Alice in Wonderland Gets Re-Envisioned by a Neural Network in the Style of Paintings By Picasso, van Gogh, Kahlo, O’Keeffe & More

An artist just starting out might first imitate the styles of others, and if all goes well, the process of learning those styles will lead them to a style of their own. But how does one learn something like an artistic style in a way that isn't simply imitative? Artificial intelligence, and especially the current developments in making computers not just think but learn, will certainly shed some light in the process — and produce, along the way, such fascinating projects as the video above, a re-envisioning of Disney's Alice in Wonderland in the styles of famous artists: Pablo Picasso, Georgia O'Keeffe, Katsushika HokusaiFrida Kahlo, Vincent van Gogh and others.

The idea behind this technological process, known as "style transfer," is "to take two images, say, a photo of a person and a painting, and use these to create a third image that combines the content of the former with the style of the later," says an explanatory post at the Paperspace Blog.

"The central problem of style transfer revolves around our ability to come up with a clear way of computing the 'content' of an image as distinct from computing the 'style' of an image. Before deep learning arrived at the scene, researchers had been handcrafting methods to extract the content and texture of images, merge them and see if the results were interesting or garbage."

Deep learning, the family of methods that enable computers to teach themselves, involves providing an artificial intelligence system called a "neural network" with huge amounts of data and letting it draw inferences. In experiments like these, the systems take in visual data and make inferences about how one set of data, like the content of frames of Alice in Wonderland, might look when rendered in the colors and contours of another, such as some of the most famous paintings in all of art history. (Others have tried it, as we've previously featured, with 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner.) If the technology at work here piques your curiosity, have a look at Google's free online course on deep learning or this new set of courses from Coursera— it probably won't improve your art skills, but it will certainly increase your understanding of a development that will play an ever larger role in the culture and economy ahead.

Here's a full list of painters used in the neural networked version of Alice:

Pablo Picasso
Georgia O'Keeffe
S.H. Raza
Frida Kahlo
Vincent van Gogh
Saloua Raouda Choucair
Lee Krasner
Sol Lewitt
Wu Guanzhong
Elaine de Kooning
Ibrahim el-Salahi
Minnie Pwerle
Jean-Michel Basquiat
Edvard Munch
Natalia Goncharova

via Kottke

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The First Film Adaptation of Alice in Wonderland (1903)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

“The Art of David Lynch”— How Rene Magritte, Edward Hopper & Francis Bacon Influenced David Lynch’s Cinematic Vision

When an artist becomes an adjective—think Orwellian, Kafkaesque, or Joycean—one of two things can happen: their work can be superficially appropriated, reduced to a collection of obvious gestures clumsily combined in bad pastiche. Or their distinctive style can inspire artists with more skill and depth to make original creations that may themselves become touchstones for the future. What might distinguish one from the other is the degree to which we understand not only the work of Orwell, Kafka, or Joyce, but also the work that influenced them.

When it comes to David Lynch, there’s no doubt that the “Lynchian” stands as a model for so much contemporary film and television. But while some directors make excellent use of Lynch’s influence, others strive for Lynchian atmosphere only to reach a kind of uninspired, unintentional parody. The sublime balance of humor and horror Lynch has achieved over the course of his extraordinary career seems like the kind of thing one shouldn’t attempt without serious study and preparation.

Without Lynch’s surrealist vision, oddball characterization and dialogue fall flat—as in Twin Peaks’ second season, which Lynch himself says "sucked." So what defines the Lynchian? A very distinctive use of music, for one thing. And as the video essay above by Menno Kooistra demonstrates, the significant influence of painting. Lynch himself began painting and drawing at a young age and studied art at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in the sixties. While he found his calling in film, his art education prepared him to dream up the unforgettable compositions of the Lynchian world.

Rene Magritte, Edward Hopper, Arnold Böcklin, and the master of psychological horror, Francis Bacon—all of these painters have directly informed Lynch’s nightmarish mise-en-scène. As you’ll see in Kooistra’s video, in side by side comparisons, Lynch adapts the work of his favorite artists for his own purposes. In an interview clip, he says he discovered Bacon at a gallery in 1966 and found the experience “thrilling”—later using the painter's work as inspiration for The Elephant Man and Twin Peak’s disorienting Red Room.

We see Lynch’s homage to his favorite painters in Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, as well as the current, third season of Twin Peaks, over which he has (as he well should) complete creative control. You may not find Francis Bacon’s disturbing portraits quite as thrilling as Lynch does, or draw on Edward Hopper for a warped version of 1950’s Americana. These are Lynch’s references; they resonate on his particular frequency, and hence provide him with visual frames for his own personal dream logic.

But what we might take away from “The Art of David Lynch" is that the Lynchian is necessarily tied to a painterly sensibility, and that without the influence of fine art on composition, color, and framing, a Lynchian production may be in danger of looking—as he says of that disappointing Twin Peaks' second season—“stupid and goofy.”

via IndieWire

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Bob Dylan Hates Me: An Animation

Filmmaker Caveh Zahedi met his idol twice. And lived to animate the story. Enjoy.

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Dictionary of the Oldest Written Language–It Took 90 Years to Complete, and It’s Now Free Online

It took 90 years to complete. But, in 2011, scholars at the University of Chicago finally published a 21-volume dictionary of Akkadian, the language used in ancient Mesopotamia. Unspoken for 2,000 years, Akkadian was preserved on clay tablets and in stone inscriptions until scholars deciphered it during the last two centuries.

In the past, we've published audio that lets you hear the reconstructed sounds of Akkadian (Hear The Epic of Gilgamesh Read in the Original Akkadian and Enjoy the Sounds of Mesopotamia). Now, should you wish, you can download download PDFs of U. Chicago's Akkadian dictionary for free. All 21 volumes would cost well over $1,000 if purchased in hard copy. But the PDFs, they won't run you a dime.

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The Dune Coloring & Activity Books: When David Lynch’s 1984 Film Created Countless Hours of Peculiar Fun for Kids

David Lynch's Dune, the $40 million cinematic spectacle based on Frank Herbert's science-fiction epic, faced more than its fair share of challenges: Lynch's lack of artistic control, elaborate but not quite successful special effects, source material so unsuited to feature-film adaptation that audiences had to read glossaries before the first screenings. In an attempt to get ahead of bad buzz, the massive advertising and merchandising blitz had begun well before the movie's Christmas 1984 release, but none of its flanks seemed to understand the enterprise of Dune any better than most of those viewers did.

Case in point: the Dune coloring and activity books, evidence that, as Comics Alliance's Jason Michelitch writes, "what Universal Pictures wanted was a Star Wars of their very own — a whiz-bang space adventure for eight-year-olds that they could merchandise the heck out of to the wide-eyed kids that just a year previous had wheedled their parents into buying plush ewok dolls and toy lightsabers. Instead, Lynch and producer Dino De Laurentis provided them with a dark epic actually fit for consumption by thinking adults. Imagine their chagrin."

Meredith Yanos at Coilhouse offers a more detailed writeup of the hours of fun on offer in these tonally bizarre books: "First, there’s the Dune Coloring Book, 44 pages of lurid scenes featuring conspiratorial characters from the film. Then there’s the Dune Activity Book. 60 pages of puzzles and games, mazes and more pictures for coloring," including a recipe for “No-Bake Spice Cookies” that substitutes common cinnamon for Dune's Spice, a  "wacky awareness spectrum narcotic that controls the universe." Other volumes contain Dune-themed paper dolls, Dune-themed word puzzles, and even Dune-themed math problems.

Though Dune remains primarily remembered as one of the worst flops in cinema history (and even Lynch himself usually refuses to discuss it), a few fans have also come to its defense over the past 32 years. Some of them have no doubt wanted to pass this revisionist appreciation down to their children, a task the Dune coloring and activity books may (or may not) make easier. If you buy them on Amazon, you'll have to pay between $45 and $75 each — nothing compared to the cost of anything in the actual production of Dune, of course, but still, you may want to keep an eye on eBay instead.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Powerful Messages That Woody Guthrie & Pete Seeger Inscribed on Their Guitar & Banjo: “This Machine Kills Fascists” and “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces it to Surrender”

Photo by Al Aumuller, via Wikimedia Commons

Like another famous Okie from Muskogee, Woody Guthrie came from a part of Oklahoma that the U.S. government sold during the 1889 land rush away from the Quapaw and Osage nations, as well as the Muscogee, a people who had been forcibly relocated from the Southeast under Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act. By the time of Guthrie’s birth in 1912 in Okfuskee County, next to Muskogee, the region was in the hands of conservative Democrats like Guthrie’s father Charles, a landowner and member of the revived KKK who participated in a brutal lynching the year before Guthrie was born.

Guthrie was named after president Woodrow Wilson, who was highly sympathetic to Jim Crow (but perhaps not, as has been alleged, an admirer of the Klan). While he inherited many of his father’s attitudes, he reconsidered them to such a degree later in life that he wrote a song denouncing the notoriously racist New York landlord Fred Trump, father of the current president. “By the time he moved into his new apartment” in Brooklyn in 1950, writes Will Kaufman at The Guardian, Guthrie “had traveled a long road from the casual racism of his Oklahoma youth.”

Guthrie was deeply embedded in the formative racial politics of the country. While some people may convince themselves that a time in the U.S. past was “great”—unmarred by class conflict and racist violence and exploitation, secure in the hands of a benevolent white majority, Guthrie's life tells a much more complex story. Many Indigenous people feel with good reason that Guthrie’s most famous song, “The Land is Your Land,” has contributed to nationalist mythology. Others have viewed the song as a Marxist anthem. Like much else about Guthrie, and the country, it’s complicated.

Considered by many, Stephen Petrus writes, “to be the alternative national anthem,” the song “to many people… represents America’s best progressive and democratic traditions.” Guthrie turned the song into a hymn for the struggle against fascism and for the nascent Civil Rights movement. Written in New York in 1940 and first recorded for Moe Asch’s Folkways Records in 1944, “This Land is Your Land” evolved over time, dropping verses protesting private property and poverty after the war in favor of a far more patriotic tone. It was a long evolution from embittered parody of “God Bless America” to “This land was made for you and me.”

But whether socialist or populist in nature, Guthrie’s patriotism was always subversive. “By 1940,” writes John Pietaro, he had “joined forces with Pete Seeger in the Almanac Singers,” who “as a group, joined the Communist Party. Woody’s guitar had, by then, been adorned with the hand-painted epitaph, THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS.” (Guthrie had at least two guitars with the slogan scrawled on them, one on a sticker and one with ragged hand-lettering.) The phrase, claims music critic Jonny Whiteside, was originally “a morale-boosting WWII government slogan printed on stickers that were handed out to defense plant workers.” Guthrie reclaimed the propaganda for folk music’s role in the culture. As Pietaro tells it:

In this time he also founded an inter-racial quartet with Leadbelly, Sonny Terry and Cisco Houston, a veritable super-group he named the Headline Singers. This group, sadly, never recorded. The material must have stood as the height of protest song—he’d named it in opposition to a producer who advised Woody to “stop trying to sing the headlines.” Woody told us that all you can write is what you see.

You can hear The Headline Singers above, minus Lead Belly and featuring Pete Seeger, in the early 1940’s radio broadcast of “All You Fascists Bound to Lose.” “I’m gonna tell you fascists,” sings Woody, “you may be surprised, people in this world are getting organized.” Upon joining the Merchant Marines, Guthrie fought against segregation in the military. After the war, he “stood shoulder to shoulder with Paul Robeson, Howard Fast, and Pete Seeger” against violent racist mobs in Peekskill, New York. Both of Guthrie’s anti-fascist guitars have seemingly disappeared. As Robert Santelli writes, “Guthrie didn’t care for his instruments with much love." But during the decade of the 1940’s he was never seen without the slogan on his primary instrument.

“This Machine Kills Fascists” has since, writes Motherboard, become Guthrie’s “trademark slogan… still referenced in pop culture and beyond” and providing an important point of reference for the anti-fascist punk movement. You can see another of Guthrie's anti-fascist slogans above, which he scrawled on a collection of his sheet music: “Fascism fought indoors and out, good & bad weather.” Guthrie’s long-lived brother-in-arms Pete Seeger, carried on in the tradition of anti-fascism and anti-racism after Woody succumbed in the last two decades of his life to Huntington’s disease. Like Guthrie, Seeger painted a slogan around the rim of his instrument of choice, the banjo, a message both playful and militant: “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”

Photo by "Jim, the Photographer"

Seeger carried the message from his days playing and singing with Guthrie, to his Civil Rights and anti-war organizing and protest in the 50s and 60s, and all the way into the 21st century at Occupy Wall Street in Manhattan in 2011. At the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama, Seeger sang “This Land is Your Land” onstage with Bruce Springsteen and his son, Tao-Rodriquez Singer. In rehearsals, he insisted on singing the two verses Guthrie had omitted from the song after the war. “So it was,” writes John Nichols at The Nation, “that the newly elected president of the United States began his inaugural celebration by singing and clapping along with an old lefty who remembered the Depression-era references of a song that took a class-conscious swipe at those whose ‘Private Property’ signs turned away union organizers, hobos and banjo pickers.”

Both Guthrie and Seeger drew direct connections between the fascism and racism they fought and capitalism's outsized, destructive obsession with land and money. They felt so strongly about the battle that they wore their messages figuratively on their sleeves and literally on their instruments. Pete Seeger's famous banjo has outlived its owner, and the colorful legend around it has been mass-produced by Deering Banjos. Where Guthrie's anti-fascist guitars went off to is anyone's guess, but if one of them were ever discovered, Robert Santelli writes, "it surely would become one of America's most valued folk instruments." Or one of its most valued instruments in general.

Photo by "Jim, the Photographer"

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Roman Roads of Britain Visualized as a Subway Map

Walk around London with someone who knows its deep history — not hard to arrange, given the way London enthusiasts treat historical knowledge as a hypercompetitive sport — and you'll have more than a few paths of "Roman roads" pointed out to you. Even in the city of Big Ben and Buckingham Palace, the Shard and the Gherkin, chicken shops and curry houses, there remain fragments and traces of the 2,000 miles of roads the Roman Army built between British towns and cities between 43 and 410 AD, Britain's centuries as a province of the Roman Empire.

Though some of Britain's Roman Roads have become modern motorways, most no longer exist in any form but those bits and pieces history buffs like to spot. This makes it difficult to get a sense of how they all ran and where — or at least it did until Sasha Trubetskoy made a Roman Roads of Britain Network Map in the graphic-design style of the subway maps you'll find in London or any other major city today. Trubetskoy, an undergraduate statistics major at the University of Chicago, first found cartographical fame a few months ago with his "subway map" of roads across the entire Roman Empire circa 125 AD.

"Popular request," he writes, demanded a Britain-specific follow up, a project he describes as "far more complicated than I had initially anticipated." The challenges included not just the sheer number of Roman Roads in Britain but a lack of clarity about their exact location and extents. As in his previous map, Trubetskoy admits, "I had to do some simplifying and make some tough choices on which cities to include." While this closer-up view demanded a more geographical faithfulness, he nevertheless "had to get rather creative with the historical evidence" in places, to the point of using such "not exactly Latin-sounding" names as “Watling Street” and “Ermin Way.”

Still, barring a revolutionary discovery in Roman history, you're unlikely to find a more rigorous example of subway-mapped Roman Roads in Britain than this one. And for $9 USD you can have it as a "crisp PDF" suitable for printing as a poster and giving to anyone passionate about the history of Britain — or the history of Rome, or graphic design, or maps that aren't what they might seem at first glance.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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