How accounting forced transparency on the aristocracy and changed the world


In the 16th century, celebrated Dutch painters did a brisk trade in heroic portraits of accountants and their ledgers. That's because accounting transformed the lowlands, literally bringing accountability to the aristocracy by forcing them to keep track of, and report on, their wealth. As Jacob Soll (author of The Reckoning: Financial Accountability and the Rise and Fall of Nations) writes in the Boston Globe, from the 14th century invention of double-entry bookkeeping until the 19th century -- when accounting became a separate profession instead of something that every educated person was expected to practice -- accountancy upended the social order, elevating financial transparency to a primary virtue.

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America's legacy of post-slavery racism and the case for reparations


Ta-Nehisi Coates's The Case for Reparations is an important, compelling history of the post-slavery debate over reparations, running alongside the post-slavery history of US governmental and private-sector violence and theft from the descendants of slaves in America. Coates's thesis -- compellingly argued -- is that any "achievement gap" or "wealth gap" in American blacks is best understood as an artifact of centuries of racial violence and criminal misappropriations of black people, particularly visited upon any black person who expressed ambition or attained any measure of economic success.

As Coates demonstrates, a series of deliberate government policies, continuing to this day, ensured that unscrupulous American businesses could raid the savings and loot the accumulated wealth of black people. From the millions who were terrorized into indentured servitude in the south to the millions who were victimized by redlining and had every penny they could earn stolen by real-estate scammers in the north, the case for reparations is not about merely making good on the centuries-old evil of slavery. It's about the criminal physical and economic violence against black people in living memory and continuing to today.

This is a long and important read, and the "reporter's notebook" sidebars cast further light on the subject from unexpected angles. Coates makes a compelling case that the racist violence against black people in America is of a different character than other class war and other racist oppression, and deserves unique consideration.

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Kitchens were political in the Soviet Union

Communal kitchens (in communal apartments that had once belonged to wealthy families) were a major feature of early Soviet life. NPR has a neat story about the role food and cooking played in everyday politics.

Stone busts carved from stacked books


Sculptor Long-Bin Chen creates art out of recycled books and magazines; his current show, at Charleston's Halsey, features a series of pieces that appear to be solid sculptures, but which are actually carved stacks of books, painted and surfaced on one side. He has recently completed a set of enormous Buddha heads carved from stacks of phone books. As the Halsey explains, "The Buddha sculptures represent the missing heads of many ancient Buddha figures that have been looted from Asia and sold to Western museums and collectors. Since colonial times, Westerners have taken heads from the Buddha statues in Asia and brought them back to the West. While one finds so many Buddha heads in Western museums and galleries, an equal number of Buddha bodies in Asia are headless. When carved into phone books, Chen's Buddha heads contain the names and numbers of millions of residents."

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Listen to the 18th-century drinking song that inspired "The Star-Spangled Banner"

Written by John Stafford Smith, "To Anacreon in Heaven", it was the theme song for a gentlemen's society dedicated to love of wine, women, and song. You can listen to a recording of it at the Smithsonian site.

Hidden painting found under Picasso masterpiece

the_blue_room_hidden_painting

One of Pablo Picasso's most famous works, The Blue Room, was painted over an earlier work now revealed by infrared imaging. The hidden image, of a large man in formal attire resting on his hand, would have been created early in the artist's career, reports The Associated Press.

Though the existence of an earlier work beneath The Blue Room was long-suspected, it took years to develop techniques to expose it in detail. Earlier X-rays showed an image so "fuzzy" it wasn't even clear that it was a portrait. Now there's a new mystery: The identity of the subject himself.

Picasso, Pablo The Blue room 1901Picasso's The Blue Room

Scholars are researching who the man might be and why Picasso painted him. They have ruled out the possibility that it was a self-portrait. One candidate is Paris art dealer Ambrose Villard, who hosted Picasso’s first show in 1901. But there is no documentation and no clues left on the canvas, so the research continues.

Ms Favero has been collaborating with other experts to scan the painting with multi-spectral imaging technology and X-ray fluorescence intensity mapping to try to identify and map the colours of the hidden painting. They would like to recreate a digital image approximating the colours Picasso used.

Curators are planning the first exhibit focused on The Blue Room as a seminal work in Picasso’s career for 2017. It will examine the revelation of the man’s portrait beneath the painting, as well as other Picasso works and his engagement with other artists.

We covered multispectral imaging ourselves in a trip to the Library of Congress. The same techniques revealed that a draft of the Declaration of Independence originally named Americans "subjects" instead of "citizens".

George Orwell's National Union of Journalists card


From his work with the Tribune. I'm a proud member of the same union.

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How Heinlein went from socialist to right-wing libertarian


A review in the New Republic of volume two of the authorized biography of Robert A Heinlein takes the biographer, William H Patterson, to task for his uncritical approach to Heinlein's famously all-over-the-place politics. But there is enough (uncritical) details in the book that the reviewer feels able to parse out Heinlein's swing from socialist to right-wing libertarian (here's my review of part one).

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Bosch's 600 year old butt-music from hell


Robbo writes, "My friend, SF author J.M. Frey, posted this curious thing she found where a detail in Hieronymus Bosch's painting 'The Garden of Earthly Delights' features musical notation inscribed on some dude's ass. Of course, someone has taken the time to transcribe these notes and have now presented to the interwebs a piano interpretation of the 600 Year Old Butt Music From Hell of Hieronymous Bosch. Feel free to gavotte along."

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Riis's "How the Other Half Lives": photos of NYC slumlife in the Gilded Age

The full text and images of Jacob Riis's 1890 classic How The Other Half Lives is online (previously), featuring striking photos of the dire state of NYC poverty during the "gilded age," when wealth disparity hit levels that are eerily reminiscent of the modern age. Reading this is probably good prep for our coming future (above, "Police Station lodgers in Elizabeth Street Station").

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The English Method: UK taught modern torture to Brazil's dictators


Brazil's 21-year military dictatorship was a torturing, brutal regime -- among their victims was the current president, Dilma Rousseff. At first, the generals tortured by flogging and shocks, but British officials taught them to torture without leaving marks, helping the regime to rehabilitate its international human rights image. The techniques the UK taught to Brazil's torturers were developed for Malay rebels and perfected on Northern Irish Republicans, and these techniques came to be known as "The English Method."

Other governments -- Germany, France, Panama, and, of course, the USA -- also trained Brazil's torturers, but the UK methods were the best. British agents travelled to Brazil to train the torturers personally. More details of the British "foreign aid" program are coming to light as the UK government finally succumbs to the rule of law and releases files from the National Archives at Kew, a move that has been steadfastly refused for obvious reasons.

One document that's come to light is a letter from then-British Ambassador, David Hunt, called "Torture in Brazil," which praises the Brazilian regime for cleaning up its appearance of brutality by "taking a leaf out of the British book."

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You should try the 1913 Webster's, seriously


James Somers thinks you should switch to the Websters 1913 dictionary, and he cites John McPhee's composition method of looking up synonyms for problematic words as the key to his peerless prose style. Somers makes a great case for the romance of historical dictionaries, but for my money (literally -- I spent a fortune on this one), the hands-down best reference for synonyms and historical language reference is the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, whose magnificence cannot be overstated.

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Trailer for Steven Johnson's new PBS series, "How We Got to Now"

Steven Johnson -- a real favorite around here! -- has a new six-part PBS show coming this October called How We Got to Now, along with companion book. The trailer (above) gives a tantalizing hint of how great this show will be, as does the excerpt from the first episode that's also available. (Thanks, Steven!)

Why did the 9/11 'falling man' image disappear?

fallingman

At Design Observer, a fascinating piece on how photographer Richard Drew's iconic, disturbing image of a man falling to his death from the World Trade Center on 911 has been erased from public view.

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Chinese museum closed for displaying counterfeits

Chinese police closed down Liaoning's private Lucheng Museum after discovering that more than 2,000 of the historical artifacts on display, one-third of the collection, were fakes, reports The Guardian.