Darwin’s prose

I recently found Charles Darwin’s Beagle Diary, being posted ‘live’ on the internet with a mere 175 year time-lag (see also Pepys, Thoreau).

He’s only just reached Brazil, so there’s plenty of time to join the fun. This is from today’s entry:

The houses are white and lofty and from the windows being narrow and long have a very light and elegant appearance. Convents, Porticos and public buildings vary the uniformity of the houses: the bay is scattered over with large ships; in short the view is one of the finest in the Brazils. But their beauties are as nothing compared to the Vegetation; I believe from what I have seen Humboldts glorious descriptions are and will for ever be unparalleled: but even he with his dark blue skies and the rare union of poetry with science which he so strongly displays when writing on tropical scenery, with all this falls far short of the truth. The delight one experiences in such times bewilders the mind, if the eye attempts to follow the flight of a gaudy butter-fly, it is arrested by some strange tree or fruit; if watching an insect one forgets it in the stranger flower it is crawling over, if turning to admire the splendour of the scenery, the individual character of the foreground fixes the attention. The mind is a chaos of delight, out of which a world of future and more quiet pleasure will arise. I am at present fit only to read Humboldt; he like another Sun illumines everything I behold.

A little on the flowery Victorian side, but still a fine bit of prose. What’s interesting is that you’d never know he could do it on the basis of The Origin of Species, a book which is well written but rarely sparkling. But in the diaries, notebooks and letters he can be a lively, engaging writer. One of my favourite quotes from the notebooks: ‘He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke’.

My toy camera: the Cardcam

My post a few days ago about ‘toy cameras’ made me dig out my own toy camera. It’s not a film camera, though, like a Lomo or a Holga; instead, it’s a crappy digital camera from a few years ago. It’s somewhat in that spirit, though, as it’s a primitive point-and-shoot camera with no controls of any kind at all (and no screen – just a viewfinder).

It’s called the Oregon Scientific Cardcam and its selling point was that it’s only the size of a credit card. Which is true — at least, it’s probably about four credit cards thick, but it’s still very cool.

Unfortunately the pictures are awful. They’re 640×480 pixels, which is limiting but not the end of the world, and because of the primitive state of flash memory technology when it was made it can only hold 26 pictures. More problematic, though, is that it doesn’t work very well with subjects which are too bright, too dark, too high contrast, too close, or too far away; the focus is rarely very sharp, even given the limitations of the resolution; the colours are erratic; and there’s a distinct distortion at the corners of the pictures. I took it skiiing a couple of times as a fun camera I could take out on the slopes with me, but even on that basis the pictures were so bad it was hardly worth it. I assume, btw, that the market for this kind of camera was pretty much wiped out by the production of cameraphones.

So does my new-found appreciation for the aesthetic qualities of photographs taken with cheap cameras extend to my cardcam? Well, here’s a selection of the more attractive ones out of two ‘rolls’ of shots I took:

Bearing in mind these are the very best ones (lots are just unusable); I don’t absolutely and unswervingly hate them, but I don’t think they’re about to start a hot new trend. In terms of an embracing-the-flaws philosophy, the distortion around the edges of the pictures is probably the most interesting thing.

It was quite entertaining playing around with it, but I think it can probably go back in the drawer again now.

That time of year again

Last year it wasn’t until March 12th that I complained about hay fever. Nearly two weeks earlier, this year. Could be global warming; more likely just me being more irritable.

Amusing bonus bit of web 2.0 gimmickry: you can see the culprits here.

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last.fm, again

I’ve joined last.fm, again, under a different name. The intention, again, is to post a ‘recently listened music’ widget somewhere on the site, but I’m still thinking about how best to rearrange various things. In the meantime, I was slightly startled by this. The ten most listened to artists for this week are:

  1. Red Hot Chili Peppers
  2. The Beatles
  3. Radiohead
  4. Coldplay
  5. Muse
  6. The Killers
  7. Nirvana
  8. Metallica
  9. Bloc Party
  10. Death Cab For Cutie

I’m not going to type out any more, but the trend continues.

I’m not generally comfortable using the term ‘white’ as a term of mild derision, because I’m not given to self-loathing (about my race, at least), and I’m well aware that, on so many levels beyond mere skin tone, I tick all the boxes. This isn’t a misguided bid for some kind of urban cred, but: that is just the whitest list I’ve ever seen in my life.

Really, of course, ‘white’ has nothing to do with it; I just don’t get guitar rock. It always seems like the basic principle is that ‘if we make enough messy noise, people won’t notice that we’ve got rubbish voices and no rhythm’.

Having exposed my own musical prejudices, it’s only fair to point out that you can see what I’ve been listening to recently on my last.fm profile page. Feel free to mock accordingly.

The Tribes of Britain by David Miles

This is the blurb:

“Who are the English, the Irish, the Scots and the Welsh? – a ragbag of migrants, reflecting thousands of years of continuity and change. Now scientific techniques can explore this complex genetic jigsaw: ancient Britons and Saxons, Celts and Romans, Vikings and Normans, and the more recent migrations which have created these multicultural islands.

Drawing on the most recent discoveries, this book both challenges traditional views of history and provides new insight into who we are today.”

The book lacks pretty much everything that blurb might lead me to hope for: extensive analysis of the genetic make-up of the British, a surprising new perspective on British history, new insight into how it makes modern Britain what it is.

It’s a readable and up-to-date history of Britain focussing on population movements and demographics, with lots of quotable and surprising snippets. Who knew, for example, that the ‘fitz’ in names like ‘Fitzroy’ was from the French ‘fils de’? Or that among the black population of the UK, Africans now outnumber people from the West Indies? But if you have a broad understanding of the history of these islands, it’s not going to force you to re-evaluate it. And while I enjoyed many bits of it, this kind of large-scale history doesn’t lend itself to a clear narrative thread, and it was definitely putdownable.




  • ‘each artist was asked to find a framed piece of artwork at their local thrift store and manipulate it into a piece of their own.’ via Design Observer
  • “She’s going to write a poem about these blueberries, which she’s transferring from the grocery aisle to a pondside in Michigan.” via via negativa
  • The song, originally sung in Akan, spread throughout West Africa in the twentieth-century, from Sierra Leone to the Eastern region of Nigeria […] Chasing Yaa Amponsah in its many mutations has been a minor hobby of mine for years.


Digiscoping and Lomography

I was looking back at some of my old digiscoped pictures yesterday.

‘Digiscoping’ is the trick of using your birding telescope as very high-powered telephoto lens. At the simplest level, you just hold the camera up to the eyepiece and shoot through the scope; to get the best results you need more sophisticated equipment. You could do this with a film camera, of course, but it makes it a lot easier to have a screen so you can see what you’re doing, and to know that you can just delete the ones that don’t come out.

Anyway, I was vaguely wondering what they reminded me of, other than themselves.

I realised that it was ‘toy camera’ pictures. You may not have encountered this trend, but there’s a [recent?] fashion for taking pictures with very basic old mass-market compact cameras, like the Soviet Lomo, or the Chinese Holga. The poor construction of these cameras, including plastic lenses and light leaks, produce distinctive pictures with lurid colours, dodgy focus, vignetting and other technical flaws. Which sounds crap, but actually the pictures have a rough-edged immediacy which can be very attractive.

My telescope doesn’t have plastic lenses, of course. But it wasn’t designed for taking pictures, either. And my adaptor consists of the bottom of a film canister glued into the lid of a pill bottle, with a hole cut through them. It serves to keep the camera roughly in the centre of the eyepiece, but it doesn’t keep it properly lined up along the axis of the telescope or keep it steady.

When I took them, I was doing my damnedest to take the best possible pictures despite the technical limitations of my equipment. The results aren’t going to win any wildlife photography prizes, but some of them do have something of that same weird vividness that I find attractive in toy camera pictures.

This kind of lo-fi aesthetic probably doesn’t appeal to everyone. But I might as well enjoy it in my own pictures. Not that I feel defensive about them; I enjoyed the challenge of taking them and never expected them to be anything other than holiday snaps. I’d never really tried bird photography before — they don’t make an easy subject and it’s difficult enough trying to see them normally — but if birding is the main point of a trip, it’s a treat to have a record of birds instead of just places.

I liked these pictures anyway. Does a spiffy aesthetic context make me like them any more? Should it?

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. I just wanted to note the comparison.

» All pictures are from Flickr and are links so you can click through to the relevant pages. The birdy ones are by me; the child was taken with a Holga by john.makarewicz and the Peruvian valley was taken with a LOMO by phoosh.



The Incredible Hulk smoothie

Let me just make it clear, in case any of the lawyers from Marvel Comics (soft drinks division) should happen to be watching: by using the phrase ‘Incredible Hulk’, I’m not claiming that Marvel Comics endorse, recognise, or know of the existence of, this drink. Or indeed that it gives you a short temper or superhuman strength.

But you have to admit, it’s certainly green:

The flesh of a small pineapple and three kiwi fruit chucked in a blender, since you ask.

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Sexy CSS

And no, I’m not referring to Cansei der Ser Sexy. I’m referring to the ingenious way I hacked a WordPress plugin and then did some CSS wizardry to make it display the way I wanted, so that, for a short time only, you can see my Archives By Date the way I want them.

Only slight drawback: they look crap in IE 5.2 for Macintosh (but really, who uses that?) and they also don’t work in Opera. In fact in some circumstances they make it crash, which I find deeply mysterious. Still, this is what they look like for the moment:

What’s so good about that, you ask? Well, without using a table, I have the dates flush right and the post titles flush left, so there’s an even space between the two.

However… I may not care about IE for Mac, but Opera is a proper, current browser (and I haven’t even tested it on IE for Windows). So tomorrow, probably, I’ll change it back. Ho-hum.

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Birding the dictionary

I was watching a dunnock in the garden earlier


and it suddenly occured to me that there might be a parallel between the word ‘dunnock’ and ‘ruddock’ – the old name for a robin.

robin on Flickr

And having got that far, I thought maybe ‘dunnock’ derived from ‘dun cock’ and ‘ruddock’ from ‘ruddy cock’. So I got out the dictionary. Turns out I was part right.

dunnock (‘dʌnək). [app. f. dun a. + -ock dim. suffix; from the dusky brown colour of the plumage. Cf. dunlin.]

In other words, ‘dunnock’ pretty much translates as that classic birder’s term, LBJ — Little Brown Job [btw, while I was looking for dunnock photos on Flickr, I discovered that the Dutch for dunnock is ‘heggemus’ — presumably ‘hedge mouse’. But let’s stick to one language at a time].

The reference to ‘dunlin’ intrigued me.

dunlin on Flickr

And at dunlin I learnt that it’s f. dun a. + -ling. ‘ling’ is a familiar diminutive suffix of course; ‘darling’ and ‘duckling’ are the most obvious examples. But there’s another small sandpiper called a sanderling, and I was curious how that fitted in.

sanderling on Flickr

Well, pleasingly, the OED’s best guess for the origin of sanderling is the Old English sand-yrðling; i.e. ‘sand-earthling’. Not as in ‘take me to your leader’; ‘earthling’ meant ‘ploughman’. Ploughman of the sand.

Getting back to my -ock birds. I looked up ‘ruddock’, and sure enough it says

ruddock (‘rʌdək). [OE rudduc, related to rud sb., ruddy a. : see -ock.]

I also learned that a ruddleman is a digger of, or dealer in, ruddle; a raddleman. But that’s not important right now. Seeing ‘rud’ written as a word helped me make the connection that ‘ruddy’ is cognate with ‘red’. Which probably should have been obvious but I never thought about it. There was one last entry that needed to be checked out. It has such a load of great words in it I’m going to type it out in full.

-ock, suffix, forming diminutives. A few examples of dimin. –oc, –uc, occur in OE., as bealloc ballock, bulluc bullock. In mod. Eng., the chief instance of the dim. suffix is hillock (found already in Wyclif); but other examples occur in the dialects, esp in Sc., e.g. bittock, lassock, queock or queyock, whilock, wyfock, also proper names as Bessock, Jamock, Kittock. Several names of animals, esp. birds and fishes, have the same ending and are prob. orig. diminutive; among these are OE. cranoc, cornoc (dim. of cran), crane; ruddoc (read red) redbreast, ruddock; cf. the modern (some ME.) dunnock, haddock, girrock, paddock, piddock, pinnock, pollock, puttock; also, as names of things, buttock, hattock, tussock. In other words (some of which, as bannock, hassock, mattock, go back to OE.) -ock appears to be of different origin.

The actual word ‘robin’, btw, is from the habit, going back at least as far as the middle ages, of applying personal names to birds: Robin Redbreast, Jack Daw, Mag Pie. ‘Magpie’ is especially apt because ‘mag’ was used to mean ‘chat’, ‘chatterbox’, or ‘to chatter’. ‘Mag’s tales’ were what we would call ‘old wives’ tales’.

NB. The pictures are all from Flickr and © the people who took them; you can click through to the page on Flickr. The dictionary extracts are all from the OED.