Yesterday, I saw an image of a beautiful altarpiece, Dutch painter Rogier van der Weyden’s Santa Columba triptych from 1455.
It was described as the biggest spoiler in history. Look at the center panel depicting the classic Nativity scene. Now look more closely at the center column:
And then, I saw another image, a 1958 photo from Pál Berkó, courtesy of the Hungarian Fortepan photo archive, depicting the crowd greeting Khrushchov on account of his visit to Budapest. Greeting him with… smartphones in hand, taking selfies?
Not exactly. Those are actually mirrors that many used to be able to see over the crowd. But the resemblance is…
I guess it’s true: The more we change, the more we remain the same.
So I learned today that J. K. Rowling writes hate-filled drivel on Twitter (her last post is from December 4 but never mind), and that forgiving Einstein for being a man of his times when he wrote about the white and Chinese races in the 1920s is the same as forgiving the Nazis.
Makes me sympathize more than ever with Principal Skinner.
This intolerant cultural orthodoxy that is promoted by virtue signaling champions of progressive tolerance not only fails to protect those who actually need it most (last time I checked, capitalizing Black has not reduced violence against black people, introducing a multitude of made-up pronouns has not eliminated transphobia, and preaching against white supremacist mathematics education—yes, this really is a thing!—has not brought potable drinking water or meaningful jobs to indigenous communities here in Canada), it also creates a backlash by feeding the trolls who promote actual racism and hate.
Here is a recent example: a tweet by the Mayor of London and the reaction. The tweet said, in part, “There’s no good reason why 65% of people working in science and engineering should be white men.” In one of the responses, we read “Fixing it? That deems it to be broken, in an 85% white country I would have expected the white % to be higher.”
The commenter obviously doesn’t know how to use a calculator, otherwise he would have pondered how 42.5% (assuming half of that white 85% are males) of the population can have 65% of the science and engineering jobs, whereas the remaining 57.5% gets only 35%. Which means that if you’re a white man, you have a 2.5 times better chance to get a job in science and engineering. But aside from the obvious innumeracy, there is this greater problem: by his careless choice of words, the Mayor of London may have made things worse.
And unlike Principal Skinner’s dilemma, this should have been easy to fix. Just say, “There’s no good reason why only 35% of the people working in science and engineering should be women or come from a non-white background” and right there, he’d have avoided feeding the trolls who promote the idea, ever so popular among frustrated, unsuccessful white men, that they are the victims here of identity politics. More careful words would have helped keeping the focus on the second part of the message, which describes genuine action to address the problem in a constructive, dare I say progressive way: “So far we’ve helped 10,000 young Londoners learn these subjects so they can follow their dreams.”
So how about if we stop vilifying J. K. Rowling* and others who do not flawlessly conform to the ideals of some narrow-minded progressive orthodoxy, stop condemning historical figures who lived decades or centuries ago for having failed to live up to the standards of the present, end “cancel culture” and instead start supporting policies that actually help those in need, even if it means sacrifices such as (gasp!) higher taxes?
Naw, why bother. It’s so much easier to just condemn people as racist misowhatever somethingophobes. Makes you feel good!
*Since I wrote this blog entry, I also learned that Rowling is an anti-Semite. How do we know? Why, those gold-loving goblin bankers in Harry Potter, with their obviously Jewish appearance, hooked noses and all.
I find it poignantly beautiful. According to the description by the artist, Antony John, the cow in the painting is old, on her last pregnancy, as she stares outside at a late winter Southwestern Ontario landscape. The equipment in the room may appear scary but it is nothing sinister. It is used to help with difficult pregnancies; the artist also intended it as a metaphor representing the inexorable pull of time.
I fell in love with this painting the moment I saw it.
Tonight, this view of earthrise from the historical Christmas flight around the Moon by Apollo 8 seems and feels especially profound.
We are all in this together on our tiny blue marble. For now, hunkered down, but not beaten. As a result of 21st century science and an incredible push by researchers, we now have working vaccines that will soon be distributed to millions, starting with health care workers and the most vulnerable. Who could ask for a better Christmas present? And even amidst all this, we can still share a joke, as people from Romania to New Zealand, from Canada to Iran erect copycat versions of the famous Utah monolith.
[G]ood night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth. – Frank Borman, Apollo 8 mission commander
But there is a ray of hope. It arrived in the form of the mysterious metal monoliths that popped up all over the globe, most recently even here in our relative neighborhood, on Sherbrooke street in Montreal.
Similar monoliths appeared all over the planet, from British Columbia to Romania, from Iran to New Zealand.
And that makes me feel optimistic.
If, in a year like 2020, humanity can share a joke like this: people on all continents, from different cultures, can happily participate in a shared prank, a harmless diversion, making fun of it all… then, perhaps, there is hope for us yet.
I rarely remember my dreams. It was therefore striking when this morning I woke up from a vivid dream. In my dream, I visited my long dead grandmother’s old apartment, except that she was very much alive, sitting in front of a desk facing the window of her room. I stood at her doorway, not wanting to get any closer, COVID-19 and all. I said to her that we should keep our distance, and at first she nodded but then, bah, she approached me anyway with the intent to hug and kiss me. Not having any better ideas, I quickly held up the sheet of paper or book or whatever it was that I had in my hands, so that instead of kissing each other on the cheek, we ended up kissing through that paper object. I truly was worried that if we are careless, we risk her frail health.
In actuality, my grandmother, who was born in 1901, passed away 26 years ago. I was wondering what prompted this dream. Then I realized: last night, I saw an image on Twitter, a 1908 Canadian painting titled Mrs. Davies at the Sewing Machine, by Albert Henry Robinson.
Not quite the same as my grandmother’s room, but it has the same vibe, same atmosphere.
What an unusual dream.
Yes, I loved my grandmother very much. But I don’t think I ever saw her using a sewing machine.
In 1889, a story by Jules Verne (believed to have been written actually by his son, Michel Verne) was published in the American magazine Forum under the title, “In the Year 2889“.
In it, among other things, Verne envisions video conferencing.
Verne’s story was illustrated by George Roux, who is best known for his numerous illustrations for Verne’s science-fiction novels. I suspect that this particular picture was made in 1889 or 1890 (when Verne’s story, which appeared originally in English, was republished in France.)
I find this image mind-boggling. That 130 years ago, back in the 19th century, someone was able to envision… well, something that, for all intents and purposes, looks pretty much like what many of us are doing today.
It was a last minute decision, but my wife was once again accepted as an artisan vendor, featuring her beautiful knitted hats, mittens and other things, at the Glebe Community Center’s annual Christmas Craft & Artisan Fair. She attended this fair every year for more than twenty years. I hope she will do well again this year.
I also hope that the Glebe Community Center will forgive my little Photoshopping efforts here, as I decided to copy-and-paste one of Ildiko’s designs onto their card advertising the Fair.
I just came across this delightful drawing on Twitter. It’s from a Franck D. Nijimbere (@nijfranck). I don’t know if it is his original creation or if he found it elsewhere, but it describes a situation in life with which I am more thoroughly familiar than I care to admit.
Nijimbere’s caption: “When the deadline comes too close…”
I am no photo artist, and my best camera is, well, my phone. That’s it.
Even so, a few minutes ago I felt compelled to take a couple of photographs. We are a few minutes away from sunset and a big storm just began. Then I looked out my window and I found the building across the street brighter than the sky above.
The light came from the other side of the sky. The Sun was not visible but the sky in that direction was bright enough to light things up.
Photographs (especially, photographs taken with a phone) really don’t do these sights justice. The contrasts were amazing.
The horrific bombing of Guernica in 1937 inspired one of the best known of Pablo Picasso’s paintings. Yet images of the ruined city were not enough: The world did nothing, and two years later, another war began that brought the same horror, but on a much larger scale, to all of Europe and many parts of the world elsewhere.
And here we are in 2016, and it seems we learned nothing. Another civil war rages on, this time in Syria. And another rogue great power intervenes with its mighty warplanes, conducting indiscriminate bombings against civilian targets.
Just like in 1937, the world remains largely silent. Appeasing a great power and its power hungry despot is more important than lives. And we forget the lessons of history: despots cannot be appeased. They always want more. The demons of nationalism, awakened by false promises of restored pride, cannot be appeased. They will always demand more.
What horrors will follow in the coming years? Will we see the streets of Europe, perhaps North America, look like Aleppo’s today? Is Aleppo just a prelude to what is yet to come, just like Guernica was 79 years ago?
As I think of this, it brings to my mind a 33-year old German-language hit song, Nena’s 99 Luftballons. Here is how that song ends (my less-than-perfect translation of the German lyrics; they also produced an English version but it was, well, rather lame):
Neunundneunzig Jahre Krieg
Ließen keinen Platz für Sieger
Kriegsminister gibt’s nicht mehr
Und auch keine Düsenflieger
Heute zieh’ ich meine Runden
Seh die Welt in Trümmern liegen
Hab ‘n Luftballon gefunden
Denk’ an Dich und lass’ ihn fliegen
Ninety-nine years of war
Left no room for a victor
There are no more war ministers
Also no more fighter bombers
Today as I took a stroll
Saw a world, ruined by war
There, I just found a balloon
Thinking of you, I let it fly soon
Recenly, there was a particular piece of music that caught my attention on CBC’s The Signal: Sapokanikan by Joanna Newsom.
The song begins with the lines,
The cause is Ozymandian The map of Sapokanikan is sanded and beveled The land lone and leveled By some unrecorded and powerful hand.
This made me re-read Shelley’s timeless poem about the ruined statue of Ozymandias in the desert:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look at my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
And then here is a real-life Ozymandian tale from a few days ago, from China: A 37-meter tall golden statue of Mao erected in the middle of nowhere.
The ending, however, is different: After the statue has been ridiculed on Chinese social media (with many quoting from Shelley’s Ozymandias) the statue was hastily demolished. Wisdom has not yet departed the Middle Kingdom, it seems.
Yesterday afternoon, my wife and I took a pleasant stroll downtown, visiting the National Gallery. We were specifically interested in their M. C. Escher exhibition, which is set to close in a few days. It was fascinating, though smaller in size than we expected.
Although I am reasonably well acquainted with the works of Escher, there were some prints that I have never seen before. For instance, this street scene from Abruzzi, Italy, which may well be part of the reason why Escher became fascinated with complex systems of seemingly impossible stairs.
Then there was this amusing National Film Board of Canada animation, from 1998, of Escher’s Sky and Water I. My only concern was for the poor museum security guard standing next to it, who had to listen to its soundtrack, endlessly repeated, throughout the day. (But then, he assured me that he is only there for two-hour shifts.)
Did I mention that the exhibition was smaller than we expected? It was housed in a section that also had some fascinating photographs. One of them was of a strange shape, a blistering ball on top of a stick of sorts:
Except that it wasn’t a stick. It was a steel tower, maybe twenty stories high. And the blistering ball was an atomic explosion in the first one 100,000,000th of a second, one of a series of photographs created by Harold Edgerton with his Rapatronic camera in 1952.
Look at the guy wires. They are still taut. But their top sections are already obliterated by the explosion. The only reason they are still taut is that they never had time to relax, nor would they ever: the atomic fireball expands much faster.
I don’t know, to me this is one of the scariest images ever produced by a camera.
Some commentators, like Mehdi Hasan of the Huffington Post, accuse the world (in Mehdi’s words “free speech fundamentalists” in particular) of hypocrisy: we are defending Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish Mohammed cartoons, yet the same Charlie Hebdo fired a well-known cartoonist seven years ago for drawing a supposedly anti-Semitic cartoon.
Well, but here is the rub: he was fired. Not murdered. Moreover, after he was fired, he filed a wrongful dismissal lawsuit and he won. And the editor (a close friend of former French president Sarkozy, who was the target of Siné’s supposedly anti-Semitic cartoons) lost his job.
Had Charlie Hebdo fired a cartoonist or two for drawing anti-Islamic cartoons, nobody would have cared a damn other than the cartoonists themselves and their close circle of supporters or fans. It’s not like Charlie Hebdo is a household name outside of France. Had some offended Muslims chosen to sue Charlie Hebdo in court accusing them of hate speech, they may have won; or they may have lost; but our core values would not have been threatened either way.
The reason why we are upset is because members of Charlie Hebdo’s editorial staff (not to mention police officers, a maintenance worker, and last but not least, some Jewish shoppers halfway across town) were murdered in what was a direct, openly declared attack on one of our fundamental values: the right to freedom of expression, even when said expression offends someone else’s beliefs.
Meanwhile, I continue to be astonished by the cowardice of many Western media organizations when it comes to publishing tomorrow’s Charlie Hebdo cover. CNN at least were honest about it: Jeff Zucker basically said that they’re too afraid to do so.
And speaking of hypocrisy, I just came across the illustrated transcript of Rush Limbaugh’s rant concerning CNN’s decision. A well illustrated transcript; it even has a stock image of some child on a sled. But, predictably, no Hebdo cover. To see the actual cover, you have to follow a link to another news organization’s Web site.
Congrats, Rush, for showing us just what a brave and proudly courageous American you really are.
Cartoonists are frustrated. Muslims are frustrated. A collection of fresh cartoons express the frustration of a world, hijacked today by extremism. Here are two that illustrate these feelings most profoundly.
This drawing by Sudanese political cartoonist Khalid Albaih from Doha, Quatar depicts how many Muslims must feel today:
And the anger of cartoonists (and journalists and, well free people) around the world is captured by Manjul, Chief Cartoonist at the Mumbai-headquartered Daily News and Analysis:
Thank you and all other cartoonists for not letting yourselves be intimidated by murderers. I just hope that the rest of us have the courage not to blame all Muslims for the crimes of a demented few.
Kind of funny, by the way, in the wake of the SONY/The Interview farce how there is a common theme between religious zealots and atheist despots: they both hate humor and freedom of expression.
25 or so years ago, a mutual friend introduced me to Karoly (Charles) Grandpierre, a struggling Ottawa artist of Hungarian extraction. “Pierre”, as his friends knew him, finished his studies at the Ottawa School of Arts and was trying to make a living as a painter. The friend who introduced us died the following year in a tragic car accident. Although we didn’t really stay in touch, I never completely lost track of Pierre, as there were other mutual friends who from time to time told us about him. That’s how we learned, for instance, that eventually he moved back to Hungary.
Well, Pierre is no more. I just read that he passed away last week, at age 65, after a prolonged battle with cancer.
I may be a loyalist royalist but I don’t usually much care about the comings and goings of the Royal Family and I am no art critic either. However, I cannot refrain from commenting on the official portrait of Kate Middleton. It’s like all the goodness has been sucked out of her. Like a charmectomy operation. All the warmth that makes her photographs such a pleasure to look at… none if it is present in the painting. What was the artist thinking?