Friday, July 10, 2015

The Color Revolution

ReginaLee Blaszczyk, MIT Press 2012

Book Review by Allen Barkkume

This book is part of the Smithsonian Institution’s Lemelson Center Studies in Invention and Innovation series

From the genesis of the modern color industry through the Byzantine conduits of culture, The Color Revolution presents color as a force to be reckoned with.

Wielding new powers, stunning new clientele, color undergoes a renaissance at the turn of the 20th century. It is unleashed from its crypt by new discoveries in chemistry, then standardized, codified, coordinated, and disseminated to the public in every consumable form – clothes, cars, appliances, architecture, and of course, the public education system. This book offers a good look at how technological change ripples throughout a culture. Also, if you’ve ever had a hunch that there are such things as “color forecasters” and global color committees, you’ll now be well-informed.

Blaszczyk pulls open the first curtain on the Queen’s Lilac, the first synthetic dye color (whereas today we would consider lilac a pale purple, at this time it referred to a mauve/magenta). The Queen of England draped herself in this emblem of modernity, and changed the color preference of an entire population.

Chemist William Henry Perkin discovers the dye by mistake while trying to synthesize quinine from coal tar. Many major discoveries were made at this time, by accident, while trying to make things out of the newfound abundance of coal waste. Benzene, for example, which can be seen as the emblem of all organic chemistry, was finally synthesized by someone working with coal tar. Aniline dye, synthesized from a waste product, showed what chemistry could do for the bottom line of the fashion industry.

With the new synthetic dyes came a new taste for color, a demand for vibrancy. And with this explosion came a need for understanding. The first treatise on “the principles of color harmony” was published in 1854, breaking the chromasphere  down into Hue, Value, Chroma. The standardization of color was prepared in Germany – the epicenter of the dye market in the late 1800’s – to facilitate communication among manufacturers, buyers, and designers. Soon, “color forecasting”, “color management”, and “color engineering” became legitimate branches of this industry.

The public understanding of color came about as a competition between two color theorists. Munsell and Prang pushed their own version of color organization on the United States’ public education system, a major market promising generous and sustained monetary returns to the winner. It was at this time that the 6-part color wheel originates. All the while, as these two entrepreneurial intellects fought for supremacy over the minds of America’s young photoreceptors, the field of color psychology was emerging. Statements like “There is no color outside ourselves” (Prang), and “Color is in us – not outside” (Munsell) attempted to bridge the divide between the practical and the scientific understanding of color by way of a deeper understanding of ourselves.

Furthermore, this systematic organization of color, along with the newly created Textile Color Color Association (TCCA) of the United States, allowed unprecedented coordination between the various players in the fashion industry. During WWI, France, the Western seat of all things fashion, stopped sending their “silk cards” to the US, seriously limiting design production. This spurred the creation of the TCCA, and a new Standard Color Card of America that would provide “chromatic archetypes” for the textile mills, garment makers, retailers – all parties. This monumental coordination effort did have some bumps in the road.

Blaszczyk describes the struggle for standardization. The TCCA put a general request via the New York Herald in 1919 asking for samples of battle ship gray. Manufacturers were asked for samples of basic colors as they appear in nature, in the form of jewels, minerals, flowers, fruits and metals. Upon receiving these, the TCCA found 50 examples of navy blue. An expert committee of textile industry veterans and major department store buyers contemplated and recommended these color archetypes to the association directors, and in the end, the Standard Color Card of America gave a “common language and a universal tool” to the industry. This new common language of the Standard would go on to symbolize American efficiency, as well as its fledgling independence from French fashion.

In a fascinating diversion, Blaszczyk describes the discovery of the science of camouflage. Nothing facilitates scientific discovery like the real-world laboratory of the battlefield. The advent of aerial technology and long-distance artillery changed the visual battlefield and demanded new strategies. Combined with the new discoveries of color harmony and discord in the fashion industry, war-minded individuals questioning whether this new knowledge could lead to an advantage on the field found their answer in the form of the camoufleur, a new kind of military strategist. “A camoufleur combined a painter’s command of optical illusion with a naturalist’s understanding of deceptive coloration.”

Just like many other wartime technologies, the principles and promise of camouflage followed soldiers home and found its way into the life of the general public. Theories of camouflage were used to transform the common home, and a new kind of color – “functional color” was born.

From the fashion and printing/advertising industries to other consumer products, like cars, color soon saturated the commercial landscape. This is especially relevant to that paragon of American consumer culture, the automobile. Once the automotive industry realized that using the right color-designs could substantially increase profits, they began spending more time and money researching color production and consumer color preferences. Every ten days car dealers sent sales reports to provide feedback and enhance the predictive power of “color futures”.

Nothing shows this tremendous research effort like the painting reproduced in Chapter 5 where an American Duco colorist “reproduces” the color of French silks – fresh from Paris! Although the US gained a good deal of independence from French fashion in the early 20th century, it was still important to follow the trends. So important, in fact, that the automobile industry sends an artist to Paris to paint a selection of draped silk fabrics, and then send that painting back to the US where the “color intel” could be used to inform color choices and combinations.

The incremental distancing of American color-culture from that of Europe is galvanized in Chapter 6. Blaszczyk titles the chapter “Entente” to emphasize the partnership between both sides of the Atlantic, but does more to show-off the uniquely American aspect of modern culture.

Although Blaszczyk points out the combining of American scientific management with European tradition of craftsmanship, quality and style, it is the cultural transformation taking place in America that makes the most impact. Social psychologist mastermind Edward Bernays secretly promoted the green color of Lucky Strikes packaging to be seen as more harmonious with women’s fashion. Rayon looks better on film, and so Hollywood almost unconsciously pushes the synthetic fabric’s popularity. America becomes a distinct and formidable cultural entity, creating its own expectations and demands.

Distinctly American things revolving around the American artworld, urban renewal, and ‘functional color’ (for industrial safety and communication) are the drivers of change. In these interim chapters, Blaszczyk reaches far and beyond “the industry” to the arts, architecture, and society at large – which, after all, is the source of any revolution.

In regards to manufacturing, it’s interesting to note that colorists were required for matching all the different parts of a telephone (rubber cords, metal dials, plastic bodies), for example, because all the different materials involved take their color differently.

Of all industries most integral to the color revolution, none were so pervasive, or as quintessentially American, as that of the automobile industry. Colorists, chemists, and automotive stylists advanced companies like DuPont to create new pigments, lacquers, and enamels. In the world of Fordist production, or Levittown houses, where every unit looks the same, you sell the color of the product, not the product itself.

But as regional tastes, lingering biases, and socio-economic differences all contributed to the weakening of sales (or the inevitable inability of color forecasters to keep-up with the complexity of “culture”). In concluding, I’ll quote Blaszczyk:

“The color expansion of the postwar years was evidence of the extravagances of a growth economy and the maturation of American consumer society. […] By the last quarter of the 20th century, more Americans than ever before had dishwashers, phones and cars, but they were available in fewer colors.

*An overarching lesson of this book is that as for the color world, it was figured out very early on, and continues to this day, that if there is an industry where women hold the most valued opinions and preferences, it is that of Big Color.

Scientific Babel: How Science Was Done Before and After Global English

Michael D. Gordin, University of Chicago Press, 2015

 Book Review by Allen Barkkume

Scientific Babel: How Science Was Done Before and After Global English does everything you wanted to. Michael Gordon charts the map of scientific language from consolidation of the triumvirate – English, French, German – in the 1850’s, to the forecasted future. Everywhere in between is strung together by multilingual transactions of scientists in pursuit of universal truth and entire populations at the whim of geopolitical dynamics.

Perhaps we should begin with the lamentations of the French linguist Louis Coturat, near the end of the 19th century, as he pits the most sufficiently advanced technology against this ageless, human problem of communication:

“What is the good of telegraphing from one continent to another, or telephoning from one country to another, if the two correspondents do not have a common language in which they can converse?”

And on the plight of the scientist? “To keep themselves acquainted with the special scientific work and studies which interested them, all savants would have to be polyglots; but to become polyglots they would have to abandon every other study, and therefore they would be almost destitute of knowledge of their special subjects.” (p107).

Science must have a means of transporting itself from one scientist to another, and with this, Gordon defines the vehicular language, or the auxiliary language. In opposition, people – both ordinary people and scientists alike – best express their own thoughts in a way that is comfortable and meaningful to them, a natural language. One is for the mind, and the other for the heart (p113). These are the forces that push language-choice throughout history. From Latin roots to warring 20th century fragments, the chosen language of science has shifted dramatically over this time. In the final chapter and conclusion, Gordin explains this trend toward Global English and questions its implications.

Language is a very fluid thing, and to tell the history of language requires tremendous orchestration of not only dates, events, and people, but knowledge from other subjects as well. In this book, that subject is Science itself. The body of scientific knowledge is immense, to say the least, but this story centers mostly on Chemistry as the discipline of study. During the most critical period of the monolingual formation that took place within the 20th century, organic chemistry was full-steam-ahead the most popular branch of science at the time. But furthermore, “Chemistry is the science of description, taxonomy, and nomenclature as much as it is about test tubes, pipettes, and Bunsen Burners.” (21).

Chemistry was the most dominant branch of study at the time when the triumvirate of German-English-French was the most common language choice. In fact, Gordin begins his story by retelling the standardization of the Periodic Table of Elements as a nationalist competition between Germany and Russia, with a little bit of translator’s error thrown in. (Gordin later reminds us, via H. Beam Piper’s 1957 sci-fi story Omnilingual – That’s the Periodic Table; It’s the only one there is.)

Russian and Japanese became very important during the second half of the century, and so the subject moves to mathematics and nuclear physics. But by then, machine translation enters the scene and redistributes the priorities of all players. By the 21st century, the global language for scientific communication is Global English.

Not only is the study of language a meta-logic activity in that the language is just as much about speakers and subject matter as it is about the words themselves, but the language of Science?... double meta-(!). Gordin reminds us that "scientific utterances are a kind of ‘meta-language’ that are only partially expressed in any individual tongue but are equally true in all of them." (p11). And Science, as it is presented here, is seen in its true light: A thing that ought to be very clear and forthright is instead obfuscated by the floating lexicon of a multilingual system of communication.

In the search for a universal language of communication to match the universal truth of science, one should immediately ask – why not Latin? And with good reason; Latin was, until Global English, the most universal language in the Western world. Perhaps the most mnemonically useful bit used by Gordin to explain why not Latin is this: “Classical Latin has no present or past participle of the verb ‘to be’, which makes rendering medieval metaphysics rather dicey.” (p34). It seems somewhat counterintuitive, as one scientist notes, since Latin was already dead and no longer subject to change. Nonetheless, Latin was simply no longer usable as an auxiliary language because it was so far removed from living speakers' natural tongues.

The language problem in science has always existed, but it was not until the Chemical Revolution of the mid 1800’s that it became a huge obstacle in the pursuit of knowledge. The introduction of the aromatic ring-structure theory of organic chemistry brought thousands of new compounds. The subsequent fledgling industries of pharmaceuticals and artificial dyestuffs required a consistent nomenclature for these new chemicals. Furthermore, the language of chemistry is a language of formulas, and as such, translation is difficult.

For the duration of the 20th century, Science sought a balance between a language that everyone could both agree upon and understand. Considering the tumult of 20th century geopolitics, consensus in this area was not easily obtained. Language is a symbol of a people, a nation, a way of life. At a time when such things were threatened in their very existence, one can imagine the embedded contention when deciding which language would win.

As a side note, because this isn't expounded too much in the book, Gordin does point out that Chemical nomenclature, despite its multi-lingual origins, did tend towards a convergence of syntax. The lexicon may have differed, but the linguistic formula of science rose above semantics. This is one of the points that makes this book so interesting – science really is a language to itself.

Back to the core of the story. As the standardized International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) eventually makes clear, Chemical nomenclatures are ultimately artificial. That is to say, they do not grow organically from the mouths of entire populations over generations, but instead flow from the minds of a concentrated few, and from painstakingly organized conferences. And with this, it seems less surprising that whole languages had been constructed from scratch to facilitate communication amongst all parties. Esperanto is the most well known of these constructed languages but it's not the only one, and its life is not as simple nor as ill-fated as one might expect. (There still exist today native speakers of Esperanto.)

As Gordin explains, an entirely artificial language is not as outlandish as it first seems. In fact, he reminds us that “scientific languages have to be quite consciously constructed [because] modern science focuses upon novelty: new objects in the world, new ideas, new theories.” (p81). The discovery of a never-before-known chemical element needs to be named, and anew.

Again, writing a book about the “language” of an ostensible meta-language (Science) is not without its self-reflective humor. This book is laden with correspondence between scientists, and it shouldn't be lost on the reader that so much of this correspondence is itself prefaced by the reasons for the writer’s use of the chosen language of correspondence – “I wanted to write you in Russian, however...,” or concluded with apologies for fumbling with an unfamiliar tongue (p88).

Take also the vociferous and intricate debates over the grammar and lexicon of artificially-created languages, all undertaken itself in a bevy of languages. It's enough to make your head spin, so if that's what you expected when you saw this title, you'll be satisfied.

The story marches onward, although with the advent of computerized machine translation, one would assume the problem solved. However due to the “hype cycle” of new technologies, the promises of mind-machine melding did not fully deliver. That, combined with the debilitating paranoia of the Cold War, forced the dream of computerized super-lingual omniscience to get a reality-check.

Gordin also details the effects of the sheer volume of writing. By the mid 1900’s the scientific publishing industry resorted to compiling “abstract journals” where “each month a hefty tome would arrive at an office in the US, be ripped apart, distributed, translated, edited, stitched back together, and printed, all within 6 months – and this was done for dozens of journals, every month, for decades.” (p258). In the end, Global English didn’t win because it was the best-suited to scientific inquiry and discourse; it just happened to be the natural language of the largest publishing and distribution infrastructure on the planet.

Low and behold, we find ourselves in a new century, and with a new solution to the ageless problem. The last chapter and the conclusion, “Anglophonia” and “Babel Beyond,” can stand by themselves. Granted, the corpus of research planted before this gives the authority under which it is read, but honestly, I would have paid the price of the book for these two chapters, and since I already am, I’ll continue in a rambling fashion.

Why English? Besides the emergent behavior of the scientific publishing industry, Gordin reminds us that “the perception of neutrality has been the engine enabling English omnipresence in international science” (p295). On a side note, he questions why the inconsistency in English spelling isn’t brought up more often as a problem in scientific English – and finishes the thought by suggesting “probably because the lexicon is so circumscribed for each sub-discipline.” (p296). He reminds us that even as late as 1947, there were people anticipating the continuation of the triumvirate. He throws this one at you – “There are more words in English dedicated to the various sciences than for any other function… There are also more scientific words in English that have at least partly Ancient Greek roots than there are words in Ancient Greek.” (p299). And then he sums it up:

English has attained its current position owing to a series of historical transformations that it also in turn shaped, exploiting a perception of neutrality that it gained through being distinctly non-neutral in either its British or American guise. p315

Then he really lets loose. In “Babel Beyond,” he drops an entire short sci-fi story, and then goes on to explain how SETI is an extension of this line of thought resounding in the book – it’s a decision about language (albeit alien language). And in case you were wondering – the language of interstellar discourse? Mathematics, obviously.

This book is a well-documented body of research, but the way it’s been assembled, and the underlying theme are intriguing, stimulating, and current. Science is like humans – messy. It takes a good writer to clean it up just enough to be presentable, but not enough that it’s no longer exciting. Michael Gordin has done just that.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Inceptionism vs Trypophobia

Left my computer dreaming overnight, found this when I woke up


Deep Learning in Reverse Shows You What an Algorithm Sees

Phantasmagoric neural net visions, Jun 2015

All I have to say is, sucks to be trypophobic right now.

Deep Bosch

Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights”, Kyle McDonald/Flickr

Google’s New Visualization Tool Slips Slimy and Furry Creatures into Art History
Claire Voon, Hypoallergic, July 7, 2015

Each layer of the network deals with features at a different level of abstraction, so the complexity of features we generate depends on which layer we choose to enhance. For example, lower layers tend to produce strokes or simple ornament-like patterns, because those layers are sensitive to basic features such as edges and their orientations.

"...overinterpret [...] oversaturated with snippets of other images."

Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights”, @aut0mata /Twitter

Phantasmagoric neural net visions, Jun 2015

[mindhacks always has the best explanations]

by using the neural networks “in reverse” they could elicit visualisations of the representations that the networks had developed over training.

pictures are freaky because they look sort of like the things the network had been trained to classify, but without the coherence of real-world scenes

The obvious parallel is to images from dreams or other altered states – situations where ‘low level’ constraints in our vision are obviously still operating, but the high-level constraints – the kind of thing that tries to impose an abstract and unitary coherence on what we see – is loosened. In these situations we get to observe something that reflects our own processes as much as what is out there in the world.



the code has been opened for all to use; let the dreaming begin