Friday, July 17, 2015

Beach phenomena - Maasvlakte

Usually I encounter mysterious and frustrating phenomena on the beach. Here are examples from The Netherlands and from Spain. But today I visited the new artificial land created at the Maasvlakte and I found some mysteries that proved easily solvable.
The Maasvlakte is a fascinating moonscape at the outer edge of the Rotterdam harbor. It is far from the city and I don't come there often. But each time I visit I return inspired, enlightened and relaxed. The total strangeness and emptiness of this artificial landscape are strangely soothing.
Today I discovered a beach at the edge of the Maasvlakte. It is unexpected, in between the heavy industry and the logistic installations. A strong wind, warm sea and sunshine made for a beautiful walk. The ice-cream afterwards made it extra interesting.
I enjoyed the seascape but I looked down much too often. The beaches of the Maasvlakte have been dredged from deep sand beds dating to the ice ages. This means that you can find fossil teeth and bones there. I'm addicted to that kind of thing. There is a whole website that catalogues and identifies the finds from this beach.
I was not looking for fossils, I was looking for ventifacts. I was triggered by the sand blowing in the wind at ankle height, stinging my bare feet. And indeed I found many wind-polished stones, with a shiny top and a matte bottom. Strange stones I had never seen before. The size, colour and sheen of fresh chestnuts. The weight, feel and sound of flint.
At first I thought they might be fossilized bones, vertebra, teeth or something similar. But after breaking two specimens with a hammer I saw that they had the colour and consistency of sandstone, not of bone, and also not of flint.

Finally I got a hint from the beach find website: nodules of the mineral limonite. It fits all the criteria: it breaks in a shell-like manner and produces a yellowish mark when scratched against a rough surface. It contains a high concentration of iron. Excellent pictures can be found here. Limonites are often erroneously identified as meteorites. But not by me!


Sunday, July 12, 2015

Ephemera experiment - pre-zine

I'm thinking about publishing a one-page zine. But this raises some questions:
  1. Why would someone pick up a zine?
  2. Why would someone keep a zine?
I have no fact-based answer for question 1. But I can try to answer question 2.
Through the years I have collected two boxes of ephemera. Mostly they're brochures I picked up during my holidays. This is a good opportunity to go through them and clean out a lot of paper. These are the first results:
  • Approximately 50% of my collected ephemera will be thrown away because they have lost relevance and interestingness.
What kind of ephemera have lost interestingness? These are the first raw data:
  1. Envelopes containing other ephemera - these contain no useful information.
  2. Receipts from shops and restaurants - most of the text has disappeared from this cheap thermal paper - most of these places have been forgotten, they don't bring back any memories.
  3. Events I didn't visit - these were picked up just in case.
  4. Exhibits I didn't visit - these were picked up just in case.
  5. Hyper-local information brochures - like a list of sermons from a local church - these seemed interesting at the time because of their hyper-locality, but I don't see how I could use this information.
  6. Maps of large areas - these are less interesting because I didn't visit most of the area and they don't add interesting context. Most likely I will not return there soon.
  7. Non-informative brochures of events I visited - these are not very interesting or special - they don't bring back memories.
  8. Maps of cities I passed through - here in St.Vith I just stopped and drank coffee, I had no time to visit the Ardennes battle memorials.
  9. Local curiosities - like this reproduction of the Asterix&Obelix village, it seemed weird then, but now it feels uninterestingly commercial.
  1. Transport tickets - bus, train and even plane tickets don't bring back so many memories as they should.
Thinking economically - as a hypothesis:
  • Value of ephemera - memories, reminders, souvenirs, curiosities, useful (shareable) information.
  • Cost of ephemera - storage space, time spent looking at them.

Don DeLillo on modern surveillance

Last week I read the book "Running Dog" by Don DeLillo and I was surprised how contemporary these paragraphs sound. It's as if he's describing our current surveillance situation. And this is from 1978, long before anyone heard of smartphones or the Internet.

He describes the chilling effect of surveillance:
"When technology reaches. a certain level, people begin to feel like criminals," he said. "Someone is after you, the computers maybe, the machine-police. You can't escape investigation. The facts about you and your whole existence have been collected or are being collected. Banks, insurance companies, credit organizations, tax examiners, passport offices, reporting services, police agencies, intelligence gatherers. It's a little like what I was saying before. Devices make us pliant. If they issue a print-out saying we're guilty, then we're guilty. But it goes even deeper, doesn't it? It's the presence alone, the very fact, the superabundance of technology, that makes us feel we're committing crimes. Just the fact that these things exist at this widespread level. The processing machines, the scanners, the sorters. That's enough to make us feel like criminals. What enormous weight. What complex programs. And there's no one to explain it to us."

And the modern panopticon:
"Go into a bank, you're filmed," he said. "Go into a department store, you're filmed. Increasingly we see this. Try on a dress in the changing room, someone's watching through a one-way glass. Not only customers, mind you. Employees are watched too, spied on with hidden cameras. Drive your car anywhere. Radar, computer traffic scans. They're looking into the uterus, taking pictures. Everywhere. What circles the earth constantly? Spy satellites, weather balloons, U-Z aircraft. What are they doing? Taking pictures. Putting the whole world on film." "The camera's everywhere." "It's true."

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Formless non-shapes in 2D

Joanne Lee has published a wonderful meditation on chewing gum, artistic creation and aesthetics. You can read the PDF here or listen to the essay on Soundcloud. One of her subjects caught and focused my attention on shapes and especially on formless shapes. My earlier post is here: part 1.
One obvious observation is that natural irregular shapes - no matter how they were created - are usually quite harmless and even aesthetically pleasing. This irregular fossil in limestone could have dark associations of bats and night-monsters. But its cloud shape is aesthetically pleasing and harmless. It's even an unfathomable shape - at least for an amateur - because it's not immediately obvious how it was created.
 And while Joanne Lee (see the previous post) postulated that the shape of dog shit is aesthetically irredeemable - and I agree - these bird droppings still have some fractal appeal. The characteristic splash outline is forgettable, but it's not disgusting nor unfathomable.
To get real ugly shapes we have to look at man-made shapes. And not at new shapes but at decayed shapes. The moment when human design meets entropy. When an artificial object shows its real Frankenstein face. When paint starts peeling and objects finally confess: "We really hate you, humans!" This is the secret language of objects. These shapes are aggressive and uncanny. They are not forgettable, they are infectious graphic prions:
As the geometry continues to become more intense, vivid and bright it now completely blocks out or replaces the external world and one's sense of normal sight becomes completely impaired. This creates the sensation that one is no longer within the external environment but has "broken through" into another reality.

Some shapes really can be hatful in their ugliness. But could they be really be harmful? This idea has been postulated by the Scandinavian artist Leif Elggren:
 "Virulent Images-Virulent Sound" (2003) includes health warnings on biohazard due to its highly aurally and visually contagious sounds and images taken from HIV, Rabies, Influenza, Ebola and Smallpox among others biologically lethal agents.

Of course the idea is interesting and artistically stimulating. But I fear that evolution would prevent organisms from being this fragile - if shapes could harm an organism then this species would be quickly eliminated:
 Daoloth's indescribable shape causes viewers to go mad at the sight of him; thus, he must be summoned in pitch-black darkness. ... Those enveloped by the god are transported to utterly bizarre and remote worlds, usually perishing as a result. ... One request that can be made to Daoloth, ... is to view things as they really are, not as our veiled senses perceive them. The sight is more than one can bear.
 You could model the mathematical space of all possible two-dimensional shapes. It would be a large, but finite and countable set. Then you could search this space for ugly and evil shapes. And maybe you would find some shapes that no one has seen before and that no one has ever imagined. This would be an interesting and doable exercise.
Mathematics directs the flow of the universe, lurks behind its shapes and curves, holds the reins of everything from tiny atoms to the biggest stars.

But I would speculate that any emotion caused by shapes is based upon some meaning that we attach to them. Like in a Rorschach test we do not see abstract shapes but we see actors with intent. We are programmed this way by evolution. Shapes are evil because we see evil monstrosities in them. And sometimes the monstrosity resonates with some of our fears:
For had he not written that "personal well-being serves solely to excavate within your soul a chasm which waits to be filled by a landslide of dread, an empty mold whose peculiar dimensions will one day manufacture the shape of your unique terror?" 

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Not-found alienated garbage bins

While searching for artworks in Rotterdam I found these alienated garbage bins in The Hague. Artworks by the Japanese artist Yumiko Yoneda.
Things become more interesting when they're made useless. Things that refuse to act normally and don't blend into the background.
What would Heidegger say about this: Zuhandenheit or Vorhandenheit? An object that looks ready-to-hand at first sight but then forces you into a present-at-hand mood?
Strange that there are no more pictures on the Internet. One would expect that more people were intrigued. Or are the bins too perfectly camouflaged as utility objects? And what happened to the second garbage bin?
Yesterday I went looking for the garbage bin in it's natural habitat in the Westbroekpark in The Hague. There are nice roses and many bronze sculptures. And many garbage bins. But I couldn't find this specific one.
And I noticed that the design of the bins has changed since. There are new ones and this shape is not in use anymore. The bin has lost its camouflage but it still evaded detection.
I asked several people if they knew about the modified garbage bin. I asked the owner of the local teahouse. I asked one of the gardeners. No one knew of its existence. Maybe it's just a dream the city is dreaming.
Finally I understood what the problem was ... I had been looking in the wrong park. The bin stands in the Zuiderpark not in the Westbroekpark. Knowing about the sculpture collection in the Westbroekpark, I had automatically assumed that the bronze bin must belong there.


Sunday, June 7, 2015

The triple sun

Drei Sonnen sah ich am Himmel steh'n / Hab' lang und fest sie angeseh'n;
Und sie auch standen da so stier / Als könnten sie nicht weg von mir.

I was reminded of this song  from the Winterreise by Schubert when I discovered a set of pseudo-sundogs in the city. Real sundogs are caused by ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sundogs were caused by well-positioned glass.
I am an enthusiastic sky watcher and I like to discover new interactions of nature and city. Last week I was doing a delivery in the evening. Beautiful weather, beautiful sunset. As I stood still on the crossing of the Hoge Filterweg and the Nessedijk I noticed reflections of the setting sun from two different buildings. One apartment building where students live:
And another one with luxury apartments and a view of the river: 
I could also still see the sun through the trees:
After plotting the geometry on Google Maps all the angles seemed to match with my observations:
This was serendipity in action. How large was the chance of me being at the right place at the right time in a sufficiently receptive mood? How hard would it be to find another situation like this? A similar arrangement of buildings?
Would this be a bigger or smaller chance than randomly buying four objects in a supermarket and getting a sum of exactly 10 euro? This also happened this week:
Actually this chance could be 1% if one ignores the combinatorial complexities. Which is relatively large. Is the chance of finding more multiple reflections larger or smaller? And could one find triple and quadruple reflections?

Flickr sundog photo by Prof. Bizzarro

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Formless non-shapes in 3D

Joanne Lee has published a wonderful meditation on chewing gum. Not just chewing gum but also artistic creation, project management and aesthetics. You can order the booklet, read the PDF or listen to the essay on Soundcloud. One of her subjects caught and focused my attention on shapes and especially on formless shapes.
She writes:
... I’ve found myself increasingly preoccupied with the conceptual category of the ‘lump’. The OED tells us that it designates, ‘a compact mass, especially one without a definite or regular shape.’
And I cannot resist thinking of H.P. Lovecraft:
There were geometrical forms for which an Euclid could scarcely find a name—cones of all degrees of irregularity and truncation; terraces of every sort of provocative disproportion; shafts with odd bulbous enlargements; broken columns in curious groups; and five-pointed or five-ridged arrangements of mad grotesqueness.

In more detail:
I explored its synonyms: there is of course the idea of a piece of material, communicated through words like block, wedge, slab, cake, nugget, ball, brick, cube, pat, knob, clod, wad and hunk; wetter stuff is suggested in dollop, glob, gobbet and gob; and then there’s the sense too in which it refers to a swelling, bump, bulge, protuberance, protrusion, growth, outgrowth, nodule or hump…  
And again H.P. Lovecraft:
Never were things of such size seen before, and they held strange colours that could not be put into any words. ... and began to weave itself into fantastic suggestions of shape which each spectator later described differently ...
 How to get a grip on shapelessness? And could it be even worse? Let us speculate:
  • In The Violet Death Gustav Meyrink speculates about a word that cannot be uttered without turning the listeners into violet cones.
  • In The funniest joke in the world the Monty Python team speculates about a joke so funny that it kills its listeners.
  • In Snow Crash Neal Stephenson describes a viral graphic pattern that wipes a human brain.
Could such noxious shapes exist? I'm afraid not, because they would have been weaponized and we would have been wiped out. Our evolutionary existence disproves the hypothesis.
More speculation:
  • Want about invisible shapes? Shapes designed to leave no trace in memory? Shapes that force you to forget or repress their existence?
  • Or shapes of such extreme ugliness that you turn away in disgust?
Joanne Lee has already noticed this effect:
In fact, excrement is probably the lumpiest stuff I can think of ... surely the most definitively lumpy is the dog log that fractures into nodular sections as it is expelled ... the dismembered chunks we find in parks and pavements remain pretty irredeemable ... dog shit, deposited onto a perfect lawn (and against a backdrop of orange nasturtium flowers) perfectly catches the true aesthetic horror. 
But here it's not the shape itself, it's the other sensations that cause disgust that are associated with the shape. It's unclear if a shape - all by itself, without additional layers of meaning - could cause any significant effect.

Let me postulate one more speculative shape, one that really could exist and that I'm currently looking for. See the pictures on this page:
  • The unfathomable shape - A shape so shape-less that it erases the memory of its own creation. A shape created by some unfathomably complex series of actions, by conscious creation combined with random accretion and erosion. A shape that combines artificiality and naturalness in an irritating manner.
  • The indescribable shape - A shape that cannot be summarized into a simple description. A shape that fits no simple mathematical function or set (circles, squares), that cannot be summarized by deterministic fractal mathematics (Menger sponge) nor by stochastic fractal mathematics (clouds). A shape that inhabits some in-between world of Kolmogorov complexity.
I believe that such a shape could be found in geology, detritus or art. I'm looking for it right now.