Friday, January 15, 2010

Sometimes Distraction Leads to Real Finds

Partially because I tend to get distracted but mostly because I become genuinely interested, I find myself searching online for information that is irrelevant to my project but that are based on questions that arise in my grandfather's manuscripts.

Early in the book, I became obsessed with the need to know the value of an 1896 Polish gulden (now called a zloty) present U.S. currency to understand how much it would have cost my grandfather to travel from Warsaw back to Vishigrod had he had enough money. Somehow I learned that each 1896 gulden was worth fifteen cents in 1930, but got no farther than that.

I have a source I go to: Askville, which is owned/operated by You ask a question, and people who are online and have some knowledge of the subject respond. Sometime the responses are fairly generic and not all that useful, ie, in response to the question above, one Askvillian replied, "I would suggest getting 2 or 3 estimates from experts who specialize in coins from this period and region." Well, I would do that if I know where to find such experts (but I know that it isn't really important to know -- just interesting).

The chapter I'm currently editing raises a few more questions. At one point, after escaping from a Siberian labor camp (belated spoiler alert), my grandfather had been wandering in the frozen Siberian wilderness without any idea of which direction to head toward the nearest civilization, which was supposed to be "only" a five day-walk from the camp. The horizon was so barren that there were no landmarks, so even when he looked for where the sun rose, he couldn't tell from which direction it came.

What confused me in particular was his comment, "...Although the sun rose only moments earlier, I had already lost track of which way was South." Didn't he mean East? Or did the sun rise from a different direction when one was close to the top of the world? (I would have researched that extensively but I couldn't figure out the right way to phrase my query to extract the correct information).

In the same chapter, he and the fellow inmate with whom he had escaped decided to determine which way was North by determining the side on which moss grew.

There's a paragraph break immediately after they arrived at this decision, which meant that no more was written about it; had they figured out which way was North in order to make sure they were heading West (toward Europe) or East (toward Asia and, oddly, Chicago). But still I wondered -- Does moss grow on the north side of trees when they are near the top of the earth, too? Because it turned out that they still didn't know in which direction to head.

For the answer to this question I went to Wikipedia to see if it could school me on botanical, astronomical and other differences that might be represented near the North pole (which would cause me to wonder if the exact opposite were true at the South Pole) when I noticed a little icon for "Wikimedia Commons," and that is really the point of this post.

The issue of what is in the Public Domain had concerned me when I wanted to use the image of a rarely seen Matisse painting known as the "Red Room" (because it's in a museum in Russia and hasn't traveled outside the country) for an article I wrote about The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, which houses possibly the largest collection of contemporary art in the world. But the status of the photo of the painting wasn't clear so I didn't use it.

However, photos maintained in an area of Wikimedia Commons are all public domain items, and there are even some photos from the Russo-Japanese War (I won't use the picture of a spy being beheaded, even though that would be relevant, though I hope to find other illustrations to make this blog less visually dense.

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