Tuesday, December 26, 2006

St. Stephen's Day waxwings

Today is St. Stephen's Day, or Boxing day in the British Commonwealth. St. Stephen is both a mythological and a composite figure in Christian lore, because there were several real persons known as St. Stephen, and the some of the deeds attributed to St. Stephen could not have been performed by anyone, most notably being martyred at two different times.

Officially, he was supposed to have been killed off by a mob after the Sanhedrin condemned him for blasphmy in about 34 AD. He was thus the first Christian martyr. Because of that, he seems to have gotten mixed up in the ancient legend of Herod and the Cock, which has Herod the Great being informed that a greater king than Herod himself has been born in Bethlehem, and, like all despots when receiving bad news, Herod responds badly.

In a medieval English carol I am fond of, Stephen appears as a waiter in Herod's hall carrying in a roasted boar's head, and when he sees the star over Bethlehem, dramatically quits his job and gives the King the bad news, as follows:

He cast adown the boar's head,
And went into the halle;
"I forsake thee, king Herod,
And thy werkes alle.
"I forsake thee, king Herod,
And thine werkes alle,
There is a child in Bethlem borne,
Is better than we alle."

Herod at first mocks Stephen thinking him mad, and then says that such a thing can no more be possible than for the chicken on his plate to come to life and crow, which, of course, it immediately did.

Herod take this very ill and has Stephen taken out and stoned to death.

Another Stephen, St. Stephen of Hungary, was a pagan nobleman who murdered a rival by gouging out his eyes and pouring molten lead into his ears. After this Stephen converted to Christianity, he required of Hungarians that they too become Christians, and, evidently being being impressed by the cautionary example of the rival, the Hungarian people did so.

"St. Stephen," whoever he was, is (or has been at various times) the patron saint of bricklayers, stonemasons, headaches, horses, and is now associated with gift-giving, at least in English speaking countries.

So, since St. Stephen is also associated with the wren for reasons that are very unclear, I went out birdwatching today, and saw some more cedar waxwings. This seems to be a good year for cedar waxwings in Austin. Some years I hardly see them at all.

It was a beautiful day in Austin, by the way. No wrens, however.

Couple of waxwing photos below:

Three waxwings in a hackberry tree
Cedar Waxwings on St. Stephen's Day--photo 4

Waxwing on a broken branch
Cedar Waxwings on St. Stephen's Day--photo 5

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Note of interest only to people picky about photographs

I have occasionally tried to figure out why my photos on my blog appear washed-out. I had assumed that Blogger was stripping out color profiles, which, if you care about the appearance of, say, an old color photo you have tried to restore, is certainly not a good thing. On the other hand, it's not really a big deal.

I recently began uploading a lot of photos to Flickr, which allows much larger file sizes than Blogspot, and, since I am paying them money for storage (not much, but still...) I was unhappy to find the same problem. So I looked into it. It turns out Flickr does _not_ strip out color profiles, but if you are using a browser that is not color-space aware, the end result is the same--a washed-out photo.

I found this out by trial and error, except in reverse--ongoing error, and then finally, some experimentation.

I am using a Mac, and I normally use Firefox as my browser, which, sadly, does not seem to handle color properly. Otherwise I very much like Firefox. Hopefully Firefox on Windows machines does a better job, but I suspect not.

For Macintosh users, the current version of Safari does handle color correctly at least to the extent of displaying sRGB more or less as intended.

So you Mac people, you should probably use Safari when viewing Photos on Flickr, at least if you want to see them the way the photographer had in mind.

(I can't advise Windows users, of course, having not used a Windows machine since I retired. Hopefully there exists some Windows browser that will handle color decently well, which, minimally, would mean doing something more or less correct with sRGB photos.)

But none of this will make the slightest bit of difference for photos stored on Blogspot, because as far as I can tell, they do, indeed, strip out color profiles.

I recently restored some 1987 photos of a trip to Real de Catorce in Mexico to some semblance of how they originally looked, and put them up on Flickr. If the question of color profiles interests you (or if old Mexican towns interest you) you can try these photos with different browsers. Safari makes a big difference on my Mac.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Waxwings and winterberries

I was birdwatchiing in McKinney Falls state park today, not expecting many birds though, because it was in the middle of the afternoon, not the best time for seeing birds--but as walked along the limestone cliff above Onion Creek I began to hear the faint gargling whistles of a flock of cedar waxwings. I soon found myself surrounded by the whistles, localized in bushes all around me. The birds paid little attention to me. They were busy eating winterberries, which is what the bright red berries of the native deciduous holly (Ilex decidua) are called. The holly plants have all lost their leaves at this time of year, so the berries are easily visible to the birds, and the birds, as it happens, are also easily visible to the camera.

It was actually a mixed flock of waxwings and robins, but they seemed to share the feast amicably, possibly because there seems to be a big crop of berries--plenty for everyone.

Here is a cedar waxwing who has found a winterberry.
Cedar waxwing eating holly berries

Here is a waxwing looking for more berries
Cedar waxwing looking for holly berries

Two waxwings in a holly bush
Two cedar waxwings eating holly berries

(click on any photo for larger versions on my Flickr page.)

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

December insects in Austin

It was another 70° day in Austin, and it brought out some butterflies and a few dragonflies. The dragonflies were taking the opportunity to mate. Dragonfly sex is weird (though perhaps no weirder than anyone else's). The male clasps the female behind the head with hooks at the tip of his abdomen, and the female reaches up with the tip of her abdomen, where she is keeping her eggs, and fertilizes the eggs at the male sex organs at the bottom of his thorax.

Variegated meadowhawks mating
Variegated meadowhawks mating

And here is a view of a common buckeye butterfly, active on a warm December day...
Buckeye butterfly on December 13 in Austin

...and here's another
Another view of a December buckeye

click any photo for larger view

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Town birds at Town Lake

It was a fine, sunny day in Austin, after a spell of cold and damp weather. I went down to Town Lake to see which ducks are back, and found ruddy ducks, buffleheads, and great numbers of lesser scaups.

Having also lately taken an interest in butterfly photography, I noticed that several butterfly species are still out in good numbers, notably American snouts (not nearly as numerous as before the first freeze), buckeyes, and a large yellow Phoebis species, either agarithe or philea. But I had my 1.7x tele-extension lens on because I wanted to take pictures of birds, and this is no good for macro shots.

I thought I had better pictures of the birds than it turns out that I did. Below is the best of the scaup photos.
Lesser scaup, Austin's Town Lake

This is a female ruddy duck. More commonly they have their short, stiff tails held almost upright.
Female Ruddy Duck, Austin's Town Lake

This is one of Austin's monk parakeets. They have lived and bred in Austin for 30 years or more. They are temperate and subtropical birds from South America, and can withstand fairly cold weather. They like power poles.
Monk parakeet in its natural Austin habitat

(click for larger versions of the photos at Flickr.)

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Kay visits a Mexican bordello

subtitle: The follies of youth

In the summer of 1962, Kay Sutherland was on an archeological dig in the desert near Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, in northern Mexico. She was 20 years old and was an anthropology student.

Now, it's not clear whose idea it was, but some of the guys on the crew decided to visit a house of prostitution in Monterrey one Saturday night. Kay, having as usual made herself one of the boys, and being the person she was, wanted to go along, to see what it was like. She said, "why don't I go disguised as a man?" The rest of the crew--perhaps surprisingly--liked this idea.

The "disguise" is shown below. In the photo, they are on their way to the brothel. I don't know where Kay got the fake sideburns. The concept was that Kay would buy a drink and sit silently with a couple of others who were also drinking but not buying the favors of the ladies of the night. Thus Kay, as a good anthropologist, could observe first-hand, or almost first-hand, the culture of Mexican whorehouses. This whole thing was not well thought out, though. Sitting silently was not Kay's strong point, and also, I think she was the only one of the group who spoke Spanish.

Unsurprisingly, their plan went awry. The management took one look at them and raised the prices of drinks astronomically. My guess is that no one was fooled, and that everyone in the place thought the group was a bunch of American college students one of whom was a woman dressed like a man, and that in any case they were not going to be paying customers. Hence, high drink prices would encourage them to leave.

At this point the group had a problem. They had all already bought drinks and they realized with dismay that they did not have enough money to pay for them, which if nothing else indicates to me that my theory--that they were suspected of being a group that was gonna look but not buy--was correct. If they didn't have enough money after collectively pooling their pesos to pay for the drinks, obviously no one had seriously planned on paying for sex. Either that, or someone had been the victim of a pickpocket. (Unfortunately, I don't remember Kay's account of the origin of their financial woes, except that I remember it was complicated.) I am also surprised, looking at the photo, that they were allowed a tab.

But now they had this problem--they owed a debt they couldn't pay to some very tough customers in a very bad part of town. Big paunchy guys wearing black stetson hats and cowboy boots and big silver belt buckles, who seemed to have some employment capacity in the place, were staring at them and not in a friendly way. They decided to get up--nonchalantly--and move toward the door as the tall guy in the photo, who presumably could run the fastest, fumbled with his wallet like he was going to pay la cuenta.

As they got out the door and ran, he, too, bolted. Three of them ran one way and Kay and a guy who was with her ran another way, but Kay was wearing shoes that were too large and didn't fit, and the shoes kept trying to fall off, and she was soon left behind by her companion, so she was now all by herself running in a blind panic with floppy clown shoes down a dark alley in the red-light district in Monterrey, Mexico, trying to escape from pursuers she imagined wanted to beat the hell out of the skinny and pasty-faced boy she still thought they believed she was.

But, as it turns out, no one was actually behind her. No one was chasing any of them. The whorehouse proprietorship had sent no goons in pursuit. But the archeology crew only figured that out later, after they managed to reunite and return, safe and sound, but very late, to where they were staying.

The scrambling escape from the whorehouse must have caused a lot of merriment to onlookers, actually. People must have considered it worth the price of a beer.

Improbable as it may seem from the photo (or the story), several of this group went on in later life to become college professors.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Occasional cultural notes: The Blanton

(I believe my last cultural note was a review of a vast hunting-supply and outdoorsperson supermarket a few miles south of Austin, hard by Interstate Hwy 35. You get what you pay for, at this blog.)

I have twice visited the new Blanton Art museum of the University of Texas at Austin, which has been built a little behind schedule after Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron abandoned the project in a world-class dudgeon, as befits architects of their station, after the UT System Board of Regents nixed their original plan, which looked like an enormous plastic and glass tent (which by the way I kind of liked) saying it was not in keeping with University's Master Plan, which stipulates that all new campus buildings should conform to a "Spanish Renaissance" style. And clearly, it was neither Spanish nor renaissancy, not in any way. The new Blanton building, now finished, designed by some Boston architects whose names I forget, is nothing to write home about but does fit well with a lot of other UT buildings, and is indeed handsomer than most of them, in my opinion.

Downstairs is a big Luca Cambiaso exhibit. Cambiaso was a little-known Genoese Renaissance painter, and this is billed as the first major exhibit of his work anywhere in half a century, and the only one ever put up outside of Italy. I didn't much like his work. Since they won't let you take photos of the first floor exhibits, I can't show you why.

But I found plenty of things to like upstairs, among the permanent exhibits--and you can take pictures, though the light is so bad it is hard to do so. Except for the 20th century stuff, this is all out of copyright, so I think it is OK to put these photos on the web.

Here is a painting of David with the Head of Goliath by Claude Vignon, from about 1620. David here is curiously girlish, and this reminds me of some of the Salome-with-the-head-of-John-the-Baptist paintings I have seen, the ones I can remember being, I believe, Victorian--which leads me to wonder if this weird and obscure painting by Vignon may have somehow been an influence on the Aubrey Beardsley crowd. Probably not.

Next is Giovanni Battista Passeri's Musical Party in the Garden, which is a cheerful painting that is hard not to like, or at least I found it so.

Here is one of George Romney's many paintings of Lady Hamilton, and not one of the better ones, but it led me to read a little bit about her--she was quite an extraordinary woman.
She was was born Amy Lyon in 1765, and was the daughter of a blacksmith. Later she changed her name to Emma Hart. She was apparently brilliant as well as beautiful, and eventually became Lady Emma Hamilton. In many ways she was the prototype of the modern celebrity, famous for being, well, famous. And, of course, she was Admiral Nelson's mistress. She was an alcoholic, and, sadly, drank herself to death. (This little caption hardly does justice to her life, which was spectacular. Sorry.)

I especially liked the little section of 19th century frontier paintings. Here is a detail of a Henry Farny painting, Council of the Chiefs.

click any photo to enlarge