Monday, December 31, 2018

In Praise of Digital Collection Aids

Almost a year after I promised (yet again) to attend more closely to this blog, and having broken my promise (yet again), I'm back. No promises this time. Just a post.

One reason for not fulfilling promises is the distraction factor presented by other social media. In the last year I've discovered Pinterest, and Pearltrees--about which more later--and have become fairly active on Quora, which allows me to spout. Profusely.

But this post is really about why I've chosen to ignore my misgivings about "sharing" and jump onto a couple of social sites that have turned out to be especially useful and have enabled me to organize stuff more successfully than I've ever been able to before. Online, anyway.

Pearltrees (my account is private, because I don't want to participate in the wider social aspects of the platform; it's also pricey for the features I want) has given me a way to archive interesting articles and information, and to categorize them helpfully for later use. Pocket does something of the same thing, and I do use it as another bookmarkish sort of app, but anything worth keeping for very long goes to Pearltrees.

The real jewel, though, is Pinterest. Those of you who know me, and have heard me spew on about the evils of Facebook and the like, might be surprised at this new development in my digital evolution. Do remember, however, that although I'm a slow adopter, once I find something especially useful (like course web pages and blogging), I'm all in. In addition, Pinterest doesn't overly or incessantly bombard me with ads for crap I'm decidedly not interested in. Instead, it loads me up with nice photos of stuff related to my boards, and makes it easy for me to pick and choose, and edit, and discard when necessary.

I realize that this is a form of virtual hoarding, but at least it doesn't involve material objects (for the most part), and it's really pretty. I love being able to create categories of objects and describe those categories amusingly when necessary. But the ability to collect images of geological structures, maps, food, architecture, plants, and myriad other objects in a way that doesn't require me to be cutting pictures out of magazines incessantly and trying to find ways to make them available when I need them. I'm also astonished that so many contributors are such good photographers, whose photos enrich the visual quality of my boards and provide me no end of entertainment and wonder.

So yes, I do have quite a few boards (58 public and 1 private), with numerous sub-categories; I also follow quite a few people (115) and have a few more followers (273 at last count). The experience has provided me with a number of ideas for posts here. Whether or not any of that comes to fruition depends on how far along I get on other projects, including the Farm. That has suffered almost as much from neglect as the Cabinet has, but for different reasons--including the maintenance of a hand-written reading journal I keep up much more faithfully.

And Quora, on which I get to opine on subjects I actually know something about (mostly food and breastfeeding at this point, with an occasional foray into things archaeological or design-related). They made me a "top writer" in 2018, for which I was offered a subscription to the New York Times (I already subscribe), so there's not much to that except a chance to set people straight on how to avoid wasting food and how to wean babies. I get to follow interesting people who say interesting things about things that interest me. It does take away from writing time, though, even though I've learned quite a bit from the experience. I can't hide behind a screen name, though, and that does tend to temper my bent toward snarkitude. I tried to be "Hoban Washburn" for a while, but got outed and had to stop. I did not, however, realize it was a no-no, so my misdemeanor was unintentional.

And if anyone's wondering, yes, I do have an Instagram account, and one for YouTube, but don't use either. I'm absolutely positive that nobody but my immediate family would be interested in my cat, dog, and backyard wildlife videos, and Instagram doesn't add anything to what Pinterest offers me. But they're there, just in case.

I am spending some time updating the blog roll (which I started to do at the beginning of the year but got distracted), so if you're coming back after an absence, check out some of the goodies on the side bar. And do visit the Pinterest page if you're interested in what interests me these days.

Also, have a great new year. In many ways, it couldn't possibly be as bad as this one has been--but at least it should be interesting.

Note: I apologize for the over-usage of "interest" in its various forms. Although initially unintentional, I started having fun with it--and with the derivation of "P-interest." My beloved daughter, a long-time user, laughed heartily when I initially called it "PIN-ter-est" instead of "PIN-trest." It always does take me a while to catch on.

Photo note: This is the shot of my renovated downstairs bathroom, which I've used as the "cover" photo for my "Bathing Rooms and Water Closets" board on Pinterest.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018


That's me, in the photo, hiding amidst the fronds of fennel last summer. I'm pretending to be a Black Swallowtail larvum, cleverly avoiding predators as I munch my way toward transforming into my adult version.

Only I never made it. Nature is often clever, allowing critters to blend in with their backgrounds in order to propagate themselves. For some reason, however, these caterpillars don't hide very well, and I (me, not my caterpillar avatar) watched at least three of them, hopefully, over a couple of weeks. I really wanted to see the process worked out in my very own garden, so as soon as I saw a female Swallowtail hovering over the fennel crop planted specifically for her kind, I'd anxiously await the arrival of a new member of the family.

None of them made it. The local cardinals--which have become something like the tree rats in their ubiquity and obnoxity (not a word, I know)--made quick meals of them when I wasn't looking, and I never saw a single chrysalis develop.

At any rate, I used this photo as a tentative metaphor for what I hope will happen over the next few months. I was feeling terribly guilty about not posting for all these months until I decided to update my blog roll. Hardly any one I used to read all the time is still posting regularly, so now I don't feel so bad.

But I'm trying to mend my ways, and have plans for several small explorations of ephemera that could lead to a more-or-less monthly habit. There are so many things out there worth mentioning, and so many of us who need distracting from current preoccupations, that I'm going to try to get this thing going again.

Unless one of the cardinals, emboldened by the nice weather, decides to have me for lunch. Fortunately for the butterflies, they (unlike the squirrels) haven't started having sex yet, so spring is still a way off, and the caterpillar in this case is only a metaphor.

For the moment, though, I'll be tidying up the blog roll and adding a few things, and collecting miscellanea to add in future posts.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Still Living

Over the last few weeks I've mostly been loafing and contemplating the universe, enjoying The Beloved Spouse's summer holiday and the unusual reasonableness of the weather. Most mornings or late afternoons I can take an hour or so to read in the hammock we've installed in the back yard, a good command post for observing snoozing animals and working through the many stacks of books I've piled here and there with the intention of getting to at last. Trouble is, I accumulate more before I finish the ones I have in process, so the piles aren't getting any shorter. 

We did, however, make time to invite family over for brunch last Sunday, which meant getting the house tidied up, and as I went through the rooms hoovering away I kept noticing how still life compositions turn up everywhere. I'm not really sure how conscious they are, stemming as they do from the desire to put things out that remind me of our lives: rocks, shells, books, tchotchkes, photos, and other bits of memorabilia. The phenomenon is unmistakable, however. An eighteenth-century Dutch painter could make something of these little tableaux.

When I was still teaching, I'd spend a fair amount of time in art history classes pointing out the ubiquity of still lifes among the works of almost any artist one could study. This genre reaches an apex during the Baroque, of course, especially among the Dutch, but it's really everywhere--and everywhen--throughout the history of human creative endeavor. Although denigrated by nineteenth-century art historians as less important or indicative of talent and imagination than history painting, these visual Wunderkammern appear with increasing frequency after Roman mural paintings started filling the walls of villas in Pompeii and Herculaneum. 

Early photographers must have been grateful for the very stillness of the still life because of the long exposure times the  technology initially required, and Louis Daguerre's wonderful studio photos of assorted objects or shelves of fossils mimic the painted compositions of found objects popular among the collectors of the nineteenth century. My favorite examples for students were these:

Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, Shells and Fossils 1839

Alexandre-Isidore Leroy De Barde, Selection of Shells Arranged on Shelves (before 1828)

A couple of years ago I participated in a MOOC offered by Cal Arts called "Live!: A History of Art for Artists, Animators and Gamers." One of my favorite assignments involved creating a "world in a box" and my submission, called This Is Not a Baroque Still Life, looked like this:

Sorry about the quality of the image, but I'm too lazy to take it into Photoshop to make it look prettier. According to my concept statement, "I tried to include items associated with traditional still life compositions, but with anachronistic elements (like the nineteenth-century photo) as well. An emptied bookshelf provided the frame." Had I been more religious about the composition, I'd have made it more three-dimensional by hanging some bits off the edge, but the components were fairly appropriate. Perhaps some day I'll try painting it and bring the process full circle.

To get back to my original notion behind this post, the tendency to create compositions like this seems to be a major aspect of how we embellish our homes. I hesitate to say "decorate," because I'm not sure that the urge to surround ourselves with objects is fundamentally about prettying things up (which what decoration suggests to me)--but rather about memory. The things I stash on surfaces (book cases, sideboards, tables, even windowsills) are things that remind me of people and places I have loved. They're not all just visual, either. When I picked up a bowl of desert holly this morning (I needed its normal resting place yesterday to hold brunchy things and had stashed it atop the china cabinet), its scent immediately took me back to Owens Valley, where I'd (probably illegally) picked it to bring back to Texas.

The increasingly sophisticated photo apps on smart phones is making it possible to record my little domestic museums, and to play with them in various ways. I'm amused that what I'm doing with my iPhone camera these days is something like what I had my students do in my History of Art and Design classes many years ago. The original assignment was for them to photograph a still life we composed in class (using a digital camera that recorded the image on a 3.5" floppy disc!) and then to manipulate it in Photoshop to make it look like the work of a particular artist or designer. I still have several of these stashed away, and perhaps some day I'll resurrect them and feature a collection of student work on the Cabinet. But here's what a simple app (probably Old Photo Pro or Vintique) did to a shot of one of my window sill collections:

I'm not sure why I don't have the original orientation in my library any more, but the idea's still evident (and including the spiderwebs was intentional). The objects all hold a bit of meaning: a dried gourd from an early garden at this house, an old clay pipe from my misspent youth, a Kokeshi doll (part of a collection from my childhood years in Japan), a ceramic cat that belonged to my mother, and an incense dish with little lead figures (a hut, a crab, a boat) designed for use with bonsai arrangements. It occurs to me only now that the background actually records a version of our north yard that no longer exists--the ladder having since almost disintegrated and been moved to behind the garage, and the pots on the fence having been broken by some large feral intruder only a few days ago. The objects have been placed more or less randomly and are occasionally cycled in and out of the grouping, as is the custom in Japan. A display (although I hesitate to call this sort of randomness a real "display") in a Japanese tokonoma is thoughtfully and purposefully arranged to set a mood or to show off a prized group of possessions, usually fewer than what I typically include in my more accidental collections.

Creating still life compositions seems to be an innate tendency in people all over the world, and perhaps this activity reflects fundamental cultural needs--for memory, reflection, contemplation, or even ostentation: personal Wunderkammern archiving moments in individual lives. I wish I had noticed this before I stopped teaching, because I probably could have gotten more mileage out of the concept had I realized how fundamental the idea of composing personal items into meaningful assemblages is to our creative lives.

Image credits: The Daguerre and Leroy de Barde works are included via Wikimedia Commons. The rest are my own.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Of Cats and Caravans

One of my Big Plans after I retired was to get back into the habit of blogging--not so much because I'm aware of any large fan base who might be missing my witty takes on recent events, but rather because it's a way of keeping my brain from turning into mush. Not having to update course material, keep on top of new and interesting happenings in the art world, and find new and engaging ways of trying to enlighten my increasingly less interested students holds the very real possibility of my losing myself in house porn of the escape-from-Texas variety. Writing is one way to maintain my sanity, and to ensure that not everything we do descends into the fog of fleeting, aged memory.

Since the end of the Spring term last year, when I forever severed my ties with the for-profit academic world,  I've managed to find more to do than I'd ever imagined.  Not many of the projects have been completed, but many (such as filling up the family tree on Ancestry with as much information as I can locate, and providing photos to accompany names) are well underway.  And in addition to enjoying last summer essentially goofing off with the Beloved Spouse, I got to enjoy the more recent winter holiday in its entirety without having to rush back to work on January 2. Alas, he returns to teaching tomorrow, but when he's finished with the Spring semester, we hope to be heading west in our little fake Shasta Airflyte (2015 reproduction) to visit relatives and my ancestral homeland of Owens Valley, California.

On the way, we mean to do a bit of scouting for new digs in New Mexico and Arizona, or even somewhere near the old homestead in Lone Pine. With the trip in mind, we've been taking care of recall issues with the Shasta, and have been spiffing her (tentatively called "Lola," but also more recently referred to as "The Folly") up with a comfy new mattress and a bit of vintage trailer decor. We're trying not to get too cute about it all, but did put new "baby moon" hubcaps to make up for the absence of the whitewall tires it came with. We got new tires before we had a problematic axle replaced, but kept them because they ride better than the originals.  We've opted to keep the bed made up permanently, rather than keeping the dinette in place, figuring that most places we camp will have a picnic table, and we're on the lookout for a couple of '50s era TV trays.  A two-inch memory foam mattress makes for a much more comfortable sleeping experience, so we'll keep it made up for now.

Last week, during the teeter-tottering weather cycle that moved us from balmy to frigid and back again within less than a week, I decided to spend the afternoon reading my favorite British shelter publication on my iPad whilst enjoying the pleasant weather and a glass of Kombucha.  I was a bit surprised when my cat Emma decided to join me. She's not the most companionable of cats, and not really an out-door feline (she loves it out, but only gets her way when I can keep an eye on her), but I hadn't even quite settled onto the bed when she hopped up and lay down next to me.

It wasn't long before the sun started warming her up more than she apparently wanted to be warmed, so she moved over to the other side and proceeded to look more comfortable than any being should be allowed to look.

After a good long snooze, she decided to see what was going on outside, and perched on the edge of the bed, exposing her broad side.

She soon decided to abandon me, but not completely. For quite some time she surveyed her domain from the cedar porch the Beloved Spouse made (to make it easier for the dog to get in and out), and which has become one of her favorite spaces.

All of this cuteness is somewhat unusual for Emma (also known as Mrs. Peel). I adopted her when her former person opted to give up the cat to marry an allergic husband.  Originally a Hurricane Katrina survivor, Emma is tough and opinionated, and not particularly affectionate--unless she wants something. Like being let out. But she did help us solve our mouse problem last spring, and since our dog Woody died last summer, she serves as a some-time companion to Arlo when he's outside. He would like to be friends, but she's too aloof to be chummy. Tolerating his presence is about as good as it gets.

I don't mean to go on about cats (and no, I am not becoming a crazy old cat lady!), but I'm usually so grumpy myself (especially over on Owl's Farm) that I thought I'd post something mildly amusing to help me get through this week. January 20 is coming far too quickly, and this little bit of escapism seems well placed.

Addendum: Our sanguinity was somewhat disturbed a couple of days ago, when--during another spell of reading in the trailer--the rear window (opened to enjoy the warm afternoon) abruptly shattered and fell onto the gravel driveway that my husband had so carefully constructed last summer. This particular window was one of the aforementioned recall issues, and we weren't the first to experience the problem. But this was supposed to have been fixed. We're not sure quite what to do, but it looks as though we'll take matters into our own hands and replace the glass (as we've done temporarily) with plastic, a solution others seem to have used successfully.   Sigh.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Under Construction

The Farm (and activities discussed thereupon) has kept me busy of late, but I am also painfully aware that the Cabinet needs attention.

To wit, the new banner and perhaps the layout are temporary, until I can spend more time on the basics, and start writing about all the intriguing stuff that's going on here and in the world.

So, in a way, I'm building: clearing out, tidying up, dealing with technological ignorance (on my part). I thus thought it best to go back to nature for illustrations. The nest is from the copse next to where we park our Shasta (no undergoing repairs in Sherman, but who's been dubbed Lola), and was taken in 2014. Although this one's gone, there's another nearby now; having been constructed from plastic and other reminders of the impact of human beings on the neighborhood, however, it's not really worth a photo. I'll undoubtedly take one for a future post, but when I was looking for something to use for this one, nothing else popped up. It also reminds me that the back yard isn't always a furnace, and there are times during which one can actually enjoy it.

And since  I've realized that these entries are really for me, and perhaps for my children, to be used as memory devices, my future scribblings will probably focus on the local, rather than the universal.

Coming soon: a compendium of backyard mycology, domestic still-life compositions, Romantic science/exploration, and some catching up on museology in the blogosphere.

Addendum: The new banner photo is a composite image of a large chunk of North America taken from low orbit on 4 January 2012 from the VIIRS instrument aboard NASA's Earth-observing satellite, Suomi NPP--via Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, November 28, 2015


November: The autumn harvest of acorns, on which pigs are feeding
As part of my effort to get back into the habit of posting things I find interesting, I thought it prudent to alert readers to appropriate sites newly discovered. I hope to do this at least twice a year in order to keep up, rather than stashing the "pellets" in some irretrievable file on one of my devices. Only yesterday I'd read the November chapter of Tom Hodgkinson's Brave Old World: A Practical Guide to Husbandry, or the Fine  Art of Looking After Yourself (in print)--in honor of which I chose the opening image--and was reminded of his magazine, The Idler, to which I once subscribed in a digital version. That disappeared from both my Exactly account and my iPad, and I only think about it occasionally. The web page is still active, though, and the contents as eclectic as ever. But this all made me think of the other brain-enhancing offerings available through the digital universe--the ones that make me not altogether sorry about the technological state of the universe. 

Lapham's Quarterly describes itself as "a magazine of history and ideas," but it's rather more than that. I had to stop subscribing to it in print because I'm running out of room on the bookshelf it occupies, but don't know how long I can stay away. Founded eponymously by the American writer Lewis Lapham (who edited Harper's Magazine on and off for some thirty years), on the surface it may seem rather like an intellectual's Reader's Digest. It does present snippets of texts from anywhere and anywhen, arranged topically (this quarter's focus is Fashion); but it also features charts and graphs of interesting phenomena (Abandon All Hope: Punishments meted out to sinners in Dante's "Inferno") and maps (Beaten Paths: Brief Histories of Four Famous Routes). The website is quite complete, and could take weeks to wade through--especially if one wanders off on tangents, as I am prone to do.

An old friend/former spouse recently reminded me that I hadn't included The Public Domain Review in my blog roll--an oversight I will immediately remedy. Billed as "a project of the Open Knowledge Foundation," the Review is a compendium of essays on every imaginable topic (culture & history, art & illustrations, philosophy, science & medicine, &c. &c.) and collections arranged by medium (images, books, film, audio), time (pre-16th century through 20th), and topic. This is where I direct my art history students to gorgeous scans of the Très Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry, the November calendar page of which introduces this post. One of my favorite image collections centers on Colour Wheels, Charts, and Tables Through History, and another on The Maps of Piri Reis (an Ottoman navigator who collected them in his Book of Navigation (the link is to a downloadable scan from the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore); two of the maps appear below.

Map of the island of Bozjah (Tenedos) off the coast of Anatolia 

 Map of the Calabrian coast from Catanzaro to Siquillace

Once again, it would take ages to plumb the depths of this true cabinet of wonders. As soon as I've finished this post, in fact, I'll be back at it, having forgotten about its utter richness.

Fairly recently I've run across two off-beat journals, one from Australia, one from Britain, with some aspects in common and some not so much. Both are interesting and entertaining, and offer lovely editions for the iPad.

Smith Journal has a blog that offers an idea of the eclectic range of its content, which can, indeed be wondrous. It was a little difficult to make it past the cover of the current issue (an Elvis impersonator), but once inside there are articles on the Halley VI research station in Antarctica, Astronaut patches, preserving scientific knowledge in anticipation of the apocalypse, and a tightrope walker. Previous issues have explored the fates of lost explorers, cardboard architecture, and small, rural Australian museums. It also features interesting products, some of which are obtainable outside of down under. The digital edition is easy to navigate and looks lovely. I subscribed to this through the iTunes store rather than Zinio (which is where I get most of my 'zines).

The newest of the lot is Ernest Journal, which combines three media: biannual print journal, blog, and iPad magazine. There's also a Pinterest board, which I'll undoubtedly follow (making two boards I actually look at besides my own). It was mentioned in an article from the online version of the British edition of Country Living (the most important source of house porn in this family), and because digital editions come with links, I was able to connect immediately. I don't think I've been back to the original article in CL yet. This one, too, is obtainable through the iTunes people. On the cover it notes a focus on Curious Histories, Workmanship, Slow Adventure, Timeless Style, and Wild Food.  This may well define what "eclectic" actually means in practice. At any rate, I started with issue 5 and immediately purchased issue 1 as well (at half price). The subscription rate for the digital edition is about 20 USD per year, but worth it.  Contents of issue 5 include the science of terrariums and the history of Diableries (3D stereoscopic photos of devil-related dioramas). I found this latter article especially interesting, having just finished a Coursera MOOC devoted to Victorian Photography.

For those of us who haven't completely abandoned the past, I highly recommend Pretty Nostalgic, not only because it collects interesting things, but because it's actually grounded in a unifying set of principles (centered on spending wisely, wasting less, and appreciating more). Most of the content has to do with the 1940s (primarily war years and rationing), but includes vast amounts of information on how folks lived in the past without insisting that we give up the present. It also unabashedly celebrates Britain and British history. The digital copy is available through iTunes or Exactly. The most recent issue is a Yearbook, packed with pretty pictures, paintings, old printed stuff, curiosities, and articles related to the seasons. Just the thing for the third dank, damp, wretched day in a row, to hold me over until the sun comes out and I can get back to sorting out the garden for winter.

Finally, there's Brain Pickings. On the Google search page it's described as "an inventory of cross-disciplinary interestingness, spanning art, science, design, history, philosophy, and more." It's another serendipitous find, this time from a review of Lisa Randall's new book, Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe in the New York Times, by Maria Popova who edits Brain Pickings. (The link is to her review on the blog.) The Times always posts its authors' credentials, and Popova's included this organization. The articles on the page are interesting and seductive, and many of them are imaginatively illustrated. In fact, there's even a chart of 7 Life-Learnings from 7 Years of Brain Pickings, Illustrated. And by now, you all know how fond I am of charts and maps.

Image notes: all images were acquired from The Public Domain Review, as noted above.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Beginning Again

Over the last few years I've had little time for messing about in blogs, and this one has suffered more than the others. But I "retired" at the end of the Spring Quarter, and am now teaching part-time where I've spent the last twenty years as a full-time faculty member.

What this means is that I'm out of excuses. And because my interests in the oddities of human materialism hasn't abated one single bit, I fully intend to get back to documenting my discoveries in the Cabinet. I keep running into amazing, interesting, troubling, astonishing (enter more adjectives here) things in my often random travels through the 'verse--especially since I've become a full-fledged MOOC junkie. The most recent effort was a course on Sagas and Space sponsored by the University of Zurich through Coursera.  It focused on Norse sagas and the concept of space recorded in them; the material was fascinating and did more to kickstart my aging brainwaves than anything in recent memory. The opening image is a tribute to the experience: a sea monster (a whale being attacted by orcas?) from Olaus Magnus's very early map of the north, the Carta Marina.

I loved the course's structure (it was only eight weeks long) and the fact that I got to learn stuff I never really imagined was out there.  It tied in well with both my interest in William Morris (he translated a number of Icelandic sagas) and in maps, and reminded me why I started writing this blog in the first place. Not only that, it will help me set my students straight about Marvel's version of the Norse cosmology when next I get to teach the Myth class (maybe once a year now).

So now things are really coming together. I've spent the last couple of hours cleaning up the rolls on the sidebar, and have eliminated a couple of categories and several now-defunct blogs.  A few I was reluctant to eliminate altogether, even though they're no longer active, so I created an archive to house them. In future I'll update the lists with some of my new discoveries, but will leave you with this morsel discovered during the Sagas and Space adventure: The Monstrous Sea Pig from Idols of the Cave (recently added to the blog roll).

More sooner, rather than later. 

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, uploaded by OlofE.