Saturday 29 February 2020

Have You Ever Tried to Sell a Diamond? (1982)

Here is an excellent long report in The Atlantic from 1982 on the world's diamond business. It begins: The diamond invention—the creation of the idea that diamonds are rare and valuable, and are essential signs of esteem—is a relatively recent development in the history of the diamond trade.

Friday 28 February 2020

A Trip Through New York City (1911)

This is brilliant: it is foootage taken in 1911 in New York by the Swedish company Svenska Biografteatern. The original has been restored with neural networks to 60 frames per second and higher resolution by Denis Shiryaev. Video HERE.

Thursday 27 February 2020

The Idea of the Brain (2020)

In the Guardian, (HERE), is an extract from The Idea of the Brain by Matthew Cobb. It is a good read. Probing and balanced. Undercutting the over inflated and ridiculous hype that surrounds most neuroscience - which sloppily extrapolates poorly understood lab experiments on mice and rats, to humans. The extract ends:

There are many alternative scenarios about how the future of our understanding of the brain could play out: perhaps the various computational projects will come good and theoreticians will crack the functioning of all brains, or the connectomes will reveal principles of brain function that are currently hidden from us. Or a theory will somehow pop out of the vast amounts of imaging data we are generating. Or we will slowly piece together a theory (or theories) out of a series of separate but satisfactory explanations. Or by focusing on simple neural network principles we will understand higher-level organisation. Or some radical new approach integrating physiology and biochemistry and anatomy will shed decisive light on what is going on. Or new comparative evolutionary studies will show how other animals are conscious and provide insight into the functioning of our own brains. Or unimagined new technology will change all our views by providing a radical new metaphor for the brain. Or our computer systems will provide us with alarming new insight by becoming conscious. Or a new framework will emerge from cybernetics, control theory, complexity and dynamical systems theory, semantics and semiotics. Or we will accept that there is no theory to be found because brains have no overall logic, just adequate explanations of each tiny part, and we will have to be satisfied with that. Or – 


Tuesday 18 February 2020

Sunday 16 February 2020

Photo-Secession (1904)

Photography was invented in the 1840's. Within twenty years of its invention, a vigorous debate began about the essence of photography. It was widely accepted that photography was a useful way to mechanically record images with high fidelity, but the bigger question was whether it was Art or not? This debate continues.

One person who worked tirelessly to establish photography as an art-form was the American photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946).  Stieglitz was born in Hoboken, New Jersey of German-Jewish extraction. He was educated at a private school in New York, the Realgymnasium in Karlsruhe and the Technische Hochschule in Berlin. Whilst in Berlin, he took up photography, studying both the technical and aesthetic aspects of this new medium. From 1884, Stieglitz spent six years in Germany, reading widely on photography, taking pictures and writing articles that developed his own ideas on photography as art.  In 1890 he returned to New York and began his career as a photographic artist, with strong financial support from his family.

By 1902 Stieglitz was one of the most influential photographers in the US. In that year he was asked by the National Arts Club to put on an exhibition of contemporary photographs. The exhibition was called the Photo-Secession, it was an immediate popular and critical success. In 1902 the Photo-Secession also became a movement led by Stieglitz, that aimed to;

... hold together those Americans devoted to pictorial photography in their endeavor to compel its recognition, not as a handmaiden of art, but as a distinctive medium of individual expression.
Early in 1903, Stieglitz began editing and publishing Camera-Work, a quarterly photographic journal based on the aims of the Photo-Secession. Each number of the journal had exquisite high quality photogravure images that were hand printed and then individually tipped into the pages of the journal. Between 1903 and 1917 fifty editions of Camera Work were produced, almost every single copy of which was hand finished, packed and dispatched by Stieglitz himself. The close circle of photographers that Stieglitz  habitually worked with in the Photo-Secession group, and heavily represented in the pages of Camera-Work, were amongst the best artist-photographers of his, or any subsequent, generation. This volume was published in 1904, under the auspices of the Camera Club of Pittsburgh. It has seven plates, which were taken from various numbers of Camera Works.

This image, Gables,  was included in the Photo-Secession volume. It was taken by Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882-1966), a brilliant American photographer who from the age of 16 was producing photography of the highest quality. Coburn was a close associate of Stieglitz and other leading American and European photographers. Between 1900 and 1910 Coburn spent long periods travelling, photographing cityscapes in New York, London and Venice and taking portraits of famous Men of Mark, including Henri Matisse, Ezra Pound, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, Auguste Rodin, Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt and W.B. Yeats. 

Coburn was a photographic innovator. He made great use of high vantage points to flatten perspective and obtain unusual and distinctive geometric patterns. During 1916 Coburn developed a kaleidoscope-like device that Ezra Pound christened a Vortescope. The photographs taken with this device, known as Vortographs, are strange, fractured almost cubist images that show multiple perspectives and facets. They are perhaps the very first conciously made purely abstract photographs. 

From the early 1920's Coburn became increasingly interested in religion and mysticism, by 1930 he had effectively stopped taking photographs.


Stieglitz, A. & Margolis, M.F. (1978). Camera Work: A Pictorial Guide. Dover, New York.

White, C.H., Porterfield, W.H. et al. (1920). Pictorial Photography in America. Tennant & Ward, New York.

The volume is HERE.

The Book of Tea (1919)

 An illustration of the Sung dynasty Chinese allegory of the The Vinegar Tasters by Tachibana Morikuni (1679-1748). The image depicts the sages who created the Three Teachings of China; the Buddha, Confucius and Lao-Tze, standing before a vat of vinegar. Each sage dips in their finger and tastes the liquid. Confucius finds it sour. The Buddha finds it bitter. Lao-Tze finds it sweet.

This essay was written in English by the Japanese writer and scholar Okakuro Kakuzō (1863-1913). It was originally published in 1906 and has remained in print since. The book not only celebrates tea, but also its role in the culture and aesthetics of Japanese life. Some people believe that tea is a matter of life and death. The author of this volume thought it was much, much more important than that. The sub-title tells you something of this: A Japanese Harmony of Art, Culture and the Simple Life

The book begins with a section called The Cup of Humanity;

Tea began as a medicine and grew into a beverage. In China, in the eighth century, it entered the realm of poetry as one of the polite amusements. The fifteenth century saw Japan enoble it into a religion of aestheticism - Teaism. Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence. It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order. It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.
Okakuro Kakuzō was the son of a rich samurai, Okakura Kan'emon, who had relinquished his rank to become a silk merchant. Kakuzō was educated from an early age in English and when he entered Tokyo Imperial University he studied with the Harvard educated American professor Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908). Later in life he travelled very widely in China, Europe, India and the US and established his own academy, the Nihon Bijutsuin (Japan Fine Arts Academy) in 1898 with a group of artists and followers. He later became the first curator of the Department of Chinese and Japanese art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  

Tea was first introduced to Japan in the 9th century and by the the 13th century Japanese grown teas were an important high status commodity.  Many of the rituals and concepts involved in the fully developed Japanese Tea ceremony can be traced back to the Buddhist Tea master Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591). Sen sought to bring together the simplest of everyday activities with spiritual and philosophical tenets. One of his famous sayings is;  The Way of Tea is naught but this:  you boil water, then you make the tea and drink it.

Sen no Riky
ū brought into the Way of Tea an aesthetic which embraces the idea of imperfection, incompleteness and transience. This approach can be seen in the tiny tea-bowls used in the tea ceremony, which are rustic, imperfect and simply finished. The same aesthetic can be seen in other Japanese arts: Ikebana flower arranging; Zen gardens; Bonsai plants and Haiku poetry.  

In 1591, for reasons that are unclear, Sen no Riky
ū was ordered to commit ritual suicide by his master Taiko-Hideyoshi.  In this book, Okakuro Kakuzō describes the tea ceremony that Sen holds for his disciples immediately before his death. After Sen served tea to each of his guests, he then gave each of them a piece of the tea ceremony equipment as a souvenir, keeping only the tea bowl, which he broke so it would never be used again. Before his death he spoke a verse to the dagger; 

Welcome to thee,
O sword of eternity!
Through Buddha
And through Daruma alike
Thou hast cleft thy way.

The life of Sen no Rikyū is celebrated annually by many schools of the Japanese way of tea.


Arrowsmith, R.R. (2011). The Transcultural Roots of Modernism: Imagist Poetry, Japanese Visual Culture, and the Western Museum System. Modernism/modernity. Vol 18. pp. 27-42.

Hoff, B. (1983). The Tao of Pooh. Penguin, London.

Tanizaki, J. (2013). In Praise Of Shadows. Vintage Classics, London.

The volume is HERE.

Boredom is but a window to a sunny day beyond the gloom (2019)

A really good, short, reflection on boredom (HERE) - ‘It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible.’

Saturday 15 February 2020

Thesauro de Scrittori (1532)

The Central School of Arts and Crafts was founded in London in 1896 (it is now known as Central St. Martins). One of the founding directors was the English architect and design teacher, William Lethaby (1857-1931). Based on his family background, early apprenticeship, education and inspiration from William Morris, Lethaby developed a deep appreciation for traditional art and craft skills.

In a preface to Edward Johnston's  book on handwriting and calligraphy, Lethaby wrote;

Of all the Arts, writing, perhaps, shows most clearly the formative force of the tools used ... No one has ever invented a form of script, and herein lies the wonderful interest of the subject; the forms used have always formed themselves by a continuous process of development ... we do need a basis of training in a demonstrably useful art, and I doubt if any is so generally fitted for the purpose of educating the hand, the eye and the mind as this one of writing. 
Modern western European handwriting came to fruition in Italy in the 14th and 15th centuries. The humanist scholars of the time took the beautiful Carolingian scripts that they thought were from ancient Rome (though in fact were only 2 or 3 hundred years old) and created the lower case roman and italic handwriting that are still recognisable today.

In the mid 1520's a number of highly skilled scribes created illustrated handwriting manuals, showcasing their roman and chancery italic scripts and providing instructional text: Sigismondo Fanti (c. 1490-1530's); Ludovico Vicentino degli Arrighi (1475-1527); Giovanni Antonio Tagliente (1465/70 - aft. 1527); Giovan Battista Palatino (1515 - 1575). This volume brings together material from several of these master scribes and is a celebration of the art and craft of Italian humanist handwriting and calligraphy from that period.

The creator, Ugo da Carpi (1480-1520 or 1532), was an Italian painter and printmaker who pioneered the use of Chiaroscuro techniques in printmaking. It is hard to establish for the examples shown in this volume the exact author or engraver and several copyright disputes developed around key pages of material. To print this volume, da Carpi had to develop the ability to create wood engravings that captured the form of flowing, cursive handwriting.  This book was originally printed in 1525 and it went through at least eight editions before 1535.
The image shows a display of the instruments and tools required for handwriting. This image was originally included in Lo presente libro insegna la vera arte de lo excellente scrivere de diverse varie sorti de litere a book by Tagliente, published in 1524. There are 19 different tools shown in the illustration; 


Sealing Wax. 

The only material that is now little known is Pounce, or Ponce. A fine powder of cuttlefish bone that was used to prepare rough writing surfaces and also to dry ink.  Another leading Italian calligrapher of the same period, Giovan Battista Palatino (1515-1575), published a very similar illustration of the tools used by calligraphers in 1540 and noted that; `... the mirror is used to save the sight and to assist it in continuous steady writing. It is much better of glass than of steel'.

One edition of the Thesauro was reprinted in a facsimile in 1968, with a short introduction by Esther Potter. It is broadly the same as this version, though a detailed examination shows differences in page order and page layout and provide evidence of the re-work that went on between editions of the book.


da Carpi, U. (1968). Thesauro de Scrittori, ed. Esther Potter. Nattali & Maurice, London.

Finlay, M. (1990). Western Writing Implements in the Age of the Quill Pen. Plains. Carlisle.

Johnston, E. (1906). Writing & Illuminating & Lettering. John Hogg, London.

Ilardi, V. (2007). Renaissance Vision. American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia.
The Volume is HERE

Saturday 8 February 2020

Statistical pitfalls of personalized medicine (2018)

HERE is a concise and very clearly written explanation of the many issues that so-called personalised medicine has. It begins:

Personalized medicine aims to match individuals with the therapy that is best suited to them and their condition. Advocates proclaim the potential of this approach to improve treatment outcomes by pointing to statistics about how most drugs — for conditions ranging from arthritis to heartburn — do not work for most people. That might or might not be true, but the statistics are being misinterpreted. There is no reason to think that a drug that shows itself to be marginally effective in a general population is simply in want of an appropriate subpopulation in which it will perform spectacularly.


Monday 3 February 2020

On Not Going Home (2014)

From the London Review of Books, a long and wonderfully written consideration of what it means to not go home, by the UK born, but now US resident, critic and writer James Wood (HERE). 

Sunday 2 February 2020

Damaged Goods / Love Like Anthrax / Armalite Rifle (1978)

Andy Gill, the guitarist of the Leeds post-punk band the Gang of Four has just died. I heard this EP on John Peel in 1978 when it was first released. I had never heard a guitar sound as blistering as Gill was able to create on this EP and their first album - Entertainment!  A very good appreciation by Alexis Petridis in the Guardian HERE.

Storm below Mount Fuji (1830)

Storm below Mount Fuji (Sanka no haku u), from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji  by Katsushika Hokusai. In the Met Museum collection (HERE).