• Say cheese! How bad photography has changed our definition of good pictures

    It's generally agreed that just about everyone today is a photographer to the extent that just about everyone carries a smartphone. Less understood, though, is how essential failures and mistakes have been to the evolution of what we think of as good photography. Kim Beil's recent book, Good Pictures: A History of Popular Photography (Stanford University Press, 2020) connects these dots, explaining how the technological shortcomings of early photographs were overcome before being embraced generations later by professional photographers searching for effects that conferred amateur authenticity.

    From the article in Collectors Weekly:

    A second type of failure concerns effects that largely began as mistakes produced by legions of amateur photographers shooting pictures with their new, boxy, Kodak cameras, which made their debut in 1888. Foremost among these failures were motion blur and lens flare. Once upon a time, both were frowned upon by the authors of the "How to Make Good Pictures" books. Thus, a blurry background while trying to capture a moving object, or a blurry object moving across an in-focus background, were considered mistakes that a few simple techniques could help you correct.

    Shooting into a light source and thus drenching precious photographic real estate in overexposed rays of light was also considered a no-no. But just as sports photographers would eventually have a ball with motion blur, fashion and advertising photographers would eventually go crazy for lens flare. Intention created context.

    "Intention is central to the way I think about art, and maybe even how we define it," Beil agrees. "Take lens flare: I think the power of lens flare comes from its initial unintentional use by people who were just taking casual pictures without any premeditation, without much intention." In these sorts of photographs, Beil says, lens flare was an amateur mistake that conferred "a kind of authenticity to an image." That's why advertisers find lens flare so appealing. "Because we still associate it with authenticity," Beil says, "it makes an advertising photo seem more real, maybe even spontaneous."

    Today, lens flare is so widely used, so intentional, that billions of smartphone cameras offer multiple variations of this former failing in the form of filters, which can be activated with a click or a swipe. "Everything can be achieved and there are no more accidents," Beil says of photography in the 2020s, "so photographers look to things that happened before to reinsert some kind of authenticity into their pictures." Thanks to technology, photographers can now pretend to take pictures as if they lacked the tools to make their pictures, well, good.

  • Stranger than friction: when matches were dangerous

    In the latest in its ongoing series about objects the world once considered indispensable but has somehow managed to live without, Collectors Weekly turns its attention to match holders, which were popular from around 1826, when the friction match was invented, until the 1920s, when matchbooks and lighters rendered them obsolete. For its story, CW turned to one of the definitive works on the subject, Match Holders: First-hand Accounts of Tinderboxes, Matches, Spills, Vesta Cases, Match Strikers, and Permanent Matches, which is filled with photographs taken by New Zealand collector Ian Spellerberg and diary entries written by his late match-holder mentor, John McLean.


    Match Holders begins with a chapter on tinderboxes, which were a popular form of portable fire-making prior to the invention of the friction match by an English pharmacist named John Walker. Tinderboxes consisted of three basic ingredients—a piece of steel, often called "fire steel"; a stone flint; and tinder, usually some dried fungi or charred linen. "With practice and patience," McLean writes, "sparks could indeed be produced by striking the steel against the stone flint. If a spark landed in the dry tinder, care was needed to coax the spark into a smouldering piece of tinder then a flame." As McLean recounts, the clink, clink, clink of steel coming in contact with stone was once a common early morning sound, as must also have been the curses that bounced off the rafters when cold, numb hands caused a hard chunk of steel to miss its mark. Little wonder, McLean writes, "that some domestic fires were kept permanently alight."

  • How Americans got so weird about science

    Why is it so hard for so many Americans to get their heads around the science behind climate change? Well, according to Rebecca Onion, it may be because of the way we have historically applauded little boys for their interest in physics and chemistry, but view these same little boys with a certain amount of suspicion when they grow up to be actual scientists, many of whom have been depicted in popular culture as "mad" and—wait for it—Russian. Over at Collectors Weekly, Lisa Hix spoke to Onion about her recent book, Innocent Experiments: Childhood and the Culture of Popular Science in the United States.

    After World War II, Americans embraced the bounty of wartime scientific advances and a thriving economy: They now had cheap goods made out of high-tech plastic, streamlined appliances, and home TV sets. But they were also haunted by the specters of the A-bomb and the H-bomb. The burgeoning Cold War with the U.S.S.R. raised fears that workaholic Soviet scientists, laboring relentlessly under Communism, were making progress faster than American scientists, a competition that played out in the Space Race. Mainstream American pop culture attempted to assure people with images of the perfect suburban family defeating Communism through consumerism. However, American B-movies, comics, and pulp fiction were overrun with evil robots, monsters from space, radioactive mutants—and "mad scientists." All of this affected how Americans regarded scientific education.

    "The fears spiked in Postwar America at particular moments," Onion says. "When Sputnik became the first spacecraft launched into orbit in 1957, Americans panicked, like, 'Oh my God, the Soviets have it over us. Whatever the great powers of science and technology are, they're better at them.' That launch created a lot of apprehension and fear that kids absorbed and processed. Tons of postwar popular culture addressed that combination of wonder and fear, especially about nuclear technology and space travel."

  • How America's obsession with hula girls almost wrecked Hawai'i

    Over at Collectors Weekly, Lisa Hix has just written an incredibly in-depth history of the hula, from its roots as a sacred dance to its kitschy personification as a dashboard doll. For her piece, Hix spoke with Constance Hale, a hula dancer herself, whose new book, The Natives Are Restless, focuses on authentic, 21st-century expressions of the hula.


    In his journal, Captain Cook described the Hawaiians' hula: "Their dances are prefaced with a slow, solemn song, in which all the party join, moving their legs, and gently striking their breasts in a manner and with attitudes that are perfectly easy and graceful."

    In The Natives Are Restless, Hale explains, "To be sexually adept and sensually alive—and to have the ability to experience unrestrained desire—was as important to ancient Hawaiians as having sex to produce offspring. The vital energy caused by desire and passion was itself worshiped and idolized."

    Cook and his men—and the merchants, whalers, artists, and writers who followed—mistook the hula's sexually charged fertility rituals as a signal the Hawaiians' youngest and loveliest women were both promiscuous and sexually available to anyone who set foot on their beaches. In her 2012 book Aloha America: Hula Circuits Through the U.S. Empire, historian Adria L. Imada explains how natural hospitality of "aloha" culture—the word used as a greeting that also means "love"—made Hawaiians vulnerable to outside exploitation. To Westerners, the fantasy of a hula girl willingly submitting to the sexual desires of a white man represented the convenient narrative of a people so generous they'd willing give up their land without a fight.

    Contrary to this fantasy, the people populating the eight islands of the Hawaiian archipelago weren't so submissive. In fact, the chiefs reigning the islands of Mau'i and Hawai'i had been attacking and raiding each other since the 1650s. But contact with the Western world was something they were unprepared for, and the introduction of Western diseases like smallpox and measles began to weaken and decimate the islands' native populations.

  • Bizarre and outlandish gadgets and doohickeys

    Maurice Collins has written a terrific new book about his collection of bizarre and outlandish gadgets and doohickeys called — wait for it — Bizarre & Outlandish Gadgets & Doohickeys. It's a wonderful collection of objects made between 1851 and 1951 by what you might call early disruptors. Recently, I spoke to Collins to find out how he got started in this curious collecting realm, and asked him to point out some of his favorite pieces.

    The Memorandum Clock is not an especially disruptive piece of technology, unless, of course, you're a customer in one of those houses of ill repute. It's just a timepiece, you might say, whose time was up. For a better example of attempted disruption, as well as good old-fashioned charlatanism, Collins directs my attention to the "Anita" Nose Shaper, which, he tells me, was "the ultimate in nasal quackery." The Memorandum Clock, he notes with some pride, is an English item. "This is American," Collins says of the Nose Shaper, with just a trace of judgment in his voice.

    According to an advertisement for the device, the cure for "nasal irregularity" is as easy as strapping on the nose adjuster before bed—"No need for costly, painful operations," promises the advertising copy. In a few short weeks, your ugly nose will be as cute as a button. "What a con," Collins huffs, "quackery to the Nth degree."

  • Intelligence on the wing: The Genius of Birds

    On Tuesday November 8, 2016, tens of millions of Americans enthusiastically cast their presidential ballots for a tax-cheating, racist demagogue who literally said anything to get the votes of common working stiffs, even though it should have been abundantly obvious to them that the promises were empty, the rhetoric insincere. A few months ago, I might have called such voters bird brains, but lately I've been reading Jennifer Ackerman's wonderful new book, The Genius of Birds, so I now understand that such an epithet would be an insult to birds. Birds may not be smart enough enough to run a cynical and disingenuous presidential campaign, but birds would never be so stupid as to act so recklessly against their own self-interest.

    In The Genius of Birds, Ackerman does not argue that birds are the intellectual equals of humans — that if only a robin could type, it, too, could produce a body of writing on par with the complete works of William Shakespeare. But Ackerman does give us enough examples of what can only be described as intelligence to cause us to reconsider many of our assumptions about whether human beings have a monopoly — or, in the case of the current election, even a grasp — on smarts.

    We learn, for example, that "the world's smartest bird" is a crow found on the island of New Caledonia in the South Pacific, and that this crow can solve puzzles requiring as many as eight steps to execute and two separate tools — O.K., they're sticks. The first stick is too short to reach the bird's goal, some food, but it is long enough to reach a second, longer stick, which the crow then uses to accomplish the task. This "metatool" use, as it's called, is what separates humans and apes from other animals, except for these crows, who, despite the small size of their brains, have powerful enough memories to solve a problem of such complexity.

    Ackerman also gives us darker examples of bird intelligence, as in a description of a Steller's jay chasing an American crow from a feeding area by arming itself with a stick ("blunt end in its beak with the sharp end pointing outward"). After the jay drops the stick after lunging at the crow, the crow promptly picks it up and, sharp end pointed out again, goes after the jay.

    And then there are birds that can actually learn from other birds, giving lie to the maxim of Immanuel Kant that "man is the only being who needs education." Here, Ackerman introduces us to pied babblers in southern Africa, who teach their young to be sentinels and create "harsh, repetitive peeping alarm calls" when predators are near other foraging babblers. Birds that mimic the songs of others or, in the case or parrots, the words of human beings, also learn their songs and words—obviously, parrots are not born knowing the phrase "Polly wants a cracker." The knock against parrots, of course, is that they don't know what they're talking about, but then again, neither do deceptive politicians and the ginned-up masses that follow them.

    The Genius of Birds

    By Jennifer Ackerman

    Penguin Press

    2016, 352 pages, 6.5 x 9.6 x 1.1, (hardcover)

  • Nothing says Christmas like an aluminum tree

    Lisa Hix of Collectors Weekly has just published a great interview with Sarah Archer, whose new book, Midcentury Christmas: Holiday Fads, Fancies, and Fun from 1945 to 1970, explains how companies like Alcoa Aluminum used Christmas to capitalize on the technologies it had developed for World War II.

    Here's a snip:

    The company that produced the most aluminum for the war effort was Alcoa, but there were also some smaller companies, too, many of which were based in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, of all places, which was one of the big aluminum capitals of North America. Like a lot of mid-century Christmas items, including the acrylic rubber that coats Christmas lights cords, aluminum trees came from thinking about repurposing a material produced for the military. The aluminum strips that were used to make the trees were originally designed for something called chaff, which was sprinkled over enemy territories to scramble radar because the little pieces of metal would diffuse the signal.

    Many 1950s aluminum tree producers used Alcoa branding. The exterior of the box would say, "We proudly use Alcoa aluminum." You could put ornaments on these trees, but one of the challenges of decorating them was not getting electrocuted, which was mentioned prominently in the how-to pamphlet that came with the tree. Because it was not safe to put electric lights on the metal, the companies distributing the trees would sell a rotating lamp that would shine different-colored lights on the tree to bathe it in magenta or purple.

  • Mechanical movements of the Cold War: how the Soviets revolutionized wristwatches

    Besides white supremacy, one of the key drivers of the last election was trade, with outsourcing being the main scapegoat (even though any economist able to count to 10 will tell you that it was technology rather than bad trade deals that really created the Rust Belt). But back in the Depression, one group of Ohio factory workers were delighted to have all their jobs outsourced, and some of them even went along for the ride. They were the workers of the bankrupt Dueber-Hampden Watch Company, which was bought in 1930 by the Soviet Union. At the time, the Soviets were keen to create from scratch a watchmaking industry to rival Switzerland's. In his latest story for Collectors Weekly, Hunter Oatman-Stanford interviewed a collector of Soviet watches (who happens to be Oatman-Stanford's younger brother) on this suddenly timely topic.

    Here's a snip:

    Three Soviets traveled to Canton, Ohio, where these two companies were based, to pack up all the manufacturing equipment, leftover watch movements, and pieces to ship back to Russia. Twenty-one former Dueber-Hampden employees from Ohio sailed with them to help set up this new facility in Russia, which was aptly named the First State Watch Factory. They began making 7- and 15-jewel pocket-watch movements made with parts from Ohio. The Soviets changed all the lettering to Cyrillic to signify their new ownership, and there were slight design modifications, all very minor. Starting around 1935, they began taking ownership a bit more, using different insignias that said "First State Watch Factory," and as the years progressed, they began customizing their pocket watches to be a bit more Soviet-specific.

    When World War II began, the demand for watches was unprecedented, and the Soviets went into overdrive. By the end of the 1940s, the Soviets had nearly a dozen factories producing watches, though some had been relocated during the war. They were still using the same movement designs from Ohio, but putting them into new forms.

    These original so-called "Type-1" movements are still available today, and I have several dozen in my collection in various dial patterns. A wristwatch Type-1 variant was also produced, though a pocket-watch movement on your wrist makes for an enormous wristwatch, and it was very outdated with a noisy ticking sound. The old joke was that during the war, the Germans didn't have to seek out any Soviets—all they had to do was listen for their ticking watches and shoot in that direction.

  • The Earth and I – is climate change moving too fast for a new book on climate change?

    It is obviously unfair to dismiss the entire contents of a book for a single tin-eared statement, but the clunker that comes near the end of The Earth and I by Gaia-theory originator James Lovelock is a doozy. The inexplicable passage follows a dozen essays by journalists, a Nobel Prize winner, and several Ivy League professors, who make a pretty good case for both the insignificance of human beings in the universe and their unique ability to end life as we know it here on Planet Earth. In an attempt, then, to give his shell-shocked readers a sliver of hope by celebrating the success of the Montreal Protocol, which banned chlorofluorocarbons in 1989, Lovelock crows about how these ozone-destroying compounds were replaced by hydrofluorocarbons, which, he writes, "are far less harmful to the planetary environment."

    Somewhere between the time Lovelock wrote those words and the publication of his book, hydrofluorocarbons were added to the Montreal Protocol's list of banned substances – eliminating "less harmful" hydrofluorocarbons is expected to keep our warming planet's temperature from rising by a full half-degree Celsius.

    The inability of even an authority like Lovelock to keep pace with current events points out how quickly both the science and politics of climate change are a changing. In this light, understanding the holistic view of the planet's processes – from the weather above us to the meaning of the geological history below our feet – has never been more important. The Earth and I delivers on these topics and more, while Jack Hudson's engaging illustrations lure us in and invite the eye to linger. Many readers may well be tempted to do just that, but they shouldn't – at last report, Greenland and Antarctica were melting at alarming fast and irreversible rates.

    The Earth and I

    by James Lovelock (editor) and Jack Hudson (illustrator)


    2016, 168 pages, 8.5 x 10.9 x 0.8 inches (hardcover)

    $23 Buy a copy on Amazon

  • Taschen's hefty New Deal Photography goes well beyond familiar Depression-era images

    See sample pages from this book at Wink.

    New Deal Photography: USA 1935-1943

    by Peter Walther


    2016, 608 pages, 5.9 x 7.9 x 1.7 inches (hardcover)

    $16 Buy a copy on Amazon

    If you purchase a copy of New Deal Photography: USA 1935-1943 by Peter Walther hoping to find iconic Farm Security Administration images, such as the migrant mother by Dorothea Lange or the father and his two sons running in a dust storm by Arthur Rothstein, you will not be disappointed. With almost 400 photographs filling its 608 pages, including numerous gems by Walker Evans, there's plenty of room for the expected. But New Deal Photography goes well beyond these familiar images, powerful though they may be.

    The book's geographic organization forces us to consider Depression-era life in the Northeast and South, too, pushing our perspectives beyond the more familiar locations of Oklahoma and California. In addition, Walther's collection of images features numerous color photographs by Russell Lee, Jon Collier, and Marion Post Wolcott. Again, we are used to seeing the era depicted in black and white, but seeing it in color confounds many of our expectations about what rural America actually looked like during those desperate years.

    Walther's essay for the book, which is printed in English, German, and French, presents a brisk but useful overview of the Farm Security Administration, from its founding mission to relocate Dust Bowl farmers in Oklahoma to greener pastures, to the photographs that were initially commissioned to document the relocation process. That might have been all the FSA did, but Walther introduces us to an FSA economist named Roy Stryker, who understood that photographs would do a much better job of telling the story of rural America in the late 1930s than any economic report ever could.

    And Stryker didn't just hire photographers to take the FSA's pictures – he also hired artists, which is why painters like Ben Shahn were given Leica cameras and sent into the heartland of America. In the end, more than 10,000 photographs were shot, printed, and captioned, but there could have been a great many more. Apparently, Stryker punched holes in as many as 100,000 negatives he deemed unsuitable for the FSA's collection, which means Walther's New Deal Photography could have been even bigger.

    – Ben Marks

  • 400 years of equator hazings, and how I survived one

    This summer, I spent a month aboard a research vessel in the Indian Ocean. At one point, we crossed the equator, which meant that those of us who had never done that before were treated to a special ceremony. In fact, it was a straight-up hazing, as I describe in a new article at Collectors Weekly.

    The minute Pascal tied my hands together, I knew was in trouble. Pascal is a big man with an even bigger laugh, one of two hardworking, and hard-drinking, bosuns aboard a French research vessel called the Marion Dufresne. For his birthday a few days earlier, the crew had given Pascal a ball gag. Pascal thought this was hilarious, and immediately strapped the sex toy over his mouth, contorting his face in exaggerated expressions of mock distress, to the delight of the deckhands and officers assembled in the ship's bar. Somehow, I couldn't get that image out of my head, as Pascal, a mischievous grin now creasing his broad face, secured the knots around my wrists and gave me a wink. No doubt about it, whatever was about to happen next was totally going to suck.

  • Castro's Cuba – 50 years later, the island nation is still Castro country

    See sample pages from this book at Wink.

    Castro's Cuba: An American Journalist's Inside Look at Cuba 1959-1969

    by Lee Lockwood


    2016, 360 pages, 10.3 x 13.6 x 1.4 inches (hardcover)

    $45 Buy a copy on Amazon

    Right now, Cuba is red hot, hotter even than when Ry Cooder introduced most of the world to the Buena Vista Social Club almost 20 years ago. Thanks to the normalization of relations between the United States and the Caribbean island nation, American tourists will soon have a new place to drink alcohol, lie in the sun, and complain about their ceviche – regular flights between the U.S. and Cuba begin at the end of August.

    Despite the diplomatic thaw, though, Cuba is still Castro country. Fidel, who just turned, 90, may be out of the picture, but his younger brother, Raul (age 85), remains firmly in control. Which makes the new Taschen reprint and expansion of photojournalist Lee Lockwood's 1967 Castro's Cuba, Cuba's Fidel so timely. The new 7 ½-pound, 360-page version – simplified to Castro's Cuba — expands greatly on the original, supplementing the original 100 black-and-white photos with hundreds of color shots, a pair of essays by the late Castro documentarian Saul Landau, and, as usual with Taschen, high-production values.

    Style, though, is not the book's primary virtue. Its heart revolves around lengthy interviews Lockwood conducted with Fidel Castro in 1965, in which the revolutionary leader spelled out his vision for his country — from its agriculture to its education system to its arts. Castro considered the roles of his country's institutions carefully, explaining at one point that what looked like political indoctrination to Americans was social education to the Cubans, who were, after all, being prepared for a new life in a new Communist society. "From an early age," Castro tells Lockwood, "they must be discouraged from every egotistical feeling in the enjoyment of material things." Lockwood captured examples of this social education with his camera, as seen in the numerous images of young people working in fields, but he was no propagandist for the Cuban leader who granted him so much exclusive access — Lockwood also got a priceless candid shot of two boys proudly posing with the latest album by The Beatles.

    – Ben Marks

  • Glass artist Dale Chihuly plays with fire and the audacity of beauty

    See sample pages from this book at Wink.

    Chihuly on Fire

    by Henry Adams (author) and Dale Chihuly (artist)

    Chihuly Workshop

    2016, 212 pages, 9.3 x 12.1 x 0.9 inches

    $40 Buy a copy on Amazon

    For several decades now, art critics and casual admirers alike have talked about Dale Chihuly's art in terms of its forms. Indeed, the artist himself organizes his work largely by their physical shapes, as does his latest self-published coffee-table book, Chihuly on Fire, whose chapter titles range from "Baskets" and "Sea Forms" to "Jerusalem Cylinders" and "Rotolo." But thumbing the pages of this sumptuous, hardcover volume, and reading the biographical essay by art-history professor Henry Adams, one is struck by the importance of color to Chihuly's work.

    The shift to color began in 1981, when Chihuly and his team of gaffers and assistants produced the first of what would become known as the Macchia series. These often enormous vessels, whose sides were usually folded and deformed, featured solid-color interiors, lip wraps in contrasting hues, and thousands of "jimmies" of pure crushed colored glass, usually set against a background of white glass "clouds."

    Even in his early days, Chihuly's ambitions for his chosen medium seemed larger than the modest network of glass-art galleries around the country would have the wherewithal to support. By the time his Macchia pieces came along, the so-called craft arts, of which glass art was but one, were allowed to be exuberant and even a bit zany, but they were ultimately expected to exhibit good table manners, to sit uncomplainingly at the kid's table of the art world. Gloriously and unapologetically garish, Chihuly's Macchia pieces were a grinning, joyful, and emphatic "fuck you" to all of that. With the Macchia, Chihuly finally shook off the cobwebs of craft, not so much because the pieces pushed the boundaries of technique to ludicrous places – although they certainly did that – but because they pushed what was possible, and politic, with color.

    Today, technique remains central to Chihuly's work, while his teams of artisans have become ever-more adept, as the 2013 photo in Chihuly on Fire of two assistants in helmeted, fireproof space suits preparing to catch a still-glowing piece dramatically shows. To be clear, it's okay to be impressed by that sort of thing, to get sucked into the spectacle that is Chihuly. After all, lots of artists have made careers of astounding viewers with physical spectacle, as anyone who has walked within the rusty, leaning walls of a curving Richard Serra can attest. In a way, though, Chihuly takes the greater aesthetic risk by being brash enough to demand that his creations are also, well, beautiful. For that, color rather than form has been his most capable collaborator.

  • The mystery of our 12-hour delay: the Mirage Expedition

    Previously: Investigating the Great Earthquake of 2012

    This year for the 4th of July, I varied my routine ever so slightly by spending the day aboard the R/V Marion Dufresne outside of Sabang harbor on the island of We, which is just north of the tip of Sumatra. For more than 12 hours, from roughly 11 in the morning to almost half past 11 at night, we waited and waited, and waited some more, as the local Indonesian immigration and port officials did whatever it was they needed to do to release eight of their fellow citizens into our care. As you can see, I took a few snapshots of the little islands that fringe the marginally larger island of We, but we were not permitted to go ashore.

    The following morning, the mystery of our delay was partially explained. As I understand it, the local Sabang authorities had wanted to send our new passengers' passports to Jakarta for approval, which would have delayed our expedition by days. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, the passports were returned, and we were allowed to proceed south.

    Most of the new members of our crew are Indonesian students studying geophysics and other sciences related to our survey of a seismically active section of the Wharton Basin, which is 3 kilometers below the surface of the Indian Ocean. Also aboard are a couple of Indonesian scientists, as well as an Indonesian security officer, who's a captain in the Indonesian Navy and has been empowered to approve any changes to the expedition plan that's already been approved by the Indonesian government. Should a question about that arise in the Wharton Basin, at least his answer will be a simple "yes" or "no," with no need to trouble anyone in Sumatra for confirmation.

    To follow the progress of MIRAGE, visit the EOS blog. #MIRAGEcruise




  • Investigating the Great Earthquake of 2012: the Mirage Expedition

    On April 11, 2012, a magnitude-8.6 earthquake, followed a few hours later by a magnitude-8.2, struck the Wharton Basin, which lies approximately five kilometers below the surface of the Indian Ocean, and some 500 kilometers southwest of the tip of Sumatra. Unlike the magnitude 9.2 earthquake of 2004, whose epicenter was in the volatile subduction zone just off the western coast of Sumatra, the Great Earthquake of 2012, as it's come to be called, did not trigger devastating tsunamis resulting in the loss of thousands of lives. That may be because its epicenter was well within the Indo-Australian plate, at a depth of 50 kilometers. Even so, the Great Earthquake of 2012 is of keen interest to scientists—at magnitude-8.6, it is the largest intraplate earthquake ever recorded.

    During the month of July, I get to accompany an international group of scientists and students on an expedition dubbed MIRAGE, which stands for "Marine Investigation of the Rupture Anatomy of the 2012 Great Earthquake." Composed of representatives from the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris (IPGP), the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), and the Earth Observatory of Singapore (EOS), the group's collective task is to acquire bathymetry (i.e., to map the seafloor and its sub-surface) in the section of the Wharton Basin directly above and around the epicenter of the 2012 magnitude-8.6 earthquake. My job is to write about their work for EOS's blog. #MIRAGEcruise.

    I'll also be posting at Boing Boing from time to time, to give this site's readers a heads up on what's been posted at EOS, as well as to share some of my photos and impressions of the trip. For example, yes, if you must know, I did get seasick the first morning and afternoon, but it's been smooth sailing ever since. Also, we've been told to keep an eye out for pirates, but I have to say that compared to the noisy hype leading up to the nominating conventions and being bombarded by Donald's bombast 24/7, a potential pirate attack is preferable. And that's my first impression of being out here in the middle of the Indian Ocean: A month ago, like just about everybody else I know in the States, I was consumed by each fresh outrage, each new poll. Over the last few days, though, I'm up at dawn to watch the sunrise, and back up on "I" deck to watch it go down. That may get old as the weeks wear on, but right now it's difficult to imagine how…

    To follow the progress of MIRAGE, visit the EOS blog. #MIRAGEcruise

    Cranes on the bow of the R/V Marion Dufresne, in Colombo harbor

    Cranes on the bow of the R/V Marion Dufresne, in Colombo harbor

    At 120 meters long, the Marion Dufresne is the largest research vessel in the French fleet. Here it is at the dock in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where our voyage began.

    At 120 meters long, the Marion Dufresne is the largest research vessel in the French fleet. Here it is at the dock in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where our voyage began.

    As we left Colombo harbor early in the morning, we passed numerous small boats coming in from the fishing grounds.

    As we left Colombo harbor early in the morning, we passed numerous small boats coming in from the fishing grounds.

    Before I left the United States, I worried that my cabin on the ship would resemble the inside of a sardine can, but it is actually quite spacious and comfortable.

    Before I left the United States, I worried that my cabin on the ship would resemble [caption id="attachment_470948" align="alignnone" width="800"]MIRAGE scientists Helen Carton (left), Jerome Dyment (and), and Nugroho Hananto (right) prepare the log book to record the bathymetry, a manual double-check on electronic data collection. MIRAGE scientists Helen Carton (left), Jerome Dyment (and), and Nugroho Hananto (right) prepare the log book to record the bathymetry, a manual double-check on electronic data collection.

    the inside of a sardine can, but it is actually quite spacious and comfortable.[/caption]

    MIRAGE scientists Helen Carton (left), Jerome Dyment (and), and Nugroho Hananto (right) prepare the log book to record the bathymetry, a manual double-check on electronic data collection.

    MIRAGE scientists Helen Carton (left), Jerome Dyment (and), and Nugroho Hananto (right) prepare the log book to record the bathymetry, a manual double-check on electronic data collection.

    Sunset, July 1, 2016, east of Sri Lanka

    Sunset, July 1, 2016, east of Sri Lanka

    Sunset, July 1, 2016, east of Sri Lanka.

    Sunset, July 1, 2016, east of Sri Lanka.

  • The polyamorous Christian socialist utopia that made silverware for proper Americans

    Lisa Hix of has written a lengthy piece for Collectors Weekly on the Oneida Community of the late 19th century, and how it morphed from a group of men and women who "believed the liquid electricity of Jesus Christ's spirit flowed through words and touch, and that a chain of sexual intercourse would create a spiritual battery so charged with God's energy that the community would transcend into immortality, creating heaven on earth," to a company that was famous for its flatware.


  • Lightman Fantastic: this artist drenched '60s music lovers in a psychedelic dream

    When I was a kid in the late 1960s, I briefly washed dishes and carried equipment for a light show called Garden of Delights, which was based in Sausalito, California. So it was a dream come true to interview Bill Ham, the artist behind the first light shows in 1966 at San Francisco's fabled Avalon Ballroom. Over the course of three mornings and afternoons, I spoke with Bill about how he got into light shows, the techniques that evolved from his early experiments with Elias Romero, the reactions of musicians to his work, and his years in Europe at the beginning of the 1970s, which included a stay at a French chateau with the Grateful Dead. Highlights from those conversations, clocking in at 9,000 or so words, have now been published at Collectors Weekly.

    Here's a snip:

    Collectors Weekly: Can you describe the techniques you were using at that time?

    Ham: It started with the overhead projectors, which had been designed for lectures and presentations, so that lecturers could show their audiences diagrams, text, and other information as they spoke. Overhead projectors were used mostly in educational settings, for corporate meetings, that sort of thing. We repurposed them.

    The main medium of the overhead projector had been the transparency. The light source below the projector's flat surface, which is actually a Fresnel lens, would beam the image or words on the transparency onto a mirror above, which, in turn, aimed that image through a focusing lens and onto a screen or wall. Transparencies are dry, but we were projecting liquids, so the first things we needed to do were to protect the lens with a clear sheet of glass and then contain the liquids.

    Early on, Elias had discovered that clock crystals — the clear pieces of glass that protect a clock's hands and other moving parts — made good bowls for light-show liquids. They came in all shapes and sizes. Those that were deeply concave held more liquid. Others were flatter, which allowed you to do different things to the liquids. Some crystals with round bottoms could actually be spun in circles on the projector's flat surface. And then, by setting one bowl on top of another, you could stack them up, several at a time, to produce even more effects, liquid- and color-wise.

    Whatever the effect, the overhead projector was the only tool a light-show artist could use that let him actively direct the form and composition of the projection. Slide and film projectors were also used in light shows, but only the overhead projector allowed the artist to work directly with his liquid materials in a way that was truly spontaneous.

  • GoatMan: How I Took a Holiday from Being Human

    See more sample pages from this book at Wink.

    GoatMan: How I Took a Holiday from Being Human

    by Thomas Thwaites

    Princeton Architectural Press

    2016, 208 pages, 5.9 x 8.6 x 0.9 inches

    $16 Buy a copy on Amazon

    Thomas Thwaites has a curious idea of what it means to take a vacation, at least if the just released GoatMan: How I Took a Holiday from Being Human is any indication. What started off as a casual observation about how Queen Elizabeth's dog, Noggin, probably worries a good deal less than his royal master evolved into a quixotic book full of ruminations on ruminants. Animals, Thwaites imagined, live in the moment, free from worry, at one with the land. How wonderful to be so unburdened, he thought. So, after briefly considering becoming an elephant, he decided to try his hand at being a goat.

    Along the way, Thwaites learned a good deal about goats. Humans, Thwaites tells us, have been interacting with them since 9000 BCE – from the domestication of bezoar goats somewhere in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains to the mythical, sexual subjugation of goats by the goat-horned, Greek god Pan, as depicted in a rather graphic sculpture discovered under layers of ash deposited on the city of Herculaneum by Mount Vesuvius in the year 79. Much to our relief, Thwaites just wants to be a goat, not to "do" one.

    Which is not to say the book is not occasionally disgusting. The section describing the R&D behind his goat suit includes the dissection of a goat named Venus, who died of natural causes and whose skinned limbs, palm-sized brain, and oozing guts are explored in gory detail. I'll spare you. Suffice it to say that in the end, Thwaites gets his opportunity to clomp about on all fours on the steep hillsides of Switzerland, where he hangs out with a herd of Swiss goats and does what goats do – he grazes. For the record, the green-green grass, he reports, is sweeter than the blue-green stuff, which is bitter. Later, Thwaites makes a meal of the grass he'd been chewing and spitting into an artificial goat stomach, using decidedly non-goat cooking techniques to make it digestible for his human digestive system. The resulting "burnt grass stew," he confesses, was the "most unappetising meal of my life." Perhaps, though, if Thwaites had simply spent a few days hiking on two legs instead of four in this beautiful place, he would have had fewer goat concerns on his human mind.

  • Railway Paradise: How a Fine-Dining Empire Made the Southwest Palatable to Outsiders

    Who were the Harvey Girls, and what were the Harvey Houses in which they worked? It's actually more innocent than it sounds, as Hunter Oatman-Stanford explains in his latest piece at Collectors Weekly. The Harvey Houses were a series of eateries and hotels run by a British ex-pat named Fred Harvey alongside the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railroad tracks that ran from Chicago to Los Angeles. The Girls were women from the East Coast and Midwest, imported to replace the local, often uncouth male waiters in towns like Raton and Belen, New Mexico. Together, the Girls and the dining establishments they worked in lent an air of respectability to the still-wild American Southwest at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, as Hunter learned when he spoke to Richard Melzer, author of Fred Harvey Houses of the Southwest.

    Here's a snip from the article:

    In 1883, Harvey had decided to fire the rowdy male waiters at his restaurant in Raton, New Mexico, and hire respectable young women in their place. Customers responded so positively to the female staff that Harvey began replacing all of his company's male servers, advertising for women employees in newspapers throughout the Midwestern and Eastern states.

    Unlike much of the Eastern United States, in small Western outposts, it was acceptable for single young women to work and live away from their parents — though they were often stigmatized as being prostitutes or sexually promiscuous. "The Harvey Company called its servers 'Harvey Girls' — not waitresses — because the term waitress had a bad connotation: It was linked to the saloon girls," who were viewed as bawdy and indecent, Melzer says. "Fred Harvey didn't want customers thinking there were saloon girls at his restaurants, and he certainly couldn't recruit respectable women to work there if they thought they'd be working in a saloon-like atmosphere." To ensure there'd be no confusion, the Harvey Girls were always attired in a conservative black-and-white uniform, just one of many strict job requirements.

    Harvey had no trouble finding suitable young women, despite the perception that the Wild West would scare them off. In fact, many women jumped at the opportunity for economic independence, adventure, and travel in an era when their prospects were greatly limited. "A lot of them came for the chance to see a different part of the country," Melzer says. "After six months at a Harvey House, you could be transferred, so even if you started in a small place like Belen, New Mexico, you might eventually get to Santa Fe or to the Grand Canyon. Others came for the money, hoping to send it home to their families, save for their education, or maybe open a business themselves someday."

    However, many took jobs with the Fred Harvey Company for a more traditional reason: The high ratio of single men to single women meant they had great prospects for meeting potential husbands. Yet even with such a goal in mind, women who moved west were often required to step out of their traditional roles simply to survive.

  • Walt Whitman — patriotic poet, gay iconoclast, shrewd marketing ploy, or all three?

    About four months ago, cigar boxes, matchbooks, and coffee tins bearing the name and likeness of 19th-century poet Walt Whitman began appearing on the Show & Tell section of Collectors Weekly. Turns out, as Lisa Hix learned when she spoke to Ed Centeno, who posted the items from his personal collection, Whitman's name and bearded visage were once used to sell everything from tobacco products and booze to apple sauce. For the record, Whitman did not smoke, and as the son of an alcoholic father, he argued on behalf of Temperance causes. Presumably, Whitman ate apple sauce, but marketers never asked his permission to to sell stuff when he was alive (1819-1892), nor was Whitman ever compensated for the use of his good name.

    All this advertising attention to Whitman is curious since, in general, poets don't make good marketing tools. The Whitman name is particularly problematic. While some people are inspired by his steadfast support of the Union cause during the Civil War, imperiling his own health to work as a nurse in a Washington, D.C., Army hospital, others see him as a very early champion of gay identity, as well as a hell of an erotic writer. Being patriotic and gay are obviously not incompatible, but the latter often gives those who would make money off the former pause.

    Here's a snip:

    During the Gilded Age, new industrial technology, particularly in chromolithography and tin-stamping, caused an explosion in product branding and advertising with colorful product labels, tin boxes, and tin signs. This new era of marketing meant familiar literary characters and beloved authors could be used to drum up excitement for an unknown products.

    So when cigar maker Frank Hartmann bought the Spark Cigar Factory in Camden, New Jersey, in the late 1880s, the celebrated local bard was an obvious mascot. By 1890, his company introduced its Walt Whitman brand of cigars. But Hartmann wasn't the only entrepreneur to have this idea: At least a few companies in the cigar manufacturing center of Binghamton, New York, started offering their own Walt Whitman cigars around the same time. The branding arrived as Whitman was facing his mortality and doubting whether Americans were truly touched by his life's work. When Whitman disciple Horace Traubel presented the poet with an 1890 envelope advertising Walt Whitman cigars, he reported that Whitman exclaimed, "That is fame! … It is not so bad—not as bad as it might be: give the hat a little more height and it would not be such an offense."