Designing The Charley Harper Quilt

I’ve been a big fan of modern artists Charley Harper’s work since 2012 when I taught may Science to Art course at University of California Davis.  In that class, students were tasked with communicating science concepts through art.  At the suggestion of the Wildlife Museum staff who sponsored the course, we chose to emulate Charley Harper’s style of simplifying species down to their most simple yet still recognizable forms.  We learned how Harper repeated forms – leaves and mice in one image are the same teardrop shape, for example – and simplified bodies down to their most elemental form.  The work was all completed in Inkscape and eventually printed on large banners that hang in Academic Surge.  The results were magical.

Fast forward a few years and I saw a post on the Charley Harper Studios’ Facebook page asking people to post images of quilts they had made using Harper’s images or their line of fabrics.  The quilts were charming and it made me think about how those simplified forms would easily translate into quilt blocks.

So, I set out to figure out how I could make one.  I have made one traditional quilt and one comforter more than ten years ago, but I regularly sew and do felt applique for Christmas ornaments, so the skills are there.  I learned about applique for quilting (particularly with woven fabrics that can fray, unlike felt) and decided that needleturn applique sounded like the least fussy option.  I found this video on YouTube to be an excellent quick tutorial:

Next, I needed a plan so I found a bunch of images I liked and arranged them in an Inkscape file with a page size set to the size of the finished product that I could later turn into vector lines for pattern pieces.  More on that later.  This is my plan (please note that the artwork is copyrighted by the artist):


I’ll update my progress as I go.

Making of a Moon Tree Map


I’m presenting a workflow for finishing maps in Inkscape at FOSS4G North America this year (2016). To really show the process effectively, I made a map and took screenshots along the way.

The Data

I decided to work with Moon Tree location data.  It’s quirky and interesting… and given that this is a geek conference I figured the space reference would be appreciated.  A few months ago I learned about Moon Trees watching an episode of Huell Howser on KVIE Public Television and then visited the one on the California State Capitol grounds.  I later learned from my aunt that my grandfather was a part of the telemetry crew that retrieved the Apollo 14 mission that carried the seeds that would become the Moon Trees, so there’s something of a connection to this idea.  Followers of my research also know that I’m a plant person, particularly plant geography.  So this seemed like the perfect dataset.  I was fortunate to find that Heather Archuletta had already digitized the locations of public trees and made them available in KML format.

Data Processing

The KML format is great for some applications (particularly Google maps, for which it was designed) but it poses some challenges.  I spent several hours… maybe more than I want to admit… formatting the .dbf to make the shapefile more useful for my purposes.  I created columns and standardized the content.  The map does not present all the data available (um… duh.).  It was challenge enough getting all this onto one page.

Yes, Inkscape is Necessary

You can’t make this map in QGIS completely.  I mean, normally you can make some fantastic maps in QGIS, but this one is actually not possible.  Right now, QGIS can’t handle having map frames with different projections.  I tried, but I found that even when the map composer looked right, the export in all three export options changed the projection and center of each frame to match that of the last active frame.  So I ended up with a layout with three zoom levels centered on Brazil… interesting, but not what I had in mind.  So I exported an .svg file three times from the map composer – one for each map frame – and put them together in Inkscape.

Sneaky Cartography

One of the methods I often use in my maps is to create subtle blurred halos behind text or icons that might otherwise get lost on a busy background.  I don’t like when the viewer sees the halos (maybe it’s from teaching ArcMap far too many years at universities).  It’s not quite a pet peeve, but I think there’s often better ways to handle busy backgrounds and readability.  My blog, my soapbox.  Can you spot them?  There are a couple in the map and in the final slide of the pitch video.  It doesn’t look like much, but I promise the text is easier to read.

The texture on the continents is the moon.  I clipped a photo of the moon using the continent outlines.  I liked the idea of trees on the moon.


The icons are special to me.  I’ve been really wanting to make a map using images from Phylopic and I thought this was the perfect opportunity… but… but… no one had uploaded outlines for any of the species I needed.  So I made them and uploaded them.  So if you want an .svg of these, help yourself.  If, however, you need dinosaurs, they’ve got you covered.

Watch it happen:

My pitch video captures the process from start to finish:

 Want more open source cartography?

Come to FOSS4G North America and see my and several other talks focused on cartography.  I’ll cover methods and tools in Inkscape common for cartography.

My Big Day of Giving Toolbox


A graphic used in the 2015 campaign.  Photo editing: XnView.  Layout & graphics: Inkscape.

I think it’s pretty clear from my blog that I’m equal parts scientist and artists.  One of the things I do on the art side is that I’m on the Board of Directors for the Pamela Trokanski Dance Theatre.  My job is twofold: (1) manage the social media outlets, and more recently (2) I am the Team Leader for our participation in the Big Day of Giving, which requires a lot of social media.  So, I’m doing a lot of graphic design, communications, advertising, and coordination. Big Day of Giving is a day (literally 24 hours) of donating to Sacramento-area nonprofit organizations that have profiles with Giving Edge.

Having a successful Big Day of Giving almost requires someone on your team to be able to film and edit videos and to create engaging graphics all of which can be posted online, added to blog articles, and be sent in emails… not to mention printed materials and press releases.  HOW do you do all of that?  Through my graphic editing and generating needs as a scientist (hello, figures in journal articles!), I’ve collected a set of go-to tools that are all FREE and open source.

Graphic Design: Inkscape

Photo Editing: Gimp or XnView

Video Editing: OpenShot

Why does free and open source matter?  Pamela Trokanksi Dance Theatre is a 501(c)3 education nonprofit.  Read: we have no money to spend on expensive art programs.  All of our operating costs are provided through donations and ticket sales.  Additionally, all of our board members (the board is a major source of volunteer hours) can download and use these programs without incurring costs.  Each of our board members already donates monetarily to the the organizations.  We, as board members, don’t want to have to spend money on software.

“But these are advanced tools!” I’ve heard people complain.  “It’s too much for volunteers to learn.”  Sigh.  All I can say is try.  It helps that two members of our board are die-hard Inkscape fans.  We set up Inkscape templates with the logos already added to make start-up easy for the novices.  So far, so good.

Accidental Ferns

I have this moss terrarium that is not doing that well.  It’s never done well.  I guess moss doesn’t really want to live in a jar.  Probably more than a year ago, I dropped a maidenhair fern frond in there that was loaded with spores.  I thought it might sprout, but after the leaf decayed, nothing happened so I forgot about it… not that I really knew what fern sprouts looked like.  Months ago, I started seeing this strange structure growing out of my dying moss clumps.  It kind of looks like tiny kelp.  I thought maybe it was a liverwort or some moss structure that grows from moss in some last attempt to live.  My “moss kelp” eventually grew some branches, so I thought it was making spores.


From left to right: some scraggly moss, young maidenhair ferns, and the fern prothallia

Fast forward to today.  My maidenhair fern in my office (a division of the one mentioned earlier) is dropping spores all over the window sill, so I did some internet research on how to grow ferns from spores.  That’s when I discovered I’ve actually already done it.  The “moss kelp” is the prothallium or the gametophyte of the fern (the structure where fertilization happens).  From the prothallium, the fern that we recognize grows.  Now I wonder if I can do it again on purpose.

A note on the photograph: photographing prothallia is really difficult.  I was frustrated at the lack of good photos online, but now I understand, so please excuse my lack of detail in my photo.  I may try to get some better macro photos later.

ArcGIS Tabulate Area Error

Several times I’ve run into an error trying to run the Tabulate Area (Spatial Analyst) tool in ArcGIS.  [I know, I know… I’m more of an open source person, but you gotta use what they’ll let you have at work.]  The error code it gives is “Error 999999 : Error executing function.”  Great.  Cuz that’s helpful.  Here are some things to check.

  1. Did you put the right layers into each input field or should the be switched?  The order matters.  The one with “zone” in the description needs to have the shapefile or raster that defines the zones you want to use.
  2. Does the attribute information you are trying to use have spaces (or special characters like commas)?  Yeah, that doesn’t work.

Now, I don’t promise that one of these is going to solve your problem, but it’s at least something to look into, which Arc doesn’t give you.  I hope someone finds this helpful.  It was intended more as a note for me, since I’ve run into and troubleshot this problem more than once this year not remembering the solution.  That’s what blogs are for!

Spatially Enabled Zotero Database

As a geographer, I’m a visual person.  I like to see distributions on a map and where things are matters to me.  A few years ago, while I was writing a paper I became overwhelmed with trying to remember the locations for the studies I had read (for coastal plants, latitude matters), so I started marking the locations of studies on a map and eventually turned it into a printed map.


But adding new studies and sharing the results is a cumbersome and the spatial data is largely separate from the citation information.  So I set out to find a way to store spatial information in my citation database and access the spatial information for mapping purposes.  The end result (which is still a work in progress at press time) is a web map of coastal vegetation literature that updates when new citations are added to my Zotero database online.


How I Did It:

Key ingredients: Zotero, QGIS, Spatialite, Zotero Online Account

I started working with the Zotero database I already have populated with literature relevant to my research on coastal vegetation.  I moved citations that I wanted to map into a separate folder just to make the API queries easier later.  I made a point in a shapefile for the location of each study using QGIS.  I gave the attribute table fields for the in-text citation and a text description of the location for human-readability, but the most important field is the ZoteroKey.  This is the item key that uniquely identifies each record in the Zotero database.  To find the key for each citation, in your local version of Zotero, right click on the record and pick “generate report”.  The text for the key is after the underscore in the URL for the report.  In the online version, click the citation in your list.  The key is at the end of the URL in the page that opens.


My map only has point geometries right now, but that will change in the coming weeks.

The spatial information was then to be added to the Zotero database (specific queries can be found on GitHub) in Spatialite.  The Zotero schema is quite large but not impossible to navigate.  Currently, there is no option to add your own fields to Zotero (I tried… I failed… they tell me the option is coming soon) so I put my geometries into the “Extra” field.  Using Spatialite, I opened the Zotero database and imported my shapefile of citation locations (having new tables doesn’t break the database, thank goodness).  Then I removed any existing information in the “Extra” field and filled it in with geometry information in the style of geoJSON.  The string looks like this:

{"type": "Point", "coordinates": [-123.069403678033, 38.3159528822055]}

After updating the citation records to house the geometries, I synced the changes to my online Zotero repository from my desktop program.  Now it’s ready to go into a web map using the Zotero API.  My webmap code can be found in my GitHub Repository.

What’s Next?

I would like to develop a plug-in for QGIS that makes adding the geometries to the Zotero database easier because not everyone wants to run SQL queries on their active citation database that has been years in the making (I backed mine up first!).  The interface would show the citations you want to map, then users would pick a citation, then click the location on their QGIS project where the citations should be located.  The plug-in would insert the corresponding geometry for them.

Getting Started with LaTeX

I’ve been thinking for a while that I would like to learn how to use LaTeX.  Aside from being something that geeky types seem to love, it makes documents that look beautiful.  It actually looks easier than getting Word or LibreOffice to behave in predictable ways beyond simple text.  So why am I finally learning how to use this?  I want to submit an article to a journal and they require all submissions be in LaTeX format.  (As an aside, why did they have to make the capitalization of LaTeX so odd?  It’s hard to type!)  I thought I would post some notes on tools I found useful for learning.


You need both a LaTeX engine and an editor.  I installed MikTex as the engine and TexMaker for the editor.


Michelle Krummel has a multi-part video tutorial on YouTube that moves at a good pace (not too fast or slow).  She teaches all the basics you need to understand how to set up a document and how formatting works.  Even though it’s specifically geared towards mathematics, the concepts all apply to what you would need for other sciences as well.

Cheat Sheets

Winston Chang wrote an excellent cheat sheet to remind you of the basic formatting you’ll need.