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    A train puts on a sweater

    And other recent highlights from the Ideas blog

    Crocheting might seem a sleepy, dainty craft, until you realize it can expand endlessly—say, to the size of a train. The installation artist Olek, born in Poland and now living in the United States, uses countless loops of colorful yarn to recast objects in dizzying new form. Her current work, “Deadly Romance,” is on display in Lodz, Poland: a steam locomotive plus two freight cars, covered down to the axles in a skin of brightly colored crochet. (Olek previously gave the same treatment to the Charging Bull sculpture on Wall Street.) With four assistants, she finished the piece in two marathon days, a pace that evokes not so much the slow knitting of a sweater as a voracious bacterial strain swarming over the train at night and leaving it transformed in the morning.

    What software wants

    WE OFTEN THINK of software programs like Photoshop or Microsoft Excel as blank canvases for our own plans—tools that are agnostic about the things we might do with them. But they may steer us more than we think. Last month the arts and technology website Rhizome ran a mind-bending interview about the field of software studies, which tries to understand how computer programs shape culture.

    Lev Manovich, a computer science professor at the City University of New York and author of the forthcoming book “Software Takes Command,” says we’ve become so used to the standard graphics toolbars—with options like scale, skew, fill, and “lasso”—that it can be hard to imagine how drawing could have been translated to the computer in any other way. Manovich argues, though, that graphics software doesn’t just simulate drawing, it “reinvents” it. All programs have a discrete set of features, which make some kinds of operations easier to perform than others; his interest is in how these make “some design choices seem natural and easy to execute, while hiding other design possibilities.” He mentions a stunning video made in 1962 that demonstrates Sketchpad, one of the first computer drawing programs ever created—watching the early user scale and replicate objects accentuates how, from the beginning, drawing programs have channeled us into certain ways of creating digital images.


    The interview raises more tantalizing questions than it answers (perhaps those are waiting in Manovich’s book), and leaves us with the provocative observation that rather than many different forms of media (painting, music, video) we now have one “meta-medium,” the digital, software-based production of art. As digitally produced art becomes more influential, it’s worth thinking about what the medium itself is telling us do to.

    An encounter with the Civil War

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    There is a unique power to artifacts from the Civil War, which evoke the majesty of history but also exert a present-tense pull on our minds. Boston University is hosting an exhibit of war documents including a hand-drawn map showing where Henry Ropes of the 20th Massachusetts Infantry died at Gettysburg, and a letter from Abraham Lincoln to his vice president six days after issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. The letter’s weary pessimism about the war reminds us just how uncertain those great events looked to those inside.

    The American Civil War: Treasures from the Vault is on display at the Mugar Memorial Library at BU Monday-Friday, 9:00 a.m.-4:30 p.m., through Sept. 13.