30 December 2007

Blown Highlights and Blown Highlights

There is a lot of talk about "blown highlights" in digital photography forums, especially with respect to my camera of choice, the Olympus E-510. I think it needs to be clear what we are talking about. There are two kinds of blown highlights. The first is where highlights are blown in the captured image. These are lost forever to the photographer, even if storing the raw file data from the image capture. The second kind is where highlights are blown in the image developed from the captured image.

The first kind comes from incorrect exposure or dynamic range limitations in the sensor, which the photographer cannot do anything about after the exposure is made. The second kind the photographer has more control over (other than getting the exposure right) through the JPEG engine adjustments. Blown highlights in the developed image can be the result of these adjustments, not a limitation of the camera or exposure.

To clear up any confusion in my mind over the effects of camera adjustments I developed images representing the extremes of the 510's development adjustments. The intention was to show the widest range of contrast possible using the in camera adjustments on a difficult subject.

Noise reduction and sharpness also influence highlights in the result, but their effects are minimal compared to contrast and saturation. I left the sharpness at minimum, as if I intended to bring the image into my image editor before applying sufficient sharpening for printing. Noise reduction, by blurring pixels, can affect the measurement of dynamic range, so it was turned off (the E-510 allows noise reduction to be turned off completely).


Apartment Building - Min

This scene was shot with the E-510 and developed in Master 2.04 using the following settings:

Picture Mode: Muted
Contrast: -2
Saturation: -2
Sharpness: -2
Noise Filter: OFF

(The Master 2 raw developer honors the E-510 camera settings, giving the same results from developing an image at the computer as in the camera).


Apartment Building - Max

This scene was shot with the E-510 and developed in Master 2.04 using the following camera settings:

Picture Mode: Vivid
Contrast: +2
Saturation: +2
Sharpness: -2
Noise Filter: OFF

The difference is best seen by examining the venetian blinds in the window on the corner of the first floor nearest to the viewer. Although it is difficult to see in the photographs resized for the web, the window shows nicely how the contrast and saturation (including Picture Mode) adjustments influence the highlights of the developed image, so I have provided a detail:

E510 Highlight Comparison

In the Vivid image, the highlights on the blinds appear completely blown. In the Muted image more of the venetian blinds are visible. The lower contrast rendering shows more detail than the higher contrast one. What appears as a "blown highlight" shows detail as the contrast and saturation are reduced, proving the detail was there in the original capture. This is not an example of highlight recovery, it shows how the raw image contains detail that gets obliterated by the contrast curve.

(If you would like to read more about how contrast curves influence perception and testing of "dynamic range" read How to Magically Improve You Camera's Dynamic Range).

True Blown Highlights

In fact, this photograph does contain highlights blown at capture, the yellow sidewalk curb is blown along the front length and the far sky toward the horizon is blown a bit (when recovery of highlights is attempted, this part of the sky posterizes). The detail in these areas is completely lost, even in the captured image.

What does not count as a blown highlight is a specular reflection or element in the scene that is naturally so bright it does not contain any detail. Such reflections should be rendered in the captured image and final print as completely white without any texture. The reflection from a wave top, chrome on an automobile, and the like. In the example picture, the yellow curb is painted with a material designed to reflect light to give it greater visibility, which is partly why it exhibits blown highlights.

Local Contrast Enhancement

There is a way to increase the perceived contrast of an image without blowing the details in highlights. One is called "local contrast enhancement" and is a technique for increasing what is called "micro contrast." Micro contrast is the amount of contrast at the edges of objects. Increasing micro contrast makes an image appear sharper, clearer and increases perceived acuity, which is why photographers seek lenses with better "contrast" by which they mean the ability to provide greater contrast between edges and in details. It is the contrast of fine detail, not the overall contrast of the scene.

Basic LCE is simple. Just set apply unsharp mask with a very wide radius and a small amount. You will see the "fog" lift immediately from your picture. Local contrast can be pushed beyond small amounts without blowing highlights by using a "gray mask" (This is a mask inverted to protect highlights from changes) in LAB space.

Using LightZone, one can protect highlights from changes by adding a sharpen tool to the stack and then selecting only the highlights from the tonal range, and inverting the the mask, which automatically creates a mask excluding effects of sharpening from highlights. Another LightZone trick is softening blown highlights to make the less distracting and more acceptable to the eye, by adding a blur tool to the stack and selecting only the highlight tones, so the blurring only applies to the lightest highlights. Some adjustment of the selection range is necessary to smoothly integrate the blurring at the edges and soften highlights into gray tones. This is very similar to the technique of blurring the image slightly in "glamor shots" to give the image an ethereal look.

Thanks to dpreview.com forum members (Nik121 and gollywop) for their comments.

My attempt at defining some unfamiliar terms.

Blown Highlight. A highlight without detail or tonality, which equals or exceeds the white level of the capture. People find highlights with detail or gradient more attractive and less distracting. A "hot" highlight is one that appears blown or is distracting, but not actually blown.

Specular Reflection. A point source of light or bright reflection, such as the crest of a wave, which does not contain any detail. These highlights will always be "blown" as they should be, represented by white in the image. A point source may not be a reflection, but for all practical purposes it falls under this category in photography.

Highlight Recovery. This is where extra information the camera captured in the exposure is used to reconstruct highlights. Ordinarily, this can only be taken so far, and anywhere detail was not captured in the original raw image, the highlight will be replaced by gray.

Captured Image. This is the raw image data, which cannot be viewed as an image without development.

Developing. The raw image data is converted into a viewable form through development, which either happens at the computer or in the camera through a JPEG engine.

JPEG Engine. The hardware and software the camera uses to develop the captured image in the form of raw data into a usable image in the JPEG format.

Open Flash Charts

I recently discovered a wonderful new open source project for creating Flash charts. It is open source, non-proprietary and best of all for a non-profit on a tight budge, it is free. In the last week I deployed Open Flash Charts after integrating the package into our Folkstreams content management system. For users of our system (through their personalized area My Folkstreams), this will be a great improvement in the quality of charts. We make the statistics on visitors and video views available to filmmakers, and the Flash charts are simply beautiful compared to our old ones based on phplot.

You can download the code for OFC (Open Flash Charts) from their homepage. It is the work of John Glazebrook and he must be a designer, because the default charts in the tutorial are beautiful and take advantage of the interactive features of Flash. I discovered a few kinks that need working out, but overall, this is an excellent addition to the open source code making up the Folkstreams platform.

Get off my duff? Forget it.

The strangest thing about the web is that I no longer have to look for things. I can just Google them up quicker than I can locate them myself. When I wanted to know the guide number for my ancient Vivitar 215 flash, instead of spending an hour looking through my boxes of equipment stored about the house to find the original manual, I was able to find a scan of the manual online using Google. When I had a question about my camera, the manual was sitting five feet from me on the shelf, but I decided to Google for it. In less time and effort than getting off my duff and tugging it out of my bookshelf, I had the PDF file from the camera manufacturer's site open in my browser.

I even had the PDF file on my local hard disk, but it was lost among the ten thousands PDF file's I've downloaded over the years. So it was quicker to stay in my browser and use the power of Google search to find the manual than to use the obsolete and clunky interface to my information the Windows Explorer offers. This is a new age dawning. There is something significant in this. I just don't know where its going.

It is more efficient, easier and simpler for me to find a manual by finding its Doppelganger halfway around the world through thousands of miles of telephone and network connections, routers and gateways than it is to look in a box ten feet away from me in the closet for the original dead trees version.

Stranger, is that I don't have to worry that my ancient manual won't be there. I can rely on the assumption that if I am interested in it, someone, somewhere out there has taken the time to scan it and float it onto the network. And it is there. Just Google for a Vivitar 215 flash. What does it mean when I can rely on a "smart mob" acting just like me to ensure whatever I want or need will be at my fingertips because I know our needs are similar?

14 December 2007

What bokeh can tell us about art.

The study of bokeh tells us something vital and fascinating about art. In an article on bokeh, the author draws attention to the "cat's eye effect" where out of focus highlights appear as ovals with sharply converging corners (the shape of a cat's eye). The concept is illustrated with a photograph by Edo Engel of a street sign surrounded by what appears to be a whorl of cat's eye highlights. The author states "When there are many OOFH's [out of focus highlights] scattered across the frame, the cat's eye effect yields the impression of a rotational background motion." (http://www.vanwalree.com/optics/bokeh.html 2007)

What is fascinating about this, besides an interesting effect?

We learn from this phenomena the elongated shape of the disks implies movement. Any elongated shape implies motion, which automobile designers take great advantage of. This sense arises from how the human visual perceptual system interprets elongated forms. These forms, for some evolutionary psychological/perceptual reason, suggest movement.

The phenomena is used by the artist to create a meaningful statement, by understanding the effect the disks have on the human perceptual system, by known that human beings seeing the elongated disks will experience a sense of movement, that the sense of movement can be introduced into an otherwise static and flat scene. The sense of movement, further, can be used to evoke metaphor, as the photographer does by placing the sign for "Wildey" street in the center of motion, the name suggestive of "wildness."

This shows how an astute and observant artist can discover and use perceptual effects. To do so requires an approach to art that does not just involve knowledge of rational qualities and effects, but also irrational effects, which can give rise to apparently rational perceptions and ideas. It tells us that one cannot just "think" one's way to artistic success but must take into account perceptual and psychological effects, which are entirely irrational. It does not make any sense that out of focus ovals impart in the viewer a sense of motion, but nevertheless, they do.

In a second example, the author discovers color harmonies between the background out of focus highlights and foreground out of focus flowers. No viewer would ever think about this, but they do experience it perceptually, which sneaks into and influences our thoughts and feelings about the scene unconsciously.

It is the astute artist who looks for and discovers perceptual effects, which are frequently seen as defects, and employs them to produce meaningful art works.

There is a long history in music of categorizing sounds according to their "consonance" or "dissonance" with the former being pleasing and the latter unpleasant. However, the perception and aesthetic usefulness of consonant or dissonant sounds depends on their context. The same is true of bokeh. There is no good or bad bokeh, and I would hazard that "pleasant" and "unpleasant" is too limiting a range. The use of bokeh depends on the subject. I have seen extraordinarily beautiful photographs exhibiting the double line "nisen-bokeh" effect where the out of focus double bands echo the straight repetitive forms of conifer leaves.

12 December 2007

Cicada song

Cicada song
in the leaves—between the
roots generations.
-sek, Dec 2007

06 December 2007

reFrame : Yet Another Photo Sharing Idea

Here is an idea I had recently for a new photo sharing application, which would make it easier for anyone to use photographs in their own context. A site is created where users can sign up. They submit the name of their Flickr photostream. The site pulls in any photos from their stream that have rights set to Creative Commons remix license. Any user of the site can select any image pulled from the users Flickr photostreams collectively. There could be a single photostream "lightbox" used to select images from, I'm not going into details here.

The idea is to let any user "reframe" any image contributed to a pool of images by other users. Reframe means to give the image another context. For example, an expert on historic photographic processes might frame an image with a text explaining the history and chemistry of the process that made the photograph and how to identify an example of this type of photographic image. A family historian might frame the same image with the biography and family history of the subjects in the photograph. A single image has a potentially unlimited number of contexts or "frames." The system would allow anyone, in the style of a wiki, to "reframe" any image.

Users of the site would have to agree that others can place their images in any possible context, possibly unintended or unflattering, which is why there is a requirement for the non-commercial remix license. Of course, you can do this already, but I do not think there exists and application that makes this easy and puts it all in one location.

This might be combined with my idea for a photo wiki system that encouraged the "quick-slow" process enabled by the so-called bliki, where the same contextual system could allow a quick caption when the image is posted and later more sophisticated commentary and use of the image would follow by creating "pages" associated with the image.

One might object, saying that anyone is free to combine images and text if there were a word processor style system that allowed images to be freely dropped into text anywhere. But the web has shown that it is better to provide a system that structures content and interaction as it being created (wiki allows this process to be continuous). This is where the quick and easy part comes in...it is not so easy to arrange photos and text with a word processor. You do not see many people using a word processor instead of a blog or photo sharing site, although they could create richer documents and post them to their own website using today's word processing applications.

I wish archives and institutions would catch on to the power of reframing images in their collections using contexts contributed freely by users. The academics, visitors, people on the web, anyone should be able to frame images of artifacts or media artifacts themselves, historic photos, old films, video, etc. to create the richest possible understanding of the holdings. And make both the artifacts and knowledge about them more accessible.

I'm thinking of grabbing phpflickr, Dojo and Codeigniter and putting this together, but with the work on Foody and Folkstreams, I really have limited time. Steal this idea, please.

05 December 2007

From the Brother's Grimm on DVD

My friend and partner in developing Farm Foody and project director of the Folkstreams project, Tom Davenport, has opened a store for his From the Brother's Grimm series of films for sale direct to individuals (for institutional use, see his Davenport Films site). Tom is a farmer and filmmaker in Delaplane, Virginia.

The films were frequently featured on PBS in the local D. C. area, so they should be familiar to a generation of children who are now adults. They are live action retellings of classic folk tales in an American setting. Some tales are from Appalachia while others are interpretations of European folk tales with strong overtones of Appalachian culture and setting.

Willa, a favorite, draws upon traditional medicine show culture, documented in films like Free Show Tonight available for anyone to watch on the folkstreams.net website. Mutzmag
is a powerful film in an Appalachian setting, which contains a fair amount of traditional fairy tale violence, but the lessons are appropriate given the dangers children face today. Perhaps they could learn a few survival lessons from Mutzmag's clever outwitting of the ogres and other less than savory inhabitants of the forest, who have designs for her.

29 November 2007

A single leaf

A single leaf
of muted strings.
-sek, Nov 2007

About fifteen years ago, playing guitar and muting the strings I heard a leaf fall outside, the sound heard through the open window.

The Falling Rain

The falling rain--
sound comes slowly
into focus.
-sek, 2007

28 November 2007

Isolated Color

Yellow Leaf on Sidewalk

When an element of color is seen against a larger background of neutral color, the effect is called isolated color. This is a useful technique for isolating the subject and creating interest. The eye is drawn to the subject by the isolated element of color in the same way it is drawn to a highlight. On a gray day, white can substitute for color against a subdued color background (white against desaturated color).

Although the image here is an example of isolated color, it is also an example of color harmony, since the browns and tans of the concrete, composed of stone aggregate, harmonizes (shares similar tones) with the leaf. The colorful element should fill a significant percentage of the frame to be effective.

25 November 2007

Printing 4/3 Aspect Ratio Photographs

When it came time for me to move to a DSLR camera, I chose a camera that produces images with an aspect ratio of 4:3, which is the same size as older motion pictures and standard definition televisions. It is also the same aspect ratio offered by most digicams. Having done all my previous photography with a 35mm SLR, which has a 3:2 aspect ratio, the new camera prompted me to think about printing 4:3 aspect ratio photographs.

Before deciding to go with a Four Thirds camera, I considered what moving from 3:2 to 4:3 aspect ratio could mean for my photography. In the last five years I had made some drawings and watercolors sized 9 x 12 inches. I noticed that I preferred this size to 8 x 10. It had a more "open" appearance despite having nearly the same aspect ratio as the ubiquitous 8 x 10. The 8 x 10 size always seemed a bit "claustrophobic." I occasionally had prints made 8 x 12 to preserve the 3:2 scene I had composed in the viewfinder, but the mats and frames were difficult to find, so I generally printed 8 x 10.

After getting the 4:3 camera I had some 9 x 12 prints made. The 9 x 12 inch size fits the 4:3 aspect ratio perfectly. Mats and frames in the size is widely available in the United States from art supply and craft stores. A couple of sources are http://www.matcutter.com/ and http://www.redimat.com/ as well as http://lightimpressionsdirect.com where I last bought some nice wood frames and archival mats.

I recommend you find a mat supplier who uses archival cores. I've had the core yellow in some supposedly archival mats bought at the local craft store, while my mats from Light Impressions have stayed perfectly white over the same time.

I discovered I prefer to print 4:3 format images at 9 x 12" print size over the traditional 8 x 10" size. The mat and frame suppliers are even picking up on the idea this size is useful for prints from digital cameras. You should be able to get prints made in this size from online photo printers like Adorama, Mpix, etc. The situation may be different outside the United States where metric sized papers are the only ones widely available.

24 November 2007

Reading a book

Reading a book
flat cola.
-sek, Nov 2007

(You can purchase a magnet of this original haiku).

20 November 2007

Minolta MD 45mm Comparison to E-510 Kit Zoom

The MD 45mm f/2.0 has an excellent reputation as a sharp prime lens with good bokeh. I wondered how it compared to the "designed for digital" ZD 40-150mm f/3.5 zoom lens that came with the the E-510 two lens kit.

I shot photographs with the 45mm and the zoom at 45mm as close to f/4 as I could. The result is in my picasa album. This was shot with the MD 45mm at f/4 using manual focus and Live View to adjust focus.

And here is the ZD.

Click on the image to get the larger version. This was shot with the ZD 45-150 @ 45mm f/4.1 in manual focus using Live View.

If you look carefully at the lower edge of the MD picture you can see "La Plata" is clearer than in the ZD image. It appears the MD prime has better edge sharpness than the "telecentric" and "designed for digital" kit zoom. This despite the 45mm was designed for a 35mm camera and is probably at least 20 years old, that its image circle is being cropped to 4/3 and probably extraneous light is bouncing around in the lightbox.

I find Live View at 10x magnification to be more accurate than the unaided eye and more accurate than I used to achieve with a viewfinder with split-prism focusing screen.

18 November 2007

LightZone "Smooth Contrast" Experiment

I've been experimenting with LightZone to duplicate the effect available through a Photoshop action, which I am told employs layers of sharpening and Gaussian blur to achieve a heightened but smooth contrast. The effect is really attractive, beautiful and heightens the sense of form in a color photograph, to give it some of the essence of a black and white photograph. I have a strong affinity for this look.

This is my first try, with two pairs of sharpen and blur effects, one for shadow and one for highlight, stacked this way: SH Zone Shadow, GB Zone Shadow and SH Zone Highlight, GB Zone Highlight. The result is a good first approximation to the effect I'm looking for.

The sharpening is set to enhance local contrast and the blur layer above it smooths out any graininess and blends the tones together.

The action I am trying to duplicate is Midnight Black available from Action Central. I have not downloaded or examined this action to reverse engineer it, because I wanted to see if I could unlock its secrets without anything but the results. I doubt I could apply much I could learn from the action to LightZone, other than the tools and stacks in LightZone provide much of the masking and selectivity that PhotoShop does in a much more intuitive way. I believe it has all I need to eventually duplicate this look. I do not have PhotoShop only Elements.

I hate to lengthen this post by waxing philosophically, but use of this action raises the question of how much of the resulting image is the photographer and how much is "Photoshop?" Putting aside the issue of legitimacy of manipulating an image to this degree so easily using a predefined action, I will take a stab at an answer. I give Photoshop credit for half the creative energy in such an image. "What percentage of what makes the image compelling is from Photoshop?" is the question I am forced to ask myself. About half is a conclusion I cannot escape. The other half is the traditional elements of camera and photographer approaching the subject. Without the effect, the image would lose much of its effect.

When I say "image" I mean the original image that inspired me to explore the effect, not necessarily the one in this post, although the same principle applies. You can see the original where this all started on Bootstrap's site (http://www.bootstrapimages.com/Web1107/PB085980-02a%20copyR.jpg), but I won't link to it individually, or guarantee it will be there when you look. Bill Turner also has a blog on Blogger, Eschew Obfuscation.

16 November 2007

Minolta Lenses on a Four Thirds Camera

During the summer, I bought an Olympus E-510 digital single lens reflex camera. The 510 is a FourThirds camera and because of the of shallow flange of the 4/3 lens mount it is one of the most flexible cameras on the market when it comes to mounting legacy optics (lenses from traditional film SLRs). A 4/3 camera can mount "legacy optics" or lenses from several other manufacturers made before the DSLR era. Although unintended, this makes FourThirds a revolutionary mount. For the first time not only can a photographer mount lenses from different manufacturers who produce lenses to the "open" FourThirds standard, with inexpensive Chinese-made adapters lenses from nearly any manufacturer from the golden age of SLRs can be mounted as well.

Third party adapters can be found for Olympus OM, Nikon, Pentax, Zeiss and Contax. The only one missing from the party was Minolta.

I purchased an inexpensive OM to 4/3 adapter from ebay and mounted several OM lenses, a 50mm f/1.8, 50mm f/1.4, 135mm f/2.8 and the 35mm f/2.8 with success. But I wanted a very light, compact lens. The OM 35mm f/2.8 is very small and light as well as the 50mm f/1.8, but I wanted a "pancake" lens. Like the Hexanon 40mm f/1.8, which can be mounted on 4/3 cameras with some modification. I also wanted a lens in the 40mm range because it gives a similar field of view to a 90mm portrait lens on the 4/3 camera.

I had a Minolta MD Rokkor-X 45mm f/2.0 I used on my Minolta X-700. I hoped to fit it to my E-510 but there was no adapter (other than a very expensive one made a while back). A member of the dpreview forums helped to get a manufacturer in China to make a MD to 4/3 adapter, not as easy task given how thin the mount must be. The manufacturer came through and I bought one of the first adapters they day they went on sale on ebay.

Here is a picture of the lens and adapter a few minutes after the postal person delivered it (We have a wonderful postal delivery person).

This is the MD 45mm f/2.0 mounted to the Olympus E-510 using the adapter purchased from jinfinance on ebay and in the background the donor camera, a mint condition Minolta X-700 purchased from Henry's.

And one of the first test photos I made of a persimmon tree.

I think the lens performs very well.

You can see more examples from the MD 45mm f/2.0 on my flickr album.

12 September 2007

Random Blather on Andy Warhol and Social Networks

Andy Warhol could have expressed himself in any medium. He chose painting (or at least a medium that appeared on its surface to be painting), perhaps by accident or by design, but whether he chose painting for this reason or was merely successful because he chose correctly, we may not know, but at the time he worked painting was the one medium where an artist would be taken seriously, what they had to say about society would be taken seriously in the medium of painting. He could have expressed his prescient views on celebrity and mass media by carving little dolls or collages, but he chose painting, I believe because that is the medium society would take seriously and pay attention to. If he didn't understand that, he was ignorant of the art world and society from the mid-twentieth century to the end of the twentieth-century. Only now with the information age are new art forms emerging that make painting, novels, movies obsolete.

A great artist does not care what medium they work in. They only care, as Warhol understood, that the job of the artist is to achieve a unity with their times and produce works that are completely in tune with what is happening in society, only slightly before society begins to realize what is happening. Celebrity was coalescing into a powerful social force in Warhol's time and he recognized it before anyone and found a means of expression for his recognition.

If you want to be a great artist today, you will not want to paint with oils like Picasso, abuse industrial sign printing technology like Warhol, or take photographs, you will want to discern the unique changes taking place in society in your time and create works that show people that. I don't know what they are or what medium it will be, but I can take some guesses. Social networking seems to have the force and weight that celebrity once had in 20th century society. It is emerging as a phenomena with the potential to completely reorganize authorship, art and life in the next century. I know it seems small and like a fad, but it there are profound changes taking place when you start to a) make authorship easy for everyone and b) make it easy to mix content from more than one person. When it becomes commonplace and ubiquitous for people to have other people's works of authorship displayed mixed in on their "social network profile page" (an ugly phrase, but what do you call it other than "my page?"), it changes the nature of authorship. It used to be clear who authored a work. Now it is not so clear or at least confusing to someone who grew up with books signed by an author, news stories bylined by the reporter. But the times are changing. It seems normal to young people to have other people's content show up mixed in their own, to see pages with content contributed by many people all jumbled together. I forsee a shift in the way people gain status, not just through works of authorship, which the networked world breaks down (devalues), but through becoming essentially editors of their own personal magazine...the profile page. It is a logical extension of your friends appearing on your social network home page, a simple step from that to your friends works of authorship appearing on your home page. This is like a "digg/slashdot/kuro5hin" site in miniature, where you get to approve or disapprove the content (stories, photos, etc.) appearing on your page. Users on flickr, gain status not just through authorship, but through association. The user with the most authors in their "stable" or contacts list or whose content appears on their page, wins. We already see the editors of these pages begging authors to "join their group" or become friends so that the best shared content will appear on their page.

I experimented with this in the late 1990s but it never went anywhere since I didn't push the project to completion. I was held back by fears, which I attributed to worries over vandalism (it was wiki-style), but which I believe were existential fears about authorship, the breaking down of authorship that might occur when one could easily refer to or include other people's content in your own through tagging (which was how it was to work).

20 August 2007

Looking at something

Looking at something
old, I made--looking in
the mirror, looking away.
-sek, Aug 2007.

All the eggs

All the eggs
in one basket--
running downhill.
-sek, Aug 2007

Psyched Up

There's something
to this being
psyched up for
the fight, this
false confidence
contrary to reason
has some ability
like a catalyst
to transform, to
snatch victory
from the jaws
of defeat.

19 August 2007

Clouds floating

Clouds floating
on leaves
squirrel quietly eats.
-sek, Aug 2007

Woke up to PC

Woke up to PC--
silk brushes against my face
walking between trees.
-sek, Aug 2007

A book gathers dust

A book gathers dust,
an award for his father,
an award for my father.
-sek, Aug 2007

Eye to the peep hole

Eye to the peep hole
a face
back out of here now.
-sek, Aug 2007

Antique rose, out

Antique rose, out
of the Florida room-
close encounter.
-sek, Aug 2007

Voices raised, listening...

Voices raised, listening...
voices raised, listening--
flickering light of
-sek, Aug 2007

15 August 2007

Becoming one with a rock

I've been reading Haiku Handbook, by Higginson, published in 1985. This is a truly wonderful book, which does much to dispel the nonsense taught about the nature of haiku in Western schools. It explains the purpose of haiku is the recording of experience in a way that makes it possible to recreate the experience when shared with others. I believe this is why I am attracted to haiku, since photography is a significant part of who I am, and imagery is central to both haiku and photography. I am particularly fascinated by the teaching of the haiku poet Basho, who once said a unity between poet and subject is necessary to haiku writing.

When we say something like the Zen master can achieve oneness with with world around him, that the separation between objects and his self break down, as if he is "one with the universe" that there is no boundary between the objects and the self, this sounds like unscientific nonsense, it sounds crazy. It is either metaphysical or bullshit. When Basho talks of unity with the subject being perceived as necessary for poetry, we can think once again, this is more Asian mysticism, a kind of bullshit designed to make the simple complex and mysterious. A rational materialist would look at his poetry for formal, structural, concrete elements that explain his poetry and his creative method. Not so fast rationalist.

I believe that what sounds like Asian mysticism is just the recognition of perceptual phenomena. For some reason, Asians have been more attuned to accepting the reality of certain non-rational phenomena arising from psychology and the workings of the mind. They were willing to recognize it and try to put it into language, however vague and strange sounding, they were trying to explain phenomena the West has trouble accepting and explaining.

New science suggests that the experience of becoming "one with the universe" may have its roots in the individual entering an altered mental state in which activity in the part of the brain responsible for the sense of self independent of other things is suppressed. We know that Zen practitioners can slow their heart rate, endure pain, and manipulate the mind and body through these controlled exercises, so it is not surprising they might be able to induce a state of mind that suppresses mental activity in one area.

The metaphysical language is merely the best explanation the practitioners could come up with. They did not know about centers of the brain or areas of the mind that give rise to a sense of individuality, or that breaking down that sense by suppression of activity in a brain center might be responsible for the effect they were experiencing. I can well imagine that it must be a strange feeling should the sense of separation between my body and other objects in the room, my clock, the lamp, books on the shelf, etc. be felt or perceived as part of me. It would be much stronger in the ancient world when most of the objects around a person were simple and natural, the trees, grass, flowers, sky or the temple, lamps, clothing.

Although science recognizes sinesthesia, feeling one sense when another is stimulated, such as hearing colors or seeing sounds, it has always been treated with some trepidation and distance in the West. It is a subject science has up until recently, with the emergence of brain science, been silently ignored. I believe the reason was that it borders on the mysterious and metaphysical, although one can approach it through psychology or perhaps intuit there exists some "cross talk" in the sense perception mechanism, until the emergence of brain science, there was always a hint of the metaphysical to this phenomena.

We know now that experiences like the extending of the sense of self to everything around you and the mixing up of senses are explained as mental phenomena. We know that certain people are born susceptible to these phenomena and that some people are able with practice to induce the phenomena.

I suppose what is interesting is that when a rationalist looks at a phrase like "one with the universe" obviously that sounds crazy since it is physically impossible for a person to merge with objects, but when you try not to take it so literally, you understand what is truly meant, that it _feels_ like you are one with the universe. Moreover, the human perception of the universe, how we perceive and experience the universe, is always colored by our emotions, our thoughts, our memories. The human mind overlays upon the perceived universe a model of it, which is always present and we cannot see the world around us without this model overlaid upon it. When we look at a rock or a tree, there is the physical perception of the rock or tree, the _sensing_ of it, the texture, the dimensions, a kind of sensitometric or photographic recording of the object, as if a robot were looking at it without seeing it. But human beings do not just look, the also see, and seeing involves the overly of this map we construct, a kind of virtual reality analog of the world that includes our thoughts, memories, feelings, associations with other people and society. The rock has properties that we overlay upon it in this virtual world, the rock evokes memories of childhood spent sitting on it on a cool summer night, that the girl you used to sit on with it is now married with children and a corporate executive who does not have time for old friends, that her social standing is great in society, that you think the rock has a beautiful natural shape, that it has been moved in the last ten years by a farmer who thought it got in the way of his plowing.

This rock has an existence that extends into the social world erected collectively by human beings, it has an existence in the emotional world of the individual, it has an existence that extends in all directions into this virtual world erected by human psychology and social connections, which although are not physically a part of the rock, are just as real in their consequences. So it is possible for a person to merge with a rock. It is possible for Basho to experience what they rock experiences as if he was the rock or that the rock might speak to him of its experiences. Since his feelings are somewhat merged with the rock through an interaction with this virtual "map in mind" (extending a concept from psychology of geo-spatial perception). We perceive the rock as a rock, and it physically is separate and insensate, has no feelings or memories or membership in human society, but like the Heisenberg Effect, our perceiving it produces changes in our model of the rock in our map, which causes feedback changes throughout the map in complex ways, which changes the rock (at least as it exists in our mental map which we overlay upon it). I believe this goes a long way to explain how a poet like Basho could be so affected by objects around him, partly through an innate sensitivity (sinethesia possibly) and partly through a practiced way of experiencing the subject, intentionally breaking down the sense of self and separation in service of poetry.

The existence of such a map and the complex feedback loops that occur between the object, perceptions and the mapped object mean that human perception is a complex phenomena, like the weather, which is not likely to be explained by reductionist means, by taking it apart to see what the functions and relationships of the parts are. This has important implications for robotic design and artificial intelligence, since it means that at least psychologically, elements of the physical world become mapped in our minds and we can actually effect changes in those elements as mapped. I am not saying we possess "mind over matter" I am saying, if you read the above, that our comprehension of an object is not pure, but it is mixed, that when we come to know a rock or a tree, that it is impossible to separate the actual qualities of the rock or tree, from the psychological qualities we overlay on it. We look at the rock differently depending on our emotions, memories and social condition, which makes the rock different each time in our minds, but we are barely conscious of this, and to us they are qualities of the rock. The poetry of Basho operates on this fault line between the real and the perceived.

The separations of science and Western rationalism are false, mind and object, person and object, philosophy, mind, mental model and reality, reductionist model and reality, these all come together in a mixed way to create the reality we experience. It may be a convenience to create scientific models that simplify systems so we may take them apart and understand how they work, but we never completely understand them until we recognize their mixed nature, the hallmark of any complex, organic system. As I've said before, science will and is accommodating itself to the new reality by developing branches like chaos physics and mathematics, complexity theory and studying evolutionary systems, such as human evolutionary psychology. So it comes full circle.

12 August 2007

Still alone

Still alone--
I write your name
in the frost.
-sek, Aug 2007

At the end of a walk home

Night descends
at the end of a walk home--
in a pool of light ascends
dogwood blossoms.
-sek, Aug 2007

A pear from the tree

A pear from the tree
after lunch-- past the
old sandbox.
-sek, Aug 2007

11 August 2007

Footfalls across the sand

Footfalls across the sand
suddenly stop--
stranded jellyfish.
-sek, Aug 2007

08 August 2007

Visual history in the hands of the people

I have been strongly in favor of what I have called, for lack of a better term, "in situ preservation" of vernacular photographs. The idea for this slowly emerged out of my experiences with my own family photographs. There were several generations of photographers among the branches of our family tree, starting with my grandfather, my grandmother attended photographic school and worked in the darkroom at her husband's studio and had an early fascination with photography as a child, her favorite uncle was a photographer. Her father's mother's brother was a well known and successful 19th century photographer and stereoview publisher, whose three sons went on to become photographers. We inherited a wealth of photographic heritage and a vast treasure of old photographs. I grew up around photography as a child, not intensely as perhaps a child of a concert pianist might grow up around constant music and the grand piano in the living room, but absorbed this heritage by osmosis.

I slowly learned over the decades the importance of the photographs we possessed, as they gathered in our own family collection, as we inherited each group of photographs, some were family while others were of historical value, of localities where our ancestors lived in past times. Although I held the institutions that are entrusted with the task of keeping our memories, our past alive, through preservation and sharing of artifacts in high regard, I began to sense early on that these institutions were limited. There was a vast quantity of vernacular images, which for many reasons were ignored by museums and libraries. Because these images were not considered "important" they remained in ordinary people's homes. I began to see this as a good thing, since artifacts collected into a single location "put all the eggs in one basket" and sometimes were destroyed along with it, perhaps with a fire or a war, this has happened throughout history. It is frequently the rare item, the significant historical find, that comes from the attic of an ordinary home, the old heirloom that someone saved in a drawer or the odd thing tossed in the attic without any knowledge of its importance, that comes to play an important role in telling the story of our past. I started to conclude that it was sometimes better for artifacts to remain outside the institutional framework and when I started to learn more about institutions, archives and libraries, I understood that it was impossible for them to store, catalog and preserve all the potentially significant artifacts, especially vernacular photographs.

This idea of in situ preservation dawned on me in the late 1970s as a vague idea and by 1995 was nearly fully formed, inspired by my taking a second look at our oldest family photographs, which I had copied once about 1980 while still an enthusiastic young photography student. I discovered and became aware of a vast world of vernacular photographs being bought and sold by collectors and at flea markets, I saw here and there several "finds" of historic documents or images that shed new light for historians on events they thought were settled. I learned new things about my own family through researching our own photographs, which had both genealogical and vernacular historical value. I sought to take an academic approach to our family photographs, by carefully cataloging, recording and preserving the images as a librarian or archivist might do, not as the genealogist would with their concentration on family. (A side note: My interest in family photographs was met repeatedly with great resistance from some genealogists, throughout the period 1995 to about 2005 when all the photo sharing sites started up...I was told at least once that names were the important thing in genealogy not photographs. This perception has greatly changed for the better in the last decade).

As the digital age dawned and the Internet became available to the public, I began to see that it was possible to coordinate, encourage and support this activity of "in situ" preservation of vernacular images. I had already seen that it was happening, that it frequently was an important way of ensuring the preservation of important artifacts, sometimes because they were not recognized as significant until many decades later, and that this "cloud" of artifacts was too large and unknowable to be cared for by any single institution, perhaps not even all institutions collectively. I thought that an online database could be employed to help catalog and track these in situ objects, collect data on them for use by researchers. I eventually built the City Gallery website with these goals in mind and over the years made various attempts to involve people in this project. I had little success because I never made it part of an existing activity. It was only by 1997 or so I began to recognize that people are not going to enter information about their photographs stored in shoeboxes. It is just too much work. I understood that they would contribute images to an album, to share photographs, and that might be a way build such a database of vernacular photographs stored in situ. This was at the time very difficult for an individual to create due to storage and bandwidth costs.

My reach fell short of my ideas for a large part because I lacked an understanding of what motivated people, what I could get them to do, what they were doing already. If I wanted ordinary people to scan their vernacular photographs and upload them to my photo sharing system (this was before shutterfly and other sites existed) and describe them using meta data, this was simply too much to ask. In the UK, they have something called Archive Day (and there may be similar projects here) where people bring their photographs to an institution to have them scanned by librarians. The feeling of civic duty and participation in something larger than themselves encourages people to participate, and they don't have to do the technically difficult work of scanning the images. Yes, by now the consumer scanner is ubiquitous, but still most ordinary people have difficulty using them and generally like the photographic enthusiast of a few decades ago, the family photos are usually scanned by one particular individual in the family. So this is one way in which this can really work. The drawback is that it involves an institution, which must scan, store and catalog, obviating to a great degree the advantage of in situ preservation.

I have to conclude that "in situ" may not be the ideal form of preservation, but it will continue to be a necessary one, it will continue to exist, for the simple reason that we do not now know what artifacts are important or will become important in time to historians and there are not enough institutions in the world to store the artifacts. It may be that this process is such a complex, organic phenomena that it cannot be supported and encouraged, since we do not know what artifacts will be important to future generations. I still believe it is worthwhile to pursue social and technological ways to support and encourage ordinary people to preserve what they believe is important to them hoping that it will with it preserve what is important to history.

Unfolding the City

It is generally believed that order is preferable to unplanned development. The first villages to emerge with agriculture developed without any plan or structure. In time, people would learn to plan towns on a grid of streets and this became the normal way to develop a town or city, along a rigid grid of streets. But we know better now, after observing the formation of towns for over two hundred years in America, according to city planners, that street plans which emerged organically from the seemingly haphazard choices of many individuals over many years, produce the most efficient street plans which help alleviate and avoid gridlock.

If you look at an English countryside village, you can see how the streets and paths are laid out efficiently to follow the activities of actual people. The preexisting activities and their most efficient paths determine the layout of streets. This also interestingly creates a plan of homes and buildings that people find pleasing, or "picturesque." I believe this is due to the streets and structures following an organic plan, similar to nature and the choices going into the making of the plan represent "chaos" or fractal patterns, which emerge and are made visible in the placement of streets, alleys, and structures giving the town the same pleasing pattern as mountains or other pleasing natural forms. It appears the planned, rigid, rectangular street plans are the least pleasing, the least human scale, the most prone to gridlock, traffic and efficiency problems of movement in the city. Sometimes a controlled randomness, a "natural anarchy" of chaotic processes, organically unfolding the city are preferable to order.

I knew this long before city planners began to discover it. My father before me knew it without understanding why or what it was that made driving Arlington easy. That made it easy to avoid "Rush Hour" so well known to Arlingtonians living so close to the big city and experiencing the daily rush to work and rush to home in the bedroom communities. My father always taught me how he had a dozen different ways to get from here to where we were going. There were always four or five back roads, small arteries, little curving streets that cut off corners, like the maze of arteries and veins in the human leg, there was always a way to get from there to there efficiently without blockage. The organic nature of Arlington's streets was known to him without him ever thinking the world "organic" or describing it in formal town planning terminology. I absorbed this by osmosis riding with him in the family car, and would use this knowledge myself when it came time to drive.

Like the weather, like the soil, the streets of the city are at their best when allowed to unfold organically, understood as complex phenomena, not reduced to simplified models. Neither they way nature works or the way human society works is rational. Although we can understand many things by simplifying nature, reducing it to its constituent parts for analysis, and many beneficial things come from a scientific rational study of nature, in the final analysis nature is irrational. The universe is not ordered like the precise gears of a watch, but ordered in complex, organic ways, like the weather. Rationality is a phenomena of the human mind, a way of comprehending and organizing what it knows about the world and is an imperfect match with reality. It is influenced by the reliance of the human mind on narrative for explaining, organizing, comprehending and remembering the confusing and overwhelming sense perceptions flowing into it continuously from all directions through a number of senses.

04 August 2007

War of the pennies

Everybody wants
to buy something on ebay--
war of the pennies.
-sek, Aug 2007

20 July 2007

Today is wash day

White sheets on the line
billow, graceful in the breeze--
Today is wash day.
-sek, Jul 2007

Remembering my grandmother Tyrrell's backyard on a wash day.

14 July 2007

Winding the clock

The clock ticks away
the time you spent winding it--
-sek, July 2007

My grandmother wound the mantel clock each day.

Monarch butterflies

Along the seashore
they follow the coastal road--
Monarch butterflies.
-sek, July 2007

Inspired by watching Monarchs follow the coastal highway along the Delaware seashore.

Beneath the white oak

Beneath the white oak
mist blankets the old tire swing--
children are sleeping.
-sek, July 2007

Video cable

Video cable
with six golden connectors--
sits gathering dust
-sek, July 2007

A nondescript tree

A nondescript tree
still lives on the schoolyard fence--
where our class ate ice cream
-sek, July 2007

29 June 2007

A child plants a seed

A child plants a seed
in a paper cup -- willful
nature spirits leave.
-sek, July 2007

Edited from--
A child plants a seed
in a paper cup -- willful
nature spirits gone.
-sek, June 2007

11 June 2007

Working on code

Every time I change something here,
it breaks something there.
Working on code.
-sek, June 2007

06 June 2007

Cold as stones

The things that you own
are as cold as stones
--a pebble found upon the beach.
-sek, 2007

After a song lyric I have been working on for some time.

05 June 2007

Delight in fireflies

I wrote a haiku inspired by a photo by Ray Kinnane that I saw posted to dpreview forums.

A simpleton's
delight in fireflies flight
--every child a true artist.

I wanted to express the haughty intellectual's view that enjoying fireflies is like being fascinated by shiny objects and then turn the tables on them. To show if we looked at fireflies they way children do, we would understand the importance of looking, and the origins of true art. And as long as we are human, there is nothing wrong with being human, and that includes our arbitrary, fixed response, unconsidered feelings.

27 May 2007

Bashō, The Narrow Road to Oku

I received Bashō, The Narrow Road to Oku, yesterday (the 19th of May), a poetic and anecdotal chronicle of the celebrated poet's journey in 1689 to the northern end of the island of Honshū. The book itself is beautifully made of high quality materials, typical of a Japanese paperback. I sent for Bashō after enjoying his poetry while studying haiku and having read the jacket cover blurb by illustrator Miyato Masayuki online before ordering. I was captivated by the description of Bashō "drifting with the clouds and streams" and "lodging under trees and on hard rocks," in his long journey to Oku.

I felt a sensation of deja vu wash over me as I read the blurb. I looked up to one of my drawings on the wall behind where I sit at my computer, which depicts a poplar leaf caught up in the flow of a stream and about to run aground on a rock. I had seen many a leaf in this predicament, turning and twirling with the current until it snagged upon a rock, in my explorations of Four Mile Run, a local stream (I grew up in Northern Virginia, which is blessed by a myriad of small streams running through valleys).

I was certain there was more here than a description of a journey, but the words were metaphor for Bashō himself caught up in the currents of his journey, like a fallen leaf lodging under trees laying across the stream, escaping for a moment to twirl and spin, then come up again on hard rocks, until once again released by the force of the current, the journey can continue. I just had to have this book.

Before I continue, a word on the illustrations. The torn paper art of Masayuki illustrating each haiku is simply astonishing. I would have said it was done with an airbrush or is digital artwork unless I was told the illustrations were constructed from torn bits of paper. Simply amazing. I would have liked to seen the originals, since the printing does not do them justice. I could write a whole essay on just the illustrations alone.

Although the title is difficult to translate, I believe its meaning comes through clearly. Oku refers to the Northern provinces of Honshū and is known as the "interior." Knowing that Bashō chose this title for his work despite the road playing a very small role in the account, suggests the title was chosen for its double meaning, that he was traveling literally to the interior of northern Japan and metaphorically into his own interior life and that of poetry.

I am fascinated by many aspects of his poetry. The use of ordinary descriptions and freedom from grandiose visions or exaggerated emotions typically associated with poetry. The indirection and use of context and implication in communicating (or failing to communicate--many of his poems are difficult to understand without the help of the journal. I doubt I would be as satisfied by the poems without the story of his journey) contrast with the Western poem.

Bashō's poems frequently end with a line that only makes sense in light of the previous verse.

At a point in his travels, Bashō passes between a rice field and the sea.

Sweet smelling rice fields
to our right as we pass through
The Aristo Sea.

Another chronicler of a "road trip," Kerouac might have portrayed the journey with greater intensity, but not with greater delicacy than Bashō. His poetry is all the more remarkable considering this is simply a description of a scene passing by, recorded with delicacy and detail. This poem makes a complete sentence over its three short lines, but the last one is still jarring. On first reading it, there is a strangeness I cannot quite put my finger on. Typical of his haiku, it is less than a sentence fragment, not much more than a multi-word noun, frequently the name of a natural wonder. The line has a tendency to stand still, which may explain why they so often come at the end of a poem.

It is still a bit jarring to my ears when encountering a line that does not seem to state anything, but makes a statement only through counterpoint with the previous verses.

Turbulent the sea--
Across to Sado stretches
The Milky Way.

Then again, I may not be reading it right, since it does form a complete sentence with the second line. It may just be the novelty of reading haiku.

A better example from Bashō's poems that end with a line that only makes sense in light of the previous verse is this one:

At Yamanaka
No need to pick chrysanthemums--
The scent of hot springs.

I thought if I had read the last line alone, I would ask "the scent of hot springs ... what?" But when followed by the first two lines, the meaning becomes clear. The hot springs are as fragrant as the chrysanthemum.

For a while, Bashō stopped to rest under a willow tree famous from poetry and wrote the following haiku:

They sowed a whole field,
And only then did I leave
Saigyō's willow tree.

It is remarkable how Bashō measures time by how long it takes for a rice field to be planted. We must remember in ancient times, before clocks were commonplace and before the invention of the minute that rules our lives, people measured time by how long it took to complete some common task. Bashō was measuring time using the most immediate unit at hand, which offers a poetic opportunity for sowing a field to stand in place of the clock (at least with reference to the time addicted modern reading it, the poet may have been merely descriptive). It is an example of the brand of poetic indirection Bashō is known for.

What this tells me about poetry (and song alike) is that the poet must forget about imbuing his poetry with meaning, and just write down their experiences. Time will change the meaning and imbue the lines with meaning discovered by each reader or generation of readers. I feel he was merely describing what he saw and did while visiting a spot mentioned in poetry (a favorite activity of Japanese travelers) in concise and flowing words. It is very hard for a Westerner to give up that need for the poem to be _about_ something, to convey some grand meaning. The haiku is very much like a photograph, a graceful and economical record of an experience.

In the darkness gathering over a lonely beach, amidst the fishermen's huts and a forlorn temple, where Bashō went to collect little masuo shells, the poet left us with the second to last poem of his journey, a question:

What do the waves bring?
Mixed in with little shells
Bits of clover blooms.

This is the most memorable of my favorites, surfacing from time to time when thoughts are idle, holding on to unconscious attention more tenaciously than others, in the short time I've been acquainted with the Narrow Road to Oku. I believe it resonates with the way I see the world and reminds me my approach to photography, which hopes to accomplish what Bashō does, to call attention to the grace of ordinary things. It requires sensitivity and courage to take notice, as Bashō did, of bits of clover blooms amidst the stones and shells of tidal shallows. It's hard to consider we nearly missed having it, being the next to the last poem his journey inspired!

26 May 2007

Star Wars and How I Got There

I dragged my parents to the film 2001: A Space Odyssey for its original theatrical release. I was five years old and in love with the Apollo program. I had seen advertisements on television for the film and insisted I go. We saw the film at the old drive at Bailey's Crossroads right across from the airport (legend has it one pilot scraped his wheels on the screen making a landing) that has been gone for many years. I fell asleep halfway through, what I have always since called the most boring film ever made. I did wake up in time to see Hal get his comeuppance. It was years later before I began to understand the film's subtleties. My parents didn't get any of it.

The film represented the epitome of realistic depiction of space and space travel within the solar system. The praise it won for special effects was justified and was in strong contrast to the usual science fiction fare in the cinema.

As I grew up, I began in my teenage years to read science fiction. I fell in love with the golden age of pulp science fiction of the 1930s and with the expansive age of science fiction in the 1950s and 1960s, I discovered through anthologies and old pulp magazines along with newer ones like Analog. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s science fiction grew in sophistication and my reading list grew to include Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Chariots of the Gods and other stuff pulled from my older brother's stash of books. I read the first Anne McCaffery story, Weyr Search, I believe in Analog I picked up second hand and that started my interest in the science fantasy genre. I watched Star Trek whenever an episode would come on, usually fighting to adjust the television antenna to tune in some high numbered UHF station that would carry it in later years. I had seen Star Trek in its original run and first syndication, but was a bit too young and it didn't really attract me then like the real space program did. I watched Space 1999 and other shows. You had to take what you could get for a fix.

I saw Star Wars in first run at the Arlington Theater in old downtown Arlington, Virginia (a beautiful art deco building that still exists). I went with my brother and his girlfriend. I was stunned by the opening sequence with the grand Imperial ship overhead and subsequent gripping battle scenes aboard the cruiser. Here was everything I had ever read and image in science fiction come to life. Not some cheesy Buck Rogers spaceship on a string with a firecracker up its tail and not the slow, boring hyper realism of A Space Odyssey. Even as good as the special effects were on Star Trek television series or a film like Planet of the Apes or the lovely Forbidden Planet, nothing could approach this for "realism" in bringing an imaginary world to life before my eyes. Scenes that had only lived in my imagination were realized in a way that did not diminish them, as often happens when the events and characters you imagine in books are made into a film. Since I had never read the story before, I could revel in the scenes that were like those every science fiction fan had read and imagined, but not exact enough to disturb a treasured memory.

I never became a Star Wars fanatic. I collected a few figures I liked, such as an R2D2 and C3PO, the robots, which as a computer enthusiast (geek) I was attracted to. I never really got into it as life philosophy or profound familial story as others did. Star Wars was a life changing experience for me, perhaps in some subtle way that Sgt. Pepper was for my brother, only much lesser. I loved the Williams score for the original film, a work that stands on its own and listened to it literally hundreds of times over the years. I still like Star Wars and play some of the better video games that came out of the series. In Star Wars Battlefront I get to relive the movie and its locations. I get to run around Mos Eisley. How cool is that? It's pretty novel for someone born in my generation to be running around in a world they saw in a film one time, not that those born in the last fifteen years would understand that. The closest I could ever have gotten to that is either in my imagination reading book or being on the set of movie. The three dimensional first person computer video game did realize what I saw as the ultimate potential of the "microcomputer" back then. I had faith in that, that we'd get there someday, back when the closest thing was Star Raiders on the Atari or Flight Simulator on the Apple II. Having neither of those I had to content myself with spacewar or Asteroids clones on a black and white monitor. So there it is, here and back again. It is hard to believe that Star Wars is thirty years ago.

There Grew a Tree by Liberty Dawne

On March 11 2007, the audience of the AFI Silver in Silver Spring Maryland was treated to live music from a group of young musicians after the screening of the documentary film on Stephen Wade, Catching the Music. I attended as a member of the Folkstreams team (we had to sprint to the local Office Depot for a ethernet cable or the Folkstreams presentation would never have made it to the silver screen) and we enjoyed the music afterward very much, as did the audience. The musicians Stephen brought with him played wonderfully, each featured on their own and along with Stephen's magical banjo playing. My favorite was Liberty Dawne who sings and plays the fiddle. She has a CD available, which I purchased from her at the show and that you should give a listen to.

A favorite of mine is Pass that Burley Down, a standout song of the set and one of two songs written by Liberty from an experience stripping tobacco. It is reminiscent of work songs and field hollers from African American music (upon which the blues is based). It occurred to me this song draws upon a similar tradition of field work in Appalachian culture. I must be attracted to this quality it shares with the blues, since I have loved the blues since I discovered the music as a teenager in the late 1970s. My attraction is not an academic one. I don't like the song because of its associations, but on its own merits. The song is a good one. This song shows off Liberty talent's, being fast paced and sparkling.

I am attracted to albums that stand as a complete picture of the artist without being obviously autobiographical. I like the music to represent the essence of the individual not a detailed report on their life. I am not so interested in whether each song is successful in a popular sense, but that each song, and the songs as a whole, represent who the songwriter authentically is. It doesn't matter to me if a song is sentimental (which seems to be the art-crime of the last century) as long as it authentically represents the sentimentality of the artist in an artistically interesting way. That is all we can ask for from art.

As such, one of my favorite albums is Mary Chapin Carpenter's first, Hometown Girl, which I tend to identify with since I grew up in the Metro DC area and share some of the feelings expressed in the songs. I spent a good many hours of my childhood in the Air and Space Museum. I think I also share the romantic vision of a suburban kid who grew up close to the fading cultures of the Eastern Shore and the Appalachians close at hand. My family, like many others, frequently visited the Chesapeake and over to the Delmarva, or west to the Blue Ridge, passing through farm country, stopping at farmer's markets, and the like, which may explain my interest in Folkstreams and co-founding a website bringing social networking to solve the problems of sustainable farming, FarmFoody. I am drifting off topic. Although I think she would like to compare well to folk music superstar Alison Krauss, another fiddle player who sings, I think she mines a vein closer to Gillian Welch, who sets modern themes to traditional music.

Perhaps this is why I like "visionary" artists, since they are just doing their own thing, putting whatever is on their mind into their works, without worrying about the "art scene" or what some professor told them, trying to be the next Picasso (or Beatles). I think people need to stop trying to be the next anything, since we know that a general fighting the last war is a losing proposition. After all, that is what artistic expression is, putting what's on your mind or what you are feeling into an external, material form.

I don't quite feel that coherency as strongly in There Grew a Tree, perhaps because many of the songs are traditional and perhaps because of that, lacks the authority of a singer songwriter's first album, but since the album is one of traditional music, that can be expected. For her, the traditional songs are part of her identity. The songs were chosen more in connection with her family and her memory than written from those with the exception of the two songs she penned. The first albums by singer songwriters are frequently powerful since they usually represent the bottled up emotion of their first decade of song writing. Perhaps There Grew a Tree is much the same, only through the medium of a selection of traditional and popular songs important to the artist.

I must apologize if this review has drifted into myriad other directions, but it can't be helped. I'm just made that way.

Among the covers, Billy Gray is an excellent well written song, which Liberty runs through with an attractive quality to her voice. I think she struggles a bit with some of the more complicated melodies, but I'll leave that to people who judge singing contests. The instrumental playing on this album is wonderful and all who participated are excellent musicians.

Happy Farmer/Redwing is a mashup of a western swing tune and a classical piece. She pulls it off pretty good and I like the idea of combining music from different eras and styles, which I attempted couple of times in my own pathetic musical ramblings, giving the mashup some resonance with my inclinations.

She includes You are My Sunshine, Walkin' the Dog, Orange Blossom Special (very nicely done), Kentucky and Runaway Train.

She includes Amazing Grace on the album. Along with Silent Night, Amazing Grace is one of my two favorite traditional songs, which stand above nearly every song I know and inhabit some transcendent space we barely comprehend.

The second song written by Liberty, There Grew a Tree, is a wonderful metaphor for the growth of family and generations. I find the two songs Liberty wrote to be the most effective of the album and I had assumed they were traditional numbers until I read the CD notes. It may be that the songs she wrote fit her style better than the others. They are both strong songs and perhaps it was singing her own songs that gave them greater strength. I wish the songs had been all her own.

The CD was released in 2001 so I have no doubt her playing, writing and singing has improved, but There Grew a Tree can still be had from amazon I recommend you seek it out. I don't think much of music reviews, so I really don't write them. Just go out and listen.

18 May 2007

God's Peculiar People

I've been reading Elaine Lawless's book, God's Peculiar People, which arrived here in good condition today. She explains how Pentecostals are in daily contact with the paranormal. They keep one foot in the spirit world, to place it in context with the notions of pre-literate cultures. The "willfulness principle" was observed by Lawless operating in these communities that held strong beliefs in the power of "witches" to influence events. The willfulness principle was coined by Barber and Barber to explain the notion that in pre-literate cultures, natural effects have supernatural causes, principally the actions of willful spirits. It is worth noting that in Miyazaki's films (Spirited Away and My Friend Totoro notably) there exists the same close association between the natural world and the spirit world Lawless discovered in her observations of Pentecostals. His films express this notion of a spirit world parallel to and mirroring the natural world, which is a traditional feature of Japanese culture, arising from the pre-literate period in which the willfulness principle operated. It is not dissimilar to the attitudes of Pentecostals who reject the natural world to keep one foot in the spirit world accompanying the natural.

This "abandonment of the world" appears similar to Zen's entreaty to abandon worldly things as causes of suffering, and entry into a spirit world of meditation, which can be likened to the "unspeakable joy" that Pentecostals feel upon receiving the "holy ghost" and their general happiness derived from their faith. The levels of blessing Pentecostals strive for seem to echo the levels of attainment in zen.

(In addition to Elaine's book, you can watch Joy Unspeakable on the Folkstreams website).

The Folksnet: Folk Culture and Web 2.0

Although I am not a folklorist, through my work on the Follkstreams website, I have come to appreciate the study of folk culture and understand how expansive a field it represents. Folk culture is the culture people make for themselves and share with others. Web 2.0 is a folk culture, it even coined a phrase "folksonomy" to denote a system of categorization that replaces a vocabulary controlled by an authority or group of authorities with a vocabulary created ad hoc by the people involved in using the system of categorization. The media sharing sites like YouTube and MySpace and "mashup" systems like Yahoo Pipes and Microsoft Popfly enable a rich shared folk media culture to arise. Increasingly, as we head into the 21st century, it is a supreme irony that folklore is taking on greater importance as nearly everything is democratized and individualized, and is poised to become perhaps the most significant field of research in this century, after having for centuries remained an overlooked backwater in academia.

Folklore already possess the vocabulary and methods to comprehend and measure such a brave new world. It has the attitudes and assumptions, the knowledge frameworks ready at hand. As we understand how the mind works, as we democratize, we will realize the central role played by narrative in the workings of the mind and society, that society is a kind of virtual reality similar to the internet in which abstract things affect the real world, that narrative and oral tradition exist everywhere and explain how people know what they know and apply what they know to the world around them. This is a profound shift from the rationalist assumptions that have driven Western civilization since the beginning of the Enlightenment.

17 May 2007

Creative Photography: Subversive Detail and Conceptual Contrast

Subversive content in photographs. No, I do not mean politically subversive, but details in the image that subvert or comment on the image's subject. For example, you may be attempting a very serious image of an important landmark, let's say the Iwo Jima memorial in Arlington, Virginia, but in the foreground are parked a string of dump trucks or perhaps a string of circus vans. The presence of such contradictory details undermines the meaning and mood of the image. Of course, it can also be used by the photographer in a controlled manner to create commentary.

Here is an excellent example where subversive content is used to enhance the image. The graffiti in the background becomes a compositional element leading the eye to the hugging couple frame right and the joyous dancing figure of the iPod advertisement directly behind them communicates what the photographer "mind reads" or imagines is their inner feelings.

Hugs (San Francisco Streets 2007, godfrey digiorgi 2007)

(It reminds me of a late image by André Kertész from the 1970s of a couple I saw published in a photo magazine in the late 1970s, which if I recall, he made from his window).

Reflections in windows have famously been used as a way to introduce subversive content into images.

The important thing to keep in mind is the idea is not to introduce a lot of clutter or trash detail into your image, but to let the extraneous detail become a commentary. It has to mean something. You need to ensure the image forms and idea not just a composition (although sometimes a certain composition has such a powerful affect on the viewer that is sufficient to constitute an great image).

A good example of this by the same photographer. This image is powerful merely for it sense of captured movement and how the woman, coat, dog and background material "divide the frame," which is simply a term of art for how the three dimensional objects in the image divide the flat two dimensional area of the image into sections in an interesting way. Dividing the frame is an important concept in any two dimensional visual art.

Woman and Dog (San Francisco Streets 2007, godfrey digiorgi 2007)

Photographers also use contrast...not not contrast in exposure terms...but contrast in terms of visual language. For example, this image creates a feeling of loneliness by isolating the human figures as impersonal silhouettes in a large space inhabited by shafts of luminous light but contrasts the aloneness by presenting a group of people, not just one person. By this he contrasts loneliness and togetherness in the same image.

Across The Light (Tate Modern, London 2005, godfrey digiorgi)

By the way, I do not have to mention Godfrey is an excellent photographer who understands these important principles of authorship in photography. I found examples of both visual ideas discussed in this entry quickly on his site. He obviously understands that to make good photographs, to make photographs that are significant artifacts for consideration by society, the images must say something, not just be well exposed and composed, that the photographer must establish and manipulate a visual vocabulary. His best images have something to say and the few that fall flat are the ones that fail to establish and communicate an idea. A photograph without the presence of the author is nothing more than a documentary image (those have value as well, but that is not what I am discussing here...I certainly appreciate vernacular and documentary images).

Even if the photographer did not intend a specific message the images communicate one. There is a quote, I cannot recall exactly, but it was regarding hypocrisy and concluded the mind cannot know itself completely at once, which applies.

06 May 2007

CSPAN Video Hacked?

I somehow doubt CSPAN is running an all day celebration of televangelist Gene Scott, but for some reason all afternoon CSPAN 2 has been showing Gene Scott video on the Real Video stream. I discovered this when I switched from tv to CSPAN 2 video to see the Book-TV Marvin Olaksy interview live. The Windows media strean is showing the Olasky interview.


What do you think?

04 May 2007



I saw through enthusiasm
like a child sees through
the easter bunny to the man
walking down the street in
a bunny suit

I saw through enthusiasm
too easily, and dismissing
in melancholy realism
the love I had, I threw
the rare book in the trash
it had begun to mold
and grandfather had cut
a pattern from the cover
and no one was ever
going to be interested in
Craftsman homes again

I saw through enthusiasm
like a child realizes
there is no santa claus
bearing gifts, but a man
in santa suit

I saw through enthusiasm
too easily, to be swept up
in discovery, as if by
the tide, to fall blindly
in love with an idea
who would come to use it
who would not ridicule its
simplicity, so I never made
anything of it

Now, I see through ghosts
the past, lackluster years
the cost of never
falling in love
enough to stop seeing
through enthusiasm
to stop being a
con man conned into
giving the envelope back
to the old fool
-sek, January 01, 2006

The Strike

The Strike

high above the earth
the stoop begins
wings pulled in
response to sensing
movement on the ground
sensors sensing more
accurate than human
they zero in
the prey

high above the earth
the dive begins
dead prey walking
the earth now, but
soon to be fodder
for the superior,
the mover, the diver
it zeroes the

falling, turning

reaching inhuman
speeds, moving with
inhuman accuracy,
seeing with inhuman
eyes the inhuman
flying machine
readies for the

closer to human
ground, revealed
the falcon strikes
and in front of God's
eyes the sparrow falls

-sek, May 01, 2005.

I wrote this after watching a small hawk or peregrine falcon perched on a tree swoop down after a small bird, whether it caught it I could not see, for the distance was too great by the time they both disappeared across the valley.

03 May 2007

The Urchin's Progress

The Urchin's Progress

One day, purple urchins
covered the left side of a
great rock jutting into the sea
and the urchins remained there
until they were pushed halfway
back by olive urchins coming
up on the right side of the
rocks washed by the sea

Next day, olive urchins fell
back to one side pushed back
by the purple ones as if they
were never masters over the other
and the struggle went on until the day
when a great wave washed over the
lesser rock and swept away the
urchins, purple and olive

Years later, visitors would come
to the spot and say what a
nice empty rock to sit upon,
to contemplate the sea and
never think once of the urchins
purple or olive who once held
sway over their domains.
-sek (Steve E. Knoblock),
Original work July 12, 2005, revised May 3, 2007.

This is more of a story and prose poem than a metered poem.

02 May 2007

Storing Compact Fluorescent Lamps

I use compact fluorescent lamps and have on occasion needed to swap one out for an incandescent bulb. If you are worried about the CFL breaking during storage (we did not keep the original packing...a good idea to keep it if you intend to store them) a solution is to fit a styrofoam cup over spiral bulb to protect it from blows and enclose the whole thing in a sealed plastic bag in case it should break. mercury escaping from these lamps has been in the news lately, and it is a legitimate health concern, especially if the number of CFLs in use increase dramatically. Although the amount of mercury is less than in a large fluorescent tube, I would prefer to avoid a hot spot in my home or the mercury getting into the environment, which according to the California state government's Waste Prevention Information Exchange website document on Fluorescent Lamps and Tubes in the year 2000 contributed approximately 370 pounds of mercury to the environment in California "due to the breakage of electric lamps and tubes during storage and transportation." It is worth noting that at least some "...mercury in urban storm water sediment results in part from improperly discarded fluorescent lamps and tubes." Given human nature, if we do scale the use of CFLs to replace most incandescent lamps in homes, it is going to be difficult to get people to dispose of the CFLs in a proper facility. The number of fluorescent lamps in homes will probably grow to exceed those in businesses, so it is not a small issue.

26 April 2007

Out of many, one: The acceptance of many views.

I've talked before about the need to accept the inconvenient existence of multiple of truths that exists in genealogy. Incomplete knowledge about the past is unavoidable. The past is gone and we are not getting back to put under a microscope. Even the present is difficult to pin down. We only know what we experience or someone tells us, which is pretty much what we know about the past, only through source material and what someone tells us. We are left frequently with only sketchy knowledge about family history. This leads to different families claiming the same individual, each with their own basket of evidence and story. I've learned to accept this as a reality and moreover, I've learned to accept this as being a Good Thing (or at least the best thing we can expect given the nature of reality).

The net it turns out is very good at handling incomplete information as it rapidly emerges and changes from multiple authorities. The applications emerging ont he web are gradually all taking on a similar shape. They all in one way or another incorporate the acceptance of many views. The wiki synthesizes a single view out of the many views of its authors. Social bookmarking (and other social networking) sites allow multiple "truths" to exist within the same space. The social network creates an ecology where authority can develop implicitly, without saying. Most of the social networks incorporate the many views or truths into some kind of aggregate view that is useful, a kind of single view out of many. This represents a democratizing of knowledge, but I hesitate to call it democracy since that is just one particular method for synthesizing a single truth out of many views. Democracy works in a very crude way by voting and we know that voting systems are subject to gaming by malicious people and other flaws. The kinds of systems, wikis, social networks, voting systems used by various collaborative news sites all represent vastly more sophisticated methods of synthesizing a single view out of many than democracy, which is relatively weak and produces a "tyranny of the majority" when not mediated by some system of individual rights.

I was explaining how social networking works to Tom Davenport today in regard to a farm website we are developing. I explained to him how if he had an account on a social bookmarking site, he would for his own benefit maintain and organize his bookmarks online. He would bookmark sites on pork and beef as he does now in Firefox. To do this he would create tags for Pork and Beef, organizing sites about pork and beef under those headings. Because the bookmarks are shared publicly and the tags exposed to to browse and search, a person can click on the Beef tag and discover his bookmarks (among others sharing their bookmarks). That person might click on his user profile to look to see what links he has on Beef. They might find his bookmarks are highly reliable and useful. Therefore, the user would be likely to turn to Tom's bookmarks when looking for accurate information on beef and cattle raising. They would not necessarily even know that Tom is a farmer, but they would discover him as an authority simply by observing the quality of his bookmarks on the topic. Tom Davenport implicitly becomes an authority. He implicitly shares his expertise with others. All without declaring himself a farmer or an expert on anything. Of course, he might mention in his profile he is a farmer; he might link to his farm site and you might have more reason to trust his bookmarks.

I tell this story because it illustrates the acceptance of many truths that lies behind the way the web works today. There may be ten thousand people on a social bookmarking site who think they know something about beef. Each may have a different idea of how to raise beef. Their bookmarks will implicitly reflect their knowledge, experiences and differences of opinion with others. The gestalt of the social network will reflect this diversity. The more accurate providers of bookmarks will become popular, the ones with less accurate bookmarks, reflecting radical, not very useful or very different views will remain less popular. One might object that this creates a kind of stagnation on popularity, but in reality it relates directly to the idea of the "Long Tail" where more people may be accessing the less popular bookmarks more than the popular. So the social network embodies two kinds of authority simultaneously. The authority of popularity and the authority derived from the long tail...the authority of individualism, of the disruptive idea, gives freedom to both kinds of authority and the freedom to move back and forth between the two kinds of authority...for the disruptive idea to start as a seed and grow to an oak, to move from being "indie" knowledge to "popular" knowledge all within the same framework.

It is fascinating that the web reflects this reality by its nature. That a concept coming from an obscure activity like genealogy is moving to the center of intellectual pursuits. That it can create a framework where out of many views a single truth can emerge without denying all the other views. It reminds me of the vast jumble of "junk genes" that we carry along in our DNA from our distant past, which are there because they might just come in handy some day. It reminds me of how organic the web is and utterly incomprehensible within the old framework of bell, book and schoolhouse knowledge it is becoming.

Only something organic can be becoming. And the web is always becoming. Always becoming something. A book is never becoming, it only was or is. Scholarship is locked into this model since the Enlightenment (oops, the E. slipped in there...was hoping not to mention it), what it means to posses knowledge, to share knowledge, to build knowledge and discover the truth is all changing now that we are connected to knowledge on the network. So strangely different than books. I've rambled enough for now and must retreat to the high tower of Brandymore again for the night.

22 April 2007

Social Science and Folklore

The kind of social science work exemplified by Albion's Seed and the kind of work done by folklorists demonstrates the value of vernacular material, the potential usefulness of photographs of ordinary people and places. The scholarship of Albion is based upon two pillars, the first is social statistics and the second is anecdotal. The latter is used to confirm and explore the culture as it existed, such as Byrd's secret diary. The former is used to verify anecdotal and cultural evidence (from the diaries and art of the time). In the eighteenth century photography had yet to be invented. This means that now is the first time we are beginning to use photographic evidence, the documentary tradition, as scholars have used written documents, letters and journals.

The photograph, and recorded visual imagery in general, which includes photography, video and any new technologies in the future, such as 3d visualization, present us with both a documentary record useful collectively to social science and an individual record similar to the anecdotal one of journals. Photographs are both evidence and require interpretation. What is in a photograph we can measure and aggregate into social statistics, what is happening in a photograph is open to interpretation. This is where context becomes important, since we must rely upon the anecdotal written record, upon stories and recounting of events to understand the image. If we fail to record the social context of the photograph or reconstruct it through providing context, we fail to understand the image.

In any event, there is a connection and relationship between social science and folklore, the aggregate and the particular, the evidentiary and the anecdotal that are required and mix together to create a more accurate picture of the past.