The BBC is offering Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis as a free streaming audiobook, read by Benedict Cumberbatch.
We all know there’s a problem out there when it comes to women and science. Girls are discouraged from learning about science, and women are harassed out of scientific careers; in fact, the general public doesn’t even think of women when they think of scientists. We’re in a world where few little girls get the chance to imagine themselves as the next generation of engineers, chemists, or physicists.
But just what kind of role models do we have out there for a world that desperately needs more female scientists? Well, there’s more than you might think, both good and bad, in the worlds of fiction. Let’s break them into a few categories, shall we?
She Really Should Be a Scientist
One of the more interesting kinds of lady scientists in fiction is all the characters who have been around for decades, but only became scientists later. In these cases, sometimes the women use their new careers to become more well-rounded characters; other times, they seem to only be scientists because, well, it’s just kind of logical.
Susan Storm, a.k.a. the Invisible Woman, spent years as the Fantastic Four’s team mom and designated damsel in distress. The only reason she was in space to get her powers in the first place was because she wanted to be with her boyfriend on his dangerous mission. It’s only recently that Sue’s been re-written as a scientist in her own right; but even now, science is a minimal part of her character. It’s never a Susan Storm invention that opens a portal to another dimension or foils Dr. Doom. It seems like she’s only a scientist so that her origin story makes sense.
This can be seen in a lot of modern versions of classic characters. Now there are incarnations of Wasp, Jane Foster, Gwen Stacy, and even April O’Neil who seem to be scientists only so they have an excuse to meet the hero or be around at key plot points. As characters, these women can still be great, but as scientists they often give the impression that their lab coats are only accessories. It’s the difference between women just being love interests and being love interests with jobs.
There’s Science Somewhere Behind Those Boobs
A related trope comes from the women who are scientists, but mainly as a means of making them sex symbols. It’s most common among villains because, of course, sex is evil.
Pamela Isley was once a typical botanist, Harleen Quinzel was a respected psychiatrist, and Louise Lincoln was a noted physicist. Then they became Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, and Killer Frost, and either discarded their science or used it for evil. Somehow that also meant wearing leaves, undersized corsets, or ice leotards for the rest of their lives. If these women are mascots for science, it’s only as pinups.
These ladies do tend to do a better job of representing scientists than the previous category, though. Evil women tend to have more agency, working independently for their own personal goals. They’re also characters who get to actually invent things. How can you not respect a woman who can create sentient plants? You have to! Otherwise her science will kill you! The trouble is, every time Poison Ivy is drawn with invisible high heels or Harley is wearing boob socks, we get a certain messages. As impressive as these women, these scientists, are within their own worlds, we’re only supposed to see them as objects for sexual gratification. If only Poison Ivy’s artists respected her as much as Batman does.
Well, Someone’s Got to Invent the Plot
These women still aren’t the main characters, but you have to wonder how anyone would get anything done without them. They’re scientific geniuses with their brilliance on full display. Sometimes they invent the things that take you from episode to episode like Gretchen in Recess, Gadget in Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers, and sometimes even Velma in Scooby-Doo.
Other times their technical wizardry drives the whole series. Where would the Dragon Ball world be without Bulma to invent the dragon ball detector? How could the Fullmetal Alchemist accomplish anything without Winry to build and maintain incredible prosthetics for him? And of course the world of Bioshock would be a lot duller without Dr. Tenenbaum’s research into ADAM and the Little Sisters.
Narratives might not always give these characters the attention they deserve, but no one doubts their genius. These scientists have even become some of the most popular characters of their fandoms. Just look at all the cosplays of Ed from Cowboy Bebop, Kaylee from Firefly, and Asami from The Legend of Korra.
These are women who are far more than sex objects or love interests with a convenient hobby. They’re characters that are important. They serve a vital purpose to their stories. Maybe they won’t save the world themselves, but the heroes sure aren’t going to do it without them.
The worlds of fantasy and sci-fi are great, but they can only inspire us so much. It’s also important to see what science is like in the real, or mostly real, world.
Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan of Bones and Abby of NCIS do wonderful work as forensic scientists. We also get to see Dr. Sattler doing the careful, methodical work of paleobotany before her life goes to a Jurassic hell.
Some of the best representations of real life science though come from The Big Bang Theory. The show has its flaws, but it also has smart, well-rounded, and respected female scientists as central characters. Bernadette is a microbiologist, Amy is a neurobiologist, and Leslie Winkle is a physicist. Their lives aren’t sensational. They don’t get superpowers or invent giant robots or solve murders. Instead they do what most scientists do: they ask questions; they do research; they try to find ways to improve the world and increase our understanding of the universe one tiny step at a time. Besides that, they have lives outside of science. They’re not obsessively cold and logical. They still date, have personal struggles, and act silly.
These are women who show us not only that there can be female scientists, but also that being a scientist is typical walk of life. It can be right for anyone. In most fiction it can be hard to pin what field a scientific character even works it in. These women are rooted in reality. In some ways, that makes them the most inspiring of all.
Please, She Is the Plot
But, as great as the realistic women are, who doesn’t want to be the real hero of the story?
Princess Bubblegum, while not the star of Adventure Time, has saved her kingdom dozens of times, even to the point of using her scientific knowledge to bring her citizens back to life. Kat Donlan of Gunnerkrigg Court is a virtual goddess among robots whose inventions have saved her friends’ lives time and time again. Tinkerbell has been reinvented as a “tinker” fairy who can produce all sorts of gadgets and gizmos to protect her people from Captain Hook. Oracle foils villains the world over with her computer wizardry. And, finally, Agatha Heterodyne of Girl Genius is the quintessential mad scientist, using her amazing mind to build both flying machines and the perfect cup of coffee.
These women are incredible. They’re heroes and scientists of the highest order. They not only save the day, they change the world. The saddest thing about them is how few characters there are that fit this mold. These are the women that can make little girls dream the biggest and the brightest. It’s these scientists that can make us believe that nothing is impossible, that the world is there to be questioned and explored, and that that exploration can be a part of our own lives. Because in a way being a scientist is like being a real-world hero. It’s about believing that you personally can change the world. And that gets a little easier with every incredible role model you have to look up to.
Alex Townsend is freelance writer, a cool person, and really into gender studies and superheroes. It’s a magical day when all these things come together. You can follow her on her tumblr and see her comments on silver age comics. Happy reading!
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The following excerpt is chapter one from Neal Stephenson’s new novel, Seveneves. Stephenson is also the author of the novels Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, and Anathem.
This new Tyler Shields short for The Andrew Weiss Gallery is part of their new Historical Fiction display and stars our fave, Nathan Fillion. Set the day of the moon landing (that’s July 24, 1969), Fillion gets all Mad Men and comes way closer to the DB Cooper ending we wanted than Draper ever did.
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Read the catchy one-line statistics that circulate in the headlines and on social media and you’d be forgiven for thinking that public understanding of science is in a sorry state. Truth is, it’s not as bad it appears — a misconception fueled by the bad survey.
Scientists can track the degradation of coral reefs with striking precision by constructing 3-D models of their surfaces.
The post 3-D Mapping the World’s Corals to Track Their Health appeared first on WIRED.
Lots of people have armies, on Game of Thrones. Stannis has an army. Roose Bolton has an army. Daenerys has an army. So do the Lannisters. But there’s only one army that really matters, and we finally heard about it last night: The Army of the Dead. Spoilers ahead...
The American public library system has been one of the earliest victims of conservative austerity. But while the public library system slowly collapses, a new modern iteration of the members-only lending library has risen. These specialized libraries collect fees from members and curate specific types of boutique collections. VICE Magazine takes a look at a few, including Brooklyn’s Wendy’s Subway and Portland’s The Personal Libraries Library. While these new libraries offer an alternative to a taxpayer-supported system, there are drawbacks:
But the boutique library also breaks with the historical tradition of what made the grand libraries of modern America so great in the first place: practical educational resources for all walks of life, especially those who otherwise wouldn’t have access.
Beloved computer game Myst is getting a Hulu series. We’re not sure whether or not this means we’ll be forced to solve puzzles in each episode, but we are interested. Also, puzzles are cool.
Buzzfeed has asked the Avengers: Age of Ultron director why he left Twitter, and “harassment from feminists” was not his answer.
Speaking with Joss Whedon over the phone, Buzzfeed got straight to business after over 24 hours of the Internet speculating why he left the social media site. Was it militant feminists, they asked?
“That is horseshit,” he told BuzzFeed News by phone on Tuesday. “Believe me, I have been attacked by militant feminists since I got on Twitter. That’s something I’m used to. Every breed of feminism is attacking every other breed, and every subsection of liberalism is always busy attacking another subsection of liberalism, because god forbid they should all band together and actually fight for the cause.
“I saw a lot of people say, ‘Well, the social justice warriors destroyed one of their own!’ It’s like, Nope. That didn’t happen,” he continued. “I saw someone tweet it’s because Feminist Frequency pissed on Avengers 2, which for all I know they may have. But literally the second person to write me to ask if I was OK when I dropped out was [Feminist Frequency founder] Anita [Sarkeesian].”
When we first reported that the creator had deleted his Twitter account, there was no indication as to why. There was a joke in his feed not too long before about getting in trouble with Marvel for what he’s said online, but beyond that there was simply no direct reason given. Many, however, took the criticisms and flat-out insults and threats being thrown his way over Age of Ultron, and in particular over Black Widow’s storyline, as reason for his departure. And yeah, things went a bit wild from there.
Naturally, Gamergate and other anti-feminist malcontents ran with it and decided it was our fault. Yes, The Mary Sue specifically; because, you know, we write critically of Whedon sometimes, and that means feminists are fighting and oh ho ho we’re all going to collapse in on ourselves. One quick note: Whedon favorited our positive review of Age of Ultron before deleting his account. It’s okay to disagree with other feminists. It’s okay to critique media created by other feminists. We can all still get along and be adults about it. It’s not the end of the world.
Others kept it more general, saying that “Social Justice Warriors” were the cause, but the ensuing chain was easy to predict: they said Whedon left because he was harassed and isn’t that terrible and SJWs are all about calling out harassment so why aren’t they doing so when “the call is coming from inside the house,” as it were? The ones saying that were also the same people who continue the targeted harassment of people like Sarkeesian, Brianna Wu, Zoe Quinn, Randi Harper, and countless other less visible individuals online. The hypocrisy was palpable.
The situation was perhaps compounded when acquaintances of Whedon took to Twitter to share their thoughts, seemingly lending credence to the rumor of him being run off by harassment. Firefly actress Jewel Staite tweeted, “I love Joss’s work, his brain, his dance skills, and his friendship. He’s too classy to say this, but I’m not: All you haters can fuck off.” In a now deleted tweet, Patton Oswalt said, “Yep. There is a ‘Tea Party’ equivalent of progressivism/liberalism. And they just chased Joss Whedon off Twitter. Good job, guys. Ugh.” He later admitted he was wrong. Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn also took to Twitter, and then later in a larger Facebook post, to explain his dislike of fans who go too far.
Most of you are aware of this, but anyone who urges a filmmaker to kill himself over a movie plot point needs to seriously examine his life.
— James Gunn (@JamesGunn) May 5, 2015
And yes, I realize that 95% of fandom are beautiful, loving, thoughtful, well-adjusted people – and you are truly & deeply appreciated by me — James Gunn (@JamesGunn) May 5, 2015
And he’s not wrong: harassment (very different than a measured critique of someone’s work, and let’s not conflate the two) is deplorable, no matter where it’s coming from or at whom it’s directed. The internet has become a horrible environment in recent years; besides countless “non-famous” users, celebrities of all types receive harassment and threats constantly as well. After the release of the Paul Blart: Mall Cop sequel, actor Kevin James had this lovely sentiment tweeted at him: “I hope Paul Blart gets slowly tortured to death in that movie. Also, I hope you die slowly of cancer. Asshole.” Harry Potter’s Emma Watson was called “a slut a cunt and a terrible person.” The Ellen Show’s account had this thrown at it: “literally youre an ugly hag and i hate you and i want you to die im actually furious.”
This is what a large number of Twitter users are dealing with every day.
So why did Whedon leave if it wasn’t over abuse? He told Buzzfeed, “I just thought, Wait a minute, if I’m going to start writing again, I have to go to the quiet place,” he said. “And this is the least quiet place I’ve ever been in my life.”
He also added a reason for deletion rather than simply stepping away, saying “Twitter is an addictive little thing, and if it’s there, I gotta check it. When you keep doing something after it stops giving you pleasure, that’s kind of rock bottom for an addict. …I just had a little moment of clarity where I’m like, You know what? If I want to get stuff done, I need to not constantly hit this thing for a news item or a joke or some praise, and then be suddenly sad when there’s hate and then hate and then hate.”
But Whedon understands that you open yourself up to criticism when you give simple opinions online. Buzzfeed reports:
“I’ve said before, when you declare yourself politically, you destroy yourself artistically,” he said. “Because suddenly that’s the litmus test for everything you do — for example, in my case, feminism. If you don’t live up to the litmus test of feminism in this one instance, then you’re a misogynist. It circles directly back upon you.”
One example: Before Age of Ultron opened, Whedon tweeted that he was frustrated that a clip from the upcoming film Jurassic World was “‘70s era sexist” — something he later regretted, telling Variety it was “bad form.” At the same time, Whedon was clearly exasperated by some of the negative commentary about his tweet. “There was a point during the whole Jurassic World thing where someone wrote the phrase ‘championing women marginalizes them,’ and I was like, OK! We’re done! The snake hath et its tail,” he told BuzzFeed News. “There’s no way to find any coherence when everything has to be parsed and decried.”
Yes, it’s a strange circle we live in trying to think critically about entertainment we love. Whedon was doing some parsing and decrying of his own when he tweeted about Jurassic World and then people, ourselves included, parsed and decried what he parsed and decried. Can the round and round be detrimental at times? Sure. But my stance has always been that talking about issues is a good thing. If people stop talking, people stop learning and evolving.
But Whedon also made sure to acknowledge his privilege, and that what he experienced on Twitter was still nowhere near the kind of fear-inducing harassment Sarkeesian receives for doing her work.
“For someone like Anita Sarkeesian to stay on Twitter and fight back the trolls is a huge statement,” he said. “It’s a statement of strength and empowerment and perseverance, and it’s to be lauded. For somebody like me to argue with a bunch of people who wanted Clint and Natasha to get together [in the second Avengers film], not so much. For someone like me even to argue about feminism — it’s not a huge win. Because ultimately I’m just a rich, straight, white guy. You don’t really change people’s minds through a tweet. You change it through your actions. The action of Anita being there and going through that and getting through that and women like her — that says a lot.”
Speaking at the Women in the World Summit last month on “Internet trolls” along with Sarkeesian, Ashley Judd, and California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris, New York Times Magazine writer Emily Bazelon said, “There has to be a price to these companies. They have to be worried, in some way, about their bottom line. I think what’s happening at Twitter is a sense that if Twitter deteriorates as it already has in some of its corners into a place where it’s full, it’s just a cesspit and full of misogyny, that that will turn off users. It’s not part of the brand and the image the company wants to project.”
Is losing someone as high profile as Whedon a high enough price for Twitter to crack down in a real way? They have been making progress as of late, but if this is the event that finally gets their attention, even if harassment wasn’t ultimately why Whedon left, that’s both good and bad. Good because even better policies might be made; bad because countless women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ users have suffered Twitter abuse and made noise for far too long without results.
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Over the past few weeks, Age of Ultron stars Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans have called Black Widow a “slut” and a “whore” in an interview (and promptly issued apologies of varying sincerity); frustrations over gender bias in Marvel toys have resurfaced in light of the films’ release; and debate over director Joss Whedon’s depiction of women has raged online, particularly after the Twitter user suddenly deleted his account–so if it feels like Marvel’s depiction of women has suddenly become more contentious than ever, you’re probably right.
Thankfully, that debate isn’t just isolated to online geek niches; Age of Ultron stars Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo and Elizabeth Olsen are aware of fans’ investment in the franchises’ female characters, and have taken a decidedly un-Renner approach to addressing criticisms of Whedon and Marvel.
In an interview published in April by the LA Times, Johansson defended Ultron‘s female characters, saying
For so long, female superheroes have been mistreated, and I think women’s roles in general are often oversimplified and generic and saccharine [...] I’ve finally been able to be a part of creating this character that is really multifaceted, and it’s fallen into what is generally a kind of male-dominated genre. To finally be sharing that with somebody else [Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch], and certainly with Lizzie, is a wonderful thing and a step in the right direction.
The actress also addressed Black Widow’s absence from Marvel merchandise:
I see it as a vestigial remnant of this kind of sexist sort of mindset. It’s certainly nice that people are noticing and talking about it, whereas before it would just kind of be like, ‘Well, you know, it’s long pajamas and they’re for boys, so of course it’s all the guys on them.’ It’s a conversation that people are having — ‘Where’s all the girls? We want more. We want to see females in this genre who are not the stick in the mud or the damsel in distress or the girlfriend waiting by the window. We want to see characters who reflect the environment that we’re a part of.’
[...] Regardless of gender, characters work when they have substance and when they are grounded in something that is visceral and true. I loved that she is sort of this reluctant superhero, that she is kind of a mutant in some ways, that she didn’t really choose this path for herself … and these are things that Joss just really absorbed. When I read ‘Avengers 2,’ I was really moved by the fact that he stuck with that.
Johansson’s co-star Elizabeth Olsen told the LA Times she hopes Scarlet Witch will serve as a powerful role model: “I can imagine myself during recess or before school on the playground being like, ‘I’m Scarlet Witch! Pow!’ To think of little girls being like, ‘I’m powerful and strong and tough!’ — that’s really cool.”
Mark Ruffalo, who joined other members of the Marvel Universe last week in calling for more Black Widow merch, used his Reddit AMA earlier today to address criticism of Natasha’s characterization in Age of Ultron [some spoilers for the movie to follow]:
I think it’s sad. Because I know how Joss feels about women, and I know that he’s made it a point to create strong female characters. I think part of the problem is that people are frustrated that they want to see more women, doing more things, in superhero movies, and because we don’t have as many women as we should yet, they’re very, very sensitive to every single storyline that comes up right now. But I think what’s beautiful about what Joss did with Black Widow – I don’t think he makes her any weaker, he just brings this idea of love to a superhero, and I think that’s beautiful.
If anything, Black Widow is much stronger than Banner. She protects him. She does her job, and basically they begin to have a relationship as friends, and I think it’s a misplaced anger. I think that what people might really be upset about is the fact that we need more superhuman women. The guys can do anything, they can have love affairs, they can be weak or strong and nobody raises an eyebrow. But when we do that with a woman, because there are so few storylines for women, we become hyper-critical of every single move that we make because there’s not much else to compare it to.
So I know Joss really well. I know what his values are. And I think it’s sad, because in a lot of ways, there haven’t been as many champions in this universe as Joss is and will continue to be. And I know it hurts him. I know it’s heavy on him. And the guy’s one of the sweetest, best guys, and I know him – as far as any man can be a champion for women, he is that.
So it’s been a little disheartening.
But I also see how much people love that aspect of it. There’s an equal amount of people who find the love interest between Banner and Black Widow to be a big standout. And it’s very satisfying to people. So it’s a movie. People are going to have their opinions. And that’s actually a great thing. The fact that this is a debate that’s coming out of this movie is probably a positive thing.
I just don’t think that people should get personal with Joss, because he really is – of anyone – an advocate for women. He’s a deeply committed feminist.
It’s important to draw a clear distinction between the belief that ‘criticism from feminists is a disheartening indicator of the need for better representation overall’ and ‘militant feminists drove Joss Whedon off Twitter’–that last statement buys into a patently untrue narrative that interferes with the well-being of individual women and harms public perception of feminism, and it’s not what Ruffalo is saying here.
But go ahead, Internet denizens intent on ‘getting revenge’ for Joss by blaming feminists–make Mark Ruffalo angry.
(via Michelle Buchman on Twitter and anonymous tipster)
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Keep Portland weird? Mission accomplished, you wonderful nerd.
Brian “Unipiper” Kidd—who liked to ride a unicycle while playing bagpipes dressed as Darth Vader because why wouldn’t you if you could—and BB-8 were kind of a match made in heaven, even though he went the unexpected route of standing on a ball instead of turning his unicycle into BB-8. Either way: great shot, Kidd. That was one in a million.
(via The Daily Dot)
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Today would be the 151st birthday of Nellie Bly, the pioneering journalist who lived fast, died too young, and was the foremother of a new and groundbreaking type of investigative reporting.
Read more of this story at Slashdot.
Tesla announced a battery for your house, the Powerwall. What are some interesting physics questions to consider for this new battery?
The post Should You Get a Tesla Home Battery? Let Physics Explain appeared first on WIRED.
Kyle Vanhemert in Wired:
Talking to doctors via video chat is the future. Talking to doctors via text message is the even better future we should hope for after that. A new partnership between insurance provider UnitedHealthcare and three leading telemedicine companies will make virtual doctor’s visits a reality for many Americans. The insurer is putting telemedicine on par with a trip to the doctor’s office, effectively saying a video visit is as good as brick-and-mortar check-up. It’s a significant step into the future of healthcare, and it points to an interesting design challenge. Setting aside for a moment the complex thicket of regulations governing telemedicine: When it comes to staying healthy, what’s the ideal user experience? NowClinic, Doctor on Demand, and American Well, the companies partnering with UnitedHealthcare, focus on a fairly straightforward brand of telemedicine: Letting patients confer with doctors over video. Their apps aim to virtualize the doctor’s appointment as it’s existed for decades. There are reasons you might want that. Video visits can make quality health care more accessible to people in rural areas. For the rest of us, they may simply be more convenient. An on-demand video appointment means no leafing through germy back issues of People in a waiting room. Brian Tran, product lead for Doctors on Demand, says he wants patients to think of the experience as “FaceTime with a doctor.”
Still, this version of telemedicine isn’t as easy as pointing a web cam at a physician. “We want to balance the elegance of a consumer app with a real clinical encounter,” says Katie Ruigh, American Well’s VP of Product. By “real clinical encounter,” Ruigh means all the stuff that make you feel you’re in the hands of an expert: the formal setting, the white coat, the stethoscope in the pocket. Ruigh says American Well encourages doctors who work at home to create a suitable back drop for video appointments, even suggesting in some cases that they hang their framed diplomas on the wall within the frame. She also points out that American Well looks for “webside manner” when evaluating doctors; when you’re not meeting face to face, things like eye contact and attentive listening become more important to the overall experience.
GPS and satellite data of this week's 7.8 earthquake in Nepal show just how much Earth got moved.
The post What Satellite Data Tells Us About Nepal’s Brutal Quake appeared first on WIRED.
William Giraldi in The New Republic:
Not long into George Gissing’s 1903 novel The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, you find a scene that no self-respecting bibliophile can fail to forget. In a small bookshop in London, the eponymous narrator spots an eight-volume first edition of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. “To possess those clean-paged quartos,” Ryecroft says, “I would have sold my coat.” He doesn’t have the money on him, and so he returns across town to his flat to retrieve it. Too broke for a ride on an omnibus, and too impatient to wait, he twice more traverses the city on foot, back and forth between the bookshop and home, toting a ton of Gibbon. “My joy in the purchase I had made drove out every other thought. Except, indeed, of the weight. I had infinite energy but not much muscular strength, and the end of the last journey saw me upon a chair, perspiring, flaccid, aching—exultant!”
A pleasing vista onto the early twentieth-century life of one English writer, Gissing’s autobiographical novel is also an effusive homage to book love. “There were books of which I had passionate need,” says Ryecroft, “books more necessary to me than bodily nourishment. I could see them, of course, at the British Museum, but that was not at all the same thing as having and holding them”—to have and to hold—“my own property, on my own shelf.” In case you don’t quite take Ryecroft’s point, he later repeats “exultant” when recalling that afternoon of finding the Gibbon—“the exultant happiness.”1 Exultation is, after all, exactly what the bibliophile feels most among his many treasures.
Thanks to Vanity Fair, we’ve been getting the best look at the new characters from Star Wars: The Force Awakens we’ve had so far. Now they’ve released an image of Game of Thrones actress Gwendoline Christie in her chrome Stormtrooper armor as another new character, Captain Phasma.
by Leanne Ogasawara
He was one of the most famous art connoisseurs in Chinese history. And he was also known for walking the streets of Hangzhou dressed in the fashions of 500 years earlier. When asked why he did it, he replied, “Because I like the styles from back then.” But, in fact, everyone knew there was more to it than that. Madman Mi, as Mi Fu was also lovingly known to people of his time, served for a brief time at the court of Emperor Huizong, just prior to the fall of the Empire. Believed to be of Sogdian blood, it was through his mother’s connections at Court as a Lady-in-Waiting and Consort of Emperor Shenzong that he was able to enter the official bureaucracy without ever having had to take any of the official examinations.
But --alas-- despite his excellent connections, Mi Fu was never particularly "career-oriented" --as he remained till the very end devoted to the creation, study and collection of art. His passion started while he was still quite young, and he has described in his writings how his mother more than once sold her ornamental hair combs in order to fund his collecting while he was still only a child.
To call him an eccentric would only be an understatement.
For not only did he walk the streets dressed in clothes from the Tang dynasty, but he was also known for introducing himself and bowing to especially fine specimens of garden rocks, which were of the type he collected; often addressing them politely as “elder brother.” Greatly admired by Emperor Huizong for his knowledge and style, he was appointed Director of the Calligraphy and Painting Institute at Court, where the Prime Minister was said to have observed, “Mi Fu is the kind of person we must have one of, but cannot afford to have two of!” Even though his knowledge was formidable, his personality was such that he didn’t last long at Court.
Spending his later years roaming the waterways of the country on his houseboat, named, “The Mi Family Calligraphy and Painting Barge,” he managed to acquire an immense collection of important works of calligraphy, painting, ancient bronzes, and other antiquities. His acquisitions were sometimes of a dubious method as he was known to have replaced some originals of borrowed works with replicas, and on more than one occasion threatened suicide to friends who wouldn't agree to sell their masterpieces to him. He was also reported to have stolen the plaques from temple gates because they provided fine samples of a particular style of calligraphy. His foibles were usually forgiven, though, because of course he was considered a genius. All in the line of duty? What Mi Fu was unable to acquire, he managed to at least find the opportunity to view, and therefore his knowledge of Chinese art was encyclopedic.
Chinese art history is full of charismatic and playful collectors, like Mi Fu (most of whom not only had encyclopedic knowledge of art history but were established artists in their own right). See, for example, Michel Beurdeley's delightful book on Chinese art collectors through the centuries...I have been fascinated with art collecting practices for years now and love to read books about quirky collectors--definitely some of my favorite collectors of history have come from China!
Right now, however, I am reading a book about American collectors, called The China Collectors. Specifically about American collectors of Chinese art, it tells the tale of some of the greatest collectors from this country, like infamous silk-roader Langdon Warner (the model for Indiana Jones) and George Kates (of the Years that were Fat); as well as big money names such as Charles Lang Freer, two generations of Rockefellers and Arthur Sackler, "the Grand Acquisitor." Many were Harvard men and few come off looking very good.
I just kept thinking, "there are no Mi Fus in this book, that's for sure."
Setting the tone for the entire book, it opens with a graphic description of the looting of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing (1860). The looting occurred at a time when foreign Western powers (especially the British and the French) were circling around China like vultures. Declining the British demand to meet face-to-face in Beijing, the Chinese emperor then up and left the capital all together. Offended, the "allied" British and French forces decided to "teach him a lesson," which resulted in the looting and burning of the Summer Palace in a manner that is difficult to understand.
The loot included tremendous amounts of treasure (in particular huge pearls and other jewels) as well as porcelains and silks and fabulous glass and ivory objects. I have a book, originally published in Italy, with an engraving of the chaos that took place just before the order was given to burn the Palace to the ground. You can see the Western-style Palace to the East (designed by none other than Giuseppe Castiglione) and many Chinese temples and gardens unfolding toward the West. In the center of the engraving are the allied French-British soldiers who are dancing all dressed up in concubines' silks, loaded down with their looted jewels, prancing on the lawn under parasols and fans.
In 1861, Victor Hugo wrote a passionate letter, which has become rather famous, where he described the looting as, "'Two Robbers' broke into this museum, devastating, looting and burning, and left laughing and hand in hand with their bags full of treasures; one of the robbers is called France and the other Britain." When news reached the Emperor, he was astounded by the barbarity of the barbarians and caved to their demands: Tianjin would be opened to the foreigners and foreign missionaries would be allowed to preach and build churches in the interior of the country.
The China Collectors mentions this interesting story that took place amidst the sacking of the Summer Palace, when British Captain Hart Dune found a pack of small dogs with a "grotesque oriental appearance." Grabbing them up in the melee, the dog-loving officer requested and was given permission to present one of the "Pekinese" to Queen Victoria. Guess what the queen named the dog? Yep, Lootie. And little lootie yapped in the royal apartments until 1872.
You just can't make this stuff up.
If the title of the book didn't tell you all you need to know then this scene would, I suspect. This was, after all, a time when just a handful of countries controlled most of the rest of the world. Art collecting in the West (especially since the time of Napoleon) is characterized by a kind of appropriation that would be hard to find anywhere else--past or present. Westerners are not the first people to appreciate and collect foreign art, but I cannot think of any case where it went hand-in-hand with cultural appropriation in quite the same way. Japanese collections do, of course, contain foreign treasures but I feel hard-pressed to come up with looting of the kind we see in the West. From Napoleon, to Hitler to the silk roaders, they were not collecting art as much as they seemed to be collecting cultures. Not to mention ancient Roman and Venetian collectors of antiquities from Greece and Byzantium.
One of the great defenders (not surprisingly) of encyclopedic museums, Philippe de Montebello, seeking to underplay the connection these museums have with looted artifacts, suggests that the first encylopedic museums didn't even exist in European capitals at all. However, I am not convinced the Topkapi and Hermitage museums are comparable on this count. I could be wrong, but I don't believe either collection came about as a by-product of an imperialistic enterprise. The Topkapi is well known for its Ming porcelain--but I was always under the impression that these items were purchased fair and square.
The essay by Philippe de Montebello appears in James Cuno's book the debate over antiquities, called Whose Culture. It is a fabulous book. Perhaps my favorite essay was by Kwame Anthony Appiah. I am a huge fan of his work, and I do find his arguments on the need for encyclopedic museums to stand as places of cosmopolitanism. It is world-enhancing and eye opening to experience art from other cultures. So, museums like the Met are meeting places that serve to resist provincialism, he argues. Appiah is also compelling in connecting the debate to ideas of nationalism by asking,
What does it mean, exactly’, he writes, ‘for something to belong to a people? Most of Nigeria’s cultural patrimony was produced before the modern Nigerian state existed. We don’t know whether the terra-cotta Nok sculptures, made sometime between 800 BC and AD 200, were commissioned by kings of commoners; we don’t know whether the people who made them and the people who paid for them thought of them as belonging to the kingdom, to a man, to a lineage, or to the gods. One thing we know for sure, however, is they didn’t make them for Nigeria.
That said, still, with some notable exceptions (like Sherman Lee of Cleveland Museum fame, for example), the men in China Collectors just don't end up looking very good. They appear greedy and predatory to say the least, too often swooping in like vultures when countries are in chaos... These are guys we find literally peeling off wall paintings from the caves in Dunhuang. Thinking of the silk-roaders, for example, they knew the chaos of the country would allow for massive bargains and carted great treasures out for a song--some even went as far as to excuse what they are doing, declaring that the art would not survive the chaos or upheavals that the countries were experiencing. But,in fact, more was lost than saved (for example, some of the finest frescos that were peeled off walls and put "safely in museums of Dresden, were utterly lost during wartime bombing. This is just one example).
A glance at Hobson-Jobson will tell you that the word loot comes into English from Hindi-ultimately deriving from Sanskrit. It entered the English language between the Opium Wars and the Crimean War and means It means plunder and pillage. In 1858, the younger Lord Elgin--who interestingly the grandson of the Lord Elgin of Elgin Marbles fame was a main player in the sacking of the summer palace in China-- had this to say about loot:
There is a word called loot, which gives unfortunately a venial character to what would in common English be styled robbery.
Loot or robbery, can you come up with this kind of massive transfer of art capital in a foreign museum today that was not a byproduct of European and American colonialism? The Harvard men in the China Collectors also loved the culture of China. That is clear--and yet in the book they come across as grand appropriators more than anything else.... On amazon, one reviewer suggested that this book is a great companion to Hopkirk's Foreign Devils on the Silk Road. I agree! And just like in that book, as you marvel at how outrageous these men were, it's hard not to be impressed by their pure gall!
As children of the Enlightenment, public museums embody not just some of the best of Enlightenment philosophy but some of the worst as well (with ideas concerning custodianship serving as harbingers for later concepts of social Darwinism, for example). In the end, I have never really been a huge fan of encyclopedic museums--especially, I dislike seeing what are national treasures removed from their countries of origin. Whether its Winged Victory in the Louvre or Elgin Marbles can anyone really not say these things are ill-gotten gains and really belong in their countries of origin? It's not that I am saying that no art should leave it's country of origin. I am only talking about 1) the greatest treasures--something that people can more or less agree on that are crucially significant to a particular culture--somehow representing cultural patrimony of the place...like the Elgin marbles or certain Chinese imperial treasures that were taking during looting; those items that are not only deeply significant to a given country (I say this acknowledging that the artists themselves in all probability did not intend their art to be forever linked with a specific culture or location). And 2) items that were also taken in a manner not on the up-and-up. And even then, I think repatriation should come with a demonstrated ability for the country to preserve the art work--for humanity's sake.
While the spirit behind the great museums is enlightened, filing its rooms with beautiful but stolen treasures is not. While each case is unique, isn't it time for our temples of our highest ideals to do the enlightened thing? The Chinese, as described in the last chapter of China Collectors, are taking matters into their own hands, however. Buying Chinese art voraciously to bring it home, they are also trying to buy the contents of the Chinese collection (and other art works) from the Detroit Institute of Art.
How the mighty have fallen...?
Great review of Whose Culture
Painting at top: Empress Dowager Cixi portrait painted by Katharine Augusta Carl (1865–1938)
Painting in center: Sultan Mehmet II by Bellini
Digital Reconstruction of Bezeklik by Ryokoku (Japanese researchers)--if you can find a copy see my Digital Bezeklik in Kyoto Journal's Silk Road Special Issue!
This is the promise of embryonic gene editing: that our species can genetically vaccinate itself against disease, from Alzheimer’s to cystic fibrosis.
The post Read This Before You Freak Out Over Gene-Edited Superbabies appeared first on WIRED.
You are a blob, wandering around and absorbing smaller blobs to grow. (more…)
Bill Keller's interview with David Simon, creator of HBO's The Wire on The Marshall Project:
DS: Because the documented litany of police violence is now out in the open. There’s an actual theme here that’s being made evident by the digital revolution. It used to be our word against yours. It used to be said — correctly — that the patrolman on the beat on any American police force was the last perfect tyranny. Absent a herd of reliable witnesses, there were things he could do to deny you your freedom or kick your ass that were between him, you, and the street. The smartphone with its small, digital camera, is a revolution in civil liberties.
And if there’s still some residual code, if there’s still some attempt at precision in the street-level enforcement, then maybe you duck most of the outrage. Maybe you’re just cutting the procedural corners with the known players on your post – assuming you actually know the corner players, that you know your business as a street cop. But at some point, when there was no code, no precision, then they didn’t know. Why would they? In these drug-saturated neighborhoods, they weren’t policing their post anymore, they weren’t policing real estate that they were protecting from crime. They weren’t nurturing informants, or learning how to properly investigate anything. There’s a real skill set to good police work. But no, they were just dragging the sidewalks, hunting stats, and these inner-city neighborhoods — which were indeed drug-saturated because that's the only industry left — become just hunting grounds. They weren’t protecting anything. They weren’t serving anyone. They were collecting bodies, treating corner folk and citizens alike as an Israeli patrol would treat the West Bank, or as the Afrikaners would have treated Soweto back in the day. They’re an army of occupation. And once it’s that, then everybody’s the enemy. The police aren’t looking to make friends, or informants, or learning how to write clean warrants or how to testify in court without perjuring themselves unnecessarily. There's no incentive to get better as investigators, as cops. There’s no reason to solve crime. In the years they were behaving this way, locking up the entire world, the clearance rate for murder dove by 30 percent. The clearance rate for aggravated assault — every felony arrest rate – took a significant hit. Think about that. If crime is going down, and crime is going down, and if we have less murders than ever before and we have more homicide detectives assigned, and better evidentiary technologies to employ how is the clearance rate for homicide now 48 percent when it used to be 70 percent, or 75 percent?
The devastated people who live among the aged brick cities and temples that crumpled in Nepal’s 7.8 earthquake may soon be on a faster path to recovery thanks to an array of technologies—both new and old—that can help locate survivors, ease the fears of those searching for loved ones, and get food and medicine into […]
The lava lake at the summit of Kilauea is overflowing, creating lava flows in the summit crater.