08 November 2011

Shots I Wish I'd Taken: Namibian Trees (Lanting)

You may have seen this one... Franz Lanting's image of camel thorn trees circulated around* the internet earlier this year.

One of the amazing things about this shot is that it is not a fake. Though it reminds me of a painting you might get if Gauguin were crossed with Matisse and the resulting artist decided to paint a landscape, this is a straight-up, brilliantly composed, photo. Plus, it's trees!
Camel Thorn Trees, Franz Lanting, National Geographic (June 2011)

- o - o -

* Is "circulating around" a redundant phrase?

06 November 2011

Thinking of Beer and Bread

I live in Germany, so I think a lot about bread and beer. Okay, I do more than think about them. In my view, these two food groups form the basis for all human progress.

Perusing a recent Biergarten menu, I started musing on one of the beer options: Weizen. I know that Weizen = “wheat” in English. (You've heard of wheat beer, right?) I also know another way to order the same thing is to ask for a Weissbier. Weiss, or weiß, means “white” in English.

So, do “white” and “wheat” share the same root? Seems like they should, if you think about it.

Here’s what my OED reveals (I’ve truncated the entries, which in full reveal interesting Indo-European cognates, but you can click on the words to go straight to the full OED entries):

Wheat: O.E. hwæte "wheat," from P.Gmc. *khwaitijaz, lit. "that which is white," from *khwitaz-, the source of O.E. hwit, whence English “white”.
White: O.E. hwit, from P.Gmc. *khwitaz, from PIE *kwintos/*kwindos "bright".

What do we learn from this? The next time the Denny’s waitress asks if you want “white or wheat”, you can answer “yes”.

You’ll still be a smart-ass, but you’ll be a smarter one knowing the close linguistic kinship of these two words.

You’re welcome.

- o - o -

PS. Reminder: Etymological abbreviations here.

17 October 2011

The Dark Lord Goes Off-Topic

A post neither about words nor images, more a sort of confession.

Most people probably don't know I lead a double life. Actually, most people don't know I exist, but that's not the point. The point is, of the people who know me, the majority of them have no inkling of my alter ego existence.

As it happens, I am known in some circles as The Dark Lord of the Caspian ("Dark Lord" or "D-LOC" for short). Just why I carry this dread title is, again, not the point. All you need to know is that with it come AWESOME POWERS. We're talking global reach, here.

I probably shouldn't let on, but I'm starting to feel a little guilty. Let me use this pulpit to offer a blanket apology to those I've inconvenienced (or worse).*

Here's the thing. From time to time, I convene working group meetings of colleagues from far-flung locations. I pick a venue, and then we all head there to strategaze about work stuff. Well, when the D-LOC begins assigning dates with specific locations, bad things can happen for the rest of you. I really need to stop toying with the space-time continuum, because here's what can happen:

  • I came to the Washington area in early Feb 2010, a month that might resonate with winter-phobic readers. (Hint: Google "snowmageddon" or click here.)
  • During the spring of 2010, Iceland went "boom" a little bit, to the tune of Eyjafjallajokull, whose name confused journalists the world over and whose ash plumes shut down Europe the weekend we prepared to head to Naples.
  • Early in 2011 I had planned to convoke a grand cabal in Bahrain; we know how that turned out.
  • Barely a month or so later, I almost brought the US government to its knees; I was this close to shutting the government down... Thankfully, I relaxed my grip and Congress came to its senses, acted maturely and deliberately to plan out a far-seeing budget, and joined hands across the aisle to govern the nation wisely. Oh, wait...

(About the recent earthquakes, flooding, forest fires, and hurricanes that have bedeviled the U.S. this past summer, I must disclaim that I had no active part in that. I cannot, however, rule out the possibility that I might have dreamed about having conferences in those specific space-times while asleep. If so, my sincerest apologies.)


I wanted to give the friendlies a sort of heads-up that I might be about to flex again. I've scheduled another meeting in Washington next month, round about the time the US Gov't is scheduled to run out of money again. If you have somewhere else you can be mid-November, you might want to think about it.

The Dark Lord of the Caspian


* Please note, I'm not being political and am not being flippant — or at least not too flippant, I hope — about the genuinely disastrous effects of these world events. I have nothing but concern and sympathy for those affected.

15 October 2011

Shots I Wish I'd Taken: Shadows In the Desert (Steinmetz)

Speaking of shadows... Wow.

Camels, shot by George Steinmetz for National Geographic, Feb 2005
(This particular version borrowed from Snopes here.
Go to Steinmetz's website for more fantastic images.)
Thanks, Karey.

12 October 2011

Strategazing: New Word of the Day Feature!

This post inaugurates an aperiodic Word of the Day feature. Don’t be fooled by the title. It’s more “Word of the day on the day that I post it”. If you actually got a word a day it might get boring.

Our inaugural word is strategazing.*

Strategazing /strætəgezɪŋ/ (noun). A portmanteau word formed from bases strategy and star-gazing (some lexicologists hold the origin of the latter base to be navel-gazing -- either way, the effect is the same). Of or pertaining to the process of thinking big thoughts, purportedly with the aim of implementing them...some day...somehow. (In its purest form, strategazing leaves implementation to someone else.) Often accompanied by blind optimism and a total disregard for resources or timelines required for someone else to implement that big thought some day...somehow. (See also the related Good idea fairy.)
Now go forth and use this word! Impress your friends! Strategaze something up for someone else to make happen and then tell them there's a word for that!


* A Little Light Writing would like to thank the kind sponsors of today’s Word of the Day:

Strategazing is brought to you by the Purveyors of Fine-Ideas-Just-for-the-Sake-of-Purveying-Fine-Ideas.

07 October 2011

Seeing Things That Aren't There

As I scroll through my photo collection, something becomes very clear: I like to capture reflections and shadows. In fact, after tree images, such “projection” shots are probably the single biggest category of shots I take.

[Click thumbnails for larger versions.]

Still Life
Three Stooges
Reflecting on Elegance

I used to shoot stacks of chopped wood compulsively. I never met one I didn’t want to immortalize as a priceless and unique little rectangle. Ditto for steps and stairs...couldn’t pass a staircase without snapping it. Even as I pressed the shutter release, I knew it was not the photo I imagined. But *click* went the shutter.
I no longer feel compelled to shoot these subjects. For some odd reason, many many stacks and stairs look alike. Exbhibit A:
It’s not that they don’t sometimes make great images; I’ve simply found that my compulsion to snap them rarely produces “keeper” shots. Now I’m a little more disciplined with those subjects.
Woodchuck Challenge
With reflections and shadows it’s different. I not only shoot them compulsively, I notice them everywhere. And here I can say I’ve never — well, almost never — met a reflection or shadow photograph I didn’t like. They’re all keepers! (Someone else’s eyes might glaze over, but I prize every such shot...)

Intruder | Newport | Almost
Montblanc | Berlin Abstract | Kadett | Market Fountain (clockwise)

Reflecting on Reflecting

What’s so special about reflections and shadows? For me, I think the key thought is projection. These projections refer to something in the physical world, but they aren’t themselves the objects. It’s the fascination of visually capturing something that isn’t really there. When we look at a reflection or shadow, we’re seeing a sort of ghostly suggestion of the original. It’s not even three-dimensional, more like a painting or drawing traced by light on a more physical canvas of water, glass, or a wall.

And it’s a painting that changes constantly, maybe never to repeat itself exactly...


Windows II
Windows III

04 October 2011

Welcoming Buildings Redux

Some time ago I posted a series of photos highlighting my penchant for taking shots of buildings from imposing angles. Here's another, from a recent whirlwind stroll through downtown Bruges.

I chose the title to juxtapose the function of the church with its welcoming demeanor. This is Sint-Salvator (Holy Savior) Cathedral. It definitely screams "C'mon in!"

Peace and Love

02 October 2011

Tide for a New Post

Yes! I've heard the calls: "More! More!" So to keep my family safe from the clamoring mob, I've decided it's time to pay more attention to this blog.

And what better way to start out than by reflecting on the word "time"? Because I've been doing that lately. It could have something to do with Kid Number 1 returning as a third-year university student. It could have even more to do with Kid Number 2 entering as a freshman, of all things! Or it might relate to the changing of the seasons, or having my father visit us for the first time in a long while.

Nah... It's because I've been chewing on the Dutch word for "time": tijd. The -ij- diphthong is pronounced something between the English long i (as in "eye") and ay (as in "hay"). [Go here and click the play button to hear it.]

I began thinking of the word "tide", wondering how "tide" becomes "time" in languages that are practically kissing cousins. Then it hit me: the German word for "time" is Zeit (pronounced "tsite"). Bingo! Zeit = tijd = time.

At the same Zeit this following thought hit me: We have archaic words in English relating the -tide suffix to "time", such as "Yuletide" for "Christmastime". And then... and then...

(Follow me, patient reader, on this voyage on the tijd of discovery...)

Thinking of Yuletide brought me to "tidings of good cheer". Tidings are "news". So then I wondered how you got to "newsings" from "tidings". Cue the next slap on the head: The word for newspaper in German is Zeitung, literally "timings". [Special contest at the end of this post.*]

If tijd / Zeit are related to our English "time", is "time" in English related to our word for the comings and goings of waters along ocean edges? Seems clear that our use of the word "tide" for the four daily highs and lows must come from their regularity, thus allowing us to measure time.

So, thinking that English "time" and "tide" — in addition to waiting for no one — are closely related, I rushed to my OED, to find:

tide (n.): O.E. tid "point or portion of time, due time," from P.Gmc. *tidiz "division of time" (cf. O.S. tid, Du. tijd, O.H.G. zit, Ger. Zeit "time"), from PIE *di-ti- "division, division of time," suffixed form of base *da- "to divide, cut up" (cf. Skt. dati "cuts, divides"). Meaning "rise and fall of the sea" (mid-14c.) is probably via notion of "fixed time," specifically "time of high water".

time (n.): O.E. tima "limited space of time," from P.Gmc. *timon "time" (cf. O.N. timi "time, proper time," Swed. timme "an hour"), from PIE *di-mon-, from base *da- "cut up, divide" (see tide).



* Contest: A special prize for the first person who leaves a comment on this post drawing another blatant connection between newspapers and the English word "time". Or Russian, and doubtless countless other languages...

20 April 2011

Thinking About New Words

And now for a word from the real* OED — the Oxford English Dictionary, that grand old arbiter, the last court of instance, the very Supreme Court of what passes for correctness when it comes to English words.

Actually, I should have started out by saying “and now for some new words from the real OED”. Every new edition of a dictionary adds words — neologisms and colloquialisms that have gained enough currency among speakers of the language to force lexicographers to take official notice of them.

So every new edition sees language nerds and pundits make big noise about these newly minted official words. Such revisionism raises the hackles of some linguistic conservatives. To be honest, I can empathize with their conservatism. But it also helps validate the idea that a language grows, simplifies, and changes to reflect the living reality of the only truly important constituency: the folks who use it.

With that, an excerpt from a more or less giddy New York Times opinion piece from 5 April celebrating that OMG and LOL have made the OED:

It’s wonderful to experience the ongoing corruption and evolution of the English language. Last month, OMG and LOL were inducted into the Oxford English Dictionary, along with the heart symbol — the first time a meaning enters our most exalted linguistic inventory via the T-shirt and bumper sticker.
They follow in the steps of other representatives of our electronic age. Google is there. So are dotcom and wiki. Chances are the meaning of tweet will soon spill out of its ornithological domain. The additions bring to mind the words of William Safire, The Times’ former master wordsmith, who climbed down from the conservative ramparts in the culture wars 25 years ago to accept that “words come to mean what most people think they mean, not what we say they ought to mean.”

Chalk another one up for language-as-reflection-of-its-speakers. But by no means do I think its speakers ought to just spold, mindle, or futilate their language. There are more or less accepted ways of using it at any time. The conventions du moment are not meaningless, even if sometimes arbitrary (why not start a sentence with but?). The rules reflect a shared view of the best ways at the moment to convey meaning through language, to the largest audience possible.

I remember in grade school looking up the word ain’t in response to those adults who were trying to tell me it wasn’t a word in the acceptable sense. I knew that if it was in the dictionary, I had the weight of justice on my side, so I slept securely, keeping my moral superiority a comforting secret. Only later did I realize that conventions had their use. Ain’t may indeed be a word, but it ain’t for all occasions or audiences. Now I deliberately attempt to follow the conventions, because they (generally) produce sentences that sound best in my ear. If I knowingly deviate, it’s mostly to follow Orwell’s dicta not to say anything avoidably ugly or outright barbarous.

Anyway, while part of my heart is with the linguistic conservatives because of my own joy at spinning words into meaning, another part is with the pragmatists who recognize (and celebrate) that any given edition of a dictionary is, at best, a snapshot of the culture. If such a venerable word maven like William Safire and such an august word treasury like the OED can do it, I sure can.


* I don’t know how many times the blogging gods dictate I’m supposed keep disclaiming my personal shorthand for the Online Etymology Dictionary. But if it’s seven times seventy I’ve got some more disclaiming to do: I call that one “my OED” to distinguish it from the OED.

11 April 2011

Welcome to Casa Frankenstein, Motel Bates, etc.

Had a slideshow of my photos playing on a digital frame the other day and — I have to admit it — I found myself gazing at them.

A few images cycled through and I noticed something I hadn’t before: I like imposing buildings taken at an angle. What’s more, I like them in black and white. Two flipped by on the frame and immediately they reminded me of others I’d taken. I found four in my archive without even trying.

One of them ("Ministry of Intimidation") has already appeared in a different post, so I won’t repost it, but you can see it here.

The other three are:

House of Learning (University of Stuttgart, Vaihingen)

Dr. Frankenstein Slept Here (Bad Wimpfen "Blue Tower")

Bates Mountain Retreat (Mer de Glace, Chamonix)
I wonder if I'm secretly into Gothic horror or something...

22 March 2011

Févorites Fauteaux: St Jean Staircase

It's been a busy month in the real world so far, but...

Welcome back to my favorite photos! This entry's title has a faux-French flavor to signal that the photo in question is true French. (Actually, that lame explanation is supposed to cover my meaningless penchant for silly spellings. Can anyone say ghoti?)

Phirst the foto, then a bit about why it's one of my favorites.

St. Jean Staircase (No. 2), Lyon
(I've sort of copped out on the title of this image by giving it a "number 2". I wanted to distinguish it from another shot of this same staircase that some may already know from contests and framed prints.)

This image makes my list of favorites for the following reasons:

  • The rich, warm coloring, combined with the gradient shading of the forms and the light, give it a very cozy, timeless feeling. 
  • It's got a nice mix of curves and angles in repetitive patterns. 
  • There's balance: the pattern on the top (the underside of the stair) balances the one on the bottom, while the darkness toward the top right (under the curve) is balanced by that on the bottom left.
  • It's got nothing to distract me (as opposed to Staircase No. 1).

And finally:

  • Starting at the top, each of the four macro-shapes leads harmoniously to its neighbor: 1) The honey underside of the staircase forms a stark curving border to outline the top of the 2) eye-shaped back wall. The ochre back wall dissolves downward to the 3) serrated repetition of the left edge of the steps, which in turn make part of the bottom border of the wall. And 4) the vaguely thorn-shaped shadow at left continues the bottom border in an arc back to the top of the eye shape.

The overarching dominant form this interaction of shapes creates for me is — Surprise! — that of a tree leaf, such as a hornbeam or a leaf from my favorite tree of all, a beech. Which goes to show that even when I'm not taking pictures of trees, I'm seeing them. And with that, I'll sneak a real tree into this entry.

Down at the Beech


My apologies if anyone clicked on the "Beta Dad" blog link in my favorites up there on the right and the link took you to a placeholder site for someone else. The real Beta Dad blog's name is butterbeanandcobra.blogspot.com. Go there to find out why this name. I've corrected my link.

09 March 2011

On My Soap Box

Here's one of the reasons I love living in Europe: a product label with 24 languages. In this case, a box of soap labeled in each language: "Liquid soap / Mini / Mild".

I see connections among 23 of these items. (My Arabic, however, is a little rusty, well a lot rusty, well, okay, non-existent.) But concerning the rest of them, I began to write down some observations for this blog. Unfortunately, it kept getting longer and longer as I noticed exciting! new! things! Opting instead for brevity, I'll let the connections speak for themselves. (For anyone who wants more explicitude, I've got a 1-slide quick guide here.)

(I had to handwrite in some because the tape unstuck some of the words when I took it off the box. I think I got the languages right, but don't hold me to the claim.)

Is anyone else amazed that of the 23, fully 16 of these languages, across multiple language families, use the sap root for "soap"? The fact that they do suggests a borrowing somewhere in the mists of time, and in fact it appears wild Germanic warriors are to blame (see below). That said, it's also clear from below that the root is Indo-European.
soap (n.), O.E. sape "soap" (originally a reddish hair dye used by Germanic warriors to give a frightening appearance), from W.Gmc. *saipo- "dripping thing, resin" (cf. M.L.G. sepe, W.Fris. sjippe, Du. zeep, O.H.G. seiffa, Ger. seife "soap," O.H.G. seifar "foam," O.E. sipian "to drip"), from PIE base *seib- "to pour out, drip, trickle" (cf. L. sebum "tallow, suet, grease"). Romans and Greeks used oil to clean skin; the Romance language words for "soap" (cf. It. sapone, Fr. savon, Sp. jabon) are from L.L. sapo (first mentioned in Pliny), which [itself] is a Germanic loan-word, as is Finnish saippua. [My OED]
But wait, there's more: If the West Germanic root *saipo- means "resin" and the PIE base *seib- means "drip, trickle", I think we just found the origins of tree sap, and maybe even of some Germanic words for "juice", such as Dutch zap and German Saft.

So when parents tell their kids they'll wash their filthy mouths out with soap, maybe what they're really saying is they'll get them a glass of O.J.

[Again, I've updated the Abbreviations list with the new ones from this entry.]

05 March 2011

Phavorite Photos

I’ve decided to start a series of occasional posts involving an impossibly painful process: choosing favorite pictures. I’ll make it a little less impossibly painful by avoiding narrowing it down to a fixed number. During a gallery show of 90 prints on the wall, I cringed when people asked which was my favorite. I couldn’t answer. And if I couldn’t answer with that limited number to choose from, imagine multiplying it by about 150 and then picking my “favorite”. Just...can't...do it.

So I won’t, and I’ll just content myself with showcasing “some favorites”, but one at a time. I only have two rules: 1) the image shouldn’t have appeared in any earlier blog entries, and 2) the image shouldn’t be too similar to its predecessor. Rule 1 means I won’t highlight the first candidate that popped into my head. Rule 2 means you won’t have to look only at trees.

(I hope eventually to show some of my favorite images by other photographers, if I can get their permission to post them.)

So for this phirst phavorite photo, I present you this banana leaf. (At least, that’s what I think it is. Botanists, feel free to correct me.) I took this last summer when Maddie and I went shooting at the Wilhelma zoo and botanical gardens in Stuttgart.*
Probable Banana Leaf
Why is this one of my favorites? For four reasons:
  1. It’s got a nice biogeometric pattern — its being a natural one gives it extra bonus points;
  2. It’s got juxtaposed shapes and shades, with a bold central element slashing through the otherwise delicate ribbing; and
  3. It’s decontextualized, which is probably not a word but you know what I’m saying: if you didn’t know what it (probably) was, you might not know what it was.
Last — and this is why it rises above others with those same elements above — it holds up well when you look at it for a long time. The more I gaze at it, the more it rewards the looking, and the more curiosity and wonder it elicits at the simple beauty of nature. 

For that reason, if you click on it, you'll see a large version so you can get the details.

* You know what kind of shooting, right?

02 March 2011

Thinking About Girls...

...Their Names, That Is

The other day, a Dutch acquaintance was describing an area where she walks her dog and also takes many nice pictures (the two in this post belong to her). She lives in Alexanderlaan, and the dog-walking area is called Laapersheide. She noted that Dutch heide is English “heather”. And...

And of course it is! It makes perfect sense. I should have seen that connection before. German has Heide, too. I’ve always thought of it as meaning “meadow”, without connecting it with any English cognates like “heather”.

But now my Dutch friend pointed it out, and that set me to thinking. Heather is also a girl’s name in English. Are there names in German that correspond? And then — Can anyone say “Grandfather! Grandfather!”? Yes, I’d put money on Heidi being the German equivalent of English Heather as a girl’s name. (Remember, I’m speculating here... It’s no fun looking it up straight away.)

Heidi = Heather may not be news to anyone else, but I found it sufficiently fascinating to keep me awake a little longer as I floated off to sleep last night to a Frank Zappa guitar solo.* I started to reflect on girls’ names in general, because, when you think about it, there are some interesting trends. Off the top of my head, I’ve come up with the following observations.

We seem to associate girls and women with the springtime of the year — or at least the nicest part in the northern hemisphere: March, April, May, June, Julie. It’s true we have at least one January (Jones), but I don’t think that counts as a trend.**

Aside from thinking of them seasonally, we tend to think girls are virtuous (or maybe we engage in magical thinking by naming them so): Hope (and Esperanza), Faith, Charity, Chastity, Patience, Prudence, Grace, Clementine, Justine.

They can be musical: Melody, Harmony, Carol, Viola.

One thing is certain: Girls are both loved (Amy) and glorious (Gloria). But what are we to think of parents who saddle their little girl-babe with pain and suffering (Dolores)?

Back to Heather. Are there other similar features we like to use in christening the wee lasses? I’m going through geo- words like river, woods, valley, ridge, hills, falls, cascade, butte (oh no!), torrent, crag, peak, summit, grass, pond, hay, barley, yucca, dune, brook (hey! Brooke!), stream, field, meadow, cliff, mud-slide... Not hitting anything besides Brooke here. And maybe Dale. Oh, and Lake (Bell, but I think she's more a one-off like January Jones).

Maybe Heather led me astray, toward topographical features. I should have been looking to botany for her compadres (commadres?): Lily, Violet, Rose, Petunia, Daisy, Dahlia, Camille, Iris... Flowers rein supreme in naming our little blossoms. And Heather is, I suppose, a sort of flower.

Time to look her up. My OED gives us this:

heather (n.), early 14c., hathir, from O.E. *hæddre, Scottish or northern England dialect name for Calluna vulgaris, probably altered by heath, but real connection to that word is unlikely [Liberman]. Perhaps originally Celtic.

Note the highlighted text above. Liberman must have been smoking something botanical. Read on:

heath (n.), O.E. hæð "tract of wasteland," earlier "heather," influenced by O.N. heiðr "field," from P.Gmc. *khaithijo (cf. O.S. hetha, O.H.G. heida "heather," Du. heide "heath," Goth. haiþi "field"), from PIE *kait- "open, unplowed country" (cf. O.Ir. ciad, Welsh coed, Breton coet "wood, forest").

I know naming trends follow waves that might be inexplicable (though Steven Pinker makes some good stabs at explicking them in The Stuff of Thought). But what's interesting about these girl-name tendencies is that the name classes cross different generational waves; the flowers, say, are not all in vogue at the same time. And there doesn't seem to be an equivalent number of name classes for boys. That is, classes of nouns (flowers, virtues, car models or whatever) that serve as names for boys. 

I haven’t found any deep-seated sociological meanings to the girl-naming trends, but I do I think it’s pretty clear that Heidi probably is Heather.

And on that note, here's another Dutch heather picture to enjoy:


* It was either “Watermelon in Easter Hay” or “Things That Look Like Meat”

** Month-wise, August is an exception that proves the rule. August is a man’s name but it doesn’t invalidate this train of thought, because the name of the month comes from the name of the emperor, who took his name from a Latin adjective meaning “venerable”.

[Abbreviations page updated.]

25 February 2011

Color or B/W? (Part 2)

[Part 2 of 3 in a series exploring the choice photographera have to make between shooting in color and black and white. Part 1 highlighted some of the strengths of b/w.]

Part 2: Color Works

Photography really developed into an art form in the days before color film. So when color became more prevalent beginning around the middle of the 20th century, there was still a hold-over...um...snobbery about it from art photographers. Color was deemed fine for “snap shots” and “commercial work” such as magazine advertising.* But it wasn’t art. (That’s the nutshell version of part 1 of Color Magazine’s history of color photography.) Maybe this prejudice was a little like that of, say, painters toward illustrators such as Norman Rockwell and even comic strip — whoops, I mean graphic fiction artists.

But for photography, that’s changed, with good reason. Each approach — color and b/w — has distinct advantages in art photography. Black and white allows the photographer to emphasize lightness/darkness contrasts, patterns, and shape and light without the distraction of other colors or differently colored elements in the frame. It also helps a photographer create a range of darker moods and reflective emotions.

The advantage of color is, well, the colors. This should be clear without further comment in the before-and-afters below.
Most of us see the world in color. Many have experienced a sort of squeezed-chest joy at the utter brilliance of a sunset, an autumn tree, or some other color extravaganza the world can throw at us. Color photography allows the viewer to go: “Wow! Reality's amazing!”

The art of color art photography, then, comes in presenting a slice of reality — I like to think of excerpting the world — in an artistic way (say, through compositional elements). At least, that’s my take on it.

Here are a few color excerpts to enjoy:
The final installment in this series will consider some images that work well in both color and black and white, and why that is.

* We came on a trove of People magazines from the mid-1980s and early 1990s. It’s hard to believe now, but most of the images in these magazines were in black and white! Only the covers and inside advertisements were printed in color.

24 February 2011

Thnkg abt abbrv's

In thinking about writing about thinking about words, it occurs to me it might be useful to readers of this blog to have a permanently available, running list of abbreviations used in describing word origins and histories. I’ve already used some of these in copy/pasting from the Online Etymology Dictionary, and will continue to do so.

So here it is... I’ll update this document as I use or paste in more abbreviations in subsequent entries. This abbreviation list will live permanently as the second link in the “About This Blog” section.

20 February 2011

Where Do Shriners Come From?

So I was running through the woods somewhere and my thoughts hit on a random word and started playing with it. The word this particular time was Shriner, as in the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine. Otherwise known to many in the U.S. as the guys who wear red fez hats, ride miniature cars in parades, and have their own circuses. Not for the first time I wondered what shrine has to do with this fraternity. Since I didn’t have access to my OED there in the woods, I had to come up with something.

Then it occurred to me... The Freemasons supposedly take their origins from medieval European guilds of stone masons. So what? Well, in German, a Schreiner is a “carpenter” or “cabinet maker”. Seems plausible. If stone masons are at the foundation of Freemasonry, why not carpenters at the foundation of Shriners?

However, this might be one of those cases of inventing connections where they don’t really exist. Wikipedia* here shows nothing to do with carpenters or other medieval guilds. In fact, the Shriners’ mystic shrine seems like it might have been invented out of thin air to satisfy the needs of the moment: creating a fraternal order for fun and fellowship (in 1870...another case against medieval origins).

But I’m not giving up. I haven’t found the German etymology of Schreiner yet, but I do know that a shrine, like in a temple, is Schrein in German. So I checked my OED and found the following for
shrine (n.): O.E. scrin "ark of the covenant, case for relics," from L. scrinium "case or box for keeping papers," of unknown origin.
One online etymology dictionary isn’t the final authority, of course. In this case, that’s a good thing, because I’d suggest that the unknown origin of shrine above might have something to do with building cabinets or wooden cases to hold something special. When I find the etymology of German Schrein, I won’t be surprised if there’s a connection to that same Latin scrinium.

Oh — one more thing. The Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine was started among members of the Masons in England. To be a Shriner, you have first to be a Mason. The plot thickens...

* Now’s as good a time as any to highlight that I do not look to Wikipedia as the ultimate authority of what is and what should never be. However, it’s a most excellent first stop to learn about something. I include the Wikipedia links in order to “cite sources” and provide readers a jumping off point to explore further. Same holds for my OED, which is just one among many etymological resources for English words.

19 February 2011

Since this blog celebrates words..."Daddyjuice"

I have to say, one of the best things about having kids is to see and hear them work out language. I may inflict on — whoops — regale you some time later with some of my own daughters' inventions, but for now I'd just like to send you over to Beta Dad, who's discovered how wise his adorable twins are.

One of them coined the awesome term Daddyjuice to designate Beta Dad's favorite libations: beer and coffee. Check it out here. And while you're there, enjoy the rest of his writing, too. I do so often, with my own favorite Daddyjuice from Scotland.

Color or Black and White? (Part 1)

Shoot in color or black and white?

It used to be — and still is for some photographers — you had to choose whether to shoot in black and white or in color. The photographer exercised the choice in one of two ways. Either 1) shoot up a roll of color or b/w film, then load a roll b/w or color film to change; or 2) shoot with more than one camera, each loaded with different film. When I started out in the early 1980s, I mostly went with option one, which for some reason had the effect of making me shoot predominantly in one or the other mode for long periods. For a brief time when I had only myself to spend my money on, I had two cameras: a Pentax K-1000 and a Canon AE-1, each with its own lenses.* I felt like a National Geographic pro, with two cameras dangling from my neck as I shot my way around the lovely Monterey Peninsula, camping under cypresses in the rain.

Digital changed that either/or situation. Now, you can choose a setting in the camera, and you just start shooting in b/w or color. Or, and this is what I do,
shoot everything in color and then process it on the computer as black and white or color.** The benefits of this approach are that, even if you finalize it as a b/w image, you always have the original, full-color image, and you can even play around in Photoshop to make a hybrid image.

But you still have to choose what the final image will be, and that’s what this 3-part series is about.

I’m no pro. Though I’m working on it, I’m unschooled on most of the history and practitioners of photography. But for now I’ve concluded three things. For me: 1) some images just work better in black and white; 2) some in color; and 3) some work well in both. (I know! Who needs to study this stuff?)

This series considers each of those momentous conclusions above, using before-and-after examples from my own photography, and considers why I made the decisions I did. Of course, there’s no accounting for taste. One person could easily prefer the color version where I prefer the b/w, or the other way around. I hope not, but I admit it’s possible not everyone shares my impeccable sense of taste. But I hope in this series to at least convince you of the logic for the choices I’ve made.

Part 1 of 3: Better in Black and White

How do I decide? What are the factors I consider? There are a number of answers. The most obvious one is that when I look around, there are some things I simply “see” as b/w images. I’ve tried to analyze how that happens, and I think it mostly has to do with mood — whether my own at the time of shooting or more often the location or image subject. Unsurprisingly, black and white accentuates contrasts, creating a stark mood. In that vein, the following image works for me better in b/w.

What I'm looking for from the image above is a cold, skeletal feeling, like paring back the flesh of the summer and autumn to make way for coming winter. The color image is nice, but the transparency of the leaves on top of each other, their veins, and the structural delicacy come through better in b/w.

The following image doesn’t work for me at all in color. It’s an example of “seeing” it in black and white in my head as I was looking around during a country walk. The reason I crouched in the mud to get this shot was specifically the contrast of the foreground blades in shadow with the bright background. My vision of it was confirmed when I got the image big on my computer. If you click on the image, you’ll see better what I mean. In the color version, the green nearly drowns out the contrast, as well as introducing a distracting brown from the mud in the middle ground. In b/w, you get contrast. (I should have cropped the left edge a bit, and will likely do so if I turn it into a print.)

Field Edge
Some images look good in both, for whatever reasons, but one or the other doesn’t convey what I was aiming for with a shot. The following image is an example of such a situation. In the color version, the fading sunlight provides a dramatic speckling of blue sky amid the evening clouds. I opted for the b/w version, however, since my intention was to show an imposing, imperious government building. The title of this image is “Ministry of Intimidation”, and the color version just doesn’t get that across like the b/w.

Ministry of Intimidation

Finally, as noted, a particular strength of black and white is the accentuation of contrasts. Nowhere does this come out more clearly than in patterns and decontextualization of shapes. I was fortunate in the following image while playing around with framing and the choice of color or b/w. I really liked the color version. It had three of the magic ingredients I look for (see this post). But when I started looking at it on the computer in black and white, those ingredients jumped out and grabbed my face. Returning to the color version, I found it weak, with the earthy colors kind of nullifying each other and dragging the whole thing down, as compared with the stark emphasis on pattern and shape that jumps out of the b/w version.

Stuttgart Train Station

Part 2 will look at why certain images work better in color than in b/w. You can probably imagine some of the reasons. But seeing the difference will show you how big a deal it can be.

* Still have that K-1000. Bought it used in 1984 for 50 bucks. It’s traveled all around with me, been banana juiced, beach sanded, and internationally banged around — and still takes great shots.

** Note: I’m not qualified to enter the debate of the benefits of “wet-film” black and white versus digital black and white photography.

15 February 2011

Thinking about Thanking: Gratitude from West to East

I feel fortunate to be exposed every day to numerous foreign languages. One, I live in Europe (Germany, to be precise); if I drive a few hours in almost any direction I'm in some other country. Two, in my work we deal with many foreign countries. Two and a half, I’m married to someone from another country than my own. And three, as a result of one, two, and two and a half, we tend also to socialize with people who speak more than one language. For an eager wordie like me, this is maybe like a foodie getting a free shopping spree at Whole Foods.

You might know — or at least you might have heard — that most of the languages of modern Europe are related, through that wondrous tree called the Indo-European language family (a little foreshadowing: you can expect to hear more about this tree). But you might not have thought about how those relations are manifested.

So as an illustration, let's follow a simple grateful thought from west to east, retracing a nice little revelation that occurred to me one day. For my purpose here, “west” is the English language space and “east” is Ukraine.* Because this is my blog, I get to skip areas that don't fit my pattern (hello, France and readers among the mer-people of the northern Atlantic).

Gratitude West and East
The word phrase in question here is thank you (which — spoiler alert! — in English is “thank you”). From the English space moving east, here’s how it looks:

  • Belgium (Flemish speakers) / Netherlands: dank je
  • German space: danke
  • Czech: dêkuji
  • Poland: dziekuje, pronounced “jenkooyeh”
  • Slovak: dakujem
  • Belarus: dziákuj or dziakuju
  • Ukraine: dyakuyu
Unless you squint, western thank and eastern dyakuyu don’t look all that related. But the connecting tissue is not just the initial “th/d” and the “k”. The thing that made me make the connection was the nasal vowel in Polish that adds the “n” sound before the “k”.**

So it’s one thing to know on some level that Germanic English and Slavic Ukrainian are related, but it’s another to see the proof in a simple, everyday word like thank.

I’ll wrap up on a side note that nonetheless keeps with the gratitude theme. More a speculative question: I wonder whether the Turkic word teshekür is related to Arabic word shukran. The key sounds making me wonder this are “sh - vowel - kr”. Though Turkic languages are generally considered to be part of the Altaic language group and Arabic is a Semitic language, it wouldn’t be too suprising to find words derived from borrowings. In this case, it might be that with the spread of Islam, the Arabic shukran formed the basis of a word derivation in Turkish. (It’s not uncommon to find Arabic words in the lexicons of non-Arabic-speaking Islamic peoples.)

Are there any specialists in one or the other of these languages out there who can help?

* By the way, it's no longer "the Ukraine", unless you're a past-minded Russian.

** (These are not the only languages sharing this root for this word. Also, these examples are conjugated for the subject "I", so the "je", "yu", etc. endings don't refer to the equivalent of English "you".)

12 February 2011

Speculating on Words

I've come up with a name for one of my favorite little hobbies:
Speculative linguistics, (n., sometimes used with the modifier "moderately-informed"), characterized by taking stabs at explaining etymologies, grammatical, and other linguistic features before looking up the answer. Sometimes confused with knowing just enough to invent connections where they don't exist (about which there may be a separate entry).
I’ve been doing this for many years. I should note that I grew up surrounded by people who spoke different languages and enjoyed language issues. My dad, doing post-grad linguistics work, sort of used us kids as research subjects in children’s language acquisition. My course was set very early.*

The thing is, if you love and are curious about words, you’ll start to notice connections everywhere (a process that explodes once once you’ve got a foreign language under your belt). And what you learn becomes just more clues for finding future connections. I’ve reached a point where I see or hear or imagine connections all the time. It’s now second nature to make a game of trying to find plausible links between what I know and what I suspect. Once I’ve come up with a notional relationship, I can’t rest until I know if I’m correct or not. These days, I regularly finish each round of my nerdy game with a trip to “my OED”.

I hope to show some surprising connections — some obscure, but others are hiding in plain sight of anyone curious enough to look. For example, the next entry to this blog will be very brief, but it will be Thinking about Thanking.

* I should note also that I married another word-nerd. Before we got too busy raising kids, my wife and I would sometimes spend entire evenings tossing ideas back and forth and reading etymological dictionaries. (I don’t expect everyone to get a frisson of pleasure from the prospect of reading dictionaries — but the thing about etymologies is that one entry will lead you to many other ideas, questions, and searches of other entries. This was something like reading Wikipedia. Once you’re in, you can’t get out until the sun rises.)

11 February 2011

Three Magic Ingredients

One of the dominant motivations in my photography is to show patterns and the interplay of straight and curved lines. This photo has a great mix of all three of those elements. (Click it to see a larger version.)
Stuttgart Train Station (excerpt)

07 February 2011

Americans, Russians, Egypt, and "Risk"

No original thinking from me in this post. Instead, I’m highlighting a recent opinion piece  Russian-language maven Michele Berdy wrote in the Moscow Times. Berdy is not just “a Moscow-based translator and interpreter,” as her byline notes, but also a pretty insightful cultural observer. As an inside-outsider in Moscow, she seems able to see life in Moscow and Russia in interesting and enlightening ways. And all the better for word geeks like me, her socio-cultural-political observations are couched in explorations of the nuances of the Russian language and what those nuances suggest about the character and habits of its speakers.

In her 4 February piece, “Risking Life and Limb,” she recounts a curious juxtaposition in the stereotypes of how Americans and Russians treat risk.

“As I’ve watched events unfold in Egypt, my mental storehouse of differences between Russians and Americans got a new load of evidence. American tourists on a luxury cruise ship docked near Luxor said they were comfortable, had plenty of food and were in absolutely no danger, but yet demanded that their government immediately airlift them out — at the taxpayers’ expense incidentally. Russian tourists splashing around the Red Sea not only didn’t demand immediate evacuation by their government, they refused to leave.”

She recognizes these factoids don’t necessarily say anything definitive, but suggests they might just turn some stereotypes on their heads: “self-reliant Americans” vs. Russians who crave “cradle-to-grave” state aid. It could be that Americans and Russians have “vastly different expectations of what our governments can and should do for us.” Or it could be that we have “different notions of acceptable risk.” (I think it may also have to do with the demographics of people who might be on a luxury cruise ship docked near Luxor, but that’s just me.) Berdy then goes on to explore the different types of risk that inhabit Russian consciousness, as reflected through the different linguistic expressions of it.

But that’s not my point here. I just like dwelling for a while on the implications of the juxtaposition she highlights.

05 February 2011

Why Trees?

Green and Gold (Black Forest)
Anyone tracking my photography for any length of time will have noticed an abundance — over-abundance, according to some tastes — of trees. I admit it... My name is Yash, and I’m an arboholic.

I’ve often wondered what lies at the root of this fascination. If I think back, which I’m doing now, I realize that trees have had a special hold on my imagination since I was a kid. It might come from Disney’s film of The Swiss Family Robinson, about which I remember only the ostrich race and that fabulous, magical tree house. Also, when I was around 10, we went to Disneyland. The only memory from the trip that doesn’t come from old, discolored photos is, again, the Swiss Family Robinson tree house, which brought the magic achingly alive for me and probably set the hook in my cheek forever. (You can imagine how the Avatar film turned me into a kid again...and again with the ache of longing.)

January Sunrise (Killesberg Park Stuttgart)
A few stabs at describing my reaction to trees:

  • When you actually hug a tree (maybe “hold” is a less charged word), it can produce a visceral shock of awareness. This thing is not just a hunk of cellulose, but alive with startling solidity and unexpected vitality. Looking up, you see it sway, while at the same time you feel like it’s connecting you directly to the core of the planet. I recognize you probably have to be predisposed to get this reaction from hugging cellulose — and I feel sad for those who aren’t.
Forest Fogset
  • When you climb a tree, or get a peek past a leafy exterior, or just stare up along the trunk of a living tree during the summer for a while, you realize the tree is its own little world, abuzz with bugs, birds, assorted mammals, and its own inexorable sappy flows and chemical processes. You — well, I — imagine myself transported into that world.
  • When I see or hear of trees being cut down, I feel a knife in my gut. That’s the best way I can describe it. The reason for the felling doesn’t matter. I know there are good and necessary reasons to cut a tree down, and of course I do like wood furniture. But my first, unanalyzed and uncontrollable response is a pang of regret.

I’m no poet. But Robert Frost was:

The Sound of the Trees

Turning Seasons (Bärensee Stuttgart)
I wonder about the trees.
Why do we wish to bear
Forever the noise of these
More than another noise
So close to our dwelling place?
We suffer them by the day
Till we lose all measure of pace,
And fixity in our joys,
And acquire a listening air.
They are that that talks of going
But never gets away;
And that talks no less for knowing,
As it grows wiser and older,
That now it means to stay.
My feet tug at the floor
And my head sways to my shoulder
Sometimes when I watch trees sway,
From the window or the door.
I shall set forth for somewhere,
I shall make the reckless choice
Some day when they are in voice
And tossing so as to scare
The white clouds over them on.
I shall have less to say,
But I shall be gone.