The artists behind the names

Can you ever really know someone? Are we more than just a name?

The many faces of Rembrandt van Rijn
In the 350 years since his death in 1669, Rembrandt van Rijn has been reinterpreted time and again. The Victorians considered him a reclusive genius. Critics in the mid-20th century thought he was a misunderstood experimentalist. In the 1980s there was a fashion for seeing him as a brilliant businessman. More recently, he has been depicted as an empath, the supreme explorer of human emotion in paint. …

Curators seeking to shore up their characterisations of the artist have often done so by hanging him alongside other painters. Put Rembrandt alongside Caravaggio and he looks like a realist, alongside Auerbach and he looks almost expressionistic. … In these strange and turbulent times, it seems that the organisers could not help but show off Rembrandt’s comic sensibilities. The effect of pairing “Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul”—from which Rembrandt gazes out in exhausted forbearance—with Velázquez’s portrait of a Court bufón, scholarly and self-possessed, is humorous. Velázquez understands the dignity of a comedian, while Rembrandt demonstrates the comedy of dignitaries.

It is an insight that reaches its raucous climax in the Rijksmuseum’s prize Rembrandt, “The Night Watch”, which is currently undergoing the first stage of a public restoration. The painting depicts an Amsterdam militia company, the men’s gazes shooting off like misfired bullets, their gestures obscuring each other’s faces. The uniforms are mismatched, some a century older than others. The Rembrandt who painted it is an artist of political disorder—undoubtedly a Rembrandt that resonates in 2019.

From an artist with many faces to one who keeps his hidden.

Banksy caught on camera: New photo book documents street artist’s early years
More than 12,000 film negatives of his time with the artist “sat in files for years because I had no contact sheets,” Lazarides said. Then, he finally decided to start scanning them into a computer. The painstaking process took more than two years.

“It was a very strange period of time,” said Lazarides. “Film cameras were on their way out. It was incredibly expensive. But digital cameras hadn’t really come in. The internet wasn’t really that up and running. There was no social media, so you’re in a period in time when I suddenly realised, ‘Oh fuck, I’m the only person in the world with these pictures.’”

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Dreaming of past Christmas presents

Nostalgia overload! New Argos site lets you browse 45 years of winter catalogues
For many, flicking through the Argos catalogue was, and possibly still is, a pre-Christmas tradition. Immersing yourself in that weighty tome and imagining how nice it would be to get that special present for Christmas, perhaps even circling it, was all part of the big build up.

Now, the retail giant has created the ultimate tool for wistful nostalgia with its new Book Of Dreams website. Whether you want to look for the toys you never got for Christmas, see how much prices have changed or show your kids the sort of things you dreamt of unwrapping on December 25, you can take a very long stroll down memory lane.

For Proust, it was a madeleine. For me, it was those silly Kodak disc cameras and teak effect cassette storage cabinets from the 1982/83 Argos catalogue.

The Book of Dreams | Argos

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I wonder if the archive took its name from this Bill Bailey routine…

Bill Bailey – Argos

Here we go again

Another year, another vote, but it’s the wrong question. John Crace and Jess Phillips nail it again.

Brexit reduced to a petty squabble. Classic Dom
The one standout moment was a passionate defence of futility from Labour’s Jess Phillips. The coming election would not answer any of the questions that had precipitated it. People would interpret the results to suit their own ends, she argued, and Brexit wouldn’t be resolved for years.

All that was happening was that MPs had run out of ideas. An election was an admission of collective failure. Unable to resolve their differences, MPs had turned their sights on each other. A collective act of self-harm. We were heading for the Gunfight at the OK Corral. There would be blood. Many MPs wouldn’t be back in December. But everyone was banking on the fact it wouldn’t be them.

Nothing to worry about, right?

British polling – Who is winning the race for No 10 Downing Street?
Our poll tracker, which averages the findings of more than a dozen pollsters, shows how the parties are faring. It will be kept updated throughout the campaign. However, it should be read with caution. It gives an indication of public sentiment, but does not forecast the distribution of seats.

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The Guardian ignores that last line about the polls not forecasting distributions of seats with this headline. It makes a good point about Labour’s fence-squatting habit, though.

Can Labour eat into projected 58-seat Tory majority?
Certainly, the Conservative strategy for an election campaign looks simple enough – “let’s get Brexit done” – an appeal that plays to the idea that the nation is worn out by Westminster’s endless battles.

That contrasts with the opposition’s argument, easy to portray as overly complex: vote Labour, negotiate a new deal and have referendum on the deal the party just negotiated. It is a promise of more Brexit debate and no certain final outcome.

And the first general election in December since the 1920s. Relevant? Nah.

Does holding a general election in December affect voter turnout? Science has the answer
“Such evidence as we have – which is limited – does not provide any support for the proposition that you can’t hold an election in the winter,” says John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde …

Research from 2007 published in the University of Chicago Press found that every incremental inch of rain decreased voter turnout by one percentage point. However, a 2013 study from researchers at Gothenburg University in Sweden didn’t find any effect of rain on turnout. Research from Oxford University also disputed any connection between weather and voter turnout, finding turnout was far more motivated by the election race being close or not and the policy differences between the leading parties.

Here’s another great piece from Chris Dillow, on a possible way forward through all this mess.

Detoxifying Brexit
The Leaver-Remain divide is so bitter because it’s become not about our relations with Europe but a battle of identities, with the two sides now being proxies for other things. Remainers see Leavers as social conservatives; Leavers see Remainers as elitists.

There are so many valid, sensible, rational and calming points here, from the benefits of constructing a counter-argument for yourself, to avoiding cognitive biases and dialling down fanaticism, but, as he acknowledges, there’s a problem:

The people who most need to know all of the above are those who are least likely to read it. The mainstream media seem keener to inflame passions than to dampen them.

A bit of me thinks the reason for this isn’t just to do with winning clickbait – something which the BBC, unforgiveably, seems as concerned about as the commercial media. Whilst we are divided about Brexit, we are not divided about something else – class. In this sense, Brexit hysteria suits our rulers just fine.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic:

Mash-up: Trump’s al-Baghdadi speech & Obama’s Bin Laden speech

The hole truth

I’m sure we all occasionally find ourselves thinking about nothing in particular. But here’s an invitation from Aeon to think specifically about nothing.

Is a hole a real thing, or just a place where something isn’t?
It seems indisputable that there are holes. For example, there are keyholes, black holes and sinkholes; and there are holes in things such as sieves, golf courses and doughnuts. We come into the world through holes, and when we die many of us will be put into specially dug holes. But what are these holes and what are they made of? One of the big philosophical questions about holes is whether they are actually things themselves or, as the German-Jewish writer Kurt Tucholsky suggested in ‘The Social Psychology of Holes’ (1931), whether they are just ‘where something isn’t’.

Any conclusions? I know about the holes in space, and the ones in speakers and even in photographs, but after reading this, there remains a hole in my understanding.

“What happens to the hole when the cheese is gone?”
Bertolt Brecht

Take a closer look

This year we’ve seen photography competitions for the best sea view and for views a little closer to home. But how about something real close — the winning images from Nikon’s Small World competition.

2019 Photomicrography Competition
The Nikon International Small World Competition first began in 1975 as a means to recognize and applaud the efforts of those involved with photography through the light microscope. Since then, Small World has become a leading showcase for photomicrographers from the widest array of scientific disciplines.

Phantom midge larva (though it reminds me of something else), Christopher Algar:

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Neuron growth, Dr Torsten Wittman:

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Housefly compound eye pattern, Dr Razvan Cornel Constantin:

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Small white hair spider, Javier Rupérez:

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OK that’s maybe a little too close. Let’s take a step back. Wayyy back.

These beautiful, swirling images are maps of Washington’s geology
These maps reveal the shapes of the state’s landslides, river basins, and glaciers, along with other strange features, like glacial drumlins and mysterious mima mounds. Lidar data can be used to make maps that highlight elevation contours as well as the aspect and slope of the land. They can reveal landslides hidden by trees and faults beneath the earth’s surface.

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So that’s Washington. What about the rest of the globe?

Can we make a 3-D map of the whole world?
Their ultimate goal now is to create a comprehensive archive of lidar scans, including some that are already in existence and more to be added over time, to fuel an immense dataset of the Earth’s surface, in three dimensions. It will have tremendous utility in the short term for finding ancient sites and large-scale patterns, but Fisher and Leisz are taking a long view. With such a tool, they say, when the full impacts of climate change begin to set in, future generations will have a comprehensive understanding of how things once were.

The plan, he says, is to start with the most vulnerable ecological and cultural heritage sites, and go from there. For example, Fisher estimates that the entire Amazon rain forest, where a scourge of forest fires recently made international headlines, could be lidar scanned by plane and helicopter in six years, for $15 million. The next step could be to use some future technology that puts lidar in orbit and makes covering large areas easier.

“Right now we’re not able to put a lidar instrument into the orbit that would give us the kind of resolution we’re requiring,” Fisher says. “Ten years from now, maybe that might not be true. But we can’t wait 10 years.”

I’ve just added a reminder in my Google calendar to come back to this post in ten years’ time, to see how they got on.

Turning that frown upside down

What would you do with 17 rejection letters?

A doctoral student wore a skirt made of rejection letters to defend her dissertation
The skirt communicated what her presentation didn’t: the grueling, bumpy process she went through on her way to her major moment in front of a committee of five professors on Oct. 7.

“The dissertation presentation is in this narrative form, where … it looks like everything went smoothly in my process from start to finish,” said Kirby, 28, who for the past 4½ years has been a doctoral student in environmental science and policy. “So I wanted something in my presentation that shows that really isn’t how it goes. There are a lot of roadblocks along the way.”

Debauched Bach?

Whether alphabetized or not, when it comes to classical music composers, Bach’s at the top of the list. It’s hard to overstate his influence and legacy. But, as this excerpt from Ted Gioia’s Music: A Subversive History shows, he was no saint.

J.S. Bach the rebel
I’ve talked to people who feel they know Bach very well, but they aren’t aware of the time he was imprisoned for a month. They never learned about Bach pulling a knife on a fellow musician during a street fight. They never heard about his drinking exploits—on one two-week trip he billed the church eighteen groschen for beer, enough to purchase eight gallons of it at retail prices—or that his contract with the Duke of Saxony included a provision for tax-free beer from the castle brewery; or that he was accused of consorting with an unknown, unmarried woman in the organ loft; or had a reputation for ignoring assigned duties without explanation or apology. They don’t know about Bach’s sex life: at best a matter of speculation, but what should we conclude from his twenty known children, more than any significant composer in history (a procreative career that has led some to joke with a knowing wink that “Bach’s organ had no stops”), or his second marriage to twenty-year-old singer Anna Magdalena Wilcke, when he was in his late thirties?

Do not erase

For a number of weekends now, my son and I have attended several university open days, touring facilities and listening to presentations in lecture theatres up and down the land. These photos of blackboards by Jessica Wynne look quite familiar—and equally incomprehensible.

A photographic survey by Jessica Wynne of chalkboards filled by mathematicians
Wynne tells Colossal that she enjoys photographing the dusty work surfaces because of “their beauty, mystery and the pleasure of creating a permanent document of something that is ephemeral.” The “Do Not Erase” photo series, soon to be published in a book by Princeton University Press for release in 2020, includes boards from institutions and universities around the world. Wynne hopes that viewers can appreciate the aesthetic of the worked surfaces while “simultaneously appreciating that the work on the board represents something much deeper, beyond the surface.”

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More people who aren’t there

Remember that website full of photos of fake faces? Well, Dr Julian Koplin from the University of Melbourne has been combining those AI generated portraits with AI generated text, and now there’s a whole city of them.

Humans of an unreal city
These stories were composed by Open AI’s GPT-2 language model and AllenAI’s Grover news generator, which were given various prompts and asked to elaborate. My favourite results are recorded here – some lightly edited, many entirely intact. The accompanying photos were generated by the AI at This Person Does Not Exist. They are not real humans, but you can look into their eyes nonetheless.

As he explains in this commentary on the ethics of the project, some of the results are convincingly human.

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The very human language of AI
AI can tell stories about oceans and drowning, about dinners shared with friends, about childhood trauma and loveless marriages. They can write about the glare and heat of the sun without ever having seen light or felt heat. It seems so human. At the same time, the weirdness of some AI-generated text shows that they ‘understand’ the world very differently to us.

I’m worried less about the machines becoming sentient and taking over, with their AI generated art and poetry, and more about the dangers these tools pose when in the hands of ill-intentioned humans.

Meanwhile.

100,000 free AI-generated headshots put stock photo companies on notice
It’s getting easier and easier to use AI to generate convincing-looking, yet entirely fake, pictures of people. Now, one company wants to find a use for these photos, by offering a resource of 100,000 AI-generated faces to anyone that can use them — royalty free. Many of the images look fake but others are difficult to distinguish from images licensed by stock photo companies. […]

Zhabinskiy is keen to emphasize that the AI used to generate these images was trained using data shot in-house, rather than using stock media or scraping photographs from the internet. “Such an approach requires thousands of hours of labor, but in the end, it will certainly be worth it!” exclaims an Icons8 blog post. Ivan Braun, the founder of Icons8, says that in total the team took 29,000 pictures of 69 models over the course of three years which it used to train its algorithm.

There are valid concerns about technology that’s able to generate convincing-looking fakes like these at scale. This project is trying to create images that make life easier for designers, but the software could one day be used for all sorts of malicious activity.

None for me, thanks

Are you annoyed as I am when adverts for things I may or may not be interested in creepily follow you around the entire web, from one website to another? Maybe you aren’t, it’s not an issue for a lot of people. But for some it is, and Firefox is here to help.

The latest version of Firefox shows the wild scale of web tracking
It’s a big issue. According to cookie tracker tool Web Cookies, there are an average of 12.5 third-party cookies on every site, with a monstrous 412 cookies found on one shady site. Mozilla’s own estimates say there are roughly 170 third-party trackers following each user around the web every single day.

With Firefox 70, Mozilla continues with the universal blocking of all third-party cookies and web trackers for all users, which it introduced with Firefox 69, but it has also added the ability for users to see exactly which trackers are attempting to track them, as well as how many have been blocked.

This is a step in the right direction. I guess it’s a matter of choice, but people need to be aware of the scale of this issue first.

“We’re making it so that people don’t have the opportunity to create a profile of you online that they can use to serve you ads or political information,” says Celeste Kinswood, senior product marketing manager at Mozilla. “The volume of the tracker epidemic is super high, and people don’t know.”

Happy 18th birthday, iPod

The iPod is 18 already? Time flies. Here’s the original Apple iPod press release, from 23 October 2001.

Apple presents iPod
“With iPod, Apple has invented a whole new category of digital music player that lets you put your entire music collection in your pocket and listen to it wherever you go,” said Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO. “With iPod, listening to music will never be the same again.”

Yep, pretty much.

Oct. 23, 2001: Now hear this … The iPod arrives
Apple’s Steve Jobs, who tends to overuse superlatives (“the best ever,” “it’ll put a ding in the universe”), was not far off the mark with the iPod. Despite some conspicuous flaws — a wonky scroll wheel, no Windows compatibility, short battery life and a whopping $400 price tag — this innocuous-looking device was indeed a game-changer.

Mine are still going strong. Well, I guess so, I’ve not fished them out from the back of that drawer for ages.

Apple | The Very 1st iPod Ad (ever) | Circa 2001

Where’s your head at?

These drawings by Adam Riches caught my eye — they’re like the analogue equivalent of Espen Kluge’s generative portraits.

Scribbled portraits of brooding figures by Adam Riches
Artist Adam Riches uses pen and ink to create frenetic portraits of brooding anonymous figures. The monochrome illustrations emerge out of blank backgrounds, with broad, gestural lines skittering and looping across the paper … In a recent video interview with BBC, the artist explains, “the drawings are quite intuitive and are done spontaneously. They reveal themselves as I’m making them.”

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It’s not all bad news

I think I might not bother keeping up with current affairs for a while, it’s all too ridiculous. Basically, another prime minister, another deal, another vote.

How much of Johnson’s ‘great new deal’ is actually new?
As MPs prepare to vote on Boris Johnson’s EU withdrawal agreement, Guardian analysis shows that less than 5% of the original deal has been renegotiated, despite it being rejected by parliament three times.

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Another lost vote.

‘House of fools’: how the papers covered Johnson’s latest Brexit defeat
Newspapers cast prime minister as either a fighter or a loser, with plenty of anger directed at Parliament, too.

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This current prime minister seems as prime ministerial as that president is presidential, i.e. not much.

Boris Johnson’s three letters to Brussels: what do they mean for Brexit?
Rather than writing one letter to the European Union, Johnson has sent three – almost. The first is less of a letter: rather an unsigned photocopy of a portion of of the Benn Act. Rather than asking for an extension on behalf of Johnson, the text merely points out that the Benn Act requires the government to seek an extension. After this, it adds that “if the parties are able to ratify before this date, the government proposes that the period should be terminated early”. In what seems a fit of pique, and reinforcing his determination simultaneously to write and refuse to write to Brussels, the prime minister declined to actually sign the missive.

Remember all those flow charts trying to explain how we might leave, back in March and April? Back to the drawing board with all those.

Brexit: What happens now?
It’s not clear that the whole process will be completed by 31 October. The government will seek to pass a “programme motion” to limit the length of debates in the House of Commons. MPs could reject that, though, and the bill must also pass through the House of Lords.

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And it’s not just the British press that’s struggling with politics.

Why Australia’s media front pages were blacked out today
Australia’s major media organisations blacked out their newspaper front pages and websites on Monday in a coordinated push for legislative change to protect press freedom and force the government to increase transparency.

According to the organisations – which include SBS, the ABC, Nine, News Corp Australia and The Guardian – a slew of laws introduced over the past 20 years have hindered the media’s capacity to act as the fourth estate and hold the government and other powerful figures to account.

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But what we need to remember is, if we step back from all this, it’s not all bad news. We just need to look in the right places.

Beautiful News
A collection of good news, positive trends, uplifting statistics and facts — all beautifully visualized by Information is Beautiful.

We’ll be releasing a chart every day for a year to move our attention beyond dramatic news headlines to the slow developments and quiet trends that go unseen, uncelebrated.

Amazing things are happening in the world, thanks to human ingenuity, endeavour and collaboration.

It’s the new initiative from David McCandless and his Information is Beautiful team. Here’s an example.

Everyone, everywhere is living longer
One of the greatest achievements of humanity is the increase in life expectancy. In 1960, the average life span was 52.6 years. Today it’s an impressive 72 years. The reasons are simple: improvements in child survival, expanded access to healthcare (including widespread vaccination), and people being lifted out of extreme, grinding poverty.

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And another.

More Afghan girls are being educated
Educating girls is probably the single most impactful thing we can do to make the world a better place. Women who spend longer in school have fewer, healthier and better-fed children, are less likely to die in childbirth, contribute more towards a country’s economy, participate more in politics, and are less likely to marry young or against their will.

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Just two of dozens of uplifting stories. I know which news website I’d rather read.

Update 22/10/2019

I should, of course, have added some links to Hans Rosling’s work after that.

Bill Gates on Factfulness
Bill Gates recently read Hans Rosling’s new book “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think.” In it, Hans offers a new framework for how to think about the world.

And here’s Hans in his own words about the need for fact-based optimism.

Good news at last: the world isn’t as horrific as you think
Things are bad, and it feels like they are getting worse, right? War, violence, natural disasters, corruption. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer; and we will soon run out of resources unless something drastic is done. That’s the picture most people in the west see in the media and carry around in their heads.

I call it the overdramatic worldview. It’s stressful and misleading. In fact, the vast majority of the world’s population live somewhere in the middle of the income scale. Perhaps they are not what we think of as middle class, but they are not living in extreme poverty. Their girls go to school, their children get vaccinated. Perhaps not on every single measure, or every single year, but step by step, year by year, the world is improving. In the past two centuries, life expectancy has more than doubled. Although the world faces huge challenges, we have made tremendous progress.

It’s rarely black and white

Taking statistics out of context to push a particular agenda is nothing new. But it’s nice to see a pushback.

Fixing the ‘impeach this’ map with a transition to a cartogram
As discussed previously, the “impeach this” map has some issues. Mainly, it equates land area to votes, which makes for a lot of visual attention to counties that are big even though not many people live in them. So, Karim Douïeb used a clever transition to change the bivariate map to a cartogram. Now you can have a dual view.

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We just need more of this kind of thing over here. For instance:

Show this chart to anyone who says Brexit is the ‘will of the British people’
This chart is not an entirely convincing argument against Leave or Remain, but it does illustrate that ‘the 52 per cent’ and ‘the 48 per cent’ actually constitute much smaller proportions of the UK population than the figure might imply.

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South of the river

In this contribution to The Guardian’s Illustrated City series, writer, printmaker and illustrator Francesca Roe shares with us her views of our home town, or rather, the lower, grubbier half of it.

Faded grandeur: the industrial glories of neglected south Leeds – a cartoon
A walk through south Leeds reveals a district caught between industrial grandeur, post-industrial wasteland and urban blandness. The starting point is Leeds station, where the 1960s edifice and the 1930s art-deco concourse sit directly above the Dark Arches, a series of vaults spanning the River Aire that serve as the station’s foundation. A metal walkway passes through the Dark Arches and over the Aire, where passers-by can stop and watch the churning water receding into darkness. Around 18m bricks were used to construct the arches during the 1860s – the largest such project in the world at that time.

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Through the Dark Arches lies the Leeds-Liverpool canal and the gentrified tip of Holbeck: “Holbeck Urban Village”, a tight knot of former red-brick flax mills and steam engine works. The Round Foundry dates back to 1795 and was once home to steam engine manufacturers; today the complex is home to offices, a brewery and Yorkshire’s official tourist board. The gentrification of this small part of Holbeck has done little to ease poverty in south Leeds as a whole, but it has preserved a part of the district’s history that was previously at risk.

Some wonderful illustrations accompany this melancholic piece, with more on Instagram. Very evocative of the inner-city scrappiness and griminess of the area.

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Here’s a link to some more of her writing on a similar theme, how cities deal with their past.

What should cities do with ‘dark sites’, where tragic or sinister events occurred?
It’s unsurprising that communities want to physically erase the sites of violent crimes. In other cases, though, dark sites hold a deeper historic and social significance that can be commemorated. In these cases, redevelopment offers an alternative to demolition. High Royds Hospital was a psychiatric institution in Leeds which closed in 2003 and turned into housing. I remember walking around the site in the early stages of redevelopment. The grounds felt desolate, and it was easy to imagine the abuses that took place there.

No place like home?

Happy shopper

Remember Banksy’s new shop? It’s closed now, though it was never really open. But now it is open. Er.

Gross Domestic Product
The homewares brand from Banksy™

It does look odd, seeing that little ™ symbol after his name everywhere. But before we get distracted about why he’s seeking to protect trademarks rather than copyright, let’s get shopping!

banksy opens online store selling limited edition pieces and items starting at £10
a few weeks after setting up a showroom ‘for display purposes only’ in south london, banksy has now officially launched his own online store. titled ‘gross domestic product’, or ‘GDP’, the shop counts the stab vest worn by stormzy at glastonbury festival and branded T-shirts tagged by the artist among its products. other items include a clutch bag, made from a ‘genuine real life house brick’, and a rug painted to resemble the ‘diabetes riddled corpse of tony the tiger’.

Everything’s bound to be sold out by now, right? Not necessarily.

Banksy opens online store to sell iconic items from just £10
To deal with demand outstripping supply and to give everyone a fair chance, potential buyers are asked to register their details and “prove you are not a robot” by answering the question “Why does art matter?” Their response will then be judged by comedian Adam Bloom, who is urging customers to make their answer as “amusing, informative or enlightening as possible”.

Hoping this measure will help restrict sales to genuine art fans, Banksy adds: “We can’t ever weed out all the people who just want to flip for profit, but we can weed out the unfunny ones.”

Worth a punt?

Fixing space and time

Here’s a wonderfully poetic extract on time and impermanence from Maria Popova’s new book, Figuring.

The first surviving photograph of the Moon: John Adams Whipple and how the birth of astrophotography married immortality and impermanence
Four years into it, the thirty-year-old Whipple would awe the world with his stunning photographs of celestial objects — particularly his photographs of the Moon. Louis Daguerre himself had taken the first lunar photograph on January 2, 1839 — five days before announcing his invention, which marked the birth of photography — but his studio and his entire archive were destroyed by a fire two months later. Whipple’s remains the earliest known surviving photograph of the Moon — an image that continues to stun with its simple visual poetics even as technology has far eclipsed the primitive equipment of its photographer.

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Yes, it’s an incredible photograph (here’s my own version), but this is about more than just astronomy.

We say that photographs “immortalize,” and yet they do the very opposite. Every photograph razes us on our ephemeral temporality by forcing us to contemplate a moment — an unrepeatable fragment of existence — that once was and never again will be. To look at a daguerreotype is to confront the fact of your own mortality in the countenance of a person long dead, a person who once inhabited a fleeting moment — alive with dreams and desperations — just as you now inhabit this one. Rather than bringing us closer to immortality, photography humbled us before our mortal finitude. Florence Nightingale resisted it. “I wish to be forgotten,” she wrote, and consented to being photographed only when Queen Victoria insisted.

I wonder about this as I stand amid the stacks of the Harvard College Observatory surrounded by half a million glass plates meticulously annotated by the hands of women long returned to stardust. I imagine the flesh of steady fingers, atoms spun into molecules throbbing with life, carefully slipping a glass plate from its paper sleeve to examine it. In a museum jar across the Atlantic, Galileo’s finger, which once pointed to the Moon with flesh just as alive, shrivels like all of our certitudes.

Pinned above the main desk area at the observatory is an archival photograph of Annie Jump Cannon — the deaf computer who catalogued more than 20,000 variable stars in a short period after joining the observatory — examining one of the photographic plates with a magnifying glass. I take out my smartphone — a disembodied computer of Venus, mundane proof of Einstein’s relativity, instant access to more knowledge than Newton ever knew — and take a photograph of a photograph of a photograph.

 

Can you hear that?

After that post about movie music being too loud for Hugh Grant and others, myself included, here’s an in-depth investigation into more noise pollution, this time of a quieter but more insidious kind.

Why is the world so loud?
Some nights, Thallikar couldn’t sleep at all. He started wearing earplugs during the day, and stopped spending time outdoors. He looked for excuses to leave town and, in the evenings, returned to his old neighborhood in Tempe to take his constitutionals there. As he drove home, he’d have a pit in his stomach. He couldn’t stop himself from making the noise a recurring conversation topic at dinner.

Not only was the whine itself agitating—EHHNNNNNNNN—but its constant drone was like a cruel mnemonic for everything that bothered him: his powerlessness, his sense of injustice that the city was ignoring its residents’ welfare, his fear of selling his home for a major loss because no one would want to live with the noise, his regret that his family’s haven (not to mention their biggest investment) had turned into a nightmare. EHHNNN. EHHNNNNNNNNN. EHHNNNNNNNNNNNN. He tried meditating. He considered installing new windows to dull the hum, or planting trees to block the noise. He researched lawyers. And he made one final appeal to the newly elected members of the Chandler city council.

The eventual cuplrit? CyrusOne, a massive data centre just down the road. It already looks enormous but, according to the slick promotional video, it’s set to get much larger.

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Lots of talk about security, air flow, redundancy and so on, but nothing about the effects of noise pollution on the neighbouring residential areas.

After a few other stops, we doubled back to concentrate on the area around CyrusOne. For more than an hour, we circled its campus, pulling over every so often. As the sun and traffic dropped, the intensity of the hum rose. The droning wasn’t loud, but it was noticeable. It became irritatingly noticeable as the sky dimmed to black, escalating from a wheezy buzz to a clear, crisp, unending whine.

“This is depressing,” Thallikar said as we stood on a sidewalk in Clemente Ranch. “Like somebody in pain, crying. Crying constantly and moaning in pain.”

We were silent again and listened to the data center moaning. Which was also, in a sense, the sound of us living: the sound of furniture being purchased, of insurance policies compared, of shipments dispatched and deliveries confirmed, of security systems activated, of cable bills paid. In Forest City, North Carolina, where some Facebook servers have moved in, the whine is the sound of people liking, commenting, streaming a video of five creative ways to make eggs, uploading bachelorette-party photos. It’s perhaps the sound of Thallikar’s neighbor posting “Has anyone else noticed how loud it’s been this week?” to the Dobson Noise Coalition’s Facebook group. It’s the sound of us searching for pink-eye cures, or streaming porn, or checking the lyrics to “Old Town Road.” The sound is the exhaust of our activity. Modern life—EHHNNNNNNNN—humming along.

How about we end with a more lyrical hum?

Philip Glass – Changing Opinion

A new Picasso?

It’s not unknown for artists to change their mind and paint over part of their work as their ideas develop. Earlier, I came across an article about a long-lost Vermeer cupid that conservationists had restored. He wasn’t the only one with mysteries to uncover.

Blue on Blue: Picasso blockbuster comes to Toronto in 2020
The show came together after the AGO, with the assistance of other institutions, including the National Gallery of Art, Northwestern University and the Art Institute of Chicago, used cutting-edge technology to scan several Blue Period paintings in its collection to reveal lost works underneath, namely La Soupe (1902) and La Miséreuse accroupie (also 1902).

More on that.

New research reveals secrets beneath the surface of Picasso paintings
Secrets beneath the surface of two Pablo Picasso paintings in the collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto have been unearthed through an in-depth research project, which combined technical analysis and art historical digging to determine probable influences for the pieces and changes made by the artist.

But x-ray and infrared analyses can only go so far. What if we roped in some neural networks to help bring these restored images to life?

This Picasso painting had never been seen before. Until a neural network painted it.
But from an aesthetic point of view, what the researchers managed to retrieve is disappointing. Infrared and x-ray images show only the faintest outlines, and while they can be used to infer the amount of paint the artist used, they do not show color or style. So a way to reconstruct the lost painting more realistically would be of huge interest. […]

This is where Bourached and Cann come in. They have taken a manually edited version of the x-ray images of the ghostly woman beneath The Old Guitarist and passed it through a neural style transfer network. This network was trained to convert images into the style of another artwork from Picasso’s Blue Period.

The result is a full-color version of the painting in exactly the style Picasso was exploring when he painted it. “We present a novel method of reconstructing lost artwork, by applying neural style transfer to x-radiographs of artwork with secondary interior artwork beneath a primary exterior, so as to reconstruct lost artwork,” they say.

new-picasso

Affecting and infecting movie music

In this video from Vanity Fair, director Todd Phillips talks us through a few of the opening scenes from his new film, Joker.

Joker director breaks down the opening scene

At 3:40 or thereabouts, he’s talking about what really helps Joaquin Phoenix get into a scene.

And I think, if I remember it right, in this particular scene I was playing the score for him, in the room, because – we had Hildur Guðnadóttir, who was our composer, I had her write music before we shot the movie, which isn’t done very often, and she wrote it based on the screenplay – and I wanted that because I wanted the music to really affect and infect the set in a way, really, even the camera operators, the set dressers, wardrobe, everybody to feel this music.

(That’s a name to look out for in the future.) Todd Phillips is not the first director to use this technique, however.

Why Sergio Leone played music on set

It might be too much for some people, though.

Deafening cinema sound is ruining films, claims Hugh Grant
Joker, the sinister hit starring Joaquin Phoenix, is dividing film critics. Hailed as a masterpiece by some, it has left others balking at its violence. For the actor Hugh Grant, the experience of watching at his local London cinema last week was “unendurable”, but not because of Todd Phillips’s menacing vision as director.

Grant felt high noise levels in the auditorium had made his trip to see Joker at the Vue in Fulham “pointless”, he complained on Twitter, adding: “The joke was on us”. “Am I old or is the cinema MUCH TOO LOUD?” the film star asked.