My weblog ELECTRON BLUE, which concentrated on science and mathematics, ran from 2004-2008. It is no longer being updated. My current blog, which is more art-related, is here.
Tue, 28 Aug, 2007
SOLITON by Stephen Philips
Dark Duck Records, 2007
Stephen Philips founded the "DarkDuck" label to feature electronic ambient sounds that were too esoteric and abstract even for ordinary ambient listeners. And among the explorers he represents, he is himself the epitome of the Dark Duck sound. Philips, over the years, has created every sort of audio experiment from raucous cacophony to serene nature-inspired sounds to toneless abstractions of white or dark whooshing noise. In "Soliton," his latest release, (a "soliton" is a kind of standing wave in physics) he unleashes a somber fantasy on just a few notes, and an interval of a fifth. Working with a limited palette of metallic electronics and heavily modified sampled sounds, he moves through an ominous world of growling machinery and deep engines, building up an eerie sound journey which could easily accompany a film or videogame set in an industrial underworld.
Stephen Philips belongs to what I would call the "School of Stillstream," a group of ambient creators who connect through an online "radio station," net-based distribution labels, and an online chat group. Stillstream emphasizes live ambient playing, and almost all the "meetings" of the chat group feature an electronic improvisation, available directly to the listeners through Internet live "broadcast." The chat group gives comments and feedback to the improviser. "Soliton" comes from one of these sessions. The entire fifty-minute piece was played and recorded in real-time, and has been released by Philips with no cuts or re-mixing, and only minimal adjustments in tone and volume. Ambient electronic music, helped by continuing advances in synthesizing equipment and software, has come into its own as a performance event as well as a work of studio engineering. Stephen Philips is a fine artist in both modes.
Posted at 1:34 am | link
Mon, 27 Aug, 2007
Topological Baseball Ceramic
It's late August, and in Boston and among the members of Red Sox Nation, there is a feeling of foreboding. It's late August, and the Red Sox are still in first place. Anyone who has lived through one of the Red Sox collapses knows that bad times are ahead. Those of us of a certain age remember the "Boston Massacre" of 1978, when the Red Sox lost four straight games, and a four-game lead, to the dreaded Yankees, also in late August. Today, August 27, the Red Sox play the Yankees in New York. Here comes trouble.
Even after the ecstatic apocalypse of 2004, in which the Red Sox's famous "Curse of the Bambino" seemed to have been broken, Red Sox fans still groan under the weight of history. They, or "we," also are haunted by elaborate superstitions, such as not watching a close game on TV lest we change the outcome, rather like some popular misinterpretations of quantum physics' "observer phenomenon." When I say "we" referring to Boston fans, it is a special "we." When the Sox win a game, "we" won it. When they lose, "we" lost it. "We" are six and a half games in front. "We" could collapse at any minute.
Throughout my life I have been warned by people close to me not to "identify" with any collective or commercial entity to which I might have connections. It's somehow wrong, or stupid, to franchise your individuality and Self to a team, a college, a store, a religion. You are supposed to face the world like a French existentialist (my beret is in the closet waiting for the chill of fall), a bleakly alone self, constructed of self-made decisions made despite knowledge of their meaninglessness, knowing that anything you do, and everything you are, will be wiped away forever by death. I bet there are a lot of existentialists in the seats at Fenway Park, though they might not know that they are. (Hey, ice cream here!) The non-identification rule goes down the tubes when David Ortiz hits a game-winner over the wall. "We won!"
My friends know that I am wild about baseball. Baseball is about summer, which is the only season I really like. I like not only the action on the field but the architecture of the parks, the colorful uniforms, the smell of popcorn and beer, the raucous noise of the crowd and the P.A. system, and the brilliance of the lights. Even if I don't get to a live game at the ballpark, just the drone of the radio or television recounting the game says "summer" and timeless contemplation of, say, Manny Ramirez' runs-batted-in statistics.
My friends look out for me. So when they saw an item in a shop in San Francisco, they knew I should have it. Behold the "Baseball Condiment Dish Set," a unique table accessory.
Note that the baseball dishes (whose diameter is somewhat larger than a real baseball) are resting on a concave ceramic representation of a bat. All that is missing are the munchies for those watching the game. (Hey, peanuts here!) Let us also consider the mathematical aspects of the baseball dishes. They appear to be baseballs divided in half, but as you can see, the stitching and color appear in the interior as well. They are actually representations of baseballs which have been not only halved but inverted to a dish shape, as if the "ball" were an empty balloon which could be deflated and re-molded, leaving its surface intact. Topologically, the spherical original baseball and the baseball dish are equivalent, because they do not have a hole punched in them anywhere.
And so as summer winds down, "our" pitchers wind up, and "we" hope fervently but meaninglessly that this year might bring us victory yet again, by the time I get my existentialist black fall outfit out of the closet in October.
Posted at 3:24 am | link
Tue, 21 Aug, 2007
What to Paint
You'd think I knew by now what I want to draw/paint, or what I should paint/draw, which is not always the same thing. After the success of my local art show (in the fine arts, breaking even is considered a success) I should concentrate on painting interesting and mildly sentimental old buildings and pastoral landscapes. After all, people love them and are willing to pay for pictures of them. But I have done so many kinds of art that I would feel constrained and bored by having to do the same thing all the time.
And yet that's what I see in a lot of artists' output, especially in the "fine arts" world. There are some famous modern artists out there, both alive and dead, who painted more or less the same thing for years and years, and were counted as greats in their field. The twentieth century German artist Josef Albers, whose work I love, and who was (incidentally) a mathematician, got maximum mileage out of nested colorful squares. Mark Rothko, who is even more renowned, also painted lots of color fields which are multiple variations on a theme. This is indubitably Fine Art.
But I've been involved in the commercial art world for most of my career, from fantasy art to book covers to illustration to portraits, architectural rendering, and even tattoo design, let alone all my sign work for Trader Joe's, Starbucks, and other places. I have done signs for commercial establishments of various kinds for at least thirty years. In the late seventies, while based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I designed ads for a friend's "Science Fantasy Bookstore," and in 1979-1980 I did more than a hundred illustrated menu cards and display items for a small local chain of Mexican fast food restaurants, "Paco's Tacos." (There is a "Paco's Tacos" restaurant in Los Angeles, but it has no relation to the ones that were in Boston and Cambridge back in the late seventies.) So I have lots of experience of doing many different types of art for paying clients (who sometimes pay in food and coffee!).
I don't know enough about the fine art world to know whether these fine arts types also take commercial jobs. They seem to gravitate toward a university art department and academia, or teach students at an art school, or do some other non-commercial type of work. Another of my favorite artists, the Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte, did not go into academia, but did advertising art to support himself for much of his career. But I just don't see someone like Mark Rothko doing menu cards for a Mexican restaurant.
I find that I need to do different kinds of art to keep interested. This may be dilettant-ish from a Fine Arts point of view, but makes some sense if I want to sell what I make. I cannot allow unsold artwork to pile up in my dwelling. Art product must be moved out of the studio.
I gave up doing fantasy and science fiction art a few years ago when I realized that no one was buying it, when I brought it to science fiction conventions. After switching to abstractions and architecture, I declared myself a Fine Artist or at least a fine-arts-oriented commercial artist. But now, years later, as I admire the wonderful work of many "concept artists" who work for film, gaming, or entertainment design, I find myself missing my old fantastic worlds. Not just the architecture, but the super-heroes, the knights, the beasts, the spaceships, exploding stars, and colliding galaxies. I am really tempted to go back and do some more of this, but would that be "slumming?" Would that be sinking back into the pop culture gutter, when I had finally climbed out of it by painting geometric abstractions and tasteful houses and landscapes?
My friends and fellow artists tell me, "Just do what you like." Well that is easier said than done. I am not one of those artists who is driven by some profound inner vision to create works of art no matter what happens to them. I expect to communicate to real people and eventually to sell the work. Which means that if I painted "what I like," I might be stuck with it gathering dust in my cluttered apartment. I like painting pictures of sunlit porches, but I can only stand so many of them before I want to depict a steel mill or a fantasy skyscraper, or a super-hero with a glowing aura. But as I found out, that stuff doesn't sell, and you can't show it in a gallery.
I believe that this whole problem is about to be solved, at least for me, in my practice with Photoshop and other artistic and graphics software. The artists whose Websites I currently visit are almost all working in digital format, not with paint on paper or canvas. The more I explore Photoshop and Painter, the more prospects open up for doing my own work in this medium. And the great advantage of working digitally is that even your most complex work doesn't take up any space. It is not a dusty canvas or a stack of drawings. It is recorded on a hard drive or at most on a CD or DVD. I don't intend to completely switch to digital art. My clients and art buyers want a "real" painting, and I like working with traditional media. But it is much easier for me to indulge my craving for lowbrow art in the privacy of the virtual world, where no one can see it and I don't have to sell it. And you won't have to look at it on Electron Blue, where only the Fine Art will appear.
Posted at 3:32 am | link
Wed, 15 Aug, 2007
In certain "enlightened" intellectual circles, it is commonplace to denigrate malls and shopping centers as cesspits of consumerism. A barely concealed snobbism describes these places as gathering places for deluded, credit-addicted, mind-numbed lower middle class Americans who believe that possessions can give you happiness. Do liberal arts professors ever go into a mall? If they do, they'd better be incognito. Malls are full of manipulative artificiality, designed to extract as much cash from the masses as possible. Right?
I love malls. I love going into them and walking through the complex spaces created by storefronts, corners, hallways, and fountains. There have always been malls, but in other more "natural" and presumably less consumeristic countries, they are called Grand Covered Bazaar, or Khan-al-Khalili, the Flea Market, Galleria, or the Souk. In America, our malls are more permanent, cleaner, and more strongly built. Yet the stalls and brick halls of ancient Roman shopping centers still stand, as if ready to open up as soon as the shopkeepers get back.
I buy things in malls, just like everybody else in there, but I also draw in malls. You can't take photographs in a mall, especially now in our Age of Terror. If the security people see you taking a picture, they will ask you to stop. But no one stops you if you draw a picture, because they don't know what you are writing in that notebook. When I go into a mall, I choose a good vantage point, sit myself down on the uncomfortable bench (they don't want shoppers to sit for too long, because they won't circulate and buy stuff) and draw what is in front of me. I see countless subjects for art there. I like to go to the mall on Friday or a weekend, when there are lots of people there. It is a fashion show, a soap opera, a teen romance, a human interest story, or a comedy.
My most recent mall drawing depicted a common sight: middle-aged, patient and resigned husbands, waiting for their womenfolk to come out of the stores. Another common feature are the crowds of teens, dressed in what they consider their best, dashing around the corridors meeting and flirting. I was able to incorporate both in my drawing, though the teens moved too quickly to draw in detail. I like to depict the interaction of people, signage, and architecture. And I don't even have to get out my credit card. I get my drawing for free.
Posted at 3:22 am | link
Sat, 11 Aug, 2007
There hasn't been a lot of action at the Electron for the last week or so, due to unrelated concerns. But I have been paying attention to the math and have had quite enough of trigonometry again, so I am back to reviewing derivatives before I move into the derivatives of trigonometric functions. How to find the derivative of a ratio of polynomials? How to find the derivative of a quadratic function, playing with exponents for fun and profit. Is this fun and profit? I regret that I do not appreciate trigonometry. If I were a "true" mathematician I would find trigonometric identity problems, and all proofs, fascinating.
If I had loads of time, I'd sit and work through trigonometry again and again until I could do it as easily as I read the newspaper in a coffee house. If I really put my efforts into it, I could learn to do trigonometric identity problems easily. I'd cover many sheets of paper with scribbles. But I do not have the time, nor do I have the, uh, preference for it. Spending that kind of time making sure my math is perfect, against increasing resistance, seems a bit perverse to me, a form of masochism, or rather, "math-o-chism."
And yet I know people who will not give up until they have mastered some sort of highly abstract craft, whatever it might be. I know a pianist who insisted that one could learn keyboard technique by obsessively playing scales and arpeggios until he could play them quickly and mistake-free in all keys. And then after that were pre-written, repetitive exercises for the piano by that scourge of old-style piano players, "Hanon," and after that at least some sublime music in the preludes and fugues of Bach. This doesn't necessarily have anything to do with mathematics, but is enacted with a kind of obsessiveness that can often be a trait in mathematicians, musicians, or anyone else who does creative activity.
I can get caught up in that, and it is a trap, because then I won't learn anything new. I remember three years ago how I tried to work through logarithms using the now-archaic method of interpolating readings from logarithmic tables. For what purpose? A calculator would do the same thing in a fraction of a second. I wanted to do the craft perfectly, and I found, to my frustration, that the more I tried, the less accurate and efficient I got. I could do it again with trigonometric identities, but where would I go with calculus? Since none of my mathematical studies has any practical value, why would I try to attain perfection trying to master irrelevant processes? If I find I need to do more with trigonometry, it is always waiting, flattened in its two dimensions between the pages of my books.
Posted at 2:41 am | link
Sat, 04 Aug, 2007
Here it comes again, the round number that means I will deliver a progress report. It has been a few weeks less than a year after the 300th Electron. At that time, August 2006, I was working on first year calculus. I am still doing first year calculus, except that I seem to have been waylaid once more by trigonometry. In 2007 I have worked with derivatives, and the reason for the trig is that the next chapter is about the derivatives of the trigonometric functions.
It has been almost seven years since I received the call from the Pythagorean Divine Spirit to study mathematics and physics. This is not the proper scientific way to describe it. Having seen the great engine of atom-smashing particle reality at Fermilab, I resolved to learn Fermilab's physics in the only true way it can be learned, that is with mathematics. I would do this, even though I was a math-imbecile artist who yearned for math intelligence but had no evidence of it. I had ambitions to learn physics at least to the graduate school level, or enough of it so that I could carry on an intelligent conversation with a physicist and perhaps understand a paper or a lecture.
I have spent the last seven years since then learning the math I never learned in high school or college. I worked through arithmetic, pre-algebra, first and second year algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and logarithms, on my own without a classroom or teacher, learning from old textbooks and from a few friendly mathematicians. I had never taken any physics courses, so I started from the very beginning of Newtonian classical mechanics. I spent 2005 working with theoretical falling objects, projectiles, centripetal force, friction, sliding weights, tension cables, vectors, and the other features of high school physics.
In 2006 I finally began calculus, and that's where I am now, doing derivatives, if I can ever get through my trigonometry review. I guess I've done a lot in seven years, especially since I'm not a student working full-time the way someone in college might be. But there is so much more to learn before I even look upon a particle in the world of higher mathematics.
I am not sure how far I will get in this quest. I used to think that by 2010 or so I might actually get to quantum mechanics, but that doesn't seem likely right now. I didn't know back in 2000 that I would get a day job, even a part time one, which would use up a lot of my time. I also didn't quite realize that I would switch from science fiction and fantasy art to "fine arts" and have gallery shows. And back in 2000 I didn't know that I would be learning how to use digital art programs like Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. Back then I was satisfied with CorelDraw for all my graphics needs. I would be amused back in 2000 by the thought that I switched from PC's to Macintosh for my main computer work. I also had no idea last August that I would trade in my Electron Blue Honda CRV for the Orange Honda Element.
The world of science, for most of those seven years, seemed like some sort of "wizarding world" (as I wrote in Electron 300) where brilliant people did amazing things. Through the excellent and truthful writing of many scientists' weblogs, I have gotten insights into that world from those who participate in it. And it has been, as the journalists say, a sobering view. It continues to be extremely difficult for women in the hard sciences, and the social structures of that world seem to be quite inflexible. It's far from the free-wheeling lifestyles of artists and musicians that I am familiar with. If I had any thoughts of changing career and moving into the sciences, I have been thoroughly disabused of them.
I have gotten most of an answer to my original question, which was, "why aren't there any people who do high-level physics as amateurs?" After all, there are amateur star-gazers and comet-hunters and fossil collectors. There are amateurs who volunteer for biological and geological expeditions. But not particle physics. Why? One reason is that the equipment needed to do particle physics is so complex and enormous that it takes whole corporations' worth of fully committed experts, thousands of people, just to create it and keep it running. It's not like a telescope up on your roof. And the data from these machines can't be processed on your desktop iMac.
Another reason is that in order to produce a competent physicist, there must be a long-term, strong system in place that enables a person to pass through all the learning and tests and experiences and mentoring necessary to create a professional scientific career. The days of rich noblemen experimenting with metals or gravity or chemicals in their private laboratories are gone forever. Not only does it take the right infrastructure of academia and technology, but it also takes a full-time commitment from the human candidate. If you want to be a scientist, you can't be or do anything else while you are learning your trade. Or else, if you do have other activities, such as music (which for some reason many scientists are really good at) you have to be someone of almost super-human energy. They have always impressed me with how much they can get done.
So if I want to learn quantum mechanics or other higher-type physics and mathematics, let alone particle theory or string theory, it becomes harder and harder for me to do it by myself, and would demand more and more of time which I don't have. Like a scientist, I already have something, namely art, which I am trained for and which I keep doing for much of my time, whether commercially or privately. I have already said on many occasions that I am more useful and helpful to the world as a fairly good artist than I would be as a mediocre scientist. It may not be as respectable an occupation as a professor of physics at some institution of higher learning, but it's what I do.
That doesn't mean I am giving up on the whole endeavor. I just have to measure it against what my commitments are at this time in my life. I have a lot of things going on right now and this will continue. I would like to be more efficient in my use of time, but sometimes it doesn't work out that way and I end up reading superficial magazines on my kitchen table instead of working out calculus problems. I try to work on at least one or two math problems each day, with the hope that someday I will get familiar enough with trigonometry to proceed with calculus again. And there's loads more calculus to do, inches of bookbulk left to go through. The calculus that would take a good student a year to do will probably take me three to five years. I will work through it in relativistic time, as if I were approaching the speed of light. Time will slow down, and if I'm lucky enough to ride the light-beam, I'll get where I want to go.
Posted at 3:45 am | link