February 10th, 2010


[OBSCURA] Daguerre, "Boulevard du Temple"

Louis Daguerre, partner and heir to Niépce, is the inventor of the Daguerrotype, the first commercially viable form of photography.

Daguerreotypes were usually portraits; the rarer views are much sought-after and are more expensive. The portrait process took several minutes and required the subjects to remain stock still. Samuel Morse was astonished to learn that Daguerrotypes of streets of Paris did not show any humans, until he realized that due to the long exposure times all moving objects became invisible. The time was later reduced with the "faster" lenses such as the Petzval's portrait lens, the first mathematically calculated lens.

The Daguerreotype was the Polaroid of the day, producing a single image which was not reproducible (unlike the Talbot process). Despite this drawback, millions of Daguerreotypes were produced. By 1851, the year of Daguerre's death, the Fox Talbot negative process was refined by the development of the wet collodion process, whereby a glass negative enabled a limitless number of sharp prints to be made. These developments made the Daguerreotype redundant and the process very soon disappeared.

The 1838 photo "Bouelvard du Temple" (taken from the Wikimedia Commons) is of seminal importance for showing, in this view of a street in Paris' 3e arrondissement, the first picture of human beings, a man getting his shoes shined and the shoeshinder in the lower left hand corner. (The street traffic was moving much too quickly to be recorded.)

[LINK] Learning to like Irish and learning about Québécois' language identities

I've come across two interesting language-related posts I'd like to share with you.

  • I'd like to thank nwhyte for linking to Belgian Waffle's post Stair na Teanga. She describes, in the course of a long, entertaining, and very illuminating essay about how she first fell out of love with the Irish language and then came to like it again. Effective teaching pedagogies, as always, are key for the future of any successful language revivalist movement, that and the ability to demonstrate the language's continued relevance to the modern world.

  • At primary school, I spoke a great deal of Irish. All the day-to-day interactions of the school were in Irish. My best friend from school spoke Irish at home and I spent a lot of time in her house. I didn’t think of Irish as a subject at which I could be good or bad, it was just part and parcel of life. I didn’t have views about the Irish language. It was just there, like English, something you were surrounded by. It had no status in my mind as a “language”. It was not like exotic French or German which my parents spoke when they didn’t want us to understand them. Irish was homely, domestic, natural, easy and not at all exciting. Unlike, I now realise, the parents of many of my contemporaries, my parents spoke good Irish and were fond of the language. Although we never spoke Irish at home, they would often quote bits and pieces of Irish poems and use the odd word here and there. Only the other day, I was telling my mother about a mural the boys had done in school entitled “Anois teacht an Earraigh” and she was into the second verse of the poem before I could stop her.

    When I was 12, I started secondary school. A lot of things happened that year. I moved house. I moved school. My best friend dumped me (alas, but so it was): I used to follow her around mournfully like a whipped puppy/a depressed ex-girlfriend (delete as you feel appropriate). Obviously, this meant I was no longer spending a great deal of time in her house. I became a gloomy teenager. I met French and we fell in love. One of the things I didn’t particularly notice at the time was that my relationship with Irish changed too. Irish was taught very differently at secondary school. It did not in any way infuse the school environment which was firmly anglophone. The idea that you might bring a message from one teacher to another in Irish was ludicrous. My first Irish teacher at secondary school was perfectly competent but suddenly I was learning Irish in a very overt way and it was new to me. For the first time I became conscious of a huge hostility towards Irish from my peers. They hated Irish, they hated Peig though we had yet to encounter her unique brand of pessism (her book begins “I am old woman now with one foot in the grave” and goes downhill from there). Anxious to be liked and regardless of my positive experience to date, I hated Irish too. I fervently envied the girl who came home from America aged 12 and was therefore exempt from studying Irish.

  • Elsewhere, in the National Post Graeme Hamilton writes ("Tintin runs into trouble 'en Québécois'") about how the production of a version of Tintin written in Québec French hasn't been very popular. Even though Québécois take pride in their own dialect of French, their dialect is spoken, not written; for foreigners to assume that they're not very francophone is not a small insult.

  • "In Quebec, we may speak strangely, but we write in French, and little Quebecers can read Tintin in the original, even learning a few new words along the way," Odile Tremblay wrote in Le Devoir. "So, a translation.... We have a bit of pride left. Don't go taking that from us. Seriously!"

    Étienne Pollet, who oversees regional translations of Tintin for the series' Belgian publisher, Casterman, said the negative reaction in Quebec is unprecedented. Usually when a new translation comes out, fans empty bookstore shelves, he said from Belgium. "In Europe, these editions are always met by a frenzy. People are very honoured that there is a Tintin, not so much in their language, but in the language of their grandparents."

    Quebecers, on the other hand, have been suspicious. "What struck me the most was people who said this book was being published to make fun of Quebecers. That was not my intention at all," Mr. Pollet said. "It is only in Quebec that we have encountered this peculiar reaction."

    There is nothing revolutionary about tailoring a translation to a Quebec audience. Hollywood films and popular television shows regularly screen dubbed-in-Quebec French versions, even when a version from France already exists. Three years ago, after a Shrek movie was released in a French riddled with incomprehensible Parisian slang, there was an unsuccessful push for legislation forcing studios to dub their movies in Quebec for the Quebec audience. And Quebec writers -- most famously Michel Tremblay in his play Les Belles-soeurs -- long ago erased the taboo against using working-class Quebec joual in literature.

    But language remains a touchy subject in Quebec, said Yves Laberge, a Quebec City sociologist who adapted the text of the Tintin book Coke en stock into Québécois (Colocs en stock). Sensitivity is all the greater when it is someone from outside -- in this case a Belgian publisher -- shining a light on the language of Quebec. "Some people want to believe that we speak exactly like in Europe, and others realize that it's not quite the same," he said. "The criticism was predictable in a way."

    [LINK] "Legacy of emigration in Chinese countryside reminiscent of Ireland"

    The Irish Times' Clifford Coonan writes about an unexpected legacy of generations of emigration from Guangdong's Taishan district: a superabundance of Western-style architecture.

    Scores of Tuscan castles with elegant Rococo styling or Spanish adobes are not what you expect when travelling through southern Chinese countryside, but then, the area around Taishan is no ordinary Chinese countryside.

    The odd sight of medieval battlements and Romanesque arches bears testament to Taishan’s history as an emigration centre for hundreds of years, as Taishanese left to go to the Europe, the United States and Canada, setting up restaurants, building railroads and panning for gold in the expanding New World.

    These days the people of Taishan are leaving in droves to study in the universities and work in the software companies in the West, and the government is worried about a “brain drain” that could stifle much-needed innovation as China emerges as an economic powerhouse. The region’s history is startlingly familiar to Irish visitors.

    Approaching one building, you see a narrow, heavily fortified entrance. The windows are small and barred, but heavily ornate, and so are clearly a difficult proposition for an early 20th century bandit, keen to steal the booty of a returned emigrant flush with cash from building the railroads of the American West. At the top are turrets and Romanesque arches.

    Some of the buildings are more than 400 years old, but most of these edifices were built by returned emigrants in the early 20th century, who needed a way to protect their money from robbers during the period of lawlessness which characterised the dying days of the Qing dynasty, which ended in 1911, and the early Republican period of Chinese history.

    [. . .]

    In China, a combination of the rush to modernity and poor construction has seen many significant buildings destroyed, but the area around Taishan is full of wonderful examples of Chinese takes on the great architectural styles of the West. There are whole streets with covered arcades similar to the style seen in northern Italian cities such as Bologna, and family homes modelled on the Romanesque Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Others are built in Spanish adobe style, and there are also dwellings with strong elements of southeast Asian architecture.

    [LINK] "Europe's once-booming Baltics sink deep"

    Nerijus Adomaitis and Patrick Lannin' Globe and Mail article concentrates on Latvia, where the economic crash is such that Edward Hugh wonders about the sustainability of the Latvian state.

    Wconomists say the worst may be over for the Baltics, but the human cost has been high: Unemployment in Latvia is now the highest in the European Union, at 22.8 per cent in December 2009. Estonia has the third highest, after Spain, Lithuania the fourth.

    Even if some kind of recovery is on the way, it would need to be a very high tide to lift the boats of people like Ms. Garniene or, in Latvia to the north, Valentina Pankova, who works in the laundry of an old people's home near Riga, the capital.

    She earns just 100 lats a month, or just over $200 (U.S.), on a government scheme to help the unemployed.

    As an unenviable crown from the crisis, Latvia set a world record by losing more than 24 per cent of its economy in just two years - a sharper contraction than America's during the Great Depression, according to U.S. analyst Mark Weisbrot of the Washington-based Centre for Economic and Policy Research.

    [. . .]

    Latvia is the only European Union country outside Romania to carry a “junk” bond rating. Its government has created a “100 lat” scheme, giving people work at a set wage of 100 lats.

    “It is the absolute minimum,” said Ms. Pankova, adding she was lucky she had no family to support and her flat - with few modern comforts - is relatively cheap to run.

    Even if a hoped-for moderate recovery materializes in 2011, the Baltic economies remain fragile at best - Latvia's is still shrinking. The speed of a recovery will determine when Nordic banks like Swedbank and SEB - the region's major financial players - begin to cut their loan losses.

    Latvia had to make its spending cuts to secure a €7.5-billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund and EU.

    [. . . T]he suburbs that can show most how property and construction, shops, restaurants and car dealers have been really hit.

    At the Saliena property project just outside Riga, sales director Barny Edis points to empty, unsold houses. The ground is still muddy; pipes and construction material have been left lying around. Evidence of the past boom is down the road, where 200 houses that did sell are still occupied.

    “It is tough. It's been tough for me, it's been tough for my family, but what doesn't kill you makes you stronger,” said Mr. Edis, a Briton who brought his wife and two children to Latvia in 2007, just before the property bubble burst.

    [LINK] "Anglican Church facing the threat of extinction"

    The Globe and Mail's Michael Valpy reports that Canadian Anglicanism faces a grim future. Small comfort that its is shared by most other established Christian denominations.

    The Anglican Church in Canada – once as powerful in the nation's secular life as it was in its soul – may be only a generation away from extinction, says a just-published assessment of the church's future.

    The report, prepared for the Anglican Diocese of British Columbia, calls Canada a post-Christian society in which Anglicanism is declining faster than any other denomination. It says the church has been “moved to the far margins of public life.”

    According to the report, the diocese – “like most across Canada” – is in crisis. The report repeats, without qualification or question, the results of a controversial study presented to Anglican bishops five years ago that said that at the present rate of decline – a loss of 13,000 members per year – only one Anglican would be left in Canada by 2061.

    It points out that just half a century ago, 40 per cent of Vancouver Island's population was Anglican; now the figure is 1.2 per cent. Nationally, between 1961 and 2001, the church lost 53 per cent of its membership, declining to 642,000 from 1.36 million. Between 1991 and 2001 alone, it declined by 20 per cent.

    Regular attendance is declining at all Canadian Christian churches, except for the Roman Catholic Church, whose small increase is attributed to immigration.

    But Anglicanism's problem is aggravated because it is primarily a tribal church, the offspring of the Church of England. It has traditionally been home to Canadians of Anglo-Saxon descent who increasingly have no ethnic identification with the church, said religious studies professor David Seljak of St. Jerome's University in Waterloo, Ont.

    A similar problem burdens the Presbyterian Church – offspring of the Church of Scotland – which is losing adherents almost as quickly as the Anglicans.

    Prof. Seljak explained that members of families who have lived in Canada for three generations or more increasingly self-identify as “Canadian” rather than with their pre-Canadian ethnic origin. And Canadians increasingly say they're generically “Christian” rather than Anglican, Presbyterian or Pentecostal.

    Moreover, while the two ethnic groups, English and Scots, are declining as a proportion of Canadian society, the two tribal churches have limited appeal to Canadians of other origins, apart from those who encountered missionaries – for example, Canadians of Caribbean, Korean or African descent.

    While the close linkage of Anglicanism--like other Christian denominations--to ethnicity is certainly a problem, the worldwide Anglican communion extends far beyond the Anglo-Saxon sphere, extending deep into Africa where more Anglicans live than in England. At least in theory, there's no reason why Canadian Anglicanism might not be refreshed by new waves of Anglican immigrants, if perhaps only for a generation or two.

    [BRIEF NOTE] On soldiers and religion in Russia

    Window on Eurasia has an interesting article about the demographics of soldiering in the Volga-Urals Military district (comprising, naturally enough, the Volga and Urals Federal Districts.

    Fifty percent of the soldiers in the Volga-Urals Military District who say they are religious believers now identify as Muslims, compared to only 40 percent in that category who say they are Russian Orthodox and another 10 percent who declare they are Catholics or Protestants, according to a poll conducted by that military district.

    These figures, gathered by the military itself as it launches a chaplaincy corps, are certain to be controversial. On the one hand, they highlight the impact of demographic change on the composition of the military – an ever-increasing fraction of the country’s 18 year olds is drawn from historically Muslim nationalities.

    And on the other, they call into question the self-confident assertions of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Kremlin that ethnic Russians are inherently Orthodox and that they are just as likely if not more likely to have retained or recovered their religious faith than members of historically non-Orthodox nationalities.

    Yesterday, Interfax reported that a source on the staff of the Volga-Urals Military District said that this was the first time that the number of Muslim believers exceeded the number of Orthodox faithful “at the level of a military district” as compared to individual units where that has happened before (www.interfax-religion.ru/islam/?act=news&div=34116).

    The source, who was not further identified by the Russian news agency, added that despite this dev elopement, there had not been any “conflicts on a religious basis among believing soldiers” of the military district or cases of “a refusal to take the military oath or fulfill military duties on the basis of religious convictions.”

    These figures directly contradict those offered by the defense ministry and used by the Orthodox Church for planning its chaplaincy corps. Deputy Minister Nikolay Pankov said that “about 80 percent” of all believers in uniform are Orthodox, while only 13 percent are Muslim. And not surprisingly, Interfax spoke with two experts who sought to play down the new data.

    The poster makes too much of this. The Volga-Urals district includes large ethnically Muslim populations, most notably but not only the Tatars who live within and without Tatarstan, and as he notes further down the transfer of soldiers between different Russian territories means that large concentrations of religious minorities can show up across the country (Muslims in Kamchatka, say). In addition, it's not unlikely that the Muslim populations of Russia are relatively young compared to the national average, and are relatively more likely to practice their religion than the national average, assuming a greater conservatism and isolation from Russian culture that's increasingly no longer the case.

    Most importantly, though, the chaplains don't distinguish between people who might be of Orthodox Christian background and people who are practising Orthodox Christians. Indeed, it's quite likely that most Orthodox Christians in Russia don't practice their religion. Equally, though, the poster's a bit implausible in assuming that this latent identity means nothing, if only because Orthodox Christianity plays such a central role in Russian identity and Islam's incongruous. Why make such a break by converting to a religion that doesn't fit your background or your associates' backgrounds or your general environment? Individual conversions, sure, but one may as well expect mass conversions to Islam among French of non-Muslim background.

    [LINK] "How Gordon Lightfoot wrote 'If You Could Read My Mind'"

    I remember hearing Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind" when I was young; I remember watching the video for Stars on 54's house version in 1998. The Canadian Press' Victoria Ahern writes about the processes that inspired the song and its legacy.

    The illustrious singer-songwriter says the words to "If You Could Read My Mind," released 40 years ago, came to him in a couple of hours in a vacant Toronto home that was up for sale at a time when he was experiencing marital problems.

    "I was of course going through some emotional trauma leading up to a separation, so that of course manifested itself in that particular song on that particular afternoon," Lightfoot, 71, said by phone from his Toronto home.

    "I'll never forget the afternoon."

    [. . .]

    The story behind the making of "If You Could Read My Mind" – a song that's been covered by the likes of Johnny Cash and Don McLean – was a typical one for Lightfoot as he emerged from Toronto's Yorkville coffee-house folk scene in the 1960s.

    That empty home in the Forest Hill neighbourhood where he wrote the tune was one of several that he'd scouted at the time so he could find lyrical inspiration, he said.

    "I would go in there with a chair and a table. I have a Quebec table here that fits in the trunk of my car that I take with me – just the chair and the table and the pad and the manuscript."

    The song title is being used for a series of concerts and talks, with Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip, about songwriting.