05 July 2010

Daily Digest, 2010.07.05

Today: art attribution as a confidence game; Taleb tells it like it is; activist judges; open source law; Carvaggio's bones (or perhaps not); Dutch says IPCC report actually pretty good; so much for free will; what Doctorow does; the beautiful remnants of the Big Bang.

Two absolute must reads today:

At The New Yorker, David Grann has an outstanding article on Peter Paul Biro, who attributes and authenticates paintings by identifying the (actual, not figurative) fingerprints of the artist...or at least that's what he claims he does.

The article is framed by the case of a potential new Leondardo drawing, which art historian Martin Kemp—who was the first to attribute the work to Leondardo and remains the principal advocate of that attribution—calls "La Bella Principessa." Biro has been involved with this case, but has also been involved in attributions and authentications of works by artists as diverse as Constable, Turner, and Pollock. Grann's article takes an unexpected turn half way through, when it begins to appear that Biro may not be (to put it mildly) entirely what he seems to be.

I've done considerable work on the topic of attribution, including a long piece written in 2001-2 on Mozart attribution and the sociology of attribution (only the first third of this was ever published, and the good stuff was mostly in the unpublished parts). Grann's article has got my juices flowing on this topic again, and I may have more to say about it later.

In the meantime, read it.

The New Statesman has an abridged version of a postscript that Nassim Nicholas Taleb has written for the Penguin UK edition of his The Black Swan.  I read The Black Swan several months ago, and also his Fooled by Randomness. Taleb can sometimes be an infuriating writer; he also is, I think, absolutely right about pretty much every one of his main points.

I would quote from the postscript, except that I would end up quoting the whole thing. Just read it.

An editorial in today's NYT on addresses the judicial activism of the Roberts court.

If the court seems determined (as it does) to overturn decades (or more) of precedent on any number of issues, I'd be delighted if they would do something sensible like quashing the notion of copyright as "property," which seems to me the core error in the entire ugly edifice of current copyright law.

But the activist majority on the SCOTUS seems largely in thrall to corporations (after all corporations are just people too....albeit people who can't be jailed for their actions or be held accountable in many of the other ways that ordinary individuals can be). 

So I'm guessing they won't mess with the "property" status of copyright, which is gospel for corporations that depend on transferable copyright for their cash flow.  Even though the notion is logically unsustainable, and current copyright law is a radical departure from the Constitution.

open ... has an interesting post on open source law, using the example of the recent UK court case British Chiropractic Association v Simon Singh. The post links to a longer post on BCA v Singh here (I haven't read this yet, but it looks interesting).

Elisabetta Povoledo writes in the NYT on the alleged discovery of Caravvagio's bones (or at least a few of them), and the skepticism of scholars, some of whom suggest (gasp) that the principal motives for the search for the bones (and quite possibly the reason for its quickly positive result) may have been money and boosterism.

The group that undertook the research is the private National Committee for the Promotion of Historic and Cultural Heritage (nope, no alarm bells there; that sounds entirely disinterested). The president of that group, Silvano Vincenti, announced on Saturday that they were now 100% sure that the bones were Caravaggio's (when a supposed scientist claims 100% certainty, you know something is fishy). 

Some quotes:
Laid on a red velvet cushion inside a transparent case, the bones — fragments of the cranium, an incomplete femur, and part of a bone from the base of the spine — reached the port on a striking tall ship, greeted by a small crowd clapping and cheering.


Other critics suggested that as the Italian government seeks to exploit the economic potential of the country’s cultural resources, marketing is trumping serious study. 

[Fortunately we know that scholars are motivated only by a disinterested search for the truth, and are never swayed by such crass concerns, especially when it comes to prominent cultural figures like Caravaggio (or Mozart or Beethoven...).  Not.]

After homing in on a crypt here that Mr. Vinceti thought held Caravaggio’s remains, scientists examined several skeletons, singling out those compatible with Caravaggio’s stature and age. Carbon dating technology narrowed the field to one contender, and DNA samples taken from those bones were compared to DNA from residents with the last name of Merisi or Merisio from Caravaggio, the Lombard town whose name the painter took.

[Nope, no worries with that methodology...]

The committee concluded that debilitated by syphilis and other ailments, he had died of sunstroke.

[That's definitely my favorite line in the article.]

Mr. Vinceti shrugged off the naysayers. “University professors are not the only ones who harbor history’s truth,” he said. “I think our results with Caravaggio have overturned that paradigm. We’ve shown that if one works with passion and rigor something can emerge.”


Quite honestly, I don’t see why anyone would be remotely interested in finding Caravaggio’s bones,” Keith Christiansen, curator of Italian and French paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, wrote in ane-mail message. “I thought relic worship went out with the Middle Ages.”

[Christiansen has clearly never lived for any period of time in a Catholic country.]

“The real reason behind all this is economic, they had to find Caravaggio’s body,” Mr. Pacelli said. Italy is marking the 400th anniversary of his death with several exhibits, including a major Caravaggio show in Rome that closed in June.

Mr. Vinceti did not seem to be arguing on Saturday when he said: “It doesn’t end here, Tuscany and Lombardy are about to launch a cultural tourism initiative so that Caravaggio lovers can come to Italy and revisit the places where he lived. We need to promote the great wealth that Italy has in its art and culture.

Nature News reports on the results of an investigation commissioned by the Dutch government (which cares a lot about potential rising sea levels) into the reliability of the most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The Dutch report's conclusions, released on 5 July, highlight a number of mistakes — some trivial, others more egregious — and suggest ways to minimize errors in the future. But they also confirm the IPCC report's core message: that global warming poses substantial risks to societies and ecosystems on all continents.
Why do I think that this story is unlikely to be widely reported in the Mainstream Media?

Deric Bownds discusses a new article showing that imaging of medial prefrontal regions of the brain can more accurately predict people's behavior (and sometimes far in advance) than can their self reports.

The article is:
Emily B. Falk, et al. (2010), "Predicting Persuasion-Induced Behavior Change from the Brain," The Journal of Neuroscience. The article is behind a paywall at the Journal site, and costs $25.00 for 24-hour access.

Cory Doctorow has a piece at Locus online, "What I Do," describing his hardware and software setup. Because the man is a miracle of productivity, I thought this might give me some insight into how he does it. And frankly, his setup makes me feel like a technological amateur (I thought I was pretty cool for having tens of thousands of e-mails; he has 1.5 million in his archive.)

He's a former Mac guy, now running Ubuntu on a ThinkPad X200.  I've played with Ubuntu in VirtualBox (and for a while I had the MacBook set up with a separate Ubuntu partition), and I think everything he says about its transparency is true.  But I probably won't be making that transition any time soon. He makes a good case for some Firefox add-ons that I didn't know about (CustomizeGoogle, Linky, TinEye, and especially TabMix Plus, which sounds just like what I was looking for a couple weeks ago to manage my tab explosion) and I'm going to try these.

Via io9, a new photo from the European Space Association's Planck telescope, showing the (color enhanced) cosmic microwave background radiation (the remnant of the Big Bang).

Beautiful photo.

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