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.]