Thursday, April 10, 2014

Hidden realities 3 - Webcam sun

As I showed in two previous blog-posts a simple webcam can reveal mysterious, hidden realities. Phenomena that are rare or unimaginable in daily life, become possible in the virtual world of the webcam.
In 1997, the writer Jeff Kent discovered that a double sunset could be seen from the top of a nearby mountain. The occurrence is visible in good weather on and around the summer solstice, when the sun sets on the summit of the hill, partially reappears from its steep northern slope and sets for a second and final time shortly afterwards. The precise event and its location are described in Kent's book The Mysterious Double Sunset.

Phenomena that you will never see in real life can be experienced in this parallel reality:
The phenomenon is named after Johann Tobias Lowitz, a German-born Russian apothecary and experimental chemist. On the morning of June 18, 1790 in St. Petersburg, Russia, Lowitz witnessed a spectacular display of solar halos. Among his observations, he noted arcs descending from the sundogs and extending below the sun. Lowitz formally reported the phenomenon to the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences on October 18, 1790, including a detailed illustration of what he had witnessed.
And even phenomena from art can suddenly reappear in the sight of the camera. See the mysterious, hovering black square that Dario d'Aronco exposed in Witte de With gallery:
The prevailing impression is that this is not art but a presentation of an existing physical phenomenon. The artist has witnessed something, has been able to record it (against the odds) and is presenting the raw recording. An unexplained and mysterious phenomenon. But also  strangely reassuring. The world is still unknown, there are still white spots on the map. If we search hard enough we can still discover strangeness. If we find the right place and the right time we too can see the floating square against the night sky.

  • With the webcam we have found the right place and time. And we have seen the floating square against the sky.
  • Now go one step further ... what if the black square is really there, always present. Imagine that it is there, each time you look from your window. That you almost could see it. That we often are too distracted to notice it.
  • This will enrich you, through webcam revelation.

Note: This was a fortuitous accident with the webcam. It was not my intention to re-imagine d'Aronco's artwork. But it was a pleasant surprise and a confirmation of my private "paranoid critical method":
... the conscious exploitation of the unconscious, the spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on the critical and systematic objectifications of delirious associations and interpretations.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Hidden realities 2 - Sky structures

Structures inside the monochrome
Take a picture of a perfectly blue sky. Do some image processing. Enhance contrast, fiddle with brightness and gamma. Finally convert to binary. You will discover hidden structures inside that monochrome blue.
This is not an earth-shattering discovery. But I'm surprised  how much can be seen with very simple tools. 
What do we see? We have amplified very subtle differences in picture intensity. Too subtle to see with the naked eye. But are these differences really there? Are they in the sky? Or in the optics of the camera? Are they differences in light absorption or internal reflections? Or just differences in noise level of the sensor?
Is it only my camera? Or is it a universal phenomenon? To test this I downloaded a few monochrome pictures from Flickr. Similar structures are in all of them. They reveal mysterious flocks, horizons, intrusions, coronas, protuberances and ellipsoids. Shapes I never saw before and whose existence I didn't suspect.
And even scientists can be surprised by the subtle shapes they find in the sky. They speak poetically about their discoveries inside the known, their expeditions into the (seemingly) obvious:
To the uninitiated, the clear daytime sky seems such a commonplace that its radiance and brightness distribution surely must be well known. Researchers in fields ranging from solar energy engineering to atmospheric optics have repeatedly measured and modeled the angular distribution of clear-sky radiances, and they have published scores of papers on the subject. What can be left to know?
In fact, a great deal is left to know. In simple models of scattering by the clear atmosphere, radiance increases monotonically from the zenith to the astronomical (i.e., dead-level) horizon. However, a persistent feature of our cloudless atmosphere is a local maximum of radiance several degrees above the horizon, not at it. We have detected this near horizon radiance maximum in clear daytime skies ranging from mid latitudes to the Antarctic, and from mid continent to the open sea. However, no one, to my knowledge, has written about it. Why?
And more discoveries hide inside the everyday. Logical assumptions proven untrue:
One of the oldest assumptions about cloudless skies is that their chromaticity and luminance distributions are symmetric about the solar meridian, or principal plane. Skylight symmetry also agrees with the evidence of our eyes—the clear daytime sky’s color and brightness indeed look balanced on either side of the principal plane. But what experimental evidence exists for this symmetry?
Although the apparent dome of the clear sky may summon thoughts of celestial perfection and symmetry, our research shows something quite different. No matter how clear the sky may appear to us, on many days its color and luminance are asymmetric about the solar meridian.

Horizon brightness revisited: measurements and a model of clear-sky radiances, Raymond L. Lee, Jr.
Color and luminance asymmetries in the clear sky, Javier Hernandez-Andres, Raymond L. Lee, Jr., and Javier Romero

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Hidden realities 1 - Webcam seeing

Slow changes
Modern seeing
You have all done this yourself. This is nothing new. Anyone with a webcam and a graphics program has done this before. But is is remarkable anyway.
The remarkable difference between the human eye and the camera eye. The difference in sensitivity, the difference in patience and attention span.
One hundred years ago this would not have been possible. You could not compare pictures of the sky by placing them alongside each other. You would have to use your memory. Or sketch the sky. Looking at looking was  more imprecise in those days.
Vague structures
Structures in the sky
A grey and relatively boring winter's day. Stratocumulus clouds. A dark grey day, like the Breughel painting with the hunters. But even this homogeneous-looking sky has its subtle changes. They happen too slowly to notice. But over a period of 30 minutes the changes are strikingly obvious. Changes in colour and changes in texture. And we can enhance the subtle sky structures to make them monumental and looming.
A friend of mine was amazed after watching Avatar. He couldn't stop talking about the floating mountains. Then I said to him: ‘Man, your planet has huge mountains of water. Water! They float above your head every day and when they turn into rain, they contribute to the cycle of the most important liquid to your existence’. Most people go around without realizing the complexity, wonder and graciousness that a cloud is. Indeed, as Cecil Adams writes, “a good sized cumulonimbus cloud, or thunderhead, has a mass of roughly four billion kilograms per cloud.” 
Reveal the invisible
And even non-existing structure can be made visible in the sky. UFO's and amoeba-like entities. Who says they don't exist? Maybe we can see them everywhere once we're properly sensitized.
TRAVERTINE ISLANDS, also called the Floating Islands, a number of large masses of stone that float in the region fifteen miles over the surface of the Earth. Each island is of a different kind of stone, and the inhabitants make sure to float them in whatever camouflage they can manage — white limestone islands float among white clouds, the dark basalt islands floating among black thunderheads, and so forth.
(R.A. Lafferty, "Nor Limestone Islands," in Universe I, New York, 1971)
Cloud atlas
Luke Howard

Friday, March 21, 2014

Darkness falls - 2

I'm not principally against Geert Wilders. I think any democratic system needs its outliers and maverics. And I'm for freedom of speech. But I found the whole scene uncanny. It's not about Geert Wilders, it's about some strange daemon that has settled on out time.

Washington Post + Sportpalast speech
At a party meeting Wednesday evening in The Hague, where his Freedom Party is set to win the most votes in municipal elections, Wilders asked supporters whether they wanted “more or fewer” Moroccans in the Netherlands. 
His supporters chanted back: “Fewer! Fewer! Fewer!” before breaking into applause. 
“Good, we’re going to take care of that,” Wilders said.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The end of this blog is near

In the winter holidays I read this blog post by Joe Moran that extrapolates the number of blog-posts in time. This is a decreasing number. His prediction is:
As another year ends, I note that I have once again managed to post less on this blog than last year. At this rate I am on course to achieve complete radio silence by 2017.
Inspired by this prediction I did the same extrapolation for my own blog. This is the result. My blog will cease to update somewhere in 2015:

Joe Moran does not mind the slow decline of his weblog:
Perhaps this is no bad thing. One of the many salutary bits of advice in William Strunk and E.B. White's classic book The Elements of Style is that no writer should offer their opinions 'gratuitously' because to do so is 'to imply that the demand for them is brisk, which may not be the case'. 
And maybe the slow decline of my own weblog would be no bad thing either. One look at the statistics is depressing enough:
The most popular post is the one where people erroneously search for drugs and prostitution in Rotterdam. Imagine how disappointed they must be when they read a page about psychogeography! And I'm quite sure that:
Probably my weblog is too inoffensive to draw much attention. I should include more questionable content:

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Riverside industry

Elements of the Dutch landscape - 10
Some things are so obvious that I cannot say anything meaningful about them. Of course there has always been industry along rivers:
  • Industries and cities have historically been located along rivers because the rivers provide transportation and have traditionally been a convenient place to discharge waste.
  • A brick yard would be constructed near natural sources of clay. 
  • When the industrial revolution took a hold, industry began to settle in the area, as the river offered great transport links.
  • The new machines were so large that they do not fit a home. Soon factories were placed in large halls. Machines were so big that they could no longer be operated by hand, they were powered by hydro power. A large water wheel ​​turned the machines. So the first factories were always placed besides a river or a stream. The Netherlands always had a favorable position for transportation. 
  • The Waal, Lek and the Rhine, were the best navigable rivers of Europe and offered (and still offer) an excellent connection between Dutch ports like Rotterdam and Amsterdam and the German hinterland. During the 17th and 18th centuries the coastal provinces acquired a network of towpaths and waterways. For a long time this network was the best transport system in Europe. It was relatively cheap and therefore available to many more people than the expensive carriage.
Is it possible to say anything non-obvious? Something that has never been said before?
Is it necessary to say anything?
The standard psychogeographic procedure is journalistic: we dig up some interesting historical facts and mix them with our own experience of the place. Some autobiography. Bonus points for added social or political critique.
IJssel river ferry - 1956
The classic text would start like this:
  • There are two rivers called IJssel in the Netherlands. The Hollandse IJssel is much more industrialized than the Gelderse IJssel. The old, broad river is more mysterious, magical and romantic.
But the only way to resist that, is to rant about the subject:
  • I fucking hate rivers. I've always hated them. Boring horizontal objects. Wet and cold. Inhabited by slimy fish and Lovecraftian frogs. Great views for prime property owned by rich farts who escaped from the city. Disgusting. Far from anything, not a coffee or a library to be found anywhere. Locals and farmers and youths on scooters. Boring factories surrounded by barbed wire, inaccessible industrial landscapes. It always rains here and a cold wind always blows over the flat landscape. Who cares about this landscape? No one, obviously, because everyone is somewhere else, where it is more interesting. I don't give a damn about birds or roadside flora, I can see the same plants destroying the asphalt of my driveway. And who cares about the history of rivers and canals? Yes, they were the highways of the 19th century and that makes them just as uninteresting as our own highways. Don't waste my time with rivers. Get lost with your psychogeography!
Now see ... that was not so hard to write :-)
Hollandse IJssel - Nieuwerkerk
And using some found texts from Google we can translate it into a readymade poem:
This fucking river is why I'm never mad anymore.
Decided to float the wagon across this fucking river.
This fucking river and this fucking forest, I think. I need to get home.
I can't wait to get off this fucking river. lt's hardly a river, is it?
This fucking river will never let me make a call.
There's no fish in this fucking river.
Am I gonna pass this fucking river?
He knows this fucking river well.
Hollandse IJssel - Nieuwerkerk
An using some found texts from Twitter yields this grim and misogynist poem. But at least it's not the standard psychogeography fare. And it's a contrast with the atmospheric river landscape. I could turn this into a performance and shout the text at the river, just like I did with Bob Ross:
Oh your boyfriend didn't send you a good morning text today?
Cry me a fucking river.
I hope woodstown destroys those fucking river rats.
Forgot how loud blackberry buttons were.
Sounds like fucking river dance.
I get more joy out of watching river city then fucking river city.
This Asian bitch just leaked a fucking river.
No one can tell me she ain't pee.
Dumps all my diet coke cans into the fucking river.
Just leave me alone, bitch!
Sometimes I want to throw my phone in a fucking river.
Hollandse IJssel - Capelle aan den IJssel
Hollandse IJssel - Capelle aan den IJssel
Hollandse IJssel - Near Gouderak

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Bird traces

How many birds are in my sky?  - And maybe some UFOs?

To answer this question I used a cheap webcam (Logitech C310) and two pieces of software:
  • UFOCapture is a video motion capture software that starts recording on a hard disk drive of a computer a few seconds before a change in the picture to a few seconds after a change in the picture.
  • Yawcam is a static picture caption software with options for periodic captures and motion detection.
The software is sensitive enough to detect birds in flight and it recorded their flight paths correctly. Below I enhanced the paths manually to make them more visible.
Unfortunately I did not get a stable performance but I'm sure it's a hardware (webcam+laptop) problem and not a software problem, because I had similar problems with Yawcam. Many video recordings were incomplete or showed just static pictures (no motion). But the (few) successful video recordings were very impressive. 

I didn't get enough data to count the birds in my sky. But from the video's I noticed some things. Some are blindingly obvious in hindsight, but it's good to be reminded of them:
  • Few birds fly high. Most birds stick to the ground.
  • It is difficult to catch birds in flight.
  • Birds fly very quickly through my sky. It takes them less than 1 second to pass through the field of view.
  • There are not many birds in the early morning sky. And most detected birds are individuals, there are no flocks.
  • Birds are very small in the sky. I recognised seagulls and pigeons. Their flight patterns are easily identified. But otherwise it's difficult to determine the species.
The software is relatively stable but it has very limited functionality. The motion detection is not sensitive enough to detect birds in flight. So I set the software to take periodic pictures (1 picture per minute) and I caught:
  • 26-12-2013 from 11:26 to 12:41 (75 minutes) looking North: 5 birds (4 seagulls, 1 unknown)
  • 26-12-2013 from 15:19 to 17:39 (140 minutes) looking South: 18 birds (7 unknown, 1 unknown,  3 seagulls, 1 unknown, 6 jackdaws going to roost)
  • 29-12-2013 from 12:20 to 17:30 (310 minutes) looking Southwest: 34 birds (1 unknown,1 magpie?, 4 jackdaws?, 24 seagulls, 1 airplane, 1 seagull, 3 jackdaws going to roost at 16:50)
  • 31-12-2013 from 13:31 to 17:19 (218 minutes) looking Southwest: 1 bird (1 seagull), probably an anomalous result because of the fireworks all day long
  • 1-1-2014 from 14:26 to 17:09 (163 minutes) looking North: 15 birds (15 seagulls)
Conclusion and further research
  • Webcam pictures of the sky are always beautiful.
  • A bird in the sky adds depth and perspective to the sky. Do you know that magpie in the Breughel painting?
  • Cheap webcams and free software are not sensitive enough for birdwatching and UFO hunting.
  • Most of our birds are seagulls and a few jackdaws. Seagulls circle in the sky so they are easier to catch.
  • If you look up 10 times you will see an airborne bird once. (But a human eye has a much wider view than the webcam, so you will probably see more birds.)
  • What setup would I need to catch our other birds (ducks, coots, blackbirds, robins, magpies)? Better resolution? Point the webcam at the ground? Install a bird feeder?
  • I could determine the most likely times to see a bird in the sky. My subjective feeling is that I see more birds in the morning and early afternoon than at other times.
26 December midday (includes the single pictures above)
26 December evening
29 December afternoon
31 December afternoon
1 January afternoon
Sources: - UFOCaptureV2, V2.24, 2013/06/09