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Creator or Creature? A Nightmare Wakes dramatizes the birth of Frankenstein

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Alix Wilton Regan stars as Mary Shelley in the throes of creating her timeless literary masterpiece in A Nightmare Wakes.

It’s one of the most famous origin stories in literary history. One summer night in 1816 in Geneva, Lord Byron hosted a gathering of his fellow Romantics, including Percy Shelley and his lover (soon-to-be wife), Mary Godwin. The incessant rain confined the party indoors for days at a time, and one night, over dinner at the Villa Diodati, Byron propose that everyone write a ghost story to amuse themselves. The result was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the classic Gothic horror tale of a mad scientist who creates a monster—arguably the first science fiction novel.

That fateful summer is the subject of A Nightmare Wakes, the first feature film from writer/director Nora Unkel. It’s been portrayed before, most recently in a 2020 episode of Doctor Who, but Unkel’s film delves particularly into Mary Shelley’s inner state of mind and the process of creation, as the world of her imagination begins to bleed into her reality. Per the official premise: “While composing her famous novel, Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (Alix Wilton Regan) descends into an opium-fueled fever dream while carrying on a torrid love affair with Percy Shelley (Giullian Yao Gioiello). As she writes, the characters of her novel come to life and begin to plague her relationship with Percy. Before long, she must choose between true love and her literary masterpiece.”

(Mild spoilers below)

Born August 30, 1797, Mary Shelley had a nontraditional upbringing. She was the daughter of William Godwin, an anarchist political philosopher, and feminist activist Mary Wollstonecraft, who died shortly after Mary was born. Driven by a great desire for knowledge, she was educated by her father and various private tutors, and she first tried her hand at writing during a stay with radical William Baxter and his family Scotland.

Mary likely met the aristocratic poet/philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley in late 1812 or 1813; they were most certainly involved by 1814. Percy had separated from his pregnant wife, Harriet, and that, plus his radical political views, had estranged him from his wealthy family. Legend has it that Mary lost her virginity to Percy in the cemetery where they regularly met in secret. William Godwin may have had radical views on politics, marriage, and “free love,” but these attitudes did not extend to his daughter, it seems. He disapproved of her relationship with Percy. So the pair eloped to France in July 1814, taking Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont (by then Byron’s mistress), with them.

Many travels followed, during which Mary became pregnant and miscarried, and Percy may have taken up with Claire. Mary ascribed to free love in principle, but she seems to have remained faithful to Percy for the duration of their relationship and was secretly jealous of Percy’s dalliances. Her writings reveal that Mary struggled with depression and visions of her lost baby, but Mary gave birth to a son, William, in January 1816. That summer, she, Percy, their son, and Claire joined Byron and a young physician named John Polidori in Geneva.

Byron proposed his famous challenge while the group was sitting around the fire at the villa reading German ghost stories. Polidori ended up writing a short story called “The Vampyre,” but Mary struggled to find inspiration, until a chance discussion on the nature of life and the science of galvanism stirred her creative juices. In the early hours of June 26, Shelley experienced a “waking dream,” as moonlight “struggled to get through” the closed shutters in her room.

As she recalled in the 1831 introduction to Frankenstein:

I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.

Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was initially a short story, but Mary expanded it to a full-length novel at Percy’s urging. It was published anonymously in January 1818, mostly to critical acclaim. Mary was not identified as the author until the publication of the second edition in 1823, so many people initially assumed it had been written by Percy.

Despite her literary success, Mary’s life was checkered by multiple tragedies. Both Mary’s half-sister, Fanny, and Percy’s estranged wife committed suicide—Fanny by a laudanum overdose, Harriet by drowning. Percy and Mary got married shortly after Harriet’s death, but despite several pregnancies, only one child survived to adulthood: Percy Florence. In the summer of 1882, while in Italy, Mary miscarried yet again and nearly died from loss of blood. A quick-thinking Percy placed her in an ice bath to staunch the bleeding and likely saved her life. Alas, Percy drowned in a boating accident later that same summer, devastating an already depressed Mary.

Frankenstein is the book for which she is justly famous, but she built a fine literary career as a writer and editor. Shelley never remarried, despite the occasionally suitor, and died on February 1, 1851, at 53, possibly from a brain tumor.

Most of the above aspects of Shelley’s life find their way into A Nightmare Wakes—Unkel strove to be historically accurate even with regard to the lighting and production design—albeit reimagined and condensed for narrative purposes, since most of the film takes place in the summer of 1816. In this telling, Mary is pregnant with her first child when she, Percy, and Claire arrive in Geneva, and she tragically miscarries. Out of this tragedy comes the inspiration for Victor Frankenstein, driven to create a Creature stitched together from dead cadavers and “reanimated” during a dramatic thunderstorm. Philippe Bowgen plays Byron, Claire Glassford plays Claire Clairmont, and Lee Garrett plays Polidori.

“Shelley’s struggle with love, loss, abandonment by society and family, and her own sanity, had yet to be captured fully on-screen,” Unkel said of what drove her to make the film. “She lived a colorful life of love, drugs, and freedom, alongside some of the most celebrated artists of her day.” Ars sat down with Unkel to learn more.

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Sony reverses course, keeps legacy PlayStation online stores open

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The store has received a stay of execution on the PS3 and Vita…

Just three weeks ago, Sony announced its plans to shut down the digital stores for the PlayStation 3, PlayStation Portable, and PlayStation Vita, effective this summer. Today, Sony partially reversed course, with Sony Interactive Entertainment President and CEO Jim Ryan writing in a blog post that “it’s clear that we made the wrong decision here.”

As such, the PS4 and Vita online stores will continue operations, Ryan said, while the PSP store will still shut down as planned on July 2. PS3 and Vita players will continue to be able to purchase games through the hardware itself, while web-based versions of those stores will seemingly remain closed following their shutdown last month.

“When we initially came to the decision to end purchasing support for PS3 and PS Vita, it was born out of a number of factors, including commerce support challenges for older devices and the ability for us to focus more of our resources on newer devices where a majority of our gamers are playing on,” Ryan wrote. “We see now that many of you are incredibly passionate about being able to continue purchasing classic games on PS3 and PS Vita for the foreseeable future, so I’m glad we were able to find a solution to continue operations.”

Ryan didn’t set any new timeline for the PS3 and Vita store support, so it’s not clear just how long of a reprieve this will be in the end. But nothing lasts forever in the world of corporate-controlled servers, as shown by the continuation of plans to shut down the PSP store. That will come over 16 years after the PSP launched in North America and nearly 13 years after the PSP first got support for direct game downloads through a firmware update. Sony officially stopped producing PSP hardware in Japan in 2014, while PS3 production lasted until 2017 and Vita production lasted until 2019.

A sigh of relief

In the wake of Sony’s closure announcement, many online sources had begun compiling lists of the best games to download before the legacy PlayStation Store stores went offline for good. A VGC analysis suggested over 2,000 digital-only titles would become inaccessible if those stores shut down, including 138 that were not available on any other platforms. Other observers noted how piracy would become the only way to preserve some of these games in the wake of the shutdown.

As The Gamer noted, the planned Vita store shutdown also threatened to stop the production of some Vita games that were (and now are) still in development. “We’re way past the point where it makes a ton of financial sense to release on Vita, but it’s one of my all-time favorite consoles and I wanted to release a game on it before everything shut down,” Spooky Squid Games developer Miguel Sternberg told the site regarding a planned Vita port of Russian Subway Dogs.

Sony has still remained silent on a longer-term problem that could eventually make digital PS3 titles and all PS4 titles unplayable if and when Sony decides to stop supporting those consoles’ PSN connections. Recent testing by concerned players suggests that same problem could affect all digital PS5 games and some physical PS5 discs at an unknown point in the future.

Sony’s decision to change course comes months after Microsoft quickly reversed plans to raise the price of Xbox Live after strong fan backlash to the idea. “We messed up today and you were right to let us know,” Microsoft said of that turnaround.

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Nintendo sues Bowser (not that one) over Team Xecuter’s Switch hacks

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Enlarge / A prototype SX Core device soldered to a Nintendo Switch motherboard.

Team Xeceuter

Months after his arrest on 11 felony counts last year, Nintendo has filed a civil lawsuit against Gary “GaryOPA” Bowser, the leader of notorious Switch hacking group Team Xecuter, in a Seattle federal court.

The suit (as obtained by Polygon) seeks significant monetary damages and disgorgement of all profits from Team Xecuter’s sale of the piracy-enabling SX OS software and a line of hardware devices that use various exploits to install the OS on Switch units. The suit alleges that “at one point, the SX OS was pre-installed on 89% of modded/hacked Nintendo Switch products available for sale,” though the suit doesn’t provide a source for that number.

The lawsuit calls out Bowser as “one of only a handful of key members of Team Xecuter,” and it quotes Ars’ own assessment (without credit) that Bowser is “the closest thing to a public face for the team of coders and foreign manufacturers that made up the [Team Xecuter] supply chain.” In promoting and selling SX OS, Bowser “worked with a network of developers; established a distribution chain of resellers, testers, and websites; and designed the marketing and content of other public-facing websites for Team Xecuter,” the suit alleges.

The Team Xecuter website (and a number of URLs that pointed to it) were “largely under [Bowser’s] control,” according to the lawsuit. A handful of hand-picked moderators also provided assistance. The suit notes that “after Defendant’s arrest, no additional posts were ever made to Team-xecuter.com.” That site, which remained up as recently as January, has started returning a database connection error in recent months.

Bowser has “continued to thumb his nose at the law,” Nintendo says, providing circumvention tools to resellers and “forcing Nintendo into a game of whack-a-mole” to try to shut down their distribution at the retail level.

A history of hacking

Team Xecuter has been involved in the console hacking scene since the days of the original Xbox. The group drew its fair share of controversy in that scene even before Bowser and two of his associates were arrested as part of an international manhunt last October.

That’s in part because the group profits from what are otherwise generally open source efforts to identify and publicize vulnerabilities in console hardware. Team Xecuter also markets its devices with a specific focus on decrypting and copying legitimate software, while open source hackers tend to keep the focus on installing homebrew software and custom firmware that doesn’t directly enable piracy.

In 2018, Kate Temkin, who worked with Team ReSwitched on the Switch’s original Fusee Gelée exploit, told Ars that she “strongly disagree[s] with the idea of hiding software exploits and then releasing modchips that use (potentially obfuscated) versions of them,” as Team Xecuter does. “I think it’s both unethical—as it gives malicious actors a chance to pick up and use the vulnerabilities before they can be addressed or public knowledge can spread—and against the spirit of knowledge-exchange we want to see in the console-hacking community.”

Aside from monetary damages that could easily run into hundreds of thousands of dollars, Nintendo is asking that Bowser give up his control of the Team Xecuter website and its URLs and turn over every SX OS hacking device in his possession.

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Novel hydrogels can safely remove graffiti from vandalized street art

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Enlarge / A five-year-old boy with boxing gloves poses in front of a huge mural of himself in Denver, Colorado.

Mention the word “graffiti,” and many people’s thoughts immediately turn to vandalism in the form of defacement of property. But there is also graffiti that rises above such negative connotations and qualifies as bona fide street art. Think of the commemorative murals created after the death of NBA All-Star Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna; the Black Lives Matter logos painted on the streets in New York City, and along 16th Street in Washington, DC, last year amid ongoing protests; and the works of Banksy, Eduardo Kobra, and the countless other less well-known artists around the world, who embellish our streets with their work.

Street art, in turn, is vulnerable to vandalism, posing unique challenges to those seeking to preserve these rather ephemeral creations. This week, a team of Italian scientists described its novel, environmentally friendly new method to safely remove defacing over-paintings on street art at a meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

“For decades, we have focused on cleaning or restoring classical artworks that used paints designed to last centuries,” said co-author Piero Baglioni, a chemist at the University of Florence and principal investigator on the project. “In contrast, modern art and street art, as well as the coatings and graffiti applied on top, use materials that were never intended to stand the test of time.”

The Florence scientists have been pioneers in the science of art conservation for nearly 30 years, according to co-author Michele Baglioni, also with the University of Florence (and no relation to Piero Baglioni)—specifically in the areas of chemistry and colloidal science. Their interactions with restorers and conservators over the years provided useful feedback, as they built up an extensive interdisciplinary network.

Art work by graffiti artist Banksy, depicting a prisoner escaping with a typewriter—a tribute to one of its famous former prisoners, Oscar Wilde—in Reading, England.
Enlarge / Art work by graffiti artist Banksy, depicting a prisoner escaping with a typewriter—a tribute to one of its famous former prisoners, Oscar Wilde—in Reading, England.

Ming Yeung/Getty Images

The challenge with preserving street art lies in the fact that the over-painting by vandals is so chemically similar to the original painting underneath. That makes it more difficult to selectively remove just the over-painting (which can be just a few microns in depth) without damaging the original.

“It’s a kind of art that is not designed to last long, so we have to know exactly what is going on at the surface of the paintings if we want to design [effective] cleaners,” said Michele Baglioni at an ACS virtual press conference. “In some respects, the chemistry is simple—we are using known surfactants, solvents, and polymers. The challenge is combining them in the right way to get all the properties we need.”

The coloration in paints comes from pigments or organic dyes, and binders (usually polymers) help bind the color particles together. There are many different kinds of binders, and the Florence team selected three classes that are used on spray paints and other paints used most frequently in street art: acrylic, vinyl, and alkyd polymers.

The scientists specifically examined three different binder brands and four different colors for this study, although their past work has included a wide range of colors and brands. That experience has revealed that there really isn’t much difference between brands, but different colors sometimes interact differently with different fluids, because sometimes the pigment used can act as a catalyst, or trigger chemical modifications in the polymeric binders. The scientists’ prior work also showed that alkyd-based paints are harder to remove than vinyl and acrylic paints, because alkyd binders tend to cross-link, thereby losing their initial solubility in organic solvents.

Mural by street artist Royyal Dog in tribute to Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna at the Container Yard on East 4th Street, Los Angeles.
Enlarge / Mural by street artist Royyal Dog in tribute to Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna at the Container Yard on East 4th Street, Los Angeles.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

For this latest study, the scientists first used infrared spectroscopy to characterize the binders, fillers, and pigments in all three classes. Next, they used X-ray scattering on four alkyl carbonate solvents and a biodegradable surfactant to observe how each behaved in water. From this, they devised a nanostructured fluid with the most effective combinations for cleaning, and they loaded it into a hydrogel.

The final product is not a gel like jam or a hair gel. Rather, these hydrogels are synthesized in the form of thin foil sheets. The sheets can be shaped with scissors or a knife, then placed on the surface one wishes to clean. (The gel adheres easily even to vertical surfaces like walls.) Leave a sheet for a few minutes—not too long—and then just peel it off. The over-paint will be softened and swollen, and it can be easily removed by gentle mechanical action. Should you accidentally leave the gel on too long, Michele Baglioni advised just letting it dry as the solvents and water evaporate, being careful not to try to wipe anything away. This should avoid any harm to the underlying painting.

The Florence team conducted dozens of laboratory tests on mockups of street art, successfully removing the various samples of over-paints. As a final step, the group tested the hydrogel on an actual piece of street art in Florence, successfully removing several black tags.

Different hydrogels are designed for different types of surfaces. It’s possible to “tune” the gels to make them stiffer or more elastic; the latter are better suited to rough surfaces. But it’s what’s inside the hydrogel that is most critical: the cleaning fluid. Vinyl, alkyd, and acrylic have similar solubility in organic solvents, so the best cleaning fluid is one that can interact with all three classes of binders.

A massive "Black Lives Matter" runs along the block of Fulton Street between Marcy and Brooklyn avenues in Brooklyn, NY.
Enlarge / A massive “Black Lives Matter” runs along the block of Fulton Street between Marcy and Brooklyn avenues in Brooklyn, NY.

Spencer Platt/Getty Image

But is this really better than conventional chemical and/or mechanical methods for removing over-painting? Michele Baglioni argues that it is, even if they use the same organic solvents. In the former case, those solvents are unconfined; in the Florence group’s system, the solvent is confined in tiny droplets of water stabilized by a surfactant, all of which, in turn, is confined in a gel. In addition to reducing the amount of solvents used, this means the fluid inside is released slowly to the surface, giving better control of the cleaning action. That makes selectively removing over-painting easier, because you can better control how much the solvent penetrates, stopping the process before it reaches the underlying paint.

As for simple mechanical methods, like scalpels or abrasion, “They are either too invasive and harmful to the original art or too expensive,” Michele Baglioni said. In the case of  more advanced technologies, like laser ablation, they require expensive instruments that are not easily portable and are often not as effective. “So we think that we proposed a simpler solution [that is] much more controlled and much more effective in achieving selective removal,” he said. The hydrogels are also cheaper to produce.

The two Baglionis and their colleagues are confident their system could also easily be used to repair vandalized oil paintings and other fine art, not just street art. And the hydrogels should soon be available commercially from a university consortium co-founded by Piero Baglioni: CSGI Solutions for Conservation of Cultural Heritage.

“They seem to be quite far apart, but science and art are very strictly connected,” Michele Baglioni said. “Talking about art restoration, art preservation, is like talking about materials. This is the first systematic study on the selective and controlled removal of modern paints from paints with similar chemical composition. We hope that the whole conservation community will benefit from the development of our systems.”

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