Archive for February, 2011

February 28, 2011

Stick Charts

This is a stick chart.

These were used by the Polynesian peoples as navigation tools. They mostly map ocean swells – stable, long-wavelength surface waves – but also currents and relative position of islands.

There are three kinds of charts. Mattang charts: square-shaped, used for instruction. Meddo charts: showing relative position of islands, the disruption of swells by the islands and the distance from which the island can be seen when sailing. Rebbelib charts: which seem to be a more elaborate and detailed version of the Meddo charts.

Made from palm ribs, coconut fiber and shells, they are a mnemonic device, that is, they were never taken on the voyage, but memorized before departure. Furthermore, they vary so much among one another, that even a fully competent navigator could not read a stick chart made by someone else. Nor would every one in the community have access to the knowledge of making them. They were closely guarded secrets of the family of the chief, and knowledge was passed down father to son.

The Polynesians used these charts to navigate the Indian and Pacific Oceans, colonizing islands from Madagascar to Hawaii.

February 27, 2011

Cigarettes And Coffee

February 26, 2011

Benjamin’s Potemkin

Walter Benjamin doesn’t say where he got it from, so I won’t either…wait…

It is related that Potemkin suffered from states of depression which recurred more or less regularly. At such times no on was allowed to go near him, and access to his room was strictly forbidden. This malady was never mentioned at court, and in particular it was known that any allusion to the incurred the disfavor of Empress Cahterine. One of the Chancellor’s depressions lasted for an extraordinary length of time and brought about serious difficulties; in the offices documents piled up that required Potemkin’s signature, and the Empress pressed for their completion. The high officials were at their wits’ end. One day an unimportant little clerk Shuvalkin happened to enter the anteroom of the Chancellor’s palace and found the councillors of state assembled there, moaning and groaning as usual. “What is the matter, Your Excellencies?” asked the obliging Shuvalkin. They explained things to him and regretted that they could not use his services. “If that’s all it is,” said Shuvalkin, “I beg you to let me have those papers.” Having nothing to lose, the councilors of state let themselves be persuaded to do so, and with the sheaf of documents under his arm, Shuvalkin set out, through galleries and corridors, for Potemkin’s bedroom. Without stopping or bothering to knock, he turned the door-handle; the room was not locked. In semidarkness Potemkin was sitting on his bed in a threadbare nightshirt, biting his nails. Shuvalkin stepped up to the writing desk, dipped a pen in in, and without saying a word pressed it into Potemkin’s hand while putting one of the documents on his knees. Potemkin gave the intruder a vacant stare; then, as though in his sleep, he started to sigh – first one paper, then a second, finally all of them. When the last signature had been affixed, Shuvalkin took the papers under his arm and left the room without further ado, just as he had entered it. Waving the papers triumphantly, he stepped into the anteroom. The councillors of state rushed toward him and tore the documents out of his hands. Breathlessly they bent over them. No one spoke a word; the whole group seemed paralyzed. Again Shuvalkin came closer and solicitously asked why the gentlemen seemed so upset. At that point he noticed the signatures. One document after another was signed Shuvalkin…Shuvalkin…Shuvalkin…


February 26, 2011

Parc de la Villette

For the record, I loved this park before I knew these few tidbits from Wikipedia:
The park was designed by Bernard Tschumi, a French architect of Swiss origin, who built it from 1984 to 1987 on the site of the huge Parisian abattoirs (slaughterhouses) and the national wholesale meat market, as part of an urban redevelopment project. The slaughterhouses, built in 1867 on the instructions of Napoléon III, had been cleared away and relocated in 1974. Tschumi won a major design competition in 1982/83 for the park, and he sought the opinions of the deconstructionist philosopher, Jacques Derrida, in the preparation of his design proposal.

No, really! I can prove it. Here is a portion of an e-mail I sent friends on May 5th, 2008:
[On] the train home I noticed at one elevated point a park that I had seen before, but never really knew what it was. So I hopped off and went exploring.
The park is in the north east part of Paris, around an artificial canal. It extends (the park that is) for miles. Bike trails, people sunbathing, people playing sports on the grass, picnicking, shouting, laughing, running, leaping, gazing, strolling, kissing, lounging, smiling, singing…I took my shoes off and walked barefoot in the grass thinking to myself that I am in a larger, contemporary, live version of Seaurat’s famous “La Grande Jatte.” …


I had no idea this place existed in Paris. There were completely modern foot bridges, passages, spaces for basket ball, kids’ playgrounds, and lots of open space, obviously. At the very end of the park, but audible for a half mile before you get there, was a group of maybe thirty drummers and percussionists. They had an audience of hundreds either standing around, or bobbing their heads, or outright jumping around to the beat (ok that last one was just me, but I enjoyed it). And they played a continuous piece for a good thirty to forty minutes. Really, for anybody who is planning on coming to Paris next, I recommend it.


Here are some photos of the park and the various structures within it. (photos by Filip Kanački)

This last one a model of the Cité de la Musique, at the end of the park, designed by Christian de Portzamparc.

And here is one of Tschumi’s designs of the red metal structures that punctuate the park. (stolen from New Clear Dawn)

February 24, 2011

Crossing Paths

Once upon a time, on the old Telemachus, I wrote a little post about a couple of letters of Joris-Karl Huysmans. A French writer of Dutch origin (hence the name), he is best remembered for his novel A Rebours, which is usually translated into English as Against Nature. The novel was a reaction against Emile Zola’s L’Assomoir (1877). Until that point, Huysmans was Zola’s example of a true naturalist writer, the writing style Zola aggressively advocated. When A Rebours came out, the split with the then and now much more popular Zola – who was also known to go after his ideological and aesthetic opponents with his sharp journalistic pen – was highly publicized.

However, the two men knew better. Here are the two letters I was referring to earlier. (In my translation, anachronistically.)

J.K. Hysmans’ letter to Jules Destrée (Nov. 22, 1884):
As far as the split between Zola and myself, shouted from the rooftops, it’s idiotic. We often discuss amicably questions in which we disagree completely, but we are old friends from before L’Assomoir. I take it as proof of quality of our friendship that all the claims of the press to the contrary have not been able to chip away at it.

E. Zola’s letter to J.K. Huysmans (May 20, 1884):
There, my dear friend, are all my reservations. I didn’t want to hide them, for you know me well enough, don’t you, to know that the fictional is not my cup of tea. Luckily, there is in you something else, a sort of outrageousness of art that excites me, an originality of strong feelings that is enough to set you apart, put you on a high pedestal. Bottom line is that I spent three happy evenings with your book. It will count at the very least as a curiosity in your oeuvre. And you should be proud of it. What will people say? If they don’t calm down, they might very well celebrate it ecstatically. Or they will throw it back at you, at us, as the latest rotting corpse of our literature. I smell nonsense in the air.

I bring this up because I found out that Huysmans is credited with something else as well. According to (a certain) Dorothea von Mücke, he is responsible for bringing back to light the Renaissance painter Matthias Grünewald (c.1470-1528). Says Mücke, over at
But around 1900 the French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans made a passionate plea for the relevance and modernity of Grünewald. In his description of the altar at Isenheim, Huysmans called attention to Grünewald’s shocking insistence on the physical details of Christ’s suffering, alerting its beholder to the disgusting marks of torture and the signs of dying and decomposing flesh. Such a Christ, Huysmans observed, is no longer the well-groomed, handsome man who has been venerated by the rich and powerful throughout the ages. Grünewald’s Christ is rather the “God of the Poor. The one who chose the company of those in misery and of those who had been rejected, of all those for whose ugliness and need the world could only feel contempt.” And it was exactly this approach to pain and suffering highlighted by Huysmans that subsequently became a point of reference for many artists who invoked Grünewald’s work, especially when they cited the triptych from the Isenheim altarpiece or The Mockery of Christ from the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.

Here are the two works she is referring to:

Isenheim Altarpiece, First view (Crucifixion), c. 1512–15, Musée d’Unterlinden, Colmar, France. Limewood, 269 x 650 cm

The Mockery of Christ, c. 1503–05, Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

Grünewald also liked to put his self-portrait into his paintings. It can be found in many of his works, including these two. In the Mockery of Christ, he is the Commiserator, the only one not attacking Christ. In the altar piece he is St. Sebastian, the figure on the left.

Self-portrait, c. 1512–16 Nürnberg, Germany.

Commiserator, detail from Mockery of Christ

St.Sebastian, detail Isenheim Altarpiece









What brought all of this to my attention is W.G. Sebald’s After Nature. It is a triptych in verse with the enigmatic motto “As the Snow on the Alps… .” The first part is about Matthias Grünewald, and at the very beginning Sebald tells us that
“… The face of the unknown
Grünewald emerges again and again
in his work as a witness
to the snow miracle, a hermit
in the desert, a commiserator…
…Always the same
gentleness,  the same burden of grief,
the same irregularity of the eyes, veiled
and sliding sideways down into loneliness.”

Right after that Sebald wraps up my entire post of curious connections throughout history.

Grünewald’s face reappears, too,
in a Basel painting by Holbein
the Younger of a crowned female saint.
These were strangely disguised
instances of resemblance, wrote Fraenger
whose books were burned by the fascists.
Indeed it seemed as though in such works of art
men had revered each other like brothers, and
often made monuments in each other’s
image where their paths had crossed.”

February 18, 2011


The crazy architect Lebbeus Woods has a blog. A recent entry was written by (a certain) Diane Lewis.

She recounts watching a documentary about Einstein and seeing one of the photos of the solar eclipse on May 29th, 1919 that Arthur Eddington used to prove Einstein’s theory of relativity.


For some reason the image seemed familiar to her. Then she remembered Le Corbusier’s plan for the Palace of the Congress at Chandigarh.


The aha! moment:

She writes: The ideas of architectural order revealed in the cut—the plan and section, as read in the extreme artifice of the two-dimensional section—here captures the entasis of celestial motion, the moment and flux of the resistance of the void, and of forces that can be seen as registered in a dialogue with materiality or a force field of light motion.

Read the full blog entry here.

February 16, 2011

World’s Most Mysterious Manuscript

It’s a book by an unknown author in a language no one understands. Officially, it is known as Beinecke MS 408, since it is housed at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale. Unofficially, it is known as the Voynich Manuscript, after the man who brought it to light in 1912.

In 2009 scientists were able to narrow the dates when it was created. They are 95% certain it appeared somewhere between 1404 and 1438.


Wikipedia has a long article on the manuscript, and Wikipedia Commons has over two hundred photos of the pages of the book. For really high res photos of the manuscript, go to the source.

February 11, 2011

An inoffensive, unfortunate lunatic

A certain Robert Hunt (who along with his brothers Leigh and John controlled the Examiner) writing a review of William Blake’s exhibition on September 17th, 1809.

If beside the stupid and mad-brained political project of their rulers, the sane part of the people of England required fresh proof of the alarming increase of the effects of insanity, they will be too well convinced from its having lately spread into the the hitherto sober region of Art. […] Such is the case with the productions of William Blake, an unfortunate lunatic, whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement, and, consequently, of whom no public notice would have been taken, if he was not forced on the notice and animadversion of The Examiner, in having been held up to public admiration by many esteemed amateurs and professors as a genius in some respect original and legitimate. The praises which these gentlemen bestowed last year on this unfortunate man’s illustrations of Blair’s Grave, have, in feeding his vanity, stimulated him to publish his madness more largely, and thus again exposed him, if not to the derision, at least to the pity of the public.

William Blake's Europe a Prophecy

But,” answers Northrop Frye in Fearful Symmetry, “that Blake was often called mad in his lifetime is of course true. Wordsworth called him that, though Wordsworth had a suspicion that if the madman had bitten Scott or Southey he might have improved their undoubtedly sane poetry.

February 8, 2011

Ships and Sails for Heavenly Air

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars

“Almost 400 years ago, German astronomer Johannes Kepler observed comet tails being blown by what he thought to be a solar “breeze.” This observation inspired him to suggest that “ships and sails proper for heavenly air should be fashioned” to glide through space. […] In 1873, James Clerk Maxwell first demonstrated that sunlight exerts a small amount of pressure as photons bounce off a reflective surface. This kind of pressure is the basis of all modern solar sail designs.” (from NASA)

Say hello to…


On January 20th, NanoSail-D became the first solar sail aircraft in lower Earth orbit.

It comes back down in April or May. Until then, it is visible by the naked eye in the night sky. (

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February 7, 2011

On Disclaimers

This is not an argument.

Disclaimers are too often a crutch for insincerity. They assert that some content that follows will say something other than it says. Not opposite or contrary, just that the content itself might lead the reader in one direction, and disclaimers “correct” that.

There is a limit to this. At some point, the crutch is removed and the content must stand and deliver. Either it does, rendering the disclaimer obsolete; or it does not, in which case it begs the question of the disclaimer.

Either way, you’ll not find here a statement of intent, or motive.

No, that’s not what I want to say…