Saturday 31 December 2011

The Guardian of Yosemite

HERE is a great piece in the Guardian about a new book on Carleton Eugene Watkins (1829-1916), whose photographs of Yosemite in 1861 had a significant impact on Abraham Lincoln and led to the creation of what was in effect the worlds first "National Park".  The book by Weston Naef is over 600 pages and contains over 1,200 of Watkins' images. Naef spent most of his career as the curator of the J. Paul Getty museum photo collection - an interview with him is HERE.

One notable fact about Watkins was the sheer scale of the work - his photographic equipment weighed about a ton and his images of Yosemite are large format. The Naef book  describes them as mammoth photographs; the negatives were 18" x 22".

The blurb from the book;

Carleton Watkins: The Complete Mammoth Photographs
Carleton E. Watkins, Weston Naef, Christine Hult-Lewis
Getty Publications, 15 Nov 2011 - Photography - 608 pages
The extraordinary body of work produced by photographer Carleton Watkins (1829–1916) between 1858 and 1891 constitutes one of the longest and most productive careers in nineteenth-century American photography. Nearly thirteen hundred “mammoth” (18 x 22 inch) glass-plate negatives were produced, the majority of which exist in only one surviving print. Of these, fewer than three hundred have been previously reproduced or exhibited.

Drawing on the major collections of Watkins prints at the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, and numerous smaller collections, the authors have assembled and catalogued all of Watkins’s known mammoth-plate photographs. These include views of Yosemite, San Francisco, and the Pacific Coast, as well as railroads, mines, and lumber mills throughout the west. The work will contribute not only to a fuller understanding of this pioneering photographer but also portray the barely explored frontier in its final moments of pristine beauty. The catalogue is organized by region and includes an inventory of Watkins’s negatives and an illustrated guide to his signatures, both of value to scholars, collectors, and dealers.     

There aren't many humans in Carleton's photographs of Yosemite - one of them is Galen Clark, who became known as the Guardian of Yosemite Valley. Clark offered guided tours into Yosemite and is sometimes called  the world's original conservationist.  In this Watkins photo Galen Clark stands by the Grizzly Giant sequoia tree, which for many visitors marks the start of their journey into Yosemite.

Image copyright J. Paul Getty Museum

Friday 30 December 2011

Don't trust your memory...

Don't trust your memory, it will trip you up, what is clear now will grow obscure; what is found will be lost. Write down everything in full; time so spent now will be time saved in the end, when you offer you researches to the discriminating public. Don't be satisfied with a dry-as-dust item: clothe a skeleton of fact and breathe life into it with thoughts that glow; let the paper smell of the woods. There's a pulse in each new fact; catch the rhythm before it dies.

Eliot Coues.
Field Ornithology. Salem MA. Naturalists Agency. 1874

Online copy HERE

Cited in Field Notes on Science & Nature. Canfield et al., 2011

For the Nerd who has everything...

For those still struggling to find new presents for their mathematically gifted relatives and friends here is a physical model of a 3 dimensional Hilbert curve created by Henry Segerman and available from Shapeways.

The Hilbert curve is a space filling fractal mathematical object described by German mathematician David Hilbert in 1891 and related to the Peano curve (more on it here). 

Since the curve is a single loop it can be opened up and used as a hair accessory.

Monday 26 December 2011

What Happened in History.

V. Gordon Childe wrote a lot during a full and active life (his collection of artefacts was bequeathed to Edinburgh University, where they are still cataloging.)  

One of his classics books, What Happened in History,  was published in 1942. This was a ground breaking book - it focused more on the development of early societies as seen in the day to day activities going on than the lives of the great leaders normally studied in history.  

I remember buying a copy of the Pelican edition of Childe's book in 1981 in the brilliant second hand book stall in Bath Guildhall market.  I quite often used to walk round there, buy a Chelsea bun and a pint of fresh milk, and while away an hour or so. 

Image from HERE

Skara Brae

Skara Brae is on Orkney. It is a neolithic village that is older than the Great Pyramids and Stonehenge. 

The map below was created by V. Gordon Childe and is dated 1930. At the time Childe was Abercromby Professor of Archaeology at Edinburgh University. 


Monday 19 December 2011

Olaf Stapledon's home in Caldy - Simons Field

Olaf Stapledon was a West Kirby based philosopher and science fiction writer. Here is a biographical sketch.
There is a full biography by Robert Crossley available, Olaf Stapledon: Speaking for the Future, which was  published by Syracuse University Press in 1994. It is HERE on Google books. The blurb reads;

William Olaf Stapledon is best remembered for the extraordinary works of speculative fiction he published between 1930 and 1950. As a novelist, he was known as the spokesman for the Age of Einstein and has influenced writers as diverse as Virginia Woolf, Arthur C. Clarke, and Doris Lessing. This biography is the first to draw on a vast body of unpublished and private documents - interviews, correspondence, archival material, and papers in private hands - to reveal fully the internal struggles that shaped Stapledon's life and reclaim for public attention a distinctive voice of the modern era.
Late in his life in an unpublished "letter to the future" Stapledon unwittingly provided the rationale for his biography: "It is just possible that my very obscurity may fit me to speak more faithfully for my period than any of its great unique personalities". A pacifist in World War I, an advocate of European unity and world government, one of the first teachers in the Workers' Educational Association, and an early protestor against apartheid, Stapledon turned utopian beliefs into practical politics. With roots in the shipping worlds of Devon, Liverpool, and the Suez Canal, he was transformed from a self-described provincial on the margins of English literary and political life into a visionary idealist who attracted the attention of scientists, journalists, and novelists, and, given his left-wing political affiliations, even the F.B.I.

Stapledon's novels - Last and First Men, Star Maker, Odd John, and Sirius - have gathered a passionate following, and they have seldom been out of print in the last twenty-five years. But the personal experiences and political commitments that shaped this creativework have, until now, barely been known. Robert Crossley's work reveals how, in public and in private, in his social activism as in his fiction, Olaf Stapledon embodied many of the modern era's anxieties and hopes.

Stapledon also bequeathed a tract of woods in Caldy to the local people - now known as Stapledon woods.

In one of his best known books, Star Maker,  Stapledon begins and ends an interstellar journey from Caldy Hill;

I sat down on the heather. Overhead obscurity was now in full retreat. In its rear the freed population of the sky sprang out of hiding, star by star.

On every side the shadowy hills or the guessed, featureless sea extended beyond sight. But the hawk-flight of imagination followed them as they curved downward below the horizon. I perceived that I was on a little round grain of rock and metal, filmed with water and with air, whirling in sunlight and darkness.

Stapledon built a house for himself called Simons Field on what was an unadopted lane, Mill Hey Lane, and is now on Bartons Hey Drive.  This  house had views directly out onto the Dee estuary and a tennis court at the botom of the garden.

Here is the house marked on a 1956 OS map.

Ordance Survey Map 1956 1:2500

And here it is today on a satellite image from Google Maps. It looks like the tennis court is still there.

Simons Field is now on Bartons Hey Drive, Caldy, CH48 1PZ.

Sunday 18 December 2011

...not water enough to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him...

Thomas Keneally, author of amongst other  things Schinlders List, wrote a book in 1991 on his long lost Irish origins. This book, Now and in Time to Be, describes his journeying around Ireland - and introduced me to the other worldly landscape known as the Burren. 

The Burren is a karst landscape - and according to Wikipedia the region measures approximately 250 square kilometres and is enclosed roughly within the circle made by the villages Ballyvaughan, Kinvara, Tubber, Corofin, Kilfenora and Lisdoonvarna. It is bounded by the Atlantic and Galway Bay on the west and north, respectively. 

In Keneally's book there is a quotation from Edmund Ludlow (1617-1692), one of Oliver Cromwell's followers, that describes the distinctive landscape of the Burren. 

'After two days' march we entered into the Barony of Burren, of which it is said, that it is a country where there is not water enough to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him; which last is so scarce, that the inhabitants steal it from one another, and yet their cattle are very fat; for the grass growing in tufts of earth, of two or three foot square, that lie between the rocks, which are of limestone, is very sweet and nourishing'. 

Edmund Ludlow, 1651

The image of the burren, below is from Wikipedia;

Saturday 17 December 2011

Could the real Myles na gCopaleen stand up, please.

The Irish writer Brian O'Nolan had a  multitude of pseudonyms. One of the better known being Flann O'Brien. 

One of his other famous pseudonyms was Myles na gCopaleen - under which he published a regular column called Cruiskeen Lawn for the Irish Times. 

Here is an example from 1941

January 11th, 1941

A LADY lecturing recently on the Irish language drew attention to the fact (I mentioned it myself as long ago as 1925) that, while the average English speaker gets along with a mere 400 words, the Irish-speaking peasant uses 4,000.

Considering what most English speakers can achieve with their tiny fund of noises, it is a nice speculation to what extremity one would be reduced if one were locked up for a day with an Irish-speaking bore and bereft of all means of committing murder or suicide.

My point, however, is this. The 400/4,000 ration is fallacious; 400/400,000 would be more like it. There is scarcely a single word in the Irish (barring, possibly, Sasanach) that is simple and explicit.

Apart from words with endless shades of cognate meaning, there are many with so complete a spectrum of graduated ambiguity that each of them can be made to express two directly contrary meanings, as well as a plethora of intermediate concepts that have no bearing on either.

And all this strictly within the linguistic field. Superimpose on all that the miasma of ironic usage, poetic licence, oxymoron, plamás, Celtic invasion, Irish bullery and Paddy Whackery, and it is a safe bet that you will find yourself very far from home. Here is an example copied from Dinneen and from more authentic sources known only to my little self.

Cur, g. curtha and cuirthe, m. – act of putting, sending, sowing, raining, discussing, burying, vomiting, hammering into the ground, throwing through the air, rejecting, shooting, the setting or clamp in a rick of turf, selling, addressing, the crown of cast-iron buttons which have been made bright by contact with cliff-faces, the stench of congealing badger’s suet, the luminance of glue-lice, a noise made in an empty house by an unauthorised person, a heron’s boil, a leprachaun’s (sic) denture, a sheep-biscuit, the act of inflating hare’s offal with a bicycle pump, a leak in a spirit level, the whinge of a sewage farm windmill, a corncrake’s clapper, the scum on the eye of a senile ram, a dustman’s dumpling, a beetle’s faggot, the act of loading every rift with ore, a dumb man’s curse, a blasket, a “kur”, a fiddler’s occupational disease, a fairy godmother’s father, a hawk’s vertigo, the art of predicting past events, a wooden coat, a custard-mincer, a blue-bottle’s “farm”, a gravy flask, a timber-mine, a toy craw, a porridge-mill, a fair-day donnybrook with nothing barred, a stoat’s stomach-pump, abroken –

But what is the use? One could go on and on without reaching anywhere in particular.

Your paltry English speaker apprehends sea-going craft through the infantile cognition which merely distinguishes the small from the big.

If it’s small, it’s a boat, and if it’s big it’s a ship. In his great book An tOileánach, however, the uneducated Tomás Ó Criomhthain uses, perhaps, a dozen words to convey the concept of carrying super-marinity – árthrach long, soitheach, bád, naomhóg, bád raice, galbhád, púcán and whatever you are having yourself.

The plight of the English speaker with his wretched box of 400 vocal beads may be imagined when I say that a really good Irish speaker would blurt out the whole 400 in one cosmic grunt. In Donegal there are native speakers who know so many million words that it is a matter of pride with them never to use the same word twice in a life-time. Their life (not to say their language) becomes very complex at the century mark; but there you are.

From the Irish Times - more on Flann O'Brien and his pseudonyms HERE

Wednesday 14 December 2011

Feynman at the Chalkboard

HERE is the BBC Horizon programme No Ordinary Genius on Richard Feynman.

From the video at 5:13 here is Feynman on guesses and observations in science.

Richard Feynman lecturing at the chalkboard 

Now I am going to discuss how we would look for a new law. 
In general we look for a new law by the following process.
First we guess it.  
(Laughter from audience)
Don't laugh that's extremely true.
Then we compute the consequences of the guess.
To see what, if this law is right, to see what it would imply.
And then we compare the computation results to nature or we say compare to experiment or experience.
Compare it directly with observation to see if it works.
If it disagrees with experiment, it's wrong.
In that simple statement is the key to science. 

Monday 12 December 2011


A lesson in how to create a complete product innovation in a market that has existed for hundreds of years.

The Swedish company Whitelines have turned ordinary lined note paper inside out. They have created a range of lined papers that use white lines on a pale grey paper. The result is that deliberately made marks stand out clearly whilst the supporting grid is just that, supporting. 

I have no idea whether they are influenced by the work of Edward Tufte but this is a classic Tufte trick - remove all unnecesary ink and leave just enough for the task at hand.

Below is one of their "spectra" that describes what they have done.

Wednesday 7 December 2011



is a book filled with rare 17th Century abstract Indian paintings. HERE.

Saturday 3 December 2011

Beautiful Book Covers

Here is a brilliant piece by Kathryn Hughes in the Guardian on the recent revival of beautifully designed, typeset and manufactured books.

Thursday 1 December 2011

Old OS Maps

HERE is a superb Google Maps type API for old OS maps developed and provided by the folks at the National Library of Scotland.

Below is home.