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On this day in 1938, the BBC aired an adaptation of the 1920 play R.U.R., by Czech writer Karel Capek, the first science fiction program to be broadcasted on television. R.U.R. — which stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots — told the story of artificial people called roboti who were created from synthetic organic matter to serve humans, but who ultimately rebel and wipe out our species. In addition to introducing what has now become a familiar trope in science fiction, it also brought as the word “robot”, from the Czech “robota”, which describes the forced labor performed by serfs (essentially slaves).

Capek had also written a novel titled “War with the Newts”, about humanity discovering and then enslaving a race of intelligent amphibious humanoids. He was thus among the first to explore a wide range of social and political issues that have since become familiar to audiences across the globe.


The Deadliest Earthquake You Don’t Know About

On this day in 1556, the deadliest earthquake on record struck Shaanxi Province, China, killing around 830,000 people. Given that it was the 16th century, virtually no one outside the Ming Dynasty knew that such a disaster had occurred. It goes to show how much technology and mass media have given us an amplified sense that the world is more catastrophic and violent than ever before.

Indeed, the various wars between the Romans and Germanic tribes resulted in over 15 million deaths across three centuries; the Mongol conquests of the 13th and 14th centuries killed 30-50 million people; the conflict between the Qing and Ming dynasties claimed 25 million lives; the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs had a similar death toll.

All these unfathomably awful things happened with scarcely anyone outside the respective regions knowing anything about them. Imagine if wars of these scale happened now, in light of how upsetting comparatively smaller conflicts like the Syrian Civil War or the ISIS insurgency are. How would the world react to something on the scale of Shaanxi? (I suspect we would be too numb to be moved, due in no small part to the over-exposure and amplification mentioned earlier.)

What are your thoughts?

The World’s First Film Screening

On this day in 1895, French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière used their patented cinematograph in Paris to hold the first film screening in history. It consisted of ten short films, each an average of fifty seconds.

The Lumières went on tour with the cinematographe the following year, visiting Brussels, Mumbai, London, Montreal, New York City, and Buenos Aires. Their films were also shown in Egypt.

Ironically, despite arguably being the world’s first filmmakers, the brothers stated that “the cinema is an invention without any future” and subsequently went on to focus on color photography (in which they also broke much ground).

Below is the world’s first movie poster, advertising one of the brothers’ comedies, L’Arroseur Arrosé, the first comedic film and the first film to portray a fictional story.



Still Life: Vase with Pink Roses


Source: Wikimedia Commons

Still Life: Vase with Pink Roses by Vincent van Gogh. It was painted in 1890 while Van Gogh was preparing to leave the asylum in Saint-Rémy for the quiet town of Auvers-sur-Oise.

As his departure neared, he became increasingly optimistic about his future, as reflected in his choice of subject and colors: Van Gogh had a love for flowers of all kinds, and tended to paint them in his brighter moments. Vivid colors similarly reflected a more positive mood. Continue reading

An Award Winning Map of the World

As I have discussed here before, most maps of the world are spatially wrong, due to the inherent difficulty of projecting a spherical planet into two dimensional form. Some landmasses end up looking far larger than they are (notably Greenland and Antarctica)  while others appear much smaller (such as Africa and Australia). Continue reading

The Peasant Wedding

Today’s featured picture on Wikipedia — which represent the highest quality and most valuable images publically available on the site — is a personal favorite of mine: The Peasant Wedding, a Renaissance-era oil painting by Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder. (The Flemish people live primarily in the Flanders region of what is now Belgium.)


What I love most about this painting is its slice-of-life subject matter: at a time when most well-known paintings were of merchants, aristocrats, or religious figures and events, Bruegel’s trademark was depicting various aspects of peasant life in the 16th century. (Indeed, he was known as the “Peasant-Bruegel” for his unconventional, though still often symbolic portrayal of the common person.)

You can read more about the painting, including speculation as to who the groom is, here. (The bride is sitting in front of the green textile hanging on the wall, right below what has been identified as a paper crown.)

Bolivia’s Remarkable Neo-Andino Style

While there remains tens of millions of people of indigenous descent throughout Latin America, much of their culture has been forgotten, deliberately repressed, or socially marginalized by the Spanish-influenced mainstream. Thankfully, a vast corpus of native languages, customs, folk beliefs, music, and visual art remains influential in many Latin American countries, and in some cases are even thriving. But architecture was generally absent from the long list of indigenous influences that, to varying degrees, remain prevalent (knowingly or not) in Latin American culture.

Hence my surprise, and subsequent delight, at a recent article in Remezcla that explores a fascinating new architectural movement in Bolivia inspired by the indigenous Aymara (who make up the majority of the country’s population, yet have long been marginalized). Centered in the sprawling metropolis of El Alto, which is located over 13,000 feet above sea level, this Andean or “Neo-Andino” style is like nothing else I have ever seen, combining modernist geometric patterns with the ornate and colorful motifs of the Amarya.

The leader of this eclectic architectural revolution — the “Aymara version of Michelangelo”, as some publications have called him — is a mostly self-taught forty-one-year-old architect named Freddy Mamani, who was inspired to “inject some color” into El Alto’s drab cityscape. The popularity of his style, especially among the rising middle class, reflects a cultural renaissance among indigenous Bolivians, who until recently were largely marginalized both socially and politically despite their numbers.

Remezcla has an illuminating interview with Mamani, whose works have already been the subject of a book, song, and several news reports, and can be seen in other cities in Bolivia, as well as in Peru and Brazil. It is great to see something new emerge in a global architectural scene that has largely become monocultural, with cities across the globe adopting more or less similar Western modernist motifs. It is even more exciting to witness a resurgence in one of the world’s richest and hitherto repressed cultures. As more Latin Americans of indigenous descent finally get their due economic, social, and political opportunities, we can expect to see more of their long-neglected culture gain a platform.

The Incredibly Hyper-Realistic Paintings of Olumide Oresegun

For all its cultural richness and creative talent, Africa is not yet known globally for its art scene. But with improving living standards, greater investment in education and fine arts programs, and growing access to technology, an increasing number of aspiring artists on the continent are finding it more palatable to engage in and market their works.

Among the many African artists leading the way is Olumide Oresegun, a Nigerian painter whose works are breathtakingly realistic and details. Many of them look like outright photographs.

The 35-year-old has had a passion for art his whole life, and has been painting professionally for nearly decade. But since posting photos of his paintings on Instagram, he has garnered much international attention — rightfully so in my view — which he hopes will help serve as a springboard for other African artists.

Learn more about the artist at PRI.org.

Italy Launches Peacekeeping Force To Safeguard World Culture

Count on Italy, with its rich history and vast cultural heritage — including the most UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the world — to spearhead the first “cultural peacekeeping force” of its kind.

Citing the Milan-based Italian daily Corriere della Sera, Worldcrunch’s Le Blog reports that the taskforce, which will operate under the auspices of the United Nations, will be comprised of both Italian military personnel and various experts in art history, antiquities, and restoration projects. Continue reading