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Secret paintings on the edges of books

And more recent highlights from the Ideas blog

An unidentified artist adorned a book using a technique known as fore-edge painting, in which the book is fanned open using a special press, which allows the artist to create paintings that unfold across the margins of the pages.University of Iowa Special Collections

The art world was preoccupied last week with a newly discovered van Gogh, but librarians at the University of Iowa recently showcased a neat find of their own: delicate landscape paintings hidden just inside the margins of four 19th-century books by Scottish writer Robert Mudie. The books concern the four seasons, and sometime after they were published, an unidentified artist adorned each book with seasonally themed art using a technique known as “fore-edge painting,” in which the book is fanned open using a special press, letting the artist create a painting across the tips of the pages that vanishes when the book is closed.

Fore-edge painting is an art form so discreet that examples of it can sit on dusty library shelves for decades without being discovered. That's what happened at the University of Iowa, where a student brought them to the attention of librarian Colleen Theisen. The library posted GIF animations of the paintings being fanned open, then closed. The Boston Public Library also has a number of fore-edge paintings, which you can see at foreedge.bpl.org.

Walk. Don't walk. Bother. Don't bother.

You’re standing at a busy intersection, waiting to cross the street. A button says, “Push to Walk.” You push it. Then push it again. A minute later, the light changes. As you cross the street you wonder: Did the button do that?

It's one of those plain-sight mysteries, and it turns out there's no straightforward answer. Last week the BBC journalist Tom de Castella wrote that in the United Kingdom it varies from city to city, intersection to intersection, and even according to the time of day. At one busy intersection, for example, the button triggers a light from midnight to 7 a.m., but during the day it does nothing.


The story is similarly complicated in Boston. A few years ago WBUR conducted an investigation and found that walk buttons in the city were endowed with a wide range of capabilities; many worked only at night, and some did nothing at all, ever.

Walk buttons that don't work are an example of what's known as "placebo buttons"—buttons that give the user the appearance of causal power but don't actually do anything. Other examples, which were gathered a while back on the blog You Are Not So Smart, include most "close door" buttons in elevators and faux thermostats, which reduce climate complaints by giving unwitting employees the sense that they're controlling the temperature in their offices.

Kevin Hartnett can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.