It’s Quiet … Too Quiet

We’re just waiting for the storm to hit, watching old Universal horror movies until the power goes out. The wind has been gusting most of the day, and we’re ready for the worst. I may be offline for a while, so mind the gap and I’ll see you soon.



Update: Monday 12:15pm: Still have power, but the wind is starting to kick up. I brought the chickens into the library, where they’ll be safe and dry and have plenty of reading material. I’m assuming once the power goes down, however, it will be quite some time until you hear from me again, so stay safe.


XCOM: Enemy Unknown [Game Review]

I’m still kicking around the idea of doing one straight-up game review a week, with some material at the top with content warnings for parents. We’ll call it Fun Fridays and have cupcakes and lemonade! This week, we turn to a remake of the third greatest PC game of all time, a little something called…

XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Developer/Publisher: Firaxis/2K
Platforms: PC, Xbox, PS3
Rated: Mature
Content descriptors: Blood and Gore, Strong Language, Violence
Details (ESRB):  This is a strategy game in which players must save present-day Earth from an alien invasion. As players manage resources, research weapon technology, and monitor alien presence, they can dispatch squads of soldiers to attack human- and insect-like creatures in turn-based combat. From a 3/4-top-down perspective, players use assault rifles, grenades, and other military-grade weapons to kill nearby enemies. Battles are accompanied by intermittent cutscenes that depict close-up (e.g., over-the-shoulder) instances of violence: soldiers getting impaled or beaten to death by alien creatures; realistic explosions that result in larger blood sprays. If an alien “implants” an egg into a dead human, the character will eventually explode amid additional gibbing effects. Some scenes depict dead or dying soldiers whose bodies are burned or mutilated. The words “f**k,” “sh*t,” and “a*shole” can be heard in the dialogue.
Parent Verdict: The details sound pretty grim, but the nature of XCOM as a top-down strategy game makes the gore and violence a lot less intense than the same content would be in a first-person game. The battles are more like chess with bursting alien heads. The foul language is scattered and not all that prominent. Different parents will have different perspectives on the appropriateness of the content, but I have no problem with my teenage son playing it.
Version Tested: PC

On any list of the greatest computer games ever made, X-COM: UFO Defense is in the top five. I’d put it right behind Civilization and System Shock. The original is a turn-based sci-fi game with a beautifully integrated tactical/strategic design. You perform research, manage your base, and respond to threats on the strategic level, and then fly all over the planet taking on enemy aliens in turn-based squad-level tactical combat. It’s original, fun, challenging, clever, and memorable.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown (couldn’t they afford the en-dash?) is a wonderful streamlining and updating. Fans expecting either retread of the original, or a complete betrayal of what made it special, are in for a surprise, because this is something else. Design has evolved in the past 18 years. Things that worked when the medium was fresh and we were patient just don’t work after a couple decades of gaming experience.

On the other hand, things that made PC gaming special (a more mature sensibility, better design, depth of play and control) are too often forgotten in the hybrid computer/console design world of today. And so Firaxis (the company co-founded by Sid Meier) has reached into the past to bring the special flavor of PC gaming into the present, and give it a fresh sheen.

And, boy howdy, does it work. I have no idea if I’m a good audience for this game or not, since I adored the original series and played it to death. I’d be curious to know what someone with no prior experience would think of it. But as an X-COM veteran, I can tell you that everything good about the series is here and better, and the few things that aren’t here are barely missed.

XCOM stands for “extraterrestrial combat.” Earth is being invaded by flying saucers and bug-eyed aliens, and the multinational XCOM team is given the job of protecting various locations around the globe, intercepting enemy ships, hunting aliens, recovering alien tech and corpses (and living aliens if possible) for research, and fighting off the alien hoards.

It’s a tough job, and your four man squad (which can be expanded to six with experience) has their hands full battling an array of alien types with different powers and weapons. Cryssalids, Sectoids, Thin Men, and more are all on hand to deal damage in a variety of unpleasant ways, and it’s your job to stop them. The tactical game borrows ideas from boardgames, dispensing with the time-based movement of the original by providing two actions per-soldier, per-round. An action can be move and shoot, shoot twice, or any variety of special functions, such as throwing a hand-grenade, firing a rocket launcher, stunning an alien so it can be taken alive, using a medkit, and so on. 

As your soldiers gain experience, they can choose from different skills in one of four different classes: assault, support, heavy, or sniper. The skills work like rules exceptions a la Cosmic Encounter. For example, in basic play. a heavy can only fire his rocket launcher without moving. Add a skill, however, and he can either move and shoot, or choose a “holo” attack that provides a +10 bonus to any allies attacking the same target.

These variations multiply and stack over time, creating an elaborate matrix of skills and abilities that allow you to fine-tune your approach to each map. As you collect alien gear and assign researchers to develop new tech, you begin to fell a storage locker filled with neat toys for soldier’s to use in the field.

Missions are tighter and more focused than in the original. Visually, it’s quite nice, with a good variety of views from elevated tactical down to over-the-shoulder shots of both friends and enemies as they execute their attacks. The environment is completely destructible, so that car your guy hides behind may just get blown up, and take him with it. The interface is a touch finicky at times, with some jittering around the edges for the hand-grenade targeting reticle, but it’s nothing serious.

The story unfolds at the strategic level as shadowy global forces order you all around the map to save people and places from menacing aliens. In this portion of the game, you monitor your research team (developing new tech and learning about the aliens), engineers (building facilities, ships, and objects), global map (expanding into new regions and monitoring alien activity), barracks (managing and training soldiers) and the rest.

You can expand these facilities by adding new labs and workshops, an alien containment center, and more. The trick is to respond to threats around the world in order to keep the regional panic level down. If a region gets too panicky because they feel you’re not paying enough attention, they’ll withdraw their support, which means you lose some of the funds needed to maintain your operation and research new tech.

It all comes together in a near-perfect package that blends the best ideas of the original with more modern approaches. There are some crash/freezing bugs being reported, but I haven’t encountered any real showstoppers. If you’re look for a new/old game that offers both fun and depth, XCOM is it.

Buy it here.


But Will It Have an Austrian Accent?

I’m starting to get fed up with creepy new robots that look like they were designed solely to smash through walls and tear John and Sarah Connor apart piece by piece. DARPA’s Robotics Challenge has yielded this potential Cyberdyne Systems T-101 hunter-killer prototype. It’s called “Pet-Proto” and it’s the work of Boston Dynamics. The critter is bipedal, autonomous and smart enough to navigate terrain on its own.


We Have a New Weapon

And it’s a doozy. In the tradition of giving cute names to terrifying weapons (eg, Fat Man and Little Boy, Bubble Girl, Busy Lobster, etc.), this one is called CHAMP.

Remember the neutron bomb as the ultimate symbol of man’s depravity, because it killed people with a powerful blast of radiation, but left buildings standing? (And even a neutron bomb would do real damage in its initial blast radius.) Well, CHAMP is a kinder, gentler missile: it’s designed to just take out your iPod. And your TV. And your computer. And all you surveillance equipment and countmeasures. (And maybe your pacemaker or life-support system, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.)

CHAMP stands for Counter-Electronics High Power Microwave Advanced Missile Project, and it’s the product of Boeing’s Phantom Works. CHAMP does a flyby of targets, taking out electronics as it goes. You can check out the video from Boeing, but its first test was a rousing success:

CHAMP flew over the Utah Test and Training Range last Tuesday, discharging a burst of High Power Microwaves onto the test site and brought down the compound’s entire spectrum of electronic systems, apparently without producing any other damage at all. Even the camera recording the test was shut down.

Struggling to contain his enthusiasm, Boeing’s Keith Coleman says, “We hit every target we wanted to. Today we made science fiction into science fact.”

Is this a good thing? You bet. And also a bit scary. With America’s dependence on electronic warfare, we have a great deal to lose from a weapon like this getting out. And they always get out, eventually. Better shielding and countermeasures will no doubt be developed to blunt its effectiveness, but that kind of thing takes time and money.

All our great toys and tech may one day be brought down, and Einstein’s prophecy will come true: “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

UPDATE: As Frank Weathers points out, bayonets and horses will be unaffected.

Frank Moore Cross, Requiescat in Pace

It’s impossible to have even a cursory knowledge of the Dead Sea Scrolls without encountering Frank Moore Cross, who died last Wednesday at age 91 from complications from pneumonia. His work on Semitic languages and Canaanite myth informs a great deal of what we know about the development of Hebrew writing.

Cross retired from a long and distinguished career in 1992, but his influence never faded, and he remained an active figure in the ongoing study of epigraphy and the DSS. He was a young professor in 1953, when he was assigned responsibility for texts from Cave 4. Some of those texts remained unpublished for 40 years, drawing Cross into the controversy about the secretive nature of the original DSS team. That controversy reached a head in the early 1990s, when photographic reproductions of the scrolls were published, breaking the academic monopoly on the remaining texts.

The fruits of his work, however, were crucial to understanding the texts. In 1961, Cross published “The Development of the Jewish Scripts” based on his research, and was able to separate scrolls and fragments into three periods base don their script. This was a key development in the study of the scrolls, and although the details have been finessed over the years, Cross’s work is central to our understanding of Hebrew writing.

From the NY Times obituary:

“When you walked into his classes, you felt you were on the frontier of knowledge in the field,” said Peter Machinist, who studied under Dr. Cross as an undergraduate at Harvard and now holds the endowed professorship there that Dr. Cross had held until his retirement in 1992. “Whatever happened in the field would come to him first, before it got published, because people wanted to know what he thought.”

“The more light we can shed on crucial moments in the history of our religious community — or on the birth of Western culture, to speak more broadly — the better,” Dr. Cross said of the scrolls in the interview. “The longer and more precise our memory is, the more civilized we are.”

Dr. Cross studied culture, religion and politics of the period in which the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, was written and revised, and he traced the ways different nations and cultures had translated its early texts. He also traced the evolution of ancient script and developed expertise in dating documents by the slightest shifts in writing style.

“That we know that a particular scroll comes from 100 B.C. and not 50 A.D. is almost entirely due to the study of the scripts and their development that he worked out,” Mr. Machinist said. “That may seem like a trivial point, but if you don’t have a sense of when these texts are dated, you have no sense of their historical importance.”

Hershel Shanks, publisher of Biblical Archaeology Review, remembers his friend here, and the Harvard Crimson provides some additional comments.

I’m working from memory, but unless I’m mistaken, Dr. Cross was a practicing Christian, despite being perceived as a revisionist scholar in some quarters. It’s important to remember that tracing the roots and textual development of the Hebrew scriptures does not strip it of its sacred and inspired character. I disagree with some of his conclusions (such as the idea that we need to study OT texts through the discipline of history rather than theology: I don’t see why it has to be either/or), but there’s no question that his work deepened our knowledge of the intertestamental period, and thus provided a vital window into the soil in which Christianity would take root.

Is Print Really Dead?

My mother says she always knew that I’d be a writer, which is odd since I assumed I’d be a filmmaker, or maybe Indiana Jones. (I hedged my bets in college and got degrees in both film production and English, after dropping out of the Anthropology program, thus ending my Indy dreams.) I worked for less than a year in film and television production, and just as I began achieving that dream, I realized I didn’t want it any more. Writing always came easily for me, and it was a lot more fulfilling than grinding through 14-18 hour days on some New York soundstage. After a brief, Dilbertesque time spent as a technical editor, I went full-time freelance as a critic and journalist, and have made my career in print ever since.

When computer gaming and the PC craze was at its height (the 1990s and slightly into the 2000s) this was easy, and there were years I made very good money. But that money gradually went away. At one point, we were putting out 400+ page issues of PC Gamer with a 60/40 ad/editorial ratio, and a single ad selling for something like $6000. Since they only paid me about $300 per 700-word page, you can do the math on that one, but the companies (first GP, then Imagine, then Future) were swimming in cash. 

And that was just a niche publication: an extremely successful one, but hardly Vanity Fair or Time. Print ruled, and the internet was little more than CompuServe, AOL, BBS, Usenet, and the like. Those of us in tech actually saw the balance of power tipping before anyone else in publishing. In the mid-90s, I was asked to contribute to a startup website called Gamespot that would be all online. This had happened before–with Happy Puppy–and gone nowhere, so I expected to collect some of their money and then they’d just go away.

But they didn’t go away, and their success contributed to the death of my major income source: magazines and newspapers. Profitable models for online sites were hard to find, and the influx of capital during the dot-com boom made people sloppy about finding a way to monetize something they were giving away for free.  Gamespot and others rode out the rough times and survived. CNet and IGN did as well. They got creative, and learned how to be profitable. Suddenly, the idea of buying a computer or game magazine seemed absurd. You could get all that information for free online, and get it faster. The content of magazines and papers is already old news by the time they appear on newsstands  It’s an unsustainable model when compared to the free-flowing tap of the internet, which is ready to deliver opinions and facts instantly, although the opinions might be bad and the facts wrong.

Gradually, my magazines dropped like flies. PC Magazine, which paid me $1.10 a word, got thinner and thinner before going online only in 2009. Computer Life, T3 (US), Computer Shopper, Computer Gaming World: vanished. The mighty Ziff-Davis, a media empire with a benefit and salary package so lavish it was called the “golden handcuffs” (because you could never afford to leave), was sold by the Ziff family and slowly dribbled down the drain. Pieces of some of these once-mighty media empires remain as shadows of their former selves, but their time is gone, and wishing won’t bring it back.

The question remains: is print dead? People are asking it again after Newsweek announced it will cease publication. Putting aside the fact that Newsweek has been little more than a tawdry forum for stale left-wing talking points for years, it raises a simple question: is there a place for a print newsweekly or a news-daily in the modern world?

The answer is, of course, no. Not just “no,” but “Are you kidding?” The idea of getting your news in a packaged, printed format in 2012 makes about as much sense as trying to find replacements for your whale-bone corset stays or buggy wheels. Folks, it’s dead. It’s over. Let it go.

I loved magazines and journals and newspapers as much as anyone, when they were necessary. I made a good living from all of them as a worker, and I purchased them as a consumer. Some of them (such as pulps and comics) I even collected. I love the format. I love the tactile element. I love that they were very broad in their content, and might contain a few reviews, some features, maybe a story or poem, and a couple of news items. I’d read things I would not seek out on my own, because they shared space with things that interested me, or were grouped under a large topic (say, history or culture) that embraced many subgenres and allowed for a diversity of approaches and opinions.

Smart editors hiring good writers to cover interesting or offbeat subjects creates an effective forum for understanding the world. Those editors and writers provided a filter that’s lacking on the internet, where people swim in an ocean of content and have to choose narrower interests or get lost in a sea of words. That’s what the internet just can’t do very effectively. Even sites that aspire to be magazine-like (such as Salon or Slate) are undermined by an ideological bias that cuts off half the population. I don’t visit Salon or Slate  because their underlying assumptions (all left-liberal) make their content unappealing to me, and create ideological blindspots that compromise the writing.

This makes epistemic closure almost inevitable, as people seek out their own interests  and their own “kind of people,” and lose contact with a diverse range of content and thought. Hand-wringing about epistemic closure was all the rage a few years ago, but I don’t recall the conversation going anywhere in particular. The internet is the giant engine of epistemic closure, but it’s also the great watchdog of the casual falsehoods perpetrated by the legacy media over the years. Suddenly, it was no longer possible to publish a piece in the Times saying that X is true, when an army of people who have direct knowledge of X can provide an instant fact-check.

People learned the truth of that old saying about the media: They provide great coverage, except on those subjects about which I have direct personal knowledge. Now those people with direct personal knowledge of a subject can, for free, blog, Tweet, tumbl, or Facebook their takedowns of received media truths. Dan Rather was brought down by a couple of bloggers who could look at a document and know, instantly, that it was a fake. The recent debunking of the Jesus’s Wife story, a story rolled out by the Times in a credulous and fact-challenged feature, was conducted by a network of professors and passionate amateurs sharing information on blogs (including this one) and in comboxes. Enough “little” people can take down a giant with ease. And when that giant has gotten fat, lazy, self-contented, and sloppy, it’s all the more easy. I will see the New York Times cease to print in my lifetime. I won’t be sad to see it go. It won’t have simply died or been killed. It will have committed suicide.

And it didn’t need to happen. The writing has been on the wall for over a decade, and the solution has been in our hands for years. When those Times subscriptions and sales started vanishing, the Times should have cut a deal with Amazon and given away Kindles with a two-year paid digital subscription to the paper. You do realize that game hardware (like Xbox 360 or Wii) usually sells at or below production cost, right? You know why? Because they make their money on the software. Same for cell phones: the money isn’t in the phone, it’s in the phone service. It’s the old razors-and-blades model: they give you the razor at a loss, and then charge $20 for a package of blades.

As print started to vanish, the New York Times need to provide people with a new media for receiving their product. See, their product wasn’t paper and ink: their product was news. Eliminate the cost of paper, ink, production, and shipping, and your costs are radically slashed. You can afford to provide a new medium for people to receive your content. Sure, you’ll lose some of those people after 2 years, but you’ll also retain some. And since hardware is running on a 2-3 year cycle, if you offer a newer newsreader, they may just resubscribe. The Times shouldn’t have been moving to free web-based content or clunky subscription models. They should have been giving away Kindles, and lots of them.

People still want something they can hold in their hands. Bathroom, subway, waiting room, airplane: you’re not lugging your desktop or laptop into these places to read. The bizarre little truth of the matter is that the desire for people to read a packaged, professional monthly like National Geographic or Vanity Fair has not gone away. The web hasn’t replaced that, and publishers are mistaken if they believe it has. People want a contained, quality publication that arrives on a regular schedule with fresh content. They really do still want that encounter with things they won’t find surfing Drudge or Slate or even the Catholic channel on Patheos. And they will pay for it in a way they won’t pay for a website. Publishers are beginning to figure out how to make that work for them, but for some, it will be too late.

Apple newsstand, Kindle subscriptions  and similar digital delivery methods are the future, if indeed the legacy media survives long enough to greet their future. Digital delivery is a fraction of the cost of printing and delivering a magazine or newspaper, but too many companies haven’t figured out how to make it work. Right now, the digital version is a nice extra for a subscription: punch in your Smithsonian subscription code and just download the magazine. That’s what I do. And you know what I do when the magazine comes? I throw it away, because I don’t need more crap around the house. You know what that means? Smithsonian wastes a lot of money sending out hard copies of magazines.

Perhaps this is just a transitional phases, as people adapt to digital delivery and publishers adjust their prices accordingly. (Unlike Biblical Archaeology Review, which now offers a $15 print subscription … and a $20 digital subscription.) Eventually, maybe that hard copy will just fade away, leaving only the digital manifestation. If Newsweek had figured that out a couple years ago, maybe they’d still be putting out a product.

The Man Who Changed the World

The web cannot entirely replace the periodical. Magazine stands and bookstores will vanish, just like hitching posts and gasogenes. I’m not wholly delighted with the prospect, since I like paper and ink and print, but I don’t fear it, and I know that people will still want to connect with each other and learn new facts and share old interests. That doesn’t go away. The printing press is the most world-changing piece of technology ever created by the hand of man: more than electricity, more than gunpowder, more than the internal combustion engine.

We will not leave “print” behind. The word will not die.

It will, however, cease to be printed. I love paper and ink just like the people of Gutenberg’s time no doubt loved a beautiful illuminated manuscript on vellum. I’ll continue to love both of them. I own a page of medieval manuscript. I treasure it. I can even read it. It’s a thing of rare beauty, and it’s not even illuminated.  I don’t, however, wish it was the way words were still shared.

Gutenberg didn’t say, “Oh, forget this printing press thing: I prefer the touch of vellum and knowing a human hand puts words to the page.” His goal wasn’t to produce nicely printed paper, which is merely a pleasant side-effect. His goal was to share knowledge, particularly the truths of scripture. And we’re going to go right on doing just that, with or without the paper.

Truesound: Trying to Recreate the Original Baroque Organ Sound

Europe has some 10,000 medieval and baroque organs. These monuments to the organ-makers’ art reflect the liturgical needs that gave rise to the organ. In order to be worthy for use in the liturgy, an instrument needed to be created which would use pipes and reeds to accompany and mimic the human voice. They’re also monuments to a land where the purpose of those organs–to glorify God–has been lost, and these majestic instruments have fallen into disrepair.

Restoring the original sound of this organs is no simple matter. Decay has robbed them of their full functionality, and we’re not sure just how that sound was achieved. The European Union launched the Truesound project to determine the best way to restore those and recapture that lost sound:

The EU project Truesound tackled a major challenge in materials sciences to recapture the purity of organ music. The project aimed at developing copper-based alloys for organ pipes and refining technology to recreate true organ sound. It also wanted to empower small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that build organs to become more competitive in restoring the 10 000 organs scattered across the continent.

Truesound’s work centred on identifying historically accurate alloy compositions and articulating processes to manufacture the most ideal alloys. The next step was to create organ tongues to replace historic reed pipes or to represent new reed pipe components that are capable of producing the desired sound. A research team hailing from various countries successfully produced the most accurate alloys for reed pipe tongues.

In particular, it created two new alloys, with and without lead, that were tested by organ builders tied to the project. Moreover, the project designed special software to digitize the sound spectrum related to organ pipes. The combined software and hardware advances, which include sophisticated equipment for sound acquisition, have produced a rich sound that is the closest yet to the organ music of yesteryear. This will support organ-building SMEs in unprecedented ways and help revive an important and beautiful tradition across Europe.

It’s a wonderful meeting of history, technology, art, and restoration. You can watch a video about the project here.

They’re focusing on baroque organs, so if an organ is not baroque, they won’t fix it.

Warhol: His Catholicism, His Celibacy, His Art

There’s a bit of a contretemps in la Casa Patheos today between the Bad Catholic (Marc Barnes) and the Feast of Eden (Dawn Eden). In brief, Marc’s post on Andy Warhol (Catholic, gay, possibly celibate) offers some striking observations about the pop artist:

According to the wonderful book The Religious Art of Andy Warhol, by Jane Daggett Dillenberger, the man remained celibate, a fact revealed by his own declaration of virginity and at his eulogy, where it was recalled that “as a youth he was withdrawn and reclusive, devout and celibate, and beneath the disingenuous mask that is how he at the heart remained.” He deliberately concealed who he was to the public — famously answering questions with “uh, no” or “uh, yes” — and he certainly concealed the fact that he wore a cross on a chain around his neck, carried with him a missal and a rosary, and volunteered at the soup kitchen at the Church of Heavenly Rest in New York. He went to Mass — often to daily Mass — sitting at the back, unnoticed, awkwardly embarrassed lest anyone should see he crossed himself in “the Orthodox way” — from right shoulder to left instead of left to right. He financed his nephew’s studies for the priesthood, and — according to his eulogy — was responsible for at least one person’s conversion to the Catholic faith.

Dawn objects, noting that Warhol was not merely a pornographer, but a gleeful one:

Andy Warhol spent a lifetime creating works of “art” that consisted in “removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties.” And now he is a role model of intentional celibacy? Is this where promoting the “gay Catholic” label leads? If so, I can’t help but believe that Daniel Mattson is right when he writes that the claim for such a thing as “gay Catholic” identity does not do justice to the Church’s teaching of the fundamental identity of the human person as a child of God in Jesus Christ.

Reading both posts one right after the other, it’s pretty clear that they’re saying largely the same thing with a different emphasis. I appreciate what Marc was trying to do with this post (ie, the truth is not what you think, and we can learn from that), but couldn’t help remembering my film school experience with Warhol’s half-hour film “B*** J**.” Warhol’s celibacy is undermined by his role in making art-porn. This certainly gave him a thrill, which is already sexual sin. Certainly celibacy is honorable if indeed Warhol was a celibate gay man, but there’s something rather twisted in a person who holds out an ideal of sexual morality for himself while encouraging others in their debauchery.

That said, Marc is right to tell the more complete story of Warhol, which is considerably more complex than the “Yay! Gay!” narrative we usually see in the media. This is a needed corrective for the binary division of bad ole sex-hating church against wonderfully awesomely liberated sexual culture. “Free yourself from bondage to dogma!’ we’re told. “There’s nothing to lose but your chains!” And your self-respect. And your soul. Here we have someone (Warhol) who appeared to cling to one set of morals (and encouraged others to do the same) while holding another set of higher morals in his heart. That heart was the battleground, as it is for all of us. He failed, and encouraged others to fail, and God no doubt sorted that out with Andy when the time came. But there is, indeed, something admirable and unlikely in the fact that the battle even took place.

The story of individual human beings struggling with issues of faith, identity, and sexuality doesn’t fit into neat divisions. It’s a hard road, and Dawn knows that. She’s right to emphasize the ideals, particularly those of the Theology of the Body, and to call Barnes out for not delving a little deeper into those issues. That’s why the blog format works: there’s a level of dialog that can take place to flesh out complex topics. I’m glad Marc Barnes wrote the original post, because it told me things I did not know. I’m glad Dawn Eden wrote a reply, because it corrected and deepened some of Marc’s ideas.

The Nude and the Photographic Arts

I do take exception, however, to her suggestion (if indeed I’m reading her correctly) that the photographic image of the human form cannot be art. John Paul II made the point in his April 15, 1981 TOP talk that, to quote Eden, “Whereas the fine artist has the means at his disposal to depict the nude in a manner that is faithful to the truth of the human person, the photographer, filmmaker, or videographer, regardless of intention, is at a very high risk of turning the subject into ‘an anonymous object.'”

Yes, he did make that point, but he also had this to say:

Is it possible to also put films or the photographic art in a wide sense on the same level? It seems so, although from the point of view of the body as object-theme, a quite essential difference takes place in this case. In painting or sculpture the human body always remains a model, undergoing specific elaboration on the part of the artist. In the film, and even more in the photographic art, it is not the model that is transfigured, but the living man is reproduced. In this case man, the human body, is not a model for the work of art, but the object of a reproduction obtained by means of suitable techniques.

Quite clearly, the pope was trying to find a fine line here between the “reproduction obtained by means of suitable techniques,” and mere pornography. He appears to want to move the photographic arts into a special category while still acknowledging their potential as art. His idea is that other arts use the human form filtered through the sensibility and techniques of the artist, while the photographic arts use the human form directly. The mediating process in sculpture and painting is what allows the nude form to be a suitable subject for art, while the lack of this mediating process in the photographic arts risks merely “reproducing” the human form, without a similar mediation. He doesn’t firmly conclude that this problem removes the nude from the photographic arts, but merely draws attention to the issues involved.

In fact, he’s making two points at once, and not being particularly clear about it. (John Paul II was a saint with many gifts, but being a clear and concise writer was not among them.) In a subsequent talk, he makes his main point about the body being a gift we give, and how that impacts its use in art differently for photographic and non-photographic reproduction: “In each of these dimensions—and in a different way in each one—the human body loses that deeply subjective meaning of the gift. It becomes an object destined for the knowledge of many. This happens in such a way that those who look at the body, assimilate or even, in a way, take possession of what evidently exists, of what in fact should exist essentially at the level of a gift, made by the person to the person, not just in the image but in the living man.”

He says:

The artistic objectivation [sic] of the human body in its male and female nakedness, in order to make it first of all a model and then the subject of the work of art, is always to a certain extent a going outside of this original and, for the body, its specific configuration of interpersonal donation. In a way, that constitutes an uprooting of the human body from this configuration and its transfer to the dimension of artistic objectivation—the specific dimension of the work of art or of the reproduction typical of the film and photographic techniques of our time.

I don’t get a sense from my reading of John Paul II that he ever firmly came down against the use of the nude form in the photographic arts. His distinction between art and pornography is fairly clear. His distinction between a nude painting and a nude photograph (assuming both are executed with artistic techniques and standards) is less clear, but seems to indicate some level of disapproval without coming to a firm conclusion either way.

Dawn Eden is the expert on the Theology of the Body, so I’ll defer to her superior knowledge of the subject. However, if John Paul is saying the lack of an intervening artistic sensibility and technique (one present in painting or sculpture and not present in photography or film) renders the human body less fit for the photographic arts, then John Paul is incorrect. Certainly, it is less likely that high-art rather than mere prurient reproduction is the result of photographing nudes, but it is not impossible. The artistry required to do so–color, lighting, film stock, angles, posture, subject, image manipulation–is of a different order of artistry than painting, but not of a different degree of artistry. Go ahead an try to take a picture like Ansel Adams or even Robert Mapplethorpe. Mapplethorpe’s nude subjects did indeed veer from art into pornography because sexuality was their focus. But they didn’t have to, and some of his nudes are just artistic studies of the form without a sexual element.

If the intervening artistic techniques and sensibilities allow the painter or sculptor to use the nude form without stripping the model of his or her gift or modesty, than the same applies to the photographer or filmmaker. It’s slightly harder to make a pornographic painting than to make a pornographic photograph, but it’s not at all uncommon. The medium is not relevant to preserving the gift of self-donation that is the central theme of the Theology of the Body. If this is art, then so is this (links contain nudity). One is certainly better art than the other, but they are both art, and they are both fit subjects for the artist.


Warhol’s case was more complex, since his goal was often to shock or titillate. Trash, Flesh, Lonesome Cowboys: none of these are good movies by any measure, and their artistic intent is compromised by their deliberately sordid content. They’re little more than a high-brow attempt at creating low-brow exploitation cinema. Warhol’s goal was to transform low or popular culture into high-culture. By removing it from its place (the kitchen shelf, the grindhouse) and placing it in a new context (the museum, the art gallery), he called attention to the artistic aspect of the mundane.

This is a pretty limited achievement, and his value as an artist is, frankly, negligible. The art itself will probably not endure (nobody is pining for a director’s cut of Empire), but this new way of seeing was indeed important. I’ve said before that I consider the ink line of Charles Schulz one of the great artistic gifts of our time, and believe that Jack Kirby is a better artist than Pablo Picasso. It’s unlikely those would be “safe” opinions to have without the influence of Warhol, who once said Walt Disney was the greatest artist of the 20th century. (I agree.)

Was Warhol an artist or a pornographer? Both, actually. Was he Catholic? Most certainly, devoutly so. Was he a sinner? Hey, aren’t we all? St. Peter probably had a long, long talk with him about Flesh for Frankenstein, starting with, “What were you thinking?!” Was he a hero, or a villain? Dunno. I’d say neither. Just another fallible human, doing his best to listen to the angel on one shoulder while fighting the demon on the other.

Little Nemo in Googleland

Google’s animated tribute to Little Nemo

Animation and cartooning legend Winsor McCay is honored in Google Doodle today for the 107th anniversary of the publication of his strip, Little Nemo (also known as Little Nemo in Slumberland). McCay’s cartooning work is rich in detail and invention as it explores the dream world of a little boy named Nemo (Latin for “no one”). Kids can certainly enjoy them (I introduced my daughter to them over the summer and she loved them), but adults will be entranced the complexity of the images and the dazzling level of invention on display. The Little Nemo collections appear to be out of print, which is just insane for a work of art this important. You may, however, be able to find some of them in your local library system.

McCay’s newspaper strip would have been enough to make him a legend, but he was also a pioneering animator. His Gertie the Dinosaur is a charming bit of work, completely hand-drawn by McCay himself, and part of a live vaudeville act he took around the country. The cartoon was drawn so that he could interact with Gertie: she appears to respond to his voice, eats an apple he throws to her, and even let’s him climb on her back to ride off the stage. It may look a little primitive in 2012, but 1911 this was dazzling stuff for an audience.

We take slick animation for granted now, but the work of the early animators (McCay, the Fleishers, Disney, Starewicz, Iweks, Terry) have a rough-hewn handmade quality that’s a charm all its own. Sure, advances in animation techniques and technology make things look better, and that’s great. But look at Skeleton Dance, remember that it was largely animated by the hand of one man (Ub Iwerks), and then tell me it doesn’t have more charm and personality than the entire running time of Madagascar 3 or Happy Feet Whatever. Rango was one of the most beautifully designed works of animation I’ve seen in a while. It was also dead inside. Gertie’s little squiggly lines may look rough to us now, but in the right hands that simple pen line is capable of more heart and wit than an army of CG animators with nothing to say. Just because an animator can make something look better doesn’t mean he has something better to say.

The Youtube version of McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur below is pretty poor quality, but there’s a DVD edition of McCay’s work that looks much better.

h/t Steven Greydanus.

New Bra May Detect Breast Cancer

First Warning Systems has been working on a high-tech sports bra that may be capable of detecting breast cancer. Sensors in the bra monitor minute temperature changes that can accompany the growth of blood vessels associated with abnormal tissue development. This data is collected and wirelessly uploaded to the First Warning software, which uses a proprietary process to analyze temperature patterns and fluctuations to determine if a tumor is present.

First Warning says the bra “must maintain close contact throughout the testing period.” I’m a bit vague on how long that testing period lasts, but due to the natural temperature changes the body experiences in day, it has to take some time to produce a large enough chunk of data for the algorithms to do their work.

The developer is claiming they’ve put the system through three clinical trials with a total of 650 people, with a 92.1% accuracy rate. Routine mammograms are about 70% accurate.

Until they publish a clinical report, those claims will remain suspect, but if it’s true, it’s good news for breast cancer detection.