Thursday, January 31, 2013

Come Purchase Christopher Columbus' 'Bland Trappings'

Remember the "Discovering Columbus" exhibit, which placed a towering statue of the explorer inside a typical American living room?

As you may recall, Elliot and I had a great time at the installation. And I urged the artist to do something similar with the Winged Victory statue in San Francisco.

Well, the exhibit is long gone now, but you do have a one-time opportunity to buy all the stuff in the living room.

I received this message on Tuesday from the Public Art Fund, which helped put on "Discovering Columbus":
This is an opportunity to take home a piece of this exhibition at an accessible price. In addition to the couch, items offered include a media console, bookshelves, lamps, coffee tables, vases, a 55" LED TV, and decorative objects like the small horse and car sculptures.
The proceeds go to the Public Art Fund, so it's a good cause. But you have to wonder if art-minded New Yorkers want to buy furnishings from a living room that was deliberately meant to be prosaic and bourgeois.

Here's how the art blog Hyperallergic described it: artificial living room, which is furnished with such typically bland American trappings as taupe chairs and a rug, a plum couch, and a flat screen TV.
I suppose there's nothing wrong with "bland American trappings," but they'll probably look a lot less cool when you don't have a giant Columbus statue in the middle of your living room.

Monday, January 28, 2013

'Downton' Question: What Is the Percentage Method?

On last night's "Downton Abbey" there was a glimpse into the world of 1920s baby formula.

After one of the characters dies (I'm doing my best to avoid a spoiler here), Downton must figure out how to feed a newborn baby without a mother.

Carson, the butler, discusses the matter with Mrs. Hughes, the head housekeeper.
Hughes: Mrs. Rose in the village has just had a baby. She's volunteered to nurse the child. 
Carson: Good. And I suppose she'll stay here. 
Hughes: Not for long. The doctor's sending up a pamphlet on feeding babies with something called "the percentage method." Boiled milk, water, honey, orange juice...that kind of thing.
I suppose it's not surprising that some sort of baby formula existed back then. After all, women died frequently in childbirth. It's not as if all those babies were forced to simply die as well.

In this case, the Downton estate has the resources to hire a wet nurse  a woman who can feed the child from her own breasts. (You wonder how this would affect the milk supply for that woman's own child, but perhaps that's another discussion.)

I found an article on the history of infant formula that sheds some light on the matter:
The early years of the 20th century were notable for improvements in general sanitation, dairying practices and milk handling. Most infants were breast-fed, often with some formula feeding as well. Availability of the home icebox permitted safe storage of milk and infant formula, and by the 1920s, feeding of orange juice and cod liver oil greatly decreased the incidence of scurvy and rickets. Use of evaporated milk for formula preparation decreased bacterial contamination and curd tension of infant formulas.
(I'm not entirely clear what "curd tension" is, but I think it contributed to the downfall of Saddam Hussein.)

The Wikipedia entry on infant formula addresses the "percentage method" directly (and, knowing the less-than-rigorous research methods used by "Downton Abbey" writers, it was probably the sole information they used to write the scene above):
...medical recommendations such as Thomas Morgan Rotch's "percentage method" (published in 1890) began to be distributed, and gained widespread popularity by 1907. These complex formulas recommended that parents mix cow's milk, water, cream, and sugar or honey in specific ratios to achieve the nutritional balance believed to approximate human milk reformulated in such a way as to accommodate the believed digestive capability of the infant.
While the idea of mixing up formula at home may offend our modern sensibilities, human beings have probably spent most of their history feeding weird stuff to babies.

"Cod liver? Let's give it a shot!"

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Eat Your Heart Out, Empire State Building

As I've said before, we're big fans of the Empire State Building's increasingly elaborate light show. I'm always visiting the building's website to check the lighting scheme for the night (they seemingly chose Rastafarian colors for MLK Day, which may have been offensive — not entirely sure).

The lights have even been synchronized to music, such as Alicia Keys' "Girl on Fire," as you can see in this video.

But watch out, Empire State Building. You have some new competition.

Photo courtesy of San Francisco Travel Association

Starting in March, the Bay Bridge will be transformed into the world's largest light sculpture. Artist Leo Villareal has designed a project that will string 25,000 LEDs along 1.8 miles of the span.

This is a rendering of what it could look like.

It's not clear if the project will include a dope Alicia Keys soundtrack, but it does look awesome.

The light show is supposed to last two years, but I have to think it's the kind of thing that will become permanent.

After all, the Eiffel Tower was supposed to be torn down in 1909.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Dog Names vs. People Names

WNYC, the local public-radio affiliate, combed through data from 100,000 registered dogs in New York this week and provided some interesting stats.

In many parts of the city, including much of the Upper West Side, Lucy is the most popular dog's name. (Citywide, Bella was No. 1.)

Max, Lola, Molly and Princess also are common, as you can see from this interactive map.

Many of these names are catching on with babies as well, which makes me wonder if dog names are a leading indicator for human names.

It makes sense. Many couples get a dog as a trial baby before they're ready to be real parents, so perhaps they also test out their favorite names on canines. (I feel like I was hearing Milo on animals for years before it made it big with kids.)

I've already discussed how Lucy appears to be taking off as a baby name, especially here in New York. Did all those dogs help lay the groundwork?

Globally, the most common dog names among English-speaking people are Max and Molly, according to the Canine Corner columnist at Psychology Today. Check out the human-name charts for these monikers, courtesy of the Baby Name Wizard site.



It's the same story with the other dog names. Each of them is showing a recent uptick  and in some cases, a dramatic gain.




You would think there's some stigma to giving your child a common dog name. (Certainly a family wouldn't name their kid after their own pet, right?)

But it's clearly not too much of a deterrent.

Even Princess, a popular dog name in Harlem and Queens, has caught on for humans.


Atta girl, Princess.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Big House for Little People

I'm a fan of the One Step Ahead catalog, which has a pretty amazing assortment of gear for kids. (Well, mostly I'm a fan of looking through the catalog  it's not like we have enough space to actually buy this stuff.)

This product has to be one of my all-time favorites. I love that they aren't even pretending the fence isn't a toddler jail.

The kid has his shirt buttoned all the way up and looks like he's been studying a text from the prison ministry. I'm assuming he won early release after snitching on the other inmate.

At least parents are preparing their children for an inevitable brush with the real criminal-justice system.

Okay, really I'm just upset we can't fit the toddler jail in our apartment. I would be taking a lot more naps with this thing around.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Four Years Later...

We watched the inauguration today, and I thought about how our lives have changed over the past four years.

In January 2009, we took Elliot to a live telecast of the event at Yerba Buena Gardens.

Back then we were a small family of three living in a cramped apartment.

Now there are five of in a cramped apartment.

Are we better off than we were four years ago?


The Man 'Who Made Everything Fair'

Elliot must have learned about Martin Luther King in preschool because I overheard him explaining the holiday to his sister: "He was a really good guy who made everything fair, and it's his birthday so Mommy and Daddy don't have to work."

I suppose someone who "makes things fair" is the perfect hero for 4-year-olds, since they spend so much time complaining when things are not fair.

Of course, MLK fought true injustice. Elliot's version of unfairness is not being allowed to turn the couch into a fort.

Maybe we can explain the holiday with a little more nuance next year.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Glad Someone Finally Took Note

Years ago, I pointed out a strange coincidence:
There's a company called McGraw-Hill. And there's a country-music power couple called Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. Has anyone noticed this?
Well, the New York Times has finally weighed in. The paper ran this as the "Compare & Contrast" feature in the Sunday magazine.

Infographic courtesy of the New York Times.

I'm just happy to see this topic get the coverage it deserves.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

How to Name Your Baby

I always love to hear the rationale for people's baby-name choices — especially if there's an interesting family history behind them.

Some friends of ours recently named their daughter June. What a perfect choice. It's simple, cute, unassuming — and yet barely in the top 500 in 2011 (the most recent year with SSN data available). That means young June will largely have the name to herself.

I've been trying to start a revival of a similar name, Jane, for a while. With that one, people perceive it to be overly common and bland, even though it currently ranks below names like Kenzie, Maliyah, Adalynn and Audrina.

June is definitely spunkier than Jane, despite being just one vowel off. And I like its classical roots: It's a more feminine-sounding variant of Juno.

June isn't quite a century name — it peaked in the 1920s — but it otherwise shows exactly the pattern you want to see (better than Jane, in fact). It spiked in the early decades of the 20th century, with a modest comeback over the past five years. (You don't want to pick a name with no signs of recovering. That probably means you've chosen a "Bertha" or "Gertrude.")

In the case of our friends Ellen and Jim, they named their daughter after a great-aunt who served as a midwife in Liverpool after World War II. Ellen and Jim relied on midwives to deliver baby June, so the moniker completes a perfect little loop.

Ellen also is a fellow naming geek, so she checked rankings and charts to help make the decision. (Frankly, I'm shocked when people don't do this.)

I could see June climb the charts in the coming years, perhaps along the lines of what Violet and Ruby have done.

That's always a mixed blessing for someone who picks the name early in the pattern. You want your choice to be validated, but maybe without popping up in every preschool class.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The iPotty: There's a (cr)App For That

We still have two kids to potty-train, and I'm interested in anything that will make the process easier.

So I came upon this product with an open mind. It's called the iPotty, and it aims to entice toddlers to do their business by letting them simultaneously play with an iPad. (Note: iPad not included.)

The green lid — pictured below — opens to reveal a toilet seat, and the iPotty protects the iPad with a plastic cover. There's also a splash guard for boys. (Still, I remain partial to the toddler urinal.)

The $40 product was introduced last week at the Consumer Electronics Show, and I gather it was the target of some good-natured ribbing (pooh-poohing?). But some pundits are willing to give it a shot.

From the moms page on the "Today" show's website:
Some child development experts see the iPad or iPod Touch quite differently—as a powerful incentive for kids who need that extra little nudge during the toilet training process. Maria Zimmitti, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in in Washington, D.C.,  who works with children and their families, and specializes in potty training consulting for parents and toddlers. 
“Within the normal bell curve, most kids can sit on the potty perfectly fine,” Zimmitti says. “But some children do have a really hard time with it, and it’s quite frustrating for them and their parents.” 
So according to Zimmitti, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with using the iPad as a motivator for potty training — the same way a parent might use a piece of chocolate or toy train as a reward...
Forget the iPotty — who is using chocolate as a reward during potty training?

This is risky, folks. When brown stuff is smeared all over your child, it's best to know exactly what substance you're dealing with.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Dad Uses Vacuum Cleaner to Solve Ponytail Problem

I've never had long hair. So until the arrival of our first daughter (who had an eerily voluminous mane from the moment of birth), I've never had to deal with the inconvenience of it all.

I always figured a ponytail was an easy way to handle long hair. Well, let me tell you, doing one is harder than it looks!

When I try to put Alice's hair into a ponytail, it starts coming loose almost immediately. Then the rubber band falls out (usually in the hallway outside our apartment or the elevator). What gives?

Fortunately, this dad has figured out the perfect solution: a vacuum cleaner.

Unfortunately, we only have an upright vacuum.

This could get messy.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

You Might Say I *Relished* This Article

I'm not a big fan of mixing sweet and savory flavors in the same bite, as I've made clear in the past. For that reason, I've never understood the allure of sweet relish. Why would you want to ruin a perfectly good hot dog with corn-syrupy glop?

Tragically, it took until my 30s for me to discover dill relish, which isn't sweet. It quickly became a mainstay of our refrigerator and made me wonder what other foods had escaped me all these years. (Does savory ketchup exist?)

Then we moved to New York.

Somehow I can't find dill relish anywhere. It's not at Gristedes or other local markets, and it's not available at FreshDirect. It's odd because I would think New York City would be one giant pickle/relish orgy, where you get bombarded with every flavor and variety imaginable whenever you leave your apartment.

After all, this is a town that was once overrun with pickle pushcarts. According to the New York Food Museum, the city was home to the world's largest concentration of commercial picklers as early as the 16th century. Brooklyn was nothing but vast fields of cucumbers waiting to be barreled and brined.

Now it's 2013 and I can't even find dill relish?

When I complain to people about this, they're typically confused about what I'm even talking about. I guess I don't blame them; I spent most of my life ignorant about dill relish myself.

So it was with no small amount of excitement that I discovered this Gawker piece today. The writer questions why people should be forced to consume sweet relish when most Americans prefer dill pickles.
Last week, I went to a spacious, well-stocked Key Food grocery store to pick myself up a little dill relish. Like most Americans, I enjoy dill pickles, and, therefore, I also enjoy dill relish, which is little more than ground-up pickles. Indeed, the store offered a wide selection of dill pickles. But relish? No. The store offered brand after brand and jar after jar of SWEET relish only. There was not a single brand of dill relish to be found, much less a wide-ranging selection, concomitant with the selection of pickles themselves. 
Is relish some sort of alien substance? Should relish operate by a set of rules completely unrelated to the set of rules governing the substance from which relish is made? Hardly. If Americans prefer smooth peanut butter over chunky, you can be sure that the PB&J restaurant will offer smooth peanut butter in their sandwiches. If Americans prefer no-pulp orange juice over pulpy orange juice, you can be sure that the bar will offer no-pulp orange juice as a mixer for screwdrivers. But when it comes to pickles, it seems that Big Food has decided that America's preferences should be ignored. Does America prefer the "dill" variety of pickle first and foremost, above all other flavors? Yes. Does the relish industry therefore respond rationally by making the majority of its relish dill? No. 
What is your major malfunction, relish industry?
Amen, brother. I'm glad this injustice is finally getting the airing it deserves.

But really, this may just be a New York problem.

If this town can't offer the same selection as the Rockridge Safeway, it can't claim to be a world-class city.

UPDATE: My wife informs me that dill relish is available at the Food Emporium on East 59th Street.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Obliviously Happy

It seems like it takes until age 3 before kids really understand the concept of birthdays (and start making demands).

Alice turned 2 this week. And while she didn't fully get what was going on, she had a joyous day at the Central Park Zoo with her siblings and then cupcakes decorated with her favorite animal (rabbits). Her brother made her a necklace out of Froot Loops as a gift, and she adored it.

Maybe birthdays don't get any better than this.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Roaming Roosevelt Island: The Otterness Sculpture

If you walk along Roosevelt Island's western promenade, you can't miss a group of bronze sculptures by Brooklyn artist Tom Otterness. The work, created in 1996, was installed here at the edge of the East River in 2005.

According to Otterness' Wikipedia page, his style is “often described as cartoonish and cheerful, but also political. His sculptures allude to sex, class, money and race. These sculptures depict, among other things, huge pennies, pudgy characters in business suits with moneybag heads, helmeted workers holding giant tools, and an alligator crawling out from under a sewer cover. His aesthetic can be seen as a riff on capitalist realism.”

The message of the Roosevelt Island piece is pretty clear: Money has a corrupting effect on the dream of home ownership.

You would think Otterness created this piece during the recent foreclosure crisis. The fact that it was forged in 1996 means it was pre-housing bubble and well before the last two recessions.

I don't know what Manhattan rents were like in 1996, but around that time I shared a two-bedroom apartment in Cow Hollow that totaled $1,200 a month. (You could easily pay two or three times that much now.)

That also was the year the musical "Rent" came out. The title is a reference to the high cost of living, but it's hard to think of many impoverished artists living in the Lower East Side in 2013.

They didn't know how good they had it!

Well, except for the AIDS part, of course.

(For the complete "Roaming Roosevelt Island" series, click here.)

Friday, January 11, 2013

A Fringe Benefit of Air Conditioning

The Economist published a story last week on the downside of air conditioning.
In his book “Losing our Cool” Stan Cox, a polemical plant scientist, blamed it for “resource waste, climate change, ozone depletion and disorientation of the human mind and body”. In 1992 Gwyn Prins, a Cambridge University professor, called “physical addiction” to cooled air America’s “most pervasive and least noticed epidemic”.
I shared my own misgivings about artificial cooling last summer. But we have discovered an unexpected benefit to having large air-conditioning units in every room of our apartment: They're a great place to keep magnets.

Maybe not worth destroying the Earth over, but pretty handy.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

If Humans Can't Shoot Videos Properly Then Maybe the Robots Should Take Over

Three years ago, I wrote about UC San Diego trying to create a robot baby. At the time I worried the technology would make Elliot obsolete.

Well, researchers have finally released a video of the robot in action. The machine can make a wide range of facial expressions, but its body doesn't move much (in fact, it appears that a human needs to hold the robot's head up manually).

More disturbing than this robot baby itself: The researchers (alleged high-tech wizards) recorded the video vertically!

You better believe our future robot overlords will know how to hold an iPhone correctly (though not this robot since he can't even move.)

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Can Three Child Seats Fit in a Fiat?

There's a new parent-rapping video making the rounds on YouTube  this one designed to promote the Fiat 500L.

The rapping mom here is a British lady with three kids, and she's unafraid to make "bitches" and "hose" puns. The video itself is called "The Motherhood" (get it?).

The car isn't available in the U.S. yet, so perhaps the clip is only intended for U.K. audiences. Still, I wonder how she carts her three kids around in it. The 500L is bigger than the Mini Cooper-sized Fiat 500, but squeezing three child seats in the back would seem to be a challenge. You never see the kids strapped into the car, so it's hard to tell from the video.

The last high-profile example of parents rapping in a car commercial was 2010's "Swagger Wagon," a clip that advertised the roomier Sienna Minivan SE (and that family only had two kids!).

All in all, I still prefer last year's "The Parent Rap."

Monday, January 07, 2013

Reach Out (of the Womb) and Touch Someone

After our second born's precipitous delivery, the nurses shared stories about other frightening incidents, including an infant who reached out of the womb to grab the nurse.

Well, it turns out that kind of scenario isn't fantasy  a similar thing just happened in Arizona. In fact, the dad managed to snap a photo of it.


In this case, it was during a C-section delivery. So it's not as if the baby's hand popped out of the cervix like the shallow grave in "Carrie."

From the HuffPost Parents site:
Father Randy Atkins' quick camera work gave birth to a now-viral picture that Nevaeh's mom, Alicia, called "truly amazing" on Facebook. "I am in awe of this photo," wrote Alicia, who is the professional photographer in the family. 
According to outlets, Alicia feared that many would see the picture as disgusting. As it turned out, it was "priceless," she said.

I agree. If this is a horror story, it's only because they named the child Nevaeh.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Two Movies on the Same Topic: Is It Better to Be First?

When news broke yesterday that the Ashton Kutcher biopic of Steve Jobs would be released in April, I worried about the impact on the other Jobs biopic (a seemingly superior project being written by Aaron Sorkin).

This got me thinking: When two movies are released on the same topic, which one of them is typically better — the first one or the second?

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote in the first of two biopics.

Well, let's take a look. Because there are so many examples of this happening, there's plenty of data to evaluate. I'll use the Rotten Tomatoes rating for each film to gauge how good it was (the percentage shows how many critics gave the movie a positive review).

"K-9" (June 1989): 22%
"Turner and Hooch" (July 1989): 62% 
"Tombstone" (1993): 73%
"Wyatt Earp" (1994): 42% 
"Dante's Peak" (February 1997): 27%
"Volcano" (April 1997): 44% 
"Deep Impact" (May 1998): 47%
"Armageddon" (July 1998): 39% 
"Antz" (October 1998): 95%
"A Bug's Life" (November 1998): 92% 
"The Truman Show" (1998): 95%
"Ed TV" (1999): 64% 
"The Sixth Sense" (1999): 85%
"The Others" (2001): 84% 
"Mission to Mars" (March 2000): 25%
"Red Planet" (November 2000): 14% 
"Capote" (2005): 90%
"Infamous" (2006): 72% 
SEPT. 11
"United 93" (April 2006): 91%
"World Trade Center" (August 2006): 69% 
"The Illusionist" (August 2006): 74%
"The Prestige" (October 2006): 76% 
"Paul Blart: Mall Cop" (January 2009): 33%
"Observe and Report" (April 2009): 51% 
"Despicable Me" (July 2010): 81%
"Megamind" (November 2010): 73% 
"No Strings Attached" (January 2011): 49%
"Friends With Benefits" (July 2011): 71% 
"Mirror, Mirror" (March 2012): 50%
"Snow White and the Huntsman" (June 2012): 48%
Of the 15 film pairings here, the first movie was better 10 times. I wonder if part of the reason is that critics grow tired of the concept by the time they see the second film.

I'm not measuring box-office receipts here (we're trying to evaluate art, not commerce), but it seems likely that the first film scored better in that department too.

In any case, this doesn't bode well for the second Steve Jobs film.

However, you'll notice that Ashton Kutcher was in "No Strings Attached," which received worse reviews than "Friends With Benefits" despite being released first.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Seeing Double: Steve Jobs Edition

I'm always looking for examples of Hollywood producing two movies on the same topic (check out my "Seeing Double" series for many, many examples of this strange phenomenon).

So I have to weigh in on the fact that two Steve Jobs biopics are in the works.

Kutcher as Jobs. Photo courtesy of Open Road Films.

jOBS — the curiously capitalized biopic starring Ashton Kutcher as Apple Computer co-founder Steve Jobs — has landed a distribution deal with Open Road Films, the studio announced today. 
Already set to close the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, the independently financed film is aiming to arrive in theaters in April 2013. Joshua Michael Stern (Swing Vote) directed from first-time feature writer Matt Whiteley’s script, which covers Jobs’ life from the early days of Apple in 1971 up to 2000, after Jobs triumphantly returned to run the struggling company. (Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin is working on a separate project based on Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography.) 
The film co-stars Dermot Mulroney, Josh Gad, Lukas Haas, J.K. Simmons, James Woods, Lesley Ann Warren, and Matthew Modine.
Like many people, I have concerns about Ashton Kutcher playing Jobs and the title's idiotic capitalization.

I also was more excited about seeing Sorkin's take on the story, especially given his access to Jobs' definitive biography.

Now I have to wonder if Sorkin's film will ever get made. You'll recall that there was supposed to be a second Harvey Milk film called "The Mayor of Castro Street," but it was scrapped after getting beat out by "Milk."