Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Why Scrooge McDuck is better than Bill Gates

Rant alert: some ranting may appear in the content below.

Okay, that title may seem off-topic. After all, as the book How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic points out, Disney comics are all about imperialism, and we know that Wunderkammern are not. Right?

Well, not necessarily. Looking at the Age of Exploration, and how it ushered in both science (in its modern form), and imperialism of the worst sort (read: Conquistadors, Dutch East India Company, British Empire, and our good old American "military advisors"), it is clear that there is a flip side to the kind of wonderous mentality I have talked about in previous posts. After all, some of the most interesting things found in Wunderkammern were things co-opted, wrested or wheedled from people in other parts of the world.

However, as a longtime reader of Donald Duck and his elder (and weirder) relative Scrooge, I beg to qualify.

When I was a kid my father collected comic books. Not a lot of them, but he had a few, some of them really interesting. He let me read his Donald Duck comics, mostly written by Carl Barks, which was probably a mistake, as they were no longer pristine after I had read them twenty times. I will say, though, that they certainly made an impression on me.

Many of the best stories are about Uncle Scrooge's quest for owning the most valuable things in the world. So in that sense, they are indeed imperialist, and assume a sort of outdated sense of the white duck's right to take things from other, differently-colored, less "developed" people around the world.

However, there is something very important to be said for Scrooge: when he wants something, he goes there himself to get it, even though he is an old duck with a fabulous fortune at his command. His adventures are what make him worth reading about.

Now, I need to take a moment here to talk about pulp fiction. The (non-sexual) pulp fiction, by definition, was full of wild adventures, explorations, discoveries, and tales of strange occurrences. There is an interesting reverse correlation between the exploration of the (un)known world and the rise of pulp fiction: the more we knew about our world, the more wild the stories in the magazines, as if people's imagination craved more the less there was to wonder about. (the Hollow Earth book, in a previous post, has a nice section on pulp fiction, by the way). In general, pulp fiction was for adults; but some of the best comics of the day followed the pulp format, including, in a slightly classier and more humorous way, the Donald and Scrooge comics.

As in pulp fiction, Scrooge's amazing geographic discoveries are mostly not-real or thinly disguised (though he does visit the Yukon to find his lost stash). But, like a true pulp hero, he goes into it willing to lay his own safety on the line for greed. And, unlike the standard pulps, which lack a sense of humor, we know all about his personality: he is a cantankerous, greedy boogerhead who chisels his own nephews and often screws up. He is, within the comic format, pretty realistic - and we like him because he's so annoying, greedy, etc, and therefore real.

Bill Gates, on the other hand, is anything but a pulp hero, annoying or not. He is a total cipher. We wonder, in fact, if he could possibly be not-real, like Scrooge's locales. He's probably as rich as Scrooge; you know that old adage that if Bill dropped a $500 bill it would not be worth his time to go back and pick it up (of course, if he were Scrooge, he would go back for a dropped dime)? He doesn't seem to be as greedy as Scrooge, but who's to say? Maybe his wife knows. Ultimately, he seems nice enough. And, well, terribly bland.

Which brings us to this: Bill Gates, while smart and pretty savvy, was also lucky. He came along at the right time. He worked pretty hard. But he's a new breed of wealthy, nothing like the old dubloon-wielding explorers who went out in search of their fortunes: he happened on his wealth. I get the sense he doesn't really know what to do with it. Look at pictures of him: have you ever seen anyone so boring?

But Scrooge - Scrooge is hands-on. Like Indiana Jones and his pulp treasure-hunting ilk, he is larger than life. He actually bathes in cold cash (don't you kind of wish Bill Gates did that?). He loves his money, not for what it will buy or what it means in the larger context; he just loves it for itself. He is a collector, obsessed with his collection. He almost can't help himself; his office is a Wunderkammer devoted to wealth. He is incredibly superstitious, and has numerous lucky talismans that he guards jealously. He is a believer in wonders.

I have a weird vision of Bill Gates, in his inevitable unimaginative checked shirt, trying to rescue the Lost Crown of Gengis Khan from the Abominable Snowman. Do you think he would escape? Or convince the Snowman that he had caused a miracle? Would he throw down bundles of rubber and bounce from one to the other to escape Mombie the Zombie? No, he probably wouldn't believe that Mombie was a zombie. But then, if Bill Gates were Scrooge McDuck, Mombie would be wearing a tie, and be a tax-collector.

Bill Gates is the personification of How to Make Being Rich the Most Boring Thing In the World. Face it: people think that being rich is fun (imagine yourself bathing in that money!). And, if you're creative, you'll be thinking that "fun" would be a lot like Scrooge McDuck's adventures, except maybe with some interesting ways to give money to crazy artists or something. But the truth is, as a modern rich person, you would need to hire an army of accountants to find things to do with your money. Hell, you probably never even see your money in cold, hard cash (remember Harry Potter's bank vault?). I'll bet Bill Gates hasn't seen more than $2000 of his money all in one place before. His kind of money is invisible to the naked eye. It's conceptual. It's being groomed and moved around and taken care of by experts, so that it will keep growing - exactly like modern science: compartmentalized, optimized, and managed. All Bill Gates has to do is sit around and give talks and start foundations which largely run themselves, and maybe decide if his advisors have good advice.

Perhaps I am influenced by my upbringing, drinking Horatio Alger with my mother's milk, believing, like Nathaniel West's Lemuel Pitkin, in my divine right to be rich (60% of Americans believe deeply that they will be extremely rich someday). We can be anything we want, if we just work hard enough! Get dirty, put your nose to the grindstone. Got to get in there and roll up our sleeves, put some elbow grease in; then we'll make it big. I'm going to be President when I grow up!

But... it's hard to admire a stuffed shirt. Think about it in terms of storytelling: which is more exciting, a movie about a bank heist, where people walk off with a suitcase full of money, or a movie about boardroom politics? Why is Pirates of the Caribbean, and pirates in general, so popular right now (hint: treasure caves, cool clothes, physical danger)? Why isn't it cool to comb your hair and sit in an office moving money around? Yawn.

Have you ever seen a picture of Bill Gates with his sleeves rolled up and a shovel in his hand? Have you ever seen him get dirty? I can't even imagine it. Scrooge McDuck, on the other hand, gets dirty, and wet, and hit on the head, and schemed against, and lost, and all manner of explorer-type predicaments. And: he swims in his money. In fact, his money vault is nearly 100 feet deep. He still has every coin he ever earned - and he can recognize each of them, tell a story about it. Which to me is the ultimate goal: my ideal home is one in which every little thing, every dish and every object on the shelf, has a story behind it.

Now maybe because Scrooge get all the episodes of his life published for everyone to read, we know of all his trials and tribulations. Bill Gates is invisible, hiding behind security gates (sic) and darkened car windows (although, would you notice him if you saw him on the street?), so it is assumed he is as boring as he looks. I don't know anything about his life, do you? For all I know, he goes out into his garden and digs when he's mad at his wife, or keeps chickens that he loves and who poo on him when he picks them up. Or perhaps he secretly goes to central America and builds houses for poor people with his own hands, for sport; or spends his free time looking for leprechauns.

But I seriously doubt it.

Odds and Ends, Bits and Bobs

All kinds of things have been trickling through, and I've had no time, no time.

Firstly, let me announce to you that another member of the Blackheart Gang has been interviewed, and you can read said excellent interview, as well as see new/old footage, over at Siouxwire. Many thanks, Siouxfire, for the heads-up.

Another thing: I have discovered there is indeed a pre-existing theory that minds do work holographically, not only in the way they use interference patterns to store memories and images, but in the way that the brain can continue to function almost fully when only a portion of itself is intact. Karl H. Pribram came up with the theory in 1969 when holography was recently (re)discovered; holographics seemed to address many of the issues he was working with at the time. His book, Languages of the brain: Experimental paradoxes and principles in neuropsychology (Prentice-Hall, 1971), was a big deal. A lot of his ideas continue to have influence to this day, though my friend and former roommate informs me that brain theory has moved on to a more evolution-based structure (pathways and emergent behavior) nowadays. It seems, though, that in the artificial intelligence arena there are still people looking at the holographic model as a possible framework for intelligence building.

For an excellent discussion of Pribram's ideas, check out this description of Pribram's Holonomic Theory of Memory. Or, if you want a sample (with bibliography) of Pribram's more recent thinking, try this article: An Instantiation of Eccles Brain/Mind Dualism and Beyond, which is a curious blend of neuroscience jargon and raconteur-ish anecdote, and might be hard to wade through. Interesting, though.

I also wanted to show you a picture or two of the Holy Right Hand of St. Stephen, on display in Budapest (and brought out once a year to great fanfare, according to D). D describes the relic as wonderful:

Curiously, I had also come across another picture of a hand-relic (St. Basil's), but I decided to save that for another post about incorruptibles, which will be coming soon. Keep reminding me.

By the way, if you want to buy your own relic, here is a place I found where you can buy such things as these, among a very few other things:

Unfortunately the site seems to be perpetually in transition, and I'm not sure if you could contact the person even if you wanted to. Still, you can drool...And, of course, here is a somewhat interesting article from the Washington Post about people who are trying to stop the sale of these kinds of things on the Internet.

Lastly, a little taste of the promised Martyrs of Nature reliquaries (the others must be taken from storage to be photographed, and may take a little while):

Mouse relics

In any case, with the holidays I'm sliding backward. More soon - I promise.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Automat for the People

Think of it: a Cabinet of wonderful food.

I know, I know, it's a weird idea, that an automat might be considered a kind of wunderkammer. The idea has such strong identifications, depending on your generation. For younger people, who never went to one of the old automats, it's kind of cool. So much so that a new company called BAMN! is starting a trend (?) by bringing automats back - in, of course, a more modern, hip way.

For those of the middle generations, that is to say, people born 40 to 60 years ago, the memories of automats are likely to be ones of bad food, glaring lights and chillingly impersonal decor.

However, this was probably due to the things being on the wane: the food was less fresh, there being less turnover, and it being the 1950's and 1960's, brutal modernism was all the rage. Not, unfortunately, designed to make you want to stick around.

Those people who are elders now, people born early enough to recall the Depression and World War II, will have a different impression entirely. To those people, the Horn & Hardart chain, which at its height served 800,000 people a day, was a place to go to get in out of the cold, a place where coffee was good and cheap and you could get hot, fresh, handmade food for literally pennies, without having to deal with a waiter.

...Perhaps people in the early part of last century were less picky and more hungry than they were later on. Or perhaps labor was cheaper and behind those banks of little doors were real cooks making real food (as opposed to corporate employees paid minimum wage to churn out prepackaged dross). It's hard to say.

I have to admit to a fascination with automats. I went to one once, when I was a little kid, and I never forgot it. There was something weird and magical about these little compartments of food, food that replaced itself. You could see the people behind there, but they were this vague shape, and it was like a separate little world back there. As far as I was concerned, the glimpses of people I saw lurking back there were simply the inhabitants of that world. The little compartments worked by themselves, replacing food like the tables in a Harry Potter feast.

You can see why Americans were so taken with the concept: peek in the little windows, put in your nickel, open the door and it's yours. All they needed were little Surprise Drawers down at the bottom which furnished you with an unknown treat, or secret "free" compartments, in which you could have the contents if you could find the hidden door, to complete the experience of foraging in some kind of crazy Museum of Food (both these images, by the way, were some of the many that came into my dreams for years after my visit to the automat).

The Smithsonian has a 35-foot section of the original 1902 Horn & Hardart automat in Philadelphia, which is " beautifully ornate with its mirrors, marble and marquetry" and I'm sure is about as close to a Cabinet of Curious Food as you can get.

The question is, will the BAMN automats have what it takes? Or will they be simply updated vending machines? I'd like to see an automat with paneling, plush chairs and a secretive atmosphere. I don't mind the peculiar adventure of rummaging in little boxes and cubbies and drawers for my food, as long as it's good and fresh. In fact, I think I'd kind of like it - especially if they came on plates, with cutlery, and the long banks of compartments were beautifully made.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Strange Attractor

Many of you may already know about Strange Attractor, but I just stumbled across it in my wanderings, and I feel it my duty to mention. From what I've read, Strange Attractor began as a sort of crossroads of what they term "Unpopular Culture", and have over time become their own press, now producing an online print journal by the same name. Their blog, Further, is a worthwhile place to visit, full of posts about literature, UFO's, online access to interesting stuff, and just anything that might be odd and worthwhile.

Not only is the site beautiful but the actual journal, which I have not paid to download yet, looks really wonderful, with the latest issue covering things like a transgender spirit possession festival; the joy of zootoxins; psychonautic misadventures in time; 12th century Arab alchemists on the edge of knowledge; Joseph Williamson, Liverpool’s tunnelling philanthropist; and much, much more. Each issue is a veritable tome of "exquisite high strangeness." Marvelous.

I recommend you get your calling-card out and go for a visit.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Reliquaries: Saints Preserve(d for) Us!

Reliquary of St. Anania, Rome. St. Anania is said to have been the disciple who baptised St. Paul the Apostle.

I first discovered reliquaries on visiting Italy, years ago.

Since then, I've seen a lot of reliquaries, in France and other countries, but it was that first time, in the Cathedral Museum in Florence, that I saw the best reliquaries of all. There was a hand-shaped reliquary containing an arm-bone (of St. John the Baptist?), which pointed at the sky just like John the Baptist is always shown doing. There was a philatory (a transparent reliquary) which contained all the bones of another saint, whom I've forgotten, but the bones were stacked in an asthetic way and wound with gold and pearls in a shrine (reliquary shaped like a house) made of glass and gold. There were dozens of the usual cross-shaped reliquaries and lots of wonderful, dangly, crown-shaped ones.

"Casket of Teudericus" reliquary from the second half of the 7th c. (?) (Canton Valais: Saint Maurice Abbey treasury). This reliquary is a product of the monastic workshop of St. Maurice d'Agaune. Signed by the artist and dedicated by the Priest Teudericus to the monastery. Gold cloisonné, gemstones, and cameo on wood. 5.25"

For a nice, clear explanation of the reliquary concept I'm going to quote the Virtual School, a defunct part of the EC's European Schoolnet site, which is a portal for lower education in Europe. It has the most dazzling array of useful information I've come across. If you want something explained well and simply, I have not found better than European Schoolnet; unfortunately, I never seem to come across what I need except by accident.

Reliquary of St. Louis of Toulouse. Silver, France, 15th-17th century, Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris, France.

Here we go:

"Relics are holy objects associated with holy people, and is prevalent in Judaism, Buddhism and Christianity, among others.

"In a world where people believed that evil and the Devil existed all around in the natural world, it was comforting to believe that good was also something that could be seen and touched. The motivation for most pilgrimages was to see and touch something holy and consequently benefit from being in contact with good.

"Brandea were the most common kind of early Christian relic in the centuries immediately following the death of Christ. These were often ordinary objects which had become holy by coming into contact with holy people or places. These might include, for example, pieces of tomb, a handkerchief of a saint or dust from the Holy Land.The advantage for pilgrims was that they could and did make their own brandea; by rubbing a piece of cloth against a holy tomb or by filling a small flask (ampulla) with holy water, they could take the holiness home with them.

"Early relics were often carried in small, purpose built containers called reliquaries which were hung around the neck, almost like good luck charms.

"Bodily relics were particularly important because the spirit of the saint was said to actually remain in the bodily remains. Wherever the body (or body parts) went the (holy) spirit was sure to follow. There were some religious critics who suggested that the cult of relics owed more to pagan traditions than Christian teaching, but such was the popularity of the relics and the miracles that surrounded them, it would have been very difficult for the Church to resist even if it had wanted to.

"In converting pagan people the Church needed every trick in the book. In the 13th century, even the great medieval philosopher and saint, Thomas Aquinas, produced a threefold defence of the cult of relics. He argued that, firstly, the relic acts as a physical reminder of the saint, making it easier for people to understand the importance of the saint. Secondly, because the saint worked miracles through the body, the body remains holy and is therefore valuable in itself. Finally, because miracles occur at sites with relics, God must approve of the preservation and worship of relics.

Foot reliquary of St. James, Namur, France
"The only way of guaranteeing yourself a widely acknowledged, 'authentic' relic was to steal one. Many of the most famous pilgrimage sites in Europe included stolen relics in their collection. The theft was easily justified. Often the idea for the theft came in the form of a dream or vision, which was widely considered to be the way God and saints communicated . Often the saint itself decided. If the saint allowed itself to be taken without punishing the thieves and if the saint continued to produce miracles, then clearly he or she was happy in their new home."

If you've ever read P.D. James' A Morbid Taste for Bones, you'll know that many saints' bones were essentially stolen from their home tomb to begin with, regardless of the locals' feelings about it.

Strangely, Galileo's middle finger is displayed at the Science History Museum in Florence inside a beautiful reliquary (below). Does this mean he was a Science Saint? He was definitely a hero and a martyr to his beliefs, and it's interesting that he is celebrated in the same way as a religious figure. The finger was detached from the body by Anton Francesco Gori (how apt a name) on March 12, 1737; it is not clear whether this was a sanctioned move or not. And, of course, given the way he got in trouble for bucking the establishment, I find it intensely ironic that it was his middle finger they saved.

In any case, if you ask nicely I might show you some of the reliquaries I've made. There are quite a number, mostly (with one excellent exception) celebrating, not saints, but animals, which at one point in my life I was seeing as Saints of Nature, martyrs to the Cause of Progress - particularly those killed by poison and other dangers of modern life (and then mummified with time). Bwa-ha-ha. My thoughts have evolved, but the reliquaries remain.

Inner Earth

I just found this book last weekend and have been reading it, on and off, since then. It's, as a friend of mine would say, "a damned good read."

Beginning with Edmond Halley in 1691, and continuing on through Poe and Wells and on into L Frank Baum, only to take a turn into pulp with Edgar Rice Burroughs and others, this fascinating book covers the history of envisioning the earth as a hollow sphere. Such people as Halley, who edited and published (not to mention correcting proofs of) Isaac Newton's Principia, were quite serious about their proposals that the earth is not only hollow but a series of concentric spheres, in Halley's model turning independently on a north-south axis, probably with life inside and some kind of light like the sun itself.

So deadly serious were these people that one man, Captain John Cleves Symmes, handed out printed circulars of his own composition in 1818, stating that if anyone would fund him, he would go to an opening he (by unknown means) postulated lay near the poles, and lay his life on the line to prove to the world there were other places within. Symmes took his request for funds and sponsorship to congress, and was repeatedly turned down. He continued with this obsession until the end of his life, lecturing and writing articles for the papers. When he died his son took up his cause, and a book was written about his theories.

The stories go on and on, including Jules Verne's idea that the Aurora Borealis was really light coming out of a hole in the earth in the arctic; Cyrus Teed, the man who was known as Koresh, who claimed he discovered the Philosopher's Stone and who started a cult based on his ideas for saving humanity by "moving inside"; and innumerable utopias, romances and other fiction that began more and more to use the hollow earth idea as a pasteboard for the authors to communicate their ideas.

Richly illustrated with images that we would all love to have large to hang on our walls, the book is worth a look; I keep it by my bed and read bits of it before I go to sleep, in the hopes that it will bring me interesting dreams.

Some Artists

Well, I stumbled onto my account at Technorati, which I had forgotten about (shows how much time I have to look around these days), and lo! Several people had actually linked to me whom I had never heard of, and in looking at their sites I was pleased to find they went under the heading of "beautiful things". It's a wide world out there and I'm glad to get to see some of the good parts.
For starters, Blue Tea was showcasing (among many other amazing Book Art people) Su Blackwell, who makes art by cutting and folding books. Some of the images she creates are really dynamic and moving. A lot of them seem to be children's books. She works with books that are no longer readable for whatever reason, and works within the book's subject matter, either directly or metaphorically. And a lot of the books are framed in boxes, which of course sets off drool bells for me.

But what I particularly like about this aspect of her work (she does other stuff as well) is its delicacy, the slight feeling of claustrophobia, as if these characters, this landscape have been trapped in the book all this time and now are suddenly released. A number of her compositions have an urgency about them; the choices she has made for the cut-out people from the illustrations seem to lean toward people on their way somewhere, about to discover something, or perhaps escaping from something. And the landscapes speak of a bleak mystery, a rising, an awareness of the air. Very cool.

In my wanderings I also came across Aria Nadii,
another self-described "book pirate" who creates layered compositions from images found in books. Many of the works are quite wonderful. And if you like her stuff, she has a whole page of really beautiful images for people to take and use as avatars (go to her blog to see them). Her blog is full of nice details of what it's like to make art while keeping on with the daily making of a life. I look forward to seeing more of her stuff.

Monday, May 14, 2007

How Like Life: the Camera Obscura

My first introduction to the mysteries of the Camera Obscura were during my youth in San Francisco: there was this cultish secret, called the Giant Camera, visited by unknowing tourists and in-the-know locals, down behind the Cliff House next to the Musee Mechanique (which I promise to discuss in a future post). It was run by this one slightly odd man and housed a number of rather stilted, but still interesting, holograms around the edges of the room. At first, walking inside the darkened space, one would bumble blindly over to the dim white disk in the middle of the room - and then be arrested by the most indescribable sight.

Like many of the large camera obscuras, this one's image was projected onto a large (at least 4 feet wide) smooth, white concave disk set like a high table in the middle of the room. The image was collected via a hole in the ceiling with a rotating mirror, which "captured" what was happening outside in a slowly moving progression, and beamed it down, probably via a lens or several lenses, onto the table. The mechanism in this particular camera obscura was hidden (and not particularly pretty if you did see it) under black paint and cloth; only the image, apparently floating weightless in front of you, was clear and perfect.

Camera Obscura in Cadiz, thanks to Sinden Optical (see below)

Camera obscuras work under the same principles as pinhole cameras: you make a small hole in the side of a box (either a real box or a room-sized box) and the light outside will get in through the hole and project itself onto a piece of paper or a wall, showing you a perfect image of the scene on the outside of the box. Because light travels in a straight line, and because the hole is small, the light on one side of the scene will have to come through at an opposing angle from the light on the other side of the scene. Therefore, the lines cross in translation and are projected upside down. Here is a nice simple Flash demonstration, if you need visuals.

The upside-down image can be righted using a convex speculum (a small metal mirror used for telescopes) or lenses, or the opening can be enlarged and fitted with one or more lenses, which focus/broaden the light and can also correct for image reversal.

The thing that makes watching the image in a camera obscura so magical is that there is no grain. We are all used to seeing movies and photographs, and taking it as a given that they are pretty much clear and accurate representations of what we see. But once you have seen a camera obscura, you will throw all that out the window, because the image is impossibly clear. You can see the eyes on the seagulls flying by outside, no matter how far away they are. All the meshing gaps and bubbles in the foam of the sea is there, complete and clear. You can see the cracks in the buildings, the open fly of the tourist on the balcony above you. Looking at film is never really the same again.

And no wonder: you are having the real world projected into the room with you, like a movie. It's stunning.

My second brush with camera obscuras was in a story called - you guessed it - Camera Obscura, by Basil Copper. Despite its slight whiff of antisemitism, which I will leave where it lays, the story manages to convey a curious creepy magic in the thing's mechanisms, playing with the idea of the projection being real and the real merely the projection. It was this story which, for me, placed the device into the realm of the fascinating, full of velvet curtains, silken pull-ropes and unseen brass mechanisms.

Lastly, I had a friend whose bed was high in a loft on the second story of a rather tall Victorian house. In an effort to sleep at night despite the streetlight directly outside, he installed a dark paper blind over the window, the upper half of which projected into the loft.

One day, I was sitting in his loft while we discussed some long-forgotten subject, and I happened to glance up at the ceiling. There was a perfect reproduction of the street below, running in a strip along the rounded edge where the walls blended seamlessly into the ceiling. Apparently the installation of the blind had left a narrow crack along the top, which allowed the reflected scenes from the outside world to become projected onto the ceiling above. Needless to say, we spent many hours after that watching pigeons, dogs, cars and the tops of passers-by as they walked past.

Since then, of course, I have found out much about the history of the things. Leonardo DaVinci mentions the device, among other people. A muslim scholar named Abu Ali Al-Hasan Ibn al-Haitham (965-1039 CE) is credited with, if not outright discovering the phenomenon, at least leaving notes behind as to how it works. You can find out more about the history of camera obscurashere, or if you are really obsessed, the 1910 Encyclopedia Brittanica has more than anyone could possibly want to know about the history of the theory behind the device, the optical parts of it, and the uses of it. Heady stuff, that.

There is a great deal of evidence that artists during the Rennaissance and later used camera obscuras to look at their subjects in a different, more compositional way. Many of the artists who did this did it discreetly, either because the device had an occult association (Giovanni Battista della Porta, in the 16th century, was brought up on charges of sorcery after inviting visitors to a camera obscura show), or because the artists worried that people would think less of their paintings as a result. Vermeer, for one, shows many signs of having used the device for his paintings. Things show up in his compositions that we take for granted as normal because we are used to looking at the world through lenses. For example, some figures are grossly enlarged in the foreground, not something people thought of much before photography; the way things shine have a quality of being seen through a lense; and the way he didn't work up his paintings via layers the way most artists did, showing an obsession with light and shadow, is nearly a dead giveaway.

(On a side note, if you have not seen Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson in Girl With a Pearl Earring, you should. Whew!)

Lastly, I'd like to point out the really beautiful work of Abelardo Morell, who creates amazing visions by blacking out windows and leaving a pinhole opening in one of them. When he photographs the room with its furniture, and the particular outside environs superimposed onto it - which are, of course, carefully chosen - the results are quite lovely and ephemeral. He has a book called (of course) Camera Obscura, a collection of his photographs.

And of course, we have some links for you:

- Feel like doing some camera obscura tourism? Here is a list of camera obscuras all over the world.

- Jack and Beverly Wilgus' site on all things camera obscura has all kinds of stuff in it.

- Perhaps you'd like to have your own? Try Sinden Optical Company, makers of large camera obscuras.

- Or you can make one yourself, courtesy of Tim Hunkin's wonderful illustration of a camera-obscura-on-the-cheap, courtesy of Todd Roeth's very comprehensive online photography class for Brooks Institute of Photography in California.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The British Museum's new King's Library

Thanks to akacurator for telling me about Wonder Cabinet, a community of Wunderkammer-lovers. On a tip from romeodistress, at said community, I looked into the British Museum's Enlightment exhibition (which seems to be ongoing since 2003). The new-ish room that houses it, the King's Library, is apparently set up pretty much as a Wunderkammer itself.

Here is what the Museum itself has to say:

"The physician Sir Hans Sloane and his contemporaries collected natural specimens, beautiful sculptures and ‘exotic’ objects from around the world. He created an encyclopedia of the world in one place, and after his death in 1753 his collection became the British Museum – a ‘universal museum’ for the people of Britain and visitors from around the globe.

Founded by an Act of Parliament in 1753, the British Museum was the first free public museum in the world, intended ‘not only for the inspection and entertainment of the learned and the curious, but for the general use and benefit of the public’. It was thus one of the most potent acts of the Enlightenment and at the same time one of its greatest achievements.

Its founding collections were rapidly supplemented. Captain James Cook, Sir Joseph Banks and many others made extraordinary voyages, returning not only with objects, but also with drawings and accounts of people’s customs and ways of life from distant lands. Sir William Hamilton formed an amazing collection of classical antiquities from southern Italy. King George III himself had an superb collection of scientific instruments. They wanted to understand, and use that knowledge to improve their world. Through their activities new disciplines were born: taxonomy, geology, palaeontology, archaeology, the history of art and ethnography, to use the labels that would soon be applied to new areas of study. In this way the eighteenth century laid the basis for the way future generations and we today would understand their own worlds."

It's not often that one gets to see a properly assembled Wunderkammer in the flesh. I'm looking forward to visiting it next year when I'm in London!

Monday, May 7, 2007

Tycho Brahe, Bibliodyssey, and other Astrological Landmarks

Thanks to BoingBoing, who were featuring something interesting, as usual, I have discovered Bibliodyssey, which, in case you didn't happen to read that particular BoingBoing post, is a blog devoted to "Books -- Illustrations -- Science -- History -- Visual Materia Obscura -- Eclectic Bookart" and is full of amazing Wonder-ful images and sources for that kind of Mobius-think which I associate with my favorite time period.

Looking through the site, which has a lovely side-bar with visual links to previous posts, I came across a reference to Tycho Brahe's Astronomiæ Instauratæ Mechanica, a book originally published in 1598 in an effort to secure more funding after a royal death cut off Brahe's sponsorship. The illustrations show what seem to be enormous, house-sized azimuth quadrants and Christmas-tree sized sextants.

Apparently, Brahe came up with the idea for this long-term project: to make a reliable chart of the heavens, using observations from a fixed point over time. He accomplished this, with the aid of royal patronage, by building a huge observatory on the island of Hven (between Denmark and Sweden). Please note that this was long before the first telescopes, which is why he did his measuring with large, accurate versions of those instruments that ships' captains had been using for many years. Bibliodyssey mentions that this was the "first" of his observatories, and is, unfortunately, long-lost.

This reminds me of the Jantar Mantar Observatory [wiki], which I saw when I was in India, at the palace in Jaipur. It was built in 1734 by Sawai Jai Singh, the first Maharaja of Jaipur, who "...succeeded to the throne of Amber in 1700 at the age of thirteen. Abandoning that capital, he founded the city of Jaipur in 1727. A soldier, ruler, and scholar with a lifelong interest in mathematics and astronomy, Jai Singh built observatories in Delhi, Jaipur, Ujjain, Mathura and Benares. Jai Singh was conversant with contemporary European astronomy through his contacts with the Portugese Viceroy in Goa. He supplied corrections to the astronomical tables of de la Hire, and published his own tables in 1723."
- Quote loaned from Michael D. Gunther's Old Stones website, which has very detailed descriptions of the observatory's workings

Each of the eighteen observation instruments, which are mostly built out of masonry and are simply enormous, are meticulously constructed, with markings for the positions of the known heavens, and truly ingenious ways for people to get inside or to stand far enough above to be able to measure things as accurately as possible. Standing within one of the sundials, for example, manages to take you out of human scale far enough that you begin to get an inkling of the enormity of the heavens.

I can only imagine what that first observatory of Brahe's must have been like. The instruments look impressive, though without people in there to scale them, it's hard to tell if it's quite as stunning as Jai Singh's contribution. Sigh.

The Intricacies of Holograms

In the 1970's and 80's holographic art was all the rage. People couldn't believe that a 3-dimensional object could be put onto a 2-dimensional surface. "You can see around it!" came the cries of children walking through science museum exhibits.

Now, with holograms on every credit card and in all those hideous shops full of cheap Chinese-made trinkets, holograms are not only ordinary, but, as the BBC paraphrases it, "[they] have become kitsch and naff." (see the picture below)

The problem with holographic art was much the same as the problem with computer art: people are too interested in the technology. Very rarely do technophiles make great artists (and vice versa), regardless of the hype. The holographic art of the 70's and 80's have much the same quality: they look like they were made by people saying, "Wow! Look what happens when I do this!" - which I suspect they were. There is little indication of consciousness of rigorous artistic critique.

And who can blame them? They were, so to speak, putting their toes into a sea that no-one had yet swum in. (I know, "swum" is not a word. But it should be.) So they were playing around! So what?

The problem is, of course, that with the asthetic bar so low, and with technology being the only barrier in the way to mass-production, we all got sick of the things. They were cheesy; they were everywhere. They lost their magic.

When I was younger, I had a friend whose father, Lloyd Cross, had been one of the top people in holography in the 1970's, and who was still sought as an expert on the technology. Visiting his house was odd; blackboards hung all over the kitchen, and several computers displayed models he was working on. At intervals, he would jump up and write something in chalk, or do something on the computer, and then sit back down again to his sandwich or his cigarette, to all appearances going on with a normal, slightly slacker, life.

Pondering the "Magical Thinking" post, and some of the comments I received about it, I remembered asking my friend to explain holography to me. He did, and it really opened my eyes to some amazing ideas. This last week, trying to think of some examples of truly magical science, I kept coming back to that conversation. Forget abstract discoveries in higher physics and very complex mathematics - buckyballs and dark matter come and go! - this single thing had continued to capture my imagination, in the back halls of my mind, for the last twenty years.

If you think about it, I'm not alone here. There is one thing which has always been a source of wonder and mystery, even among the scientific community, and that thing is light.

True, its cousins the particles are also pretty interesting (I was lying when I said forget about all that), but light itself is so common, a part of every person's life-experience, and somehow it still eludes our understanding. It plays peek-a-boo with us and seems to know what we're going to do before we do it. Is it a wave? A particle? Why does it squeeze through those gaps and spray itself around so? More recently, there has been discussion of light as a gas/liquid (see New Scientist, 7/02). It has a cheeky side, and it's not afraid to do tricks - both for us and on us.

This is what my friend described to me all those years ago:

1. Take a single laser beam, and split it in two. This is important, because all light used must have a single, perfectly sincronized wavelength. Therefore it must be a laser, and it must be the same beam of light.

2. Now, with the aid of very clean mirrors and lenses, one bit of this beam is widened and sent to bounce off an object.

3. The other bit of the beam is brought around to another side, widened, and brought in at an angle to the other half of the beam. The reflected beam of light from the object, and the uninterrupted beam of source light cross each other, causing an interference pattern, and this is what is captured on the film-plate.

4.When a light is shone on the film-plate, the interference pattern is revealed, showing us the exact reflected pattern of the object, with distances intact.

That's the essence of it (more in the links below). Now here's a bit of magic: cut a hologram up into pieces, and each individual piece will show the whole image. There will be less dimensionality, but each fragment will contain a tiny version of the complete image. I have no idea why this happens, but it's very cool.

Another amazing thing about holograms is that if you change the angle, or the wavelength, of your light, you can store information over and over again in the same place, because the interference patterns don't.. well.. interfere with each other. Instead they can lay next to each other like microscopic sardines, only intertwined, sort of.

When my friend described this to me, I went home with my head in a whirl. I began to think like our Baroque friends might do, thoughts such as "What if this isn't the only place in the world where interference patterns create images?" and "What if we could create hard copies of things like sounds that way?" "What if you could use this technology to make little building-blocks of information?" And on and on (by the way, this was before Star Trek's Holodeck, in case you're wondering).

Light-emitting sensors on nerve cells, courtesy of Dr. Gero Miesenböck
I was living with a friend who was deep into studying brain networks and neuron-firing at the time, and somehow the two blended in my tiny brain and I started imagining that our neural networks held interference patterns which created the images we saw so clearly in our mind's eye. More than that: the smells we remember, the sounds...all electrical interference patterns literally playing back those holographic memories that had been imprinted in those networks and pathways, interlaced from different angles and patterns to let our brains hold so very, very many memories.

Interestingly, in doing research for this post, I was reading Tweak 3D's description of how holographic storage works (see link below). One of the things they mentioned was this:
"However, as you keep recording more data pages slightly away from previous pages, the holograms will begin to appear dimmer and fogged up because their patterns must share the material's finite dynamic range and the data page is physically etched into the crystal. Eventually you will run out of space to store because the crystal has depleted all of its physical storage capacity..."

Sound like the brain of anyone you know who's lived a full and long life? Ever pay attention to how old people's older memories are sharper than their new ones? So maybe my theories are not so bizarre after all; maybe we die when our "finite dynamic range" is all used up...

So yes, I suppose there are still whole areas of science that elude the evolution toward mundanity. It's just getting harder to find the ones that get you thinking, make you want to explore.

Ikuo Nakamura, "Fossils", 2000
The only thing about this technology that is bothering me nowadays is that it seems to have become a technology. In other words, the asthetic possibilities (probably for the reasons above) are getting less and less interest, even as the technology gets easier and more artist-friendly. There are some people who are doing some interesting things with holography, but I would like to see more and better. Improving the technology is all very well, but what about presentation? What about capturing people's imagination again? That is part of an artist's job, and I wish I saw more people attempting it.

On a last (and totally unconnected) note, I found this image (below) and feel it could be proof that modern science can, indeed, create objects as beautiful as those marvelous inventions in the Cabinet. Though I might question how deliberate its beauty is, and alas, it is not something one can hold in one's hands and enjoy the use of.
Photomultiplier tube for detecting antineutrinos

A few place to find out about the science part of holography:

- Tweak 3D's article about holographic storage technology, with a good description along the way of how holograms are made.

- holoworld.com's Holography Links page, to what appears to be all things holographic.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Black Heart Gang, redux

Thanks to Souxfire, who has the blog Souxwire, a self-described "place for inspiration and introduction to a wide range of creations across disciplines and class," we have an excellent interview with Ree Treweek, the illustrator for the Black Heart Gang.

Wonderful stuff! Imagine a place where this could be true:
"The Household is completely powered by our old bath water which turns a giant cog in the centre of the universe. Soap is indeed one of the main industries of The Household - in fact after the 100 yrs of madness the Piranha birds eventually make their way to Soap world and become soap merchants."

Alternate worlds do not have to be complete. In fact, like Japanese gardens and houses, their vehicles can be designed to give us a selective view into another place - not the WHOLE view all at once, but carefully-chosen glimpses, making what we do see ever so much more enticing and beautiful. The Story of How, and Ms. Treweek's explanations of the world in which it (and its sequels) take place, only serve to pique the imagination - like the little details I was mentioning in the Oz books (in my previous entry).

It is important (to me, at least) to know there is such sideways thinking - magical thinking - out there in the world. Hooray for people who take their childhood ideas and turn them into art! Hooray for paying attention to dream-logic! And best of all, hooray for working hard to bring them to the rest of us in fully-developed, beautiful stories and imagery!