Category: technology

Tim’ s Vermeer: A Documentary that Questions Our Definition of Art

Is art as good as the tools that make it?

Is art only as good as the tools that make it?

Is a painting a work of art if the painter uses technology that makes it possible for even a novice to be successful? What tools are off limits for an artist if their art is to be considered legit? These are the questions asked by the documentary Tim’s Vermeer written and directed by Penn and Teller.

The documentary focuses on Tim Jenison, an inventor who has spent most of his life creating visual effects technology used in movies, and his quest to find out if he can paint a Vermeer, specifically “The Music Lesson.” His hypothesis is that the precision and detail in Vermeer’s paintings had to be a result of something more than Vermeer’s genius and skill, that some sort of technology was likely involved.

Jenison goes to great lengths to recreate Vermeer’s painting– building by hand an exact replica of the room Vermeer used in “The Music Lesson” including all the furniture and windows as well as the instruments Jenison believes the 17th century painter used to achieve his masterpieces: a camera obscura and a mirror. These tools would have allowed Vermeer to arrange scenes in a room and focus closely on each part of the scene using the mirror. Jenison tests his mirror by painting an incredibly accurate portrait of his father-in-law from a

Tim Jenison tries out his mirror hypothesis by painting a replica of his father's photograph.

Tim Jenison tries out his mirror hypothesis by painting a replica of his father-in-law’s photograph as Penn watches.

photograph. The whole project from the research stage to building the set to painting a replica of “The Music Lesson” took Jenison over five years to complete — the painting alone taking 130 days — and the whole process was documented by his longtime friend Penn Jillette, who was enthusiastic from the first moment about his pal’s brilliant idea. Watching Jenison’s process was interesting and excruciating in equal measure. He made it very clear that he is not an artist or even particularly interested in art. He’s an inventor, a tinkerer, the kind of guy you know built amazing shit out of Legos as a kid. But what was missing from his experiment and the documentary was any real history of Vermeer’s life and how he may have painted and Vermeer’s original of “The Music Lesson,” as this The Guardian article points out. Jenison, Teller and crew went to Buckingham palace to see the original, but only Jenison was allowed in, sans cameras, so us viewers only got to see his poster version of the painting, which just isn’t the same thing. According to Jonathan Jones at The Guardian,”It’s a painting of hypnotic intrigue and psychological fascination – a painting to get obsessed with.”

And while Tim’s replica is quite amazing, there is something mysteriously different about the two paintings; maybe it is that lack of hypnotic obsession in Jenison’s Vermeer that’s missing. Maybe it’s that his experiment is a bit reductive, implying that with the right tools anyone can paint a Vermeer or be an artist, completely ignoring the heart and soul that create the mystery behind great art. Or maybe it’s that he approached the project like a scientist, not an artist, but he wouldn’t agree with that notion.

Tim's Vermeer is on the left; the original, right.

Tim’s Vermeer is on the left; the original, right.

Jenison says in the film that we’ve now turned science and art into false binaries that didn’t exist when Vermeer was painting. About that he’s right. After all, Michelangelo blended science with art, and as this Quora post illustrates again and again, this isn’t uncommon. It’s true that art and science are cousins that rely on each other for sustenance and life.

The remaining question is what exactly is in art that makes it art? I know, this question is too big, but this experiment of Tim Jenison’s is a good place to start answering that question, or to add more interesting questions to it. Did Jenison actually rediscover Vermeer’s tools and techniques, and if so, does this in any way diminish Vermeer’s art? If this 17th century artist used boxes and lenses and mirrors to make his magical, light-filled work, is he less an artist, or should we just stop asking that question and enjoy what he created?


Been Raped, Never Reported

HuffPostSomething amazing happened on Twitter this weekend and it all started in our neighboring country up north.

Jian Ghomeshi, host of a popular radio show, was fired when three women accused him of unwanted sexual violence. In the wake of the scandal, more women stepped forward to report the same thing, including Mr. Ghomeshi’s coworker Reva Seth and actress Lucy DeCoutere.

You can imagine what happened next: victim blaming, he-said-she-said doubts, and an all-out debate on what consent means.

And this is when the amazing thing happened. Cutting through all the noise and bullshit, Toronto Star writer Antonia Zerbisias and Montreal Gazette reporter Sue Montgomery shared their own stories of rape on Twitter, starting the hashtag #BeenRapedNeverReported and creating an instant trend.

By Sunday, the conversation was strong enough for the Huffington Post Canada to dedicate their front page and their Living page to an outpouring of courageous rape survivors sharing their stories.

Even with a 140 character limit, these words hold so much power. The conversation is still ongoing, join it.

Storytelling as Community, as Healing

After Asa’s great post about how storytelling affects our decision making, I started thinking about how storytelling could play a role in the careers of people who aren’t writers. I found this great video from, the website for the Center for Digital Storytelling, about forensic nurses and digital storytelling. The mission of the Center for Digital Storytelling is “to promote the value of story as a means for compassionate community action.”


I know many of the contributors to this blog have taught, or currently teach, creative writing. My question for those with this type of experience is: In what ways has being a promoter of storytelling brought about change in your life or the life of someone else?

“Make Me Beautiful”

Journalist Esther Honig wanted to examine how the standards of beauty vary across cultures. She sent a picture of herself—makeup free and hair pulled back– to 40 different graphic designers across the globe with only one request: “Make me beautiful.”

What she received back blew her mind.  (And mine.)

Some of the pictures came back with minimal changes, what I  think of as studio photo retouching. Like this image from Romania:


All images in post are courtesy of Ester Honig

Others were radically altered. This one is from the Philippines:



What struck me is that some designers changed Honig’s features in ways I wouldn’t even think of, going to extremes like changing her eye color, removing collar bones, and altering the shape of her eyes and forehead.  Read more »

Twitter Fiction and Creative Experimentation

I watched the TED Talks video “Adventures in Twitter Fiction” a few months ago and wondered, could I do that?

In the talk, Andrew Fitzgerald gives examples of successful storytelling, using Twitter as a micro-blogging platform with writers setting up Twitter accounts for fictional characters who interact with each other. The experiments seem complicated and brilliant and risky. What could a writer do with Instagram, Pinterest, or even a dating site? Social media provides the space for flexible identity and anonymity while engaging with the real world. Many writers have probably considered social media for marketing their work, but what about for creation? If you’ve already jumped into this type of experimentation, let me know. I want to see the risks, rewards and… I’m going to bring up the “F” word. Failure.

What about failure? With so many voices (real and bots) clamoring to be heard in the social spheres of the internet, could a creative experiment go unseen, or seen but ferociously attacked? But does any of that matter?

Writers risk failure with every word they put on the page, so maybe the medium of delivery doesn’t seem so scary, even if unconventional. I remember the first time I heard of actors and directors taking their work exclusively online with webisodes. Maybe this isn’t so different?

If you haven’t already, I hope you’ll watch the TED Talks video. Let me know if you feel inspired!

The Comments Section of The Internet, As Told by a Brainwashed Moron

I don’t usually delve into political topics on the internet, and this is because of the Comments sections everywhere. I recently watched Ellen’s interview of President Obama, and the comments quickly turned into the following conversation:








In an effort to have a comment on there about something other than who was responsible for the destruction of this country and how awful Obama was and why Americans are stupid (or why the Swiss are idiots), I stupidly commented on the fact that OBAMA WAS ON ELLEN, and how awesome the interview in the first place, and I commented on this because the novelty of it amused me. This is a world where the US President appears on a talk show . . . there are so many different things at play here that are phenomenal. We’re in an age where someone can record, digitally, in color, a conversation with one of America’s most popular television hosts and one of America’s most-hated/most-loved leaders, and where people can have a discussion about it.

And of course, someone posted in response, “wow . . . brainwashed morons are always like this.” Read more »

Editing Life

MyLifeAt a an author reading at Auntie Bookstore’s last year, Craig Johnson talked about how much he liked Robert Taylor’s audition for the role of Sheriff Walt Longmire in the A&E TV series based on Johnson’s novels (Viking). That is, he liked it until a breathy “Oh, my” escaped from his wife’s lips when she saw Taylor saunter across the screen. She quickly defended her reaction by describing Taylor as a taller and slightly better looking, “TV version” of her husband. (Nice save, Mrs. Johnson.)

This made me wonder what the TV/film version of me would be like. I pictured a polished, skinnier Asa, with better skin, thicker more lustrous hair, wearing expensive designer clothes and shoes. She would know how to walk in high heels, have an infectious tinkling laugh, and use a clever repertoire of insightful comments during conversations. And she would look good in hats.

Later that night, I uploaded some pictures from the author event to social media and realized the edited version of my life already exists: Facebook.

Here are some of the director choices I’ve made for the Facebook version of my life:

Major Milestones:
My husband and friend arrange an amazing 40th birthday party—show pictures of guests, especially cute children of friends playing with dog. 

Turning 40 means spending an alarming amount of time in front of a magnifying mirror tweezing coarse hairs that sprout on my chin—CUT!

Ziplining in Costa Rica—post photos of posting with hubby in matching helmets, include video of me whizzing down a very high line at fast speeds.

Spending hours on the toilet, purging from both ends due to Costa Rican amoeba entering gastrointestinal system—Are you crazy?! Nobody wants to see that. CUT! Read more »

Dave Eggers’s The Circle: A Mirror and a Crystal Ball

the-circleHave you ever read a book that left you feeling a little hollow, a little less safe, and yet it was a story that you felt completely in control of most of the time? That was my experience reading The Circle by Dave Eggers. The Circle is a story of a twenty-something woman named Mae (short for Maebelline, a sure nod to the makeup brand, leaving readers to wonder if Mae’s parents had actually named her after a beauty product in this dystopian society) who has just landed a job at a futuristic version of a Google/Facebook/Twitter-like company called The Circle, making her a “newbie” Circler.

In her first week or two there, she learns just how much this job will become an overbearing part of her life. She’s required to “smile” at all sorts of meaningless chatter online (The Circle’s equivalent to “Likes” on Facebook.) and every few days it seems that a new screen is being added to her desk, requiring her to pay attention to multiple social and business arenas at once.

At first, I was as enamored by The Circle as Mae was. What’s there not to like? The campus is beautifully manicured, all amenities are free to employees — even a stock of merchandise brought into the campus’s overnight apartments for employees who don’t want to drive home after a long day at work — and creativity seems to be bursting out of every room.

This, coupled by the fact that Mae is able to include her parents (her father suffers from MS) on her super amazing health insurance, makes The Circle seem like a dream job, which is the point.

Eggers sets us up to fall in love with the place, but all the time, we’re watching Mae being bombarded with more and more media, technology, and social obligation, and it all starts to feel like a burden not worth carrying. Mae is even chastised for not attending enough after-work festivities when she first arrives on campus. Like a good employee who wants to please her superiors, she acquiesces and starts to fill up her time with extra-curricular activities that keep her on The Circle campus overnight more often than not.

Read more »

Used, but Infinitely More Interesting

On their way to make s'mores.

On their way to make s’mores.

In the romantic comedy Serendipity, Kate Beckinsale’s character writes her phone number in a used book and tells John Cusack’s character that if faith wants them to meet again, the novel will find its way back to him. The movie isn’t very interesting after that, but that scene outside the bookstore made me think about the treasures I’ve found in used books.

In a copy of Drowning Ruth, by Christina Schwarz, a picture of two young women had been used as a bookmark by a previous owner. I bought the book because it was an Oprah’s Book Club pick, but never finished it. Maybe because the unknown people in the picture were more intriguing than the plot. They’re wearing summer dresses, smiling, and posing in front of a pine tree. I like to think they’re at a gathering of good friends in a back yard somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. After the picture was taken, they lit the outdoor fire pit we can’t see, and sat down to drink wine and make s’mores.

A friend of mine lent me her copy of The Magic Circle by Katherine Neville. My memory of the plot is hazy, I confuse it with The Eight by the same author, but I do remember how much I enjoyed the process of reading the book. My friend comments and underlines while she reads. I’d find “Who’s this guy again?” or “How much more must she endure?” in the margins. Plot twists were underlined and “Whaaaat?!” written above. Reading her book was like having our own private book discussion, or maybe more like a private peep-hole into my friend’s mind. Read more »

I’m Not So Special (and that’s okay)

Netflix shattered my sense of self a few weeks ago. It’s the nature of technological advances these days, and I should probably get used to everything I thought I once knew being undercut by the series of 0s and 1s that rule my life.

For many of us, it was Google that started this assault. We were bopping along through life, feeling all one-of-a-kind and uniquely us, and then a search engine came along and said it wasn’t so. I’m not the only Ericka Taylor in the world. I’m not the only black Ericka Taylor. I’m not even the only black Ericka Taylor with dreadlocks. Fortunately, that kind of realization is only briefly off-putting. After all, what’s in a name if you’re not a Capulet or Montague? The fact that an Ericka Denise Taylor who isn’t me resides in Florida doesn’t exactly bring on an existential crisis. Our names are, in the end, just identification markers, not things that define us. I’m betting that even someone whose name is truly exceptional, say Umberkrunktil, has at times been more annoyed by her name’s distinctiveness than she has reveled in it.

'Cause there's no one like you left.

Where you gonna go, where you gonna run, where you gonna hide? Nowhere.

That’s because, in the end, we all want to be special, but only to a degree. We’re a social species, and fitting in matters because it’s at the core of community. When you do a Google search for “hot tub, armpit” and the next term you were going to enter—“soreness”—pops up automatically, you feel better. Not only can you now avoid scheduling a doctor’s appointment, but you’ve gotten affirmation that it’s not just you.

For me, the scariest part of 1993’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is when Meg Tilly’s (snatched) character says, “Where you gonna go, where you gonna run, where you gonna hide? Nowhere. ‘Cause there’s no one like you left.” Those lines have stuck in my head for 20 years because the sense of being absolutely alone, of having no one who can relate to you in any meaningful way, is kind of a freaky concept. So, I’m at peace with the fact that Google’s predictive searching reaffirms that I am but one of many. Read more »

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