Newspaper article International New York Times

Hairless Head in a Clueless Photo Booth: When Technology Defies Logic

Newspaper article International New York Times

Hairless Head in a Clueless Photo Booth: When Technology Defies Logic

Article excerpt

A simple errand to get a passport photo exposes the blinkered logic lurking in the rule-bound technologies that pervade our lives.

In May, the Haggler needed two passport photos. Through an Internet search, he found a nearby Walgreens, the drugstore chain for people who really miss the music of Foreigner and REO Speedwagon. This particular store is in the heart of Times Square, with a photo booth on the third floor.

The Haggler took a seat in the booth, selected the passport image option and read the instructions. Among them: Center your face to a line running down the middle of a screen. Other hints included "Do not wear a hat."

What could go wrong?

The machine snapped a photo, and a few minutes later, a pair of identical images emerged from a slot. Unfortunately, the camera had cut off the top of roughly one-eighth of the Haggler's head.

That wouldn't do. Not for passport photos.

Obviously, the Haggler needed to scrunch down a few inches. And scrunch he did, when he tried again. His head was now about five inches lower.

But when the machine emitted another pair of images, the Haggler was astonished to see that his head had been cut off in the same place. One-eighth, gone.

This seemed impossible. Instead of savoring the mystery, though, the Haggler got back in the booth, and this time he got low. How low? An onlooker might have assumed that an idiot had mistaken a photo booth for a limbo contest. The Haggler was leaning back, knees thrust forward, head craned upright, mere inches above the seat.

That low.

Yet again, the top eighth of the Haggler's head was missing.

At this point, the Haggler started looking for Ashton Kutcher, because he was pretty sure he was being punk'd. Take a bow, Ashton! The practical-joke vibe turned acute when a man who had been patiently waiting took his place in the booth. He sat up straight, like a schoolboy during attendance. A minute later, he had matching photos of his entire head.

Huh? This baffled the Haggler for at least three seconds. Then he noticed a difference between that guy's head and the Haggler's.

It was covered with hair. The Haggler's, on the other hand, is not. In fact, a hair contest between a Formica countertop and the Haggler's head would end in a tie. You think the Haggler wears that fedora as a tribute to Sam Spade? O.K., that's part of it. Most of it is about protecting a naked head from the sun.

Safety first, ladies and gentlemen.

Ultimately, a Walgreens clerk had to call in a colleague -- "Bald man on three, bald man on three," one imagines -- who showed up with a digital camera, and managed to capture the Haggler's entire, shining noggin. For the record, the store charged him for only one set of photographs, $12.99, since the others were unusable.

The Haggler left the store unsure why and how a machine could commit so blatant an act of pate-related discrimination. …

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