A $65 Million Sculpture That Can’t Be Sold

What is the fair market value of an object that cannot be sold? That’s the lead of this New York Times piece focusing on the intrinsic value of Canyon, a masterwork of 20th-century art created by Robert Rauschenberg. Because the work, a sculptural combine, includes a stuffed bald eagle, a bird under federal protection, it would be a felony if anyone ever tried to sell. So the appraisers have valued the work at zero.

Two key insights:

The 1940 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act make it a crime to possess, sell, purchase, barter, transport, import or export any bald eagle — alive or dead. Indeed, the only reason Mrs. Sonnabend was able to hold onto “Canyon,” Mr. Lerner said, was due to an informal nod from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in 1981.

But the Internal Revenue Service thinks the sculpture has a larger value (to the of $65 million) and is demanding that the owners pay $29.2 million in taxes. So if the owners of the painting can’t sell it, how is the IRS coming up with a non-zero market value for Canyon? Turns out, it is possible that someone overseas may want to purchase the painting illegally. But the NYT points out:

Still, the notion that the I.R.S. might use the black market in this way to determine a fair market value has surprised some tax experts. James Joseph, a tax lawyer with Arnold & Porter in Washington, noted that the I.R.S. has taxed illegal contraband at its market value, but added: “I don’t know of any instance where the I.R.S. has assumed taxpayers will engage in an illegal activity in order to value their assets at a higher amount. Al Capone went to jail for not paying income taxes on his illegal income, but this is very different than that.”

A very interesting Catch-22 in the art world.

Should You Walk or Run in the Rain?

The question whether to walk slowly or to run when it starts raining in order to stay as dry as possible has been considered for many years—and with different results, depending on the assumptions made and the mathematical descriptions for the situation.

BBC reports that Franco Bocci, publishing in the European Journal of Physics, now asserts that both wind direction and a person’s stature figure into the answer:

In most cases, the general answer is to run as fast as possible; but the answer changes in a tailwind, or for the thin.

As for wind direction – and again, in general – you should run as fast as you can unless the wind is behind you, in which case the optimal speed will be exactly the speed of the wind.

In summary, if you want to stay the most dry in the rain: it’s better to run fast. Unless you’re thin. And there’s wind.

The Trouble with Online Education

In the wake of Coursera announcing partnerships with twelve new universities, Mark Edmundson (author of Why Read?) has a fantastic op-ed in The New York Times. He argues that online educations tends to be a monologue rather than a dialogue. The Internet teacher, even the one who actively responds to students via e-mail, can never have the immediacy of contact that the teacher on the scene can, with his sensitivity to unspoken moods and enthusiasms. This is the gist of the message:

We tend to think that the spellbinding lecturers we had in college survey classes were gifted actors who could strut and fret 50 amazing minutes on the stage. But I think that the best of those lecturers are highly adept at reading their audiences. They use practical means to do this — tests and quizzes, papers and evaluations. But they also deploy something tantamount to artistry. They are superb at sensing the mood of a room. They have a sort of pedagogical sixth sense. They feel it when the class is engaged and when it slips off. And they do something about it. Their every joke is a sounding. It’s a way of discerning who is out there on a given day.

A truly memorable college class, even a large one, is a collaboration between teacher and students. It’s a one-time-only event. 

I absolutely agree. The best professors I’ve had in college were magicians in front of the stage: able to guess student’s emotions, and to tune their lecture accordingly. The corollary to the argument is that Internet courses can work, but it requires extremely motivated students to slog through the lectures. This motivation, arguably, is easier to find (and tune) in students who attend live lectures and interact with their professors.

An Interview with Designer Jonathan Mak

You’re probably familiar with the student artist from Hong Kong named Jonathan Mak Long. Last October, shortly after the death of Steve Jobs, Mak dreamed up a little tribute—an Apple symbol subtly embedded with Jobs’s silhouette, seen below:

Jonathan Mak with the now iconic Steve Jobs tribute logo.

Recently, Mak interviewed with Evan Osnos at The New Yorker. It’s a great interview:

I am twenty years old, was born and raised in Hong Kong, and seldom travelled. (My current student-exchange program in Germany marks my second trip beyond Asia.) My mother is a teacher, and my father works as a translator. They do not have a background in visual creativity, but they are the main reason for my interest in language, which has been tremendously helpful to my growth as a designer.

Like almost everybody else, I loved doodling and making things when I was young, but I never quite left that phase. I continued to create, such as writing a class newspaper, trying my hand at songwriting, and even recording my own podcast. Graphic design began as simply part of my compulsion to create, but, as I got increasingly comfortable with the medium, my love for it grew, and it has not stopped since.

The bulk of the interview is focused on design in China:

Discussing Chinese design is tricky. On one hand, you have the cream of the crop—contemporary graphics effortlessly combined with just enough Chinese motifs to differentiate them from the West. But at the same time, we have countless adverts that are flamboyant, sickly sweet, and just hyperbolic all around, often with jarring color combinations and tragic abuse of effect filters. “That is so ‘mainland,’ ” a Hong Konger might snort in derision. I am sometimes guilty of this reaction, but I am trying to see the other side of this issue.

Click through the interview to see the design he made for Coca-Cola, China.


Grammar as Litmus Test in Hiring

Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, writes about his interview process at his company. In particular, candidates must pass a mandatory grammar test:

Everyone who applies for a position at either of my companies, iFixit or Dozuki, takes a mandatory grammar test. Extenuating circumstances aside (dyslexia, English language learners, etc.), if job hopefuls can’t distinguish between “to” and “too,” their applications go into the bin.

Of course, we write for a living. iFixit.com is the world’s largest online repair manual, and Dozuki helps companies write their own technical documentation, like paperless work instructions and step-by-step user manuals. So, it makes sense that we’ve made a preemptive strike against groan-worthy grammar errors.

But grammar is relevant for all companies. Yes, language is constantly changing, but that doesn’t make grammar unimportant. Good grammar is credibility, especially on the internet. In blog posts, on Facebook statuses, in e-mails, and on company websites, your words are all you have. They are a projection of you in your physical absence. And, for better or worse, people judge you if you can’t tell the difference between their, there, and they’re.

I absolutely approve of this process and wish more companies had similar initiatives. I am a huge stickler for proper grammar (I’ve been nicknamed “Grammarian” in my high school and college years), and I judge people who use poor grammar. As Wiens writes: “If it takes someone more than 20 years to notice how to properly use “it’s,” then that’s not a learning curve I’m comfortable with. So, even in this hyper-competitive market, I will pass on a great programmer who cannot write.”

Instagram Photos in Sports Illustrated Magazine

Brad Mangin shares his story of how Sports Illustrated picked up his Instagram photos and is publishing them in the latest issue of the magazine. The set consists of 18 baseball photos spread over six pages. He describes his process in this blog post:

I shoot all of my pictures with the native camera in my phone. All editing and toning happens within the iPhone, too, using a few of my favorite iPhone apps. Once it looks good, I import the final image into Instagram. The final step in my workflow involves uploading the images to my PhotoShelter archive, which is where editors like Nate can easily view and download them for publication.

Some of my favorite apps include Dynamic LightSnapseed, and Camera+. I really love Snapseed for converting images to black and white and for toning my images. Dynamic Light is my favorite app for making a sky look dramatic and for adding great color to images. Once I get the image into Instagram I usually apply the Lo-fi filter and border if I want high contrast and rich color, or rich black and white. If I want muted colors with an old-school look, or if I want to make a black and white image into sepia-toned I use the Earlybird filter and border.

This is good news for photography and Instagram.

15-Year-Old Improves Pancreatic Cancer Test

Maryland teenager Jack Andraka (featured in the video above) isn’t old enough to drive yet, but he’s just pioneered a new, improved test for diagnosing pancreatic cancer that is 90% accurate, 400 times more sensitive, and 26,000 times less expensive than existing methods.

When Andraka had solidified ideas for his novel paper sensor, he wrote out his procedure, timeline, and budget, and emailed 200 professors at research institutes. He got 199 rejections and one acceptance from Johns Hopkins: “If you send out enough emails, someone’s going to say yes.” Andraka was recently awarded the grand prize at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for his groundbreaking discoveries.

Persistence is the key.


(via Make)