(Roughly) Daily

“What is mathematics? It is only a systematic effort of solving puzzles posed by nature.”*…

 

unicorn-tapestry

 

In 1998, the Cloisters—the museum of medieval art in upper Manhattan—began a renovation of the room where the seven tapestries known as “The Hunt of the Unicorn” hang. The Unicorn tapestries are considered by many to be the most beautiful tapestries in existence. They are also among the great works of art of any kind. In the tapestries, richly dressed noblemen, accompanied by hunters and hounds, pursue a unicorn through forested landscapes. They find the animal, appear to kill it, and bring it back to a castle; in the last and most famous panel, “The Unicorn in Captivity,” the unicorn is shown bloody but alive, chained to a tree surrounded by a circular fence, in a field of flowers. The tapestries are twelve feet tall and up to fourteen feet wide (except for one, which is in fragments). They were woven from threads of dyed wool and silk, some of them gilded or wrapped in silver, around 1500, probably in Brussels or Liège, for an unknown person or persons, and for an unknown reason—possibly to honor a wedding. A monogram made from the letters “A” and “E” is woven into the scenery in many places; no one knows what it stands for. The tapestries’ meaning is mysterious: the unicorn was a symbol of many things in the Middle Ages, including Christianity, immortality, wisdom, lovers, marriage. For centuries, the tapestries were in the possession of the La Rochefoucauld family of France. In 1922, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., bought them for just over a million dollars, and in 1937 he gave them to the Cloisters. Their monetary value today is incalculable…

As the construction work got under way, the tapestries were rolled up and moved, in an unmarked vehicle and under conditions of high security, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which owns the Cloisters. They ended up in a windowless room in the museum’s textile department for cleaning and repair. The room has white walls and a white tiled floor with a drain running along one side. It is exceedingly clean, and looks like an operating room. It is known as the wet lab, and is situated on a basement level below the museum’s central staircase.

In the wet lab, a team of textile conservators led by a woman named Kathrin Colburn unpacked the tapestries and spread them out face down on a large table, one by one. At some point, the backs of the tapestries had been covered with linen. The backings, which protect the tapestries and help to support them when they hang on a wall, were turning brown and brittle, and had to be replaced. Using tweezers and magnifying lenses, Colburn and her team delicately removed the threads that held each backing in place. As the conservators lifted the backing away, inch by inch, they felt a growing sense of awe. The backs were almost perfect mirror images of the fronts, but the colors were different. Compared with the fronts, they were unfaded: incredibly bright, rich, and deep, more subtle and natural-looking. The backs of the tapestries had, after all, been exposed to very little sunlight in five hundred years. Nobody alive at the Met, it seems, had seen them this way…

Philippe de Montebello, the director of the museum, declared that the Unicorn tapestries must be photographed on both sides, to preserve a record of the colors and the mirror images. Colburn and her associates would soon put new backing material on them, made of cotton sateen. Once they were rehung at the Cloisters, it might be a century or more before the true colors of the tapestries would be seen again.

The manager of the photography studio at the Met is a pleasant, lively woman named Barbara Bridgers. Her goal is to make a high-resolution digital image of every work of art in the Met’s collections. The job will take at least twenty-five years; there are between two and two and a half million catalogued objects in the Met—nobody knows the exact number. (One difficulty is that there seems to be an endless quantity of scarab beetles from Egypt.) But, when it’s done and backup files are stored in an image repository somewhere else, then if an asteroid hits New York the Metropolitan Museum may survive in a digital copy.

To make a digital image of the Unicorn tapestries was one of the most difficult assignments that Bridgers had ever had. She put together a team to do it, bringing in two consultants, Scott Geffert and Howard Goldstein, and two of the Met’s photographers, Joseph Coscia, Jr., and Oi-Cheong Lee. They built a giant metal scaffolding inside the wet lab, and mounted on it a Leica digital camera, which looked down at the floor. The photographers were forbidden to touch the tapestries; Kathrin Colburn and her team laid each one down, underneath the scaffold, on a plastic sheet. Then the photographers began shooting. The camera had a narrow view; it could photograph only one three-by-three-foot section of tapestry at a time. The photographers took overlapping pictures, moving the camera on skateboard wheels on the scaffolding. Each photograph was a tile that would be used to make a complete, seamless mosaic of each tapestry…

It took two weeks to photograph the tapestries. When the job was done, every thread in every tile was crystal-clear, and the individual twisted strands that made up individual threads were often visible, too. The data for the digital images, which consisted entirely of numbers, filled more than two hundred CDs. With other, smaller works of art, Bridgers and her team had been able to load digital tiles into a computer’s hard drives and memory, and then manipulate them into a complete mosaic—into a seamless image—using Adobe Photoshop software. But with the tapestries that simply wouldn’t work. When they tried to assemble the tiles, they found that the files were too large and too complex to manage. “We had to lower the resolution of the images in order to fit them into the computers we had, and it degraded the images so much that we just didn’t think it was worth doing,” Bridgers said. Finally, they gave up. Bridgers stored the CDs on a shelf and filed the project away as an unsolved problem…

Enter Gregory and David Chudnovsky, brothers whose work was so intertwined that they considered themselves a single mathematician.  Over four months– and after 30 hours of continuous running– their self-designed supercomputer successfully performed the 7.7 quadrillion calculations needed to produce the image for the Met.

Richard Preston tells the genuinely-fascinating story: “Capturing the Unicorn.”

It was a return of sorts for Preston, who, thirteen years earlier, had profiled the brothers and their successful quest to resolve pi to a record number of decimal places: “The Mountains of Pi.”

More on the Chudnovskys here.

* Shakuntala Devi

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As we muse of the merger of art and science, we might recall that it was on this date in 1886 that Coca Cola was concocted in an Atlanta, Georgia backyard as a “brain tonic” that could cure hangovers, stomach aches and headaches.  The original formula included caffeine and five ounces of coca leaf (from which cocaine is derived) per gallon.  The creator, pharmacist John Pemberton, took his syrup a few doors down to Jacobs’ Pharmacy, where he mixed it with carbonated water and shared it with customers.  The pharmacy began marketing it on May 8 as a patent medicine for 5¢ a glass.  It spread first through the other Jacobs outlets in Atlanta, and then around the world.

“The valuable tonic and nerve stimulant properties of the coca plant and cola nuts …”

– John Pemberton

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Pemberton

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“Archives are a kind of site in the sense of like an archaeological site”*…

 

card catalog

 

If time at home has you missing life in the stacks or sifting through old papers in search of pieces of the past, fear not: You can do the same thing online. Slews of institutions are in the market for armchair archivists—volunteers who can generate knowledge by clicking through digitized resources, deciphering handwriting, tagging photos, and more.

Several institutions have already seen an uptick in digital detective work since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. A transcription project at the Newberry, a research library in Chicago, has seen a surge in contributions: “In two weeks, we’ve received 62 percent of the traffic we typically see over the course of an entire year,” writes Alex Teller, the library’s director of communications, in an email. This past weekend, the By the People transcription project at the Library of Congress saw 5,000 more users than the previous weekend, says Lauren Algee, the team lead for the crowdsourced initiative. Here’s how you can join them. (Unfortunately, that delicious old-book smell is not included.)…

If you’re cooped-up and curious, use your free time to decipher handwriting, tag images, and more: “How to Help Librarians and Archivists From Your Living Room.”  And/or dive in at that National Archive.

* John Berger, Portraits: John Berger on Artists

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As we dig digging, we might send carefully-curated birthday greetings to Frederick Baldwin Adams Jr.; he was born on this date in 1910.  A bibliophile, he was the the director of the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City from 1948–1969.  His predecessor, Belle da Costa Greene, was responsible for organizing the results of Morgan’s rapacious collecting; Adams was responsible for broadening– and modernizing– that collection, adding works by Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, Willa Cather, Robert Frost,  E. A. Robinson, among many others, along with manuscripts and visual arts, and for enhancing the institution’s role as a research facility.

Adams was also an important collector in his own right.  He amassed two of the largest holdings of works by Thomas Hardy and Robert Frost, as well as one of the leading collections of writing by Karl Marx and left-wing Americana.

Adams source

 

“I was always a sucker for anything in miniature”*…

 

Lin

 

Seattle-based photographer Derrick Lin constructs miniature worlds that serve as a direct contrast to the stacks of books and other office staples like paperclips and pencils they’re surrounded by. Often showing life’s more relaxing and sublime moments, each scene is complete with tiny figures and their possessions as they pass along a sidewalk lined with cherry blossom trees, occupy a packed airport terminal, and sit on the floor of a messy living room. Because Lin assembles his little scenarios on his tabletop, some of his shots even feature a coffee mug in the background…

“In addition to humor and whimsy, I started to pay more attention to topics around loneliness, mental health, and kindness. I strive to depict and spotlight on the kind of thoughts we typically reserve for ourselves. My photography loosely reflects what I personally experience and what I see around me. What continues to amaze me is the messages I receive from my followers about how my little project resonates with them and brings them joy and calmness.”…

lin-2-624x781@2x

More at : “Derrick Lin’s Dioramas Contrast the Bustle of Agency Life with Peaceful Office-Supply Scenes.”  To keep up with Lin’s dioramas, follow him on Instagram,

* Lionel Shriver

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As we get small, we might recall that it was on this date in 1915 that Mary Mallon, “Typhoid Mary,” was put in quarantine on North Brother Island, in New York City, where she was isolated until she died in 1938.  She was the first person in the United States identified as an asymptomatic carrier of the pathogen associated with typhoid fever… before which, she inadvertently spread typhus for years while working as a cook in the New York area.

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Written by LW

March 27, 2020 at 1:01 am

“The nice thing about doing a crossword puzzle is, you know there is a solution”*…

 

crossword_puzzle_with_lady_in_black_coat-2-1024x768

Crossword Puzzle with Lady in Black Coat, Paulina Olowska, 2014

 

When I began to research the history of crosswords for my recent book on the subject, I was sort of shocked to discover that they weren’t invented until 1913. The puzzle seemed so deeply ingrained in our lives that I figured it must have been around for centuries—I envisioned the empress Livia in the famous garden room in her villa, serenely filling in her cruciverborum each morning­­. But in reality, the crossword is a recent invention, born out of desperation. Editor Arthur Wynne at the New York World needed something to fill space in the Christmas edition of his paper’s FUN supplement, so he took advantage of new technology that could print blank grids cheaply and created a diamond-shaped set of boxes, with clues to fill in the blanks, smack in the center of FUN. Nearly overnight, the “Word-Cross Puzzle” went from a space-filling ploy to the most popular feature of the page.

Still, the crossword didn’t arise from nowhere. Ever since we’ve had language, we’ve played games with words. Crosswords are the Punnett square of two long-standing strands of word puzzles: word squares, which demand visual logic to understand the puzzle but aren’t necessarily using deliberate deception; and riddles, which use wordplay to misdirect the solver but don’t necessarily have any kind of graphic component to work through…

Adrienne Raphel (@AdrienneRaphel) offers “A Brief History of Word Games.”

[TotH to MK]

* Stephen Sondheim

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As we fill in the blanks, we might send epigrammatic birthday greetings to Alfred Edward (A.E.) Housman; he was born on this date in 1859.  A classicist and poet, he is probably best remembered for his lyrical poetry, perhaps most notably for his  cycle A Shropshire Lad.

Alfred_Edward_Housman.jpeg source

It is also the birthday (1874) of another poet, the combative Robert Frost.

 

Written by LW

March 26, 2020 at 7:02 am

“All you really need to know for the moment is that the universe is a lot more complicated than you might think, even if you start from a position of thinking it’s pretty damn complicated in the first place”*…

 

UniverseShape_LedeFullWidth

 

When you gaze out at the night sky, space seems to extend forever in all directions. That’s our mental model for the universe, but it’s not necessarily correct. There was a time, after all, when everyone thought the Earth was flat, because our planet’s curvature was too subtle to detect and a spherical Earth was unfathomable.

Today, we know the Earth is shaped like a sphere. But most of us give little thought to the shape of the universe. Just as the sphere offered an alternative to a flat Earth, other three-dimensional shapes offer alternatives to “ordinary” infinite space.

We can ask two separate but interrelated questions about the shape of the universe. One is about its geometry: the fine-grained local measurements of things like angles and areas. The other is about its topology: how these local pieces are stitched together into an overarching shape.

Cosmological evidence suggests that the part of the universe we can see is smooth and homogeneous, at least approximately. The local fabric of space looks much the same at every point and in every direction. Only three geometries fit this description: flat, spherical and hyperbolic…

Alternatives to “ordinary” infinite space: “What Is the Geometry of the Universe?

* Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

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As we tinker with topology, we might recall that it was on this date in 1811 that Percy Bysshe Shelley was expelled from the University of Oxford for publishing the pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism.  Shelley, of course, went on to become a celebrated lyric poet and one of the leaders of the English Romantic movement… one who had a confident (if not to say exalted) sense of his role in society:

Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

220px-Percy_Bysshe_Shelley_by_Alfred_Clint source

 

“Amaze your friends!”…

 

timms_catalog_ventrilo_1938_retrospace

 

Flatulence humor goes back to the first known joke, recorded by ancient Sumerians. Since then, it’s lingered for thousands of years, wafting from Medieval illuminated devotionals to Shakespeare’s plays. So naturally, employees of JEM Rubber Company in Toronto, known for making tire repair patches, were delighted when they figured out how to turn its scrap rubber into literal windbags around 1930. They approached Soren Sorensen “Sam” Adams—whose S.S. Adams Company was responsible for giving the world Sneezing Powder and the Joy Buzzer—but the cushion that blows a loud raspberry was just a bridge too far.

“They came to Adams because he was a big producer of novelties, hoping to sell it to him as a product to distribute in the U.S.,” says novelties collector Mardi Timm. “But he was so incensed about the indelicacy of the joke that he refused it.”

Undeterred, the representatives of JEM took their fart joke to Alfred Johnson Smith, whose popular Johnson Smith & Co. catalog was a Bible for mischief makers, offering novelties, magic tricks, and popular pranks like trick cigarette cases and squirting flowers. “Mr. Smith looked at it and said, ‘What a great gag!’ and put it in his catalog,” Mardi explains…

This is the world of Stan and Mardi Timm. Perusing their collection of products sold by Johnson Smith and other novelty firms is an experience akin to Pee-Wee Herman’s gleeful romp through Mario’s Magic Shop, trying out squirting mustard bottles and buying trick gum… the Timms’ vast collection of roughly 1,800 artifacts, focused on items from the Johnson Smith catalogs from the early 20th century and beyond, is more than juvenile pranks—it includes cheap toys and quirky but practical inventions like flashlights, twirling spaghetti forks, and electric tie presses, as well as guides promising to teach valuable skills like detective work or jiu-jitsu.

“Novelties are so much more than goofy, silly things,” Mardi says. “Everything that comes on to the marketplace starts out as a novelty. They’re things that are not common, things that make you say, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen one of those before!’ or ‘What is that thing?’”

The collection documents U.S. (and UK) popular culture from the mid-1910s through today…

timms_smoking_explosivecigaretteads

More– much more– at “Fun Delivered: World’s Foremost Experts on Whoopee Cushions and Silly Putty Tell All.”

* Boy’s Life

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As we ponder pranks, we might recall that it was on this date in 1993 that Doogie Howser, M.D. ended it’s fourth and final season.  Created by Stephen Bochco and David E. Kelley (both rather better known for police, legal, and medical procedural dramas like Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, Chicago Hope, and Boston Legal), the series featured Neil Patrick Harris as the youngest doctor in America (“can’t buy beer… [but] can prescribe drugs”)… with a best friend– “Vinnie Delpino”– who was pretty surely a customer of Johnson Smith.

doogie and Vinnie

Doogie and Vinnie

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Written by LW

March 24, 2020 at 1:01 am

“The appearance of new species naturally and the appearance of new inventions by artifice are both responses to need”*…

 

Gaia

 

Our reign as sole understanders of the cosmos is rapidly coming to an end. We should not be afraid of this. The revolution that has just begun may be understood as a continuation of the process whereby the Earth nurtures the understanders, the beings that will lead the cosmos to self-knowledge. What is revolutionary about this moment is that the understanders of the future will not be humans but cyborgs that will have designed and built themselves from the artificial intelligence systems we have already constructed. These will soon become thousands then millions of times more intelligent than us.

The term cyborg was coined by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline in 1960. It refers to a cybernetic organism: an organism as self-sufficient as one of us but made of engineered materials. I like this word and definition because it could apply to anything ranging in size from a microorganism to a pachyderm, from a microchip to an omnibus. It is now commonly taken to mean an entity that is part flesh, part machine. I use it here to emphasize that the new intelligent beings will have arisen, like us, from Darwinian evolution. They will not, at first, be separate from us; indeed, they will be our offspring because the systems we made turned out to be their precursors.

We need not be afraid because, initially at least, these inorganic beings will need us and the whole organic world to continue to regulate the climate, keeping Earth cool to fend off the heat of the sun and safeguard us from the worst effects of future catastrophes. We shall not descend into the kind of war between humans and machines that is so often described in science fiction because we need each other. Gaia will keep the peace.

This is the age I call the “Novacene.” I’m sure that one day a more appropriate name will be chosen, something more imaginative, but for now I’m using Novacene to describe what could be one of the most crucial periods in the history of our planet and perhaps even of the cosmos…

The father of the Gaia principle with a provocative take on the coming age of hyperintelligence: “Gaia Will Soon Belong to the Cyborgs.”

See also: “Is Moore’s Law Evidence for a New Stage in Human Evolution?

For more background on (and some criticism of) Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis see “Earth’s Holy Fool?–Some scientists think that James Lovelock’s Gaia theory is nuts, but the public love it. Could both sides be right?

[image above: source]

* James Lovelock

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As we scrutinize systems, we might send closely-observed birthday greetings to Franklin Henry Giddings; he was born on this date in 1855.  An economist and political scientist by training, he was instrumental in the emergence of sociology from philosophy (of which it had been considered a branch) into a discipline of its own, and a champion of the use of statistics.  He is probably best remembered for his concept of “consciousness of kind” (rooted in Adam Smith’s concept of “sympathy,” or shared moral reactions), which is a state of mind wherein one conscious being recognizes another as being of like mind.  All human motives, he suggested, organize themselves around consciousness of kind as a determining principle.  Association leads to conflict which leads to consciousness of kind through communication, imitation, toleration, co-operation, and alliance.  Eventually, he argued, a group achieves a self-consciousness of its own (as opposed to individual self-consciousness) from which traditions and social values can arise.

Franklin_Henry_Giddings source

 

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