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January 10, 2008

Planes, Birds and Fish

Back in the early 90’s, I went through a 3 year phase when I wanted to become an airplane pilot. In addition to taking flight training in Ontario, Canada (where I live) I also “studied” in Phoenix, Arizona and Hoxie, Kansas where I took some cropdusting lessons.

During this time I became acquainted with some of the aviation “culture” including the juvenile, false bravado and machismo attitude of many pilots (particularly new ones). Aviation culture also included the habit of using the metaphor of birds to refer to airplanes.

I was never really comfortable with this bird analogy for planes, although, like birds, planes fly and planes have wings. Birds however, incorporate a lot of movement into flight unlike planes which are extremely rigid and also extremely smooth and streamlined — more like fish, fins and swimming than birds, wings and flying.

In fact, one sunny morning at the Scottsdale airport in Phoenix (it’s always sunny in Phoenix) I was doing my required “walk around” of the training aircraft and I decided to take a look at the underneath of the tail of the airplane. It was much like the smooth, curved underside to a fish, I thought. Isn’t an airplane really more like a fish or boat with wings?

In fact, “flying boat” amphibious aircraft require very little design modification to transfom them from what is a typical aircraft design. I suppose, of course, one could say the same thing about a duck — a floating bird — but that just emphasizes my point that aircraft are more like water creatures than air creatures (more like ducks than eagles).

Anyhow, I’m sure the bird metaphor for airplanes lives on, just as the James Bond mentality of many pilots probably does too, even though they’re both just as unnatural and out of place in the real world.

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January 4, 2008

Digital Picture Frames

Frames? Digital Pictures!

They really ought to be called something like, “Digital Display Frame” since the “frame” isn’t really digital, is it? It’s the picture that’s digital. But I think it’s an example of how language is a practical medium and changes according to the whims of those who use it, rather than the direction of any sort of authority. “Frame” is being used to refer to the entire mechanism, which in this case includes the picture.

Although they seem to be a little pricey right now ($79-4×6″), it’s an exciting development for people like me who find printing to be a completely different medium than the digital, computer one. Of course, they’ve had these sorts of things in Star Wars for some time now. But apparently science fiction is not the same as reality.


Whole new digital communities are already appearing — and disappearing

On the opposing side of things: isn’t a digital picture frame just a low quality computer screen that eats up batteries and wouldn’t it be better to view digital images on a computer monitor instead? Yes, but the “picture frame” performs the function of a decoration which occupies places that a monitor can’t. A digital picture frame is a digital ornament and that’s the exciting thing. Digital Ornaments are something new. So far, with the exception of printing (a pretty big exception…) digital art has been confined to a computer monitor; it doesn’t hang on a wall like it’s ancestors do.

Think of the possibilities: With technological development they could become cheaper and that would also translate into larger. It’s possible that the technology could produce a very large digital display “frame” that could substitute for large printed images.

Galleries could produce coin operated images. Put in, say, 25 cents and the image appears for a minute. If you want to take a closer look (some people do) then just drop in another 25 cents.

Hmmmn… That’s going to be a problem. Where is anyone going to find digital art that’s worth 25 cents?

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December 31, 2007

Lookin’ Great in Two Thousand and Eight

It’s amazing how those two words, “Great” and “Eight” with such very different spellings can actually rhyme. And that’s the way it often is with webpage designs; it’s amazing what looks good together once you actually try it.


The Silent Star Award

Sometimes you have to see an example before you get inspired. For my current Fractal Beanstalk redesign (which may have changed, yet again, if you’re reading this from the archives a year from now) of white page with grey sidebars and black strip across the top, I was inspired by a WordPress template called, unsleepable designed by Ben Gray.

I didn’t use the actual template but just took the general design and color scheme. Yes, black, white and gray is a color scheme. I’d been of somewhat half a mind to do something with my old design which was all black with white text. It was great for images (the black page background), but the text being white “ink” on black “paper” never gave me a good feeling like plain old black text on a white page does.

Of course I’d tried similar simple greyscale designs before, but they just looked too boring although they really provided a nice neutral background that made the images in a blog posting stand out nicely. So I was very excited when I stumbled across Ben Gray’s, “unsleepable” design because it’s the sort of minimalist grayscale design I had always been trying to make.

What else…

The more I “blog” the less I care about what the layout or template of my blog looks like. All I really want is a design that doesn’t interfere with the postings — that doesn’t interfere with the blogging. The problem of course is that minimal designs are actually just as hard to make (good ones, that is) as complicated, ornate ones are.

Save yourself some time and effort and browse around the internet and steal something that looks good. That’s probably how all the good designs got started anyhow.

Thanks Ben. The lost sleep was worth it!

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December 30, 2007

You think Nuclear Weapons are easy to make?

No way. Think again, brainiac.

Or go check out the articles in the Wikipedia regarding Nuclear Weapons. The hard part seems to be getting the fuel. You need Uranium or Plutonium, even if you want to make a Hydrogen bomb, but it’s got to be a special type — and lots of it.

I think because there are so many nuclear weapons in the world that people think they’re easy to make. Also, since the principles behind them are relatively simple (nuclear physics is simple, right?) and easily available, it’s reasonable to assume that anyone, who wants to, can make an “atomic bomb”.


It’s not as easy as you think it is

Enriching Uranium requires the concentration (isolation, separation) of the Uranium isotope, 235. This is difficult. “Difficult” means expensive in engineering or scientific circles.

Plutonium (239) isn’t even a naturally occuring element and has to be created from Uranium 238 (stable and useless) in a nuclear reactor. Unfortunately it explodes too quickly when formed into critical mass and requires very sophisticated (more money, again) methods to get a useful, high-yielding warhead.

Hydrogen bomb? It takes a plutonium or uranium (235) explosion to just get the Hydrogen bomb going. That’s a very expensive fuse. But after that… The biggest nuclear weapons are all Hydrogen (fusion of small atoms, as opposed to fission –splitting– of big ones) bombs.

Did you know that when U.S. President Harry Truman announced after dropping the second atomic bomb on Japan (Nagasaki, Aug. 1945) that if they didn’t surrender they would see an unbelievable rain of destruction, that he was actually just bluffing?

Apparently the U.S. had used up all of their weapons (they only had 3: dropped two and tested one –Trinity test, White Sands) and didn’t have any more enriched Uranium (235) or Plutonium with which to make another bomb, and would have entailed several months of enrichment processing.

So it just goes to show that the only think more powerful than an atom bomb is a slick-talking president.

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December 28, 2007

Sub-terranean


Inkblot Kaos Parameter File

Getting through the winter seems to be so complicated and expensive for us humans. On the other hand, in the tropics houses are simple. All you really need is a roof that keeps the rain out, screens on the windows (or a mosquito net to sleep under), four walls and a floor.

Winter is the reason that human civilization has primarily stayed in places where nothing ever freezes. Winter is an enormous economic drain.

Which makes me wonder how all these animals up here manage to make it through the winter without ever paying a cent for oil, gas or electricity to heat their homes and yet keep living and carrying on just fine without all the complexities that humans seem to require.

The secret is going underground …and falling into a stupor …waking up every few weeks …seeing if it’s over …falling back into a stupor …again …again …unless something eats you.

Take the Mongolian Gerbil of South Central Siberia, for instance. Don’t be fooled by that “Siberia” name. Siberia is just the prairies or “western plains” of Russia. It’s no colder there than Manitoba (that’s Canada) or North Dakota, where actually it’s incredibly cold, as cold as Siberia.


original Inkblot Kaos image before India Ink-195.8bf

In the winter they… wait, apparently they don’t hibernate. The whole family moves down into their winter nesting chamber which is 4 or 5 feet below the surface. They store up food? Probably. The burrow is interconnected with tons of other ones. I think they have a pretty good time down there. They don’t shovel snow. They stay underground on super cold days, which means, super windy days. I think they carry the Plague.

Weird stuff happens in the winter up here. Some small rodents, ground squirrels, I think, hibernate. Hibernation isn’t “sleeping”. Hibernation is a (this is true) state of suspended animation where the body temperature drops to within a few degrees of “room temperature” which in these cheap, unheated rodent-homes, could be close to zero (freezing) Celsius.

Pick up a hibernating animal and drop it and it won’t wake up. It’s in a torpor or stupor sort of state.

Most hibernators however, dig a burrow down to a level which is below the “frostline”, which is the maximum depth to which the freezing cold of winter goes. There’s something called the sub-snow layer, too. Under the snow, but above the ground. Not as exposed, but certainly colder than the subterranean areas.

Bears, or at least most bears, don’t actually hibernate. They just lie around sleeping or doing nothing all winter. Apparently this was discovered, quite quickly, by researchers who went into the dens of bears in the winter to take their temperature (the main indicator of hibernation). After the loss of several hundred graduate students… it was assumed the bears were not hiberating and were actually quite alert.

Some small rodents actually allow their body temperature to drop below freezing and enter a super-cooled state (below freezing, but still liquid –not frozen). This allows for enormous savings in heat as a body temperature of -2C doesn’t require much metabolic activity. It’s been suggested that perhaps, in particularly cold winters, or during cold “snaps”, that some of these rodents actually die, so maybe it’s not as successful a strategy as one might think.

In the Arctic (snow, ice, tundra, igloos, seals, polar bears…) apparently there is very little or actually no hibernation (low body temperature state). Why? Isn’t it colder up there? Yes, but the winter lasts so long (like 14 months) that no animal could store up enough fat to make it through such a prolonged period.

Polar Bears are active all winter long. They even give birth in the winter. They eat people too. They’ll eat anything. I read about an experienced Inuit (Eskimo) hunter who was stranded on an ice floe and was scared to death about being killed by polar bears, especially at night. It just amazes me that anyone or anything would live way up there.

The squirrels of the Yukon Territory (Canada, east of Alaska) are the weirdest of all. They don’t go underground, or hibernate, they just avoid the really, really bad days. They’re active all winter long and instead of having an increased metabolism which is what you’d expect, since they’d need to supply more body heat, they have a lowered metabolism —yet they do not die. And they live in trees, in nests made up of a big ball of twigs and leaves. You cannot freeze a squirrel. It’s been proven. They have to be run over first. Or go through a snow blower.

I don’t live in the Yukon, but even here, way down south in Toronto (between Michigan and New York state) squirrels live up in trees all winter long. This has always puzzled me, because it looks incredibly cold, especially on windy nights. The trees are bare except for these strange, football sized clumps of leaves. You’d expect people to live that way, but not animals. Maybe living so close to people has made them stupid and they’ve abandoned the steady ways of their ancestors.

But for the Mongolian Gerbil, when it’s night time; minus forty; the wind howling away; he’s quite relaxed, down in his golden chamber, surrounded by the riches of the earth, while a winter storm walks across the plains.

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December 24, 2007

When Art is Useful


Inkblot Kaos Parameter File

From time to time I become curious about something and I start reading about it. A month ago it was hibernation, and in particular, the winter homes of animals. Lately it’s been nuclear reactors.

This sort of informal, casual study of things I’ve found to be similar to assembling a puzzle, or catching glimpses of something in the dark, or to guessing what’s in a bag by putting your hand in and feeling it without looking. It’s a process of sorting and assembling major (essential) and minor (detail) pieces of information.

Unless you’re a serious student following a formal course of study at a school, most of us learn about new things in this sort of way: a process of discovery and tentative conclusions (eg. “breeder reactors are the way of the future; why don’t we all use them?”). It’s a natural way of learning, I think, but not necessarily the most efficient; a formal course might not be as interesting but will bring you up to speed on a subject faster and give you a more complete understanding, although it might not be as “fun”.

Hibernation, nuclear reactors… and of course: Art, is one of those perennial subjects I like to “look into” and to form opinions about. Form opinions and forming opinions and reform opinions, because gathering more information often changes your opinion about the subject you’re gathering information about.

I’ve noticed something about art. There is something called, “Useful Art”. It’s not complicated. It just means that there is a category of artwork that is distinguished by being useful to people, as opposed to the more general category of artwork which is just art and only performs the function of being art.

If you think of this in the context of human society (and don’t we all do this sort of thinking?) then there are, “Useful People” and there are people who are just “People”. Some people are very productive and make a lot of money and there are others who’s contribution to society –usefullness to society– is, uh, less or even less than zero. People, however, unlike machines or highways or other “things” don’t have to justify their existence by being useful. We value all human life, in general, (most of us do) even when those lives don’t benefit us or even if they cost us something (eg. dependants).

Back to “Useful Art”. I’ve noticed (internet, books, media…) that often a greater value or prestige is placed on artwork that has been chosen for commercial purposes. Book covers; illustrations; newspaper articles; advertisements; calendars; posters; exhibitions; these are examples of the sorts of “medals” or “honours” that artwork can “win” –by being useful.

Some of these commercial purposes are more “Art” oriented than others (exhibitions), but I think it’s worth noting or keeping in mind that: the usefullness of art is not a direct result of its artistic merit.

I’m not saying this because my own artwork is useless. This is just the conclusion I’ve come to after observing an enormous amount of commercial art in the media. Commercial “success” and the commercial “look” is very deceptive. Most of the artwork we see is incorporated into advertising and contexts that are not related to the promotion of art for it’s own sake. The most common artwork of our society (there I go again, talking about “society”) is advertising and I think that has distorted people’s view of what makes for good art.

I think this particularly explains the very slick, simplistic, one dimensional, homogeneous look to a lot of digital art. This of course includes fractal art, but that’s just because I suspect the same cultural influences are at work in the minds of fractal artists as they are in the minds of digital artists in general. I really think that most of the people making this sort of artwork actually think it’s good stuff because it fits in well with all the advertising art that is “rampant” (wonderful word!) in our “society”. They have developed advertising “eyes” by observing so much advertising around them.

I used to be that way too (but now I make junk), I loved bump-mapping, rich vivid colors, stuff that looked “professional” and was glossy –or at least I tried to make stuff like that (it’s not easy making slick stuff, is it?). What happened to me was I got bored with it and I began to find the artwork in art books more interesting and then I just stopped paying attention to what anyone else was doing and just made stuff that interested me. Also, slick artwork doesn’t seem to come naturally –a point which I think deserves some deeper consideration.

Now, I’m not saying that all advertising artwork is bad or lacks artistic merit. There’s a wide range of artistic styles used in advertising, although, for the most part, advertising art is: eye-catching; simple themes; bright colors; cliches (they’re quickly understood); idealized.

So avoid all that. Make complicated, dark, revolting, obscure, cynical images.

No, no, no! What I’m saying is that you can’t trust the “standards” and the “examples” for artwork that you see everyday because that’s advertising and it only uses “art” when it cooperates with commercial interests. Trust your own instincts about what you find interesting and make stuff like that and don’t worry if it looks, “different” than anything you’ve seen before.

Of course, if your instincts tell you to make slick, commercial stuff and you actually find that experience interesting and exciting, then IT’S TOO LATE!!! YOU’VE BECOME ONE OF “THEM”!!!

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December 21, 2007

Desert Roads and Mountain Lakes


Desert Roads

Back several month ago, I posted about a program called Fyre. As is often the case with new programs and new forms of algorithmic art, I quickly reached what I thought were its creative limits.

A recent comment on my blog asking for information on how the images from Fyre are made, re-kindled (ha, ha…) my interest in the program. I went looking for the Fyre website to see if it had the information needed (I avoid trying to explain mathematical processes). While there, I visited the official Fyre gallery on Flickr where I saw some very interesting images and asked myself, “How come I couldn’t make stuff like that?”.

One of the extremely smart and super-convenient aspects to Fyre is the incorporation of a parameter “file” in the meta information (hidden notes) of the images it saves. Open up any image saved from Fyre and you can rework it just as you can with the autosaved parameter files from some fractal programs (Inkblot Kaos, Tierazon…).

So I opened up some of the images from the Fyre flickr gallery and began to see how others had used the program and made these images that I hadn’t thought were possible. I then went further still, and began to experiment in many new directions by moving around any parameters that weren’t nailed to the floor or screamed when I touched them.


Mountain Lake

Fyre has harnessed what I would call one of the primary tools of algorithmic art: RANDOMNESS. Ctr+R instantly gets you an image formed by it’s randomly generated set of basic parameters modified by the users pre-set rendering options (exposure, gamma, type of gradient…). The human mind cannot think randomly and so is handicapped when it comes to competing with the randomly generated constructions of computer software.

Don’t feel bad about this handicap. The ability to be controlled by randomly generated instructions is a result of the weak ability, or complete lack of ability, of machines to think. Machines don’t have a brain and so it’s easy to make them do “machine tricks” like senseless, random behaviour. People, on the other hand, think too much and ironically this tends to make them behave more repetitively instead of more creatively.


Portrait of Sindbad

So what are we good for? Sorting the good ones out from the bad ones, which is something that will probably always be beyond a machine’s capability, art being the sort of difficult to define thing that it is. Push buttons. Slide sliders. Interpret error messages… there’s plenty of work for us, brain-encumbered, creatures to do.

And write blog postings. Can a machine ever write a blog posting? No way! It’s us, who control the machines and direct their development that alone can do that. We’re the ones who do the thinking and comment on the processes and principles. Speak your mind and we’ll all be enriched and improved by it. The re-education camps are a thing of the past now. It’s safe to speak out, comrades. The Great Leader has said so. Let a thousand fractal art postings blossom!

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December 14, 2007

Test-Tube Art


Inkblot Kaos parameter file

Back to fractals. I think I did something to the other machine. It’s leaking oil, or something. I smell something “electrical”, too.

My seven year-old daughter was recently invited to a birthday party. While we were looking around in the Barbie Doll aisle of a department store for a suitable present, me and my nine year-old son came across a misplaced item –TEST-TUBE ALIENS.

I can’t imagine who would put down a kit for “making” aliens in a test-tube and choose a Barbie doll instead because my daughter soon shared our interest in this hand-held Easy Bake oven for mutants. Some poor girl must have gotten a Barbie doll after her mother intervened and told her she’d probably have a lot more fun with a glamour pageant Barbie doll than the TEST-TUBE ALIENS that she picked up on the other aisle (where all the exciting, boy’s stuff is).

My interest in the TEST-TUBE ALIENS subsided somewhat after reading on the back that there were three or four different kinds, and they all had pre-detremined names — and predetermined shapes too, it seemed.

That’s no fun. I was expecting something more along the lines of a genetic experiment with such scrambled genes that the back of the box would only speculate on what they might look like and offer a guarantee that what crawled out of the test-tube wouldn’t threaten the human race with extinction. Ideally, it would also have come with a small handgun for terminating the experiment should things get out of hand… chains break, radio-activity be detected.

Guys like me won’t be designing children’s toys anytime soon.


Inkblot Kaos parameter file

Fortunately fractal programs are also test-tubes — digital ones — and have very few restrictions on them, which makes for hours and hours of frightening recreation. The results aren’t always pretty, but for the mad scientist in the family, they are rarely boring.

Now if you’d prefer to take a look at the Barbie doll aisle instead…

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December 3, 2007

Peter and Alice visit Santa


Santa’s Bunker

Peter and Alice were still a long way off, but stopped to take another look through the telescope.

“I can see it!’ said Peter, “It has to be Santa’s home. But it looks strange.”

“Here, let me see” said Alice. “That’s barbed wire. It’s all over the place. He’s practically living in a fortress.”

“I guess it’s true, then” said Peter, “He really has changed. It’s Santa against the whole world. He’s lost all hope in humanity.”

“He hasn’t lost hope in anything –he’s gone ape-crazy! Get the radio out of your backpack and let’s call in the airstrike before one of his elves picks us off with a sniper rifle.”

“Can’t we at least try to talk to him? He’ll remember us from all those letters we sent him. Maybe all this is just for defense –to protect himself.”

“Sure, let’s talk to him. I suggest we start by ringing his doorbell with a cruise missile.”

-excerpted from: Santa’s Nuclear Gamble, (The All-New Christmas Fireside Companion, 2007)

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November 27, 2007