Saturday, October 30, 2010


Despite what they're reporting in the news these days, hope is not dead. Reverse side of a tombstone, Arlington National Cemetery, July 2009. (For more Arlington tombstones, click the "Arlington" tag below or on the right side of this page.)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Dry Cleaning Sign

Sigh. Someone told me about this sign before, but I didn't actually believe it existed before I saw it in person last night. Dupont Circle.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Justice Inscription

"LEGE ATQVE ORDINE OMNIA FIVNT" (Let all things be done according to law and order). Latin inscription above entrance, Department of Justice.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Disorienting Braille Maps

Braille maps feature prominently in "America on the Move," an ongoing exhibition at the National Museum of American History). This map depicting streetcar paths in DC circa 1900 provides inscriptions in raised letters along with Braille dots. You can also use your fingers to trace the contours of the city and discern the routes streetcars could take as they moved people about the city. Note the standard map orientation here, with north as as "up."

This map depicting harbor travel in New York City in the 1920s is a little more complicated. It includes inscriptions and Braille dots on either side of the map, so that side that is "up" is not based on absolute cardinal directions - instead, what is "up" depends on how you are positioned in relation to the map.

(For related posts, click the "Braille" tag below or on the right hand side of this page.)

Monday, October 18, 2010

Art of the Parking Garage (National Building Museum ad)

This exhibition at the National Building Museum has now come and gone, but this ad was so clever I thought I should add it to this blog. I love the implied mathematical equation here: snail shell + parking sign = [implied result: spiral parking garage]. Read more about the photography exhibition here. Ad seen somewhere on the metro, May 2010.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Inuit Writing System (Canadian Embassy)

Last month I spotted these signs at the Canadian Embassy advertising an exhibition of Inuit prints. According to the press release, this exhibit offers "a distinctive portrait of Inuit life and culture in the Canadian Arctic." As usual, the Canadian Embassy poster is in English and French, but it also includes some text in the Inuit language (i.e., the names of the artists). One distinctive feature of the Inuktitut syllabary is its method for representing vowels; the vowel sounds are indicated by the orientation of the symbols (it's easier to see how this works by looking at the chart on this page).

Here's another sign nearby. I don't know what the text actually means here, but the photo at least gives you a better sense of what the script looks like.

For more about this exhibition, see this NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) blog posting.

P.S. I took this photo nearly two years ago (!) but somehow never got around to blogging about it. The poster below (also taken at the Canadian Embassy) advertises "Champlain's Dream" (in French: "Le rêve de Champlain"). This exhibit focused on French exploration of North America, revealing the intertwined histories of present-day New England and Quebec:

In case you're interested, you can see the Washington Post's excellent review (with online gallery).

P.S. For earlier postings about the Canadian Embassy, see here and here.

Monday, October 11, 2010

New Car Rental Sign (Chinatown)

The "Thrifty Car Rental" sign I posted about last year (see here) has since been replaced by a new one! This space is now a Hertz Rental Car, and the writing looks much better. Here, "Hertz" = 赫兹 (Hè zī), conveniently borrowing the standard transliteration of the unit of measurement (Hz) named after German scientist Heinrich Hertz. "Rental car" = 租车. This sign uses the simplified form of car (车) while the previous one used the traditional form 車. Photo taken in early 2010.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Sign(s) for Pork - Asian Supermarket

Today I noticed this character 豚 indicating the pork section at an Asian supermarket in Fairfax, VA. Although it features the "pig" radical (豕), this character is actually different from what I'm accustomed to seeing in Mandarin Chinese (where "pork" is written 豬肉 - literally, "pig meat"). In Japanese, pork is written 豚肉(ぶたにく = butaniku). Evidently the same characters 豚肉 can be used in Korean too, although I don't know what the pronunciation would be.

P.S. In Chinese 豬 can mean either "pig" or "boar" (hence when you see 豬年 on one of those Chinese Zodiac charts it's sometimes translated as "Year of the Pig" or "Year of the Boar"). In Japanese, the character 豚 is reserved only for "pig" while 豬 means "boar."

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Language of Flags (Navy Memorial)

Signal flags adorning a ship mast at the US Navy Memorial (across from the National Archives), September 2010. The International Code of Signals designates a flag for each letter in the Roman alphabet, plus each Arabic numeral (see here for more). Ships use such flags to communicate important messages to one another on the sea.

P.S. You can see some earlier posts for other takes on "the language of flags" - i.e., the special language that is used in order to describe flags, and the ways flags themselves can communicate symbolic meanings.

P.P.S. No, I don't know what these flags say! If anyone knows the code, let me know...

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Obsolete Library Catalog Cards (Library of Congress)

The emergence of the online public-access catalog has largely rendered the traditional library card catalog obsolete. At the Library of Congress, which has a searchable online catalog, this point is made especially clear: old paper catalog cards are unceremoniously stacked among blank pieces of scrap paper. Above is a sampling of old cards I picked up this afternoon (click to enlarge). Counter-clockwise from top left: records for 2 films in English, then other items in German, Spanish, Danish, Russian, and 2 in Hungarian.

For an engaging history of the library card catalog, see here. To see some creative ways of using "retired" library catalog cards, see here.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Library of Congress Logo (Banner)

Just noticed today that the Library of Congress logo looks like a waving American flag, as well as an open book. Very cool.

(For more on different adaptations of the American flag, see this recent posting.)

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Embrace Your Inner Geek! (Library Ad Campaign)

Geeky swag from the 2010 National Book Festival. These materials are part of a promotional campaign to increase the profile of public libraries. The ads use "geek" as a verb, reminding us of the important role that libraries can play in shaping our individual desires, hobbies, goals, and obsessions. For more, see the excellent "Geek The Library" website.

(For more from the 2010 National Book Festival, see here and here. For more on the related "I [HEART] WHATEVER" construction, see my postings here and here.)

P.S. It seems to me that the lower-case font in the library campaign invokes (intentionally or not) another cultural phenomenon: the TV show "Glee." It's common for a fan of the show to identify as a "gLeek," a portmanteau combining the words "glee" and "geek." In the promotional poster (above), the "L" finger sign -- which, as all high school students know, signifies "loser" -- becomes a badge of pride. (Incidentally, that hand formation is also the ASL sign for the letter "L.") Publicity material related to the show actively encourages fans to "gleeK out," embracing their obsession with the show.

The Language of Flags (Star-Spangled Banners)

The huge, tattered flag that inspired the lyrics of "The Star Spangled Banner" (the US National Anthem) is indeed a "star attraction" at the National Museum of American History (the screenshot above is a detail from a page on the online "Star Spangled Banner" exhibition). The huge flag on display was flown over Fort McHenry and survived the War of 1812, and it bears 15 stars and 15 stripes - representing the 13 original colonies, plus the 2 additional states (Kentucky and Vermont) that had joined the Union by that time. (The original plan was to keep adding 1 star and stripe for each new state that was admitted, but at some point this became too unwieldy and the number of stripes was "fixed" at 13.)

This website (as of September 2010) indicates that there's a Spanish translation of the anthem lyrics on display alongside the flag. (Note that this is NOT the same as the Spanish version that made the news back in 2006 - listen to the story here.)

Another intriguing version of the US flag in the NMAH is this Civil War era banner: the regimental colors of the 84th Infantry, 1866. This regiment was formed from the Corps d'Afrique of Louisiana, comprising of free black soldiers who fought for the Union. Note the French-derived place names on the red stripes (you can read more about this flag here and here). Interestingly, the writing in this flag is "backwards" - it reads left to right with the blue part (canton) on the right. As I understand it, the flag is typically flown facing the other direction (with canton on left).

A more stylized version of the "backwards" flag can be seen on this sign outside Newseum during Obama's inauguration in January 2009. (The number refers to Obama as the 44th President of the US.)

These versions of the US flag were displayed on the east façade of the Capitol when Obama was inaugurated in January 2009. The flags on the outside are the original stars and stripes (13 stars in a ring). The flag in the center is the current flag (50 stars). The other flags have 21 stars: this what the US flag looked like just after Illinois (Obama's home state) entered the Union in 1818.

As is the case with other flags, the "Star-Spangled Banner" is sometimes modified in order to make a political message. See, for instance, the protest flags here and here.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Nevada: "Official" or "Spanish" Pronunciation?

One of the items I brought back from the 2010 National Book Festival (see related post here) was this tourist map of Nevada. On its front and back flaps, it features a very curious mark over the first letter "a" in the word "Nevada." The mark directs its readers to pronounce the name of the state as "Nevada," using this [æ] sound, rather than "Ne-VAH-da," using this [ɑː] sound. Earlier this summer, some Nevada legislators discussed the idea of declaring the [æ] sound as the "official" pronunciation of the state's name. The implication here is that the "other" pronunciation of the state name, using the [ɑː] sound, is perceived as the "Spanish" pronunciation. (For a more detailed discussion of this issue, see here.)

In the context of this pronunciation debate, I find it curious that this tourist map readily acknowledges that the name of the state is Spanish in origin - it flatly states that "Nevada means 'snow-capped' in Spanish." So why would you go out of your way to discourage people from pronouncing it the "Spanish" way?

National Book Festival Bookmarks

Last weekend I checked out the National Book Festival (annual event on the Mall organized by the Library of Congress) and brought back some great bookmarks. On the right, a bookmark publicizing the World Digital Library, an international archive of cultural treasures maintained by UNESCO and the Library of Congress; its mission is to disseminate knowledge and increase cross-cultural understanding. The bookmark uses 5 languages: English, Arabic, Russian, French, (Mandarin) Chinese, and Spanish - these are, fittingly enough, the 5 official languages of the UN. To access this amazing digital library, go here.

My favorite bookmark is on the bottom left; the slogan states "Reading is for everyone," and superimposed on this is the equivalent text in raised Braille dots. These materials promote the National Library Service's resources for the blind.

"One Nation" Logo

A timely follow-up to yesterday's posting about flags: this sign for the "One Nation Working Together" March on DC. Today, October 2, 2010, marks the progressive, social justice answer to the Glenn Beck/FOX News rally that was in town a few weeks ago. Appropriately, the logo features a stylized American flag with the numeral "1" as the basis for a stylized "N" (for "nation").

(You can learn more about the march and the coalition of groups that make up the organization at this website).

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Language of Flags - US States etc.

This city abounds with flags - and not just in government buildings. In front of Union Station you can see the flags of all 50 states in the order they were admitted into the Union. Above (from L to R), the most recent states (Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Alaska, and Hawaii), then DC, and finally all the other US territories and commonwealths (Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, US Virgin Islands, and Northern Mariana Islands).

Vexillology, the study of flags, employs an arcane lexicon that ultimately derives from medieval heraldry (see this website for some of this vocabulary). I would describe the Hawaiian flag (just right of center in the photo above) as something like "the British flag in the top-left corner with stripes on the rest of it" but the flag is officially described in these terms:

(3) A red cross bordered with white is charged (placed) over all.
[From The Hawaii Revised Statues, Vol. 1, Ch. 5, Sec. 19 - see here]

The DC flag, above (center), is commonly understood to have heraldic origins (see my earlier posting for a fuller description).

I think that the most attractive use of flags as a decorative motif in a building is in the Kennedy Center. In the grand Hall of Nations, flags appear in alphabetical order by country name. Above, we see Australia (top left) followed by A's and B's.

In the equally-grand Hall of States, the flags are arranged chronologically according to date they were admitted into the Union. The flags begin with Delaware (in the back right) and proceed toward the front of the right-hand wall; they they start up again on the left-hand wall (front left of this photo) and proceed to the end, followed by the US "non-states."

For more on each of the 50 state flags, see this website.