speed proportional to the square root of the force which generates the wave (here, the spring tension) divided by the density of the medium. This is what sets the speed of sound in water or air (the square root of pressure over density); the speed at which a guitar string vibrates when plucked (square root of string tension over string mass), ripples on a pond, etc. Here, the wave travels at a speed proportional to the square root of the tension (k x) over the density of the spring (m/x). Because the spring adjusts itself initially so that k x = m g, this means that the wave speed is proportional to g * sqrt( m / k ), and it takes a time x over velocity, or sqrt(m/k), for the signal to travel. The looser the spring (small k), the longer it takes this signal to travel downwards. In a tighter slinky (larger k) this signal speed will get faster and faster and there will be a briefer and briefer moment of “levitation.”

(I will choose to overlook those cautious quotes Dr. Dursi placed around “levitation.”)

A reader who styles himself “Krackalakin” offers both a shorter explanation…

Consider that by holding a suspended Slinky by one end, you are holding a spring in tension… The force of gravity is the tension, or what is forcing the spring to extend and is directly proportional to that of the force puling it down – gravty! So there is no collusion or “transfer of secrets” that happen.

…and a link to an MIT classroom video wherein Prof. Walter Lewin explains the underlying principle.

The spring stuff starts about 1:30 in, but if you watch the whole thing, you can imagine what it would be like to be an MIT student.

Much obliged to both readers.

– – –

* I’ve heard this rule applied in a different context, but this is a family blog.

Calling all physicists

Yesterday, I posted a slo-mo  video of a Slinkeys, which, when dropped while their springs were completely distended, appeared to levitate momentarily, until their springs had time to re-compress, whereupon they began their expected downward trajectory. My pal Peter Barss (who is descended from a real pirate, kids) has a question “for anyone who remembers their physics better than I do.”

During most of the its fall, the bottom of the Slinky remains absolutely motionless, which, to my mind, means the gravitational force acting on the slinky pulling it down is exactly balanced by the force compressing the bottom of the slinky upwards. How does this happen without calibrating the force exerted by the energy stored in the “spring” of the slinky to match the force of gravity? It seems to me that the two forces would have to be precisely balanced for the bottom of the slinky to remain motionless while the top collapses.

I wondered the same thing. Is that precise balance an inherent quality of a Slinky—the same quality that enables it to walk down stairs? Some hints in this article at Phys.Org, a web-based science, research and technology news service, and in this paper by UBC physics prof Bill Unrah. Turns out the late, great Martin Gardner kicked off the discussion a dozen years ago. [Animated gif via KnowledgeForDummies.]

The pun addiction of newscasters

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.]

Those clever nuthatches

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?

Avian tool use in West Dublin

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.

The missing rake

Peter Barss, at yesterday’s opening of his rescued Images of Lunenburg County at the Anderson Gallery:

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?

Images-Barss-040Right 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:
Continue reading The missing rake