Postage stamps of Malaya: the coconut definitives

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Handcrafting a font for a thesis

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Typographic refinements of thesis design in LaTeX

Long texts require a setting not unlike the way a marathon is run. Everything has to be comfortable—once you’ve found your rhythm, nothing must disturb it again. If you have text that is going to require long-distance reading, design it so the reader has a chance to settle in. — Spiekermann, E. & Ginger, E. M. 1993. Stop Stealing Sheep and Find Out How Type Works.

LaTeX is increasingly being embraced as one of the industry standards for professional-grade typesetting of documents of all ilks, not least for scientific literature, and has the additional virtue of being open source and freely available. The default settings of LaTeX are of very high standards, but manual intervention in some cases will bring it to an even higher level and transform it into an expression of one’s personal character while communicating the message effectively.

The concepts are applicable to all professional typesetting systems, although I mention LaTeX-specific packages or commands for implementing some of these refinements. LaTeX source code is beyond the scope of this article. If you have trouble making a desired refinement, I recommend searching the problem on the Internet. Also visit these great online communities for learning and discussing the finer things in LaTeX and computer programming, and

Please also see my related article on Typographic Decomputerization – handcrafting a font for the thesis.

Body text

LaTeX’s default typeface, Computer Modern, is very much to my liking but it has one or two details that aren’t perfectly to taste (mentioned later). My ideal of a body-text typeface is one that has a relatively smaller difference in stroke thickness between the horizontal and vertical parts, giving full-bodied letters more comfortable on the eye for long-distance reading, yet retaining an athletic figure. It should also have a relatively small x-height, allowing the correspondingly long ascenders and descenders to express themselves freely. A typeface that satisfies these criteria is the one cast by William Caslon c. 1722, one of the oldest English typefaces. Integral to the beauty of the Caslon typeface are its earthy wedge-shaped serifs, and adding to it are exquisite yet unobtrusive features like the cropped apex of A and the long flourish of Q. Indeed, an enduring maxim of British printers was ‘when in doubt, use Caslon’, a testimony to its dual qualities of utility and visual appeal. Original specimen sheet.

Adobe Caslon Pro cropped apex capital letter A

The distinctive cropped apex of the letter A in Caslon.

Adobe Caslon Pro long tail capital letter Q

The letter Q. These text samples also show the wedge serifs and robust strokes of Caslon.

Of the various modern-day digital incarnations of Caslon, I use Adobe Caslon Pro by Carol Twombly, which came with my student edition of Adobe Creative Suite. Other typefaces I have considered include Garamond and Jenson. Garamond is very elegant but the strokes are somewhat too delicate. The venerable Jenson, being an even more ancient typeface than Caslon, has a subtle affinity to handwriting that I think would be better reserved for more poetic texts than my scientific dissertation. In addition, Minion Pro and Palatino are very popular with those seeking an alternative typeface to the LaTeX default, but their aristocratic strokes and serifs don’t quite exude the organic down-to-earthness of Caslon that appeals to me and synergizes with the objective style of scientific reporting. Flowchart for typeface selection.

Regardless of whether the default LaTeX font is used, there are some typographical refinements that are not implemented automatically or by default, but are available for truly professional typesetting. They include microtypographical refinements like font expansion, letterspacing (as distinct from kerning) and margin kerning, all of which can be activated globally using the `microtype’ package, and selective ligatures. LaTeX uses certain ligatures automatically; such ligatures have to be disabled manually where they occur between morphemes, otherwise confusion may arise as to the meaning of the word. Some ligatures are off by default, for example the ae ligature, which should be manually enabled in certain words. List of legitimate ae and oe ligatures.

LaTeX wrong automatic cross-morpheme fl ligature in the word `briefly'

Automatic ligation should be disabled in certain words; in this example the fl ligature misleads the eye into reading `brie-fly’ instead of the correct `brief-ly’.

And the score of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata does not need bolder notes to mark fortissimos nor fractured notes to mark the broken chords. The score is abstract code and not raw gesture. — Bringhurst, R. 1996. The Elements of Typographic Style. (Widely regarded as the seminal work on the subject.)

Section headings

There are various ways of formatting heading text—italics, small caps, boldface, for example. The first two don’t particularly appeal to me as they are already being used in the body text and are insufficiently distinctive. Boldface can be pleasing and effective if used at tasteful sizes with tasteful amounts of spacing above and below, like the LaTeX default, but I wanted something more sophisticated.

Meet my favourite sans-serif typeface, News Gothic (Morris Fuller Benton, 1908). The slender strokes and tallish aspect give it an air of sophistication and unpretentiousness suited to the formal task of articulating the headings of a thesis, and differentiate it from the more popular sans-serifs like Arial and Helvetica (one of the relatively `dark, coarse and tightly closed’ typefaces described by Bringhurst as `cultural souvenirs of some of the bleakest days of the Industrial Revolution’). Although the letters of News Gothic are relatively narrow, they are comfortably letterspaced for optimal legibility. The weight is a little too light at normal text size but this becomes an asset at larger heading sizes where it stands out from the text by virtue of its size without creating overpowering and disruptive dark struts across the page. In my opinion, News Gothic and Caslon make an electrifying pair, the realism of 20th-century American newsprint juxtaposed with the baroque splendour of 18-century European scholarly texts.

LaTeX News Gothic heading format

Section headings in News Gothic typeface, showing reduced distance between successive baselines and manual non-hyphenated line breaks within multiline heading, all capitals, and vertical alignment of heading and subheading.

I use all capitals to distinguish the headings more clearly and also to create a subtle horizontal bar effect that grounds the heading solidly and complements the fluctuating topography of the main text. It is also important to override LaTeX’s smart autohyphenation in multiline headings and manually break the lines. They should be broken at grammatically appropriate junctures and such that the heading as a whole has a compelling geometry, essentially meaning that no two or more lines within the heading should be approximately the same length as one another. Before getting caught up in these manipulations, see to it that you have already made the heading as concise as possible.

Finally, reduce the leading, or distance between successive baselines, within the heading so that it becomes a single unified object that has no chance of being obfuscated in the vertical flow of the body text. The amount by which the leading is reduced should obviously balance well with the letterspacing of the heading, and in my opinion should not in absolute measurements be too different from the leading of the prose. Customarily, the height of the interlinear channel, or horizontal empty space between two successive lines, should be greater than the word spacing, in order to minimize the occurrence of rivers. As is evident in the illustration above, however, I have adjusted the leading such that the interlinear channel height is somewhere between the letterspacing and word spacing rather than greater than both of them. It seems to work here because there are at most only two or three lines in the heading, and it actually feels more geometrically homogeneous and pleasing when small and large spaces within a flowing line are `averaged out’ with medium spacing between lines. Furthermore, the constant height of the capitals helps the eyes stay on the line despite the tight leading, where ascenders and descenders of lowercase letters would have caused the eyes to stray from one line to another.

Bibliographic style

One of my favoured uses of (real, not fake) small caps is in author names, in both the body text and the bibliography. It gives an additional degree of recognition to the giants on whose shoulders I teeter. The small caps of Caslon are about as tall as the x-height, which I find appealing. Many typographers prefer higher small caps for more emphasis but I don’t like that because it disrupts the texture of the page, and when only lowercase small caps are used in an acronym one can’t really tell whether they are small caps or not; this is the one thing that bothers me about the otherwise near-perfect Computer Modern.

I use the small-cap author names with the ampersand for an even more elegant disposition. The use of the ampersand also reduces confusion when stringing references together in the text e.g. `A & B and X & Y’ versus `A and B and X and Y’. Even when using numbered citations as I do, it is occasionally necessary to spell out the authors on grammatical grounds.

bibliography reference citation style

My personal reference style with small caps, ampersand, colon, and thin space between multiple initials of a given author. Note the difference between the hyphen and the en dash.

Another tweak to the bibliography is the change of punctuation between the journal volume and page numbers from comma to colon. There are too many commas and/or periods already in most reference styles; the colon is not only a welcome relief but helps the eye track the volume:page component more readily.

One more refinement is the use of a thin space between the author initials. A regular space would make the capitals towering landmarks unto themselves, while leaving no space at all would result in a jungle. You might ask why `USA’ would be ok; that is because it refers to an entity that is widely known, and our minds have come to associate the overall shape of the acronym with that entity.

All of the above can be customized globally using the `biblatex’ package; there is no need for any manual formatting.

Typeface in scientific plots

I tend to plot graphs in my data analysis software and export them as pdf vector graphics to embed in LaTeX (occasionally I use R’s `tikzDevice’ package to generate native LaTeX graphics code directly from R, but that has difficulties with syntactically complicated plots like 3D surfaces with shadows and transparency). The default typefaces of those plots, however, may not go well with your chosen typeface in LaTeX. The default in the R Language for Statistical Computing, for example, is Helvetica, which clashes with the News Gothic in my headings and doesn’t match that well with Caslon either. I use Computer Modern instead of Helvetica, as the former is used in my math environments in LaTeX. It could be argued that while the numerical axis labels in the plot would rightly be in Computer Modern, the axis titles being text should really be in Caslon, but there are two factors working against this proposition: (1) it seems very difficult to make the R pdf graphics device use multiple font families simultaneously (`tikzDevice’ can do this since it uses native LaTeX); and (2) Caslon in the bottom x-axis would blend in with the caption text, creating the impression that the figure proper starts from above the x-axis, which is visually discomforting.

R lattice wireframe 3d plot

Computer Modern font in wireframe plot in R. I modified the source code of the `wireframe’ function to shorten the tick marks, right-justify the tick labels (needed because of the minus signs) and prevent the tick labels from overlapping with one another and with the tick marks (as the original function does not provide direct arguments for adjusting these parameters); this applies even if you are using the default Helvetica.

R uses the `extrafont’ and `fontcm’ packages to enable font families not automatically available in R, and MATLAB and Octave have their own routines as well.

Numbers and mathematics

Typography’s principal function is communication, and the greatest threat to communication is not difference but sameness. — Robert Bringhurst

You would have seen in the earlier illustrations that Caslon has old-style numerals with ascenders and descenders for the appropriate typesetting of numbers in the body text. These are not so suitable for mathematical expressions. Caslon also has the `capital’ numerals (properly known as lining figures) that are ok for math, but it does not have all the other mathematical symbols my equations require. Therefore I typeset all math in Computer Modern. If you do this you should ensure that any inline mathematical expressions in the prose, even an isolated number like `0.57′ that refers to some parameter value used in a model, are typeset in math mode using \[\] for example. Sometimes the distinction is quite subtle; for example in the phrase `simulated for 1000 time steps’, I consider `1000′ to be text, not math, and use old-style numerals accordingly.

Old-style numerals (text figures) and lining figures

Different kinds of numerals for different kinds of numbers. The visual contrast helps the mind put each number in the appropriate context and makes reading more efficient.

When one uses different typefaces for text and math, there is also the question of what typeface to use for any normal text embedded in equations. The convention is to use the typeface of the body text, but I run into an inconsistency here because I have opted to use the math typeface for text within figures, as explained above. It would therefore be more consistent to go against convention and use the math typeface for text within equations. There is no intrinsic problem with this—indeed I think it looks more harmonious—because Computer Modern is equally at home in text and math, as long as one calls `\textnormal’ within the math environment telling LaTeX to kern the characters as words rather than a string of mathematical symbols.

LaTeX math mode computer modern textrm textnormal

Using the math typeface for text (`consumers’) within math environments can produce a consistent look, as long as you tell LaTeX that it is a word rather than a string of variables. If it thinks they are variables it will space them too far apart. Notice that the equation number at far right is not in the math typeface.

There is actually a third kind of numeral, the so-called superior figure, with a thicker stroke suitable for footnote markers. LaTeX default uses mathematical superscripting of normal figures for footnote markers, which is not ideal because the normal figures are too thin at small sizes and placed too high for body text. Unfortunately too, most fonts do not have superior figures at all or have only a small subset. Adobe Caslon Pro is one of the few that provide the full set of superior figures from 0 to 9. If your font has superior figures, they can be turned on automatically for footnotes simply by loading the `xltxtra’ package.

Adobe Caslon Pro LaTeX xltxtra superior figure footnotemark

Correct typesetting of footnote marker using thick-stroked superior figure positioned lower than superscript position.

That’s all, folks

By all means break the rules, and break them beautifully, deliberately and well. — Robert Bringhurst

Hopefully I have given you a flavour of my selective typographical tweaks, revealing some of my own idiosyncrasies in the process and motivating you to conceive your own work of typographic art. There are substantial aspects of macroscopic document structure and design that I have left out of the discussion, but the same paradigm applies—let consistency, logic and beauty be your guiding lights.

Gunung Tahan: early exploration, first ascent, geology, natural history

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Performance issues: Bach’s Chaconne, Partita no. 2 BWV 1004, solo violin

The Chaconne, after almost three hundred years (since 1723), remains one of the greatest works ever written for solo violin. It is thought to have been composed in mourning after the death of Bach’s wife; the opening section, played in a suitable manner, can sound very much like one weeping in sorrow, complete with the sniffing and choking of the giant chords. The protagonist stops crying for a while and goes on to brood at great length and depth on the tragedy, his musical utterances expounding sublime beauty of body and character even in death, and suffering periodic relapses of sorrowful outbursts (the distribution of intensities possibly conforming to some power law of nature). The temporary switch to the major key in the middle of the piece is often described simply as a kind of respite from the depressing mood of the rest of it. That may be true, but I do not think this description does it full justice. I think it goes deeper: it is a reminiscence of the wonderful time spent in each other’s company in life, made so much more beautifully poignant by the ever-present chromaticism.

Such is the narrative and sound world that inspires my own playing of the Chaconne, helped in no small way by insights gained from performances of diverse character given by the great violinists of the world. The discourse will focus on larger-scale musical form; for a rigorous monograph of the gory bar-by-bar details of technical challenges of the Chaconne and how different editors and performers have dealt with them, the attention of the reader is drawn to the doctoral dissertation by Carmelo de los Santos at the University of Georgia.

We start with Jascha Heifetz, whose performance is widely regarded as one of the reference interpretations of the Chaconne. It is the epitome of the romantic bravura style with luscious vibrato and big slides to high notes. Few other players pull off this style as masterfully as Heifetz.

Jascha Heifetz

Additional insights into Heifetz’s Chaconne can also be had from a video of a Heifetz masterclass, where he emphasizes to the student the importance of bringing out the melody in the chords, something prone to neglect when one is caught up getting the notes to play clearly and in tune.

Heifetz’s rendition has great authority in the violinist community, but there is one aspect of it where I do prefer alternative interpretations. You may be surprised that it has little to do with his romantic style per se, which I think is one of the various musically legitimate ways of playing Bach in our era. My main complaint is more basic: essentially that it stays almost uniformly loud and dramatic throughout, causing the mind to be gradually desensitized to the diverse and more subtle nuances of the music. Although the melody does come forth clearly even in the chordal sections, because of the constant loudness it lacks the ‘third-dimensional’ contour. You can think of it as a flat landscape with a small hill or two here and there, versus a Himalayan mountain range. You can trace a convoluted and geometrically pleasing path on a flat surface but it remains two-dimensional, but it is a different matter (and perhaps more exciting) traversing deep river gorges and ice cliffs. One can imagine that a vast flat desert stretching as far as the eye can see can be equally awe-inspiring, but one might prefer mountains, especially when the notes of this particular work are themselves in constant undulation spanning the low and high registers of the violin.

Bach Chaconne Partita BWV 1004 first line score multiple stopping violin

(Reproduced from the Bach-Gesellschaft Ausgabe, available at IMSLP)

Take the first 8 bars (above) for example, where the melody is in the top line. Heifetz himself shapes it a bit more than the student in his masterclass; in the student version there is no discernible emotional high point at the top B flat in bar 7 besides the fact that it reaches the maximum pitch, and Heifetz doesn’t complain about it. Perhaps it could be argued that the pitch itself does the job and there is no need to make it go louder or slower, but I feel that pitch, dynamics and tempo could be synergized into a potent expressive force. One must of course guard against overdoing it and losing the momentum of the music, especially as it has only just begun. The word for it is understated, defined in the dictionary as ‘presented or expressed in a subtle and effective way’.

Intonation and temperament

Having less to do with interpretation and more related to technique is that many of Heifetz’s notes are out of tune. Not catastrophically so, but with sufficient frequency and amplitude that it gets distracting. This is exacerbated by the abundance of chords and arpeggiation, where intonation is especially important. The violin, as an instrument that allows the player to adjust pitch in infinitely small gradations, offers the possibility of playing pure-sounding intervals in which the frequency ratio between two notes is a rational number and the pitches exactly coincide with those in the harmonic spectrum, in contrast to the slightly less pure-sounding equal temperament (found on modern keyboard instruments for example) where the notes within an octave are snapped to equidistant intervals. Heifetz is out of tune even with respect to equal temperament; I just think that there is so much potential for the music have more of the sonorous quality by nailing those rational ratios in many more of the chords and arpeggios, certainly not a very tall order for one of Heifetz’s calibre. Accurate intonation in a solo violin piece also helps the listener to mentally reconstruct the harmonic structure when there is only a single line of notes.

Baroque influences and three-dimensional mountains

We move on to the performance of Sigiswald Kuijken, an example of the ‘original’ version performed with a Baroque violin in Baroque style that is rarely listened to nowadays. It is truer to the dance that is the Chaconne, and less intense yet deeply contemplative and ethereal.

Sigiswald Kuijken

Having seen the two ends of the interpretational spectrum, we are ready to appreciate Gidon Kremer, who masterfully adapts Baroque musical form and elegance to the incisive and powerful timbre of the modern violin in an interpretation that is intense at times and ethereal at others, getting quite close to the narrative proposed in the beginning and evoking the mountainous psychological terrain that is less apparent in Heifetz. Surprisingly, Kremer’s recording is hardly ever mentioned in online forums discussing the best versions of the Chaconne. There are numerous details of articulation, dynamics, rubato and other parameters on which I don’t see eye to eye with Kremer, but these become trivial matters in a performance that has a pleasing large-scale musical and emotional structure.

Gidon Kremer

Computer programming

Back to the music itself, there is an article in The Strad where Ida Haendel shares her views on interpreting the Chaconne. One of her suggestions is to never slow down to accommodate difficult notes. Sure, if you can handle it, but I think it is acceptable if it remains musically coherent. In fact, sometimes slowing it down makes it both easier and more dramatic, as can happen at large cadences with chords spanning all four strings. For an amateur, it can make the difference between a bad-sounding, out-of-tune performance (or giving up the piece altogether) and a fine performance that inspires people. The thing to remember is not to keep doing the same thing throughout the piece—no matter how musical the individual instance, relentless repetition would make the emergent musical structure robotic, like looping or matrix algebra in a computer programme. Haendel offers good reasons for minimizing embellishment, but my main argument for minimization is more closely related to the mood of the Chaconne in particular, rather than to more general arguments about Baroque performance practice. Simply, if we hear the Chaconne as a sad and tragic piece, then one wouldn’t have the desire to festoon the music with trills and mordents. One of the instances in which this is most starkly demonstrated is the perfect cadence right at the end (below): Kremer plays it without a trill (although he used to trill it in recordings made earlier in life), imparting a sinking feeling of finality, driving it ‘right into the ground’ as Haendel describes her interpretation.

Bach Chaconne Partita BWV 1004 score ending violin

The final cadence: trill or not?

I will leave you with one more performance, by Ivry Gitlis. Although even more out of tune than Heifetz, its idiosyncratic and rugged ‘mountainous’ soundscape make up for it. In his words (quoted on his Wikipedia page), “don’t be so polite with the music, it’s like in love!”

Ivry Gitlis

Bach on the Biggest: the real BWV 565

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Singapore’s answer to Notre Dame de Paris

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The best way to get expert judgement is not to ask the expert?

In our personal and public lives, we are often faced with the possibility of events that are unlikely to happen but will have catastrophic consequences if they do; we have heart attacks, collapse of banks, earthquakes, Space Shuttle disasters, and invasive species precipitating ecological meltdown, just to name a few. We cannot ignore these events, and it is important to make the best estimates of their probabilities of occurrence in order to formulate judicious and ethical risk-management policies. This is a formidable challenge because the rarity of these events makes it impossible collect enough data within a reasonable time horizon to arrive at statistical estimates, especially if the potential consequences are grave enough to necessitate urgent preventive measures. Furthermore, empirical investigation may be altogether impossible unless we make happen the very catastrophe we are trying to avert.

When we are thus stuck between a rock and a hard place, expert judgement may have to serve as a substitute for quantitative data; this was the focus of two seminars given by Mark Burgman, Professor of Environmental Science at the University of Melbourne and Director of the Australian Centre of Excellence for Risk Analysis, at the Cambridge Conservation Seminar series and Cambridge Public Policy seminar series.

One of the first messages to hit home from Mark’s empirical research with human subjects is that there is no correlation whatsoever between how expert a given person is perceived to be by his or her peers in a given discipline and how good his or her actual judgement is of a given problem in that discipline. People assess the expertise of their peers based mainly on age, appearance and number of publications, but there is no correlation of one’s judgement with any of those criteria. Indeed, there is no known way to pre-segregate people who would deliver good and bad judgements of a given problem.

Mark’s studies also show that groups containing a mixture of experts and non-experts collectively make judgements with lower bias and higher precision than individuals, as long as the group is not too large. Equal weighting should be given to everyone’s contribution; although the perceived experts may have more experience and context-awareness, they also have a higher tendency to be overconfident. The empirical results show that their judgements are no less error-prone than those of the novices. Furthermore, it was found that no individual, expert or otherwise, performed consistently across different problems within the same discipline.

Such teamwork can be a powerful tool for practitioners in diverse disciplines, all dealing with problems embedded within complex dynamic systems from ecosystem conservation to business dynamics, where numerous factors interact with one another through a convoluted topology of causal feedback loops. One can only hope to arrive at the best possible solution when all stakeholders in the problem at hand partake in the discussion from beginning to end. It is because this allows the problem to be tackled from diverse and complementary perspectives and provides ample opportunity to reconcile conflicting objectives, in order to arrive at the best possible understanding of the problem and a consensus that everyone truly believes in. This, you would probably agree, is preferable to a situation where disputes cannot be resolved and have to be put to the vote. There are numerous voting systems but, as Mark highlights, none of them is completely satisfactory and there is no known perfect solution. True democracy is an illusion, although it doesn’t work too badly in practice.

Mark walked us through the basic nuts and bolts of group-based expert judgement using a very simple but highly illustrative example of estimating, or judging, the number of beans in a jar. Unlike a real-world rare extreme event, this setup was amenable to experimental manipulation. A judgement is first obtained from each individual in the group. He advocates four subsidiary questions for the individual:

1. What is your highest estimate of the number of beans?
2. What is your lowest estimate?
3. How confident are you that the actual number lies within those limits?
4. What is your best estimate of the number of beans?

This four-step process has been found to elicit the most accurate estimates from individuals—Mark welcomes ideas on how to do even better.

Next, one can improve the estimates by obtaining a consensus from multiple individuals. This is done by incorporating the innovative four-step process above into what is known as the Delphi Method. After each member of the group has independently given his or her answers to the four questions, the answers are collated and shown to the whole group. Each member is then asked to revise his or her personal answers given the collated figures, and the whole sequence may then be repeated again. This has been empirically shown to yield even more accurate estimates. Furthermore, the variation in inputs from multiple individuals with different cultural and educational backgrounds gives an idea of how robust and reliable the estimate might be. This is reminiscent, albeit tenuously, of a ‘sensitivity analysis’ of the robustness of mathematical model predictions in the face of parameter uncertainty. Despite the real-world importance of determining the degree of sensitivity of predictions to parameter uncertainty, sensitivity analysis is rarely done or required even by peer-reviewed ecology journals.

Conservation could benefit from group-based expert judgement, since ecological data are often scarce and incomplete and the nonlinear behaviour of complex ecosystems makes low-probability high-risk events inevitable. Mark’s take-home message is that expert judgement should be accorded the same reverence as scientific data, but it should be harnessed in a systematic way that minimizes bias and maximizes precision rather than being a haphazard question-and-answer session. The complementarity of quantitative data and expert judgement in turn feeds nicely, I think, into the system dynamics framework for simulating and solving complex nonlinear problems in many disciplines.

I am grateful to Mark Burgman for permission to communicate his research and hope it will be of value to my readers.

Related topics
Info-gap decision theory
How banking benefits invasion ecology
Horizon scanning in nature conservation

Bird Photography with Antonio Vázquez

My past few months in the photographic department had been distinctively anthropogenic, spent in the tubular labyrinth below the capital city of the world. For days I had navigated the endless subterranean seas of living human bodies and formations of ceramic and cast iron almost venerable enough to be geological, searching for those elusive points in space and time for my upcoming London Underground Photo Exhibition. The end of January saw the completion of this mission, freeing up camera time for something different. There could hardly be a better time than this to be offered an opportunity to return to my early interest in wildlife photography.

It was a great privilege for me to join the acclaimed Spanish photographer Antonio Vázquez and his son-in-law Raúl Rodríguez for a bird photography session at the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust’s Welney Wetland Centre in Norfolk. It does not really need mentioning that Antonio has had a remarkable career decorated by prestigious awards and a long list of books. In this brief biography there is a funny anecdote about getting his first camera that is a testimony to his commitment right from the outset.

Antonio’s grandfather, though not a photographer himself, infected young Antonio with a love for nature and animals by showing him beautiful pictures. Later on, Antonio was inspired by the great Spanish naturalist and filmmaker Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente who tragically died in an air crash while doing what he loved in Alaska. Why photography and not video? It is a matter of personal preference, Antonio says, to capture the special moments in still life, and I happen to identify with this. I also find it heartening that he is a wholly self-taught photographer, which in some ways gave him more space to explore and develop his own unique style, the very thing I am struggling to do myself.

At Welney, the recent snowmelt and subsequent rainstorms had brought upon a great flood that inundated all but the biggest hide. Strong winds were whipping the water into white-capped waves decidedly uncharacteristic of wetlands—just what we needed for some dramatic pictures. We wasted no time deploying the weapons systems.

A view of the great flood from the main hide at Welney Wetland Centre. Photo: Yangchen Lin

Antonio Vázquez with the Nikon D3x and 600mm f/4. Photo: Yangchen Lin

Antonio prioritizes on fast autofocus with no teleconverter, and achieves full control over the position of the active AF sensor in the viewfinder by manually toggling the four-way button on the D3x rather than relying on the camera’s automatic 3D tracking. Copyright Antonio Vázquez

I had intentionally travelled to the UK without what I affectionately called my ‘intercontinental ballistic missile’ (400mm f/2.8), my priority in the UK being scientific research. Antonio said that the 400mm f/2.8 was the best supertelephoto of all, surpassing the 600mm f/4 by a slight margin in terms of image quality (and of course, speed). I resolved to take it out more often in the future and savour its legendary sharpness and colour. For now, my armament ranged from 16mm to 200mm, and I set about doing the kinds of photography appropriate to those focal lengths.

Pochards swimming at Welney Wetland Centre

Atlantic Fleet: an attempt to evoke the magnificent lyrical turbulence of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2. The 70–200mm f/2.8 is not inadequate for birds provided one does not attempt to apply it in ways for which it has not been designed. Photo: Yangchen Lin

I was also curious to hear Antonio’s opinion on 800mm supertelephotos, Nikon having recently introduced their latest incarnation of the 800mm f/5.6. He feels that it compresses, or flattens, the perspective too much for birds at the usual distances, but is great for large oceanic waves. In an ongoing photographic project on coastal storms, he uses the 600mm with the 1.7-magnification teleconverter to get into firing range.

Nikon D3x | 600mm f/4. Copyright Antonio Vázquez

Raúl is Antonio’s disciple and enjoys using the Nikon D800 with the 200–400mm f/4. Juggling a career in the transportation industry with family commitments with young children means that he is unable to go all out with developing his own photographic art at the moment, but he follows Antonio and learns all he can.

Raúl Rodríguez with Antonio Vázquez. Photo: Yangchen Lin

The golden light prized by Antonio. Copyright Antonio Vázquez

Sunset at Welney Wetland Centre with Antonio Vázquez. Photo: Yangchen Lin

It was dusk when we finally packed up and headed home. As the rolling landscape out the car window steadily receded into darkness, we contemplated the future of photography. Antonio fears that photography may eventually cease to be a profession. With the advent of the Internet, photographers are no longer competing within their respective countries to sell their work, but with competitors from all over the world. As the number of photographs available on any given subject grows rapidly, individuals and organizations are on average becoming progressively less willing to pay the true value of a good photograph and less discerning between outstanding and not-so-outstanding photographs. Antonio now sees countless superlative images offered online for a tiny fraction of the amount invested in getting the shot—in the background research, equipment, logistics and creativity. And there is competition of another kind. Computer graphics have advanced to a point where it is no longer possible to tell a real photograph from a computer-generated image of a watch or a car in an advertisement.

Perhaps all is not lost, however. Antonio recalls a morning in Grand Teton National Park. It was 6 a.m. and –12 degrees Celsius—but 250 photographers were already in position at exactly the same spot, cameras all pointing towards the great mountain ready to freeze that magic moment in eternity. Despite the seemingly hopeless situation for getting anything that isn’t identical to 249 other copies of the same thing, Antonio insists otherwise. He gives an example: the vastly different photographs he and I took today, from the same spot.

Happy Valentine’s Day. Copyright Antonio Vázquez

How to make a realistic digital personal Chinese seal

One of the timeless manifestations of the Chinese language is the oriental seal, a unique, personal essence of oneself, an object whose physical symmetry adds to its hypnotic attractiveness. Seal carving and usage have a long and fascinating history; read more about the materials science and engineering of seal carving in James Eckman’s article which also has numerous links to more valuable information. The present article will guide you through the main steps in making personal digital seals that look reasonably realistic, using my seals as examples (scroll further down to skip the part about the meaning of my name).

Malaya Straits Settlements 50c Japanese Occupation Okugawa Seal

This red seal, in Japanese kanji script that looks similar to Chinese, was used during World War II. Read more about it here.

What does my name mean?

There are often interesting hidden meanings in a person’s Chinese name that appears on a seal. For example, my surname 林 (Lin) means ‘forest’. Albeit by coincidence, I grew up in the shadow of the great Dipterocarp rainforests of Malaya and Southeast Asia and came to appreciate their diversity and grandeur. My first name 揚塵 (Yangchen) is derived from the idiom 塵土飛揚, literally ‘dust-soil-fly-spread’, meaning dust flying everywhere. What? This derivation is only the first level of hidden meaning. The next level of hidden meaning in my name as conceived by my parents is even less obvious, but Ken Rockwell hits home with this statement in his (caution, may be subjective) review of the Nikon D4 (which I do not own):

The Nikon D4 is Nikon’s fastest, tightest professional camera ever made for sports and action photography. It leaves consumer cameras like the D800 and Canon 5D Mark III completely in the dust. — Ken Rockwell

Metaphorically, my parents wanted me to be the Nikon D4, the fastest horse, the Saturn V rocket carrying Apollo 11 into space. It has become one of the great asymptotic challenges in my life, a boundary condition that mathematically cannot and need not be attained but that my parents hoped I would perpetually strive towards.

Instructions for making your own seal

1. Design the seal. Two alternative methods, automatic and manual.

Method A: automatic. Input your name in Chinese characters at this online Chinese seal generator. It offers a variety of typefaces and other options and carves your png seal in two seconds. It automatically adds the character 印 (‘seal’) to make up four characters if your name has three. It’s a really nice programme.

Raw output from the online Chinese seal generator at

Open the resulting png file in Adobe Illustrator. Convert it to vector graphics using Live Trace with the ‘detailed illustration’ preset. The vectorization gives maximum flexibility for subsequent manipulations. Expand the trace and change the colour to one of your choice. The traditionally used seal paste is a luxuriant red obtained from mercury (II) sulphide (HgS).

Use the Direct Selection Tool to select and remove the square rim, which looks especially digital because the round corners don’t merge smoothly with the straight edges. Replace the rim with a self-drawn one, most straightforwardly accomplished with the Rectangle Tool. I went for a square with thick borders, considerably thicker than the weight of the character strokes, and unrounded corners (see figure below) to convey the kind of authority and formality you’d experience in an Imperial setting.

For the Chinese characters themselves, you may want to square off the ends of the strokes rather than leave them rounded, again to accentuate the feeling of Imperial strictness. I did this by adding rectangles, making sure that the edges were lined up precisely—Illustrator helps by snapping to paths. You may have to subsequently shorten a couple of strokes whose squared-off ends venture so close to other strokes that they appear unsightly and, worse, joined together when viewed at small sizes. Do this by drawing a shape over the part you wish to remove and clicking ‘minus front’ in Pathfinder. Avoid simply drawing white shapes to hide things, as it would be preferable to maintain background transparency to enable the seal to be used over any background.

After Live Tracing, changing the square rim and squaring off the ends of the strokes.

Method B: manual. Look up the seal script for each character in your Chinese name at Using the Pencil Tool in Adobe Illustrator, trace out the characters over their images or just write them yourself. In this case I used rounded caps on the strokes for a less regimental, more artistic air. Avoid perfectly straight and perfectly vertical or horizontal lines. Fine-tune the stroke thickness after you have finished tracing all the characters and grouping the objects (strokes) within each character, so you can judge how it looks as a whole. I went with relatively thin strokes this time to give it some gracefulness, but not so thin that the characters vanish into the pixels at small sizes. Update: you can also look up your characters in fonts of small seal script available here.

Use the Pencil Tool to draw the smooth irregular boundary of the seal. Then use Live Paint to fill in the shape (e.g. this tutorial). Why not the Pen Tool that’s specifically designed for drawing closed shapes? Because it’s more difficult to make the well-behaved Pen Tool do those warts and dents that impart a handmade feel.

Next, manually and individually position the characters within the shape, focusing on filling the space evenly rather than aligning the characters to one another. Perfect alignment isn’t part of the analogue beauty of prehistoric writing. Refrain from rotating the characters—this could easily detract from the vertical flow of the language. Finally, Object > Expand the characters to turn them into shapes, and use Pathfinder’s ‘minus front’ to punch them out from the seal.

Hand-drawn vector reproduction of Large Seal Script (Zhou Dynasty, 1045 B.C. – 256 B.C.) by Yangchen Lin, based on characters from the database. I also tried to emulate the transverse section of a stone worn smooth over the eons by the rushing waters of rivers and waterfalls in the great gorges of China.

Although the ‘manual’ design looks more hand-carved, both still scream DIGITAL. A little more work on them would make them more consistent with the fact that there were no computers during the Chinese dynasties.

2. Paste the seal into Photoshop. Next up is an ingenious trick I learnt from graphic designer Owen Jones: apply Gaussian Blur to the image and use Unsharp Mask to make the edges hard again. What for? More details can be found at his tutorial for creating a rubber stamp effect. What this trick does is to create the subtle impression of ink being absorbed into the fibres of the paper as the seal is applied (see figures below). You might try tweaking the transparency also but I didn’t do that since seal paste tends to be thick and opaque.

3. The final step is one of the various methodologies to realize what is popularly known as the grunge effect. In essence, one makes a logo look used and worn by infusing a texture—grainy, scratched, brushed—into it by Layer Masking it with a contrast-enhanced photo of a surface with the desired texture. Here’s a helpful video tutorial by YouTube user Digital Yard Sale:

I did an additional step at the end, hiding the textured backgrounds to reveal the seals in their naked glory. The texture photo I used for my seals is from The final results:

The Official Seal of Lin Yangchen (surname is written first in Chinese tradition). Notice the subtle blunting effect of the Gaussian Blur + Unsharp Mask treatment.

The Seal of Lin Yangchen

The strokes are still somewhat too neat to be totally convincing, although that is less obvious at the smaller sizes in which personal seals are usually seen. The particular texturization I used may have been reasonably successful at emulating scratches and abrasions, but it doesn’t go far in the way of simulating the kind of random yet nonrandom irregularities that would be produced by a less than perfectly even seal surface and patchiness in ink colour caused by variations in ink consistency and muscular pressure.

Despite the sophistication of Illustrator and Photoshop, truly realistic effects are difficult to achieve, requiring much manual tweaking. There is no instant automatic substitute for a 2000-year-old seal carved by hand.

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