February 11th, 2010


[OBSCURA] Robert Cornelius, self-portrait

Originally taken here from the Wikimedia Commons, this self-portrait of American photographic pioneer Robert Cornelius is one of the first photographic portraits ever taken. This photo really resonates with me, and not only because young Cornelius was a handsome man.

First, some history.

News of Daguerre's publication arrived in the United States in late August or early September, 1839, and several Philadelphians set out immediately to replicate Daguerre's process. [. . .] In October, a young manufacturer of lamps, Robert Cornelius, worked with Saxton to learn the basics of the daguerreian process and soon began to [.]

As ingenious as he was fearless, Cornelius brought with him a strong practical knowledge of metallurgy and chemistry. Although some scientists had felt that the exposure times needed to make successful photographs were too long for portraiture, in November or December, Cornelius proved them wrong by making himself the subject of what may have been his first successful photograph - a self-portrait taken outside of his place of business on 8th Street between Market and Chestnut (three blocks from the APS).

This and other innovations, as the Daugerrian Society's reproduction of a 1840 article from Philadelphia's Godey's Lady's Book makes clear, certainly caught plenty of attention from his contemporaries.

There is a young gentleman of this city, by the name of Robert Cornelius, one of the firm of the well known house of Cornelius, Son & Co., who has more genius than he yet supposes himself to possess. As a designer in the way of his profession, he has no equal; as a ventriloquist—but here we are getting into private life:—as a Daguerreotypist his specimens are the best that have yet been seen in this country, and we speak this with a full knowledge of the specimens shown here by Mr. Gouraud, purporting to be, and no doubt truly, by Daguerre himself. We have seen many specimens by young Cornelius, and we pronounce them unsurpassable—they must be seen to be appreciated. Catching a shadow is a thing no more to be laughed at. Mr. Cornelius, in one matter, has outstripped the great master of the art, a thing, by the way, peculiar to our countrymen; he has succeeded in etching his designs onto the plate, from which they cannot be removed by any effort. A few more experiments in this way, and we shall do without engravers—those very expensive gentlemen.

Alas, despite operating two of the earliest photographic studios in the United States, Cornelius seems to have dropped out, perhaps, as Wikipedia suggests, because "as the popularity of photography grew and more photographers opened studios, Cornelius either lost interest or realized that he could make more money at the family gas and lighting company."

The understandable imperfections of this image--"Robert Cornelius, head-and-shoulders [self-]portrait, facing front, with arms crossed" as the Library fo Congress describes it, "an off center portrait of a man with crossed arms and tousled hair" as Wikipedia says--make it such a relevant one. In 1839, understandably imperfect images taken with new technology nonetheless managed to make it around the world, managed to preserve bits of the past from a certain obscurity. The same sort of thing is going on now in 2010, as people around the world take advantage of digital cameras and webcams and cell phone cameras to photograph themselves and preserve some precious moments in time and share the images with the rest of the world. The images may be equally imperfect--off centre, say, or with awkwardly-positioned subjects--but that just reinforces the true-to-life nature. I'm part of--you're probably part of--a global, transgenerational community founded by Cornelius, and that makes me for one quite pleased.

[META] A question of Livejournal friends lists

Just a few minutes ago, I made a post--[OBSCURA] Robert Cornelius, self-portrait--directly from Flickr. Because Flickr doesn't allow me to post with tags or the [OBSCURA] icon, I later reopened the post and added both.

I've been told in the past that edited LJ posts aren't visible on friends' friends lists. Is this true? Can you see today's [OBSCURA] post?

Thanks for your help,

[MUSIC] On Jacques Lu Cont, YouTube, and the remix

Right now, my favourite remixer is Jacques Lu Cont, one of the brand names of British producer Stuart Price. Price has consistently done a fantastic job of taking songs by any number of musicians--Coldplay and Madonna and Gwen Stefani and the Killers and Depeche Mode--and remixing them superbly, throwing in fantastic 80s-style synthpop while remaining true to the song. He has even made me like Coldplay. The YouTube video for the Thin White Duke remix of "Vida la Vida" is below.

This YouTube playlist includes 33 videos of songs he's remixed. It makes wonderful music to write to.

Even though I've been personally familiar with the remix since 2000, when I began downloading Eurythmics and Garbage remixes by the gigabyte, it's only since the advent of YouTube, with its fan remixes and official remixes put to one official video or a fan video or just a simple graphic, that I've really begun to hear a huge number of remixes of songs by any number of groups. I like this, not only on its own terms (so much new music!) but because it lends new scope for creativity, allowing different people who might otherwise have experimented and not seen their experiments propagate very far to achieve a global audience. The remix is perfect for our late modern era, really, the product of a bricolage culture that certainly seems likely to continue. The two meet, and combine, to produce an era that I like quite a lot.

bricolage culture

[LINK] "As death overwhelms Haiti, the spirits go unserved "

I read once how the sister of one of the victims of Vancouver-area serial killer Robert Pickton wrote how she broke down watching the movie Troy, weeping when she saw King Priam begging for the return of his son's body. Pickton took her body from her family, she realized; she could never be returned, even mourned with any sense of completion. Anna Mehler Paperny's Globe and Mail article describes how Haitians, with their rich spirituality that structures their lives and certainly provides for an afterlife, have been left bereft by their inability to properly bury so very many.

Here religion is everywhere: in convenience stores and lottery booths with names like “Dieu Seule;” in images of Jesus spray-painted on concrete walls and crazily coloured “tap-tap” trucks; in the churches and evangelical schools found on every block even in the most destitute corners of the country.

There are rules about how to bury the dead, how to dress the corpse and when to pray.

Today, death is everywhere in Port-au-Prince. For a people who see each funeral as important and every coffin as unique, the magnitude of an estimated 150,000 deaths is a difficult thing to come to terms with. Not being able to retrieve the bodies of one's loved ones from the ruins is excruciating; finding the dead and being unable to bury them is little better.

[. . .]

That simple fact is a sign of how hard people have been hit. In Haiti, rites such as baptism, communion and a funeral are mandatory markers on life's way. “This is a country of rites of passage,” says Danielle Jeudi, a baptized Catholic and voodoo trainee. “On a moral level, not to be able to do this, it's extremely difficult.”

According to voodoo tradition, the spirit moves on to another life after death. But the ceremonies and prayer are as much for the bereaved as for the dead. “There is so much pain,” Ms. Jeudi says. “Personally, I haven't seen anyone cry. But everyone is mourning their dead. It's obligatory.”

Marie-Ange Bissainthe has been living with her daughters and two other families in a tent at the Pétionville Golf Club since the earthquake struck. It's not bad, she says – and far better than just about any other of the spontaneous settlements that have sprung up – except for the spirits tormenting her children at night.

Everyone knows someone with a story. With his friends' help, Mr. Louis's neighbour, Sergo, managed to unearth his wife and two young children from the rubble of their home. Two more children, however, remain buried. Many of those who do recover the bodies of their loved ones find themselves unable to do anything with them. They can't afford to bury them, and morgues don't have the space to hold them.

For the fortunate, there are funerals – of a sort. Yvane Mesier is doing a booming business selling rum in Port-au-Prince's cemetery. Every afternoon there are funerals here, she says – so many that crypts are often opened up and the coffins removed so new ones can be put in.

[LINK] "Flailing MySpace Loses CEO, Death Spiral Continues"

Wired isn't very positive about MySpace's future.

First, the audience it stole from Friendster left for Facebook. Now, Owen Van Natta, the former Facebook executive Rupert Murdoch hired less than a year ago to reverse the site’s declining fortunes, has also left, MySpace announced late Wednesday night.

The bell has been tolling for MySpace for years, with users leaving the site pretty much as they found it: as a place to hear what a band sounds like and see what they look like in a matter of seconds, rather than as a place where they establish an online identity and communicate with friends.

After signing on last April, Van Natta wisely acknowledged this change in how people were using MySpace — as a media site rather than as a social network — by doubling down on the ad-supported MySpace Music service. However, the company was not able to fix problems with the service including poor integration with existing band pages, which left many users confused or uninterested in the service.

According to an Ad Age source, Van Natta bailed on MySpace because he was frustrated by the company’s “slow pace of change” and “entrenched culture.” A dearth of fast, competent, loyal software engineers in the Los Angeles area reportedly slowed things down even further. MySpace is headquartered in Beverly Hills, in southern California. Facebook, which evolves its design and feature set so often that some users can’t keep up with the changes, is located in the more technology-oriented Palo Alto, California.

[LINK] "Hungarian House for sale"

A central institution of Toronto's Hungarian-Canadian diaspora, the Hungarian House, is on the auction block as the more recent generations of the community assimilate and lose interest. The best that the centre's leaders can hopw for, it seems, is that real estate prices in the gentrifying the Dufferin/St. Clair West Street area where the centre is found might let it start over in a less expensive neighbourhood.

Lehel Ilyés inspects a new For Sale sign attached to the exterior of the Hungarian House on St. Clair Avenue near Dufferin Street. It went up the day before.

The youth leader knows the house has become an albatross around the neck of a Hungarian community that's struggling to promote their culture.

"The community should be thriving," he says. "You've got 60,000 members and you have events with only 20 people. People aren't coming. They don't care."

He hopes they can catch a break thanks to recent gentrification in the area brought on by council's plan to develop city "avenues" and expand rail transit.

As funds from membership dues decrease as the older generations slowly die off and renovation costs reach into the six digits each year, they desperately need the cash from the sale of the valuable land, he says.

[. . .]

The 50,000 sq. ft. building was listed at $5.7 million on January 11. Observers say whatever happens to the property, it will be emblematic of the possibilities emerging from the City's Avenue Study for the area, and the effects of the TTC Transit City plan.

"This is a hot area," says Ward 21 councillor Joe Mihevc. "It means property values are higher and (landlords) are raising rents."

Because the Avenue Study promotes intesification -- up to a point -- in mid-rise zones, he says the Hungarian community stands profit, especially since their own focus is shifting.

"The younger generation live in the suburbs," he says. "For the Hungarian community, it's a chance to renew."

[LINK] "The Slow Demise of the New York Accent"

Joe. My. God reports that, according to the New York Post, the distinctive New York City accent we all know and love is disappearing as populations shift and the accent falls out of favour.

"In Manhattan [the accent] is definitely dying," Jochnowitz says. Manhattan has also seen the most influx of new people from outside the state, who don't usually pick up an accent. The dialect "remains mostly in the outer boroughs, and is most alive in Staten Island." Staten Island is a known stronghold of New York talk not only because it has the most stable New York population, but because "anywhere you have lots of white people — Jews and Italians and Irish and Germans — whose origins are in the city, you're going to find that accent pretty systematically," Newman says. Its relative isolation may have also helped.

As the accent is dying in some places, it's migrated to others. New Yorkers have brought their accents with them to Long Island — also known as Lawn Guyland — or New Joisey (hello, cast of "Jersey Shore"!) No one asks to meet you on the corner of "Thoity Thoid and Thoid Street" anymore, or declares that "the oily boid gets the woim" — that particular feature has been gone for "50, 60, 70 years," Jochnowitz says. It was "laughed out of the dialect" — stigmatized so much that people were shamed into cutting it out. The same thing is happening now to the "yuhs guys" and "sawr it." "If people try to lose [their accent], they're more likely to lose it if they feel they're not going to get ahead in life with it," Jochnowitz adds, although he mentioned that a good number of educated people hang on to their accents, though sometimes a bit self-consciously. Ed Koch, himself an unrepetent R-dropper, once went so far as to say he wouldn't mourn Brooklynese if it disappeared.

[BRIEF NOTE] On our ongoing invisibility from extraterrestrial observers

80 Beats has the happy news.

If you’ve been expecting to hear from a far-off alien civilization, don’t hold your breath, suggests Frank Drake, the founder of Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI)–the odds of ET phoning Earth may be diminishing. And your digital TV might well be to blame.

Speaking at a meeting of the Royal Society in London, Drake said that digital transmissions are effectively “gagging” the planet. In the fast-fading analog age, TV and radio signals transmitted around the world escaped into space. At present, the Earth is surrounded by a 50 light year-wide ‘’shell” of radiation from analogue TV, radio and radar transmissions, he said [The Telegraph]. Those signals reach distant stars, which means that if someone is home at any of those stars, they could heard us.

But Drake says that phasing out analog transmissions from TV, radio and radar is making our planet electronically invisible from outer space. While an old-style TV transmitter might generate one million watts, Drake says the power of a digital satellite signal is around 20 watts. He added that present-day satellites tend to point towards the earth rather than old-school transmitters which beam their signals all over the place [The Guardian], and notes that digital cable is even more impossible to detect from space. He also said that if Earth is making itself “invisible,” albeit unintentionally, then other civilizations are probably doing the same. And he further hypothesizes that in some cases it might even be deliberate; a proverbial drawing of the kitchen blinds, so to speak [Wired].

The post ends by reporting Drake's suggestion that SETI researchers will have to look harder, but radio engineer Scott Bidstrup argues in a very detailed essay that even outside the questions of digital transmissions making the identification of coherent signals unlikely and the exceptional sensitivity that would be required, simpler factors like the movements of the Earth and the width of narrow-beam transmissions make it unlikely that anything but the loudest beacon would be detected. There's only a narrow period of time between the advents of analog and digital radio transmissions, judging by our experience, and there's little enough that makes our planetary system a likely target.

If our experience is typical, for any given alien civilization out there, we've got only about a hundred year window from the time they discover radio and are using modulation techniques that generate signals of a type we can detect, to the time they start using digital signals that to us are indistinguishable from noise. During that brief time, they have to use high-powered microwave transmitters and huge parabolic antennas that are sufficient to generate signals concentrated enough for us to detect them, and that means the chances of their transmitting in the right direction are one in tens of millions; we have to be listening at just the right time (during a window of a few seconds per day), a chance of one in thousands, and on the right frequency out of an infinity of frequencies, and our listening in just the right direction for just the right type of emission.

But are they transmitting in our direction deliberately? The possibility exists that another civilization may be attempting to attract our attention, and doing so with a beacon signal aimed our direction.

Why would they suppose that this very ordinary star of ours, with its very ordinary solar system is any different than most, in that it harbors a supposedly intelligent civilization? Our solar system does not really stand out in any way that would presuppose they would think it a likely candidate. A far more likely candidate would be a solar system with a Jupiter-like planet orbiting about the same distance from the sun as us, a planet with a large family of moons, one or more of which is likely to be the right size to be earthlike. That lets us out. Our solar system is more unlikely than most - an earth-sized body too close to its star to be habitable (Venus), and another body at just the right distance, but too small to retain an atmosphere that is thick enough to make it hospitable or even habitable (Mars). The planet in the middle between them has a large moon, meaning it has been the object of a collision with a sizeable planet in the distant past, and that reduces the likelihood of its habitability. Likely to be a desert planet, with a thin atmosphere, bombarded by lots of meteorites, enough to make a civilization unlikely. Guess we'd best pass that solar system up and aim our beacon beam elsewhere towards a more likely candidate solar system.

The telescopic observation of worlds in other planetary systems might be more likely to produce signs of extraterrestrial civilization, he concludes. That doesn't give us quite the amount of safety we might like--we might have gone dark to worrisome extraterrestrial civilizations, but with sufficiently large telescopic arrays they'd be able to see some of our more impressive works--but I'm pleased with this all the same. In order to avoid being caught by far more capable predators with many sharp teeth, small prey need to make as quiet a ::meep:: as possible.