Archive for the 'Odds and Ends' Category

The original Alice

Alice by John TennielSay “Alice in wonderland”, and the image that comes to mind (well, at least in the generations that used to read books) is a little girl in a tidy Victorian knee-length puffed sleeve dress with a pinafore, and long blond hair – the girl in the image at right. This comes from the famous illustrations by John Tenniel, a successful professional illustrator that Carroll retained to illustrate the book. The illustrations by Tenniel became iconic, although they bear no resemblance to Alice Liddell, the lead character’s namesake, who was not blonde in the least.

Alice by John TennielAnd then there is a different Alice altogether, the one envisioned by Carroll himself and found in the illustrations he drew by his own hand for the handwritten draft of the book, “Alice’s adventures underground”. I have a book showing these, and the comparison is interesting. Here, for example, is the same picture of Alice holding the golden key to the tiny door behind the curtain at the bottom of the rabbit hole. No blond hair, no fancy clothing.

So here, for your enjoyment, are some comparisons of the Carroll and Tenniel realizations of some scenes in the book:

Alice and Caterpillar

Alice and puppy

Gardener playing cards

As we can see, Tenniel was definitely a more capable illustrator; but he followed Carroll’s lead — indeed, Carroll supervised him closely, since he was paying him a hefty fee.

And although most of the Tenniel drawings are based on Carroll’s, there are some of the latter that did not make it into the printed book. Like these two:

Alice images from Carroll's original drawings

Another triumph of improvisation!

New on my Possibly Interesting web site: Cloning a Vibroplex bug, where I describe the venerable Vibroplex semi-automatic telegraph key – and the improvised clone I made as a young radio amateur.

Vibroplex "bug" semi-automatic telegraph key and its homemade clone


My Dad’s tin suitcase

My father, God rest his soul, was a young physics student when Israel’s war of independence broke out, and he was among the defenders of the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City. When the quarter fell to the superior forces of the Jordanian Legion, he was taken prisoner and spent 9 months in a POW camp near Mafraq in Transjordan.

When he came back he brought with him a humble but interesting artifact: a small suitcase, about the size of a modern carry-on, made entirely of tinplate. This survived to this day, and has an interesting story to tell.

Tinplate suitcase from POW camp

My father, it turns out, had ample time on his hands in that camp, and he devoted it to studying Physics (he was to become a Physics professor for the rest of his life) and to teaching it to any of the other prisoners who found it preferable to doing nothing. In return, one unnamed prisoner used his skill as a tinsmith to produce this suitcase for my Dad.

The source of the material is obvious if you turn the thing over:

Tinplate suitcase from POW camp

This was a standard tin of biscuits, provided to the camp’s residents either by the Jordanians or by some welfare organization. They must’ve been rather stale, as they date to 1945, but in war you aren’t choosy; meanwhile the empty tin was recycled into this suitcase.

The craftsmanship and attention to detail in this item is wonderful indeed, considering the difficult conditions of its manufacture. The potentially sharp edges are all doubled up for safety and convenience. There is a folding handle, hinges, even a hasp – and everything is made from tinplate and steel wire. Here are some photos of the details:

Tinplate suitcase from POW camp

Tinplate suitcase from POW camp

Tinplate suitcase from POW camp

Good job, unknown tinker!


Five Intel chips that changed the world

Check out the new article in the History of Computing section of my Possibly Interesting Web site: Five Intel chips that changed the world.

Intel's first chips

These are the five “Firsts” that Intel introduced during its first four years as a small start-up: the first chip in each of four key memory types, and the first microprocessor. Between them they made the personal computing revolution possible, ushering in the world we know today.


Cherubs and Technology

I wrote recently about the batch of WW1 postcards left by my great-uncle Ettore… and while the cards described in that article focus on hate propaganda, there was also one postcard  that is quite endearing, and here it is:

A WW1 postcard of the Italian Signal Corps

This postcard was issued 100 years ago by the Third Regiment of Telegraph Operators – basically, a unit of the Signal Corps of the Royal Italian Army. Click it to get a closer look!

The endearing scene shows some classic Italian city (looks like Florence), a bunch of cute cherubs using a very early telephone, a war goddess (?),  and various electrical gear – antennas, telegraph lines, and unidentified apparatus that no doubt would be familiar to Guglielmo Marconi.

Those ancient telegraphers were really proud of their trade; they could see how wonderful, how outright angelic, the ability to talk at a distance was. Today we have instant connectivity, anytime, anywhere… but that early innocent sense of wonder is gone, and I can’t think of one internet provider that uses angels in their advertising.

Those were the days…

WW1 Propaganda: a sinister form of art

WW1 Italian military propaganda postcardNew on my Possibly Interesting site: Heroes and Barbarians, Propaganda postcards from the Great War.

Showcasing a collection of postcards issued to Italian soldiers in the first world war, in order to urge them to fight in that tragically senseless conflict.

An illuminating, if disturbing, lesson in how to craft hate propaganda.



A new biological theory: the Aerial Cat!

You may have heard of the Aquatic Ape theory, which deduces from our hairless skin that our ancestors had gone through an ocean-dwelling phase. Well — here is my new theory: that the common cat, Felis catus, evolved from a flying creature!

Consider the cat’s ear. Whenever I scratch a cat behind the ears I can’t help but notice the way the external ear is split near its base, forming a narrow hollow. This seemingly useless feature always reminds me of the wing root air intake seen on some jet fighters, like the Hawker Hunter seen in the photo.


So why would the cat have this vestigial structure? Obviously, because in some earlier part of its evolution it was a flying creature, using flight to catch small birds in midair, which remain a favorite source of food with modern cats as well. Then some proto-cat discovered that it’s far easier to charm the evolving human race into feeding it, and the wings were lost over the generations, becoming the ears we see today.

Oh well, not really…

[Photo credits: Hawker hunter by Arnauld Gaillard. Cat by Michael Seljos].

Closing a time loop

Many, many years ago when I was a teenage geek, I was green with envy at the Coil Winding Calculator that an older friend had access to in his university lab. It was an extremely useful device – a cardboard slide chart that allowed you to compute the parameters for winding a coil of a given inductance (trust me, when you homebrew your own ham radio gear, that’s something you really need to do).

So, I went and reverse engineered the thing and cloned it with a Xerox copier and some cardboard and glue. I ended up with a device that was far uglier (in those days copier technology was still pretty poor) but it worked just like the original. It served me for years, then went into my computing device collection. Over the years I forgot the original completely, to the point that I had no idea what color it had been before I recreated it in smudged gray…

So a few weeks ago I had a stroke of serendipity when I ran into the “Allied RF Resonance and Coil Winding Calculator” in the Vintage Instruments online store of Dick Rose – it was the same device! Dick shipped it over, and now I remember: it was indeed orange in color. So now I have the two devices in my collection, side by side; and here you can see them in the photo. Not that I wind any coils these days (though I’m still a happy geek), but it’s nice  to close a loop across the decades and finally have the original device I so coveted back then…

Allied Coil Winding Calculator slide charts

For the full story on the Xeroxed calculator, see here.



Beauty can sometimes appear in the most unusual places.

I snapped this photo on a sidewalk near my home:
Splash Circle

As I was watching, a passerby kicked the bottle, and it started spinning, giving me a good idea of what we’re seeing: someone had discarded and squashed the bottle, and someone else set it spinning and splashing its remaining content.

Whatever the details, it’s a lovely pattern!

Two primordial hunters

Nimrod, by Itzhak DanzigerOne of the most famous sculptures made in Israel is “Nimrod”, created in 1939 by Itzhak Danziger.

A powerful figure in red sandstone, it depicts a naked young man with a falcon on his shoulder and a sword held behind his back, looking intensely ahead.

This is Nimrod, the biblical great-grandson of Noah, king of a number of  cities in Mesopotamia, and traditionally considered the leader of those who built the Tower of Babel. He is also cited as a mighty hunter, the original prototypical hunter of animals.

So what?

So, in October 1988 the National Geographic Magazine published on its cover a photo of a small carving, in mammoth ivory, of a male human head. This was found in Dolní Vestonice in Czechoslovakia, a rich archaeological site that had yielded a number of sculptures, including one of those obese “Venus” figurines. The carving is dated to some 26,000 years ago or earlier, and is the earliest representation of a specific person that has come to us from our ancestors.

And it instantly evoked in me the face of Danziger’s Nimrod, as you can see in the photos below:

Danziger's Nimrod and the ivory head from Dolni Vestonice

Both figures represent hunters (well, we can’t know for sure what the caveman on the left did, but I doubt he was into computer programming). Both hunters come from the dawn of human history. And both have the same indescribable expression on their face.

What a cool coincidence!