23 March 2017

Is there an error in this Constable painting?


The painting is "Wivenhoe Park" by John Constable, currently in the collections of the National Gallery of Art.

I first saw this painting about 30 years ago in a print that was on the wall of the office of a colleague of mine at the University of Kentucky.  After looking at the painting for a while, I initially concluded that the artist (world famous for his landscape portrayals) must have made an error in depicting the scene.  Nobody else seemed interested in the apparent anomaly, and I lost track of the painting (not knowing its title) until I encountered it again this past week.

I invite you to explore the image (it should enlarge to wallpaper size with a click) to see if you find anything that appears internally inconsistent in the content.

Wivenhoe Park is a real, not an imaginary, place - a country estate in Essex.  Two seemingly contradictory aspects of the painting have puzzled me.  Left center of the image there is a bridge spanning the watercourse:


The flow of the water is clearly from the left of the painting toward the right.  Now look downstream to where two fishermen are working their net:


This is presumably a gill net of some sort, spanning the watercourse from shore to shore, held up by cork floats.  They are presumably lifting it in segments to harvest any fish that have become entrapped.

But... the curvature of the net would be consistent with water flowing from the right of the picture toward the left, not left-to-right as the bridge at the left would indicate. 

It's a curious mistake for a landscape artist to make - especially an artist as skilled as Constable, and especially when drawing from life rather than from imagination.  I decided that for a painting as large and complex as this one, he must have made preparatory sketches and that his sketch of the fishermen must have been made from the opposite shore, then incorporated into the landscape "backwards."  I thought I found confirmation in this comment from an analysis at the V&A:
The artist rearranged the landscape to create a more harmonious image. For example, the lake and house would not have been visible in the same view in real life.
So perhaps a sort of "compositional error."  I considered other possibilities.  I found the location of Google Maps and zoomed in to confirm that the watercourse in the painting is remote from the sea, so the bowing of the fishing nets is not the result of tidal flow.

But now a different apparent anomaly bothered me.  The Google map confirmed that this isn't a rushing river.  It's not even a decent-sized creek.  In fact if you look at the pipe passing through the dam under the bridge, the flow is almost negligible.  So why is the net bowed?  It clearly goes from shore to shore, not in a huge circle.

The answer came when I tracked down one of Constable's sketches in the archives of the Victoria and Albert:


Now it's as clear as day.  The net is being dragged by 4-5 people on each shore (in retrospect they are visible on the far shore in the final painting).   I note also that the V&A entitles this sketch "Fishing with a net on the lake in Wivenhoe Park."  Not a river or stream - just a manmade lake (large pond, really) prettified by a wealthy landowner employing a landscape architect:
In order to evoke a sense of the picturesque the architect Woods introduced an arch and bridge specifically designed to look old...
End of story?  Sort of.  At least in terms of the faithfulness of the representation, Constable has been vindicated, and my original concerns are "much ado about nothing."

But now I'm interested in something else.  My (incorrect) impression from the painting was that it portrayed two fishermen as incidental elements in a landscape. Now the activity appears to be way more than a recreational pastime. This is a large crew - a dozen grown men dragging a lake for fish. On a private estate. These are hired hands - a crew assembled for this purpose.

This painting was commissioned by the Rebow family, so Constable incorporated aspects that would be important to the family - including their eleven-year-old daughter Mary driving a donkey cart on the hillside to the left (inset right).

The dragging of the lake must also be important, and I would therefore conclude that the harvest of the fish was significant (important enough to employ all the gardeners on the estate and maybe some hired hands as well.)

Which brings me to my final point (at last, and the reason for posting this long-winded entry in the first place) - aquaculture as a likely practice on English country estates.

After a lot of searching I found this book -


- not in my local library, but available fulltext online here.  Herewith some excerpts:
This book is being published in order to highlight a little-known aspect of animal husbandry in former times, namely the keeping, storing and cultivation of crucian carp (Carassius carassius ), carp (Cyprinus carpio), tench (Tinca tinca) and other cyprinids in man-made ponds... The construction of fishponds began across Europe, and increased rapidly during the twelfth and thirteenth century. At that time, fishponds were constructed on estates belonging to bishops, monasteries and royalty across England... The balance of evidence now indicates that fishponds were introduced into Britain after the Norman Conquest (1066) as a secular aristocratic initiative rather than a monastic innovation... The abundance of literary references to fishponds shows that their possession, along with mills, dovecotes and deer parks, was one of the privyleges of manorial landholders, a badge of rank as much as a practical utility... Many royal castles, palaces, manor-houses and hunting-lodges were equipped with fishponds... An account book for 1632–6 kept by the Duke of Suffolk’s estate steward records the cleaning-out of the Lulworth Castle fishponds at a cost of £9 4s 8d and the purchase of a ‘trammell nett’ (a long, narrow fishing-net held vertically in the water by floats and sinkers, consisting of two walls of large-meshed netting, between which a narrow-meshed net was loosely hung) for catching the fish... The fishing of Stonehead Lake in 1793 produced 2,000 carp ‘of large dimensions’, including one 8 kg specimen... By the 1740s the geometrically-shaped ponds associated with formal gardens were passing out of fashion. Some were abandoned, others altered, as revolutionary ideas of ‘landscape’ gardening encouraged the creation of larger lakes of more ‘natural’ appearance... Yet some advocates of agricultural improvement were still promoting fishponds as a contribution to the farming economy into the early nineteenth century... Frensham Great Pond was still emptied every five years for fishing-out as late as 1858...
Constable completed Wivenhoe Park in 1816, so apparently aquaculture was still a going concern at that estate.  I wonder if such efforts were revived during the relative scarcities of WWII.  I'd especially like to hear any input from British readers of this blog regarding this subject.

You learn something every day.

"Protruding iris collarette"

The iris collarette is a landmark that separates the central pupillary zone from the peripheral ciliary zone. It is typically flat but can be prominent, as seen in this patient. This finding is a normal variant. It is benign and asymptomatic and requires no treatment.
Via Neatorama.

"Climate security"

Memo to self: use the phrase "climate security" when discussing climate change with skeptics.
2016 saw a "dramatic" decline in the number of coal-fired power stations in pre-construction globally. The authors of a new study say there was a 48% fall in planned coal units, with a 62% drop in construction starts...

The main causes of the decline are the imposition of restrictive measures by China's central government - with the equivalent of 600 coal-fired units being put on hold until at least 2020... there have also been significant retirements of coal plants in Europe and the US over the past two years, with roughly 120 large units being taken out of commission.

"However abrupt, the shift from fossil fuels to clean sources in the power sector is a positive one for health, climate security, and jobs. And by all indications, the shift is unstoppable."
Maybe American politicians would respond more favorably to the concept of "climate security" than to "climate change."

Can't tolerate punches from cartoon kittens

A 17-year-old girl in California created a website "where users click on Donald Trump’s face to punch him with tiny kitten paws."
But what was meant as nothing more than a jokey website for coding practice has turned into a legal nightmare. Now Lucy is facing the wrath of the big man himself.

Three weeks after the site went live, Lucy was served a cease and desist letter from Trump’s general counsel stationed in Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in NYC.

The letter, confirmed by the Observer, reads exactly as you’d expect a Trump C&D would. It begins touting him as a “well-known businessman” and television star and boasts, “As I’m sure you’re aware, the Trump name is internationally known and famous.”

Guided by a family lawyer, Lucy changed the name of the site to KittenFeed.com

When shall we meet?


From the archives of The New Yorker.

21 March 2017

Another type of chess "problem"


Broadcast media (movies, television) have persistent difficulties incorporating chess into their storylines without introducing errors:
There are a ton of chess mistakes in TV and in film,” says Mike Klein, a writer and videographer for Chess.com. While different experts cite different error ratios, from “20 percent” to “much more often than not,” all agree: Hollywood is terrible at chess, even though they really don’t have to be. “There are so many [errors], it’s hard to keep track,” says Grandmaster Ilja Zaragatski, of chess24. “And there are constantly [new ones] coming out.”

Chess errors come in a few different flavors, these experts say. The most common is what we’ll call the Bad Setup. When you set up a chessboard, you’re supposed to orient it so that the square nearest to each player’s right side is light-colored. (There’s even a mnemonic for this—“right is light.”) Next, when you array the pieces, the white queen goes on white, and the black queen goes on black. “When I teach six-year-old girls, I say ‘the queen’s shoes have to match her dress!’” says Klein.

Six-year-olds may get this, but filmmakers often do not. Along with The Seventh Seal, movies that suffer from Bad Setups include Blade Runner, Austin Powers, From Russia with Love, The Shawshank Redemption, and Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls. Shaft and What’s New Pussycat may not have much in common, but they do both feature backwards chessboards.
Further discussion (re dramatic checkmates and tipped-over kings) at Atlas Obscura via Neatorama.

Compare and contrast


For your essay today, class, you will compare and contrast two of the leaders of major countries in terms of their knowledge about nuclear energy and nuclear weapons.

Mr. Trump's comments (on the left) can be viewed in this video.  Fortunately, at the time he was not speaking to Angela Merkel, whose doctoral dissertation (on the right) translates as:
"Study of the mechanism of decomposition with single bond breaking and calculation of their rate constant on the basis of quantum mechanical and statistical methods." ("Dissertation to obtain the academic degree doctor in a branch of science - diploma physicist Angela Merkel...")
Sheesh.

Not untrue


From the archives of The New Yorker.

The ancient Greeks had no word for "blue"

Homer’s descriptions of color in The Iliad and The Odyssey, taken literally, paint an almost psychedelic landscape: in addition to the sea, sheep were also the color of wine; honey was green, as were the fear-filled faces of men; and the sky is often described as bronze.

It gets stranger. Not only was Homer’s palette limited to only five colors (metallics, black, white, yellow-green, and red), but a prominent philosopher even centuries later, Empedocles, believed that all color was limited to four categories: white/light, dark/black, red, and yellow. Xenophanes, another philosopher, described the rainbow as having but three bands of color: porphyra (dark purple), khloros, and erythros (red).

The conspicuous absence of blue is not limited to the Greeks. The color “blue” appears not once in the New Testament, and its appearance in the Torah is questioned (there are two words argued to be types of blue, sappir and tekeleth, but the latter appears to be arguably purple, and neither color is used, for instance, to describe the sky).
Further discussion in an interesting column at the Clarkesworld sci-fi e-magazine.

With a tip of the blogging cap to the elves at No Such Thing as a Fish for mentioning this in a recent podcast.

19 March 2017

"A Man Called Ove"


I watched this movie earlier this week and can unreservedly recommend it.
A Man Called Ove (Swedish: En man som heter Ove, pronounced [ˈuːvɛ]) is a Swedish comedy-drama film... The film was written and directed by Hannes Holm, and is based on author Fredrik Backman's 2012 book of the same name. In the leading role as Ove is Rolf Lassgård. The film was nominated for six awards, winning two, at the 51st Guldbagge Awards in 2016. It was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film and Best Makeup and Hairstyling categories at the 89th Academy Awards.
It's clearly not a Hollywood-style movie, featuring a curmudgeonly older man rather than a superhero, in a story where nothing explodes.  It begins a bit slowly, until the viewer learns a bit of the backstory of the protagonist.  A pleasant diversion for an evening's entertainment.

Re universal health care


Via Reddit.

Word for the day: "Rotting Room"

Before the bodies of Spanish royalty are consigned to their gilded crypts, they are first consigned to a special chamber to allow the flesh to decay.
Rotting Room is the unglamorous translation of “El Pudridero.” When Felipe II designed the gargantuan El Escorial royal complex in the 16th century northwest of Madrid, he practically made it a shrine of death... Located behind the Pantheon walls, accessible only to monks at the Escorial monastery, this is a secretive room accessed by a private passage... It’s here where for at least 20 years mortal kings — and queens who birthed kings — decompose beneath lime until they are completely bone.

Centuries later, the Rotting Room is still in use.

Remembering the Metropolitan Blues All Stars


When I lived in Kentucky in the 1980s,  I had several opportunities to hear the Metropolitan Blues All Stars perform.  The group members came from in the hills of Eastern Kentucky; they came to Lexington for concert performances (or to Louisville for Lonesome Pine Specials as in the 1987 one embedded above).

I particularly remember Rodney Hatfield's prolonged harmonica riffs, and I have an old VCR tape with Caroline Dahl really rocking the keyboard; I understand she later moved on to San Francisco for a successful career there.

I wonder if any other readers here remember the group.  Miss C?

As reported by The Onion


For those unfamiliar with the publication:  "The Onion is an American digital media company and news satire organization... The Onion's articles cover current events, both real and fictional, satirizing the tone and format of traditional news organizations with stories, editorials, op-ed pieces, and man-in-the-street interviews using a traditional news website layout and an editorial voice modeled after that of the Associated Press. The publication's humor often depends on presenting mundane, everyday events as newsworthy, surreal or alarming.

And a backstory from Mother Jones.

Keeping foreigners out of the United States

As reported by Voice of America:
Each year, the University of Southern California brings delegations from Africa to meet with business leaders, government officials and others in the U.S. But this year, the African summit has no Africans. All were denied visas.

Visa issues are not uncommon for people traveling from African nations. During her prior three summits, Mary Flowers saw a high percentage of her attendees at the African Global Economic and Development Summit, unable to attain visas.

"Usually we get 40 percent that get rejected but the others come," said Flowers, chair of the African Global Economic and Development Summit. "This year it was 100 percent. Every delegation. And it was sad to see, because these people were so disheartened."

Flowers estimated that she lost about 100 attendees, including speakers and government officials. The countries affected included Sierra Leone, Guinea, Ghana, Nigeria, Ethiopia and South Africa.
More details at the link.
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