Genius Wanted 33

Is anyone wizard enough to improve the contrast and definition on the small images of these letters, and enlarge them so that I am able to try to decipher them? This is a very important letter for my biography of Burnes; it is infuriating that such letters apparently disappear into the hands of private collectors.

Secondly, can anyone with academic access credentials (JSTOR or such) get me a copy of Mikhail Volodarsky, “The Russians in Afghanistan in the 1830’s“, Central Asian Survey vol 21 no 1 (April 1985). Wanted for genuine academic research purposes.

For those who don’t have my email address, the contact button at the top of the page will send me an email.

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33 thoughts on “Genius Wanted

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  • Michael Bimmler

    (that is, it will be once you reply to my message through the contact form. I just realized I obviously can’t attach documents to the contact form…)

  • Phil Daniels

    I can send you an amateur attempt – I don’t have specialist programs.
    Best wishes, Phil

  • Ben Franklin -Machine Gun Preacher (unleaded version)

    Who knows how many generations of copies were made from the original? If you start with shite………

    Old docs must be on that ancient method called microfiche, somewhere.

  • Richard

    The trick is often to re-photograph either under light of a different colour, (including sometimes UV), or look only at one of the RGB channels, or to photograph with the light-source at a very glancing angle.

  • Mark Golding - Children of Conflict

    According to a recent report from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP),
    approximately 1 billion people around the world are living ‘at the margins of survival’
    on less than $1 per day; 2.6 billion people, or 40% of the world’s population, live on
    less than $2 per day.

    Around 10 million children under the age of five die each year as a result of preventable causes, while 28% of all children in ‘developing’ countries are malnourished.

    The world is marked not only by poverty, but also by huge inequalities between rich and poor. While the poorest 40% earn only 5% of total global income between them, the richest 20% earn 75% of income. More than 80% of people live in countries where the gap between rich and poor is growing (UNDP, 2008, p. 25).

    The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that at least 150,000 people per year die as a result of global climate change, chiefly through increased levels of malnutrition and preventable diseases (such as malaria) in vulnerable geographical areas (WHO,
    2003, 2005). This figure only looks set to increase in the future.

    Finally, we can turn to war. The twentieth century was the most destructive in human
    history, with approximately 231 million people dying as a result of armed conflict or
    political violence (Leitenberg, 2006). The twenty-first century has got off to a bloody
    start. According to conservative estimates, the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the subsequent conflict in that country have killed around 200,000 people, although the actual figure is likely to be considerably higher. Hundreds of thousands have died in Darfur in Sudan, millions in the Democratic Republic of Congo. These are only three examples from a much longer list of recent or ongoing conflicts.

    Ethics and world politics: Duncan Bell

  • Ed Davies

    My experience of this sort of thing is limited to messing with a few astronomical images. Still, it’s not too hard to increase the contrast a bit but there’s not much hope of expansion. There are only so many pixels present – the images are scaled up for display on that site anyway and with the fuzzing that JPEG compression adds it’s really difficult to see much more.

    At least with playing with the contrast it’s possible to emphasize or de-emphasize the background stuff (text from the other side of the paper?) a bit.

    Even after that I still find it illegible but maybe you’re used to his writing. If you’re interested and nobody who actually knows what they’re doing pops up send me an e-mail address and I’ll send you a few files. My e-mail address is on this post and also on my contact page on my web site.

  • Strategist

    Can’t the Wayfarers Bookshop tell you who they sold the letters to? Wouldn’t the private collector agree to let you have a peek at the original? If I’d bought the letters, I would!

  • craig Post author


    Am discussing with them. They are very friendly, but say there are privacy issues. Of course they don’t want to hack off their rich buyers (these things go for about US $2,000 a letter.

    I want even more to know who is selling them. George Jacob was Burnes’ best friend and they kept up a very frequent correspondence for 20 years. But it has almost all disappeared. But somebody has been selling off one a year through the Wayfarer’s Bookshop. Is this someone who has inherited a big stash of them? No way to find out, unfortunately, that I can see.

  • Clark

    Craig, I’ve scaled those pictures up, and uploaded them to here:

    ~ ~ OTHERS PLEASE NOTE ~ ~ Please DON’T download these; you’ll overload my puny web-space!!

    You should find and index of all four images on the link above. The first one has been scaled up by a factor of three both horizontally and vertically, and I have also increased the contrast. The others are scaled up x4, but with no contrast adjustment.

    Craig, these adjustments don’t seem very helpful to me, but I often have trouble reading handwriting. However, there is only so much that can be done after an image has been compressed and/or reduced to a smaller number of pixels, and both apply to these images. I wasn’t sure if increasing the contrast made it better or worse. If you’d like the contrast of the other enlarged images increased, post a comment here and I’ll do it. Tell me if I should have done that one more or less.

  • guano

    For the corporate mind any statement beyond ‘good morning’ has privacy issues. To own an important letter which is untranscribed and unpublished smacks to me of collecting rare butterflies. Life’s freedom spiked. Let the dead bury their dead. The tyranny of French colonialism over Syria symbolised by the ruthless dictator Assad is being prised away from them in front of our very eyes. Let nobody ever forget who is defending France’s legacy of oppression of Islam. Iran and Russia. i.e. a vassal of papal theocratic power being defended by a vassal of Shi’a theocratic power and a vassal of Israeli theocratic power, Russia.

    All those who see the struggle in Turkey and Syria as a defence of lovely, popular secularism against the tyranny of nasty, Islamic rule should question all colonial false slogans of freedom. The primary purpose of all colonialism is to oppress truth and steal. It always has a hidden, theocratic propaganda base whose purpose is to oppress the truth of Islam, even though they try to represent themselves as secular and free from religious purpose.

    The reality is that in Burne’s Afghanistan and the present day
    Middle East, the bonds of faith between Muslims can sometimes prevail over the trickery, skullduggery and violence of its detractors and oppressors. But it is rare.

  • Komodo

    What David Carraher said. Splendid fellow. Wish I’d read his post before looking! Vol 21 is 2002.

  • Strategist

    >>> these things go for about US $2,000 a letter….somebody has been selling off one a year through the Wayfarer’s Bookshop

    !! Who’d a thought it? Another sleuthing job.
    When this book finally gets written, the next gig will be to do a “The Making Of” tie-in!

  • conallboyle

    re: the handwritten letter. I had a similar problem reading a Copy Letterbook from the 1830s — quick cursive script (you wonder if the originator could read it back?), and with the ravages of time, yellowing of the paper and bleeding from the other side. I think ‘Clark’ has done the best photo-shop job with the materials available.

    Even with the original, which the West Glamorgan Records Office gave me free access to, and with the help of a large magnifying glass, I found it very difficult to read every word. I was able to take photos of the script and then blow them up, enhance in many ways using Photoshop — better but not complete.

    In the end I had to ‘interpolate’ the words from the context. So long as you are honest about this in your publication, interpolation (ie faking it!) is fair game. Hope nothing too critical is un-readable tho’

    And in passing, Craig, keep up the good work. If ever there was “speaking truth to power” it is you. Many thanks.

  • Jon

    Craig, can you ask Wayfarers if they have a better digital copy? They may have, and have forgotten about it. Often when a scan is taken, it’s at 150 or 300dpi, and it is then substantially scaled down for the web. Perhaps they have the files?

  • KiwiGuyLondon

    Hi Craig – long-time reader, first time poster… My suggestion would be to try the following:

    Locate the program GIMP (a free and open source Photoshop equivalent), and install.

    Then load these images onto your computer, and open them in GIMP.

    Chose the option to “scale image” (where it is in the menu depends on which version of GIMP you are using), and try and increase the image to perhaps 2-3 times the size.

    Now, as an explanation, this process basically attempts to artificially increase the resolution by “interpolating” pixels that have been removed when the digital image was reduced and compressed for posting on the web (and these look compressed).

    This may or may not help, but it’s worth a try. The interpolation is a guess as to what the missing pixels are, and it really depends on the photo being scaled. It can make things a little blurry, but at the same time, aid reading.

  • David Carraher


    Regarding the photos.
    You may wish to directly contact the publisher of the photos to see if they can send you a better version of the photos to use. They may be able to send you better scans and perhaps other scans. Also, there is an outside chance that they would be willing to convey your interest to the purchaser of the letters. Perhaps that person will be sympathetic to providing you a direct look at them. (Who knows, it’s possible that a library purchased them?)


  • David Carraher

    An idea… Why not start a Google Doc for each page and invite people to collaborate on transcribing Burns’ letters. Different people will identify different words and phrases. In the end, you are likely to have a far better result than trying it on your own.

  • Jemand


    Are these the best images available? Without good software that does the thinking for you, one way is to print them out onto large A3 paper; trace over the characters with a pen to embolden and sharpen individual characters; identify individual characters from those words that are reasonably legible, rewriting the easy words in the interceding spaces and parts of words where the characters match those already identified. Then consider the fragmented sentences as a whole to make reasonable guesses as to the missing words and see if the images of these words (viewed as a blurry whole word) matches other words. It doesn’t matter so much if a word looks like it should, as long as all the same looking words are a grammatical fit within the context. This is a bit like code cracking, I suppose, so short words like ‘A’, ‘to’, ‘and’, will give you a head start.

  • Horace Swanson

    If the dealers are friendly but want to protect their clients’ privacy, perhaps they would agree to pass messages from you to the seller and buyer explaining your situation and asking what they have and if you can see it or have a legible reproduction. They might well be happy to get in touch with you.

  • jurisV

    I processed the available file using the tools I learned from copying and making readable 60 year old letters (light pencil on aged yellowish paper) from my aunt to my late mother. Those were almost impossible to decipher as the original pages.

    The image size is about 5 by 7 inches, but the resolution is only 72 pixels per inch. Contrast and scaling up is no problem, but the resolution is way too low make it readable, in my opinion. I had to scan my aunt’s letters at over 600 pixels per inch in a TIFF format (not jpeg or any other compressed format) to allow them to processed to readability levels.

    Your images of interest would be easy to process for readability if the resolution were in the 300 to 600 pixels per inch level. However, for the images that you linked, the resolution is just too low. I’m sorry I couldn’t help. !

  • Pan

    freeonlinephotoeditor’s ‘enhance II’ is pretty good for clarity, but having downloaded the result, then used interpolation to resize to a resolution of 300ppi, plus removing the yellow tint, the conclusion I’ve come to is that there is simply too much detail lost from the original scans. On top of that, the writer’s handwriting is just plain bad!

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