A blog about the arts, books, flora and fauna, vittles, and whatever comes to mind!

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Friday, March 4, 2011

For Adults Only: Tart Cards

A trade card for Christopher Gibson's upholstery shop in St. Paul's Churchyard, London,
1739-1742.  Ink on paper, approx. 6-3/4" x 8-1/4", courtesy of Victoria & Albert Museum.

Before there were business cards, there were trade cards.  At the beginning of the 17th century in London they were used as both advertising and maps, as there wasn't a formal numbering systems for the streets.  Since the concept of newspapers at the time was not fully developed, trade cards were the most effective form of advertising.  As technology developed that made newspapers more practical and affordable, advertising in them began to be widespread, and trade cards became obsolete.

Calling card of Johann van Beethoven, Ludwig's brother.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Calling cards, also known as visiting cards, were a descendent of trade cards and they became popular, too; by the Victorian era their use was widespread.  These were not only fashionable, but also served as a way to create one's social brand. They were smaller in size than trade cards, usually about 2" x 3".  There were fixed rules about using them, as there were about many social conventions of the era.

King Kelly, catcher for the Boston Beaneaters, 1888.
Cards were often  included in cigarette packs.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Starting over a hundred years ago both trade and calling cards became collectible items.  These were such a favorite pastime for many, that it lead to trading cards, the most developed being baseball cards.

All this history led to a new industry in London, which has spread to other areas where prostitutes ply their trade - Las Vegas comes to mind.  Called "tart cards", they are most common in London but are found elsewhere in the United Kingdom. They are typically placed in phone books by professional "carders", who make a run of phone booths replacing cards that are removed by prospective clients, angry citizens, collectors, or the telephone company.

Image courtesy of Corkscrew-balloon.

Despite numerous attempts to make them illegal and difficult to place, the use of tart cards perseveres.  Ten years ago it was estimated that about 13 million cards were placed in London phone boxes each year.  There have been efforts to prosecute anyone leaving cards in phone booths, and to cut the phone lines of the numbers on the cards, but to no avail.

Image courtesy of Corkscrew-balloon.

One of the more original ways that has been tried to keep the cards in booths is by use of cards that had adhesive stickers on the back.  This made it very difficult for the phone company to remove, as it left a white layer behind that would scratch the booth when scrapers were used.  So the phone company came up with an ingenuous chemical anti-adhesive spray, which allowed the cards to be peeled off easily.

Image courtesy of Corkscrew-balloon.

However, by this time tart cards became much coveted collectibles, and the sticker ones even more desirable.  So they remain until they are taken.  Tourists are known to take the standard cards and send them as postcards.  They have become part of London folklore; they now have a cult following.  Even kids are collecting them.

Image courtesy of Corkscrew-balloon.

Wallpaper magazine, in conjunction with St Bride Library and Type, asked graphic designers to tease out the tart within every font and create their own designs for tart cards.  These graphic qualities lend themselves to the tart card phenomenon, as you can see below:

Tart cards have influenced even mainstream artists.  However, they are not meant to glamorize the lifestyle of sex workers.  This industry has serious issues that are not to be glossed over lightly.

Although the world's oldest profession has kept up with the times, using the internet and mobile phones,  the use of tart cards endures.

Unless otherwise noted, images from Wallpaper magazine.
If you interested in seeing more of the "graphic art" cards, 
be forewarned, some are not for the timid!

Also, please read designer Mike Dempsey's remarks about
the sex industry, also from Wallpaper.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Chuck Gives Ed the Bird

Painting by Marion Rose Fine Art.

I've written before about ravens - those cocky, raucous, smart-ass birds.  But apparently I'm not the only one with an affinity for them.  Seems a couple of well-known writers had an affinity for them, too.

Charles Dickens loved animals, and had in his lifetime three pet ravens.  Each one of them was named "Grip".  Grip the First died in 1841, possibly from eating chips of lead paint from a wall being prepared for repainting.  Dickens had the bird preserved and mounted in a glass display case for his study.  After Dickens's death, a fan bought the taxidermied bird and donated him to the Free Library of Philadelphia, where he sits today.  He was known in the Dickens household as "Grip the Clever", "Grip the Wicked", and "Grip the Knowing".

Grip the First in the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Grip was loved by the Dickens kids, even though he bit their ankles.  He could talk, saying things like "Hello, Old Girl", "Never say die", "Keep up your spirit", and "Polly put the kettle on, we'll all have tea".  He slept on horseback in the stables.  Mamie Dickens, daughter of Charles, wrote that Dickens loved animals, flowers, and birds, but most strongly his ravens.  There were flocks of them at Devonshire Terrace, the Dickens family home.

Three of Dickens's ten children with Grip.
Drawing by Daniel Maclise, 1841.

Dickens was writing Barnaby Rudge when Grip died, and in the interest of further studying ravens, another Grip took his place, but it was the first who gave Dickens the idea of making a raven a character in the book.  Initially, the book did not have any reference to a raven.

Barnaby Rudge and Grip.
Ink and wash drawing by Fred Barnard, courtesy of the Dickens Museum.

Barnaby Rudge originally was printed in serialized form between 1840 and 1841. Edgar Allan Poe was working in Philadelphia for Graham's Magazine at the time and reviewed the book in the February 1842 issue.  The 12-column review applauds Dickens's effort, mostly praising him for his ability to write dramatic characters.  Poe does mention a couple of flaws, one concerning the raven:  "The Raven, too, intensely amusing as it is, might have been made more than we now see it, a portion of the conception of the fantastic Barnaby.  Its croakings might have been prophetically heard in the course of the drama."

John Tenniel's illustration for "The Raven", 1858.

In chapter 17 of Barnaby Rudge, Barnaby throws his raven lumps of meat.  When he exhausted his supply he told the raven, "That's all", to which the Grip, the raven, cried, "More!  More!"

Three years later Poe published his narrative poem "The Raven" in the New York Evening Mirror.  Poe was so obviously influenced by Dickens, hence Grip.  He never denied the inspiration.  He even mentioned Barnaby Rudge in his companion essay to his poem, "The Philosophy of Composition".  Other writers noticed the similarity as well.  James Russell Lowell, of the Fireside Poets, in 1848, wrote in his satirical book A Fable for Critics:

Here comes Poe with his raven, like Barnaby Rudge.
Three-fifths of him genius and two-fifths fudge.

Dickens and Poe met at least once, in 1842, in Philadelphia.  Poe had sent some of his works, as well as his review of Barnaby Rudge, to Dickens prior to their meeting.  Aside from the content of letters exchanged between them, we know little of what they spoke about.   We do know that Poe asked Dickens to help him find a publisher in England.  Apparently Dickens made attempts to do so, but nothing came of them.  There was an anonymous critique of Poe in an English journal, which Poe attributed to Dickens.  This critique and the fact that Dickens didn't find a publisher for him led to a falling out between the two writers.

Illustration for the final lines of "The Raven"
by Gustave Doré, 1884, Library of Congress.

Both went on with their respective careers, having intersected briefly but bound for eternity by a raven.  Clever bird.  Not only did it inspire two famous writers, but it came out looking quite the sagacious creature in both their works.  The American Library Association even designated Grip a "Literary Landmark".  All the result of Dickens giving Poe the (concept of a) bird.


Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Greatest

"I ain't got no quarrel with the Vietcong.  No Vietcong ever called me Nigger."

The Greatest.  The Champ.  The Louisville Lip.
Photo by Ira Rosenberg, World Journal Tribune, 1967.

My mild-mannered, quiet and shy, Walter Mittyish dad was full of contradictions. It wasn't until I was an adult that I found out he had done some spy work for the Army in WWII while stationed in Greece.  For a man who would more likely get hurt avoiding a confrontation than getting into one, he LOVED boxing.  Unable to get his fix with televised U.S. events, he bought an enormous antenna and watched whatever events he could from the Mexican stations we had access to in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles County.  Those typically bored me, especially with the bad reception, but there was one boxer that had me glued to the set - Cassius Clay, who became better known as Muhammed Ali.

His unorthodox style was apparent, even to a kid.  I loved "rope-a-dope", and his trademark line "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee".  I liked the way he would "trash talk" his opponents, and his silly poetry.  He was an entertainer as well as a boxer.  He never disappointed as either.

Ali on a bridge overlooking the Chicago River, 1966, Magnum Photos.

Years later, having succumbed to the charms of boys, fashion, and the British Invasion, I lost interest in pretty much everything else.  But I was sharply brought back to the present when my guy - Ali - was arrested for evading the draft.  A boxer not willing to fight?  What was he afraid of?  I credit Ali for opening up my eyes to what was really going on in the world, and not accepting the blather that was the official line of the news media and most political pundits.  

Viet Nam did that to many of us, I think.  But here was a guy who was willing to give up all that he had worked for - he was stripped of his boxing title and his license was suspended - and was benched for four years until his successful appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.  A man who won 56 out of his 61 fights, 37 by KO, fought to follow his conscience.  That was a big lesson for me.

Aside from this special issue, Sports Illustrated awarded Ali
"Sportsman of the Year" in 1974.

In 1964, Ali was not qualified to enter the U.S. Armed Forces because his writing and spelling skills were found to be below par.  In '66, the tests were revised and Ali passed and was classified 1A, eligible for the draft.  When notified of the reclassification, Ali stated he would refuse to serve and publicly announced that he was a conscientious objector (CO).

The requirements to be classified as a CO are basically three:  one must show that s/he is conscientiously opposed to war in any form; s/he must show that this opposition is based upon religious training and belief; and s/he must show that this objection is sincere.  When reviewing these requirements, the Selective Service System must limit their concern to the individual, and not their interpretation of the dogma of the religious sect.  

Ali in the Feb. 2011 GQ issue devoted to the 25 Coolest Athletes of All Time.

When Ali's application to be classified a CO was rejected by his local draft board, he made an administrative appeal.  The State Appeal Board referred his file to the DOJ for an advisory recommendation, and the FBI conducted an inquiry, as required by statute.  The FBI interviewed 35 people, including family members, friends, neighbors, business and religious associates.  A hearing was then held, and the hearing officer, a retired judge, heard testimony from Ali, both his parents, an attorney, and his minister, and read a full report from the FBI.  He concluded that Ali was sincere and recommended that the CO claim be honored.

The DOJ wrote the Appeal Board stating that the claim should be denied, which the Board did without stating the reasons.  There are other issues at stake here, but the one that merited the Supreme Court's reversal was the fact that Ali was not given a reason for denial of his application to be considered a CO.  Clay v. United States, 403 U.S. 698, was decided unanimously on June 28, 1971.

Poster for the 1996 Academy Award winning documentary
about the Rumble in the Jungle.

While he did not serve prison time, he did lose four prime fighting years.  He was also bitterly attacked in the press, as he became a symbol of opposition to the war and a lightning rod for hawks.  Many thought his conversion to being a Black Muslim was a gimmick, but evidence exists that he became one prior to his announcement.  Ironically, during this time he began lecturing on college campuses - the man who was deemed below Army standards.  He became a global celebrity, and his career either coincided with or made the "golden age of boxing." Jack Dempsey once said, "He brought back boxing.  It was dying, and he brought it back."

Since his retirement, he has devoted much of his time to philanthropy.  In 1984, he announced that he has Parkinson's disease, and has been involved in raising funds for the Muhammed Ali Parkinson Center in Phoenix.  He has also supported the Special Olympics and Make a Wish Foundation, among other organizations.

Ali's gloves are part of a collection of his paraphenalia in the Smithsonian.
Photo courtesy of Mark Pelligrini/Wikipedia.

The three-time world heavyweight boxing champion will be on hand later this month at the unveiling of an art installation dedicated to him.  Artist Michael Kalish, aptly another personality with a flair for hype and public relations, has been working on a piece entitled "reALIze", in connection with architectural firm Oyler Wu.  Using five miles of stainless steel cable, 2,500 pounds of aluminum pipe, and 1,300 punching bags, Kalish is creating an unusual portrait of Ali.  His face can only be seen from one vantage point, but the piece is amazing nonetheless.  It will be on view in Los Angeles from March 25 through April 9 at the L.A. Nokia Plaza.  Ali will be at the unveiling handing the final bag to be hung.

All four photos by Dwayne Oyler.

Muhammed Ali doesn't know, and probably never will, the effect he had on a middle-class white girl.  Decades later he is still an inspiration, a role model, and simply The Greatest.


Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The First Computer?

The extant fragments of the Antikythera Mechanism.

Over 2,000 years ago, a Roman merchant vessel weighing probably 300 tons made a wrong turn and the ship crashed into coastal cliffs off the island of Antikythera near Crete.  The ship was carrying statues - life-size ones made of bronze and marble, other bronze sculptures, jewelry, coins, wine, and a unique instrument, now known as the Antikythera Mechanism.

Location of the island of Antikythera, relative to Crete
and Greece, showing the location of the wreck.

What exactly the device is has been debated since it was found in 1900 by a group of sponge divers.  Preserving items that have been underwater for long periods is difficult with today's knowledge and techniques, but little was known then about the necessary cautions and procedures.  When the device was brought to the surface it broke into several pieces.  It was initially ignored as the recovery teams were bent on sorting and identifying the other artifacts first.

The largest piece of mechanism as it exists today.
An x-ray of the piece above revealing the internal gears.

Researchers believe that this device was not built for astronomers, but may have been built to teach laypersons about astronomy.  A small dial inside the Metonic calendar (one of two used on the device)  spelled out locations where Panhellenic games were held, one of which was the Olympics.  A second dial on the back predicts eclipses.  This second dial, with its 18-year cycle, corresponds to the months in the Saros cycle, another ancient calendar system used for tracking eclipses.  There are 18 divisions marked with glyphs which were very accurate and matched the start dates of 100 eclipses occurring in the last 4 centuries BCE, as verified by NASA.

A model showing the gears of the reconstructed device.
Bronze parts are the ones researchers have evidence for;
copper parts are the ones researchers inferred.

The device was apparently built sometime between 150 and 100 BCE. Archimedes of Syracuse (he of "Eureka!" in the bathtub) is said to have constructed similar ones, and seven of the months inscribed on the device match a calendar used in Syracuse.  He died before this one was built, but he may have made a prototype to it.  Hipparchus, an astronomer, has also been proposed as the designer because of his theory that irregularities of the Moon's progression was caused by its elliptical orbit.  Cicero in the first century BCE (De Natura Deorum 2.34-35) mentions a device "recently constructed by our friend Posidonius, which at each revolution reproduces the same motions of the sun, the moon, and the five planets."

On right of each photo is a CT slice generated from x-ray data.
A diagram showing the complexity of the gear system.
The black ones are the ones visible from x-rays.  The red
ones are speculations for completion of the device.
Evidence suggests there may have been even more gears.

There is little doubt that the mechanism is of Greek origin, as the writing on the device is in ancient Greek.  It used a Metonic calendar, which was based on Babylonian mathematical progressions to address the fact that 12 lunar months only add up to 354 days, which is 11 days short of a solar year.  The names of the months on the device match those of calendars from the Corinthian colonies of ancient Greece, suggesting that the device may have come from there.

A computer-generated reconstruction of the Antikythera
Mechanism shows the back dials.  The upper one is a Metonic
calendar for fitting lunar months into solar ones.  The bottom
dial is an 18-year calendar for predicting solar and lunar eclipses.
Close-up of top dial in image above shows the right inner dial.  This one follows
the four-year cycles of the Panhellenic games.  Year 1 shows the Isthmian games
in Corinth and the Olympic games in Olympia.  Year 2, the Nemean games in Nemia
and the Naian games in Dodona.  Year 3, the Isthmian games in Corinth and the Pithian
games in Delphi.  Year 4, the Nemean games and a game as yet to be deciphered.
Close-up of the bottom dial in the top image.  This dial predicted eclipses based
on the Saros calendar.  The glyphs on the dial indicate the times, and the smaller
inner dial makes the necessary corrections to these times.

While the Antikythera Mechanism is the only known device of its kind, because of its precise design and engineering and the existence of contemporary accounts of similar devices, it is speculated that it is not unique.  However, it is very unique to the scientists and researchers of the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project. This group of international researchers are supported by some of the best international technology companies, and include personnel from one UK and two Greek universities.

The Antikythera Mechanism on display at the National Archaeological Museum in
Athens, being viewed by conservator Gerassimos Makris.  Image courtesy of the Museum.

The Antikythera Mechanism is currently kept in the Bronze Collection of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.  There is a replica in Bozeman, Montana, for those who prefer local travel.  In 1978, Jacques Cousteau dove at the shipwreck site to search for any pieces that may have been overlooked, but found nothing.  Research is ongoing and a symposium is planned for this spring.  One can only hope other such devices will be discovered in the future.  Maybe even something more remarkable...

Unless otherwise noted, images are courtesy of Tony Freeth for the

Monday, February 28, 2011

Poggio Bracciolini

Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459)
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

At a time when the production of manuscripts was accomplished by hand-copying them, Poggio Bracciolini was an Italian master.  An important personage in the early Renaissance and a humanist, he circulated manuscript copies of classical Latin texts from wherever he could obtain them, mainly libraries from monasteries in other countries such as Germany and France.

Born in Tuscany as Poggio di Duccio (Bracciolini was added much later), he studied with a protégé of Petrach in Florence  He quickly became known for his abilities as a copyist - a respected skill in the days before the printing press. When he was 21 he became a member of the Arte dei giudici e notai, the notaries' guild of Florence.  By the time he was 24, he left the position of secretary amanuensis to Cardinal Rudulfo Maramori, the Bishop of Bari, to become the amanuensis of Pope Boniface IX.  

Poggio was famous for his handwriting, which was not only elegant but pleasing and easy to read. While working in Florence as a manuscript copyist, he invented a round, formal script that eventually served as the prototype of "Roman" fonts.  (His good friend 
Niccolò de' Niccoli's script became the inspiration for italic type that was first used by Aldus Manutius in 1501 in his "pocket editions" of the classics.) 
Sample of Poggio's handwriting.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

As one of a number of men at that time who were bent on creating a new intellectual era through the texts of antiquity, he sought to do his part in reviving the lost learning.  If he couldn't gain access to texts directly, he was not adverse to resorting to bribery or benign forms of fraud.  He did not want the ancient texts for themselves, but to make copies of them to distribute among the intelligentsia.

He is responsible for bringing to light many lost manuscripts.  He found two unknown orations of Cicero in 1415.  A year later he found the first complete text of Quintilian's Institutio oratoria, three books and part of a fourth of Valerius Flaccus' Argonautica, and commentaries on Cicero's orations by Asconius Pedianus.  From various other monasteries he discovered De significatu verborum by P. Festus, De rerum natura, by Lucretius, Astronomica by Manilius, Punica by Silius Italicus, Res gestae by Ammianus Marcellinus, a piece on cooking by Apicius, and many other works.  He continued to find other works by Cicero in the ensuing years.  Some of his copies of these works are still extant.

He spent the years of 1418-1423 in England with hopes of similar success in finding lost works, but was disappointed by what little he found there.  Back in Rome he made further discoveries.  He also copied inscriptions from the many surviving Roman monuments, which often were in churches as well as other buildings.  These proved to be invaluable as a source of information for areas of Roman history, including funeral customs and political propaganda.  Many of these were hard to read and vulnerable to deterioration and ruin.  

Fragments of Poggio's firsthand record of monument
inscriptions.  Image courtesy LOC/Vatican Exhibit

In 1453, he was made historiographer and chancellor of Florence.  He spent his last years serving in this office and writing his own history of Florence.  His own writing is considered eloquent.  One of his works, Facetiae (1438–52), is a collection of satires on various monks, clerics, and rival scholars.  In them he expresses some very scandalous and derisive arguments.  He is noted for his expressive and able use of Latin, particularly in his personal correspondence, of which there are many surviving texts.  However, he is often criticized for being inelegant at best in his Latin translations and for being superficially learned. Some of his translations are not considered very accurate, however it is thanks to him that we have many classical texts.

Historia Florentina, translated from Latin to Italian.
Published by Jacobus Rubeus, Venice, March 8, 1476.
Image courtesy of Christie's.

His interests in the classics included ancient buildings, coins, and sculpture, much of which he collected for the gardens of his own villa near Florence.  He was a friend of the sculptor Donatello, who made a statue to commemorate him upon his death.

Poggio devoted his heart and soul to reviving classical studies.  His work is emblematic of the secular attitude that lead the way to the Renaissance, and later the Reformation.  Regardless of any lack of fluency and flow in his Latin translations, his passion is to be commended and he merits our thanks for his discoveries.