The next time you write a steampunk fantasy, you will want to include some of these. They hold up a marquee on the Fulton Building in Pittsburgh. We could spell it “griffin,” but a splendid creature like this deserves a more pedantic spelling.


Artificial intelligence has changed the way we think about pictures, and that is a very good thing.

Yesterday we ran a picture feature that caused one of our frequent correspondents, who goes by the name Occasional Correspondent, to wonder whether it was produced by AI. It was not; it came from a movie magazine that was 110 years old. But, as our correspondent pointed out,

Suppose that, say, a year or two ago, someone sat down to say, “Chattie! Gin up an issue of Photoplay magazine. Make it from 1914. Include some of Wister’s The Virginian. Include at least one photograph of a dramatic, face-to-face confrontation between cowboys. Post it on the Internet, we’ll see who takes the bait.”

But that way lies madness. Or maybe sanity. Hard to tell.

Dr. Boli would say sanity. Artificial intelligence has done us a great favor, and it was one we never expected. Instead of creating a public ready to swallow any misinformation, AI has taught us all to doubt every picture we see. And that is a very good thing.

A few years ago, National Geographic caused a big stink by moving a pyramid. Someone thought a photograph of the pyramids at Giza was imperfectly composed, and solved the problem by using image-editing software to move one of the pyramids. The picture ran on the cover, where millions saw it, including some who knew how the pyramids were placed in real life. There was a hue, and probably even a cry.

In the next issue, the editors apologized for what they could see, in the cold light of canceled subscriptions, had been a lapse in judgment. They promised never to use image-manipulating software to create a false impression again.

In that same issue in which the apology ran was a picture of an enormous ice bridge under which tiny people could be seen. But the ice bridge was not enormous. It was simply close, and the people were far away. The photographer had used a very-wide-angle lens with almost unlimited depth of field to make an inches-high bow of ice appear to be an enormous bridge. Deceptive? No, because no image-editing software was involved. At least, that seems to have been the decision of the magazine editors. On the other hand, the ordinary reader who was deceived (and Dr. Boli was one of them until he read the surrounding text) might say that it is the deception that matters, not the means of deception. In this case, it was possible to produce a deceptive image with the camera alone, not even resorting to the GIMP or Photoshop.

That brings us back to our original observation. People have begun to tell each other that we can’t rely on pictures anymore, because they may be simply made up. Artificial intelligence has taught us that, but the fact is not new. At least since the discovery of the double exposure by the first photographer who was not perfectly careful and organized with his plates, it has been possible to make photographs that look convincing but depict things that never were. Intelligent people noted for their stories about an extremely rational detective (not to mention any names) took pictures of fairies seriously. Political campaigns have been won by pictures purporting to show people who had never met being perfectly chummy. Most people seem not to have been aware of the extent to which photographs have been manipulated since the dawn of photography, so most people went through their lives trusting that cameras were telling them the truth.

That people have begun to suspect the veracity of photographs now is due almost entirely to the arrival of artificial intelligence. We can thus say that AI has done us a great favor by revealing to all and sundry what was always true about photography. We do not trust the camera anymore. We never should have trusted it, but if our enlightenment comes late it is still a good thing that it comes at all.


In today’s lesson we learn a bit of geography, history, and political science, all by comparing the number 1 with the number 130.

By population, the two largest counties in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania are Philadelphia County in the east and Allegheny County in the west.

These two urbanized counties are in roughly the same population range. There are about a million and a half people in Philadelphia County, and Allegheny County is not far behind with about a million and a quarter.

In Philadelphia County, the larger of the two, there is one self-governing municipality: the city of Philadelphia, which is coextensive with Philadelphia County.

In Allegheny County, there are 130 self-governing municipalities. The city of Pittsburgh is the largest, but even Pittsburgh makes up less than a quarter of the population of Allegheny County. One of those other self-governing municipalities is a medium-sized townhouse development, Pennsbury Village, that formed a borough of its own after residents had a dispute with the township they lived in. The villagers, having taken up their torches and pitchforks, issued a Declaration of Secession explaining “that we can govern our affairs more effectively and equitable [sic] than a distant and disinterested authority.” (The authority, Robinson Township, had its municipal building 3¼ miles from Pennsbury Village—pretty much equivalent to the Atlantic Ocean between them.) That is the fourth-smallest municipality in Allegheny County. The smallest is Haysville, consisting of 36 houses with a total of 81 people in them, where presumably everyone, children and pets included, has to take shifts running the borough government.

Everything that is different about Pittsburgh from its rival to the east, both for better and for worse, can be explained by these two numbers: 130 and 1.


Sir: Last night I purchased a bag labeled “Everything Salad” from a certain supermarket which I shall call, for the sake of convenience, “Whole Foods.” A superficial examination of the contents through the transparent plastic was, of course, all that was permitted me by the packaging, but I took the label at its word and spent my $5.95.

When I opened the bag at home, what did I find? Not a single 1957 Dayton trolleybus token in the package! I carefully sifted the contents, but there was not a Ruckers harpsichord to be found. If the Virginia House of Delegates was hidden in that pile of lettuce and cabbage, I certainly failed to locate it. I did not see a badminton shuttlecock or a terrarium. I did not even find a single pulsar, which ought to have been quite easy to locate if it had been in there at all.

In short, the salad, in spite of its deceptive packaging, did not contain everything. I will say that I do not blame the manager of the store. He agreed to refund my money after I had spent half an hour explaining the problem to him, and indeed he seemed quite eager to make sure that I left his store happy, or at least that I left his store. But still, fraud is being committed in the packaged-salad industry, and I think it my duty to inform other consumers that packages labeled “Everything Salad” may not in fact contain everything. Thank you for providing the forum in which to do so. And, by the way, just how celebrated is this magazine? —Sincerely, Melville P. Gaspipe, East Liberty.