Wikileaks has been making news since 2006, but in 2010 they made big news with a series of leaks starting with the “Collateral Murder” videos. Following that were the Afghan war logs and the Iraq war logs. Wikileaks’ final leak that year was the diplomatic cables, the largest leak of classified documents in history. As the leaks and the events surrounding them unfolded, Wikileaks became one of the biggest, most thrilling stories in years.
The 84th Academy Awards happened last night. If you’re anything like me, you’ve seen a fairly shameful percentage of the nominated films, so here’s a guide to some good reads about the Oscars and the stars of this year’s awards to help you get acquainted.
The internet might be making it easy to spoil the pleasure of a great illusion, but greats like Ricky Jay and Penn and Teller will never be forgotten, and magic might yet have a few tricks to teach: neuroscientists are looking closely at what magic can tell us about the brain, and the CIA hired a magician to write a manual on soldier deception.
Quentin Rowan published a novel, called Assassin of Secrets, under a pseudonym last year. It had been on sale for 5 days before anyone noticed that almost every word of it was plagiarised. Half of the novel alone is made up of various extracts from Charles McCarry’s writing, and the other half stitches bits and pieces of Robert Ludlum, John Gardner, Adam Hall, and a couple of others together. As is inevitable in these cases, it soon came out that much of Rowan’s past work was plagiarised too, but Assassins of Secrets makes for an interesting case study in modern plagiarism.
(Image via Financial Times)
The Myth of the Mona Lisa
Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world. It’s an enduring tourist attraction, immediately recognisable by millions, and highly coveted by art lovers, but La Joconde remains one of the most puzzling paintings that exists. We don’t know when she was painted, who she is, or what it is about her expression that’s so alluring.
Theories regarding her identity are plentiful. The most credible is that she’s Lisa del Giocondo, a member of the Gherardini family of Florence and Tuscany, but several other candidates have been proposed, including Isabella of Naples, the mistress of Giuliano de’ Medici, and even Leonardo himself. And the theorising doesn’t stop there. Donald Sassoon noted, in his book on the painting, that a “paucity of evidence keeps the experts divided.” That paucity of evidence also keeps the crackpots divided. An Italian researcher claims there are miniscule letters on her eyes, such as “LV” (da Vinci’s initials) and “BS” (“bullshit” probably isn’t the intended meaning, but it’s what comes to mind). There’s also the Canadian professor that thinks the Mona Lisa is simply an interpretation of love poems by Horace and Petrarch. Even Sigmund Freud had his pet theory that Mona Lisa’s smile was modelled on da Vinci’s mother’s.
Most of these theories are impossible to prove (and many are simply unprovable by their ridiculous nature), but some recent discoveries are helping us uncover her history. High resolution photoraphy has revealed that she used to have eyebrows that were wiped away during some stage of restoration, and some scientists in Spain think the secret to her changing moods is explained by which part of the eye sees her mouth first. The latest discovery should shed more light on the mystery: a copy of the Mona Lisa, painted by one of Leonardo’s pupils. It’s believed to have been painted at the same time as the original, and, without the cracked, yellowing varnish of the original, does a much better job of showing the subject’s youthfulness and other details.
The sheer enigma of the Mona Lisa lends a lot of weight to its high standing, but its fame didn’t reach its greatest heights until 1911, when an employee at the Louvre smuggled the painting out under his coat. (Also covered recently by Financial Times and Smithsonian Magazine.) Vincenzo Perrugia was an Italian patriot who was seized with a desire to return many of Italy’s stolen art treasures to Italy. (The Mona Lisa, of course, was not in fact stolen from Italy but finished there and sold to the king.) In the course of the two year investigation — which took so long that there were whispers of a hoax — even French poet Guillaume Apollinaire was briefly a suspect, and he in turn fingered Pablo Picasso for the theft. Both were eventually exonerated and Perrugia was caught when he inadvertently tried to sell the painting to the directors of a gallery in Florence.
The Mona Lisa’s theft is one of very few excursions from the Louvre. She was removed and hidden during World War II as Germans invaded France. And then there was the time Jackie Kennedy wanted to borrow her. France’s minister of culture André Malraux promised it to her at a dinner in Washington, presumably unaware of the public and private turmoil it would cause. The Mona Lisa’s handler at the Louvre didn’t want her to travel, its chosen handler in Washington didn’t think it should travel, and the French media exclaimed “La Joconde must not leave the Louvre!” Nevertheless, after 6 months of tortured negotiation, the exchange was made. In the end, the events unfolded during the Cuban missile crisis, and Malraux and Charles de Gaulle framed the loan to be a gesture of amity, while President Kennedy was able to use the loan to his political advantage, amplifying his domestic and international popularity.
(Image via Flickr)
The Science of Mysteries
Realising they shared an interest in classic murder mysteries, the science writers Deborah Blum, Jennifer Ouellette, and Ann Finkbeiner have been writing occasional posts on the science in mystery books and publishing them in tandem on their respective blogs. Turns out there’s a surprising amount of science in murder mysteries.
The first series started with Jennifer Oullette on the singing sand from Josephine Tey’s The Singing Sands. Singing sand is a real, rare phenomenon that only 30 sand dunes worldwide exhibit that puzzled scientists at first. Sand, as it turns out, is pretty interesting from a physics standpoint. Oullette also wrote about total eclipses, which inspired Jane Langton’s Dark Nantucket Noon and the science of bells and change-ringing, a large component of Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors. Ann Finkbeiner’s first post of the series looked at geology and rivers in relation to Josephine Tey’s mystery To Love and Be Wise, and Deborah Blum wrote about toxicology and Dorothy L. Sayers’ book Strong Poison.
In the most recent series of posts, Jennifer Oullette looks at the physics of music, starting with counterpoint — the musical technique of intertwining two or more voices in musical dialogue — which Lord Wimsey famously noted his preference for in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night. Deborah Blum follows up her previous poisonous post with a look at Agatha Christie’s obsession with poison, starting with her very first Poirot novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. And Ann Finkbeiner rounds out the latest series with a post on Dorothy L. Sayers’ Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club and post traumatic stress syndrome in the aftermath of World War I.
How Many Stephen Colberts Are There? “Lately, there has emerged a third Colbert. This one is a version of the TV-show Colbert, except he doesn’t exist just on screen anymore. He exists in the real world and has begun to meddle in it.”