Tuesday, January 04, 2011


The story of how the computer on my desk got to me is one of the most peculiar tales of the twentieth century, and it demonstrates many tropes often considered merely literary—peripeteia (a sudden reversal in the plot), hamartia (an error in judgment or a mistake), anagnorisis (unexpected recognition), catharsis (strong feelings), as well as significant amounts of tragedy, terror, and pathos, and even some comedy. Many characters took part, and they did, indeed, act in character—some were dedicated, brave, enterprising, and lucky. Others were hotheaded, deceptive, foolish, and unfortunate. All were brilliant...

... It is as if we have several movies running simultaneously—a sunlit-apple-pie-American-progress movie in one theater, a noirish tale of cold war deception, paranoia, and intrigue in the theater next door, a version of Mrs. Miniver crossed with a spy movie set in the blacked-out streets of London in a third, and, as a bonus in the fourth theater, a terrifying German resistance film, set in a collapsing Berlin, but with a happy ending.

As early as 1517 the painting was starting to flake. By 1556—less than sixty years after it was finished — Leonardo's biographer Giorgio Vasari described the painting as already "ruined" and so deteriorated that the figures were unrecognizable. In 1652 a doorway was cut through the (then unrecognizable) painting, and later bricked up; this can still be seen as the irregular arch shaped structure near the center base of the painting. It is believed, through early copies, that Jesus' feet were in a position symbolizing the forthcoming crucifixion. In 1768 a curtain was hung over the painting for the purpose of protection; it instead trapped moisture on the surface, and whenever the curtain was pulled back, it scratched the flaking paint.

Nobody knows, too, if the Mount Sinai
in Egypt is the one from the Bible.
You’d think people would have kept track of that
from generation to generation
but history is full of surprises.

I like the word anagnorisis. You don’t see it very often. So I’m doing this post to sort of celebrate seeing the word in Jane Smiley’s biography of John Atanasoff. And yesterday I talked about a book I hadn’t read, so today I wanted to talk a little about a book I recently did read.

However I picked a book that’s very hard to talk about. So I’m just going to talk about one of the words from her introduction, anagnorisis.

Jane Smiley’s book, “The Man Who Invented The Computer,” a biography of John Atanasoff, is a pretty good book. Smiley is a Pulitzer Prize winning writer and her skills are on display in how she writes and how she thinks.

But just glancing at the reader reviews of this book at Amazon kind of clues a person in that there is more going on here than meets the eyes.

Why does nobody know who John Atanasoff was? Why is Smiley being attacked for writing this book?

I don’t think this is a case of “Who is John Galt?” I think this is a case of “Who is Philo Farnsworth?”

I’ve been interested in Atanasoff for a long time. For people who feel some kind of engagement with this issue, the fact that I like this book and I am doing a blog post about it should make my position on Atanasoff clear. But I’m not going to re-assert Smiley’s history here.

Anagnorisis is an interesting word.

“The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci is an interesting painting.

When da Vinci painted it, around 1498, fresco technology had been in use for hundreds of years. The business of painting on wet plaster—or taking half-assed shortcuts—was very well understood.

Leonardo was not particularly rushed in this assignment. Why did he paint this image in such an absurdly incompetent fashion? It fell apart within decades of its completion.

Why did the owners allow such a large-scale, major work of Leonardo to fall to pieces, to be mutilated, allow the feet of Jesus to be chipped away and bricked over?

Modern commentators see all manner of mystical ‘messages’ in this image. (Hmmm. Chipping away and bricking over the feat of Jesus. Shakespeare has gotten giggles for hundreds of years with his country matters bit of word play.) If Leonardo went to the trouble to compose such hidden meanings, why didn’t he paint the image using a technique that would last more than a few decades? Such techniques were common, and the consequences of not using the established techniques were known.

I mean, it’s Leonardo da Vinci. He was sort of the original Renaissance Man. Wasn’t he?

I don’t think this is a case of “Who is John Galt?” I think this is a case of “Who is Philo Farnsworth?”

History is full of surprises.

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“Philo Farnsworth” at Wikipedia

This Scary, Pumpkin Time Of Year, Part Two

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