Celebrating monuments and cultural diversity on World Heritage Day

It is 18 April 2013, and today we celebrate World Heritage Day, also sometimes referred to as the International Day for Monuments and Sites.

‘Heritage’ refers, literally, to something inherited from the past. In the context of World Heritage Day, heritage refers mostly to cultural heritage, the legacy of physical and intangible artefacts and attributes built up through the ages by the people of the world. And monuments and historical sights are the tangible representation of man’s cultural heritage.

Celebrate your heritage while you can  - it's vulnerable and may disappear in the blink of an eye. (© All Rights Reserved)
Celebrate your heritage while you can – it’s vulnerable and may disappear in the blink of an eye. This view of the Christchurch Cathedral Square was forever changed in the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake. The iconic cathedral sadly did not survive the disaster, but the Chalice sculpture by Neil Dawson, a much more recent part of the city’s heritage, remains unharmed.
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As stated on the World Heritage Day website, “World Heritage is the shared wealth of humankind. Protecting and preserving this valuable asset demands the collective efforts of the international community. This special day offers an opportunity to raise the public’s awareness about the diversity of cultural heritage and the efforts that are required to protect and conserve it, as well as draw attention to its vulnerability.”

So what can you do to celebrate the day? Well, how about visiting local monuments and sites, especially those you may not have visited before, or even those that you’ve come to take for granted. Or read up on the cultural history of your town, your state, your country. Or, for a more exotic touch, find out about interesting monuments and heritage sites in other parts of the world.

No matter what inspires, amuses and entertains you, there’s sure to be a monument to suit you – from truly inspiring monuments around the world, to the downright bizarre and baffling.

It’s all part of our multi-faceted human heritage, so celebrate it!

Carolus Clusius, father of the Dutch tulip industry

Today is the birthday of Charles de L’Écluse (19 Feb 1526 – 4 Apr 1609), also known as Carolus Clusius. A Flemish doctor and botanist of French descent, he introduced the tulip to Holland, and effectively shaped the image of an entire nation.

Clusius worked throughout Europe as a collector of botanical information and material and also introduced various new plants from outside Europe. In 1593 he became the Chair of Botany at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. Here he established one of the earliest botanical gardens, where he introduced and grew a wide variety of flowering bulbs, including the tulip. He planted the first tulip bulbs in 1593, and hence 1594 is considered the official date of the first tulip flowering in the Netherlands.

The tulip, one of the main export products of the Netherlands.(© All Rights Reserved)
The tulip, one of the main export products of the Netherlands.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Interest in the lovely tulip flowers quickly blossomed (excuse the pun!), to such an extent that it resulted in a frenzy that came to be known as the ‘tulip mania’. Tulip prices spiraled out of control, and they were even treated as currency by speculators. Tulips became the fourth largest export product of the Netherlands (behind gin, herring and cheese) and many traders became very rich very quickly. It is said that at the height of tulip mania, sought-after tulip bulbs were sold for prices 10 times the annual income of a skilled worker. Of course the economic bubble couldn’t be sustained, and as quickly as fortunes were made, fortunes were lost. Subsequent to this manic period the bulb industry stabilised, eventually growing again to become a huge international trade. Holland currently produces approximately 3 billion tulip bulbs annually, of which the majority is exported.

Clusius’ work laid the foundations of Dutch tulip breeding and their bulb industry, including the tulip industry in particular – a flower that to this day forms an integral component of the visual identity of the Netherlands. The country is popular for its tulip festivals, and it plays host to the world’s largest permanent display of tulips, at Keukenhof.

Going dotty about halftone printing

Today we celebrate the birthday of Frederic Eugene Ives (17 Feb 1856 – 27 May 1937), the American photographer who patented the first successful method for halftone photographic printing.

The halftone process was an innovative new way of reproducing photographs in the printed press that enabled printers to produce different shades of grey, as opposed to the basic black and white line-drawings that was the norm until Ives’ invention.

The Ives halftone process basically involved converting a photograph into a pattern of black dots. Darker areas in the photograph were represented by larger dots placed close together, while lighter areas were made up of tiny, spread-out dots. By varying the size and distribution of the black dots, an illusion of shades of grey can be created.

An image rendered as RGB colour halftone and greyscale halftone.(© All Rights Reserved)
An image rendered as RGB colour halftone and greyscale halftone. Even though the images are clearly made up of individual dots, an effect of visual continuity is created when viewed from a distance. (Click on the image for a larger view.)
(© All Rights Reserved)

Frederic Ives wasn’t the first to come up with the idea of halftone printing. William Fox Talbot, one of the great innovators in the history of photography, is credited with the original concept, but his method wasn’t practically viable.

Various screening techniques are used to break up an image into dots. The most common method, based on amplitude modulation, produces a regular grid of dots differing in size only. Other techniques can result in dots with different distributions, and even dots of different shapes.

Moving into colour imagery, Ives also became the first to make a three-colour print from halftone blocks.

The colour halftone process still forms the basis of colour printing; by repeating the halftone process for each colour in the CMYK colour space – cyan, magenta, yellow and black – the optical effect of full colour imagery is achieved thanks to the semi-opaque property of printing ink.

Decimal Day and the decimalisation of the Pound

It’s 15 February, and today we celebrate the power of 10. More specifically, we celebrate Decimal Day, commemorating the day in 1971 when the UK and Ireland finally decimalised their currencies.

Before decimalisation the UK, and most of the Commonwealth, operated on a rather odd monetary system, where a pound was made up of 20 shillings, and a shilling consisted of 12 pence. Hence a pound was worth 240 pence. Working in this monetary system was not only much more difficult than using decimal currency, but it also left tourists utterly confused, having to contend with things like a ‘half-crown’, which was worth two shillings and a sixpence, or one eighth of a pound. It was certainly far from ideal for international trade too. Given these hassles, it surely is testament to the unique character of the Brits that they clung to their old monetary system for so long.

An English decimal handful.(© All Rights Reserved)
An English decimal handful.
(© All Rights Reserved)

It’s not as though there wasn’t a realisation, many years before, that decimalisation made logical sense in a world where international trade became more and more common. Proposals to decimalise the UK currency date back to the early 1820’s and a Decimal Association was founded in 1841 to promote decimalisation and metrification. This prompted a Royal Commission on Decimal Coinage, tasked to investigate the pros and cons of decimal currency. Amazingly, in their final report (1859), they recommended that decimalisation be scrapped as it had ‘few merits’.

Things puttered along until a new Royal Commission on Decimal Coinage (1918-1920) revisited the idea. This commission was slightly more open minded, yet still decided that, all things considered, decimalising the currency would just be too inconvenient.

It was only after a joint report in 1960 by the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Association of British Chambers of Commerce, that the adoption of a decimal system gained serious ground. The feasibility of moving to a decimal currency was based in part on the recent success of decimalisation in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. A Decimal Currency Board was created to manage the process.

Changing the currency was obviously not without complications. First it had to be decided what the basis for the new currency should be. In Australia and New Zealand, for instance, a replacement for the pound was adopted – the new Australian Dollar and New Zealand Dollar was defined as being worth 10 shillings, and this was divided into 100 cents. Thus the currency was not only decimalised, but the naming of the currency units was also internationalised. In the UK, however, the historical importance of the pound resulted in its value being retained, and instead the British pound was divided into 100 ‘new pence’. In addition, 5p and 10p coins were introduced, followed later by a 50p coin.

So, after 150 years of lobbying and investigation, and the formation of numerous commissions, boards and asociations, the British currency finally entered the decimal age.

In this era of international e-commerce, where buying from anywhere in the world is the norm, and transacting between different currencies is almost a no-brainer, it’s hard to imagine that a mere 50 years ago, such a big part of the world operated on a non-decimal currency!

About Thomas Crapper, the toilet guy

It’s January 27 today, which means we’re celebrating the one and only Thomas Crapper Day, commemorating the death (in 1910) of Thomas Crapper, founder of Thomas Crapper and Co, and the man largely responsible for popularising the ‘porcelain throne’. Hmmm, not the first time I’ve written about toilets

Many sources credit Crapper as the inventor of the flush toilet, but that is not the case – it was invented long before, in 1596 already, by John Harrington. Crapper was, however, a shrewd and relentless businessman who, in a time when talking publicly about toilets was considered a bit on the rude side, widely promoted toilets and sanitation, and even introduced the concept of public showrooms for bathroom & toilet fittings.

If Thomas Crapper turned the toilet into an everyday item, Austrian artist Frederick Hundertwasser turned it into a work of art. This is a public toilet in Kawakawa in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, created by Hundertwasser, which is quite a sight to behold. Apparently he considered the the toilet a special place, because it is somewhere you have time to meditate in peace. Hence his dedication to elevating its aesthetic appeal. (© All Rights Reserved)
If Thomas Crapper turned the toilet into an everyday item, Austrian artist Frederick Hundertwasser turned it into a work of art. This is a public toilet in Kawakawa in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, created by Hundertwasser, which is quite a sight to behold. Apparently he considered the toilet a special place, somewhere you have time to meditate in peace. Hence his dedication to elevating its aesthetic appeal.
(© All Rights Reserved)

So synonymous did Thomas Crapper become with toilets in 19th century London, that a visit to the loo started being referred to as ‘going to the Crapper’, and it has been said that this is where the slang term ‘crap’ originated. This does, however, not appear to be the true origin of ‘crap’. For an amusingly detailed account of the origin of the word, have a look at the World Wide Words website.

Still, it’s just such an amusing story that the guy responsible for popularising the toilet would be named Crapper, and it does turn “going to the crapper” into quite a legitimate phrase, doesn’t it? No wonder manhole covers in the Westminster Abbey bearing the name “Thomas Crapper and Co” have become a premier tourist site in the area!

Sophus Lie and the secret mathematical code

Today we celebrate the birthday of one of the great names in mathematics, Norwegian Sophus Lie (17 Dec 1842 – 18 Feb 1899). Lie made fundamental contributions to the theories of algebraic invariants, continuous groups of transformations and differential equations. Two concepts, Lie groups and Lie algebras, have been named after him.

Beyond being a great mathematician, Lie was, for a short while, also mistakenly considered to be a great spy. He was in Paris during the outbreak of the 1870 French-German war, and decided to leave France for Italy. Before he made it to the Italian border, however, the French arrested him as a German spy.  Reason being, they found his mathematics notes, and thought these were secret, coded messages.

A stack of papers with weird notes and symbols - can you blame military security for thinking they just arrested a super spy!?(© All Rights Reserved)
A stack of papers with weird notes and symbols – can you blame military security for thinking they just arrested a super spy!?
(© All Rights Reserved)

It was only after the French mathematician, Gaston Darboux, intervened and confirmed that the notes was in fact legitimate mathematics, that Lie was released.

Based on this experience, Lie decided that perhaps it was safer to return home and continue his work in the Norwegian town of Christiania, where he had originally studied mathematics.

The moral of the story, I guess, is that if you plan on travelling through a war zone with your math notes, keep them plain and simple, or keep them very well hidden!

Commemorating the end of shoe rationing

Today is a good day to celebrate shoes – leather and rubber shoes in particular. Because today we commemorate the day in 1945 when the US government announced the end of shoe rationing.

In the Second World War, many things were rationed in various parts of the world, due to production delays, lack of raw materials, etc. As it happens, one of these was shoes (here’s a nice story about the WWII shoe rationing in the US). Apparently, serious rubber shortages at the time meant that rubber shoes were in very short supply, and the military’s leather requirements (for boots, jackets and more) resulted in limitations also being placed on leather shoes.

Having more than one pair of rubber work boots in the home must have been quite a luxury in the early 1940s.
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From 1942, rubber boots and rubber work shoes were rationed – you had to apply for a new pair at a rationing board, and if your application was approved, you had to turn in your old pair. And only work shoes were allowed – no sports sneakers could be purchased. Similarly, rationing of leather shoes started in 1943. Each person (adult and child) was allowed up to 3 pairs of new leather shoes per year, bought using special rationing stamps.

And then, on 30 October 1945 – a happy day for shoe lovers! – the rationing was lifted. Men were again able to buy as many pairs of work boots as they liked. Shoe addicts were no longer bound by the painful limit of three pairs of new must-have’s a year. Children could get all the shoes they needed to accommodate their growing feet. And athletes could burn through as many pairs of sneakers as they wanted.

I for one would have easily been able to carry on as normal during the great WWII shoe rationing – shoes are practical things, after all, and surely don’t need replacing until they fall apart, do they? And, in most cases, they’re not even good for you – as I’ve mentioned before, you’re definitely better off going barefoot when possible. So the whole shoe addiction thing is a bit of a mystery to me.

After 1945, those who cannot say no to a pretty shoe could again shop to their heart’s content.
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In trying to add a bit of science to this post, I thought I might be able to find some research on the topic of shoe addiction, but alas, that seems to be a field of study that’s still wide open for psychologists and cognitive scientists. And it’s not as if there’s a lack of outspoken test subjects out there – just Google “shoe addiction” and you will be swamped in millions of blog-posts and other articles from self-confessed shoe addicts. From the average girl next door who would happily forego food for a week to afford another special pair of shoes, to Danielle Steele, who apparently owns in excess of 6000 pairs (quite an interesting addiction, by the way, for a writer who, one would assume, should be spending a significant amount of her time in front of a keyboard…).

So, where do you stand on the shoe debate – are they an undeniable passion or a necessary evil?

Grab your camera, it’s World Photography Day!

Whether you’re a professional photographer or just someone who likes pointing and shooting for fun, today is especially for you – it’s World Photography Day!

Today is a day for those of us who spend our days, camera in hand, in pursuit of what my all-time favourite photographer, the Frenchman Henri Cartier-Bresson, termed ‘the decisive moment’.
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August 19th was selected for World Photography Day as this is the day that the Daguerreotype process was released to the world. The Daguerreotype, a process whereby a direct positive image is created in the camera on a silvered copper plate, was the first commercially successful photographic process, and was developed by Louis Daguerre together with Joseph Nièpce. Nièpce died in 1833 before it was completed, but Daguerre continued refining the process to improve the exposure time requirements and to make the fixing of the image more effective (to prevent darkening of the image over time).

The refined daguerreotype process was announced by the French Academy of Sciences on 9 January 1839. Daguerre did not patent the invention, instead choosing to hand over his rights to the French government in exchange for a lifetime pension. The agreement was further that the government would present the daguerreotype process as a ‘gift to the world’ – this happened on 19 August 1839, when details about the process was released into the public domain.

In the same year, William Fox Talbot announced his silver chloride ‘sensitive paper’ process. With both these landmark events taking place in 1939, this is generally regarded as the year photography was born.

But getting back to World Photography Day 2012 – this year marks the first World Photography Day competition and with $12,000 worth of prizes to be won, it’s well worth investigating. Submissions can be uploaded between 19 and 22 August, so don’t delay, check it out now.

Happy shooting, everybody!

Vibrating strings and infinite series

Time to dive into some mathematics again – today we celebrate the birth of British mathematician Brook Taylor (18 Aug 1685 – 29 Dec 1731).

Taylor is best known for ‘Taylor’s Theorem’ and the ‘Taylor series’, a mathematical method for expanding functions into infinite series. In 1715, he published a groundbreaking work Methodus Incrementorum Directa et Inversa, which introduced a new branch of mathematics that became known as the ‘calculus of finite differences’.

Using finite differences, Taylor was able to mathematically express the movement of a vibrating string, reduced to mechanical principles.

The above work also contained what became known as Taylor’s Theorem – this blog is neither the time or place to even try and go into the details of the theorem, but suffice to say it is a pretty significant mathematical construct. Despite being introduced in his 1715 publication, it wasn’t until almost 60 years later that it’s value was fully recognised – in 1772 the great mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange termed it ‘the main foundation of differential calculus’.

Taylor employed the calculus of finite differences to mathematically express the movement of a vibrating string.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Besides being one of the great mathematicians of all time, Brook Taylor was also a keen artist, with one of his particular interests being the principles of perspective – he wrote an essay called “Linear Perspective” on this subject, which also included the first general introduction of the concept of vanishing points.

So to celebrate this day, how about strumming a guitar while staring off into the vanishing distance… or painting perspectives while listening to some soothing guitar (the Majestic Silver Strings, perhaps)… 🙂

Sounds like a good day to me!