Wednesday, September 28, 2016

A Picture Worth 500 Billion Dinara

by Drew Martin

I just finished reading a book that jumped out at me from the shelves of my local library. The Art of Money seems like the title of something penned by Dale Carnegie but it is actually a beautifully-printed and lively survey of the art on money from around the world, throughout the ages, as well as an interesting history of American cash. It was listed in the top 10 notable art books of 2000 by The New York Times.

The author, David Standish, keeps the writing as crisp as a dollar bill but at times it feels a little unedited. Twice he comments that Uganda is east of Kenya. So that made me question a lot of his other fun and interesting facts. Was the US Coinage Act of 1792 really start the first use of the decimal system for money as he says?

One of the currencies he shows is the 20 korun note of Czechoslovakia. It’s one of my favorite pieces of money, and something quite familiar to me since having one in my pocket back in Prague in 1992 meant I could go to a pub and get a warm bowl of gulash, some fresh bread and a cold, draft beer. But he writes that it is the only note that depicts a wedding with a couple holding a bible. The front features a portrait of Jan Amos Komensky, a 17th Century Czech writer, scientist and father of modern education. The back side, pictured here, features a young couple reading from a book, but they are not getting married as he claims.

None-the-less Standish is an engaging writer so I want to believe all the other facts that he peppers throughout the book, which kept me hooked. Such as:
  • To pay, comes from Latin pacare to satisfy.
  • The word money comes from an incident in 390 BC: a flock of local geese noisily flew away from their turf around the Temple of Juno when a group of Gauls attempted to raid the place, which doubled as a mint. Their taking flight alerted the guards to be on the defense and ward off the invaders. It was thereafter called Juno Moneta, Juno the Warner.
  • Paper money was invented by the Chinese eunuch, Ts’ai Lun in 105 AD.
  • The early paper money of China was a little suspect so it was embellished with silk threads and perfume to make it more attractive.
  • Genghis Khan adamantly continued the Chinese paper money system. He seized everyone’s silver and gold and gave them paper money, thus monopolizing a government’s control of precious metals.
  • Marco Polo brought the idea of paper money to Europe where people were most intrigued that not accepting paper money in the East was punishable by death.
  • The word dollar comes from the valley tag –thal to locations (i.e. Neanderthal) – the silver dollar was invented by Count Stephan Schlick in Joachimsthal, Bohemia in 1520. They were naturally called Joachimsthalergroschen, then thalers for short. (tallero in Italian, daalder in Dutch, etc.) 
  • 1600’s goldsmiths in England became the first bankers mainly because they had safes and they would give out bank notes for the value of the precious metals deposited.
  • Bucks, as in five bucks, comes from the use of deerskin in early American trading (as it was in 100 BC China when approximately 1’ x 1’ squares of decorated deerskin became a substitute for metal coins).
  • Beaver pelts, musket balls, and even iron nails served for early American trading exchanges.
  • In 1619 tobacco became legal tender in Virginia.
  • A wampum factory was set up in 1760 in New Jersey to aid a fledgling economy, which was active until the Civil War. 
  • Wampum inflation occurred when the steel drill bit was invented, which made wampum much easier to produce because it required drilling a hole through the shell.
  • Queen Elizabeth II is the most ubiquitous face on money, gracing 37 different currencies.
  • The highest denomination of any currency was the 500 Billion dinara note of the former Yugoslavia.
  • The highest denomination of a United States note was once a $10,000 bill.
  • The “bill” part of dollar bill is left over from when paper money in the US was originally referred to as a bill of credit, meaning the government owes you money (silver or gold) and that it was only a short term public loan to the government to be paid to creditors, often soldiers. The pretense was dropped in 1972. 

This book made me consider the strong correlation between printed writings and printed money. Renaissance Europe had an upperhand on the startup printed word industry not only because of the abundant olive and grape presses that could be easily converted to printing presses but because European character blocks (alphabets, numbers, and punctuation) could be managed much more efficiently than in other parts of the world such as China. Europeans only needed a hundred or so movable types whereas the Chinese need thousands. One thing I learned was that the famous Gutenberg Bible from 1455 does not bear the name of Johannes Gutenberg anywhere because he could not pay his loans for the press and operation so the banker foreclosed and turned over the business to his own son.

While Standish carries his whit trough a lot of pages with pictures of money and his captions, he is most enjoyable when he gets rolling on a subject. He thoroughly explains how US dollars became so drab but delights in the history of the pre-Revolutionary War rise of money and the messages they carried such as a $6 Continental note depicting a beaver gnawing at a tree. It is accompanied by the Latin word Perseverando (by persevering), which serves as a metaphor for toppling the British empire.

“The aesthetic revealed in these images seems a visual embodiment of America’s puritan heritage in the best sense – simple, direct, but resonating metaphysics as well. Together with the sentiments expressed in the Latin mottoes this Continental currency is rather brave and stirring. The revolutionaries were, it should be remembered, taking on the world’s most powerful empire.”

Standish rolls up the sleeves of America's early printers/turned legends including Ben Franklin who included the message "To Counterfeit is Death" in the early money his shop printed, and he creates an image of Paul Revere pulling "all-nighters" to print money. Revere actually used the back of the plate of his famous Boston Massacre etching.

Standish includes images of some of his favorite American cash such as this $2 bill which is of Science presenting Steam and Electricity to Commerce and Manufacturing. 

And this one of Electricity all grown up.

Standish breaks down the graphics of international currencies into a series of categories including National Heroes, Tough Guys, Topless Money, Agriculture, Transportation, and International Zoo. While he explains in National Heroes that local heroes remain pretty local, he does mention the international cultural significance of former French notes, such as the 100 francs devoted to Paul Cézanne.

My favorite category Artful Tender, which is devoted to eye-catching designs. It includes the 20 korun note of Czechoslovakia as shown at the top of this post as well as some other beautiful bills.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Polyslavic Patterns

by Drew Martin
I am fascinated by the scope, sounds, and structure of the dozen-plus Slavic languages that span from Eastern Europe and wrap around all of Asia to the north. They are all quite similar but it is not common for one country to take interest in another's language. They would rather learn English or French or German. Plus there is the history of Russian being forced on all the other Slavs. And so, along with strong nationalism, there is a disdain for each other's variation, which they say sound weird or childish. The fact is that there are more similarities than differences but how do you capture all of this in a map or a chart. Here are two examples of graphic attempts I found that show the variety but their focus is more on territories and splits than what they share.

And once you think you have captured them all you find another region or tribe that has a unique dialect or language in their own right. This is true of the Wends, also known as the Sorbs, who are the only independent Slavic tribe without their own country. For hundreds of years they have been in German territory, nestled in a region where northern Czech meets western Poland. There are very few resources online about the language so I just ordered a Sorbian-English dictionary to figure out a few things. My interest in the Sorbs is because their language fills the gap between Czech and Polish, which the org chart above does not properly show. One might assume that Slovak was something more of a bridge language but it is rather more like a variation of Czech, whereas Sorbian looks and feels like a real hybrid. I would move their branch between the drop-downs for Czech and Polish, but this still does not tell us that much. I know both languages pretty well but I mix words, which causes problems in conversation. I figured Sorbian (not to be confused with Serbian) would be a good meeting ground for me. 

[Sometimes the names of the languages are confusing. For example Slovak and Slovenian are slovenský and slovenski. Sorbian and Serbian are serbšćina and српски (srpski)] 

One thing I that interested me about Sorbian, since both Czech and Polish are pretty similar, was which one did it lean towards where there are obvious divisions. As far as Slavic languages go, there are two main options for an alphabet. They either use an alphabet based on the Roman alphabet or the Cyrillic alphabet, which itself was hand-crafted for Slavic tribes by the Macedonian monks Cyril and Methodius from the alphabet systems they understood: Roman alphabet of Latin, Hebrew and Greek. The more western tribes which revamped their alphabets to adopt Roman alphabet characters picked up a few unique characters along the way. What is interesting about Sorbian is that it samples from both the Czech and Polish variations of the Roman alphabet. It favors Czech for the soft consonants but it also includes at least one letter unique to Polish.

So while I wanted to do a quick study about the Czech and Polish ties to Sorbian, I also wanted to take a look at which languages aside from the ones I knew kept the Cyrillic alphabet. I created a chart in Excel of thirteen common Slavic languages: Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Bulgarian, Czech, Sorbian, Polish, Slovak, Slovenian, Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian, and Macedonian. There are a handful of other tongues I would have liked to include such as the Kashubian language of northern Poland and the dialect of the Górals in southern Poland but this was supposed to be a quick survey and I did not have the resources as readily available as the list of the 13 languages I have mentioned. I then chose thirteen words and one phrase: mountain, leg, head, hunger, I am hungry, hospital, room, basement, store, pub, soup, train, library, and language, and made a matrix.

I chose mountainlegheadhunger because these are usually identical words between the languages but there is an exchange of g and h. For example mountain in Czech is hora, but góra in Polish. Similarly there are exchanges of the o and ó (u). I wanted to see what the Sorbs chose. For all of these words Sorbian favors the softer h sound, like Czech. By doing this I learned something new. I had always assumed the Cyrillic г from Greek for g was always g when written as г but while this is true of Russian, Bulgarian, Serbian, and Macedonian, the other languages that use Cyrillic, Ukrainian and Belarusian, actually pronounce the г as an h. This was a little mind-blowing for me.

I threw in "I am hungry" because I wanted to see how each language treated this sentence. The structure between the Slavic languages varies. Sometimes it is like I-am-hungry, or I-have-hunger, or I-hungry, or reflective hungry-I-am. The jury is out on Sorbian but I am looking into it.

I chose 
hospitalpubsoup, and library because these are key words for me. I wanted to know if they adopted Latinized words such as biblioteka for library or kept an older Slavic word relating to their word for book. Pub was a similar word. Short for public house in English; did they simply copy that or use a Slavic word.

I included basement because the words for basement, store and pub get mixed around. I once got into and argument with a Czech man because I told him earlier that day I had been in his basement. He got very angry at me until, half an hour later we both realized I was using the Polish word for store, which meant basement. I would be angry too if a stranger insisted that he was hanging out in my basement especially if I did not have one. This is one of the problems between countries because instead of diving deeper into the usage, the differences and similarities become jokes. Like how the word for west in Polish means toilet in Czech and how the word for love in Czech is similar to the word for whip in Polish.

I chose 
roomtrainand language because I have noticed a variation in these words between Slavic countries and because language is usually the same word for tongue.

During this course of this nitpicking exercise I thought I might turn myself off to continuing the study of Slavic languages but quite the opposite has happened. I have a newfound energy to learn more about them and to make it back to a region I lived for five years. My dream is to Start up in Belarus, dip down to Czech, Poland, then the Balkans, and then to walk east across Ukraine and Russia to the Sea of Japan.

The Self-will of Will Self

by Drew Martin
Americans have a lot of self-will but not enough Will Self. He's one of these writers and cultural figures who has quite a presence in the U.K. but hardly anyone knows of him "here" in the U.S. Interestingly, his mom is from Queens, New York so Will is an American citizen as well, which gives him a bigger territory to write about with the advantage of connection. I first became fascinated by him many years ago when I read about how he would fly into the airport of a major city, such as JFK of New York, and then walk to the center of that city, i.e. Times Square. He talked about the physical boundaries and rings of a city as he worked his way into the heart of that culture, passing graveyards and major roads void of people. I identified a lot with Will but I never read much by him until I picked up his Junk Mail last week for $1 in the back clearance section of Barnes and Noble in Paramus, New Jersey. I am reading it now, and will make a post about it when I finish. What I wanted to share at this point is a lecture I just watched by him. It was my first time seeing/hearing him and I found him more interesting than I expected. I guess with his junkie past I was expecting someone a bit more jaded but he is clear, smart, and insightful during this fascinating talk about Isolation, Solitude, Loneliness and the Composition of Long-Form Fiction in which he contemplates the need of isolation to write and read literature while at the same time questioning if we perhaps fetishize solitude and might be better off in a world without privacy.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Real Hexadecimal Numbers Have Curves

by Drew Martin
37-24-35  38-26-37  41-25-38
35-25-35  36-25-36  37-26-45  
34-24-35  34-26-38  36-26-40

These are the "measurements" of famous, beautiful, curvy celebrities: 

Madonna, Kate Upton, Dolly Parton, 
Lynda Carter, Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, 
Rihanna, Beyoncé, and Kim Kardashian.

I was always perplexed as a kid when men fantasized over numbers like these. They were too abstract, I was too young to understand, and they seemed to be bantered about by the type of guys who also traded baseball and other sports statistics with each other that got decoded in their meaty heads into an actual performance, and in the case of the women's measurements, erotic visions of impossible pin-up girls. Maybe a lonely submarine sailor sending Rita Hayworth's 36-24-36 and other "bomber girls" measurements by Morse code to another poor enlisted seaman was the first instance of electronic sexting. Which reminds me of an article I once read about two former American servicemen who returned to Plzeň a half a century after liberating the Czech city during WWII. One shouted to the other "Incoming at 11 o'clock!" and his buddy spun around in time to catch a glimpse a Slavic beauty pass by.

I recently wondered if arrangements of these six numbers correlated to anything other than womanly curves. How might they look as a patch of RGB color space values? I envisioned a psychedelic matrix of hot pinks and purples.

When I tried that all I got was a dull grid of bluish black squares except for one slightly brighter area because Nick Minaj's big butt bumped up the blue value. A little disappointed by this, I converted the inches to centimeters and entered those values as RGB: a little lighter and brighter with a bump again from Minaj's rump. So I decided to switch over to CMYK color space and alter the K (black) value by another measurement unique to each woman. The greater the value of K, the darker the box.

The first time I did this, I used height as the variable, which is why the just-shy-of-six-foot Kate Upton (top middle of the left matrix) is the darkest. The next box, centered here, uses weight as a variable. And finally the far right box uses age as the variable, which is probably the most interesting of all the matrices because even though Dolly Parton, Lynda Carter, and Madonna are all attractive older ladies, there is a real sense of mortality in the darkening of the squares.

Despite all the variations I was still disappointed and was hoping for something more insightful. I tried placing the numbers as global coordinates such as 36°25'36" but the South West coordinates dropped everyone in the South Atlantic Ocean, South East in the Indian Ocean, and North West smack in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. 

And then finally, miraculously, the North East coordinates parachuted these beauties into Turkish territories, with Dolly Parton busting into neighboring Georgia. Maybe she figured Nashville was just a short haul from there. 

Most surprisingly, Katy Perry and Kim Kardashian were strategically positioned near the Syrian border not far from Aleppo. Maybe this new information will help Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party candidate for US president, to remember this location of this war-torn Syrian city.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Weapons of Mass Communication

by Drew Martin
What if our dreams are not random clips of past events or slumbering fantasies but rather tests of how we might act in certain situations? If that is the case, I just destroyed a futuristic quantum communication device that would allow us to instantly interact with humans anywhere on the planet without the need for the Internet, satellites, cell towers, or energy as we know it. This device even had the potential to get on with intelligent creatures around the universe faster than the speed of light. The problem is that I tossed the only working prototype out of a moving car and destroyed it. Sorry.

In my dream last night, the inventor of the device was sitting across from me in an open-aired vehicle that was whizzing up the FDR Drive in New York City. He had it in his lap but I could not figure out what it was. It looked like a cross between a round boombox and the discontinued Brother MFC 210-C fax/scanner/copier that I picked up off the curb a couple weeks ago and got working last night in order to scan a drawing.

The young man was oddly grinning to himself and there was a digital counter on the device that was clicking down. I thought it was a bomb and we were about to go under an overpass in Manhattan so I threw it out on the road to minimize its blast damage. In the same moment the inventor disappeared and someone else in the vehicle said “Do you know what you just did?” 

A moment later I found a little remote speaker on which I could hear the voice of a lady in Africa with whom he was having a conversation. It quickly faded out and I realized I had foolishly destroyed this new device and somehow also caused the inventor to vanish.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Art For Gamers' Sake

by Drew Martin
Almost three years ago I wrote a raving review about Indie Game: The Movie. It is a really interesting and beautifully made documentary from 2012 about young, indie video game developers. Phil Fish, the developer of FEZ best expresses the sentiment of the phenomenon of video games,

"It's the sum total of every expressive medium of all times, made interactive."

Yesterday, I was very happy to see that there was a sequel documentary, Indie Game: Life After, which is an interesting follow up. It is more of a hodgepodge of clips and interviews a couple years after the first film. There are the epilogues of the formerly struggling indie video game developers who have all cashed in on their successes. Instead of working in messy apartments they now have tidy homes and fancy cars. You are happy for them but kind of miss their angst, which gave the first movie its character.

One nice thing about the follow-up movie is that it interviews David Hellman who did the artwork for Braid. This was one of the featured games in the first movie but only the coding creator was interviewed. Hellman talks about the process of creating the artwork for Braid, which has a hand-drawn quality to it and is one of the more famous indie video games. (pictured top) 

Another great thing about this sequel documentary is that it features many other indie video game makers and shows a bit more of the community. Steph Thirion, for example, is the creator of Eliss, which is a "puzzle video game" in the spirit of Tetris but is a touchscreen interface and revolves around filling "squeesars" with planets of like color and size. Eliss is a blend of the artist name El Lissitzky (Lazar Markovich Lissitzky, Ла́зарь Ма́ркович Лиси́цкий) a Russian avant-garde artist, who with his mentor, Kazimir Malevich, helped develop suprematism. Their work influenced the Bauhaus and constructivist movements, which dominated 20th-century graphic design. (pictured bottom)

Click here to read my first review of Indie Game: The Movie, "The Sum Total of Every Expressive Medium of All Times"