Monthly Archives: May 2010

Hypertext-Wired Brains and Irrelevancy

Something tells me that these two areas of study, unfortunately, have interrelated results:

From Wired, “The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brain” (Nicholas Carr):

Research was painting a fuller, very different picture of the cognitive effects of hypertext. Navigating linked documents, it turned out, entails a lot of mental calisthenics—evaluating hyperlinks, deciding whether to click, adjusting to different formats—that are extraneous to the process of reading. Because it disrupts concentration, such activity weakens comprehension. A 1989 study showed that readers tended just to click around aimlessly when reading something that included hypertext links to other selected pieces of information. A 1990 experiment revealed that some “could not remember what they had and had not read.”

From the New York Times, “The Impact of the Irrelevant on Decision-Making“:

An intriguing example of transparently irrelevant information that affects behavior comes from a 1974 report on an experiment by the psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. In the experiment, subjects first spun a wheel that supposedly would stop at random on any number between 1 and 100. Then they were asked what percentage of African countries belongs to the United Nations. For one group of subjects, the wheel was rigged to stop on 10; for a second group, on 65. On average, the first group guessed that 25 percent belong to the United Nations, but the second group guessed 45 percent.

In short, even demonstrably false or irrelevant information can influence judgments, which in turn influence decisions. In such cases, Professors Tversky and Kahneman wrote in 1981, “the adoption of a decision frame is an ethically significant act.”

On a sidenote, also from the Wired article, this makes you wonder about print media’s early attempts to do news video:

In a study published in the journal Media Psychology, researchers had more than 100 volunteers watch a presentation about the country of Mali, played through a Web browser. Some watched a text-only version. Others watched a version that incorporated video. Afterward, the subjects were quizzed on the material. Compared to the multimedia viewers, the text-only viewers answered significantly more questions correctly; they also found the presentation to be more interesting, more educational, more understandable, and more enjoyable.

Marine Sgt. Tyler Ziegel, Photog Nina Berman at the Whitney

Jan. 2, 2012: Tyler Ziegel passed away on Dec. 26, 2012. He was 30. The Peoria Journal Star has a story about his funeral. RIP Tyler.

Tyler and Renee. Photo by Nina Berman

Stopped at the Whitney Biennial last night at around 2am (it’s been open on a 24 hour schedule this week). The modern art at the Whitney may be too modern for me and my MoMA-loving-style, but there were a couple rooms of powerful documentary photography, including Nina Berman’s 2006 World Press Photo Portraiture winner, of Marine Sgt. Ty Ziegel.

Even if the Whitney isn’t your kind of art, the Berman exhibit is worth a visit this Memorial Day weekend.

Ziegel suffered burns over his entire body after a suicide bomb attack in Iraq. Berman’s award winning photo was of Ziegel, then 24, and his 21-year-old bride, Renee, getting their wedding portrait taken at the studio. I don’t know what the official portrait ended up being, but Berman’s take, with the bride’s haunted expression, turns the cliched-wedding-portrait on its head. Read a Salon Q&A here.

Tyler and Renee, before IraqI remember seeing that photo in the awards gallery, but the Whitney exhibit featured more than a dozen photos of Ziegel’s life, then during the wedding, and then a follow-up in 2008.

Their marriage on Oct. 7, 2006 was hailed as an example of the power of love: two high school sweethearts making the commitment despite Ziegel’s disfigurement. That day was declared a state holiday: “Renee and Tyler Ziegel Day”.

Despite everyone’s hope for a happy ending, they divorced the following January. A Times of London profile in 2008 resignedly states, “It turns out love doesn’t conquer all. It’s a myth.”

In the Salon Q&A, Berman talks about how Ziegel’s sense of humor persevered:

I asked Ty, what do little kids say? Do little kids get scared? In my book, I’d photographed a really severely burned soldier. And when I was with him I’d see kids shy away and he would smile at them.

Ty would just laugh — he’s got a great sense of humor. Kids would say, “What happened to your ears?” and he’d say, “The bad guys took ‘em.” They’d say, “What happened to your nose?” and he’d say, “The bad guys took it.” I guess he tried to make some little game out of it to deal with it.

In the Times UK profile, the author writes of the difficult time faced by both Tyler and Renee:

Most of the time, [Buddy Robison, Tyler's best friend] and Ty talk about music. And, like Becky, he isn’t worried about Ty moving on and falling in love again. “Someone will see through his skin and see his heart,” he says. And what of his own personal feelings about Renee? Buddy smiles. “That’s a hard question.” He takes his time before answering, choosing his words with care.

“I respect her a lot for sticking by Ty’s side. Moving to San Antonio? she helped him through the hardest time in his life

“Before he got blown up, we were both shy. We were exactly alike. Now he’s not afraid to go up to someone he doesn’t know and talk to them. He doesn’t hide. Obviously, people look, but he walks straight ahead.”

There has only been one incident where there’s been trouble. A little over a year ago they were leaving a bar and a bunch of local college kids made fun of Ty. There was a fight.

“They made fun of him, called him a freak. You can’t just brush that off. Someone’s got the audacity to do that to someone who served his country, protecting them?”

Tyler and Renee, Nina Berman

Nina Berman Photography

Who was Yu Yao? Rape-and-homicide case in downtown Flushing (updated)

Yu Yao (CBS NY)

Update 4/28/2011:Carlos Salazar Cruz, 29, is sentenced to the maximum term of 22-years to life for confessing to the second-degree murder of Yu Yao.

Update 6/1/2010: The accused killer appears in court.
Update 5/28/2010: Chinese residents patrol the neighborhood


I know that nothing in a city as big as New York should shock me, even during a period of record-low violent crime.

But the rape and murder of Yu Yao (also spelled Yau, in some reports), a 23-year-old woman who came over from China just two months ago, was enough to snap me from my normal Monday night routine.

Maybe it was the that-could-be-me element: It was only 9 p.m. on Sunday, May 16 when Yu was attacked, while walking back from the grocery on a relatively busy street in Flushing.

This is where Yao was attacked: 133-23 41st Road in downtown Flushing

This is where Yao was attacked: 133-23 41st Road in downtown Flushing

Maybe it’s the pure brutality of the killing: Her attacker smashed her face with a pipe, then drug her into an alley to beat and rape her. (some reports say that a surveillance tape shows several passersby apparently ignoring the attack) Yao was in a coma for a week before life-support was pulled on May 22.

Maybe it’s the hard-working immigrant angle. She reportedly moved here just 2 months ago on a student visa to live with a distant uncle, worked in a nail salon, and hoped to become a lawyer. After the attack, authorities frantically tried to find her parents half the world away to tell them what happened. And, presumably, to know whether or not they wanted to keep Yu on life support. As a 23-year-old Chinese citizen, she may have been their only child.

I know Yu’s is just one death out of the hundreds of murders in New York annually. But the news editor in me suggests that this would’ve gotten more coverage if it was a young American woman who had been raped and left brain-dead on a Sunday summer night. Not out of bias, necessarily, but the cultural gulf and language barrier probably makes this story too difficult to cover in a 24-hour-news cycle.

I came to New York on easy circumstances, with a good job and good friends waiting. So I admire anyone who can take the risk of moving to this busy, beautiful but uncaring city, especially from a foreign country. It’s common to fail and leave here because of the expense or the noise or the cold. But to die like that, so cruelly in an alley?

Carlos Salazar Cruz, the 28-year-old alleged murderer, was also an immigrant. He moved here two years ago from Mexico and worked at a fish market, according to the Daily News. His sister, contacted by the Daily News, said of Cruz: “”He never acted violently….We just don’t know why he would do this. We can’t explain it.”

As someone who covered crime for a short time, I always wondered if I’d become completely desensitized to crime reports. And in New York, enough happens that even a crime like is just a blurb in the papers for a week (also in the local news today, a murder conviction in a triple-slaying at a Newark schoolyard involving guns, machetes, and rape. It was a nationwide story in 2007, but I don’t remember it) . I don’t know whether to feel better that yes, I can still be shocked. Or to be depressed that there is just no upper-limit to horror and tragedy, even when the victim is a complete stranger.

Update (5/28): China’s state English-language paper has a piece on the community activism following Yu’s death. It touches on the long-held perception that Asians won’t fight back:

A week after the rape, several Chinese residents in Flushing teamed up to patrol the neighborhood each weekday night. The team has since expanded to almost 40 members, one-fifth of whom are women, said Zhu Lichuang, president of the New York Chinese Associations Alliance. Zhu started the watch and is one of its volunteers.

“They (the criminals) choose this place because they think Chinese are usually obedient, like carrying cash and prefer to keep silent about incidents,” he said. “So we need to take some actions to show these people that they are wrong.”

Earlier this week, Yu Guihua, Yao’s mother, arrived at Newark airport from Heilongjiang province to the grim news of her daughter’s death. Yao’s father, who is in poor health back in China, has not still been informed.

“My child, you’re so well-behaved, why did you have such a fate,” Yu cried out. “My daughter was very pretty, why did he beat her like that?”

The New York State Assembly’s Grace Meng said several pedestrians witnessed the attack but walked away.

Having lived in Flushing for 23 years, Zhu said the rape case is the “most astonishing” crime he’s heard about in this neighborhood. “It’s not a premeditated crime, which however adds to its seriousness,” he said. “It exposes the problems we have had here for a long time – We Chinese are not unified enough, nor do we care enough about each other.”

Yu Guihua (right), mother of murder victim Yao Yu, grieves on her way from Newark airport to the hospital where her daughter's body is. (Tan Lixian for China Daily)

Update (6/1): Carlos Salazar Cruz made his first appearance in Queens Supreme Court on June 1, and pandemonium broke loose. Guihua Yu, Yao’s mother, tried to attack Cruz in court, according to the Daily News. Cruz also said in a jailhouse interview with the NYDN that he was too drunk to remember the incident:

“I want to kill that man!,” Guihua Yu wailed repeatedly in her native Mandarin. “I want my daughter back!”

Guihua, 55, tried to pull away by grabbing at a courthouse bench as state court officers moved in.

Later, she was wheeled out of the courthouse on a stretcher and taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital.

During the brief morning hearing in Queens Supreme Court, prosecutors upgraded charges against Carlos Salazar Cruz to second-degree murder for the May 16 attack on Yu Yao, 23.

In a jailhouse interview with the Daily News, Cruz claimed he’d been drinking for two days and can’t remember the attack.

“I never wanted to hurt her,” he said. “I never even met her.”

Read more: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/ny_crime/2010/06/01/2010-06-01_mother_of_yu_yao_chinese_immigrant_killed_in_pipe_attack_charges_accused_killer_.html#ixzz0pi3QUoCL

Yao's Family at Newark Airport

Yao's Family at Newark Airport

Update: 4/28/2011 Nearly a year later, Yu Yao’s killer received his punishment. Carlos Salazar Cruz, now 29, received the maximum sentence of 22-years-to-life in prison for agreeing to plead guilty to second-degree murder. Even though Yu Yao’s murder was one of the too-many terrible crimes in this past year, her story has received significant attention, then, and today. Much of the coverage has focused on the dramatic confrontation between Cruz and Yu Yao’s mother, who had to be granted a special visa in order to both receive her daughter’s body last year and then now, to attend the sentencing of Cruz. The pure senselessness of the murder has not abated with the resolution, however. Cruz, both at the time of his arrest and during his sentencing, professed an inability to understand his actions that night and blamed it on drug use and alcohol.

Guihua Yu breaks down while confronting her daughter's killer

From the Daily News:

Yao was our sun, our hope, our dreams, our future and our strength,” Guihua Yu told Carlos Salazar Cruz, who sat at the defense table with his head bowed.

“You beast!” she shouted during the nearly 45-minute tongue-lashing.

“I just wanted to be able to hold her and see her. What I saw was a corpse, a dead body,” she mourned.

“You have destroyed our lives,” Yu wailed. “Come back my daughter! My only child. I have lost my child. My child, my child.”

Cruz, another immigrant pursuing the American Dream, blamed his troubles on the alcohol and crack cocaine that buoyed him during his forced separation from his wife and child in Mexico.

“I ask for forgiveness,” Cruz said through a Spanish language translator. “God our Lord knows that I am completely repentant for my sins.”

Lincoln Center, Illumination Lawn

Love the option of studying at the library and then resting on the new rooftop lawn, part of a Lincoln Center renovation unveiled this past Friday.

The lawn is the Times’ architecture writer’s favorite part of the renovation, though he dismissed the project as a whole as having a “tacked-on feeling” and “a surprising insensitivity to the way bodies flow through space”. Which is funny, because I think that the lawn, though it looks snazzy to the layman, seems to have an overall strange feel and look in the plaza, and I woud’ve guessed it to be nothing but a gimmick to architecture connoisseurs.

A new two-story structure, which will eventually house new facilities for the Film Society and a high-end restaurant, rises from ground level just to the west of the stair; its roof, covered by a vast, tilting lawn, overlooks the plaza. The project’s most dazzling space, the lawn warps up on two sides, so that climbing it can make you feel as if you were about to float off into the air on a carpet of green.

The Best and Worst Memories

From National Geographic, the story of a woman with the best memory and a man with the worst. “Remember This“:

On a typical morning, EP wakes up, has breakfast, and returns to bed to listen to the radio. But back in bed, it’s not always clear whether he’s just had breakfast or just woken up.

Ever since his sickness, space for EP has existed only as far as he can see it. His social universe is only as large as the people in the room. He lives under a narrow spotlight, surrounded by darkness.

Without a memory, EP has fallen completely out of time. He has no stream of consciousness, just droplets that immediately evaporate. If you were to take the watch off his wrist—or, more cruelly, change the time—he’d be completely lost. Trapped in this limbo of an eternal present, between a past he can’t remember and a future he can’t contemplate, he lives a sedentary life, completely free from worry. “He’s happy all the time. Very happy. I guess it’s because he doesn’t have any stress in his life,” says his daughter Carol, who lives nearby.

h/t longform.org

What’s so Scary About Elena Kagan’s Family?

This Gawker post (“Why Is the White House Hiding Elena Kagan’s Family?“) is tongue-in-cheek, but the NYT City Blog post it refers to leaves you with a little discomfort about the Obama administration’s relationship with a free press.

The New York Times received permission on Tuesday from Hunter College High School in Manhattan, Elena Kagan’s alma mater, to observe a constitutional law class there taught by her brother Irving. We thought it would be intriguing to watch the give and take between Mr. Kagan, who is known as a passionate and interactive educator, and his students on his first day back after witnessing his sister’s nomination in Washington.

Mr. Kagan, who is also a Hunter alumnus, did not have a problem with the idea
, a school spokeswoman said, but she added that all media requests now had to be given final approval by the White House.

Joshua Earnest, a White House spokesman, said that the administration was “uncomfortable with the idea at this time.” The White House called Hunter, and Ms. Halpern said later Tuesday it could not permit the class observation. A formal proposal has been submitted to the White House, which the administration requested. They asked that it outline the intent and goal of the article in significant detail.

(my emphasis added)

I’m no New York Times-level reporter, but barring an epic gaffe or previously unknown horrible secret about Kagan, it’s hard to imagine that particular reporting exercise resulting in anything more than a typical fluff piece with some cute law-related anecdotes from Kagan’s brother.

So big whoop if the White House doesn’t think it’s worth Kagan’s brother’s time, right?

First, any interview with someone close to Kagan would add more insight to someone who so far has been criticized for being “blank slate.” Kagan has been described as “extraordinarily-almost artistically-careful” about what she has said – for the entire past decade – leaving one court watcher to be at a loss to recall a single person “who has had a conversation with her in which she expressed a personal conviction on a question of constitutional law.” Her paper trail of written articles and essays, according to U. of Colorado professor Paul Campos, can be counted with two hands with a finger to spare.

But the most unsettling aspect of this is how the White House, if the NYT’s account is to be believed, actively hindering reporters. It may very well be that the Irving Kagan has nothing worthwhile to add to what (little) is already known about his sister, but that’s a judgment The Government should not be making for the free press.

Nearly exactly two years ago, a devastating earthquake killed nearly 70,000 in the Sichuan province, including thousands of schoolchildren. The Chinese government blocked reporters from talking to grieving parents. And conceivably, they could’ve phrased their case this way: “A horrible earthquake has killed these parents’ children, and all you care about is pestering them with questions to sell newspapers? What are they going to say but the obvious, anyway? Of course they’re suffering, now leave them alone.”

Fortunately, for the longer-term benefit of the country, the parents did get to be heard. And they didn’t just talk about how tragic the earthquake was, they cursed the corrupt officials who allowed the shoddy construction of the schools that collapsed and killed their children. That was also a story that the Chinese government didn’t think needed to be told.

This isn’t China, and the lives of thousands of schoolchildren doesn’t (hopefully) depend on hearing from Elena Kagan’s relatives. But that’s the point: if Kagan can’t even open up about trivial things, then we can only trust the authorities who picked her that she’s the right person to have a nearly unilateral profound impact American law for the next two to three decades.

There is another avenue of insight to Kagan; she could speak frankly and thoroughly during her Senate confirmation. After all, she did say “it is an embarrassment that Senators do not insist that any nominee reveal what kind of Justice she would make, by disclosing her views on important legal issues.”

But that road seems unlikely to be traveled:

Kagan wrote in 1995 that the confirmation process had become a “charade” because nominees were not answering direct questions, and said they should have to do so.

But during a briefing with reporters in the White House, Ron Klain, a top legal adviser to Vice President Joe Biden who played a key role in helping President Obama choose Kagan, said that she no longer holds this opinion…

“She was asked about it and said that both the passage of time and her perspective as a nominee had given her a new appreciation and respect for the difficulty of being a nominee, and the need to answer questions carefully,” Klain said, prompting laughter from a few reporters.

This is all the more sad when you consider that Kagan is being nominated by a President who, very admirably in my opinion, let embarrassing facets of his life be reported, including his cocaine use. Fuck, he may even be the first President to willing record himself saying (in the context of quoting a friend) “Sorry ass motherfucker.”

And now reporters won’t even be get to hear Kagan’s cousin (re-)reminisce about Elena’s rough-scrabble Upper West Side childhood, growing up in a family that “just really enjoyed debating and discussing everything.”

For reference sake, I did a quick search through Factiva’s archive to see what was said about Harriet Miers, the Bush Supreme Court nominee who was laughed off the stage, and to whose lack of judicial record Kagan’s is now being derisively compared. I didn’t find much from Miers’ family, but I didn’t see anything in the quick search that indicated the Bush administration was hamfistedly blocking access to Miers’ family (not that existence of such would justify the current White House’s actions).

Here’s one blurb that focused on Miers’ brother:

Miers’ brother says he’s learning more about his private sister
By SHEILA FLYNN
Associated Press Writer

DALLAS (AP) – Harriet Miers is such a private person that three days after her nomination to the Supreme Court, even her brother says he is learning things about his younger sister.

Robert Miers, 62, said Wednesday that he’s prodded his sister to tell him about her work with President Bush, but the most she will ever say that she chopped wood with him at the Crawford ranch or jogged with him in Washington.

“She says everything is confidential,” said Miers, who answered the door at his sister’s 4,000-square-foot home in an upper-middle class neighborhood just north of downtown Dallas.

The four-bedroom, three-bathroom brick home and nearly one-acre plot, which includes a tennis court, appraised for $687,860 this year, according to property records. The house, built in 1963, is now on the market.

Robert Miers said his sister bought the house nearly 20 years ago largely for their mother, Sally. Their father, Harris, suffered a stroke while Harriet Miers was in college and died in 1973.

He said their 91-year-old mother has brittle bones and dementia, and when her health took a turn for the worse this summer, she was placed in a nursing home.

Harriet Miers, 60, really hasn’t lived at the home since she went to Washington in 2000, he said. His sister visits Dallas frequently, and the siblings had helped care for their mother along with nurses.

He said his sister’s kind, quiet nature reminds him and his brothers — Dr. Jeb Stuart Miers of Dallas and Harris Miers Jr., of Houston — of their mother.

“There’s a lot of people, including my brothers, that are not as surprised as you might think about the nomination because of the quality of her nature, the beauty of her spirit,” he said.

The family knew Harriet would do important things in her life, but “we never thought it would be the Supreme Court,” he said.

Miers described his sister as a private person, and with all the media scrutiny into her background, even he is learning details he didn’t know, such as closely she advises the president.

But, he believes she has nothing to hide.

“Everything is public record,” he said.

Well, Kagan is no Harriet Miers, in at least one small way.

Whoever thought BP Gulf oil spill to be just 5,000 barrels a day won’t show us the numbers

Another lesson in how an apparent off-the-cuff assumption can become fact, even in this age of instant fact-checking and collaborative research. The New York Times reports:

Two weeks ago, the government put out a round estimate of the size of the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico: 5,000 barrels a day. Repeated endlessly in news reports, it has become conventional wisdom.

But scientists and environmental groups are raising sharp questions about that estimate, declaring that the leak must be far larger. They also criticize BP for refusing to use well-known scientific techniques that would give a more precise figure.

The figure of 5,000 barrels a day was hastily produced by government scientists in Seattle. It appears to have been calculated using a method that is specifically not recommended for major oil spills.

One of the news reports that repeated the 5,000 barrels/day number was the New York Times itself, which used it as the central assumption in an A1 story that tried to make the case that the spill really wasn’t all that bad

Yes, at just 5,000 barrels, BPs spill wouldn’t make it nearly the worst. But the Times was a little quick to go against the grain their analysis was based on a number that had even been doubted by non-industry experts.

(It also didn’t help that one of groups they quoted downplaying the spill was, as my colleague Marian Wang pointed out, bosom buddies with the drilling industry.)

Now it turns out the 5,000-barrel estimate may be so flawed that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wouldn’t even tell the Times the numbers it used to make that guess:

The 5,000-barrel-a-day estimate was produced in Seattle by a NOAA unit that responds to oil spills. It was calculated with a protocol known as the Bonn convention that calls for measuring the extent of an oil spill, using its color to judge the thickness of oil atop the water, and then multiplying.

However, Alun Lewis, a British oil-spill consultant who is an authority on the Bonn convention, said the method was specifically not recommended for analyzing large spills like the one in the Gulf of Mexico, since the thickness was too difficult to judge in such a case.

Even when used for smaller spills, he said, correct application of the technique would never produce a single point estimate, like the government’s figure of 5,000 barrels a day, but rather a range that would likely be quite wide.

NOAA declined to supply detailed information on the mathematics behind the estimate, nor would it address the points raised by Mr. Lewis.