Tuesday, September 30, 2008

complexity increase in evolutionary software

Daniel W. McShea, Perspective: Metazoan Complexity and Evolution: Is There a Trend?, Evolution, Vol. 50, No. 2 (Apr., 1996), pp. 477-492.

[Image credit: Fig 1. Increasing complexity in evolution? McShea, 1996]

It would appear at a glance that evolution has driven increases in complexity from replicating molecules up to conscious humans. Is this justified? Or are humans simply so self-centered that we line everything up behind us, even in this modern day and age? A-Life has held the production of open-ended evolution in-silico as one of its aims for some time. Early models such as Ray's Tierra or Yaeger's PolyWorld are two of my favourite approaches to the problem. Each of these software ecosystems has spawned a complete lineage of programs addressing similar concerns. McShea's paper looks at data on real organisms and attempts to discern any trends in their evolution that would justify the belief that organisms evolve towards greater complexity. Consequently, it addresses an issue of real importance to A-Life that harks back to the formative years of Tierra and PolyWorld.

McShea's approach is firstly to clarify the kinds of complexity that can possibly be measured in real organisms. This has long been a sticking point... the real world is not always so easy to divvy up as information theoreticians might like. Useful, information-theoretic measures of organism complexity are difficult to specify. McShea simplifies matters a little by trying to count organism parts and internal processes that are specific to some groups of Metazoan. I won't go into detail here. His conclusions is interesting: we still don't know enough to say either way. He proposes an "emphatic agnosticism". This is a far cry from the usual assumption we make about complexity increase. There is room here for debate. Anyway, leaving that aside also since it still isn't the main point I want to raise in this post...

If, for some obscure reason, biological evolution turns out to be closed, could we modify the scenario in simulation to generate virtual ever-increasing complexity regardless? A-Life has always assumed that the real world offers an example of open-ended evolution and that somehow our simulations are missing some secret herbs and spices that will allow this to occur. It is pretty clear that our software evolutionary systems fall far short of biological evolution as complexity generators. We have probably missed an element or two. But could it be that we will correctly simulate real evolution and still not get open-ended evolution? Maybe the simulation will clarify our perspective on real evolution by showing us why it must be closed. What then? Could software evolutionary systems exceed nature's ability to evolve complexity?

I think that is an amazing possibility. For now I will just keep on playing "catch up" with nature.

Monday, September 29, 2008

a few videos of a few art works - michael kontopoulos

How did we manage before people could post videos online? They are a great way to see all kinds of things that would otherwise be relegated to still imagery and the written word. Michael Kontopoulos has posted some videos of his art works online. The Machines That almost Fall Over (2008), like the other works he has documented online, exhibit a "cute" sense of the absurd that only works when you see it. A video is not as good as being there but in this instance its all I have to go on, so I'll make do. He gets the balance just right... pun intended. The sculptures are kinetic and composition-generating and in this respect the piece is reminiscent of Ligeti's Poeme Symphonique for 100 Metronomes (1962) as it winds down (also available online). The sense of anticipation the machines create is a significant component of the work, perhaps my favourite aspect of the piece. One has this same experience wondering if Ligeti's metronomes will finally strike their last tock.

Kontopoulos' Inner Forests is "fair" as an A-Life styled work, although I'd not rate it highly on innovation. I think it lacks the charm of his mechanical constructions and fits the mould for me of a typical art-tech piece. Its a bit high on "toy" and a bit low on "elegance". Boy I can be hard on people. Having said that, I can't help myself, his work Pass the Funk amuses me. It is so overtly tacky and reminds me of a Sesame Street segment but I can't help finding it fun. Breaking the TV illusion in this way is disarming. Oh dear. The fact that it appears on a Japanese TV show makes it even more ridiculous.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

de renner / the rider - Tim Krabbé

In about the same time as it takes to complete a short road race I have ridden the English translation (from the Dutch) of De Renner, The Rider (1978). Tim Krabbé has done a marvellous job of recreating the experience of a road race. I don't believe anybody but a cyclist and an author could have written this novella so convincingly and with such authority. Its a deceptively simple book — the thoughts of the author as he struggles to win a fictitious race against fictitious opponents in the mountains of France. The book ticks through the kilometres at race pace, sometimes sluggishly, sometimes in bursts of pain, through wind and rain, up steadily and down awkwardly as Krabbé struggles on the high-speed bends. This is no time trial, Krebbé's opponents are an intimate part of his mental and physical tournament. They're written into the text at the level of detail that any rider knows his (or her) adversaries. This is true also of the rider's thoughts as he competes... the half-ideas, repetition of poorly-formed sentences, the struggles to remain focussed and the fluidity and stillness when the crowd and background is submerged are all captured with the efficiency of a practiced pedal stroke or the flick of a friction down-tube shifter. This is a great piece of literature: highly recommended for cyclists, cycling widows and anybody who doubts the poetry of the obsession for suffering on a bike. I'm still puffed!

[The author is also known for the disturbing story known in English as The Vanishing, which has twice been made into a film.]

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

visual musical score - ANS synthesiser

Here's a visual score for the ANS Synthesiser. Its by composer / audio engineer Stanislav Kreichi who discusses the synth and its development online. This visually appealing score reminds me of a sketch from an ecology text book. It seems to depict mountains, wind, rain and perhaps alpine vegetation. Perhaps this idea inspired Metasynth in which a very similar score of peaks, troughs and pulses can be composed visually for synthesis. I've just inverted this image and loaded it into Metasynth to hear it. Well, it sounds like it looks. In the 60s I bet that was really something! I'm not sure of the original scaling in the temporal dimension but I've played around with the mappings to have it play out over 30 seconds. Its great that a score from the 1960s can still be played on software made a few years ago.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

the coffee van

This Sunday morning I found myself up early for the start of one of our club's bike races. After a quick trip (sadly not a pedalling trip) through the suburbs, zero traffic on the roads, I arrived at the bustling scene for set-up. Somebody had the good sense to have invited a coffee van. These are great inventions... instant cafés. (Bicycles run on coffee.) One thing I thought lacking was a set of stools for people to perch on whilst sipping their espressos. I guess most just balanced themselves on their top-tubes. The sunshine, the chatter of a race start in perfect conditions and the coming of summer were all in the air.

Besides seating, one thing lacking from coffee vans is the clink and clunk of glasses and saucers. Perhaps this could be played through a little ghetto blaster to add to the atmosphere. Actually, in consideration of one of the main themes of this blog, I suppose real glassware and saucers are in order. Disposables are not very friendly! Could used dishes be auto-washed in the back of the van somehow?

Several places in Melbourne have of course noticed in the last few years that coffee and bicycles go hand-in-hand. There's the obvious cafés in St. Kilda... home of the white shoe covers and carbon fibre Sunday wheels. But also others around suburbia are becoming haunts for cyclists. Some sit in their lycra admiring their million-dollar carbon steeds leaning against the shopfront. Some sport their mod-like outfits and retro styles (usually the fixie fadsters). Others sport bike tats (mostly die-hard messengers and messenger wannabes), and some just pootle around in everyday clothes on rusty Roadmasters dug from the depths of the shed. Good luck to you all! Enjoy your coffee :-)

Monday, September 22, 2008

what's wrong with second life? [rant]

Second Life (henceforth referred to as 2Life) is the cyberspace version of the hole in the ground on Highbury Rd. that used to be a quarry and now is trying to become (for about the third time) a middle-class housing estate. I have never been into either 2Life or the old quarry. In each case I can see an entrepreneur investing heavily in the idea and then trying to con others into believing that they should pay good money for it. You can buy real-estate in the giant hole in the ground, or in the giant hole in cyberspace. Both would be a complete waste of resources.

However undesirable living in a baking, flooding hole in the ground is, with real-estate prices in Melbourne what they are, this offers a place to put a house in which people could actually try to live a normal life (albeit with high air-conditioning and heating bills given the micro-climate of the hole).

2Life is a place for people too inhibited to dress up (judging by the screen-grabs, in bat wings, expensive dresses and enormous boots etc.) in real life or too constrained by the dress code of their 9-5 office jobs to let loose with an international assortment of others who feel a similar repressed urge. What is the point in spending money on a pretty dress for an avatar!? Are these people stupid? What is so wrong with their own real lives that they feel compelled to invent new ones and play out their fantasies from a desk chair? I could well understand if people suffering through war or the pain of terminal illness might for a moment wish to step outside of the real and enter a make-believe world in which they can, just for a moment, be someone else and somewhere else. I can also understand somebody wanting to step outside a tiring real job and other commitments for a time. But to waste resources in buying a stupid dress for a character that doesn't exist. To buy "property" and spend money on virtual "architecture" is appalling. This is just virtual decoration for a glorified chat room where people lose focus on the content of the chat and instead pride themselves on their latest pixel pot plant arrangement.

Send the money to people who need it. Make a difference to people who need it. Buy them a real house. Plant a real tree in real dirt. Don't throw parties for avatars owned by other middle-class morons with more money than sense. Brighten up a person's life by sending them a food package. Buy them a bicycle so they can get around. Send them some relief clothing instead of buying another set of pixel lingerie. You make me so mad! Wake up. You are being stupid. It is not too late. Help make somebody's FIRST and ONLY life worth living. If you are not happy with your own life and can afford to waste money in 2Life, you can afford to do something useful for yourself in real life too. Turn off your computer and go outside.

fungus spore acceleration

The acceleration record for an airborne natural system is not held by a cheetah, nor a flea. According to this video from New Scientist it is held by a fungus spore. Some fungi live in cow manure and need to be ingested by a herbivore to propagate. The spores therefore eject themselves from the dung at 25 m/s (90 km/hr). In a second from launch they travel 1,000,000 times their own body length! With acceleration like that, a Melbournian getting out of bed in the morning could expect to find himself in Brisbane before he had completely put on his slippers. Its quite amazing the stuff that comes out of dung if you take the time to look.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

death of a cyclist

Today a woman was killed by a bus as she cycled to work along Swanston St. Of course this street is an obstacle course the likes of which even Indiana Jones has never encountered. Tyre-swallowing tram tracks, huge tourist buses, erratic taxis, horses and carriages, inattentive pedestrians talking on mobile phones, 10 tonne trams, lost motorists (the street is supposed to be closed to motorists as a through-way), delivery vans and... cyclists. During shopping hours this street rates in the vicinity of "X-treme Sport". It makes a Madison seem like a jaunt by the seaside on a shopping bike.

Apparently a large number of cyclists gathered this evening to pay their respects to the deceased woman. Its marvellous that the death of a cyclist can galvanise others and for what other reason than they share a common mode of transport? This is lovely, this idea that cycling can unite people. Do motorists gather at the scene of a car crash hours after the ambulance has departed to commemorate the needless loss of life? Not as far as I know. Perhaps the friends and family might visit the place to lay a wreathe or install a cross by the roadside. Anonymous motorists don't usually attend. Do they?

Motorists isolate themselves from the world, "...in shiny metal boxes. Contestants in a suicidal race..." (The Police). Cyclists are open to the elements and often one another. I acknowledge other cyclists as I pass them in the street. The complement, the recognition of my existence, is almost always returned. Sadly this openness to the world allows a cyclist to be hit. This is always a tragedy.

R.I.P.

the ecologies project - first glance

I just ducked in to The Ecologies Project at Monash Uni's Museum of Art. The exhibition is still being set up so I'll not give a full run down, just comment on a few works that caught my attention.

The first surprise was Sandra Selig's spider webs (image at left). Sorry, I don't know the name of the pieces — they didn't yet have a plaque. These are beautiful works, the kind of craft and aesthetics that makes me sit up and pay attention in a gallery. I was a little disappointed they were hung so high, they would reward detailed inspection. From a distance the webs appear to be interstellar clouds and have a liquidity about them that is resolved at close range into an infinity of fine thread. The luminous colours with which they are sprayed and the black background suggests that the artist too noted the potential vastness of these structures. "To see a world in a grain of sand... and all that Blakesque philosophy". Trite but true. A grey web on black has an elegance about it that the coloured forms lack. The sheen emerges instead from the varied density of the threads and the angle of the reflected light. All the same, these are lovely!

The similarity of patterns at multiple scales is a source of wonder for many scientists and artists. To see a spider's web as a colossal structure and an interstellar cloud as a tiny pattern in a lens is to muddle the usual perspective. A spider's web is an impenetrable, deadly thicket, a home, a nuisance that makes one's heart jump as it grabs at face and hair in the dark. This multi-level, visceral aspect of the thread is well captured in Selig's frames.

I'd never seen a decent print of Peter Dombrovskis' Morning Mist, Rock Island Bend, Franklin River, Tasmania (1979)... until now. This iconic image mobilised Australians as far away as Darwin to give a damn about a dam in Tasmania. It lifted the Australian conservation movement's impact up a notch and received global attention in some quarters. I place this image's cultural significance alongside the shot of blue Earth against the enormity of space. Both images reveal a world that was hidden. In each we see something worthy of protection.

The Franklin is an unseen place. Spectacular wilderness that is anything but mundane. For some, just the thought that places like this exist is necessary. Without them the world is somehow impoverished, albeit in a way that is often poorly articulated by those who have never experienced wilderness directly. (There I go complaining again about how others don't understand things as well as I do. I must break this irritating habit!) In Dombrovskis' image the river is wild, powerful and primal. This water is not just "The Franklin", it is all wild rivers, even all wilderness and this idea must be preserved. "No Dams", as a young high-school student this was (I think) the second time environmental issues appeared on my radar. The first was an effort to, "Save the Whales". I cannot recall any specific iconic image, only a pin badge I somehow acquired for the cause and non-specific footage of whales being slaughtered. Morning Mist is no 20 cent pin badge. It is the kind of accessible spectacle that hangs as well on a gallery wall, a board-room alcove, or as a poster in a politically-aware share house.

The Earth from space is in many ways the counterpoint to the Franklin. It is the everyday Earth. The planet on which we live. But its bounds are rendered explicitly. Its fragility and above all its uniqueness, dominate the image. Not its strength. The Earth is not a symbol for all planets nor is it a concept, it is just Our One Earth. On that globe all of humanity lives. All of history, all art and love and war. All the ecosystems of which we are a part share this tiny bubble in the enormity of the universe. Unlike the Franklin, the Earth is tiny, meek and mild. It is us, and we are alone. How pitiful, how insignificant are our battles. And yet, how vital it is that we fight them — from down here, the spider's web is a galaxy and we are flies trapped in it. We cannot escape to view our Earth from afar.

There's one more image (actually cinema footage) that immediately sprang to mind when I started considering Morning Mist. That's the footage of the last Thylacine pacing its cage in the Hobart Zoo (1930s). I've written about this footage before. A desperate animal, impatient, captive, the only thing certain is its death and the extinction of its kind. This sums up our colonisation of Australia, the way we treated its inhabitants and the way we continue to disrupt the ecosystems that have evolved here. We have a lot to be Sorry about.

Also in The Ecologies Project was a wall-sized video projection of an open-cut mine shot from its floor. Trucks and diggers shunted rock around a whitened, dusty landscape. The pale powder had been spread around the gallery and a rather flimsy looking white sculpture reminiscent of a drill or over-head pump had been erected here also. This work troubled me somewhat. I think the idea has potential but it fell a bit flat on first viewing. The video lacked punch, the machines lacked energy, the footage was bleached and pale, perhaps to convey the dusty greyness of the mine, perhaps the projector was just not up to the task. The sculpture looked cheap and impotent beside the seductive moving imagery. Was this deliberate?

Whilst there were several works in the exhibition I really thought were weak, this wasn't one of them. I just haven't worked out what I saw in it that kept me watching. I suspect that I have become so numbed by Hollywood's spectacular visual feats that video-art needs to pack a super-human punch to reach me or to take a completely different tack. At least the work wasn't a one-line gag!

The bleak minescape was certainly "interesting" but the video did not convey the awesome size of the site, nor the equipment, nor the immensity of the damage the mine symbolises. I think The Eden Project's breath-taking and theatrical approach is far more thought-provoking (The Eden Project was built in an old open-cut mine.) The immensity of the Grand Canyon is far more awe-inspiring. This work needs to do more than depict something that is better experienced first hand. Morning Mist succeeds where this fails because the photograph romanticises the wilderness. It takes the hard work, the biting cold, the mud and fierce rapids out of the river and leaves us with a symbol upon which to hang an imaginary wilderness. The mine footage takes all of the dust and noise out of the open-sore in the Earth, but I feel it leaves us with nothing and for this reason perhaps it failed to arrest me, despite my hope that it would.

I will revisit the gallery and see if I change my mind!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

creative bike parking II

Earlier I put out a challenge for designing a better bike rack (David Byrne gets a D- for his poor clichés). Nobody listened to my blog post but all the same, I have now found a lovely solution, the bike tree by Abhinav Dapke!
Bikes are kept out of reach of thieves. The owner is recognised by finger print. That's a great idea... as long as you don't need to loan the key to somebody! The version installed in Geneva apparently has a smart card which is probably, ummmm, smarter. In addition it has an umbrella to keep the bikes from getting rained on. (What bit of a bike can't get rained on? I am not sure about the need for this although: (i) it keeps sheep-skin seat covers from getting soggy; (ii) it stops dirty rain marking flash paintwork; (iii) you can stand under it to eat your lunch and gaze up at the lovely bikes. The bikes are winched up using solar power too. I am truly impressed!

P.S. I hope that Noisy Mynas or Pigeons don't take up residence. Maybe some graffiti for birds is in order.

graffiti for butterflies - elliott malkin

BLDGBLOG has a link to Graffiti for Butterflies, a project that uses sunscreen and paint to post signs on walls for migrating Monarch butterflies. It's certainly out there! Why not just plant more Milkweed? Well, he did that too. I wonder if the signs painted in sunscreen are recognisable to a butterfly. It should be pretty easy to set up a controlled test to see their effect. I hope the butterflies don't come to a sticky end. At least they won't get sunburnt.

Signs that say "No Dogs on the Velodrome" in dog language would be really handy. Painting the city's statues with "No Pigeons" in pigeon-visible text would be another good application for this idea. Maybe we could protect Australia's borders from alien species in a similar way. OK, now I am being silly. The butterfly idea was cute and well-meaning. I should not be facetious. I have no idea though how you could present useful data to a butterfly or just about any other species. Route info.? This is beyond the comprehension of most taxi drivers.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

a nest of camellias

This morning whilst I was eating my Weet-Bix a Grey Butcherbird was attempting to build a nest from pink Camellias outside our kitchen window. It would tear a flower from the tree, hop across and attempt to wedge it into a crook between two branches. Inevitably the Camellia would tumble to the ground. Unperturbed, the Butcherbird would grab another and try again. Sadly for us, and for it, the nest-construction was eventually aborted. A nest of Camellias would have been quite special! Imagine if we could all live in such a home: soft, pink, biodegradable and it requires only sunlight, water and nutrients to produce the building materials. I suspect the design might be flawed. After a few days the pinkness would be replaced with a rotten browness.

The bird could be heard singing nearby for a short time. Now it seems to have left. Oh well. Maybe an Australian native will work better. Wattle perhaps?

Friday, September 12, 2008

velodrome weather

Down here a lot of things are back-the-front. For instance, we have our track racing season in the summer. We swelter under the corrugated iron roofs of the indoor velodromes. We fry and bake in the scorching centres of the outdoor tracks, our tyres exploding at random in the heat. Sweat pours from our brows as we struggle to get a wheel or cog change made in time for the start.

The time is nigh. Today it reached 24 degrees (Celsius). Daylight savings and evening rides are coming. The summer wind gusts that make breaking away on an outdoor track a nightmare (spinning out in one straight and labouring into the gale on the opposite one) have appeared for the first time in months. All the lovely machines will be hanging for only a short time more in the garages of trackies across Melbourne. Some glint of chrome, some of blood red or deepest metallic blue. Others are shiny, curvaceous, carbon black. Soon these masterpieces of engineering will flash around the track under the Australian sun.

High pressure air escapes as tyres are inflated. Sausages sizzle on the BBQ, the smell of burning fat is nauseating. Newly spoked wheels ping and creak into place. The starter's whistle blows. Kids focus on the line: too high on the bends, too wobbly on the straights, intense concentration furrowing their brows. The girls too, although outnumbered many to one, stake out their claim to track space. Grown men tussle and strain. The bicycles flash like lightning – chrome sears retinas. The lap bell rings. The swearing begins, at oneself as much as anyone else, or at nobody in particular. Darting from within the bunch, lunging for the line, laughing from the sheer joy of it. You have survived another race. Wobbly knees, vomit rising in your throat, head throbbing, heart pounding, sweat pouring. How long until the next start?

space invaders - the new gargoyles

The Roman ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum sat with their fantastic mosaics under ash and rubble since 79 AD until they once again saw the light of day and the tourists descended. I am particularly fond of the minotaur in the maze at Conimbriga in Portugal also.

Its amusing to think that some of the mini-murals by Parisian street artist known as Invader may be around as long. When I first saw these in the streets of Paris I wasn't sure who had made them. They cropped up in so many places, sometimes obviously threatening you from prominent architectural facades, sometimes peeping down at you from a more hidden recess. I thought perhaps they were a group-art project or a new kind of tagging.

Well, now I know that the hundreds of invaders are the work of one person. This website has maps and photographs of the invasion of Paris. The official website also has details of the international invasion including an image of the arrival of a scout in Melbourne!

Part of the appeal of these works for me is that they are scattered around the city, that with a map you can find them, and that they are aesthetically to my taste. I suppose they are like contemporary gargoyles. As an avid gargoyle spotter I can only say this invasion is very cute!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

multiple, multiples - chris jordan


Chris Jordan builds images from tiny elements that are themselves the item whose consumption he wishes to visualise. For instance, he draws attention to the US statistics on : plastic cups used and discarded by airlines, paper coffee cups, Energizer batteries, breast enhancement surgery, deaths caused by smoking, prisoners incarcerated etc. His art becomes a bit monotonous unfortunately. The point is that these numbers are huge and according to his presentation, he would like the US society (others too I expect) to look at itself and understand the impact of individual decisions and lifestyles. After viewing two or three of his works I am no longer engaged. Yes, the numbers are staggering. The art needs to be more than a pretty visualisation of daunting numbers to keep me interested.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

suburban wetlands - ecosonics

I used to live about a ten minute walk from a creek and surrounds that, long ago, used to be a wetland. Then it was just a suburban drain in a strip of land between a freeway and some cricket pitches and monitored by massive power-pylon robot-monsters. Then it was remade into a wetland again, complete with a secluded bird-watch. I used to regularly scoot down to the waterside on a hot Summer's evening to enjoy the frogs' competition with the nearby freeway traffic noise. I have since moved house.

As Spring has now arrived I am very pleased to find that once again the frogs are near at hand. I was out at midday, at last enjoying some sunshine, and I found myself in a wetland a 20 minute walk away — quite manageable and well worth the steep return trip. The frogs were making a lovely din that completely drowned out any traffic. That is quite a feat in suburban Melbourne! Its a shame about the ever-present DIY renovation junkies and their circular saws and routers. Even the frogs were stretched by this competition. Why aren't people happy with their homes as they are? Anyway...

I heard at least three frogs. Thanks to the marvellous Frogs of Australia website's audio resources and a CD of Australian frog-calls, I can say with (shaky) confidence that I heard: the Eastern Common Froglet; the Eastern Banjo Frog (I prefer its other name, the Pobblebonk); and lastly, a frog that made a very short, percussive "click" sound. I suspect this was the Spotted Marsh Frog. If not, it may have been the Striped Marsh Frog (named like an Italian beer, Limnodynastes Peroni). The frogs were set off delicately (!?) by the screech of playing Lorikeets, the warbling of Magpies and the playful antics of the native Noisy Miners.

These local wetlands are absolutely brilliant. I wish all storm-water drains and creeks could be de-concreted and replanted. The urban sonic environment would benefit immensely.

chart junk

I have been studying Melbourne's tram map lately and overall it is pretty good. One thing that does bug me is its poor integration with the rest of the public transport maps, in particular the railway map. The nearest train stations are identified on the tram map as blue dots. This is fine as far as it goes, but a light-grey rail map faintly behind the tram lines would make the general act of getting around much simpler. Melbourne's bus routes are complex and would add clutter to the map I suppose but in general this integration problem needs to be solved if public transport is to be navigable. Instead the website for the integrated map (currently) reads, "Due to updates to improve customer functionality, the online public transport map is currently unavailable." Ha!

On a related note, as a fan of E. Tufte's first three and a half books,* a newspaper and journal article chart-junk and junk-chart scourer myself, I appreciate this blog on Chart Junk and Junk Charts.

* Although I liked the spark lines, Tufte's last book is a bit light-weight, especially towards the end. The discussion on Powerpoint is worthwhile but I'd previously read this in pamphlet version.

Friday, September 5, 2008

diorama gallery

The American Museum of Natural History has some lovely dioramas... and they are illustrated in the diorama gallery on their website! I adore these miniature worlds. An African plain, Californian valley, an Asian mountain range or an Australian desert all can be compressed into a virtual, tardis-like space along with the appropriate flora and fauna. A long walk for little legs can take a kid from one window to the next and an opportunity to gaze into the world's habitats. Is there anything more comforting than strolling down the halls of a museum at a travel destination and encountering a scene taken from the forest back home?

Of course at home in Melbourne's Museum Victoria we have had some fascinating dioramas also. I suspect that they may no longer exist. Please somebody tell me I am wrong! That would be a serious loss. Of course they reflected 1950s attitudes to Australian Aborigines in particular and present our landscape in simplistic, romantic ways. They are icons of their time, like Women's Weekly advertisements for white-goods aimed at Anglo-Saxon housewives and nuclear families. Australia's landscape is an integral part of the identity of the European settlers who colonised it and those who migrated here much later (but have taken the time to get out of the metropolises along its eastern seaboard).

Viewing the continent's flora and fauna from behind the glass wall of a museum exhibition is quite appropriate. We see the landscape as outsiders, peering in on a strange diorama, limited in the range of perspectives we adopt by the cultural baggage we have carried with us from Europe. Who are we staring at? It used to be that we stared at the Aboriginal people, standing holding spears and boomerangs in a dusty, grass-dotted plane, roasting a lace monitor on the fire. They belonged in the landscape with the kangaroos and koalas. We gawked stupidly from behind the safety of the glass.

But here we are, shaping the diorama as we see fit. Placing its inhabitants in idyllic hunter-gatherer settings that romanticise the history we cruelly interrupted, whilst hiding its difficulties and completely ignoring the damage we continue to inflict. Living here is a wonderful privilege, the cost of which has been born by others. Who'd have thought a museum diorama could hold so much?

Thursday, September 4, 2008

spatial ecosystems - Motomichi Nakamura

The images of Motomichi Nakamura like that at left feel like "spatial ecosystems". The organisms' forms are constrained by their neighbours' and the space as a whole. Where there is a niche an organism has become especially suited to it.

The only spatial aspect I feel to be missing is hierarchy. I.e. the images would be more ecosystem-like if some organism's bodies were rendered inside the bodies of others. I don't think this is one of the artist's concerns though :-)

colour and pain II

As I flicked through some travel photos from a few years ago, I note that I inadvertently photographed Bartholomew, a Christian saint who was flayed alive, as illustrated in vibrant colour by Michelangelo on the wall of the Sistine Chapel. Bartholomew is pictured holding his own skin as he ascends to heaven. He doesn't look as horrific as one might expect for a person just flayed. In fact he has regrown his original skin and carries his old one like a winter coat. One weird thing about the image is that Michelangelo apparently painted his self-portrait into the flayed skin as some kind of protest about the way he and his art were being treated by the priesthood... no nude saints on the walls of the Sistine Chapel thanks! What did the priests think of all of the ancient Roman statues I wonder?

This ghastly event (flaying I mean, not nudity or painting) links neatly with a Ted.com talk by Steven Pinker on violence and another by Daniel Goleman on compassion. Firstly, Pinker gives a reasonable argument that even taking into account the current conflicts and violence, overall the world is now a much less violent place than it has been in the past. For instance, flaying might still occur in some countries, but this is no longer the norm. Seldom are people executed or de-limbed for small misdemeanors as they might have been in the past. In some countries you can still suffer torture and internment for speaking out against the government. But we in the developed world are made aware of this often by the media. It sticks in our minds. We notice and sometimes complain.

Goleman explains his belief that empathy and compassion are intrinsic parts of being human. We are hard-wired this way. Sometimes though we are so concerned with our own circumstances, even if it is just that we are running late for an appointment, that we forget to switch on empathy for those who might be right in front of us. He feels that if we allow ourselves to be this self-centered we are not being as human as we might.

So, it sounds like I am preaching a sermon here. But all of this investigation led me via a strange route to discover a website with photographs of an execution by quartering. The site shows a long series of black and white photographs that were shot in Beijing, 1905 and distributed as picture postcards! Can you believe it? The first time I discovered the site I could not bring myself to look in detail at the images or captions. I have just done so. The fact that the images are black and white makes the whole scene more macabre and less like the anatomy texts I have been perusing lately. It takes on an unreal quality about it until one flicks the "empathy" switch. With this engaged I feel sick to the stomach. I won't link to the site from here. I can only guess that the hoards of onlookers at the execution must have had their empathy firmly planted at the back of their brains. These images are no "Bartholomew on his way to heaven". Their stark reality would really have been something for the priesthood to get upset about. Perhaps a few less religious wars, inquisitions and torture sessions might have benefited the world.

The surgeon cuts and repairs. The torturer cuts and destroys.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

the flexipede

1967, 2 mins, film: 16mm, colour, sound.

This image is from the computer animation The Flexipede by Tony Pritchett. The film was apparently the first computer animation produced in Britain. It was made with the help of the University of London's Atlas computer using its programming language Autocode. Flexipede's soundtrack was produced using foley techniques. The film was first shown publicly at the Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition (1968).

environmentally unfriendly LCDs

Computers involve environmentally toxic manufacturing processes. These machines and their trim are nasty! The lifetime of a computer (for somebody who works in computer science) is limited to a few years at most. One can try to stretch this out, perhaps to five years, by carefully selecting new models and soldiering through operating system and software upgrades stoically. So far this Powerbook G4 has served me well for 4 years (OK, I needed to replace a dud hard drive).

My recent street rambles have occurred during our suburb's hard rubbish collection. The number of CRT monitors and TVs piled on people's nature strips is astonishing. The LCD revolution is here with its promise of clearer pictures, less energy consumption and flat, elegant displays. But, is there a cost? LCD monitors consume less power during their use and so the naive assumption people make is that CRTs should be replaced with this new technology to "green up an office".

Unfortunately, such replacement is not necessarily a good thing. The paper, Life-cycle environmental impacts of CRT and LCD desktop monitors (by Socolof, M.L.; Overly, J.G.; Kincaid, L.E.; Dhingra, R.; Singh, D.; Hart, K.M. in Proceedings of the 2001 IEEE International Symposium on Electronics and the Environment, 2001, pp. 119 - 127) compared LCD and CRT environmental impacts. It assumed in its survey that the monitors were replaced after the same period and for technological upgrade, rather than because the device had failed. The analysis, taking into account potential sources of error in the data, investigated 16 components of the impact of the production, use and decommissioning of these monitors: non-renewable resource use; renewable resource use; energy use; global warming; ozone depletion; air acidification; photochemical smog; air particulate matter; aesthetics (odor); water eutrophication; water quality: biological oxygen demand; water quality: total suspended solids; hazardous waste: landfill space use; solid waste: landfill space use; radioactive waste: landfill space use; radioactivity.

Energy cost and global warming contribution were given special attention in the paper. The CRT requires a lot of manufacturing energy, in particular for glass. This is the most significant factor, and exceeds by far the amount of energy that these monitors consume in use. CRTs consume more energy in production and during their life cycle than LCDs. LCDs do not consume as much energy in production, nor do they consume as much electricity during use. (Although interestingly enough, they are nastier in production than CRTs in almost all other ways - a point for another day!)

Global warming contributions of the monitors is however the reverse of what one might expect from considering energy consumption. The main global warming contribution of CRTs comes from electricity consumption during their use. During their manufacture, various forms of energy production are employed and these do not all uniformly contribute to global warming. LCDs, as noted above, consume less energy to manufacture and use than CRTs, but in the manufacturing process sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) is employed and this swings the pendulum against the LCD when considering global warming contributions:

"According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, SF6 is the most potent greenhouse gas that it has evaluated, with a global warming potential of 22,200 times that of CO2 over a 100 year period" (Science Daily)

Oh dear, we are not saving the planet by throwing out energy hungry CRTs. Instead we are worsening the situation by increasing the manufacture of LCDs and tossing out CRTs that may have had a good few years left in them, their manufacture being the dominant component of their energy cost, even if not their contribution to global warming.

So what should we do? My suggestion is to keep CRTs until they are worn out and use 100% renewable, green energy to avoid the CRTs making any further contribution to global warming. Simple!

Of course since LCD monitors certainly consume less energy in use than the CRTs and energy consumption is measurable by business on an energy supplier's bill, changing to LCD is an easy way to make documented claims about "being green". I suspect this naive approach will be more likely to occur. Anyway, LCDs are much slicker technology and take up less desk space so that we can reduce office sizes and save on rent, heating and air-conditioning bills :-)

Face it. Computers and electronics are environmentally toxic. Use them for as long as you can and on green power. Resist the urge to upgrade.