Category Archives: Art

How Big Is That Spaceship?

I think I just found the coolest website ever. Do you want to know how big the spaceships are on Star Trek? Star Wars? Farscape? Want to know how the Serenity compares to a Boeing 747?


serenity-v-747.jpgOr how about the International Space Station, the original series Enterprise, the battleship Yamato, and the next generation Enterprise?


cmp-4-spaceships.jpgI could spend hours doing this. If you like this stuff as much as I do, check out Jeff Russell’s Starhip Dimensions.

in Art

Mark Is Stunningly Brilliant Except When It Comes to Classical Mythology

[Note: Ken neglected to provide a title for his first post, so I made one up. — Mark]

Classical mythology is, perhaps, far more ingrained in Western society than my co-blogger Mark may realize. From a scientific perspective it would appear that the only contribution is to naming conventions for some astronomical objects and some of our technology. From a literary and anthropological perspective, however, I don’t think you should underestimate the impact. It is from this perspective that, I believe, a high school English teacher would be motivated.

Actually, I remember that part of freshman English. I received a crappy grade on homework writing about Greek mythology in a modern setting. At the time I didn’t understand the poor grade, but much later realized that it was because, apparently, I took the idea too “frivolously.” (I wrote a mock weather forecast using some of the myths as inspiration and included hand-drawn satellite weather maps.)

Notwithstanding that experience, as I studied anthropology and literature I began realize the huge impact that classical mythology exerted on Western culture. The stories really are repeated over and over in all sorts of books, television shows and movies. The Hercules and Xena shows were heavily based upon such mythology for example, sometimes using plot lines almost verbatim and are obviously more than influenced by the classical myths. Other times the stories are there, but hidden better in a modern retelling such as with The Godfather, Jaws, or Star Trek.

From an anthropological perspective the influence is even greater. Pauline Christianity (what 99% of the world just calls “Christianity”) is based in large part on Greek and Roman mythology since the disciple Paul was using it in a (very successful) effort to convert the Roman world from polytheism to monotheism. He took the Jewish messianism movement and merged it with Roman beliefs to found his version of Christianity which is a fundamental, pervasive part of Western culture.

Classical mythology is not history in the same sense as the writings of Josephus are; they are not a record of specific historical figures and events. They are, however, an influential part of our cultural history which still exerts a great deal of cultural influence to this day. I would even say it could be called a religion even if it isn’t very actively practiced anymore. (The Hellenic Polytheistic Reconstructionism movement has, apparently, been enjoying a bit of a surge recently, so it could even be termed a current religion.)

I’ll take Mark’s word as Gospel that the new Clash of the Titans movie sucks and will studiously avoid it. I’m not sure it’s fair to blame it on the original stories themselves, though. Nor would it be wise to hope that those stories never be used again in modern culture. After all, I often enjoyed Xena: Warrior Princess. And not just because of the outfits worn by the protagonists.

Damn the Gods

I just watched the 2010 remake of Clash of the Titans. It was an unpleasant experience on several levels.

First of all, it’s just not a very good movie. Some of the effects are cool, but mostly it’s kind of boring. The filmmakers seem to think that fast and furious violence will make up for the lack of a plot, and that thoughtless dialogue can be rescued by the stentorious delivery of expensive actors.

Second, the gods of classical mythology are all pricks. The movie begins with Hades killing Perseus’s innocent adoptive parents, and along the way we find out that Zeus and Poseidon are both rapists. In classic blame-the-victim fashion, Zeus’s victim is killed by her husband, but her son Perseus survives. Meanwhile, Athena has turned Poseidon’s victim, Medusa, into a murderous bitch who works out her anger by killing lots of men. All in all, the gods are a bunch of narcisistic thugs — the Sopranos with superpowers.

The humans in this story aren’t much better. In addition to Acrisius killing his wife for having been raped by Zeus, there’s also Queen Cassiopeia of Argos, who boasts that her daughter Andromeda is more beautiful than the gods, never stopping to think that this might just piss them off, leading to the deaths of hundreds at the hands of Hades. Even Perseus is an idiot. He wanders away from the band of warriors who are escorting him, and when they go looking for him, they get ambushed and killed. Then some helpful god gives him a magic sword, but he hates the gods so much that he refuses to use it, and even more of his traveling companions pay with their lives.

People familiar with Greek mythology may object that the story I outlined above is just the movie’s bastardization of the real stories. These people are wrong, and the reason they’re wrong brings me to my third point: There are no real stories. Classical mythology is not history. It’s not even religion, since nobody believes in the ancient Greek and Roman gods any more. Classical mythology is bullshit.

I remember back in high school when my freshman English teacher made us all study mythology. In answer to the question of why we should spend time studying ancient bullshit (not quite how we put it), she explained that the stories and ideas of classical mythology have been with us throughout the ages and had influenced our culture. To understand mythology is to understand our culture better. At the time, I was willing to believe her.

Several years later, I remember reading about the U.S. Navy’s Ticonderoga class missile cruiser, which had a potent combination of anti-aircraft missiles directed by a phased-array radar. This combat system was called Aegis, and it was named after the shield of Zeus. I thought that was kind of cool, since Aegis boats shield the fleet from attack.

That’s the only time in 30 years that understanding mythology has helped me understand something in even the slightest way. Even then, the only connection between mythology and reality is because someone in the U.S. Navy thought it was a cool idea.

But Mark, I hear you saying, you’re a science geek, and aren’t all the planets and stuff named after characters from classical mythology? Yes, they are. I even did my freshman English class presentation on mythology about the planets and the things they represented. But it was all bullshit.

Planets are gigantic, massive objects orbiting the Sun. Each one has its own orbital parameters, many of them have interesting geography, some of them have weather, and a few have volcanos. These sorts of scientific facts are what’s important about the planets, not what some ancient people decided to call them. It’s absurd to think that mythology is important to planetology in any way except as a source of names. (Not that I wasn’t willing to talk about the connection to get the grade.)

And sure, the asteroids in each of the two Trojan clusters are named after heros on each side of the Trojan war, and yes, there’s a spy in each camp. It’s amusing. But what’s really important about the Trojan asteroids is that they are there because those two locations, relative to Jupiter and the Sun, are the only two stable solutions to the three-body orbital problem. (And personally, I’d heard about Lagrange’s three-body solutions way before I learned any classroom mythology.)

I think the team at Palomar observatory had the right idea when they named the minor planet they discovered “Xena.” It’s hard to see how Xena: Warrior Princess is any less important than classical mythology, having been inspired by it and being representative of the culture that had the ability and drive to discover small rocky objects six billion miles away.

Look, it’s fun that the character Morpheus in The Matrix gets his name from the Greek god of dreams, and if you enjoy classical mythology and want to spend years of your life studying it, I wish you all the best. It’s good to be passionate about your intellectual pursuits. But don’t try to pretend it’s more important than it is.

And please stop making bad movies about it.

Google Earth Meets the Prado Museum

If you’ve ever used Google Earth—or it’s online cousin Google Maps—you know you can pan around an image of the Earth and zoom in on interesting stuff.

As an experiment, the folks at Google have worked with the Prado Museum in Spain to digitize 14 of their paintings and make them available online using the same display technology. Just search for “Prado Museum” in Google Earth, then click on the labeled rectangle to get to a menu of the paintings. Once you click on a painting, you can pan and zoom all over it.

Here’s a quick video I made to show the zoom capability:

You lose a lot of the detail in low-res streaming video. This higher quality version might help, but you really should try it for yourself in Google Earth or you can visit the online Google Maps version of the exhibit.

(Hat tip: Google Blogoscoped.)

in Art

The Great Museum Flash Scam

Virgina Postrel writes,

The anti-photo policies of museums don’t necessarily make sense, except as some kind of revenue enhancer. Prohibiting flash is one thing. And I don’t blame the Louvre for blocking photos in the often-crowded Italian painting gallery. But prohibiting all photos in an uncrowded museum filled with works in the public domain is unnecessary—unless you think it will generate sales in the museum store.

I can understand that a museum might prohibit flash photography because it’s annoying, but I think that gift-shop revenue is the real motivator. When it comes to old paintings, there’s no copyright anymore, so museums have to find other ways to keep you from making copies.

Apparently, some museums imply that flash photography causes paintings to degrade more quickly, perhaps causing the pigments to fade or something. On first consideration, this seems plausible because at close range the flash can be brighter than the sun, and the sun can certainly fade paint.

It turns out, however, that flash photography is essentially harmless.

The key intuition is that it always takes the same amount of light striking a piece of film to expose it properly, and for that amount of light to reach the film, it first has to bounce off the painting. So every photograph of a painting involves hitting it with the same amount of light. It could be a high-speed flash fired in a 1000th of a second, or a 1-second long exposure in a dimly-lit museum gallery.

In other words—and this is the whole point—a flash picture is equivalent to leaving the museum lights on for one extra second.

(My 1-second figure is just a reasonable guess based on some photographic sources and a little playing around with my camera. The actual exposure will depend on the film speed and aperture, the actual museum lighting, and maybe the tones present in the painting. But once those are chosen, it’s still the same amount of light for flash as for ambient light photography. The same principle also applies if you’re shooting digital.)

So, if 300 people take pictures every day, that’s equivalent to leaving the museum lights on for an extra 5 minutes each day.

Technically, a photographic flash usually emits more ultraviolet light than ordinary museum lighting, and paint pigments are known to suffer more damage from UV light. Also, certain types of chemical damage are disproportionately worse for high-intensity light. However, studies by professional conservators indicate that neither of these factors contributes to the aging that art works undergo while on display at a museum.

So, if you want a good picture of a painting but the museum won’t let you take a flash photo, you can always take one in ambient light. Of course, it’s hard to hold the camera steady for a full second in your hands, so you’d have to shoot with the camera mounted on a tripod.

And wouldn’t you know it, most museums prohibit the use of tripods.

I guess you’ll just have to buy a photo from the gift shop after all.

Further reading: Here’s an article on the subject. Or there’s this book: Effects of Light on Materials in Collections: Data on Photoflash and Related Sources, summarized briefly here.

The Monster Engine

Radley Balko has found a really cool book by artist Dave DeVries called The Monster Engine. He takes kids’ pencil and crayon drawings of monsters, and he repaints them with a more realistic look, adding 3D shadows, colors, etc.

Click on the child’s image below to see what he did with it:


You can see more pictures like this at the companion web site.

in Art

Lord Con’di

Rice as a Goa'uld

A lot of people noticed that the picture of Condoleezza Rice in yesterday’s USA Today looked a little funny. To a Stargate SG-1 fan like me, it suggested nothing less than a host’s eyes glowing brightly as the controlling Goa’uld System Lord within reveals its malevolent presence.

The question is not whether this was photoshopped, but whether it was done to make fun of Rice or is just a sloppy bit of photo enhancement. Samantha Burns’ technical grunt MrBig did some image analysis of the Condi picture and concluded it was an accident.