Reflection, In Four Parts

Looking through the mirror at mirrors, in the hopes of seeing an interesting reflection, or maybe to figure out that weird mirage thing you see on the highway.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: I have to admit, my mind is kind of blown right now by the OpenAI technology Dall-E, which has gained major notice in recent days because of a site that has gone viral in recent days called Dall-E Mini. (I’ve already written about this technology elsewhere, and even started a meme account around it.) In many ways, AI-based images are something of a reflection on the world in which we live, fractured in ways that we could never truly comprehend. But that honestly makes them all the more mind-blowing if you ask me. So, in the spirit of reflection that this weird technology experiment reflects, here’s a four-part series on reflection, each part (of course) written with a time limit. — Ernie @ Tedium

Today’s GIF is Ringo Starr bopping his head while looking at his own reflection. Because duh, of course it is!

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(Михаил Секацкий/Unsplash)

How the modern mirror took its current form

Since the start of history world needed a way to see itself, because, after all, what were we going to do without the ability to reflect? We’d have no way to groom ourselves, no ability to brush our hair to a reasonable appearance, and no ability to see our own facial expressions and react upon them.

Sure, we have other means. In recent years, digital cameras that have built in camera functionality have allowed for the selfie, that basic functional way to get a grasp on our world through imagery.

And it all started with polished obsidian, a form of volcanic glass with a dark color that can do a pretty good job of reflecting things. In the modern day, obsidian mirrors are kind of a big deal, a sign of historic lineage that often excites archaeologists and researchers.

Obsidian Mirror

Examples of highly reflective obsidian mirrors. (Gary Todd/Flickr)

Last year, the British Museum noted that an obsidian “spirit mirror” used by a close confidante of Queen Elizabeth I in the 16th century actually had roots in Aztec and modern day Mexican culture, and had been brought back to Europe by colonialists of the era.

Some go back even further. In 2012, for example, researchers at the ancient settlement of Çatalhöyük, now based in modern-day Turkey, uncovered a number of obsidian mirrors—a big deal, given that Çatalhöyük dates back more than 9,500 years.

Obsidian had its problems when it came to mass usage, however, as noted by ‌Archaeologia Americana: Transactions and Collections, an 1820 archaeology book: “The scarcity of obsidian, which is a volcanick production, may well account for its absence in this country; the numerous volcanoes in South America equally amount for the abundance of mirrors of obsidian there.”

That meant that, for many, they had to look through a piece of metal, or maybe look into a mirror or something similar.

Eventually, the modern form of glass mirror—a mashup of metal and glass that lets in light, then reflects it back—would emerge during the Renaissance era. There were two big problems in the pre-manufacturing era—one, glass hadn’t gotten pure enough, leading to challenges in the necessary fusing; and two, mirror-makers hadn’t figured out a way to fuse the metal part on without using molten metal. As you might imagine, this often led to some dramatically broken glass when it didn’t work.

But eventually, we figured it out, and we can credit a guy named Justus Von Liebig for figuring it out in the 19th century. From a book on Liebig:

The traditional method of making mirrors, which had been devised by Venetian glassmakers and craftsmen in the sixteenth century, used an amalgam of mercury and tin to produce a reflecting surface. A specially constructed, eased marble table, with grooves around the edges to collect the mercury runoff, was lined with tinfoil and covered with mercury. By working the mercury into the fin with the hands or a brush, a malleable amalgam of or and mercury paste accumulated on the surface of the tin. This amalgam was then smoothed onto glass sheets and allowed to dry. Because large amounts of mercury were used, as in traditional hatmaking, mirrormakers suffered notoriously ill health and early death. But there was no alternative technology available until the 1840s.

Liebig figured out that by using ionized water, it could reduce silver salts to their most metallic materials, and combined with the use of ammonia and other materials such as sugars or nitrates, could allow the metal to fuse to the glass.

Here’s a video of that general process being used today. Talk about selfie-bait.

Time limit given ⏲: 30 minutes

Time left on clock ⏲: alarm goes off

Triple Self Portriat

The triple self-portrait of Norman Rockwell everyone thinks of when you say “self portrait.” (Norman Rockwell Museum)

How the mirror allowed for the self-portrait

In the modern day, we take for granted the idea of the self-portrait. Our technology seems to exist to help make the case that self portraits are just a basic way of life, rather than anything out of the ordinary.

But there was a time they were, in fact, out of the ordinary. So much so that, if you know anything about art history you might wonder how they did that.

That was the question on the mind of art teacher Francis O’Neill, along with physicist Sofia Palazzo Corner, who a few years back raised this very question about Rembrandt, one of the most iconic artists of his time.

As noted by LiveScience, O’Neil came up with this concept as he himself messed with different types of projection and reflection, attempting to get an understanding of how Rembrandt’s self-portraits may have worked. At first, he used a pair of mirrors from a pharmacy with a piece of aluminum foil.

“It wasn’t the best surface, but you could achieve projections,” he told the outlet. “And then I got myself some copper etching plate, and from there, I was able to make bigger and better projections—and that convinced me that this was how it was done.”

Rembrandt wasn’t the first to take realistic-looking self portraits using the help of optical equipment like mirrors; 15th-century Dutch painter Jan van Eyck is believed to have taken a very photorealistic portrait of himself for the time, titled ‌Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?).

It was impressive enough that it screwed with people’s brains. And in some ways, it may not have been the most mind-melting painting that he was involved with. That honor goes to ‌Arnolfini Portrait, a painting that has some impressively realistic details, including a small painting-inside-a-painting reflected by a mirror. We were still a few hundred years out from photography, but Jan van Eyck was doing trick photography long before anyone really knew the term.

Selbstbildnis mit Pelzrock

Albrecht Dürer’s Selbstbildnis mit Pelzrock, dating to circa 1500.

Other artists were embracing self-portraiture during this period. Selbstbildnis mit Pelzrock (Self-Portrait with a Fur Skirt), by Albrecht Dürer, dates to around 1500, and was Dürer’s fourth and final attempt at such a portrait.

“When Albrecht Dürer signed his famous self-portrait with his imposing monogram “AD” in 1500, he did not just finish a masterwork, but set the foundation for a quite persistent cultural phenomenon: the phenomenon of self-depiction or, as we would call it today, the selfie,” psychologist and researcher Claus-Christian Carbon of the University of Bamberg wrote of Dürer’s artwork in 2017.

In many ways, the artwork shows his evolution as a person; the first portrait was detailed, but more simplistic, and they evolved from there, but by the forth portrait, he was a much more mature person, and his view was straight on, looking at the viewer of the portrait, rather than away or giving a side-eye.

“Unlike his earlier self-portraits, which were composed in the customary three-quarters view, Dürer’s self-portrait of 1500 depicts the artist faced squarely toward the viewer — a pose usually reserved at that time for images of Christ,” Open Culture noted.

There was once a time when trying to get a good self portrait of yourself required a whole lot of patience, rather than grabbing that electronic thing in your pocket.

Time limit given ⏲: 30 minutes

Time left on clock ⏲: 1 minute, 9 seconds

Highway Mirage

A highway mirage on Colorado in 2013. (Jeffrey Beall/Flickr)

The mirages you see in the road when driving are the result of a weird reflection phenomenon

When I was a kid, my family did a lot of weekend traveling on side roads from one town to the other.

And I remember this one particularly straight stretch of road where the road did something interesting—it seemed to melt, or become covered in water.

It was as if I was seeing a mirage. Which, as it turns out, I kind of was.

This concept, at the right angle, can look a lot like a lake. But rather than water, you’re actually staring at the sky, being reflected down on you like a giant mirror.

The secret behind this illusion comes down to the way heat interacts with the road and the sky. See, the road is taking a lot of heat, and that heat is making the asphalt pretty darn hot. Hotter than the atmosphere itself, in fact. The result of this is that the air temperature is cooler than the ground temperature, leading to a refraction effect where the road acts like a mirror. It’s not technically reflection, but I understand if you might have been confused.

It is, of course, not an actual lake but an illusion. And while there may be a water pool nearby, it is unlikely to be in the middle of a highway.

It is a totally reproducible effect, if you have the right gear. A 2003 For Dummies book, Optics for Dummies (man, this series goes deep), says that if you have a laser pointer and a hot plate you can do your own highway mirage experiment:

To reproduce the effect, you need a hot plate (or a metal plate on a stove), a laser pointer, some foil, a piece of paper, and a pen. Remember. You’re dealing with hot materials, so use some hot pads and plenty of caution.

Set the laser pointer to shine across the top of the hot plate as close as possible to the surface. Place the piece of paper on the wall where the laser is shining and mark the spot where it hits. Create a foil tent 3 to 4 inches high across the width of the hot plate so that the laser shines through it. Turn on the hot plate and watch the laser dot move on the paper; mark the spot it stops at. Using the hot pads to protect your hands, remove the foil tent and watch the spot move again.

You probably learned this in physics class, but my memory is hazy and so is yours, so you have to deal with my silly explanation about something that I find interesting.

Time limit given ⏲: 30 minutes

Time left on clock ⏲: 6 minutes, 1 second

Time person of the year you

With this cover, did Time Magazine accidentally make us a little more like the guy from the Netflix show You?

Did Time Magazine give us too big of heads when they made us their person of the year in 2006?

So I guess that we have to save the biggest, weirdest question for last. And that question is, did Time make a mistake 15 and a half years ago, when it put a little reflective paper on its cover, make it look kind of like a screen on a computer, and suggested that we were the big stars?

In some ways, it was a mirror that planted a seed, even if they didn’t realize it at the time. It was such a mainstream cover, even if a lot of people thought it was kind of silly. But there was a method to the madness, as Lev Grossman wrote at the time.

To be sure, there are individuals we could blame for the many painful and disturbing things that happened in 2006. The conflict in Iraq only got bloodier and more entrenched. A vicious skirmish erupted between Israel and Lebanon. A war dragged on in Sudan. A tin-pot dictator in North Korea got the Bomb, and the President of Iran wants to go nuclear too. Meanwhile nobody fixed global warming, and Sony didn’t make enough PlayStation3s.

But look at 2006 through a different lens and you’ll see another story, one that isn’t about conflict or great men. It’s a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It’s about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people’s network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It’s about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.

This was a controversial decision in some corners, with some calling what Time did a “cop-out,” and Gawker chiming in by stating it was “the most squishy, opportunistic pick ever.” The very people being honored honestly hated it.

But it made a good, buzzy cover, and one that it might not have the opportunity to do again. In some ways, 2006 might have been the peak of “you” as a positive cultural phenomenon—maybe 2009, during the heady days of Twitter capturing planes landing in rivers.

But honestly, we’ve seen a lot of us since then, and honestly I don’t love all the “you” I’m seeing. Our divisions define us culturally in ways that suggest a reflection in the mirror that isn’t so much ugly as horribly placed.

We live in a time where “you” is a threat, the catchphrase of a Netflix serial killer, where the people that it was supposed to bring together Hands Across America-style, another togetherness concept ruined by a recent movie called Us that was directed by a Time 100 recipient and features a pivotal scene in a house of mirrors. (This is Us kind of redeems it though, I guess.)

And the cultural vibes of “you” opened the doors to exploitation, the idea that creative work has no value if it’s user-generated. Entire companies that barely existed at the time of Time’s cover, like Facebook, have since proven the darkness that “you” can carry.

In a way, I see Time’s Person of the Year cover from 2006 and I see a sign of digital optimism, that this whole internet thing would work out and get us beyond the culture wars of the past.

But when I look back at “You” winning that award, I see something missing in the reflection—all the parts of us that will never look quite so perfect in the camera lens.

Call it a time of reflection, but I think “You” was ultimately a miss.

Time limit given ⏲: 30 minutes

Time left on clock ⏲: 9 minutes, 11 seconds

Every day, getting up and looking in the mirror is the ultimate example of something that we take for granted. It is our ultimate moment of reflection, the one place where we start and we’re all equals, giant balls of imperfection all.

(Often, I wake up with hair hanging up at all angles, in case you were curious.)

We are not YouTube ready when we show up in that mirror first thing in the morning—heck, we’re probably not even 2016 Time Person of the Year cover-ready.

There is something intimate about mirrors; we often have to get quite close to them to learn things we can’t see ourselves.

Fevers and Mirrors

The cover to Fevers and Mirrors, the Bright Eyes album you listen to when you’re an emo kid and want to REFLECT.

So, with that in mind, here’s a thought: There was a time in history where you couldn’t make out the back of your own head; unless you had a supply of polished-up obsidian nearby, you probably didn’t know what the back of your head looked like.

All you could do was guess. Do you think those people were caught wondering what their hair looked like back there? Whether they had any freckles?

Ultimately, you don’t have to worry about any of that, because you have a mirror. And a smartphone. Combined, you are a million steps above the portion of the human race that was stuck simply guessing what the back of their head looked like.


Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal! And see you next week, hopefully a little more reflective in nature.

Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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