Saturday, January 25, 2014

Latour litanies

I'm reading Ian Bogost's Alien Phenomenology, or, What It's Like to Be a Thing and I'm captivated by the random lists of objects he uses to demonstrate the "flat ontology" of the "object oriented" worldview.
These lists are psychedelic. They transcend all categories and taxonomies. They overload the mind with the uncountable (?) numbers of existing and imaginable objects. Seeing them together in one sentence creates a pleasant vertigo.
Some examples:
  • computer chips + chicken wings + pandas + cigarettes (the cover)
  • the funeral pyre + the aardvark + the porceletta shell + the rugby ball (p11)
  • quarks + Harry Potter + keynote speeches + single malt scotch + Land Rovers + lychee fuit + love affairs + dereferenced pointers + Mike Sorrentino + horticulturalists + bosons + Mozambique + Super Mario Bros (p12)
  • cinder blocks + bendy straws + iron filings (p23)
The same pleasant feeling of vertigo is caused by the famous list devised by  Jorge Luis Borges in the fictional encyclopedia called Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. The list divides all animals into one of 14 categories:
  • Those that belong to the emperor
  • Embalmed ones
  • Those that are trained
  • Suckling pigs
  • Mermaids (or Sirens)
  • Fabulous ones
  • Stray dogs
  • Those that are included in this classification
  • Those that tremble as if they were mad
  • Innumerable ones
  • Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
  • Et cetera
  • Those that have just broken the flower vase
  • Those that, at a distance, resemble flies

I assume the vertigo is caused by the breaking of the vessel of daily categories and habits. The world suddenly shows its infinite complexity and its dark and mysterious face.
Searching for "objects" you get a similar unfathomable complexity. Just a sample from the pictures, translated into words. It reads like a modern poem:
  • oranges + galaxies + jeans + smileys
  • spherical projections + twisted Escher cubes
  • eagles made from plastic
  • surgical gauze + fashion models + jackets
  • mysterious flying cast-iron wheels
  • 3-D computer models + ray-tracing algorithms
  • iPod speakers in a nude torso + graveyard angels + colour samples
  • apples + fat sumo wrestlers
  • chairs + scissors + plastic soldiers
  • table lamps + teapots
  • database schema's + drawings of buckets
  • ceramic mushrooms + fluorescent lamps + candles
  • x-ray pictures of swallowed spoons
  • screen savers + drinks in glasses

This raises some interesting questions.

Can those lists be automatically generated?
Yes they can. Ian Bogost has made a Latour Litanizer. The results are very random and unexpected, but they are maybe too complicated for optimal vertigo.
  • Przymorze Małe + Subeda + Pashkaleh + Zecharia Glosca
  • Japanese submarine I-158 + Crunchy Frog Records + And Death Said Live
  • Fujifilm FinePix HS10 + Uncești + The Vagabond (novel)
  • Transfer orbit + Podocarpus laubenfelsii + Colton Ford + Nowa Wieś Wielka
Other approaches are also possible, for example using a Dutch random word generator and then running the results through Bing translate for extra randomness. But these are surprisingly boring:
  • date + postponement + Davis + key + chat + darkness + hardness
  • partition + formatting + princess + laziness + world + werewolf + uranium
  • resolution + Equator + counter + forgery + jet + remembrance + crust
How do you generate the most disparate lists? Lists that are maximally psychedelic?
This could be a hard problem. Even simple formulations of this problem (how to distribute points on a sphere while maximizing their distance) are only solvable by heuristics. And in the case of objects how do you define distance between objects (dissimilarity)? We could try to put each object in a set of categories and then try to find a set of objects with minimal overlap of categories. I bet the problem is NP-complete.

Are the best random lists generated by human effort?
The best lists are still made by humans. For example this Dutch forum where people were just spouting random words. These are much funnier and they feel more random:
  • rogue + brick + impressionism + river junction + nitpicking + pulley
  • collection place + cemetery + antioxidant + fried noodles + Dorothy
  • feel-good factor + Diana Ross + registration form + rye + lobster
  • washing machine emulator + ejaculation inhibitor + baklava + format
  • killer + photo frame + watch + inferiority complex + animal feed
  • bloom time + starch + counter strike + barbaric region + skydive
  • landslide + resolution + panda bear + possibility + "p" + month + system
  • Emily + ham-cheese sandwich + square + potato soup + psychosis
  • magma + vinyl + gang + power strip + rubber + labelling + grace
  • porn + clay soil + randomness + heat stroke

Sources: - picture search for "object"

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Little brother

Today I found some one's OV-Chipcard (wireless RFID public transport card). Of course I handed it to the proper authorities (at Beurs metro station) and I hope the owner can reclaim it. This might be difficult because it's an anonymous card, without the owner's identity.
I could not resist and I printed out the data on the card to check how anonymous such a card really is.
Valid until 01 07 2018
Stored amount 14,36 euro, not automatically re-charged
Valid for RET only

08 01 2014 17:09 Check-out Kralingse Zoom 1,33 euro
08 01 2014 16:57 Check-in  Blaak

08 01 2014 8:24 Check-out Blaak 1,33 euro
08 01 2014 8:14 Check-in Kralingse Zoom

07 01 2014 17:01 Check-out Kralingse Zoom 1,33 euro
07 01 2014 16:52 Check-in  Blaak

07 01 2014 8:16 Check-out Blaak 1,33 euro
07 01 2014 8:09 Check-in Kralingse Zoom

06 01 2014 17:17 Check-out Kralingse Zoom 1,33 euro
06 01 2014 17:05 Check-in  Blaak

02 01 2014 19:35 Charged with 25 euro at Unknown station

This looks like the history of an industrious working life.

It is strange that the card contains less than 18,35 euro. Probably not all the transaction are printed on the receipt. With an RFID reader I could probably get the whole history.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

From a strange planet - 2

Why am I so fascinated by Scandinavian webcams? What makes them so irresistible? What is their mystery? To find an answer I looked for texts that captured the meaning and message of these enigmatic pictures. You can see and read the results below. I'm quite happy with the combinations of picture and text and there is the beginning of an answer:
  • The pictures show an unknown world, very different from our daily environment.
  • It is a far-away world, deep under water or deep in outer space.
  • There is mystery there and also some menace. Strange things can and do happen.
  • The world is inaccessible for us. We need machines to reach it and to see it.
  • Machines wake while we sleep and in the morning we read their messages and our lives are changed forever.
So I’m going to try a different approach. I’m sending you to the bottom of the sea. "The bottom of the sea? Ushikawa thought. What is this guy talking about?"
“How was the bottom of the sea?” the man asked after Ushikawa’s breathing had settled down. His voice was, as before, expressionless. “You went quite deep down. I imagine you saw all sorts of things you’ve never seen before. A valuable experience.”
This is one of the first images taken by the rover, which landed on Mars this evening. As planned, the rover's early engineering images are lower resolution. The clear dust cover that protected the camera during landing has been sprung open. Some dust appears on the lens even with the dust cover off.
The cameras are looking directly into the sun, so the top of the image is saturated. Looking straight into the sun does not harm the cameras.

Yet it is not only the great prophets and seers who have had these experiences. All over the world, people have stories to tell: of shining figures standing by hospital beds; of ordinary-looking strangers offering help in times of urgent need before vanishing, leaving no trace; and, of guardians giving support in the darkest hour. Walking with Angels offers a glimpse into the mystery and glory of this world. 
When the trucks left, the only thing to denote the scene of the crime would have been a mound of freshly dug earth half a meter high. By the following spring, the mound would have collapsed to the exact same level as the ground around it. This, too, would have been carefully calculated according to the known decay rates of human tissue and the ambient conditions of the ditch. 
There are several other types of unexplained lights observed in the valley. The light most often is a bright, white or yellow light of unknown origin standing or floating above the ground level. Sometimes the light can be seen for more than one hour. They are usually high up in the air, close to the top of the mountains or even higher.
Whatever the source of the light, or origin of the legend, the light is still there. He told me: "I first seen the light forty-years ago. It looks the same today as it did then. Now it usually stays away but it used to come right down the road, almost to the corner."
Scientists have discovered a new planetary system located 210 light-years from Earth in the constellation Lyra. The first planet is slightly larger than our moon. Astronomers think it does not have an atmosphere and cannot support life. The tiny planet almost certainly is rocky in composition. The second planet, is slightly smaller than Venus. The third planet, is twice the size of Earth. All three planets orbit the star at less than the distance Mercury is to the sun, suggesting they are very hot, inhospitable worlds.

The light did not appear to be a simple ball but a diamond-shaped object with a hollow center and a golden hue. What was truly remarkable was the space that was just occupied a moment ago by this light, now twinkled and glowed with some form of luminosity or phosphorescence. It quite literally sparkled with energy!
The comet is seen here exiting from behind the right side of the sun, after an hour of travel through its closest approach to the sun. The comet's tail wriggles wildly as the comet plunges through the sun's hot atmosphere above the stellar surface. The comet might have been buffeted by plasma waves coursing through the corona. Or perhaps the tail was bouncing back and forth off great magnetic loops that permeate the sun's atmosphere. No one knows.
I knew someone who saw a slow moving dull red-orange glowing ball of light, travelling fairly slowly. It was easy to follow for quite a while through the countryside. They were on foot away from any towns. I think it seemed about as big as the sun looks in the sky, but was close to the ground. After it vanished they were stopped by two policemen in an unmarked black car who asked them if they had been smoking anything they shouldn't!
webkamera.100102 + Haruki Murakami - 1Q84
webkamera.180849 + NASA
webkamera.100080 + walking-with-angels
webkamera.455931 + The Hunt for Zero Point - Nick Cook