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September 7, 2009

The Popular vs. the Acclaimed

Matt says,

Great, great, great AskMeFi thread: In the art forms you are experienced or well versed in, what kinds of stuff is notorious for being only liked by the experts, and what kinds of stuff is notorious for only being liked by less experienced or educated casual consumers?

Examples of artists (or works of art) beloved almost exclusively by other artists in their domain include Rothko, Linux, Cloud Gate, Yasujirō Ozu, Ernie Bushmiller, Rush, the screenplay "BALLS OUT" (pdf) and Paranoia Agent.

There are also some fun minor art-snob arguments, and mini-digressions on the nature of taste. As well as a terrific New Yorker essay I never read about the appeal of Charles Bukowski.

Comments (1) | Permasnark | Posted: 8:03 PM

August 21, 2009

Robin's thoughts: I just love hearing the way they think: But I think we finally started to crack ... >>

The Unattended Documentation Of Culture

I fell in love with The Books in 2002, when I heard "Motherless Bastard" from Thought For Food. It begins with an audio sample, a conversation between a father and his daughter, where the dad playfully says, "you have no mother or father."

"Yeah, I do!"

"No, they left..."


And then the hammer falls:

"Don't touch me, don't call me that in public."

That sample was recorded live by The Books' Nick Zammuto at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Los Angeles. The rest of the track is just an insanely sweet, melancholy, beautiful acoustic instrumental, on cello, banjo, percussion, made just slightly glitchy with some electronic effects. That's what they do.

In a new interview with Pitchfork, Zammuto and Paul de Jong talk about their process--

NZ: There is a pulse to the material we work with that you can't find in the mainstream. It's this unattended documentation of culture. The productions are not made for recording any kind of history, but there's all this cultural documentation in there anyway.

PDJ: You can't find it anywhere else. You can't make it up, you can't shoot it yourself. If there's three seconds of beauty in an hour and a half tape, the search is worth it.

-- and their new album --

NZ: We've been really into hypnotherapy tapes. We've been into a lot of spoken-word religious material in the past-- just these deeply ego-ed voices. But, with hypnotherapy, the ego disappears-- it has this relaxing effect independent of what someone's saying. We're interested in that un-self-consciousness. In a bizarre way, it keeps things grounded. There's always this element of not knowing where you stand that you can hear in almost any voice. It's a universal quality.

And we have a vast collection of these tiny little musical fragments-- like analog synth demos-- that are very dated, but we never knew what to do with them. It's really hard to use them without sounding like genres that everybody's familiar with. But I think we finally started to crack the code and figured out how to use them in a way that satisfies us. Like, we have this incredible collection of brass sounds, so we kind of have a brass section going.

PDJ: Yeah, it seems to be developing more into the sounds from traditional pop-rock history-- like, actual drum sounds. We're starting to make sense of what to do with something that's reached a critical mass.

Posted August 21, 2009 at 1:45 | Comments (1) | Permasnark
File under: Beauty, Music

August 20, 2009

A Short History of Color Printing

Tim says,

So lately I've been thinking a lot about how color turns out to be a surprisingly important part of our experience reading printed books, and I came across this terrific website on the history of color printing, part of a special collections exhibit in the 90s from the University of Delaware's Morris Library.


I love this stuff:

Lithography was the first fundamentally new printing technology since the invention of relief printing in the fifteenth century.... Early colored lithographs used one or two colors to tint the entire plate and create a watercolor-like tone to the image. This atmospheric effect was primarily used for landscape or topographical illustrations. For more detailed coloration, artists continued to rely on handcoloring over the lithograph. Once tinted lithographs were well established, it was only a small step to extend the range of color by the use of multiple tint blocks printed in succession. Generally, these early chromolithographs were simple prints with flat areas of color, printed side-by-side.

Increasingly ornate designs and dozens of bright, often gaudy, colors characterized chomolithography in the second half of the nineteenth century. Overprinting and the use of silver and gold inks widened the range of color and design. Still a relatively expensive process, chromolithography was used for large-scale folio works and illuminated gift books which often attempted to reproduce the handwork of manuscripts of the Middle Ages. The steam-driven printing press and the wider availability of inexpensive paper stock lowered production costs and made chromolithography more affordable. By the 1880s, the process was widely used for magazines and advertising. At the same time, however, photographic processes were being developed that would replace lithography by the beginning of the twentieth century.

Comments (2) | Permasnark | Posted: 9:28 AM

August 19, 2009

No New Tricks

I love the actor/magician Ricky Jay, not least for his terrific supporting turn in the first season of Deadwood (understated on a show where nobody was understated). I resisted reading an old New Yorker profile of Jay when John Gruber at Daring Fireball linked to it earlier in the week, even after linking to an interview Jay gave Errol Morris about deception and talking up Jay's history of magicians and irregular stage entertainers Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women (JG: "simply one of the best books I’ve read in years"). But then Jason Kottke linked to it too, and I was done.

Part of the charm is that Jay isn't just a magician, but also a storyteller, a physical specimen (throwing playing cards through watermelons, that sort of thing), and a scholar, historian, and collector of magical books, stories, and ephemera. David Mamet tells a good anecdote:

"I’ll tell him I’m having a Fourth of July party and I want to do some sort of disappearance in the middle of the woods. He says, ‘That’s the most bizarre request I’ve ever heard. You want to do a disappearing effect in the woods? There’s nothing like that in the literature. I mean, there’s this one 1760 pamphlet—'Jokes, Tricks, Ghosts and Diversions by Woodland, Stream and Campfire.' But, other than that, I can’t think of a thing.’ He’s unbelievably generous. Ricky’s one of the world’s great people. He’s my hero. I’ve never seen anybody better at what he does.”

The profile, by Mark Singer, is not uniform - it lulls in places, and then snaps back to attention, kind of like a good magic trick. But there are perfect things in it, like this:

“I’m always saying there’s no correlation between gambling and magic,” Jay said as he shuffle-cut the cards. “But this is a routine of actual gamblers’ techniques within the context of a theatrical magic presentation.”

He noticed me watching him shuffling, and asked softly, with deadpan sincerity, “Does that look fair?”

When I said it looked fair, he dealt two hands of five-card draw and told me to lay down my cards. Two pair. Then he laid down his. A straight.

“Was that fair?” he said. “I don’t think so. Let’s discuss the reason why that wasn’t fair. Even though I shuffled openly and honestly, I didn’t let you cut the cards. So let’s do it again, and this time I’ll let you cut the cards.”

It goes on like this for a while, with Jay apparently giving up more and more control over the deck with each iteration, until finally Jay says:

"Now, this time you shuffle the cards and you deal the cards. And you pick the number of players. And you designate any hand for me and any hand for you.”

After shuffling, I dealt four hands, arranged as the points of a square. I chose a hand for myself and selected one for him. My cards added up to nothing—king-high nothing.

“Is that fair?” Jay said, picking up his cards, waiting a beat, and returning them to the table, one by one—the coup de grâce. “I. Don’t. Think. So.” One, two, three, four aces.

Later, Singer asks Jay about a rumor that he had once played cards for a living.

“Would anybody play cards with you today?” I asked. “Sure,” he said. “Silly people.”

I'll also reproduce, because I can't help it, the catalog of reviews Singer gives of Jay's Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women:

Reviewing “Learned Pigs” in the Times, John Gross wrote, “One effect of Mr. Jay’s scholarship is to make it clear that even among freaks and prodigies there is very little new under the sun. Show him a stone-eater or a human volcano or an enterologist and he will show you the same thing being done before, often hundreds of years earlier.” In the Philadelphia Inquirer Carlin Romano wrote, “ ‘Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women’ is a book so magnificently entertaining that if a promoter booked it into theatres and simply distributed a copy to each patron to read, he’d have the hit of the season.” A blurb on the jacket from Penn and Teller says, “It’s the coolest book . . . and probably the most brilliantly weird book ever.” Jay wrote much of “Learned Pigs” while occupying a carrel in the rare-book stacks of the Clark Library, at U.C.L.A. At one point, Thomas Wright, a librarian at the Clark and a former professor of English literature, tried to persuade him to apply for a postdoctoral research fellowship. When Jay explained that he didn’t have a doctorate, Wright said, “Maybe a master’s degree would be sufficient.”

“Thomas, I don’t even have a B.A.”

Wright replied, “Well, you know, Ricky, a Ph.D. is just a sign of docility.”

Posted August 19, 2009 at 9:00 | Comments (0) | Permasnark
File under: Beauty, Recommended

August 11, 2009

Nature Boy

Matt says,

Awesome story from MeFi. You know that Nat King Cole song "Nature Boy"? The haunting one that opens and closes Moulin Rouge? Turns out it was written by a vagabond hippie and left in an envelope for Cole after one of his performances. Much more in the thread.

Comments (0) | Permasnark | Posted: 9:16 PM

July 22, 2009

This Is Not CGI

Matt says,

Found this via Ezra Klein, whose admonishment to watch all the way to the end for the Pixar-worthy octopus feat is worth heeding:

Comments (6) | Permasnark | Posted: 10:16 PM

July 11, 2009

Tim's thoughts: Maybe we should put together a selected reading list. One essay I love is Johanna Drucker's "Lang... >>

Invisible Infrastructure

Britta Gustafson, "Learning to see wooden poles":

When I’m not in a rush to get somewhere, I look up at the tops of telephone poles. I don’t know anything about electricity, but I find myself reading glossaries of linemen’s slang and technical definitions, learning how to refer to the grey buckets that transform electricity for home use (cans, bugs, distribution transformers) and how to identify several other pole features, especially different varieties of shiny ceramic insulators.

It's a really nice photo-essay, with little detours about the pleasures of walking, childhood memories of the Mister Rogers crayon factory documentary, and generally finding joy in "functional and authentic technical equipment, the more elaborate and less appreciated the better."

My grandfather was (and my uncle is) a lineman for Detroit Edison, so like Britta, I find power lines really fascinating. The general tendency of this century has been to make our infrastructure and industrial more invisible and remote, even as it becomes more individualized and less communal. (Think about riding a train versus driving a car.) Utility lines, when you notice them, spell out the lie in all that. Of course, they're most conspicuous when they stop working. (Actually, they're really conspicuous when they're knocked over in a shower of sparks and flame, but that's a special case.)

One of my favorite parts in Terry Zwigoff's documentary Crumb is when R. Crumb explains how he takes photographs of ordinary buildings and street corners - apartments, gas stations, strip malls - so he can use them as reference for adding details like telephone and electrical poles, junction boxes, gutter grates. Otherwise, he says, you forget about these things; it's as if they were never there.

Posted July 11, 2009 at 10:07 | Comments (8) | Permasnark
File under: Beauty, Cities, Design, Object Culture, Recommended, Technosnark

July 1, 2009

Robin's thoughts: ...I think I see Sauron...... >>

Volcano, Meet Cloud; Cloud, Volcano


Um, wow:

A plume of smoke, ash and steam soars five miles into the sky from an erupting volcano.

The extraordinary image was captured by the crew of the International Space Station 220 miles above a remote Russian island in the North Pacific.

The round hole in the clouds is thought to have been caused by the shockwave of the initial explosion. At the centre lies the billowing mushroom tower of grey and brown ash.

For volcano experts, the most exciting part of the image is the layer of smooth white cloud that caps the plume - a little like a layer of snow on a mushroom.

This cap of condensed air is created from the rapid rising and then cooling of the air directly above the ash column. When moist, warm air rises quickly it creates a cloud.

Posted July 1, 2009 at 11:24 | Comments (1) | Permasnark
File under: Beauty, Media Galaxy, No Comment, Science

June 27, 2009

The Codex Climaci Rescriptus


Sotheby's is auctioning a palimpsest manuscript of the New Testament (and parts of the old). It's written in 8th-c. Greek, 6th-c. Aramaic, and overwritten in a 9th-c. Syriac script.

Apparently the sixth-century scribes who wrote it were living in what was then Judea, somewhere in present-day Israel. The document was taken to the Sinai desert in Egypt and stowed away for 300 years at a monastery called St. Catherine's, at the foot of the mountain where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments.... Then in the ninth century, a new set of scribes dug through St. Catherine's looking for parchment, which was very expensive in those days. They pulled pages from eight different books--six in Aramaic and two in Greek--and did their best to erase the original writing. They then turned the pages upside down and wrote over the ancient text in jet-black ink. The newer text, in Syriac, is a copy of instructions on how to run a monastery, originally written by a sixth-century monk named John Climacus.

This happened all the time, and was one of the best advantages of writing on parchment. It was expensive - anything made from animals rather than vegetables always is -- but you could scrape the top layer off and use it again and again.

There's a whole aspect of monastic discipline and spirituality that's tied up with manuscript and parchment culture. Preparing vellum for writing was hard, physical work - and the scraping of the parchment became a kind of allegory for spiritual renewal and an ascetic's soul. You're literally mortifying flesh, scraping it clean, in order to fill it with wisdom and the words of God.

But at the same time, it was prosaic and practical:

"It was like using yesterday's newspaper to wrap up your fish and chips," says Bolton.

I love the description of the appearance of multiple scripts in the document:

The resulting palimpsest looks like a pirate's cipher for buried treasure, written in several mysterious scripts. The Aramaic writing, in a pale, faded brown, appears loose and fluid, with the odd curlicue swirling outside the margin. The black Syriac is careful, tight and slanting. It's not exactly a key to a puzzle written in code, but it sure looks like one.

H/t to Gerry.

Posted June 27, 2009 at 9:00 | Comments (0) | Permasnark
File under: Beauty, Books, Writing & Such, Learnin', Object Culture, Worldsnark

June 25, 2009

Where There Is Love ...

Matt says,

For my family, the death of Michael Jackson was one of those call-your-people-and-make-sure-everyone's-okay moments. I was checking the New York Times on my cell on the way to Tampa International Airport when the story was still that he'd been rushed to the hospital, reportedly for cardiac arrest. The way they'd written the story, though, with eulogistic snippets of bio fleshing out the news report, it felt as though the writers had pasted in text from Jackson's canned obit, which I interpreted as a bad sign. I kept saying to the folks in the Super Shuttle that I had a bad feeling about it. As I handed my boarding pass and license to the TSA inspector, she passed it back slowly, looked me in the eyes, and said, "Michael Jackson is dead."

So. Muse upon a problematic and epic life with me, Snarketeers. What have you seen that lives up to the moment? I'll kick us off with this reminiscence, by Minneapolis writer Max "Bunny" Sparber. And the MetaFilter obit thread is always a propos.

And, for the road, from Tim:

Comments (2) | Permasnark | Posted: 11:48 PM

June 4, 2009

John's thoughts: If Dave Eggers' solution to declining newspaper circulation is improve the product and lower the ... >>

Luxuriating In Print

We slapped Dave Eggers around a little bit for his "nothing has changed" speech to the Authors' Guild, but his mass email for lovers of print is way more nuanced and inspiring in a constructive, non-cheerleaderish way:

Publishing has, for most of its life, been a place of small but somewhat profit margins, and the people involved in publishing were happy to be doing what they loved. It's only recently, when large conglomerates bought so many publishing companies and newspapers, that demands for certain margins squeezed some of the joy out of the business.

Pretty soon, on the McSweeney's website—— we'll be showing some of our work on this upcoming issue, which will be in newspaper form. The hope is that we can demonstrate that if you rework the newspaper model a bit, it can not only survive, but actually thrive. We're convinced that the best way to ensure the future of journalism is to create a workable model where journalists are paid well for reporting here and abroad. And that starts with paying for the physical paper. And paying for the physical paper begins with creating a physical object that doesn't retreat, but instead luxuriates in the beauties of print. We believe that if you use the hell out of the medium, if you give investigative journalism space, if you give photojournalists space, if you give graphic artists and cartoonists space — if you really truly give readers an experience that can't be duplicated on the web — then they will spend $1 for a copy. And that $1 per copy, plus the revenue from some (but not all that many) ads, will keep the enterprise afloat.

As long as newspapers offer less each day— less news, less great writing, less graphic innovation, fewer photos— then they're giving readers few reasons to pay for the paper itself. With our prototype, we aim to make the physical object so beautiful and luxurious that it will seem a bargain at $1. The web obviously presents all kinds of advantages for breaking news, but the printed newspaper does and will always have a slew of advantages, too. It's our admittedly unorthodox opinion that the two can coexist, and in fact should coexist. But they need to do different things. To survive, the newspaper, and the physical book, needs to set itself apart from the web. Physical forms of the written word need to offer a clear and different experience. And if they do, we believe, they will survive. Again, this is a time to roar back and assert and celebrate the beauty of the printed page. Give people something to fight for, and they will fight for it. Give something to pay for, and they'll pay for it.

Eggers is basically now saying not that nothing has changed, but that EVERYTHING has to change. But it needs to change not because we've just progressed forward from print to digital, but that by first betting on the infinitely expanding profit potential of mass publishing and then paring the experience back to try to meet that bet, we've made a huge mistake.

So, in some sense, we need to go back to basics; but in another, we need to rethink our direction forward based on what's best for the people and the product, not the margins. We were pushing so hard for so long in one direction that we capsized the boat.

It's still a conservative vision, but it's a David Simon/Michael Moore kind of conservative -- i.e., a nostalgic but critical liberalism, in the tradition of John Ruskin. And that's a good mood to strike, if not for everybody -- not least because it's not at all intended to be a model for everybody.


May 19, 2009

I Always Wanted To Live In A Knights Templar's Castle

Tim says,

If only I had 6 million EUR lying around:

Château de La Jarthe was once a refuge for the Order of the Knights Templar, the secretive Christian military order that once wreaked havoc in the region.

Located on 120 hectares (297 acres) in the Dordogne near Périgueux, the restored castle offers many of the amenities buyers might expect in a 12th-century castle ruled by the order, including a chapel, massive fireplaces, stained glass windows and a 102-square-meter (1,098-square-foot) gathering hall known as the Knights Room. Many of the original medieval features remain, such as flagstone beamed ceilings, hand-carved wood details and an old granary.

Exactly what havoc did the KTs supposedly wreak in France? In and around Jerusalem, sure -- but in France, they mostly got slapped around by King Philip. Unless I'm mistaken.

Comments (0) | Permasnark | Posted: 9:19 AM

May 18, 2009

Now That's What I Call "Inventio"

Tim says,

James Fallows, "On eloquence vs. prettiness":

[Obama's] eloquence is different from what I think of as rhetorical prettiness -- words and phrases that catch your notice as you hear them, and that often can be quoted, remembered, and referred to long afterwards. "Ask not..." from John F. Kennedy. "Blood, toil, tears, and sweat" from Winston Churchill. "Only thing we have to fear is fear itself" from FDR. "I have a dream," from Martin Luther King. Or, to show that memorable language does not necessarily mean elevated thought, "segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!" from the early George C. Wallace.

At rare moments in history, language that goes beyond prettiness to beauty is matched with original, serious, difficult thought to produce the political oratory equivalent of Shakespeare. By acclamation Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address is the paramount American achievement of this sort: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right..."

The reason to distinguish eloquence of thought from prettiness of expression is that the former tells you something important about the speaker, while the latter may or may not do so. Hired assistants can add a fancy phrase, much as gag writers can supply a joke. Not even his greatest admirers considered George W. Bush naturally expressive, but in his most impressive moment, soon after the 9/11 attacks, he delivered a speech full of artful writerly phrases, eg: "Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done." Good for him, and good for his staff.

Rhetorical polish, that is, can be a staff-enhanced virtue. The eloquence that comes from original thought is much harder to hire, or to fake. This is the sort of eloquence we've seen from Obama often enough to begin to expect.

(Sorry for the long quote, but I wanted to include all of Fallows's examples.)

Also --

Inventio is the system or method used for the discovery of arguments in Western rhetoric and comes from the Latin word, meaning "invention" or "discovery". Inventio is the central, indispensable canon of rhetoric, and traditionally means a systematic search for arguments (Glenn and Goldthwaite 151).

Inventio comes from the Latin invenire, meaning "to find" or "to come upon". The same Latin root later gave us the English word inventor. Invenire is derived from the Greek heuriskein, also meaning "to find out" or "discover" (cf. eureka, "I have found it").

Comments (0) | Permasnark | Posted: 4:45 AM

May 17, 2009

Urban Sky Edens of the Future

Matt says,


Reading through this month's Communication Arts, I encountered an article on the High Line, an abandoned elevated rail platform in NYC. After the line went fallow in 1980, Nature reclaimed it. Trees, grasses and wildflowers overgrew the tracks, turning it into an urban wonder -- a wild garden in the sky. Due to years of legal wrangling, the line somehow never got demolished. So a group of dreamers calling themselves Friends of the High Line assembled a coalition of influential hipster sympathizers to turn it into a park. Back in 2007, New York Magazine chronicled the rail line's evolution from urban ruin to civic treasure. Kottke's been blogging it since 2004, so I may be the last nerd-hipster to hear about it. If I'm not, photos of the thing abound, so do spend some time enjoying them.

Photo from Flickr user cdstar, licensed under Creative Commons. Feel free to make derivative works off this post, if you'd like.

Comments (1) | Permasnark | Posted: 2:04 PM

May 16, 2009

Tim's thoughts: I should clarify - if your conception of yourself is that you're a studious hard worker, you shou... >>

What I Have Learned About Teaching By Being A Parent, Vol. 1

Axiom: You can't teach anyone anything without intentionally or accidentally modeling humanity for them. It isn't enough to adequately convey information to students or take care of the mechanics of teaching - this is just feeding and changing diapers. You have to choose or (more properly) cultivate the form of humanity you want to perform/become/become through performing/perform through becoming.

Corollary 1: The most important and humbling thing that any teacher must learn is respect for humanity that fundamentally differs from yours. If you are studious and a hard worker, you have to avoid the temptation to identify with and reward your students who are studious hard workers. If you are a charismatic and eloquent speaker, you have to resist the urge to cut your charismatic students more slack. This is above all true when this identification with your students flatters your own (perhaps aspiring) identity in some way.

Corollary 2: The first corollary to this axiom does not follow logically from it, but rather contradicts it. This is just and proper.

Corollary 3: The Latin word for both this axiom and its first corollary is caritas. It means both charity and love.

Posted May 16, 2009 at 10:45 | Comments (2) | Permasnark
File under: Beauty, Learnin', Self-Disclosure

May 5, 2009

tim's thoughts: I def posted it first - I assumed you were being cleverly indirect. I REALLY want to kno... >>

Luxurious Artisanal Bibliophile Dada

Sweet Gods of Heaven and Earth! It's the best bookporn post ever!

Xu Bing.jpg

That's Xu Bing's Tian Shu (Book From Heaven). Rachel Leow writes:

To make [the four hundred books and fifty-foot scrolls], Xu painstakingly carved Chinese characters into square woodblocks, in just the way his ancient printing predecessors would have done, had them typeset and printed, and the printed pages mounted and bound into books and scrolls.

The result is a truly spectacular display of bookmanship — volumes fit for an emperor’s library. Yet, there’s the astonishing, Borgesian catch: Out of the three or four thousand Chinese characters used in these volumes and scrolls, not a single one of them is a real Chinese character.

They are made up of recognizable radicals and typical atomic components of Chinese characters, but Xu laboured to ensure that while they all retain the unmistakable look of Chinese script, they are all, so to speak, nonsense. They do not exist in any dictionary, and do not mean anything. Chinese speakers and non-Chinese speakers alike approach the books with the same sense of wonder at their beauty, and the same sense of incomprehension at their content — though, for Chinese readers, the frustrated impulse to read might detract somewhat from their aesthetic enjoyment of the art piece. I’ve heard that some Chinese readers have spent days attempting to locate a character they can read — to no avail. It’s a piece of art whose meaning is to be found in its meaninglessness.

I want to GO to there.

Instead, you should go to a historian's craft to check out more images of Xu Bing's two books (there is also a Book of Earth) and read every gorgeous word Rachel's written about them. These are the internet equivalent of being touched by "beautiful calligraphy, by brushstroked words on fine paper, by sensuous lines of scripts that dance provocatively on the page, inviting comprehension." You wish you wrote this well this early in the morning. (It's still early in Malaysia, right?)

It's a completely different tradition, but I'm reminded of Augustine's theory of signs. For Augustine, a sign (whether a word or a symbol) is a tool, an instrument. Signification shows that things aren't used for their own sake, but in reference to something else. This chain of signification and interpretation goes all the way up to God, who is the only thing completely sufficient in Himself, that CAN'T be made to signify anything else. Since everything else is deficient, anything that isn't God, whether a word, a gesture, a picture, a dream, stars, a person, an animal, a tree, usw., can be turned into a sign. In fact, it HAS to be taken as a sign, at least in this broad sense of an instrument pointing to another purpose; otherwise, you're performing a kind of idolatry, taking a deficient thing to be self-sufficient and giving to it what you should reserve for God alone. At this point, Augustine's semiotics dovetails with his ethics; we shouldn't delight too much in food for its own sake, sex for its own sake -- in short, in pleasure, except insofar as it helps us to serve a godly and natural purpose.

So there is a universal potential for signfication. Any worldly thing can be a sign. But to refuse signification, to delight in the pleasure of the letter itself, is an act of rebellion.

Rachel's language may be more instrumental than Xu Bing's, but it's no less of a pleasure to read.

Posted May 5, 2009 at 2:27 | Comments (2) | Permasnark
File under: Beauty, Books, Writing & Such, Language, Object Culture, Worldsnark

May 1, 2009

Unique Viewers / Unique Readers

Tim says,

Translator/critic Wyatt Mason sums up a year of terrific writerly blogging for Harpers:

According to the webmaster, some hundreds of thousands of people (or "unique visitors," in the creepily Rumsfeldean turn) have read my posts over the year. Yes, in the web-world, where a nipple slip can net you a million sets of eyes in a breathless blink and click, these are Lilliputian numbers. In my world, however, those are towering digits, enormous for what they might say about the reading life: that there is still, in our noisy culture, a quiet but forcible interest in finding good books to read, and in debating what makes books good.

We "unique readers" know this, in our solitary hours. But it is pleasing, at times, to have company in that knowledge, to know that one isn't alone in one's enthusiasms. For my part, I have taken great pleasure in the enthusiasm of readers for this space, and am grateful for the time you've spent here. For now, know that I'm turning my attention to other tasks, with the expectation, at some point future, of returning to one not unlike this.

I can't quite put my finger on what I like about this farewell address (other than that I really like Mason's blog) -- all of the sentiments and tropes are expected, but their subtle, daisy-chained resonances are so gracefully done that it feels both fresh and sincere.

Comments (0) | Permasnark | Posted: 1:54 PM

April 30, 2009

You Want Bookporn? Oh, Man. We Got Some Bookporn.

Tim says,

VERY mature books (is 8000 BC old enough?) with an astonishingly sexy zoom feature -- similar to Google Maps, but smoother and more natural, especially with a two-finger trackpad. It's all yours, for free, at the World Digital Library.

Comments (0) | Permasnark | Posted: 9:48 AM

April 24, 2009

Tim's thoughts: How silly of me to forget! The translation is by Ann Hyde Greet, from the marvelous bilingual Uni... >>

La Jolie Rousse

Guillaume Apollinaire, "La Jolie Rousse [The Pretty Redhead]":

Here I am before you all a sensible man
Who knows life and what a living man can know of death
Having experienced love's sorrows and joys
Having sometimes known how to impose my ideas
Adept at several languages
Having traveled quite a bit
Having seen war in the Artillery and the Infantry
Wounded in the head trepanned under chloroform
Having lost my best friends in the frightful conflict
I know of old and new as much as one man can know of the two
And without worrying today about that war
Between us and for us my friends
I am here to judge the long debate between tradition and invention
Between Order and Adventure

You whose mouth is made in the image of God's
Mouth that is order itself
Be indulgent when you compare us
To those who were the perfection of order
We who look for adventure everywhere

We're not your enemies
We want to give you vast and strange domains
Where mystery in flower spreads out for those who would pluck it
There you may find new fires colors you have never seen before
A thousand imponderable phantasms
Still awaiting reality
We want to explore kindness enormous country where all is still
There is also time which can be banished or recalled
Pity us who fight always at the boundaries
Of infinity and the future
Pity our errors pity our sins

Henri Rousseau, "La Muse inspirant le poè...

Henri Rousseau, "La Muse inspirant le poète," 1909. (A portrait of Apollinaire and Marie Laurencin). Image via Wikipedia

Now it's summer the violent season
And my youth is dead like the springtime
Oh Sun it's the time of ardent Reason
And I am waiting
So I may follow always the noble and gentle shape
That she assumes so I will love her only
She draws near and lures me as a magnet does iron
She has the charming appearance
Of a darling redhead

Her hair is golden you'd say
A lovely flash of lightning that lingers on
Or the flame that glows
In fading tea roses

But laugh at me
Men from everywhere especially men from here
For there are so many things I dare not tell you
So many things you would never let me say
Have pity on me

-- From Calligrammes, 1918

... Read more ....
Posted April 24, 2009 at 5:55 | Comments (2) | Permasnark
File under: Beauty, Books, Writing & Such, Recommended

April 23, 2009

Anémic Cinéma

Marcel Duchamp, 1926:

I even like the John Fahey-esque score, added by whomever.

Posted April 23, 2009 at 5:09 | Comments (0) | Permasnark
File under: Beauty, Books, Writing & Such, Movies

The Loss Of Routine Beauty

Tim says,

Wyatt Mason looks at artists' books, and sighs:

Not that long ago, all books were handmade; now, most of the work is performed by armies of cleverly machined presses and binderies. Lost, in that consumptive progression, is not the beautiful book -- for many special books made by machine do manage to be beautiful objects that function well. Lost is the ordinary book being routinely beautiful.

Comments (0) | Permasnark | Posted: 4:00 PM

April 10, 2009

Dan's thoughts: Right. I agree with Tim on the preferred study design. Now if only someone would do it. F... >>

Doctor Jones's Office Hours


Good-looking people enjoy what economists/sociologists call a "beauty premium." They get paid more and are seen as better at their jobs than people of average attractiveness. It works for men and for women. Men, for example, get a premium for being taller, in shape, handsome, and with a nice head of hair.

Now here's where it gets interesting. A new Israeli study suggests that male professors get a beauty bump, but female professors don't. The researchers guess that this is rooted in a "contradiction between... role images and gender images": somehow, female attractiveness is seen as incongruous with the paternal, traditional scholar/educator role of the professor, where male attractiveness isn't -- particularly, it seems, for female students. That's the idea, anyways.

I don't endorse this conclusion, but there's definitely something going on here. A couple of things that came to my mind on reading this:

... Read more ....
Posted April 10, 2009 at 8:39 | Comments (9) | Permasnark
File under: Beauty, Learnin', Society/Culture

April 3, 2009

Tangled Alphabets

Tim says,


Untitled, by Mira Schendel; from a new MOMA retrospective of Schendel and León Ferrari.

Comments (1) | Permasnark | Posted: 10:28 AM

March 27, 2009

Guest of Cindy Sherman

Tim says,

I love Cindy Sherman, so I'm fascinated by this film; my wife thinks the whole thing is creepy. What do you think?

Comments (0) | Permasnark | Posted: 1:38 AM

March 2, 2009

Papier Collé

Tim says,


Jonathan Hoefler on the beauty of collage: Vaughan Oliver (designer for The Pixies et al.), Shinro Ohtake, Eduardo Recife, Chip Kidd, and more.

Above: Joseph Cornell, Untitled Collage.

Comments (2) | Permasnark | Posted: 12:54 PM

February 27, 2009

Sita Update

Matt says,

That animated movie we've been talking about all month is available online. (Thanks, Waxy.)

Comments (0) | Permasnark | Posted: 11:46 AM

February 13, 2009


Craig Saper is an amazing guy. When he couldn't get travel funds to deliver a paper on Bob Brown's "Readies" at a panel I chaired at the Modernist Studies Association conference a few years ago, he sent a DVD of himself, reading his paper from an airplane seat, wearing sunglasses. Midway through, the video began speeding up and slowing down, and the audio track was punctured by bleeps, like a badly edited R-rated movie on TV. It was all part of the performance, on reading technologies and obscenity. I wish I still had a copy of it.


-- Kenny Goldsmith, "Littany (for Albie)"

Well, Craig's curated (with Theo Lotz) an exhibition at the University of Central Florida called TypeBound, on books-as-sculpture. Warning: the web site is actually kind of crummy, animated image files and links that download PDFs instead of going to pages. But the exhibits! Amazing stuff: books made of shoes, books with type written on the edges of pages, books with pages going in every direction, and a slew of typewriter poetry. Well worth checking out.

... Read more ....
Posted February 13, 2009 at 6:13 | Comments (0) | Permasnark
File under: Beauty, Books, Writing & Such, Object Culture, Recommended

February 11, 2009

Sita Sings the Blues

Matt says,

Oh, why not. She had me at the paisley fire. This video for this movie was shown at O'Reilly's Tools of Change for Publishers conference today:

A synopsis might help:

Sita is a goddess separated from her beloved Lord and husband Rama. Nina is an animator whose husband moves to India, then dumps her by email. Three hilarious shadow puppets narrate both ancient tragedy and modern comedy in this beautifully animated interpretation of the Indian epic Ramayana. Set to the 1920's jazz vocals of Annette Hanshaw, Sita Sings the Blues earns its tagline as "The Greatest Break-Up Story Ever Told."
Comments (2) | Permasnark | Posted: 7:39 PM

February 8, 2009


Matt says,

Comments (5) | Permasnark | Posted: 9:52 PM

January 27, 2009

Smithsonian 2.0

Dan Cohen's has a lucid and thoughtful post about the recent Smithsonian 2.0 meeting. In it there's a paraphrase (from memory, he says) of David Recordon's vision of the future of the Smithsonian:

Before I visit Washington, I want to be able to go to the web and select items I’m really interested in from the entire Smithsonian collection. When I wake up the next morning, I want in my inbox a PDF of my personalized tour to see these objects. When I’m standing in front of an object in a museum, I want to see or hear more information about it on my cell phone. When an event happens related to an object I’m interested in, I want a text message about it. I want to know when it’s feeding time for the pandas, or when Lincoln’s handball will be on public display. And I want to easily share this information with my classmates, my friends, my family.

Cohen: "This is the Smithsonian not as a network of museums but as a platform for lifelong learning and cultural engagement."

I'll add that I love the unabashed fetishism of it -- "I don't love the museum! I love the THINGS it contains!" It's a vision of cultural membership, not in a changing curatorial space, but in the artifacts and art objects themselves.

It's not using the new information networks to try to obliterate the physical world, but to exchange one relationship to it for another. And I think that's pretty cool.

Posted January 27, 2009 at 8:57 | Comments (0) | Permasnark
File under: Beauty, Learnin', Object Culture

January 20, 2009

Robin's thoughts: I love the word "artisan." I also love paisley.... >>

Artisan Blog Design

In 2009, can a blog's design matter? Readers of Kottke (and Fimoculous) say yes.

From Jason Kottke's response on Fimoculous:

I'm surprised (and flattered, I guess) that people want to talk about this. With everyone using newsreaders and "customizing" their blogs with default Wordpress, MT, and Tumblr templates, the days of artisan blog design would appear to have passed by, quaint and unworthy of further comment. Like Rex, I love that that's not the case, at least in a small corner of the web.
Posted January 20, 2009 at 2:24 | Comments (1) | Permasnark
File under: Beauty, Design

January 19, 2009

Gavin's thoughts: Here's the NPR piece on King's rediscovered speech: <a href=" >>

Language Refracting in History's Gravitational Well

Listen to this speech.

Listen to it!

I heard King's "I Have a Dream" on the radio this afternoon. Despite the grandeur of the visuals of the March on Washington, and the power of the text, I think that radio is the best way to experience it. I am amazed, as a writer, teacher, poet, and speaker, at the range of King's elocutionary instrument.

He doesn't just use every sonorous rhetorical tool in the book. He makes words rhyme which shouldn't. He finds transitory consonants and bends them to fit his alliterative schemes. He has the most versatile spondaic foot I've ever heard, so much so it could pass for iambic. (Try to find a genuinely unstressed syllable -- or unstressed thought -- in the way King says "We Will Not Be Satisfied.")

And he matches and varies his pitch to highlight his parallelisms of matter and mind, in his voice and in the air; a small, thickly built man, speaking from the roots of the trees, from the center of the earth, knowing that the extension of his own gravity stretches like a column from the molten core to the orbit of the moon. He is a single still point with the granted power to bend straight the crooked lines of history.

Posted January 19, 2009 at 5:21 | Comments (2) | Permasnark
File under: Beauty, Books, Writing & Such

January 14, 2009

Chloé Mortaud, Miss France 2009

Tim says,

I love France, I love beauty pageants, and I love interracial families, and so it follows quite naturally that I love Chloé Mortaud, the new multinational, multiracial nineteen-year-old Miss France. Hassan Marsh at The Root has a great write-up here, and has plenty of good stuff too (the link goes directly to a video featuring her family and hometown, a small village near the Pyrenees). Also, slick design on that webpage -- very much that of a 21st-century beauty queen.

Comments (2) | Permasnark | Posted: 8:53 AM

December 12, 2008

Th'Inconstant Moon ...

Matt says,

Picture 8.png

... is incandescent tonight. Do give a look.

Comments (2) | Permasnark | Posted: 6:05 PM

November 28, 2008

Robin's thoughts: Soon.... >>

Three-Dimensional Reading


Card Catalogues, photo-word-art by Erica Baum. Downloadable at UbuWeb, via Al Filreis.

... Read more ....
Posted November 28, 2008 at 6:00 | Comments (3) | Permasnark
File under: Beauty, Books, Writing & Such, Recommended

November 9, 2008

Shantytown Simulacra

Matt says,

These simulated favelas created by Spanish artist Dionisio Gonzalez are magnificent. The simulations echo the ad hoc architecture of the shantytowns of Sao Paulo. As well as the pure imaginative chaos they evoke, I like that they come across as thoughtful without seeming either to exploit or glorify the real favelas.


Comments (2) | Permasnark | Posted: 9:29 PM

October 9, 2008


Matt says,

I love this. Ironic Sans posts a video of the CNN Election Center, left momentarily unattended. It's like an outtake from a dystopian '80s movie about the future.

60 Seconds in the Life of the Election Center from Ironic Sans on Vimeo.

Comments (1) | Permasnark | Posted: 9:48 AM

Conflict in the Middle East

Matt says,

Infosthetics points to this well-done short about the standoff in the Middle East. Being five minutes long, of course it dispenses with a lot of the actual geopolitics of the matter (leaving the prophetic religious elements of the conflict entirely unmentioned, even), but it's pretty.

Comments (0) | Permasnark | Posted: 9:13 AM

September 25, 2008

Edward Hopper on Salvia

Matt says,


The eerie art of Gregory Crewdson. (via)

Comments (1) | Permasnark | Posted: 8:32 PM

September 24, 2008

Trompe L'Oeil

Matt says,


Julian Beever's three-dimensional sidewalk drawings are the new salvia. (Via.)

Comments (0) | Permasnark | Posted: 9:15 PM

September 7, 2008

Walker Gone Wild

Matt says,

Mpls wonder-blogger Max Sparber offers a peek at some of the most fascinating esoterica in the permanent collection of my beloved Walker Arts Center. Sample:

The Walker has dozens of pieces by Pettibon; this particular one is an ink-spattered sketch of the most self-reflective character in the history of comics, Batman, facing a woman with a gun while disconnected passaged from his endless internal monologues crowd his head. Most of the quotes a vaguely sexual, or explicit, such as a comment from Robin saying, "I have studied the bats trying to understand Batman's complex psycho-sexuality." This actually seems intended as a retort to Batman's first quote. "Robin," he says, "you came too soon."

Comments (1) | Permasnark | Posted: 5:57 PM

August 22, 2008

Buildings and Their Not-So-Secret Identities

Matt says,

The Walker Art Center recently concluded a spectacular exhibit called "Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes" (they've helpfully catalogued the whole exhibit in a wiki; oh Walker, how I love you). Among the highlights of the exhibit was this photo collection by Paho Mann, images of former Circle K convenience stores that have been transformed into other types of businesses -- tattoo parlors, Mexican restaurants, tuxedo rental places -- all taken from the same distance in similar light, all bearing the Circle K's suprisingly distinct form. (Also available as a Google Maps mashup, natch.)

I mentioned this to an architect friend, and he pointed me to the delightful "a chronicle of bad conversions and storefronts past" -- photos of former chain restaurants lightly altered to house new businesses. (Such as "China Hut," the bastard offspring of -- what else? -- Pizza Hut.)

OMG I love the Web sometimes.

Comments (1) | Permasnark | Posted: 2:03 PM

June 12, 2008

House of Leaves

Matt says,

My new goal in life is to find that my architect has embedded an elaborate puzzle into the woodwork of my tony Central Park mansion. (via)

Comments (0) | Permasnark | Posted: 11:37 AM

June 5, 2008

The Rolling Exhibition

Matt says,

Kevin Connolly was born without legs, a fact which causes some folks to stare. (He's also hot, which can't hurt.) He generally gets around on a skateboard, riding close to the street, from which vantage point he often draws stares from curious passers-by. One day, he started taking photos of the spectators. He ended up with 32,000 photos in all, which he's edited into a collection he calls "The Rolling Exhibition."

Comments (1) | Permasnark | Posted: 4:11 PM

June 3, 2008


Matt says,

Things flags the website, where one can purchase hand-painted replicas of renowned oil paintings on the cheap. It's one of many "art factories" in Dafen, China:

"We divide up the colors among us," said Zeng, working his way briskly along a line of 10 identical contemporary-style paintings, applying a stripe of brown, while a teenage partner worked on the red. Surrounded by dozens more identical pieces at the sprawling Artlover factory, he explained: "By dividing up the work, contrasting colors stay clearest."

Comments (0) | Permasnark | Posted: 2:46 PM

May 16, 2008


Matt says,

Margaret pointed me to this mesmerizing stop-motion graffiti masterpiece filmed in Argentina. Make sure to turn the sound on:

MUTO a wall-painted animation by BLU from blu on Vimeo.

Comments (0) | Permasnark | Posted: 10:55 AM

April 30, 2008

March 25, 2008

But Can It Vacuum My Floor

Matt says,

Forgot where I ran across this, but I was reminded today of the typeface Champion Script Pro, "the most advanced and powerful script ever made. Developed over a period of two and a half years, each one of the 2 weights is loaded with 4253 glyphs (now 4280 glyphs)." What does that mean? It means the typeface is programmed to dynamically adjust glyphs to complement each other in a given word. All for just €175.

Comments (0) | Permasnark | Posted: 3:04 PM

August 16, 2007

The Poe Toaster Revealed?

Matt says,

Edgar Allen Poe's masked fanatic has allegedly unmasked himself. A 92-year-old Poe-head named Sam Porpora claims to be the originator of the annual tradition of celebrating Poe's birthday with roses and cognac. But he says he's not sure who's continued the toast each year since 1976. The mystery remains ...

Comments (0) | Permasnark | Posted: 2:27 PM

August 15, 2007

Perfect Windsor Knot

Matt says,

This tie-tying tutorial works pretty darn well. I've always been a good tier of ties, but I just tried this, and it totally ups my game. (Via.)

Comments (14) | Permasnark | Posted: 7:01 PM

July 20, 2007

Eureka Moment

Matt says,

The oppressive frequency of the need to replace the blades in my Gillette Mach 3 finally drove me to desperation this summer. When a pricey box of 20 razor cartridges ran out in a matter of weeks, I began hunting for an alternative. I have found it.

Just like this Ask MetaFilter poster, I was led to the Merkur 1904 stainless steel "Hefty Classic" double-edged safety razor by a post on Cool Tools. After reading the unanimous raves of the MeFirati, I bought the razor, a badger-hair shaving brush, and some shaving cream, and put blade to face.

Wonderful. It's this solid, stubby metal instrument with a delicate platinum blade that bows so gracefully when you screw it in place. Few moments in masculine hygiene are as satisfying as making smooth, perfect rectangles appear on your face where foam and hair had been just before. I'm a full-fledged member of the cult now. My gaudy, plastic Mach 3 is officially retired. Does this make me old-school yet?

Comments (5) | Permasnark | Posted: 5:43 AM

April 4, 2007

Jade Buddha's thoughts: A tasty present from EatingAsia... <a href=" >>

The Fruit of Knowledge of Good and Evil

I've eaten it.

I just got back from an eight-day vacation in Rio de Janeiro. Having consistently been told to try every unfamiliar fruit we came across, my travelmates and I raided the fruit stands and juice shops for the new and exotic. We appreciated açaí, the crazy caloric berry goop that's somehow acquired a reputation as a quasi-health product. We loved the omnipresence of mango and passion fruit. But the flavor that obsessed us at the juice shops was something the locals called "graviola," which we didn't find at any fruit stands, so we didn't know what it looked like. At the fruit stand, we fell for a spiny, green confection called the custard-apple.

On one of our last days in Rio, we passed by a street market where all kinds of fruit were being sold. There, we discovered a fruit called the "cherimoya," described to us as a hybrid of the graviola and the custard-apple. I bought three.

The cherimoya tastes like a glazed orgasm marinated in ecstasy. "Custard apple" is a reasonable description, although it fails to capture anything of the fruit's divinity; it's got a texture resembling custard, and the apple probably comes closest in taste. Fittingly, one can only eat the cherimoya in little tantalizing bites; the seeds and shape prevent you from taking a mouthful. I'm thinking God added the seeds right after He kicked Adam and Eve out of Eden for eating the thing.

If this had been what Turkish Delight tasted like, I would totally understand Edmund's willingness to become the White Witch's man-whore.

Brazil also brought me my first tastes of ostrich, which was yummy, albeit a tad overhyped; and piranha, which except for the minor thrill of hypothetical cannibalism was unexciting.

Disclaimer: After all this hype, three of you are going to go to Brazil and tell me you find the cherimoya too sweet. To each his own. For you, the graviola, the custard-apple, or the sugar-apple might be the devil's fruit. I'm guessing the entire Annona genus has been forbidden by God.

Posted April 4, 2007 at 5:45 | Comments (7) | Permasnark
File under: Beauty

February 24, 2007

The Magician Turned the Whale Into a Flower

Matt says,

Yeondoo Jung has created a gallery containing drawings by children reimagined as photographs. My favorite thing about it is seeing how literally he translates some portions of the images (e.g. the triangular pigtail in "Television was so funny"). Divining the artistic intents of a 4-year-old = solid gold.


Comments (0) | Permasnark | Posted: 11:45 AM
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