Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘vintage’

12 JULY, 2011

Albertus Seba’s Amazing Cabinet of Natural Curiosities

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Getting a private viewing of the King Bird of Paradise, or how to set the exchange rate for flying squid.

Lying at the intersection of art and science, the practice of natural illustration has long been the recipient of Brain Pickings adoration. So we swooned over the recent release of Cabinet of Natural Curiosities, a reproduction of the unequalled collection of Amsterdam apothecary Albertus Seba. Born in the mid-17th century, Seba spent decades gathering a wunderkammer of birds, insects, reptiles, and exotic plants for use in his drug preparations.

One hundred years before the eminent German naturalist Ernst Haeckel was even born, Seba had published two volumes of engravings of his compendia; the last two wouldn’t be finished until after his death in 1736. Seba’s internationally famous cabinet of animals, insects, and plants was coveted by prominent collectors, but eventually purchased by Czar Peter the Great for display in Russia.

Seba’s fantastic assortment no longer exists as a whole — its parts scattered throughout the globe, and some of its individual specimens extinct — but, happily, the images do. The professional pharmacist and amateur zoologist commissioned illustrations of every single item in his collection. In gorgeous reproductions of the original color plates, we get to see detailed drawings of Phasmatodea (or Walking Stick, as the insect is colloquially known), three-banded armadillo, and snakes from Suriname. And while a complete edition of Seba’s visual thesaurus was sold at auction for nearly half a million dollars, we can happily enjoy it for far less.

A spectacular exhibition of 18th-century natural history, Cabinet of Natural Curiosities will enchant the curious cross-disciplinarian and bring a bygone era of scientific study back to life.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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08 JULY, 2011

Polymorphic Computing, Explained in Vintage Stop-Motion (1959)

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What wooden boxes and stick figures have to do with predicting the future of the social web.

Though the world didn’t see its first polymorphic computer until 2007, the concept of “polymorphic computing” predates it by nearly half a century. In this lovely stop-motion animation from 1959, found on The Internet Archive and now in the public domain, John Salzer illustrates the principles of polymorphic computing, first outlined by technology pioneer Simon Ramo, and, in the process, presages subsequent landmarks in the evolution of technology, from parallel processing to peer-to-peer filesharing to cloud computing to the very architecture of the Internet — a striking case of two contemporary fixations, the social web and stop-motion animation, converging long before either had reached critical cultural mass.

This is distributed control, distributed memory, distributed arithmetics, distributed everything. And it makes sense. Because now more than one guy can be using the system at the same time.”

Also curious to note is how cluelessly reflective the film is of the fundamental biases of the era, what with its male-centricity (hey there, computing “guys”) and its analogies to the telephone as the base-level, universal standard for communication.

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07 JULY, 2011

The Dawn of Computer Music: A PBS Segment from 1986

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A brief history of MIDI, or what the dawn of digital sampling has to do with air pressure.

The question of whether technology dehumanizes people, as MoMA’s Paola Antonelli convincingly argues, humanizes objects isn’t new. In fact, it’s at the heart of this vintage PBS segment (I II III) on computer music recorded in 1986, at the dawn of CDs, synthesizers and other “new” music-making machines, voicing the inevitable question that every technological innovation brings:

Is high technology depersonalizing music or, instead, is music serving to humanize the machine?”

From how computers must recreate the complex waveforms of physical instruments to what role the composer’s choice plays in technology-assisted music to the intricacies of the then-emergent art of digital sampling, the segment, featuring legendary music historian Max Matthews, encompasses some early concerns about man and machine as collaborative creators, many of which have endured through waves of technological innovation to remain at the forefront of our philosophical and practical concerns today.

It’s been predicted that the personal computer will soon replace the piano as the primary instrument on which children learn music.”

(Alas, in classic digi-douchery fashion, the uploader has disabled embedding — catch the three parts here: I II III.)

Sound is a series of vibrations transmitted by air pressure. A computer hooked up to an amplifier and speaker can create sound merely by switching on and off, causing a vibration in the form of an electrical current. If these on-off vibrations are frequent enough, they sound like musical notes.”

Published the following year and of equal fascination is Foundations of Computer Music — an excellent primer on the profound shifts in music consumption and production that took place in that era, mixed in with a healthy dose of paleofuture amusement.

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