The Emperor’s New Pixels


Pompeii. Mount Vesuvius less than 5 miles away.

Salve. It’s good to be Emperor.

I, Titus Flavius Vespasianus succeeded my father Vespasian as Roman Emperor two months ago, 79 AD. On this particular day, I was visiting my beach house in Pompeii. We were planning new mosaics. As usual, the plumber and contractor showed up late, the  renovations were behind schedule, the volcano above us seemed to be smoking a bit more than usual, and I was engaged in a heated debate with my mosaic maker, Digitalus Imaginis Taciturnitas, fondly known as DIT.

“Why do you continue to use large square tiles in our mosaics?” I asked. “Haven’t we been seeing MMXLVIII  (2,048) tiles in a row for too long?”

Digitalus the DIT replied, “You mean 2K mosaics?”


Mosaics on exhibit at the Museo Nazionale Romano

I insisted, “Yes, 2K — 2,048 big, bulky, coarse tiles across. You could call them pixels, like pixies, minus the dust. Speaking of dust, why don’t you simply cut your tiles smaller? 1/4 the size. Then you could fit IVXCVI (4,096) tiles in a row. The details would be clearer. The image sharper. I could stand closer. Our astronomers would marvel at the higher resolution. Your customers would be clamoring. ”

“Ah, 4K. They were crafting superb 4K mosaics in Galilee and Judea. Until you sacked Jerusalem a few years ago…”


We moved to another room of the villa. In front of us was a 4K mosaic rescued from the rubble.

“Yes, Jerusalem,” I said. “Just look at the increased resolution, the finer detail. Those tile-makers east of Akre, I think the name’s Tower… sure know a thing or two about pixels.”

Digitalus, the persistent DIT, interrupted — a dangerous thing to do in the presence of an Emperor. “But sir, we’ve been told it’s not the quantity of tiles, but the quality. And also the bit-depth, the number of colors each tile can be colored, the dynamic range, the latitude…”

“Yes, yes, I’ve heard all that marketing stuff before. But the world is changing. Everyone in Pompeii is will be demanding 4K mosaics on their living room walls within the year. The young people will want giant 4K displays in the local theaters…”


Theater at Pompeii

Digitalus interrupted, “But think of all the poor stone-cutters, the massive amounts of tile data, the extra work…”

I was losing my patience. “Consider yourself lucky, Digitalus, if I only send you off to gladiatorial training school. I have another complaint. Why, oh why, must we continue to employ a color-blind artist who designs the damn mosaics in black and white only?”


“Well, esteemed Emperor, Pseudolus is the best mosaic maker in Pompeii, even if he only sees in shades of gray. But we figured out a work-around. We call it workflow. He makes not 1 but 3 mosaics — each in black and white. For the first, he looks through a red piece of glass. The second is created while looking through a green glass. And the third while looking through a blue glass. It’s crude, but effective, and I promise you this process will be used thousands of years from now.”

“What a preposterous idea. When I complete the Colosseum, you will be one of the first to compete.”

“Oh dear,” the DIT said. “I know we have been working in 1024 (10-bit) shades of gray. But lately, the Son of Pseudolus, also color-blind but with better acuity, has been working in 4096 (12-bit) shades of gray. So far, only in 2K. But 4K will come.

“And why can we not employ an artist who sees in color?” I asked.

The DIT explained. “Some day, perhaps. But we have at our disposal another miraculous work-around…er…workflow. It is a very important step. The maestro mosaic maker Debayerus takes over. He painstakingly replaces the shades-of-gray tiles with beautiful color tiles. We call it de-mosaicing.”

“Your flow of work is about as practical as the flow of lava on Mount Vesuvius behind you…”

The DIT continued. “Which brings me to your question of IVXCVI versus MMXLVIII. Pompeii women of a certain age worry that every wrinkle will be immortalized forever in 4K. Many esteemed members of the Pompeii Society of Mosaic Makers argue that 4K looks too realistic. They are digging up old pre-Augustan Tiffenus Classic Softus, Pearlescent and Promistian tiles.”

“Nonsense,” I bellowed. “Just look at that stunning 4K mosaic before you. Beautiful. No wrinkles.” We were watching a curious phenomenon. The 4K mosaic on the wall was shaking  because…because the ground was shaking as well. Vesuvius was up to its old tricks. The slight movement of the tiles made the image seem much more alive, more life-like.

We moved to another room of the renovating villa. In front of us was a fine fresco. No tiles, no shades of gray, no de-mosaicing, no K. It was a stunningly clear, realistic, beautiful work of art.


Fresco in Pompeii Villa

At that moment, Mount Vesuvius began belching smoke and the ground seriously began to shake. I raced to the Imperial Yacht and we set sail for Rome.

Two days later, Pompeii was gone, buried under 15 feet of ash. Digitalus was lucky to have boarded the boat as well. His work in IVXCVI continued in Rome. Emperor Titus provided generous disaster relief after the eruption of Vesuvius. A year later, fire and plague devastated Rome. He provided more disaster aid. Titus was a popular Emperor. He held lavish games for the people and completed the Colosseum in 80 AD. 



Under the volcano. Mount Vesuvius, Naples in foreground, Pompeii to the right.



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2 Responses:

  1. Hahaha, “promistian.” Fun post!