Art Appreciation: Johannes Vermeer

I stayed up late last night watching Tim’s Vermeer, Penn and Teller’s recent film about their friend Tim Jenison’s obsessive quest to paint like Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). Is Tim a painter? Not hardly. But he is a successful entrepreneur, computer graphics whiz, and inventor with an eccentric, restless, and brilliant mind. After reading in the book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters that perhaps Vermeer’s talent was perhaps augmented by the technology available at the time, Tim had to figure out what his secret was.

Vermeer’s art is acclaimed to this day for it’s photo-realistic reproduction of light. Strangely enough, x-ray scans of his originals show that they weren’t sketched beforehand, further deepening the mystery of how he was able to paint such life-like scenes.

Tim puts a ton of research, money, travel, and effort into figuring out Vermeer’s secret. Whether or not the method he finally settled on to paint was indeed Vermeer’s technique will never definitively be known, but Tim’s reproduction, the product of his grueling 6 year odyssey, is quite convincing:

Not bad for a guy with no previous artistic training!

Do yourself a favor and check out Penn and Teller’s brilliant documentary:

Scientists Have Mapped All of Ötzi the Iceman’s 61 Tattoos

But still don’t know what they mean. Ötzi and his tattoos are 5,300 years old.

My fascination with him began as a small child, with the episode of NOVA that my parents had recorded. I watched and re-watched that VHS with a morbid curiosity. Very little is known about him, only what can be inferred by forensic anthropologists. All that is known is that he was murdered in the Alps and preserved in the blistering snow for thousands of years before being discovered in 1991 by a couple of hikers.

Read about his tattoos in Discover Magazine.

In Colorado: The Colorado History Museum

Today I took Shauna, who’s visiting from Atlanta on vacation from grad school, to the Colorado History Museum. Today was the last day of their exhibit on America in 1968: a year of war, turmoil, and groovy bean bag chairs. On top of that, there were exhibits about Denver, as well as Colorado throughout history–from the Dust Bowl to Japanese internment camps in World War II to water conservation.

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Museum lobby

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Make Staring at Your Screen In The Dark More Comfortable With Blue Light Cancelling Apps (f.lux and Twilight)

A mounting pile of research suggests that staring at a computer screen for long hours is bad for your health. That should be intuitive, but evidence suggests that blue light in particular can disrupt sleep.

Apps for the PC/Mac and iPhone/iPad (f.lux) and Android devices (twilight) counteract this by filtering out blue light after the sun goes down (or all the time, depending on your preferences). I actually like having it on most of the time except when I’m outside in sunlight because it makes the screen easier on the eyes.


The home screen of my Google Nexus tablet with and without Twilight.

Both of these applications operate in the background and automatically adjust their settings depending on the time of day. That way, they’re as unobtrusive as possible and you won’t be blinded by checking your phone in the middle of the night.

But don’t take my word for it. Let Twilight’s awkward Russian spokesmen tell you all about the benefits of their (free) product:

What Was The Industrial Revolution?

World economic history in one picture.

Between the mid-1700’s and the early 1800’s, a remarkable number of innovations took place in transportation, machinery, chemical engineering, mining, manufacturing and agriculture in Europe and the Americas. This was The Industrial Revolution. People immigrated to the cities in massive droves, revolutionizing daily life and morality shifted from being incentivized by a rural to an urban mentality.

It was the birth of the modern world, and none of the technology or standards of living we now take for granted would’ve been possible without it. The Industrial Revolution is important to understand because “the dead hand of that past still exerts a powerful grip on the economies of the present,”–and it’s effects continue to govern our lives today.

The groundwork for the coming shift was laid in 1440’s by Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press. Before then, books were not widely written or read. There were many reasons for this: education was hard to attain, the Church preserved ancient writing but squelched creative thought; and books were prohibitively expensive, with each one having to be written out by hand. The going rate in Italy was about one florin (a gold coin worth about $200 in today’s dollars) per five pages. Because of this, knowledge was destroyed or forgotten easier than it was accumulated. But almost overnight, the cost of producing a book fell by about 300%. Printing presses spread rapidly throughout Europe; almost every European city had one within 30 years. The span of human knowledge grew rapidly as books became more numerous with each passing year.

Gutenberg’s invention made information accessible to more people. Over time, the Church and the Crown ceded power to the merchant and the miller. The Western World emerged from the Middle Ages into an age of Enlightenment, thanks in no small part to the greater accessibility of ancient and new ideas. As the Age of Reason gave way to the Age of Science, a revolution in technology was inevitable.

The Industrial Revolution is commonly associated with the invention of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin. In fact, that was only one innovation among many, but it did make cotton production feasible on a massive scale, not to mention incredibly profitable. Within a few decades, cotton was America’s leading export–the cash crop was the pillar of innumerable Southern plantations, Northern textile mills, Wall Street and shipping fortunes made possible by the horror of slavery.

Meanwhile, workers in the Northern United States slogged away in factories converting raw cotton into textiles. Improvements in Gas and oil lighting permitted factories to be open after dark. The population in northern cities grew exponentially every year, with immigrants coming from overseas and rural families coming looking for work.

In short, the new technologies were innovations that exploited resources more efficiently than ever before, from coal mining, steam locomotion, and agriculture to metalworking, glass making, and cheap labor.

Of course, I’m oversimplifying. There are too many technological advancements and side-effects reverberating down from this time to cover in a simple blog post (please refer to Wikipedia for an exhaustive list, as well as the sources below for a more nuanced discussion). Nonetheless, the good and the bad parts about modern life are rooted in this time period. Among other things, we can thank the industrial successors of the early 19th century for the abundant food and consumer goods that we take for granted today; as well as less desirable things like income inequality, pollution, and the 9 to 5 work week. Despite the ills, more people enjoy a higher standard of living today than ever before.

 Sources: A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World
100 Diagrams That Changed the World
The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail–but Some Don’t

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What I Learned in April

April was a fairly static month for me. No great revelations or opportunities came my way and I never ventured out very far from home. I may have only used two tanks of gas all month.

That said, the most interesting article I read was “Inside America’s Toughest Federal Prison” in the New York Times Magazine. The article is about deplorable conditions within the ADX Supermax Prison in Florence, Colorado (located only about 100 miles from where I live) where inmates are kept so secluded that they are at times unsure they still exist and cause themselves gruesome bodily harm because their psychiatric state is so tortured. Prison reform is one of those great conundrums that face our country, like the problems with education, environmental protection, and inequality, where there’s no solution in sight.

I went on a lot of long walks, and even hurt my foot going over 20 miles in one day. I’m very lucky to live in a large picturesque neighborhood with a lot of shady sidewalks.

I read books about North American geology, how to live a creative life, struggled with comprehending electromagnetism, the parting wisdom of historian Will Durant (1885-1981), and the propaganda theories of Edward Bernays.

Via Amazon Prime, I watched much of the American Experience: New York City series. I’d never before appreciated the city’s rich history, from the building of the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge to the Draft Day Riots and the MASSIVE influx of immigrants a hundred years ago (well over a million people in just a few years!).

Otherwise, I thoroughly enjoyed Tom Hardy’s last couple of movies, namely Locke and The DropThat man is a phenomenal actor who chooses good scripts.