Category Archives: art

Kindle screensavers: Karl Blossfeldt

Inspired by Parker Higgins’s set of Kindle screensavers, I’ve put together one of my own featuring the botanical photographs of Karl Blossfeldt. It has 17 images so far, most of which I scanned from the set of 10 double-sided Blossfeldt prints I won recently on eBay.

Download the full set (zip file, 1.6 MB)

Having a set of screensavers that suits your taste definitely makes the Kindle experience a fair bit better.  If you like these, let me know; I’ll add more whenever I find more suitable Blossfeldt images.  (I stuck to vertically-oriented prints with light backgrounds that could be burned to white, since mottled gray backgrounds  tend to look posterized on the Kindle.)

Self-preservation and the National Portrait Gallery’s dispute with the Wikimedia community

Running an organization is difficult in and of itself, no matter what its goals. Every transaction it undertakes–every contract, every agreement, every meeting–requires it to expend some limited resource: time, attention, or money. Because of these transaction costs, some sources of value are too costly to take advantage of. As a result, no institution can put all its energies into pursuing its mission; it must expend considerable effort on maintaining discipline and structure, simply to keep itself viable. Self-preservation of the institution becomes job number one, while its stated goal is relegated to job number two or lower, no matter what the mission statement says. The problems inherent in managing these transaction costs are one of the basic constraints shaping institutions of all kinds.

From: Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, pp. 29-30 (my emphasis)

Shirky’s book is about “organizing without organizations”, a key example of which is the Wikimedia community (as distinct from the Wikimedia Foundation). The Wikimedia community can accomplish a lot of big projects–making knowledge and information and cultural heritage accessible and free–that traditional organizations would find far too expensive. And that paragraph from Shirky explains the root of the tension between the Wikimedia community and many traditional organizations with seemingly compatible goals–organizations such as the National Portrait Gallery in London, which sent a legal threat to Wikimedian Derrick Coetzee this week.

The NPG has a laudable mission and aims: “to promote through the medium of portraits the appreciation and understanding of the men and women who have made and are making British history and culture, and … to promote the appreciation and understanding of portraiture in all media”, and “to bring history to life through its extensive display, exhibition, research, learning, outreach, publishing and digital programmes.”

But in pursuing self-preservation first and foremost, the gallery asks a high price for its services of digitizing and making available the works it keeps: to fund the digitization of its collections and other institutional activities, the NPG would claim copyright on all the digital records it produces and prevent access to others who would make free digital copies. As one Wikipedian put it, the NPG is “trying to ‘Dred Scott‘ works already escaped into PD ‘back south’ into Copyright Protected dominion”.

If the choice is between a) waiting to digitize these public domain works until costs are lower or more funding is available, or b) diminishing the public domain and emboldening others who would do the same, then I’ll choose to wait.

Biology Today, the ’70s textbook that would have made me a biologist

Biology Today cover

A few weeks ago, thanks to the blog A Journey Round My Skull (via Crooked Timber), I discovered Biology Today, an amazing college biology textbook from 1972. You can get the basics from the Wikipedia article I put together: [[Biology Today]]. But there’s a lot more to it than what I could put into a Wikipedia article without running afoul of the “no original research” policy–and a lot more than I can fit into a blog post. The reviewer of a bowdlerized later edition got it right: “The true story of the development of Biology Today would make an interesting book in itself.”

The text of Biology Today was apparently assembled from the work of a long list of “contributing consultants”. The list is star-studded, including James D. Watson and six other Nobel laureates (as well as Michael Crichton). The list–and the text–is dominated by molecular biology, which was reaching perhaps its cultural acme in the early 1970s.

A Journey Round My Skull has collected on Flickr many (but far from all) of the interesting and unusual “artist’s interpretations” and other images that make Biology Today such a magnificent artifact. Many of the diagrams are outstanding both aesthetically and conceptually.

The most lavish interleaf illustration is supposed to depict the “central dogma” of molecular biology with a three-panel view into the holy of holies, the DNA-filled nucleus, and a two-panel view of nucleic acids making their way into the cytoplasm and translating genetic information into proteins:

Biology Today nucleus

Biology Today cell interior

Molecular biologists, by the 1970s, thought of themselves not only as the future of science, but of culture more generally. Many adopted the scientific humanism that had been championed by the previous generation of public biologists like Julian Huxley, although the mechanistic and cybernetic worldview of molecular biology, rather than the neo-Darwinism of Huxley and his allies, was their gospel. For intellectually- and sexually liberated biologists (like Watson), anthropology and sexology displaced parochial religious ideas, and science had nothing to offer religionists but contempt or pity. Behold Noah’s Ark, from the chapter on “Human Sexual Behavior”:

Biology Today Noah's Ark

Evolution’s role in this textook is a curious one. The only well-known figure who can be considered primarily an evolutionary biologist is Richard Lewontin, a pioneer of molecular evolution and a frequent critic of adaptationism, sociobiology, and much of mainstream evolutionary theory in the 1960s and 1970s. The chapter on population genetics, which introduces the mechanisms of evolution (and doesn’t come until page 672!) looks like it was written by Lewontin; it treats, in turn, “genetic equilibrium”, “genetic drift”, “mutation”, “selection”, and “multiple factors”, with no particular emphasis on natural selection. Of course, whether one was a follower of the selection-centric modern evolutionary synthesis or not, Darwin was (and still is) the patron saint of biology:
Biology Today Michaelangelo's Darwin

But in Biology Today, veneration of nature, of the scientific life, and of humanity trumped veneration of Darwin. In the lyrical ten-page illustrated preface from biochemist Albert Szent-Györgyi, there is a passage (one of many) that could never be found in a mainstream biology textbook today, when creationists have turned their energies (in the form of Intelligent Design) to molecular biology, rather than the organismal evolutionary biology that earlier generations of creationists (and evolutionists) focused on. Working his way up through the levels of biological complexity, Szent-Györgyi makes his way to the mind:

“I do not think that the extremely complex speech center of the human brain, involving a network formed by thousands of nerve cells and fibers, was created by random mutations that happened to improve the chances of survival of individuals. I must believe that man built a speech center when he had something to say, and he developed the structure of this center to higher complexity as he had more to say. I cannot accept the notion that this capacity arose through random alterations, relying on the survival of the fittest. I believe that some principle must have guided the development toward the kind of speech center that was needed.”

For both cultural and scientific reasons, that’s not something you would catch many biologists saying today.

Laugh-Out-Loud Cats #1090

Laugh-Out-Loud Cats #1090, originally uploaded by Ape Lad. Creative Commons-Attribution-Noncommercial-NoDerivatives 2.0

Yesterday, the new Laugh-Out-Loud Cats Wikipedia article appeared in Did you know (with a freely licensed example that the artist made available specifically for Wikipedia.)

Today, Ape Lad posted this gem. For those unfamiliar with the Laugh-Out-Loud Cats, he provides the following…
“Context: the big one loathes ducks!”

The Obama poster goes to court

Comparison of obama photos to Fairey poster

Comparison of obama photos to Fairey poster

Maybe I’m weird, but I’m really excited about the prospect of high profile copyright/fair use litigation. As the New York Times reports, the Associated Press sued street artist Shepard Fairey over the Obama “Hope” poster, which was based on a shot by former A.P. freelance photographer Mannie Garcia.

A few weeks ago, I started the Wikipedia article on the poster. It ended up on the Main Page for “Did you know?” on inauguration day, and while it was there another editor, Dforest, pointed me to something very interesting: this Flickr photo by stevesimula (shown above). When I wrote the article, it was thought (and reported) that the lower shot (a Reuters photo by Jim Young) was the basis for Fairey’s poster. But stevesimula had convincingly demonstrated the true source, which apparently was known only to Fairey (and probably some of his crew), some of the Obama people, and whatever isolated netizens might have noticed. (I investigated some rumors that an art forum had found it months earlier, but couldn’t verify that.)

This was getting interesting, but beyond what was allowed on Wikipedia without violating the ban on Original Research. Long story short, I started a Wikinews article on the photo source, and a tip from Dforest and me (that the photo was from A.P., which we found with led photographer Tom Gralish to find a copy of the original that included metadata, identifying the photographer. If we’d just been a little smarter, we might have beaten Gralish to the punch and broken a story of national import.

Now A.P. has sued Fairey (who didn’t profit directly from Obama poster sales, but no doubt has seen a huge surge in interest in his other for-profit work) for violating its copyright. Fairey, assisted by a Stanford law proffesor among others, is suing back, seeking a declaratory judgment that the poster is fair use. To make it even better, Mannie Garcia claims he actually owns the copyright, because of the terms of his A.P. contract.

I’m a big supporter of fair use, but this is an interesting case of pushing the boundaries. The main reason I’m ambivalent is the way Fairey handled it… he originally appropriated the image with no attempt at crediting Garcia. Fairey has obviously benefitted tremendously (if not directly, in terms of profit) from the image, but has also dramatically increased the value of the original. His work is also essentially a political statement, something fair use is supposed to protect and allow. But the hybrid nature of Fairey’s commercial street art (controversial even within the street art scene) complicates things. Either you’re doing this essentially anti-authoritarian street art that is based on grafitti culture, or you’re running an art business. If it’s the former, go ahead and break the rules you disagree with or don’t care about, but don’t expect to be making the big bucks mass-producing and selling your designs. If it’s the latter, you should at least have the decency to credit other artists whose work you use for your own.

I’m really rooting for Garcia, here. From all the snippets I’ve read, he seems gracious and thoughtful. From the Times:

“I don’t condone people taking things, just because they can, off the Internet,” Mr. Garcia said. “But in this case I think it’s a very unique situation.”

He added, “If you put all the legal stuff away, I’m so proud of the photograph and that Fairey did what he did artistically with it, and the effect it’s had.”

But I’m also rooting for Fairey, or at least for the entrenchment of liberal fair use rights.

My day on the Wikipedia front page

Total lunar eclipse

Unexpectedly, today has been my lucky day on the Wikipedia front page.

Two nights ago I tried my hand at photographing the lunar eclipse. With plenty of experimenting, I got one image of totality I was pretty happy with (above): a one-second exposure, with my camera propped up against the back of a laptop to maintain the right angle. Longer exposures (and many of the one-second exposures I tried) had too much motion blur; shorter exposures or with higher ISO were too dark/noisy. I put it up on the February 2008 lunar eclipse page, as one of many observations from different times and places. A little while later, I got a message informing me that the image was being used for “In the news” to illustrate the eclipse on the Main Page. It’s also now the lead image for the eclipse article.

Then at midnight UTC, February 22, “Today’s featured article” clicked over to Rachel Carson, my last major Wikipedia project. See how it changed during it’s 24 hours in the spotlight. I’m going to reverse the two most significant changes, the softening of the bit in the lead about the environmental movement and the deleted sentence about the Reagan administration’s attacks on the environmental legacy of the of the 1960s, both of which are well-supported by the sources used for the article. But since it’s apparently a point of contention, I’ll add more backing for the Reagan bit, from something about Reagan rather than Carson.

The Carson article apparently inspired an ASCI portrait of her.

BibliOdyssey on Commons

Peacay of the amazing BibliOdyssey blog has joined Wikimedia Commons (after a bit of encouragement from me). BibliOdyssey, which focuses on scans of printed art, is quite an amazing blog; it serves as a continual reminder of just how big the web is, and how little of it the typical person ever sees. Hundreds of libraries and archives are digitizing thousands of fantastic images, and Peacay trawls through the wide web and finds the best of them.

Unfortunately (as I understand it), although most of the original versions of what Peacay showcases are public domain, the copyright status of most of the images are in that murky space between free and unfree. The United States is fortunate (or maybe unfortunate if you are a world class library) to have Bridgeman v. Corel (for now, at least), but in most countries, a “sweat of the brow” doctrine means that whoever scans the pages of a rare book can claim copyright on the scans, even if the original is public domain. Even in the United States, it is typical for libraries to assert copyright control over scans of public domain material they own (e.g., as the University of Oklahoma does on its wonderful, growing collection of history of science images). Of course, no one on the web pays much attention to such claims (whether they have legal force or not), but for many of the images on Commons, a re-user trying to publish nominally free images in the traditional publishing world will still have to go through the usual trials and tribulations to secure permissions.

Anyhow, check out the great image sets Peacay has uploaded so far, and hopefully we’ll see more in the future.

A day in the wiki life

I went to bed last night with the express intention of focusing all of today’s energy on the Johannes Kepler Wikipedia article. The article, which I re-wrote almost entirely from scratch and replaced the old version with in mid-December, and have been gradually improving with the help of others in the meantime, was nominated for Featured Article status by a passerby about a week ago. This slipped under my radar until just recently (as I was still recovering from qualifiers and working on my Wii Tennis skills to avoid mental exertion), but it garnered a lot of positive feedback… despite not being finished. I had planned to spend spring break working on it casually, for a final push toward featured quality (and completeness), but the Great Wikipedia Spirit had other plans.

Anyhow, I spend some time working out the language kinks after waking up in the mid-afternoon. Then I took a break and stopped by one of those interesting but rarely-visited (by me, at least) areas of Wikipedia, the Humanities Reference Desk. I gave my two cents on what a self-motivated student interested in art history should be reading, and the proverbial three hours of fascinated clicking later, I had found my way to an interesting topic that, horror of horrors, didn’t have a Wikipedia article! So now there is a short, unsourced article about the Hockney-Falco thesis, but still no discussion of the historiographical and philosophical legacy of Kepler. (Although, the Hockney-Falco thesis is only two degrees of Wikipedia from Kepler: the Hockney-Falco thesis is about optical aids to drawing like the (click-1) camera lucida, which was first described by (click-2) Johannes Kepler in Dioptrice… a fact I did not know before this evening, despite writing the Kepler article. Wiki works in mysterious ways.)

In other Wikipedia fun (as opposed to the Wikipedia work I ought to be doing to finish the Kepler article), I recently started a trend at Featured pictures candidates (where I learned, and am learning, everything I know about photography). Now a number of editors are demanding adequate extended captions for featured image candidates, and new nominations are starting to appear that take this into account. Hooray for context!

The FPC process on English Wikipedia is an interesting beast. As with Featured Articles, the standards for Featured Pictures have risen enormously over the last two years or so. And the way editors at FPC analyze pictures, and what they expect out of a good picture, is quite different than what a random viewer values in an image. The most dramatic example of this is the Picture of the Year on Wikimedia Commons. Commons has a separate featured picture process (which unlike on Wikipedia, does not take encyclopedicity into account), and it recently held a well-publicized vote for the best picture of the 321 that achieved featured status in 2006. The winner (below) was not yet an FP on Wikipedia, and its subsequent nomination only stood a chance of passing FPC (which it did not) in deference to its Picture of the Year status; it was widely criticized on both technical and aesthetic grounds.