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Best American Essays 2019 coverA bit of personal news: My essay “La Vie en Rose” was selected as a notable essay of 2019 in Best American Essays 2019, edited by Rebecca Solnit.

“One morning in 2016, keepers at the National Aquarium of New Zealand arrived at work to discover the institution’s inventory of octopuses unexpectedly halved. Mild-mannered Blotchy remained in his tank, his expression revealing nothing. But Inky, his bold erstwhile companion, was nowhere to be seen…. “

The Nature of Plants: An Introduction to How Plants Work, by Craig N. Huegel


University Press of Florida
April 1, 2019
6 x 9 in., 274 pages
ISBN: 978-0-8130-6408-6

Plants live their lives just as we do, surrounded by loved ones, competitors.and enemies; seeking to find harmony and health; and hoping to leave behind a legacy of well-adjusted progeny capable of carrying on after their demise. Like us, they have evolved complicated pathways and behaviors to accomplish this. We are not really that different …

Craig Huegel’s The Nature of Plants is a thorough introduction to the features and functions of plants (with an emphasis on flowering plants). Though Huegel has been a professor of plant biology, he says he is “a gardener first and a biologist second.” Consequently, his aim in this book is “to teach gardeners and others who love plants how to apply plant biology to make their work with plants more successful and to unlock some of the mysteries in a practical way so that more gardens thrive and fewer plants die.” He hopes, along the way, to also give “a deeper appreciation for how intricate and interesting plants are.” While he may be more successful in the latter aim than the former, this is a brilliant book that deserves a place on any gardener or plant lover’s shelf. (I got the copy I used for this review from the library, and after reading it I ordered a personal copy for the permanent collection.)

The most striking thing about Huegel’s approach is the agency that he attributes to plants. He sees plants as actively making decisions about how to deal with their environment (even suggesting that these decisions may be directed by a sort of brain in the rootball). “Plants,” he says, “are far more complex than we have traditionally perceived them to be; in some ways they are even more complex than animals…. Plants must do everything animals do while remaining in the same location for the duration of their lives.” At times the tone may come across as anthropomorphizing, but readers should be able to decide for themselves to what extent to interpret such views of plant behaviors as metaphors.

The book is enriched by excellent photos, most by the author, and the University Press of Florida has printed it on a quality glossy paper that shows them to best advantage.

Huegel systematically details the issues plants deal with, often sharing recent scientific discoveries. After an introduction to the evolution of plant species, he methodically considers plants’ interactions with light, water, and soil. He looks at plant structure and growth, and considers in detail their roots, stems, leaves, reproduction, seeds, and hormones. Finally, he look at the ways plants with their offspring, others of the same species, and plants of other species.

The value of this book is not so much in specific gardening tips, although Huegel does offer some of these, such as the importance of pruning with clean sharp tools when plants are in good health, or the value of leaving leaves and spent plants to provide nutrients to the soil. (“Balance in soil fertility is often upset in developed landscapes,” he observes “especially when plants are harvested and not allowed to decompose on-site. Modern agriculture is perhaps the worst culprit in this scenario. We often call such soils ‘overworked,’ but it is not the ‘work’ that upsets the balance but the fact that the plants are routinely removed with all their sequestered essential elements and taken out of the system. Over time, the parent material cannot replace the amount lost.”)  Rather, its chief value lies in its comprehensive overview of plant lives and functions.

Helpful illustrations by Cathy Vogelsong illuminate the text.

Throughout his exploration of the many facets of plant life, Huegel shares his respect for their intelligence. Did you know, for example, that plants are good at math? “Plants adjust their basic metabolic rate on a daily basis. They are frugal; plants spend less energy on their metabolism than they earn each day, and they put something aside even on days when they earn very little. Plant biologists have found that plants have an internal mechanism that calculates daily the amount of energy they’ve gained and divides it by the length of the night. This solves the problem of how to portion out energy reserves during the night so that the plant can maintain itself, yet not risk burning off all its energy reserves before starting a new day. The calculations plants make are extremely precise.”

Similarly, “Plants make accurate judgments each day about when sunrise will occur, and they position their leaves and/or flowers in unison with it.” Huegel is keen on flowering plants. “Although many of my neighbors relish warm winters, I despise them,” he says (because some plants require a cold period in order to produce abundant flowers). “I can always wear a coat if it gets cold, but I have to wait another year to experience my flowers”

Or again, “Research has shown that the style portion of the flower can make decision on which pollen it will accept based on the sex ratio of the plants around it, the overall fitness of the potential mates, and their relatedness. These are much the same decisions that animals make in choosing their mates.”

Given these views it is not surprising to hear Huegel say that “though I do not presume to argue the morality of taking a plant life over an aniimal one, it cannot be argued that seeds do not contain baby plants and that baby plants are not alive and aware of their status and surroundings.”

Huegel’s view tends to be teleological. He sees the development of flowering plants — which comprise about 80 percent of the total number of plant species today — as an advance, an improvement over earlier types of plants, such as ferns, for example. I would prefer not to place such value judgments on the course of evolution. Flowering plants are making a big bet on pollinators, and who is to say that they might not suffer a correspondingly big kill-off in our Anthropocene age? If that were to happen, ferns’ reliance on ancient methods of reproduction might not look so backward after all.

But that is a minor objection. Huegel is particular good on plant hormones, which are used to allocate resources, respond to threats, and regulate and time the production of their sexual processes. He is also good on the ways plants communicate with one another, both above ground with the controlled release of volatile organic compounds (“When we mow our lawn and sense that smell of freshly cut grass, we are picking up the lawn’s alarm call telling the plants around them that danger is nearby”) and underground through their own roots, along with symbiotic bacteria and fungi. Fungal networks in particular provide plants with the ability to communicate across long distances, to favor their own offspring with essential resources and also to communicate with others of their own and different species. 

Valuable as its practical observations are, this book’s systematic analysis of how plants work is its most important contribution, both to gardeners and to others interested in plant life. For, as Huegel says, “When we understand plants, we understand the foundation of life on earth.”

The Golden Ratio: The Divine Beauty of Mathematics, by Gary D. Meisner

Golden Ratio cover

Race Point Publishing
Oct 23, 2018
91/4 x 113/8 in., 224 pages
ISBN: 9781631064869

I have often used the golden ratio in my design work. I have to confess that this sometimes reflected a kind of laziness: the golden ratio is always pretty sure to look good, and it is easy to implement. But why does it look good? Partly because its proportions are found throughout nature and in the human face and body. But devotees of a mystical bent in the tradition of Pythagorus — those who, like Johannes Kepler, find the signature of divinity in the mathematics of the natural world — will feel that the importance of the proportion goes beyond that.

Gary B. Meisner’s The Golden Ratio: The Divine Beauty of Mathematics, a handsome, richly illustrated oversized hardcover book, attempts to explain the ratio and demonstrate its occurrence in art and nature. He begins by defining the ratio and considering its unique properties.

In my work I tend to think of the ratio in terms of rectangles, which are often the building blocks of book pages. In Robert Bringhurst’s Elements of Typographic Style, for example, he describes a method for setting a type block in the shape of a golden rectangle in an ISO-sized page:

Bringhurst on golden section

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La Vie en Rose

"La Vie en Rose" was named a notable essay of 2019 in Best American Essays 2019, edited by Rebecca Solnit.

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.


One morning in 2016, keepers at the National Aquarium of New Zealand arrived at work to discover the institution’s inventory of octopuses unexpectedly halved. Mild-mannered Blotchy remained in his tank, his expression revealing nothing. But Inky, his bold erstwhile companion, was nowhere to be seen. 

Sometime during the night, it turned out, Inky had worked his way through a small opening at the top of the tank where a cap plate had been set slightly ajar. From there he had descended to the floor and suckered his way eight feet across it, trailing a tell-tale drippy track. At that point he slid through a six-inch-diameter, 160-foot-long drainpipe — he could probably hear water noises through it — and plopped into Hawkes Bay, an arm of the vast South Pacific. Whether resentful of his imprisonment or simply curious and adventurous, Inky had returned to the sea. He was free!

It’s hard not to see some sort of intentionality in Inky’s great escape, a crafty octopean consciousness at work. But René Descartes would have been unconvinced. According to Descartes, only humans possess the nonmaterial mind that he called the res cogitans (the realm of thought). Inky, he would have said, possesses merely corporeal materiality, so his behavior must somehow have occurred within what Descartes called the res extensa, the realm of noncognitive substantiality. Cogito ergo sum, Descartes said — one of philosophy’s most famous, and most self-centered, phrases. And something of a fallacious, or at least presumptive, one: what exactly is this “I” that he posits from the presence of thought? Descartes thought, so he thought he was somebody. He did not believe creatures such as Inky could claim the same. 

But in 2012 a group of scientists publicly took issue with Descartes. The occasion was the Francis Crick Memorial Conference in Cambridge, England, focusing on “Consciousness in Humans and Non-Human Animals.” It assembled, in the words of the Declaration on Consciousness that it produced in a public signing witnessed by Stephen Hawking, “a prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists.” The scientists found that by stimulating parts of animal brains, even without a neocortex (the most recently evolved part of the human brain, associated with the senses), they produced behaviors consistent with similar effects associated with emotions in humans. 

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If I Only Had a Clue

I could pass a pleasant evening
Reading A. J. Liebling
Or Sartre or Camus
Getting smarter by the hour
I could be a Schopenhauer
If I only had a clue

I’d do textual exegesis
On Auerbach’s Mimesis
And Casimiro de Abreu
I’d read Gaston Bachelard
I’d know all the Communards
If I only had a clue

Oh, I could tell you who
Translated Du Fu
And Murasaki too
And then I’d parse
The Popul Vuh

I’d be quite the literatus
Like Nikos Kazantzakis
And Charles-Louis de Montesquieu
I’d know Flaubert’s semi-colons
I’d recite the Song of Roland
And I’d do it all for you
If I only had a clue

How to back up raw camera files online for free without data loss

If you shoot raw rather than jpeg and have a decent camera your files are likely to be very large. Of the online storage options, Google Photos has the best search capabilities for finding particular shots. But Google’s free service only applies to “high resolution” files rather than the originals. To create these files, Google will take your raw files and compress them into jpegs that do not exceed 16 MB. If you google this process you will find comparisons that seem to show that the compression is not bad, and in many cases the compressed files are difficult to distinguish from the originals. Still, this somewhat defeats the purpose of shooting with a good-quality camera as opposed to a smart phone. Unfortunately, uploading the original files (as opposed to letting Google compress them) can get rather expensive if you shoot a lot (like me, as I bracket all my photos, resulting in three versions of every shot).

Amazon Prime offers free unlimited storage of raw camera files, which is great, though in practice, their uploader seems quite slow for some reason. Still, this will provide online backup of the unaltered original files. However, the Amazon service, unlike Google’s is not smart enough to capture the exif data, which in raw is stored in separate .xmp files. This means that all your raw photos will be thrown in a big basket called “undated.” I find this unsatisfactory because in a crisis if I had to depend on this it would be an enormous headache to sort through this big random basket of files.

My current solution is to upload the raw files to both services, letting Google compress the files. That way all of the dates and shooting information are available in Google Photos, but if I need the originals I could get them from Amazon by searching for the file name (in practice, everything lives in local storage, but it’s a good idea to have online backup as, well, a backup (I also use iDrive to backup my whole computer.)

I think this solution should work fine. Until the vendors change their terms, that is!

Swiss Exhibit, 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale

Swiss Pavilion, 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale

The Swiss pavilion won the Golden Lion national pavilion award for presenting “a compelling exhibition which was enjoyable while tackling the critical issues of scale in domestic space.”

The concept of the exhibition was to expose the ubiquitous white intteriors and familiar bland fixtures of contemporary architecture by playing with issues of scale.

The curators’ statement:

“The interior of housing is the most familiar of architectures. Perhaps for this reason, it is also a kind of terra incognita. Photographs of unfurnished flat interiors have only recently become commonplace in architectural media. If the increased prominence of unfurnished flat photographs seems strange, it is precisely because the performance of housing’s interior surface has historically been predicated on the ‘suppression’ of its image. By foregrounding the appearance of the architectural enclosure, the images imply a challenge to the tradition of the inconspicuous interior and anticipate an alternate architectural sensibility through which to reimagine housing’s interior shell. Svizzera 240 celebrates the promise of the unfurnished image by constructing its theatrical counterpart, the house tour, within the Swiss pavilion. On this tour, the plan’s promise of control over scale, organisation, and function, is undermined by the representational deficiencies of the image in an attempt to highlight the latent plasticity of the world’s most popular habitat.”

Garamond Premier Pro

garamond premier pro
Working with Garamond Premier Pro for my book on Persian ceramics, I have been impressed by the range of sizes and weights the typeface includes. There are regular, medium, semibold, and bold weights for each of the sizes. In addition, the display size offers an extra-light weight in both regular and italic.

UPDATE: Since writing the above in 2008 I have used Garamond Premier Pro in my books 1616: The World in Motion and River of Ink: Literature, History, Artas well as in books designed for others, such as Bali: Art, Ritual, Performance by Natasha Reichle.

Different fonts are provided for four type sizes: caption, regular, subhead, and display. The caption fonts, for example, have large x-heights and heavier strokes in order to hold up at small sizes. The display fonts have elegantly modest x-heights and light stroke weights suitable for presentation at large sizes. The header for the image above is the medium display weight (to balance some of the dark fonts,including the caption fonts, which would not ordinarily be used at this large a size. The fonts also include a full range of diacritics and foreign-language characters.

Garamond Premier Pro was designed by Robert Slimbach on the model of the roman types of Claude Garamond and the italic types of Robert Granjon; it represent a reworking and expansion of the earlier Garamond Pro. It is available in OpenType from Adobe.

I sought to maintain the fidelity of the metal type as revealed in the specimen material—rather than taking a more subjective approach, such as attempting to reproduce artifacts of letterpress printing, or at the other extreme, modernizing form through heavy-handed stylization or drastic structural modification. I feel that by overtly imitating the appearance of an outdated technology, a digital type can appear antique, or even quaint, while excessive stylization can diminish the organic properties inherent in a hand-cut type. With Garamond Premier, I followed the details of line and form displayed in the original metal type as much as possible in order to reveal the ideal that I felt Garamond and Granjon were trying to achieve in their work. By preserving subtleties of shape, a level of fidelity is maintained that would normally be clouded by the noise-generating effects of letterpress printing on handmade papers. Throughout the design process, I repeatedly returned to the original proofs to ensure I was preserving details I felt were essential to the design. At the same time, I often felt it necessary to carefully adjust shapes and parameters in order to harmonize the varied work of these two individual designers within this single type family.
— Robert Slimbach

Most posts on typography

Printing Revolution, 1450-1500

I received this catalogue of an exhibition at the Correr Museum in Venice from the amazing Scott Newstok of Rhodes College in Memphis, who always seems to be a step ahead of me on whatever I’m working on. The exhibition, curated by Cristina Dondi, runs through April 30.

The catalogue features a striking design by the Sebastiano Girardi Studio. It includes well-thought-out graphics and artwork on mostly black backgrounds, printed on Fedrigoni Sumbol Tatami White paper. I like the design, though it was impossible to tell from the cover and title page (above) whether the title was “Printing Revolution” or “Printing Evolution.” The design cleverly implies both and gives them seemingly equal weight. That’s great, but a potential problem for librarians, booksellers, and book shoppers.

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The Blend If function in Photoshop

I am learning that the Blend If function is one of the most powerful in Photoshop. This video from Phlearn is a good overview of the function.

I think one of the best uses of the tool is to moderate the effects of Photoshop’s
“clarity” slider. While the various sharpening modes make universal pixel tone adjustments based on differences with their neighbors (sometimes creating the white halos of oversharpening), clarity focuses more on midtones while adjusting for large tonal areas (as I understand).

But while clarity can enhance apparent detail in mid to light areas, it can seem artificial in dark areas. The way to control this is to apply clarity and then use a gray Blend If to remove the effects from the dark areas. (I still typically do an overall sharpening.)

I learned this from Nick Higham (his page references an early version of Photoshop but the principle still applies)

San Marco

The Harrowing of Hell Mosaic, Basilica San Marco, Venice

The Harrowing of Hell, Basilica San Marco, Venice
Click through to Flickr and expand for a larger view.

This mosaic is one of four on the upper level of the basilica of San Marco (behind the loggia where the horses reside) flanking the main door to the plaza. From left to right facing the basilica, they depict the Deposition (entombment), the Harrowing, the Resurrection, and the Ascension of Christ.

The harrowing of Hell, also called the Descent into Limbo and the Anastasis, among other variants, took place between the crucifixion and the resurrection. Then Christ is said to have descended into the realm of the dead to reclaim the righteous and carry them to heaven.

By the early seventeenth century the original mosaics from the thirteenth century had badly deteriorated—the only remaining original mosaic is the one above the left portal, depicting the arrival of St. Mark’s body—and replacements were commissioned and executed in 1617-1618. The mosaic work was done by Luigi Gaetano based on cartoons by Maffeo Verona. The mosaics are made up of tesserae—small pieces of colored glass, stone,and enamel set in plaster.

The inscription appears to read “Ovis Fractis Portis Spoliat Me Campio Fortis” but I think the first letter is probably a Q and the V represents a U, as was formerly common. Then the Latin could be translated as something like “He who breaks down doors and carries me off is the mighty one.”

Location of the Harrowing of Hell mosaic on the Basilica San Marco facade.

Palazzo Trevisan, Murano, Venice

Palazzo Trevisan, Murano, Venice

The crumbling Palazzo Trevisan is located on Fondamenta Andrea Navagero, opposite the Museum of Glass, in Murano. Overlook the neglect of its facade–which was once covered with frescoes by Prospero Bresciano–to appreciate what Richard Goy, in Venice: An Architectural Guide, calls “the most remarkable Renaissance palace on Murano.”

The palazzo was built from 1555–58 from a design by the humanist Daniele Barbaro, a patron of Palladio, who certainly inspired and might have participated in it. The lower two rows of windows look out from the ground floor. The piano nobile above features a stonework balcony in front of a large central window with a pediment cap (a Renaissance innovation). At top is a low attic signaled by small square windows.

The interior was once richly decorated and adorned with large paintings by Veronese and others, and the rear of the building opened onto a large garden. Little remains of this former grandeur.

Ponte Santa Trinita, Florence, Italy

Ponte Santa Trinita, Florence, Italy

Just downstream from the Ponte Vecchio, the Ponte Santa Trinita, the world’s oldest elliptic arch bridge, was constructed from 1567 to 1569 by Bartolomeo Ammannati. The bridge was destroyed during WWII but reconstructed mainly from original materials raised from the Arno.

San Giorgio and the Giudecca from Riva degli Schiavoni, Venice

San Giorgio and the Giudecca from Riva degli Schiavoni, Venice

The cupola of the Redentore is visible beyond San Giorgio Maggiore. The modest-looking piers in the foreground are used by the Marco Polo Boat Club.

GPS: 45.433732, 12.345992

Punta della Dogana, Venice

Punta della Dogana at the Meeting of the Grand and Giudecca Canals, Venice

The Punta della Dogana at the meeting of the Grand and Giudecca Canals.

The Punta della Dogana is the pointy tip of the Dorsaduro where the Grand and Giudecca Canals meet. It is named for the dogana (Dogana di Mare), or customs house that operated here at least from the fourteenth century until well into the twentieth. The present dogana was constructed in 1682, not long after the neighboring Santa Maria della Salute (Saint Mary of Health), which was built in thanks for the passing of the plague in 1630.

Most visitors today, coming from the Santa Lucia train station, or the Piazzale Roma parking area, or the Marco Polo airport, enter the city from the rear. Until the mid-nineteenth century, when the first rail connection was built across the lagoon, the face of the city was on the opposite side, at San Marco. This was signaled to approaching vessels by the columns of San Marco and San Teodoro (more about them later). The Dogana lay directly across the Grand Canal, and as Venice was an empire built on trade it must have been a lively place indeed.

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A Section of the Grand Canal in the Dorsaduro Sestiero of Venice

A Section of the Grand Canal in the Dorsaduro Sestiero of Venice

The stretch of Venice’s Grand Canal between the Rialto Bridge and the Bacino includes some of the city’s finest buildings. Owners of these buildings invested great effort and funds into creating impressive facades facing the Canal.

The five buildings shown here — with the dome of the church of Santa Maria de la Salute and a tiny slice of the former Abbazia di San Gregorio in the background — are, left to right, Palazzo Genovese, Palazo Benzon, Palazzo Salviati, Palazzo Barbaro, and Palazzo Dario.

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Bridge of Sighs, Venice

Bridge of Sighs

Upon entry into the great city of Venice, every camera-toting visitor is required to sign a document committing them to taking a photo of the Bridge of Sigh (Ponte dei Sospiri). This is my entry from our latest visit.

Beech Forest, Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts

Beech Forest, Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts

Beech Forest, in the Cape Cod National Seashore near Provincetown, offers a glimpse of the original arboreal landscape of the cape. According to the National Park Service,

In the period before European settlement, Cape Cod was covered largely by pine-oak forests, interspersed with smaller areas of hickory, beech, red maple, and birch. In the 18th and 19th centuries, much of Cape Cod consisted of open heathlands and grasslands created and maintained primarily by the agricultural practices of early settlers that included cutting, grazing, and burning. The cessation of these activities by the mid-1800s allowed trees to re-invade the landscape and forests now occupy the largest land-surface area and biovolume of any vegetation community.

Currently, the sole remnant of beech forest is this preserve at the northern end of the cape. The forest is in a low-lying area that was not worth logging. The trees, which don’t seem to mind wet feet, surround ponds covered with lilies and lined with reeds and other marsh vegetation. Wildlife is abundant and melodious birdsong fills the air.

There are bicycle and hiking trails that lead all the way to the dunes (about three miles). In past, the Provincetown Fire Department set up lights to illuminate the ponds for winter skaters, but I don’t know if this tradition continues.

Beech Forest Pond, Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts

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Vegetable venders near the Ponte dei Pugni

Greengrocer near the Ponte dei Pugni, Venice

Greengrocer near the Ponte dei Pugni, Venice

So convenient to pop down to the canal and pick up a few fresh fruits and vegetables.

The nearby bridge is called the Ponte dei Pugni (Bridge of Fists) because until the early eighteenth century the rival Castelloni and Nicolotti clans would meet in the middle of the bridge for fisticuffs. The losers would be tossed over the side of the bridge into the canal.

The bridge spans the Rio di S. Barnaba in the sestiero of Dorsoduro. The Church of San Barnaba, which gives the canal its name, appeared in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where its Paladian facade was supposed to be that of a library where Jones’s father disappeared. The church was rebuilt several times. The present version, from the mid to late eighteenth century, is by Lorenzo Boschetti. Its campanile, however, is one of the oldest in Venice, probably dating from the twelfth century.

Maria Félix Google doodle

María Félix, 1914-2002

Maria Flix as Catalina de Erauso

María Félix as Catalina de Erauso

Nice to see the great María Félix as a Google Doodle today (April 8, her 103rd birthday). Here she is as Catalina de Erauso in The Lieutenant Nun (from my book 1616: The World in Motion). In this cunning disguise nobody was able to identify her as a woman.


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