An Extraordinary History: Prussian Blue

September 20, 2019

For anyone who paints today, it is hard to believe there was ever a time when the beautiful, versatile, and stable Prussian Blue pigment did not exist. But the fact is it is just a few hundred years old.

It was discovered, by accident, in the first decade of the 1700s in Berlin by a colour-maker called Diesbach.  Prior to that time, blue pigments had been sourced from “indigo, smalt, azurite and ultramarine, derived from lapis lazuli, which was expensive.”  The new process was cheap and easily manufactured. Its first verifiable use in an artwork was in “The Entombment of Christ” by Pieter vander Werff in 1709.


I didn’t know any of this until I read a fascinating article called “Prussian Blue and Its Partner In Crime” by Philip McCouat in Journal of Art In Society.  The article goes on to describe the pigment’s use in European art and, notably, in the creation of an entire genre of Japanese painting.

The second part of McCouat’s article (“…Partner in Crime”) takes the story into even more interesting ground once a Swedish chemist discovered that by mixing Prussian Blue with diluted sulphuric acid he could create the deadly poison hydrogen cyanide, a favourite of poisoners ever since.  This section of the essay details the first murderer caught by telegraph, and the use of cyanide and its derivatives both by US gas chambers and by Nazi mass executioners.

Who knew that such a beautiful colour could have such a blotchy history? Mix up your favourite beverage, settle back, and enjoy this fascinating long read.



Seventy Years On, Television Revealed As Evil

September 10, 2019

As we approach the start of the Fall season on North American TV, I am reminded of an editorial in the Highland Echo, Commercial Drive’s local paper, that took a prescient view of television.  They described it as:

just one more of the influences currently being brought to bear on the American people to render them incapable of independent thought and independent decisions.”

Not much to add to that really.

The date of the editorial?  30th November, 1950.

A Day of Anniversaries

August 26, 2019

Today is the 80th anniversary of the first televised MLB game.  The Brooklyn Dodgers played the Cincinnati Reds at Ebert Field, and a whole new class of couch potatoes was born.




Today is also the 60th anniversary of the introduction of the Mini car, which revolutionized transportation, especially in England.  The designer, Alex Issigones, was knighted for his efforts.



The Cholera Map in 3D

August 11, 2019

I am fairly sure I have mentioned before my great interest in the way that data can be graphically visualized to create new awareness, or simply to explain something more accurately.  I have even tried to create some myself when I thought they would add value.

One of the most famous early examples of a data visualization leading to political action was Dr. John Snow’s investigation into a cholera outbreak in London in 1854.  By tracking the deaths in one area of Soho, he traced the infection back to a single well that had been polluted.  The map he created to illustrate the specific spread of the disease was instrumental in launching the new science of epidemiology.

Snow’s map was, of course, a two-dimensional display, with all the limits imposed by that technology.  However, the famous map has now been digitized and turned into a 3D object that can be viewed from any angle using the tools on the right of the screen.

This very simple display shows off the potential of 3D mapping very well.

Thanks to the Spatial Awareness newsletter for the tip.

A Screen By Any Other Name …

June 11, 2019

We are, apparently, at the very cusp  of history where the use of mobile screens by US adults exceeds the use of TV screens.

“We’ve expected that mobile would overtake TV for a while, but seeing it happen is still surprising,” said Yoram Wurmser, eMarketer principal analyst. “As recently as 2014, the average US adult watched nearly 2 hours more TV than they spent on their phones.”  What are people spending time on their devices doing? They’re consistently spending the bulk of their time using apps over web browsers, with the average person spending 2:57 in apps vs. 0:26 on a mobile browser. Within apps, people spent the most time listening to digital audio, followed by social network activity. “Digital audio apps continue to add minutes because people are streaming more music on their phones, and podcasts have taken off in popularity in the past few years,” Wurmser said.

The movies begat television, and television begat YouTube, Fortnite and music streaming on smart phones.  What happens next?

Best Layman’s Overview of AI

April 10, 2019

The infographics that are the raison d’etre of Visual Capitalist rarely fail to please. And one of this week’s infographics, an overview of the history and potential of Artificial Intelligence, allows a layman like me to make some sense of something important that is going on around me.

I definitely learned a lot.

Changes To Internet Copyright Laws

April 5, 2019

The European Parliament has voted in favour of new copyright laws that contain sections strenuously opposed by some creators. This important story is impeccably told in an article by Zachary Small at Hyperallergic.

“Two weeks ago, thousands of protesters marched across Germany in staunch opposition to the Copyright Directive and its controversial section called Article 13, which makes online platforms like Google, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter liable for user-generated content that may violate existing copyrights. Another portion of the law, called Article 11, could make sites like Google News responsible for paying publishers for using snippets of their content.  Critics have characterized the bill as far overreaching …

Tech companies have warned that Article 13 will force the implementation of expensive “upload filters” on user-generated content … [I]nternet activists say these measures would turn large social media companies into censors and damage freedom of expression …

“The European Union’s fair dealing laws are [already] much more restrictive than America’s fair use laws. Things like parody and satire are still accepted, but nothing is foolproof.”

But the proposed legislation does have its supporters.

“Record labels, artists, and some media companies have also come to the law’s defense, saying that the updated copyright protections will ensure that they are fairly paid for their content …

“It provides artists with more data, more opportunities for remuneration, and more chances that their work will not be misappropriated or used without their knowledge,” [Columbia Law School’s Philippa] Loengard said.

Personally, I am with Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia:

“The free and open internet is being quickly handed over to corporate giants at the expense of ordinary people. This is not about helping artists, it is about empowering monopolistic practices.”

This battle is being fought in Europe, but business practices make it likely that the repercussions will be global.

““If you are a large ISP and you have branches in Europe and the United States, it may be wise to implement changes worldwide,” explained Loengard.

This might all seem to some like a parochial business confrontation, but given the dominance that the internet and its myriad associated services has become in our lives, such a potentially significant lessening of available competitive content is sure to affect everyone sooner rather than later.