Literary Crush Revealed

Another blogger shared a link to this story in a recent post. When I saw that it pointed to the New Yorker's Web site, I got a little giddy. The New Yorker was always a staple in my house growing up. I remember thumbing through each issue, overwhelmed at the vastness of the shiny white pages, chocker block full of serify black text. The pages weren't like those of other magazines. They weren't littered with cheesy ads in distracting colors. The back part of the magazine didn't offer seedy promises of sexual gratification or the most accurate astrological reading you'll ever have. The eye catchers in the New Yorker were the usually single-frame, witty cartoons. When I was younger, I would look for these beacons, knowing I could enjoy them even though I didn't completely understand all the stories. Even then, the heady and cerebral humor often perplexed me.

I didn't appreciate that my parents read the New Yorker until I got older. I realized I wanted to write and was fortunate to have been exposed to all kinds of great writing, including that found in the magazine. At some point, I fell in love with its beautifully told stories, packed with elegant details, clever observations, and thought-provoking passages. They're my manna. The stories are always impeccably researched; all the bases are covered, even the seemingly absurd minutia. And that's my favorite part.

One of the reasons I knew I wanted to get my degree in Journalism was because I have always loved absorbing as much as I can on a topic. (Hence my obsession with documentaries.) Often when I learn something new, I search high and low for any information about it that I can get my hands on. I did this in the days after I'd seen Walk the Line, which I was very impressed by. It's like I'm possessed. I wanted to learn as much as possible about Johnny Cash, to fully understand and appreciate each detail of his life and his contributions to music. I wanted to convey that to other people. I bought his music, researched which biographies I should read, and devoured all the information I found. This hunger is a blessing but also a curse when I'm working on projects as I am sometimes overwhelmed by the enormity of the never-ending details. Needless to say, I love the research, the discovery, and I especially love revealing the highlights to people. I'll do that here, in case you don't have time to read the entire article. Please forgive the occasional editorial comment.

It's titled Capturing the Unicorn and is about seven tapestries called The Hunt of the Unicorn. Each is twelve feet tall and up to fourteen feet wide. They hang in the Cloisters, a medieval art museum in Manhattan. The meanings of the tapestries are debated, but still mysterious. They were woven from silk and wool around 1500 and have miraculously survived.

"There are as many as twenty species of flowers in this tapestry. They are depicted with great scientific accuracy—greater than in any of the botany textbooks of the time. They include English bluebells, oxlip, bistort, cuckoopint, and Madonna lily. Botanists haven’t been able to identify a few; it’s possible that they are flowers that have gone extinct since 1500."

Since 1500, the colors in the tapestries have naturally changed and faced. Knowing this, the museum's director decided they should be photographed to record the colors and details. He contacted the manager of the photography studio at the Met, Barbara Bridgers.

"Her goal is to make a high-resolution digital image of every work of art in the Met’s collections. The job will take at least twenty-five years; there are between two and two and a half million catalogued objects in the Met—nobody knows the exact number."

Can you imagine? Now _that's_ an overwhelming project.

She put together a team that used giant scaffolding to capture images of each part of the tapestries. The plan was to later combine them into a mosaic representing the entire piece. The digital images they captured filled more than 200 CDs! Due to the file size associated with such a massive amount of data, most computers, even ones designed for extremely processor-intensive tasks like this, simply couldn't handle the job of making the parts into a whole image.

Enter the Chudnovsky brothers, beyond-incredible mathematicians whose latest endeavor was building a super computer to calculate pi to beyond two billion decimal places. The supercomputer consisted of parts they'd mail ordered and supplies from Home Depot.

"…the supercomputer used a lot of electricity. In the summer, it heated [one of the Chudnovsky brother]’s apartment to above a hundred degrees Fahrenheit, so the brothers installed twenty-six fans around it to cool it down. "

Several events led to the Chudnovskys learning about the shelved digital tapestry project. They set to work on it and were able to set up all of the image tiles. They immediately noticed, however, that the images' edges did not match.

"When they tried to fit the puzzle pieces together, however, they wouldn’t join properly…The differences were vast. It was as if a tapestry had not been the same object from one moment to the next as it was being photographed."

They eventually realized that since the tapestry normally hangs, but was being photographed laid flat on the floor, and due to environmental variations during the picture taking, the tapestries were changing as they were being photographed..

"The tapestries began to breathe, expanding, contracting, shifting…Tiny changes in temperature and humidity in the room had caused the tapestries to shrink or expand from hour to hour, from minute to minute. The gold- and silver-wrapped threads changed shape at different speeds and in different ways from the wool and silk threads."

It was like a living being–phenomenal! For example, two of the tiles of the mosaic had an odd green tinge. It turned out it was because when they were taking pictures of the tapestries, someone had opened a door leading to the next room, where a fluorescent light was on. That light shining even indirectly on the tapestries caused a color variation in the digital image.

The brothers realized they would have to perform calculations on each pixel of each image to determine the pixel's relationship to every other pixel and how that changed as the photos were taken. I can't even get my mind around how you would calculate this. It took three months of computation for the brothers to correct the two greenish tiles I mentioned. Three months! The final computations involved billions of calculations, but the resulting image was apparently worth it.

After their incredible accomplishment, the Chudnovskys brothers were asked to design what could be the most powerful supercomputer in the world. None of its parts are from Home Depot.

"When the machine is finished, it will contain two million processors and fourteen thousand hard drives. It will use two and a half million watts of electricity—enough to power a few thousand homes. Two thousand gallons of water per minute will flow through the core of C64 to keep it cool. If the pumps fail, it will melt down in less than ten seconds."

Isn't that fascinating? I hope you enjoyed my summary. Now I can relax. 😉

P.S. When I lived in Bloomington and even after I moved to Indy, my Mom always gave me her New Yorkers when she finished reading them. She'd even flag stories she thought I'd enjoy. After she moved to Texas, this became impossible. At the time, I had a poorly paying job and couldn't really afford a subscription. Russ knew this, and got me a subscription for Christmas last year. In the aftermath of our break up, that sweet, thoughtful gesture stands out.

P.P.S. I also have a subscription to Cosmo.:oops:


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