Tuesday, December 03, 2013
A segment of Priyamvada Gopal's forthcoming article in New Humanist:
While he was a fierce critic of empire, Said was profoundly interested in what could be done with a concept like humanism, laden as it is with the baggage of colonial civilisational missions and Eurocentrism, the worldview that assesses the rest of the world through the lens of European and white superiority. Perhaps surprisingly, at least for those who (despite his vocal protestations) read him as the originator of a postmodern and postcolonial approach to culture, Said describes himself as a humanist, insisting that “attacking the abuses of something is not the same thing as dismissing or entirely destroying that thing.” He himself remained unaffected by the antihumanism that characterised academic postmodernism with its “dismissive attitudes” to ideas such as enlightenment and emancipation. What then is the humanism that Said wishes to not have thrown out with the bathwater of discredited colonial or racist projects? For him, “the core of humanism is the secular notion that the historical world is made by men and women, and not by God and that it can be understood rationally ... Or to put it differently, we can really only know what we make.”
Given that terms like “reason” and “secularism” have often been and continue to be used as sticks with which to beat apparently backward cultures and communities, what would prevent this reclaimed project of “critical humanism” from falling prey to precisely the same abuses that bedevilled a more familiar Western “high humanism”? Integral to Said’s advocacy of a critical and democratic humanism is the understanding that the ideas underpinning humanist practice are not, in fact, exclusive to one culture or the other; they are part of a “collective human history”. Engaging carefully with a variety of traditions and contexts across the world will make clear that aspirations to liberty, learning, justice and equality are genuinely universal. All societies are capable of change and change is always enacted by those who resist the depredations of power, whether in the form of despotism and tyranny or unjust war and military occupation.
Humanism has also to be wrenched from its association with and deployment by selective elites, “be they religious, aristocratic, or educational”, and returned to its democratic provenance because it is ultimately about the capacity of the human mind to free itself. The human capacity for discovery, self-criticism and engaging in “a continuous process of self-understanding” means that no one is incapable of humanistic thinking and nothing is exempt from humanism’s critical reach, whether religious fanaticism, atheist dogmatism or “manifestly imperial plans for domination” that might otherwise pass for entirely rational and necessary. Those who use humanism or secularism as weapons for asserting dominance or superiority over other cultures generally miss “what has long been a characteristic of all cultures, namely, that there is a strong streak of radical antiauthoritarian dissent in them.” What makes all cultures and civilisations interesting is actually “their countercurrents, the way that they have had of conducting a compelling dialogue with other civilisations”.
Monday, December 02, 2013
by Lisa Lieberman
The opening credits sequence of The 400 Blows (1959) takes us for a drive along the empty streets of Paris on a gray morning in early winter. Bare trees, a glimpse of the weak sun as we make our way toward the Eiffel Tower: a lonely feeling settles over us and never really leaves. This world, the world of François Truffaut's childhood, is not the chic 1950s Paris of sidewalk cafés, couples strolling along the Seine, and Edith Piaf regretting nothing.
Eleven-year-old Antoine Doinel is in school when the film begins. We see him singled out for misbehavior by a teacher. He may not be a model student, but he's no worse than any of the other boys. Nevertheless, an example must be set pour encourager les autres. Draconian punishment of a potential ringleader is a time-honored means of enforcing discipline among the troops. Antoine is sent to the corner, kept in during recess, assigned extra homework. Even so, the teacher's authority is subverted. Small insurrections break out in the classroom when his back is turned. Exasperated, he threatens reprisals. "Speak up, or your neighbor will get it."
We begin to suspect that we are not in 1950s Paris. We are in Paris during the German occupation—the era when Truffaut was actually growing up. The somber mood, the furtive acts of rebellion and retaliation, as when some of the students, led by Antoine, destroy a pair of goggles belonging to the class snitch.
There are other clues. A scene that evokes the hunger, when wartime rationing was in effect. Antoine spends a night on the streets, afraid to go home after he's been caught in a lie. As dawn approaches, he steals a bottle of milk from a caddy he spots on the curb in front of a shop and drinks it ravenously. Later, Truffaut draws our attention to a notice about exterminating rats on the wall of the police station where Antoine is locked up after his stepfather turns him in for a petty theft. Equating Jews with vermin was de rigueur in Vichy propaganda, a standard feature of the newsreels shown before the movies that the future filmmaker sneaked into when he was supposed to be in school.
When Lao Tzu
(or the composite of poets grouped under his name)
talked of Tao, The Way, he said,
“If you talk about it, it’s not Tao.
If you name it, it’s something else”
I don’t think he was being metaphysical
He suggested something practical which,
if taken at face value, ought to be paid attention to
you scientist, you theologian
Lao Tzu says,
“When you speak its name
it’s not there. That’s not it.
That right there, which you’ve just named
is nothing split.”
And, as if to cover the old poet’s back,
Buddha said, “Nothing in the world
is created. Nothing is created.”
(the last three words of which
is an oxymoron of enormous proportions)
Finally, the Hebrews said, “Never speak the name
of the Lord.”
All three bits of advice are invaluable
to have and take to heart
for any scientist or theologian
who sets out to pick nothing apart
by Jim Culleny, 11/25/13
by Tom Jacobs
I have been thinking about memory quite a bit lately. More specifically, my memory and the objects of its interest and desires, and the ways that it fails or warps or enables me to see/hear/re-experience what actually happened in the past, whatever that phrase might actually mean.
I mean, whatever actually happened was obviously filtered through my body and mind, and so it’s always going to be incomplete, partial, and aggravatingly not quite the whole story. But all of that is fine to some extent. I understand it and I accept that these are the limitations that each of us face. It’s our condition. What aggravates me is that I want to fling myself carelessly and sometimes with full deliberation into the future, but the past always, always, seems to pull me back in some way, to weigh me down, to fuck up every attempt to experience the bliss of casting oneself thoughtlessly into the future. The past makes everything difficult. Nostalgia, the longing for what’s gone does too.
These are not bad things, or at least not exactly. We’re all hamstrung by the past. There are clear patterns and predictable outcomes that over time become ever more clear and predictable. It’s never too late, that’s true, but there is the sobering and unhappy bromide that, say, if you haven’t done what you really want to do by the time you’re 40, you’ll probably never do it. I think this is bullshit, but there is the faint ring of truth there. Most of us succumb to the quiet understanding that we’re not geniuses, that we will never quite arrive at the spot in the future that we had thought or hoped we might occupy, and then we go about our work accordingly, in whatever small way we know how.
And how do we know where to begin? How do we begin the project of remembering even as we seek to waft away the fog and smoke of the present?
I have such great hopes. But I am over forty now and because it hasn’t worked out just yet and I can see the patterns and repetitions in the rug of my life’s bedraggled course, it seems unlikely that it ever will. I can see it and there are no two ways about it. That’s just the way it is if one looks at it correctly. But who knows?
by Mara Jebsen
Every once in a while, a book comes out about the Dulles family. It is in the interests of the writers, of course, to remind the world who the Dulles’ were, because the world has mostly forgotten. There’s the airport, but not that many people know the fellow it is named after. At one time the Dulles’ hobnobbed with the Rockefellers, and were even compared to the Kennedys, but now they aren’t--and nobody minds. Few of their progeny carry the name, and in many ways, the Dulles’ have disappeared. However, every once in a while, historians and political scientists and writers of spy novels like to conjure them, as they get taken with the tales of a forgotten American family, one that included three secretaries of state, a director of the CIA, the head of the Germany desk, and cardinal.
I hate to disappoint, because of course the story of these political men (and one woman) and what they did, and what they meant, is what is most sexy and most scary and most pertinent to most people—but the truth is, I have very little knowledge about it and if I did, I wouldn’t share it. In fact, I am much less interested in Allen Dulles, Director of CIA and John Foster Dulles, secretary of state, than I am in Allen’s wife, Clover (hostess, mother and poet.)
This is largely because I am a woman, and because heredity and legacy, and the randomness of the traces our lives leave behind, is a topic that has always mystified me. Clover Todd Dulles was my great-grandmother, and though I’ve never met her, I’ve spent a lot of time staring at this photograph, trying to read this particular expression.
The picture makes me ask: What kind of person is this and what is it like to be marrying the future director of the CIA under Eisenhower--someone who, some say, will be one of the most powerful men in the world? By most accounts, it is difficult.But no one bothers to make accounts that are even close to complete, because the wives of famous and infamous men are not really of interest. And anyone's marriage is difficult to describe, and thier own business, anyway.
Bara Imambara, Lucknow. A "complex built by Asaf-ud-daulah, Nawab of Lucknow, in 1784, also called the Asafi Imambara." Architect Hafiz Kifayat ullah Shahjahanabadi.
In honor of Syed Ali Raza, who would have been 100 on November 29th, 2013. He was born just outside this "city of Nawabs" and attended Shia College in Lucknow maturing into a most exceptionally gifted, unique, and principled man. Abbas, Azra, and I, along with our 4 older siblings are exceedingy fortunate to be his children!
by Maniza Naqvi
Mónica was introduced to me by her sister Isabel on the kind of clear October day when a sense of beauty mirrors its temporal nature. She appeared into my conscience, as Isabel and I walked past the Old Executive Building, past the White House, past museums and other buildings housing law firms, foundations, security agencies and lobby firms: past their plush and well-appointed interiors and busy, busy staff in the heart of the city.
Isabel and I used to work together; frantically trying to meet deadlines to get things done against timelines and schedules spanning several time zones and trying to secure funding for social safety nets cash transfers to the poorest people in a country in Africa. There hadn't been a moment to talk about anything else. In fact till about midnight of a date last year—we were doing just this in two separate locations on our computers, when she was cut off from where I was logged on to. She had retired that day and at midnight and as was the procedure, she was no longer part of the system.
Then, a few weeks ago, Isabel sent me an email and wondered if her book group could read one of my books: On Air. I knew she would have a hard time finding copies on Amazon and so when we met over lunch, I brought along a few copies of another one: Stay With Me.
As we walked to lunch she told me about how she was now working as a human rights activist in Argentina with the institution, her father, a celebrated human rights activist, had founded. I had no idea. "I consider myself a human rights activist, but you know how it is. I could not work with Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) before now because I had this job but in reality I had been supporting them in the past on a volunteer basis."
"Wow," I said, "Good for you!"
Then she told me about her sister, Mónica María Candelaria Mignone. Her sister worked in the slums of Argentina in 1976 with Catholic priests, nuns and several young adults to organize the poor. Her sister Mónica had been disappeared by the Military Junta on May 14, 1976. Mónica in 1976 was 24 years old. She became one of the 30,000 desaparecidos: the disappeared ones.
TO HER HUSBAND’S NEW WIFE
I rule an urge to jump in the sea. No
one taught me how to swim, and if
someone had I would be diving
in the Atlantic now lapping the sea
wall around my son’s home in New
York. A rogue assaults my senses,
flouting even American laws, digging
deeper to find more than gold. Spineless
like his father, my son is scared to seize
the rogue. Don’t treat me like a child
I tell Giselle, the maid from Haiti, who
is her own asylum as she wraps a bib
around my neck. How long more must
I bear this circus? My son has promised
to fix my departure date for Kashmir, but
I know he is only teasing, “Stay, now that
you are here,” he says, “No one to care
for you there in deep winter, no power, no
water, no heat, Dal Lake iced over, army
everywhere?” But my heart yearns to walk
under almond trees blossoming, sip noon
chai poured from a samovar at the Shalimar,
receive kisses from my great, great grandchildren,
one at a time on both cheeks. I hope you will
repaint my room, install modern sanitary fittings,
for I am still the head of our household despite
what the rogue whispers, always the whispers.
by Rafiq Kathwari, the first non-Irish winner of the Patrick Kavanagh 2013 Poetry Award
by Debra Morris
The 1953 French thriller Wages of Fear, directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, would seem an odd pick for Family Movie Night. But there we sat, side-by-side one Saturday night, to watch a movie I had bought based on the cover photograph and some vague sense of its cinematic status, its reputation as the kind of bold art film that "stays news." This is the story: after an oil well located in a South American country catches fire, its American owners hire four European men, all down on their luck and effectively stranded in the country, to drive two trucks over mountainous dirt roads, carrying the nitroglycerine needed to explode and thereby cap the well. The first hour, roughly, was high on dialogue and character exposition, exploring the desperation that might lead these men to undertake a suicidal mission, and it was brilliant and gripping to the adults on the couch but our daughter was ready to renounce the film and the evening's experiment: "When is something going to happen?"
The film brought Clouzot international fame. Even sixty years later, in 2010, Empire magazine ranked it #9 among the "100 Best Films of World Cinema." And it is a masterwork of suspense, one all the more painful for there being hardly any glimmer of redemption throughout the film: at times it is just very difficult to believe that any of the four men will survive. The film refuses, even during that psychological first hour, to show us the hero among them. If it did, this might explain the film's suspense—explain, that is, our willingness to enter into the manifest dangers on the screen, so that we felt and believed them more fully than if we were certain no one would survive. A hero could transform suspense into a more tolerable, if still fraught, anticipation.
by Brooks Riley
by Monica Westin
The Way of the Shovel, an ambitious group show focused on artistic production as a mode of "history, archaeology, and archival research" opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago last month. Much of the work in the show takes the form of documentary photographs and films that attempt to create alternative historical narratives, filling out our everyday understandings of the world and its pasts. In my interview with him last month, curator Dieter Roelstraete noted that the show, based on his previous e-flux essay of the same name, grew out of his observation that
"in the last ten to fifteen years the rhetoric of art has been rephrased in broad terms using the language of research...I really appreciate the ambition of artists to think of themselves as not just working with forms and ornaments, but also with information.... But while I'm interested in the critical charge of art's claim to be some kind of research, the whole discussion of artistic research is a huge one that is also based in the academization of art in recent years. There's increasing pressure on students to present what they do as some kind of intellectual enterprise, which has its own advantages and disadvantages."
Roelstraete's salient point is that artists are encouraged to frame their work as research at a time when discourses surrounding art are increasingly influenced by science and other academic disciplines. But what practices should "count" as research, and which are just part of the process of art-making?
Mark Dion, Concerning the Dig, 2013. Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York. Installation view, The Way of the Shovel: Art as Archaeology, MCA Chicago November 9, 2013 - March 9, 2014.
In the western tradition, we have historically understood artists' contributions to social consciousness as generally either representing/preserving images of the world as it is, or imagining ways it might be otherwise. For the ancient Greeks, art was exclusively concerned with mimesis, or the direct copying of nature, and ancient art criticism judged successful art as that which depicted its subject with the most realism. It wasn't until the second century AD that the sophist Philostratus first argued, in his biography of the mystic Apollonius, that phantasia, or creative imagination, was a more important quality in the artist than mimesis. (And it arguably took centuries after that before western artists themselves began to make this argument for their work and to break from imitation in their practices.) The western history of art can often largely be read as a tension between changing technologies of mimetic representative realism (increasing understanding of perspective in the Renaissance, the invention of the photograph) and intellectual movements towards new modes of phantasia or reaching for that which is beyond the skills of technological reproduction (Mannerism as a reaction to the Renaissance, Impressionism as a reaction to photography).
Sunday, December 01, 2013
Pervez Hoodbhoy in Newsweek:
When Riazuddin—that was his full name—died in September at age 82 in Islamabad, international science organizations extolled his contributions to high-energy physics. But in Pakistan, except for a few newspaper lines and a small reference held a month later at Quaid-e-Azam University, where he had taught for decades, his passing was little noticed. In fact, very few Pakistanis have heard of the self-effacing and modest scientist who drove the early design and development of Pakistan’s nuclear program.
Riazuddin never laid any claim to fathering the bomb—a job that requires the efforts of many—and after setting the nuclear ball rolling, he stepped aside. But without his theoretical work, Pakistan’s much celebrated bomb makers, who knew little of the sophisticated physics critically needed to understand a fission explosion, would have been shooting in the dark.
A bomb maker and peacenik, conformist and rebel, quiet but firm, religious yet liberal, Riazuddin was one of a kind. Mentored by Dr. Abdus Salam, his seminal role in designing the bomb is known to none except a select few.
From the MIT Technology Review:
The term “filter bubble” entered the public domain back in 2011when the internet activist Eli Pariser coined it to refer to the way recommendation engines shield people from certain aspects of the real world.
Pariser used the example of two people who googled the term “BP”. One received links to investment news about BP while the other received links to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, presumably as a result of some recommendation algorithm.
This is an insidious problem. Much social research shows that people prefer to receive information that they agree with instead of information that challenges their beliefs. This problem is compounded when social networks recommend content based on what users already like and on what people similar to them also like.
This the filter bubble—being surrounded only by people you like and content that you agree with.
And the danger is that it can polarise populations creating potentially harmful divisions in society.
Today, Eduardo Graells-Garrido at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona as well as Mounia Lalmas and Daniel Quercia, both at Yahoo Labs, say they’ve hit on a way to burst the filter bubble. Their idea that although people may have opposing views on sensitive topics, they may also share interests in other areas. And they’ve built a recommendation engine that points these kinds of people towards each other based on their own preferences.
Alex Rosenberg and Tyler Curtain in 3:AM Magazine:
In physics our knowledge exceeds our understanding. In economics the reverse is true. Seeing why helps us make sense of both of these disciplines.
In physics we’ve reached the point where we know the nature of things to twelve decimal places. We reached that point by starting with common sense and correcting its predictions until we arrived at quantum mechanics—a theory that we literally can’t understand, despite the fact that we know it to be as close to the truth as any theory we have in any science. It took about 350 years—from Newtonian gravity to Schrödinger’s cat—to get to the point where knowledge exceeds understanding in physics.
Economics is harder than physics. It must be. It’s not much younger a science, having gotten its start with Adam Smith in 1776, a good 83 years before Darwin was able to put biology on a scientific footing. If economics were as easy as physics, it would have made more progress by now.
As far back as John Stuart Mill philosophers of science have been trying to figure out exactly why economics is harder than physics. They have given a variety of answers.
We think a large part of the reason is that unlike the physicists, the economists have been unwilling or unable to let go of the notion that their understanding of economic affairs counts as knowledge about economic behavior. Like physics, economics starts with common sense—in this case firm convictions about how we are driven to make choices by our desires and our beliefs, which the economists label preferences and expectations.
Giving up firmly held convictions isn’t just a problem for economics. Physics had the same problems: humans have difficulty relinquishing the conviction that motion requires force, that there is a preferred direction in space, that every event has a cause. But progress—as measured by prediction—required relinquishing our sense that we already know how things work. In the social sciences, it’s been almost impossible to give up trying to explain things by making sense of them in the form of stories we understand.
Thomas Laqueur reviews Christopher Clark's The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, in the LRB:
Fifty years ago, Barbara Tuchman’s bestseller The Guns of August taught a generation of Americans about the origins of the First World War: the war, she wrote, was unnecessary, meaningless and stupid, begun by overwhelmed, misguided and occasionally mendacious statesmen and diplomats who stumbled into a catastrophe whose horrors they couldn’t begin to imagine – ‘home before the leaves fall,’ they thought. It was in many ways a book for its time.
Tuchman’s story begins with Edward VII’s funeral on 20 May 1910. The king’s sister-in-law, the empress consort of Russia, Maria Feodorovna, wife of Alexander III, was there. So was the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir apparent to the aged Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria. And so was Edward’s least favourite nephew, Wilhelm II of Germany. Wilhelm loved and admired the British and they loved the kaiser: to him, the Timessaid, belongs ‘the first place among all the foreign mourners’; even when relations were ‘strained’, he ‘never lost his popularity amongst us’. Four years before Armageddon the German emperor was decidedly not the antichrist he would become. The book ends with the Battle of the Marne – ‘one of the decisive battles of the war’ – which ended the German hope for a quick victory and set the stage for four years of deadlock and misery.
Tuchman says nothing about Austria-Hungary and Serbia on the eve of the war, and nothing about the Russo-Austrian and Serbo-Austrian fronts once it began. ‘The inexhaustible problem of the Balkans divides itself naturally from the rest of the war,’ she thinks, and in any case nothing much happened there in the period she covers. More surprising is that in the first third of the book there isn’t a word about Serbia. The assassination of the archduke in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 goes by in two sentences, one of which, a quotation from the oracular Bismarck, may be all she needs: ‘some damn foolish thing in the Balkans’ would ignite the next war.
Why was this story so compelling in the 1960s? I think because at the height of the Cold War the world needed and embraced a morality tale of the sort Tuchman offered.
Huma Yusuf in The New York Times:
LONDON — Upon first moving here from Pakistan two years ago, I was inundated with restaurant recommendations: Tayyabs and Lahore Kebab House, Daawat and Brilliant. I spent many weekends sampling curries and kebabs in the east and halwa in the south. In the end, I settled on a Drummond Street standby. For members of the South Asian diaspora, having a favorite curry restaurant is like belonging to a tribe: It requires absolute loyalty and the occasional sacrificial ritual, like waiting in line for a table for two hours in cold, wet weather. But the appeal extends far beyond homesick immigrants. London now has more curry shops than Mumbai. Across Britain, some 10,000 restaurants and takeout joints serve kormas, vindaloos and other variants. At the British Curry Awards this week more than 40,000 nominations poured in from fans. (Among the winners, Karma, in Whitburn, for Best Spice Restaurant Scotland, and Shampan 4 at the Spinning Wheel, in Westerham, Kent, for Best Newcomer.) Prime Minister David Cameron took the stage between choreographed dance sequences and declared the foreign dish now central to British identity: “To all those who think being British depends on your skin color, wake up and smell the curry!”
But now curry is under threat, both from the state and the market. Cameron’s favorite curry house in Oxfordshire was raided by border officials last month, and three Bangladeshis suspected of immigration infractions were arrested. Stringent laws have made it nearly impossible for restaurants to bring chefs from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, creating a shortfall of qualified talent. Acknowledging the scale of the problem at the curry awards ceremony, the prime minister pledged to help: “So let me promise you this: We will work through this together. We’ll continue to help you get the skilled Asian chefs you need.”
Regina Nuzzo in Nature:
The gut may know better than the head whether a marriage will be smooth sailing or will hit the rocks after the honeymoon fades, according to research published today in Science1. Researchers have long known that new love can be blind, and that those in the midst of it can harbour positive illusions about their sweetheart and their future. Studies show that new couples rate their partner particularly generously, forgetting his or her bad qualities, and generally view their relationship as more likely to succeed than average2. But newlyweds are also under a lot of conscious pressure to be happy — or, at least, to think they are. Now a four-year study of 135 young couples has found that split-second, 'visceral' reactions about their partner are important, too. The results show that these automatic attitudes, which aren’t nearly as rosy as the more deliberate ones, can predict eventual changes in people’s marital happiness, perhaps even more so than the details that people consciously admit.
The researchers, led by psychologist James McNulty of Florida State University in Tallahassee, tapped into these implicit attitudes by seeing how fast newlyweds could correctly classify positively and negatively themed words after being primed by a photo of their spouse for a fraction of a second. If seeing a blink-of-the-eye flash of a partner’s face conjures up immediate, positive gut-level associations, for example, the participant will be quicker to report that 'awesome' is a positive word and slower to report that 'awful' is a negative one. Researchers used the difference between these two reaction times as a measurement of a participant’s automatic reaction.
Saturday, November 30, 2013
Isabel Kershner in the New York Times:
There is one picture of Palestinian children studying around a small table by the dim light of gas lamps in the Beach Camp in Gaza, and another of children peeking over a sandy dune, with rows of small, uniform shacks of a desolate refugee camp in the background. In a third, a family walks across the Allenby Bridge, the father carrying two bulging suitcases, a young son clutching a white ball, heading east over the Jordan River.
These are a few of the black and white images, many of them powerful and haunting, that will eventually constitute a digital archive compiled by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the first part of which was unveiled Thursday at a gallery in the Old City here. Together, they capture the Palestinian refugee experience from the 1948 war onward, giving form to a seminal chapter in Palestinian history, identity and collective memory.
For decades, about half a million negatives, prints, slides and various forms of film footage have been hidden away in the archive of UNRWA, the organization that assists Palestinian refugees. Stored in buildings in Gaza and Amman, Jordan, the materials had begun to grow moldy.
David Hockney and others have speculated—controversially—that a camera obscura could have helped the Dutch painter Vermeer achieve his photo-realistic effects in the 1600s. But no one understood exactly how such a device might actually have been used to paint masterpieces. An inventor in Texas—the subject of a new documentary by the magicians Penn & Teller—may have solved the riddle.
Kurt Anderson in Vanity Fair:
In the history of art, Johannes Vermeer is almost as mysterious and unfathomable as Shakespeare in literature, like a character in a novel. Accepted into his local Dutch painters’ guild in 1653, at age 21, with no recorded training as an apprentice, he promptly begins painting masterful, singular, uncannily realistic pictures of light-filled rooms and ethereal young women. After his death, at 43, he and his minuscule oeuvre slip into obscurity for two centuries. Then, just as photography is making highly realistic painting seem pointless, the photorealistic “Sphinx of Delft” is rediscovered and his pictures are suddenly deemed valuable. By the time of the first big American show of Vermeer paintings—at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in 1909—their value has increased another hundred times, by the 1920s ten times that.
Despite occasional speculation over the years that an optical device somehow enabled Vermeer to paint his pictures, the art-history establishment has remained adamant in its romantic conviction: maybe he was inspired somehow by lens-projected images, but his only exceptional tool for making art was his astounding eye, his otherworldly genius.
At the beginning of this century, however, two experts of high standing begged to differ. Why, for instance, did Vermeer paint things in the foreground and shiny highlights on objects slightly out of focus? Because, they say, he was looking at them through a lens.
Aatish Bhatia in his blog Empirical Zeal at Wired:
Archerfish are incredible creatures. They lurk under the surface of the water in rivers and seas, waiting for an insect to land on the plants above. Then, suddenly, and with unbelievable accuracy, they squirt out a stream of water that strikes down the insect. The insect falls, and by the time it hits the water, the archerfish is already waiting in place ready to swallow it up. You have to marvel at a creature that excels at what seems like such an improbable hunting strategy – death by water pistol squirt...
...Technically, the term archerfish doesn’t refer to a single species of fish but to a family of 7 different freshwater fish, that fall under the genus Toxotes. They strike with remarkable accuracy, and just a tenth of second after the prey is hit, they quickly move to the spot where it will hit the water. Unlike most baseball players who have to keep their eyes on a fly ball to track it, in less than the blink of an eye, the archerfish is in place, waiting for the insect to arrive.
If that isn’t impressive enough, consider this. When these archerfish squirt water, their eyes are underwater. If you’ve spent any time in a swimming pool, you’ll know that light bends when it enters water. A less astute fish might not correct for this bending of light, and would be tricked into thinking that the insect is somewhere it isn’t. But not the archerfish. This little aquatic physicist is able to seamlessly correct for the bending of light. And it isn’t a minor correction – when the perceived angle of the target is 45 degrees, its true angle is off by as much as 25 degrees.