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