Sunday, February 27, 2011

What Would Gandalf Do?

Oh, oh. I hate seeing a dispute where the guys who I would like to be the Good Guys are on the Wrong Side, but that may be the case here. The estate of JRR Tolkien, managed by his son Christopher (an indefatigable editor of his father's works), is suing an author for inserting Tolkien as a character into his novel. It may turn out that I know a lot less about copyright than I think I do -- in fact, I can just about guarantee that, which is a sort of paradox, although not the sort that will cause the universe to vanish into a black hole, or even keep me up at night, or --

Excuse me. Anyway, I may discover I'm wrong, but at least under American copyright law, I can't see what possible claim C. Tolkien could make to stop this novel. You can't copyright a fact and it would certainly blow my socks off to learn that JRR Tolkien was, in fact, a fictional character. (It would blow off a lot of socks, perhaps more than all the socks that have ever been lost since the invention of the clothes dryer.) Nor could you make a claim for defamation or invasion of privacy, since Tolkien is dead and you don't get to take those legal considerations with you when you go. And it seems the author is not using any of Tolkien's invented characters. So what use of copyrighted material is there? I don't know; it almost sounds like the estate's lawyers are confused about the difference between copyright and trademark, although lawyers ought to know that sort of thing.

So I'll have to add this to my Google News alerts and see how it turns out. Either Christopher Tolkien is making an ass of himself, or I'm going to learn something I didn't know.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Friday photo

Detroit Observatory, University of Michigan. February 2011.

One of my archives classes took a field trip to the Detroit Observatory one week and, misled by the name and still new to campus, I almost began planning a drive to Detroit. As it turns out, the Observatory is right here near the UM campus, and was only named "Detroit" as a tribute to the upstanding citizens of that city who donated much of the money to build it. When it was built in 1854, it stood by itself on a high point overlooking the Huron River, well away from town, and the viewing conditions were no doubt excellent. The medical campus long ago encroached upon its solitude, however, and the lights of the ever-bustling hospitals would certainly spoil its work today. Now it's a museum, one of the oldest buildings on campus, and the one most nearly in its original condition and still containing its original telescope (a unique and well-preserved piece in itself).

I've antiqued this photo, not so much because of its subject, but because the unaltered image has too little color and actually benefits from removing it altogether. I've also increased the contrast, brightening the sky and darkening the foliage. In the original, the shadows aren't entirely black, nor are the highlights entirely white. That gives me maximum flexibility in adjusting the contrast without obliterating either lights or darks.

I mention that because it gives me an excuse to talk about my favorite feature on digital cameras: the histogram. The histogram is essentially a bar graph that tells you how many pixels fall into each tonal value, from dark to light. In a dark scene, the bars will be very high on the left; in a bright scene, they will be higher toward the right. Or ... if you're about to overexpose your shot, the histogram will skew to the right, and if you're about to underexpose, it will skew to the left. Here's what it looks like:

(Image from

Once you get used to it, this is as easy to read as the old in-camera meter, and far more informative. My old SLRs -- a Canon AE-1 and its replacement, a used Ftb -- could only give me a needle that told me when I was about to achieve a normal exposure. You had to be careful or it would make your shadows too bright, or your snow too dark, as "normal" was defined to be about as bright as grass and you had to always ask yourself: If I set the camera for normal exposure, will there be any detail in the shadows? Will that bright portion of the scene be blasted into pure white? Will the most important colors fade out through overexposure? That was part of the skill of manual photography - you had to make your best guess, based on experience and judgment. And maybe shoot three frames at different exposures, just in case.

The histogram gives you those answers. You can tell if your highlights are off the right edge, or whether the shadows are going to be all black. You can tell if, as in the photo above, the entire tonal range of the photo falls between black and white. In fact, I would have adjusted the exposure to lighten the whites even more in this photo, except that I was already at a slow shutter speed for a handheld shot at moderately high zoom and didn't want a blurry image.

I love that control. Right there on the screen, while composing the shot! I think Ansel Adams somewhere is jealous of me that I have a histogram and he never did.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

TJ's library

In the news today: the discovery that Washington University in St. Louis has (previously unbeknownst to them) been harboring some six dozen books from Thomas Jefferson's private library.

It took a little detective work: knowing that Jefferson's granddaughter's husband had purchased some of his books at auction; learning that the family of said grandson had donated their books to Washington University in 1880; finding an early-20th Century library ledger that helped to identify the donated books; and then discovering Jefferson's initials in the suspect books. It's no wonder that even the library didn't know the noteworthy provenance of their possessions.

Jefferson initialed his books in a peculiar way. When books are bound, groups of pages known as signatures are stitched together; the signatures need to be marked so that they get assembled in the correct order, and were often marked with letters of the alphabet. So where Jefferson found "I," he added a "T" in front of it; after the "T," he added an "I." Why "I"? Doh! You saw Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade! You know that "I" is used in Latin for "J," and why it's a matter of life or death to know that!

This reminds me of a memo I read a few months ago in the Special Collections here at UM. The very first purchase of books for the Library were made in 1838 by Asa Gray, who had been hired by the University of Michigan before some sort of funding mixup led him to take a position at Harvard instead. Around 1970 or so, the Library got a little history-conscious and began trying to track down those books that had been part of his original purchase. Some of the departments that held the books didn't want to give them up and I recall a pleading memo to the effect of, "If you can't take this rare and singular book off your shelves, could you at least put it on reserve and stop letting the students take it home?" I expect Jefferson's books were no longer in open stacks, but had probably experienced similar use in their day.

By the way, how cool is it that some of Jefferson's books would have accidentally ended up in St. Louis, of all places, the Gateway to the West that he had purchased? Seems utterly fitting.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Friday photo

Ice on Rock. Hudson Mills Metropark, Dexter, Michigan, February 2011

Last Saturday I finally got out to do a little bit of skiing and decided to check out the Hudson Mills Metropark, a 1500 acre spot of woodlands northeast of Ann Arbor. It's a good thing I did, since the snow began melting that morning and, with several days near 50°, the snow has turned to puddles. In fact, I think we're halfway to flood stage around here.

The park doesn't have much in the way of hills, so the skiing was just a bunch of looping round a 5-mile trail system, with an occasional bit of glide. But there were a lot of novices out and it was fun to watch them approach these tiny little slopes, with their terrifying 5% grades. Knees locked, thighs stiffened, weight thrown forward, skis locked into wedge positions, pushing tentatively on the poles, probing for that point at which gravity will take over and speed them into reckless disaster. It was so cute.

I say that with compassion, because to this day I am not a strong skiier and I vividly remember how helpless you feel when you first bind boards to boots. Sure, you don't get going all that fast on a small slope, but since you have no control yet, anything is too fast. As soon as you begin to glide downhill, you're a passenger. I would regale coworkers with my latest crash: I didn't get my arms and legs fully extended, so I guess it wasn't a proper cartwheel ....

What astonished me after that first winter was to go back after the snow was gone and to realize how gentle many of those slopes were. Not that they weren't racy - there are some good speedy hills around the Old Faithful area. But they still didn't look as steep as they felt. Surely that slope at the bottom of the Fern Cascades trail was 45°, wasn't it? It was so fast! But it's probably closer to a 10°-15° slope.

I spent that summer examining all the hills I encountered with a sort of slideshow in my mind, one that would replace the grass with snow and imagine that I was about to hurtle down on my second-hand Rossignols. It's a funny thing, but the world's terrain just doesn't look as rugged as it feels. Which is why cartographers who want to portray relief often have to exaggerate the vertical scale relative to the horizontal; everything looks too flat otherwise, even in the mountains.

Here's an example by the cartographic artist Heinrich Berann, who did a series of panoramas for the National Park Service. He produced his view of Yellowstone in 1989:

That's a hell of a lot of vertical exaggeration, especially of the Tetons in the distance. But it gives you a more intuitive sense of the shape of the land than a truer representation would. Much like people may be more readily recognized from a caricature than from a photograph, I suppose.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Super Bowl I

It seems odd, in this era of YouTube, where every video in the world finds its way online and becomes harder than kudzu to eradicate, but even classic programs use to get broadcast once and disappear into the ether without an archived film or videotape copy. But a football fan has come forth with one of the most coveted missing links in sports history: a videotape of Super Bowl I in 1967.

Note how the instant replay boasts the technical miracle of "video tape," much as fans a few years later would marvel at "live via satellite."

From the WSJ

Friday photo

Bison in meadow. Yellowstone National Park, December 2003

It's been a cold winter in Michigan this year, with heavy snowfalls to boot. Here in the southeast corner, we didn't get hit as hard with the last storm as, say, Chicago, because the heaviest snow passed to the north of us. But the last several evening have seen temperatures drop below zero Fahrenheit and bundling up is a useful skill.

I still benefit from my winters in Yellowstone. On cold days like we've had lately, I add a layer of thermal pants and shirt, two layers of socks, and a heavy sweater. With that, I only need add the windproof jacket and I'm plenty comfortable at the bus stop. It means I'm a little overdressed for indoor work, but I've always found that easier than being too cold. And I get the smug pleasure of enjoying weather that even hardened Michiganders gripe about. I still own a heavy coat that I bought for my first winter at Old Faithful, and which I wore perhaps two dozen times in while I was there and not once since leaving the Park.

The photo above? Taken at sunrise while temperatures were still fifteen or ten below zero. The sun isn't quite high enough to illuminate that layer of low-hanging fog, which seems to divide the world into a dark side and bright side.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Projection Project

A little searching leads me to suspect that next Sunday evening will feature an updated version of 30-year-old failed prophecies. Given the conservative propensity for psychological projection, however, I had imagined an outline rather like this:

I. Truth-seeking

A. Evolutionists ignore evidence
B. Global warming scientists scam for big money
C. Why atheists are angry evangelists
D. David Barton on historical revisionists
E. Fox News the antidote to propaganda

II. Protecting freedom

A. Tolerating other beliefs violates the First Amendment
B. Gays are indoctrinating children
C. Scott Lively on the imminent ban on Christianity
D. Combating sharia by enforcing the Ten Commandments

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Some good photoshopping

"Impossible Celebrity Couples" at Buzzfeed, including this all-too-plausible scene of JFK with Anna Nicole Smith:

And twenty more. The Photoshop work throughout is just topnotch: the focus, grain, and contrast are matched perfectly.

Via The Daily Dish

Friday, February 4, 2011

Friday photo

Sycamore and shadow. Ann Arbor, Michigan, February 2011.