Amphora – yes the @ sign has a name

The symbol @ is so commonly used today that most of us don’t even notice it. I’ve heard it being referred to as “at the rate of” and I didn’t think that that was its actual name. Which got me wondering on what its real name was, and how did it end up in our email addresses.

The origin of the symbol again goes back to the ingenious medieval scribes looking to make their job of scribing easier by finding shortcuts.  They may have used the symbol for the Latin word “ad” which means toward. It’s first known use though is where it was used to represent the words “each at” and the e and a being joined together to form the symbol. 

Ancient clay jars called Amphoras

Its first documented use, from where it also gets its name, was in 1536 when a Florentine wine merchant Francesco Lapi used the symbol @ for units of wine sold in clay jars or Amphoras. With this its use in commerce started and merchants started to use it to tell the price of each unit of the item being purchased – 10 loaves of bread @ $1, meaning total cost of $10. Its use in this manner in commerce continued until 1971, and perhaps it was this exclusive use in commerce that made it a good option for use in emails.

An Italian Merchant uses the @ symbol in 1536 (courtesy MOMA website)

The typewriters of 1800s did not even include the symbol in their keyboards. It was not until 1971, when computer scientist Ray Tomlinson was looking for a way to start sending emails outside of his host environment, and into another host environment that he noticed the barely used @ key on the keyboard of his computer. He realized it was barely used which made it easier for him to choose it. He used it to separate his name from the host network name – and changed the history of the barely used Amphora.

With this decision, the @ symbol was rescued from obscurity, and a life in history books. By using it as the bridge between individual and host network names, he made it the most important part of how humans connect and interact with each other in the digital world.

Sunday Seven – Notre-Dame, Paris

On this Easter Sunday I started thinking of the magnificent Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, which had a devastating fire almost a year ago. On Good Friday this year the cathedral had a small closed service. Regardless of one’s faith, the beginning of the rebirth of this medieval church from the ashes of that devastating fire, is reason enough to celebrate.

Maurice Utrillo (`1883 – 1955), Nore Dame, 1909. Musee de l’Orangerie
Marc Chagall, (1887 – 1985) Notre-Dame en gris, 1955
JMW Turner (1775 – 1851). Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris, 1826. Tate, London
Jacques-Louis David (1748 – 1825). The Coronation of Emperor Napoleon I and the Crowning of the Empress Josephine in Notre-Dame Cathedral on December 2, 1804, 1806-07. Musee du Louvre, Paris
Henri Matisse (1869 -1954) Notre-Dame,1900 Tate, London
Childe Hassam (1859 – 1935), Notre Dame Cathedral Paris, 1885. Detroit Institute of the Arts.
Edward Hopper (1882 – 1967) Notre Dame de Paris, 1907. Whitney Museum of American Art

Say Shibboleth !!

Shibboleth: Ear of Grain in ancient Hebrew

I saw the word “Shibboleth”for the first time earlier this week. When I logged out of an account, it said something along the lines of a Shibboleth logout. Which of course, got me wondering – what was that? It seemed so incongruous.

The word – which clearly sounds like a Hebrew word – has a very interesting story. In Hebrew the word Shibboleth actually means ear of grain. Some ancient Semitic tribes pronounced the word with a “sh” sound, while others pronounced it with an “s” sound, and that – believe it or not  – is the beginning of the story of how it eventually came to be part of current network security.  

When two Semitic tribes went to war during biblical times, the victors, who pronounced the “sh” sound, identified the enemy by making everyone say the word shibboleth – and those that said it with an “s” sound were found to be the enemy and – well – slaughtered.

And from there the word came to mean linguistic password – a way of speaking that is used to identify a group of people. It can also be customs, mannerisms, and ways of doing something. One example would be identifying an American from a Britisher by the way they use a fork and knife; a Britisher does not switch the fork from the left to the right hand – whereas an American switches the fork to the right hand after cutting their food. Shibboleth became a way of including and excluding people and identifying them – and I can imagine it must have also been quite useful during modern warfare too, including World War I & II.

Shibboleth has been used a lot when two neighboring countries are at war – or during a civil war – when it is difficult to distinguish between people because there are more similarities than dissimilarities. In the Lebanese Civil war of 1975, Lebanese soldiers checked to see is someone was Lebanese or Palestinian by making them say the word for tomato in Arabic. Lebanese say “banadoura,” while Palestinians say “bandoura.” With this tomayto-tomato they were able to identify the Palestinians. There are many similar wartime stories linked with this word.

It is this very ability to identify who belongs and who does not that enabled the word to lend itself to be used in reference to secure identification when a user logs into or out of a network system run by institutions such as public service organizations or universities. And that is what I recently saw when I logged out of a network.

Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth exhibition at the Tate Modern in London shows cracks in the floor – symbolizing the damage cultural exclusion can cause.

Morse's Kunstkammer

I am always fascinated by paintings that are paintings of a gallery or a viewing room – they are basically a painting of multiple paintings (similar to Rockwell’s Picasso vs. Sargent). Two of the best examples of this genre, called kunstkammer (German for “cabinet of curiosities”) are Modern Rome and Ancient Rome by Giovanni Paolo Panini (1691 – 1765)

For me the most fascinating kunstkammer painting is Samuel Morse’s (of the telegraph and Morse code fame), Gallery of the Louvre which he painted from 1831 to 1833. Before he connected the two sides of the Atlantic with a telegraphic message, Morse tried to do so with this monumental painting. Morse started his career as a painter and was a well-known portrait artist when he painted this work, primarily for the cultural and artistic education of the American public. Morse and his great friend and author James Fenimore Cooper came up with the idea of this painting to firstly, record the world’s greatest art, and secondly, to introduce young Americans to refined European art.

Samuel Morse’s Gallery in the Louvre 1831-33

The massive 6 by 9 feet painting is of the Salon Caree in the Louvre; its walls Morse lined with some of the world’s most famous art.  In the foreground is Morse himself as he looks at a painting his daughter is working on, and to the back left is Cooper with his wife and daughter.  They are surrounded by brilliant small scale replicas of the works of Leonardo, Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto, Poussin, Claude, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Carvaggio among others. 

Morse arranged the paintings as he wished and probably in some order that he liked them, and altered relative sizes to fit his canvas.  We can see Leonardo’s Mona Lisa and Raphael’s La Belle Jardiniere. At the bottom row of paintings – on either side of Mona Lisa- we see two versions of Christ Carrying the Cross – perhaps Morse wanted to highlight the different ways artists handled the same subject matter.  

What a powerhouse of talent Morse must have been – it’s remarkable, almost incredulous, that his talented artist then went on to invent the single wire telegraph and the Morse Code.

Some literary humor for an otherwise dull day

This letter is a parody written by Nick Farriella in the style of Fitzgerald – something he might have written as he quarantined in the South of France during the Spanish flu of 1918. We recently read The Great Gatsby and I’m amazed at how wonderfully Mr. Farriella has captured Fitzgerald’s spirit in this piece of writing.

Dearest Rosemary,

It was a limpid dreary day, hung as in a basket from a single dull star. I thank you for your letter.

Outside I perceive what may be a collection of fallen leaves tussling against a trash can. It rings like jazz to my ears. The streets are that empty. It seems as though the bulk of the city has retreated to their quarters, rightfully so. At this time, it seems very poignant to avoid all public spaces. Even the bars, as I told Hemingway, but to that he punched me in the stomach, to which I asked if he had washed his hands. He hadn’t. He is much the denier, that one. Why, he considers the virus to be just influenza. I’m curious of his sources.

The officials have alerted us to ensure we have a month’s worth of necessities. Zelda and I are stocked up on red wine, whiskey, rum, vermouth, absinthe, white wine, sherry gin, and lord, if we need it, brandy. Please pray for us.

You should see the square, oh it is terrible. I weep for the damned eventualities the future brings. The long afternoons rolling forward on the ever-slick bottomless highball. Z says it’s no excuse to drink, but I just can’t seem to steady my hand. In the distance, from my brooding perch, the shoreline is cloaked in a dull haze where I can discern an unremitting penance that has been heading this way for a long, long while. And yet, amongst the cracked cloudline of an evening’s cast, I focus on a single strain of light, calling me forth to believe in a better morrow.

Faithfully yours,

F. Scott Fitzgerald

How absolutely brilliant!! I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did.

Picasso vs. Sargent

I came across this fascinating work by Norman Rockwell last week, and was intrigued by overall subject matter, and the paintings in the painting – shown in this work. Rockwell did this work titled, “Picasso vs. Sargent,” for the January 11, 1966 edition of the LOOK magazine. 

The painting by Rockwell shows two paintings in the same room of a museum. The first painting, on the left wall is an 1897 portrait of Mrs. George Swinton by John Singer Sargent, whereas the second painting is Picasso’s 1931 painting, “The Red Armchair.” Two very differently dressed women – representing different versions of femininity and women’s liberation – are looking at the two very different paintings, and we are not surprised by which lady is looking at which painting.

The era seems to be the threshold of time in between the 1950s and 1960s, when women moved out of the kitchen and into the workforce. They changed the way they dressed – feminine dresses and overcoats gave way to jeans and leather jackets, heels were discarded in favor of leather boots, and curlers were tossed in favor of natural relaxed hairstyles, Perhaps, children too are being traded for portfolios – as more and more women enter the workforce, they delay having children.

The portrait of Mrs. George Swinton can be found in the Art Institute of Chicago’s American Art Gallery. The painting, with its extravagant color and brushwork, epitomizes why Sargent as the leading portraitists of his time. According to the Art Institute, “he accentuated her regal bearing and feminine dress. Sargent harmonized the realism of her face and body with bursts of impressionistic brushstrokes describing the shimmering, translucent fabric descending from her shoulder.”

A woman and her daughter look at Sargent’s painting

In Rockwell’s painting, a woman and her little daughter are looking at the beautifully framed Sargent painting. The woman, daughter, and the doll – all three – strangely, have curlers in their hair. Apart from this anomaly, the mother is exquisitely and formally dressed in an overcoat, and heels, while the daughter is also wearing a young child’s dressy overcoat. 

Picasso’s, “The Red Armchair,” is a portrait of Maris Therese-Walter – by whom a much older and married Picasso was smitten. According to the Art Institute of Chicago, which also owns this painting (in its Modern Art Gallery), “the smitten artist began to furtively reference her blond hair, broad features, and voluptuous body in his work. Perhaps acknowledging the double life they were leading, he devised a new motif; a face that encompasses both frontal and profile views.” 

A young woman, in jeans, a leather jacket, and boots, with a portfolio in her hands studies the Picasso.

Of note here is also how well Rockwell has copied the very different works of Sargent and Picasso.

On the surface, this is such a fun painting of a visit to a museum.  But a detailed look reveals a painting full of subtle messages, and this beautiful, almost poignant, painting captures a moment in American history and records it for posterity. 

Sunday Seven – Andy Warhol

The Great American pop artist Andy Warhol died on Feb 22, 1987.  Not only was he an incredibly talented artist, he was the master of the unexpected and had some absolutely brilliant and witty quotes.  Here are some of his gems as this week’s Sunday Seven:

  • People should fall in love with their eyes closed.
  • Don’t pay attention to what they write about you. Just measure it in inches.
  • I just do art because I’m ugly and there’s nothing else for me to do.
  • The idea is not to live forever, it is to create something that will.
  • In the future, everyone will be world famous for fifteen minutes.
  • I never fall apart, because I never fall together.
  • As soon as you stop wanting something you get it.
  • It’s not what you are that counts, it’s what they think you are.
  • Art is what you can get away with.

Sunday Seven – New York City

I went on an Art History trip to New York City recently.  I am amazed at the vibrancy of the city – it is full of life and lights.  My Sunday Seven this week are an ode to this gorgeous city and its friendly people.

The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world (F. Scott Fitzgerald).

Everybody ought to have a lower East Side in their life (Irving Berlin).

I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York’s skyline (Ayn Rand).

Once you have lived in New York and it has become your home, no place else is good enough (John Steinbeck).

One belongs to New York instantly, one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years (Tom Wolfe).

It couldn’t have happened anywhere but in little old New York (O’Henry).

I love New York, even though it isn’t mine, the way something has to be, a tree or a street or a house, something, anyway that belongs to me because I belong to it (Truman Capote).