The Casual Blog

Tag: fake news

The case of the missing lake, making paintings out of photographs, fake videos, Harari’s 21 Lessons, and Stevenson’s Just Mercy


On Saturday morning I went up to Durant Park to see how the leaves were doing.  It was a brisk 51 degrees, and the light was undramatic, without a cloud in the sky. I was sorry to find they’d drained the lower lake to repair the dam, and the mud in the lake bed wasn’t so pretty.  But the upper lake was still a lake, and it was good to be outdoors, smelling the fallen leaves.

I took a few pictures, including some with my 10 stop filter for long exposures that smoothed out the lake surface.  I wasn’t especially enamored of any of them, but I did enjoy experimenting on them with Topaz Studio. This software will turn photographs into many different styles of paintings.  A few of my initial efforts with the tool are paired here with their source photos.  

Is it OK to make an impressionist painting in a few minutes, without a paintbrush?  I say yes, with this qualification: we should be honest and forthright about what we’re doing.  We’re interacting with nature using our own imagination, aided by our DSLR cameras and our processing software, which draws on manifold technical and creative sources, including the artistic geniuses of times past.  That said, if the images work — touching us, moving us — they work.

There is certainly the possibility of artistic fraud, and it should give us pause.  This week we’ve seen the White House promoting fake video of a reporter assaulting a press office person.  It wasn’t a particularly good fake, so it was quickly detected. But it’s getting so easy to make reasonably convincing fake video that you and I could do it.  This technology will surely change the way we think about the images, and probably make us trust our eyes less. There’s a good piece by Joshua Rothman in this week’s New Yorker about the people who are advancing this technology, including some who worry about its implications.  

That said, photographers will continue to seek interesting subjects, and interesting things to do with those subjects.  On the way back from Durant, I stopped at Peace Camera. The store used to be on Peace Street, a couple of blocks from our building, but it’s now in north Raleigh.  I was sorry when it moved, but I really like the new store, and the sales people were friendly and helpful. I found a couple of new gadgets I liked, and enjoyed talking shop with one of the sales guys about practical photography challenges, like finding a good storage bag for circular filters.  

On the trip home, I listened to the latter part of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, by Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli history professor, and also a vegan and dedicated meditator. The title is unfortunate, since it sounds like it might be a self-help or text book.  In fact, it’s a bracing discussion of serious global problems, including racism, authoritarianism, robotics and AI, genetic engineering, economic dislocation, climate change, and nuclear war.

Harari takes a very long historical view, starting prior to homo sapiens, and has broad geographic and intellectual scope.  He moves along quickly (sometimes too quickly), but of course, some of the issues he addresses are existential, with short deadlines.  Among other minor points, he notes that there is nothing new about fake news. The earliest civilizations were organized around animating myths with no factual basis, and generally speaking this is true of us as individuals.  This could be viewed as depressing, but I prefer to take it as a foundation for humility and tolerance.

I finally finished Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson.  Stevenson started the Equal Justice Initiative, and has spent decades seeking justice for row inmates and others.  He provides new perspectives on the death penalty, mass incarceration, and racial bias in the American legal system.  He has a really big heart. Given the brutality of his chosen for his battleground and the long odds against success, it’s remarkable that he has not given in to cynicism and despair.   I found his book an inspiring source of hope.

Sunrise this morning, looking northeast toward Raleigh, with the new Metropolitan apartment building in the foreground nearing completion

On Broadway, fake news, and some new (to me) art

Last week I went to a conference in New York and stayed for the weekend to see loved ones and take in some culture. Midtown was decorated for the holidays, including wreaths, angels, and a very big evergreen with ornaments at Rockefeller Center. It was cheering. Crowded, though. We finally gave up on taxis, on the grounds of slowness, and embraced the subway.

On Broadway we saw The Encounter, a one-man show starring Simon McBurney as a nameless storyteller. His story is about a solo expedition in the Amazon to contact the Mayoruna people, and it’s engrossing. But the performance is as much about the power of our imagination as about the story. The audience members wear headphones, bringing us into an intimate relationship with the storyteller’s voice and the exotic sounds of the jungle. The storyteller repeatedly reminds us that we are in a story, but even with this warning, we can’t help becoming immersed. McBurney manages to get us to look at ourselves in the act of being manipulated.

Fake News
As fake news came into better focus over the last couple if weeks, I’ve felt dread and wonder at how easily people can be deceived by various hoaxes, and then become passionately committed to remaining in their deceived state. At its most bizarre and extreme (as in, the hoax that the Clintons are running a child sex slave business in a D.C. pizzeria), many enthusiasts cannot be dissuaded by reports debunking the tale in the mainstream media. They view these as part of the conspiracy — a cover up.

This is obviously nutty, and it would be nice to think you and I could never be taken in by such craziness. Or would it? Recently I’ve found myself wondering more about whether particular news reports are correct, and even whether my most basic assumptions are reliable. This is uncomfortable, but it’s actually a good thing. Always keeping in view the possibility that we may be wrong makes us more likely to consider new information and open to revising our beliefs — updating our credences, as Bayesians say. It also fosters a degree of humility, as we recognize that none of us has perfect knowledge, and all of us are prone to error.

That said, some descriptions of events are more wrong than others, and certain wrong ones are dangerous — like one inspiring an armed man showing up at a pizza parlor to avenge an made-up crime against children. In the long term, better education may be the way to address the mass hoax problem. There are various mental resources involved in assessing possible new facts, which include a good fund of background knowledge, evaluation of the reliability of sources, and weighing of evidence.

These resources and skills take time to acquire. In the short term, we need to use our best hostage negotiation skills with people seized by a dangerous conspiracy theory — try to keep the conversation going, and if they’re armed, be prepared to dive for cover.

New (to me) art

While in New York, I saw a lot of interesting art, including video work. At the New Museum, there was an exhibit of the work of Pipilotti Rist, a Swiss artist, who used video technology to explore nature. There were early works designed for a single viewer to insert her head up through a hole in a pyramid with the base on a wall to watch a screen and be surrounded by sound. Her more recent works are large-scale installations intended for groups of viewers.

In one work, she placed beds on the gallery floor and watery images on the ceiling, surrounded by meditative music, which led strangers to lie down together, look upwards, and relax. The images weren’t all that interesting, but the experience was. We were taken both inward and outward, into our feelings and out into relationships, as the artist made us into part of the art.

Video art is challenging, in that it resists skimming. You have to give it some time. And a given work may be boring, or anyway, not for you. But unlike painting, which lives most comfortably in a private dwelling, video’s natural home can be in a museum, where it can keep on playing and waiting for the right people to watch it. And those people can share it, and have a communal experience.

Also at the New Museum, I spent some time with the Cheng Ran’s work, Diary of a Madman, which is an outsider’s view of the gritty side of New York. Where Rist was loosely improvisatory and mostly cheerful, Ran was focused and melancholy, with exquisite technique and tight control. He visibly struggled to extend the expressive possibilities of new technology and embrace the world of humans and their detritus.

At the Whitney, I took in Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, which had a lot of video artists’ work displayed on large screens and other surfaces. A lot of the work was interesting mainly as art history, rather than as a provocative message for right now, but there were some provocations. My favorite piece was by Andrea Crespo, titled Neurolibidinal Induction Complex 2.2. It used words (isolated emotions, for example) and colors to give us a reboot. I also particularly liked the work of Lynn Hershmann Leeson, which included female cyborgs and bots, including one with an unsettling holographic gaze who could do an irritating conversation with you.

I also spent some time looking at Bruce Conner’s Crossroads, It’s a slow motion depiction of U.S. nuclear tests off Bikini Island in 1946. If you tend to think that nuclear weapons are an existential threat to the human species, you will continue to think that after seeing the film. Seeing the images is sobering, and may make us think more about stopping the madness, which we clearly need to do.

We went out to the Brooklyn Museum to see the work of Marilyn Minter, known for her explorations of female faces and forms and of the dark underside of fashion. I wasn’t crazy about her monumental paintings, but I liked her quirky videos. At MOMA, we saw the Francis Picabia exhibit, which we liked. He had a great visual imagination, great technical ingenuity, and a willingness to continually experiment. His was a questing spirit.

Finally, while Sally went to the Breuer and saw (at my recommendation) the fine Kelly James Marshall exhibition, I went to the Met to see Beyond Caravaggio — paintings of Valentin de Boulogne, a French artist who worked in Rome in the early 1600s. I really liked Valentin! The paintings had much of the intensity of Caravaggio, with his amazing understanding of light and the human figure, but had a broader emotional range, including people who were clearly individuals, with secrets and regrets.