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 It is no longer being updated.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.

Thu, 31 Jul, 2008

Saint Ignatius Day

Today, July 31, is the saint's day of Saint Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus (better known as the Jesuits). Jesuits have been essential to my Christian spiritual life for almost as long as I have had a Christian spiritual life. It was their friendship, support, and special brand of spirituality that made me a Catholic. One of my best friends is a Jesuit, and I am honored by that friendship.

Ignatius Loyola was a man of his time, the "Renaissance," when the rest of the world was first being explored (and exploited) by Europeans. He had a global perspective on the world, much as we do today. His metaphor of "military" spiritual discipline and project of converting Muslims and indigenous tribes is rejected nowadays, but was the inspiration in times past for thousands of lives dedicated to doing good (rather than slaughter or slavery) in remote places and with remote peoples.

But what impresses me most about Ignatius is that he was a man of stories. That is, he was a "fantasy fan" well before anyone would ever conceive of the term. In his autobiography he writes about how he loved the chivalric romances of his day, including a "sword and sorcery" fiction series starring a heroic blade-swinger called "Amadis of Gaul." After a serious injury, during his convalescence, he asked for fantasy fiction to read while he was confined to bed, and was given Christian lives of the saints instead, which he eventually found even more thrilling than his previous reading. It was these stories (which most modern intellectuals would consider another form of "fantasy fiction") which were part of the inspiration that turned Ignatius from a depressed, crippled ex-soldier into a hero of God.

I believe that much of religion and spirituality is about stories. I don't believe that "fiction" is necessarily "false." I've discussed this before at length (see ELECTRON BLUE, July 2006) but I always like to come back to it. The world has told stories about God and about heroic people ever since the world has had language, from Gilgamesh onward. Saint Ignatius had the courage to do what he did because he had assimilated the stories he read, both about action heroes and saints. As a science fiction and fantasy fan myself, I regard Ignatius as not only one of my own patron saints (whether he would consider me worthy of that patronage or not is another question) but the patron saint of fantasy fans, gamers, and other dreamers whose heroic quests exist only on paper or screens. You never know where Amadis of Gaul might lead you.

Posted at 7:32 pm | link

Mon, 28 Jul, 2008

Learning the Limits Again

There was a discontinuity in my math studies during year 2007, for various reasons, but in 2008 I have been once again working on math though not as much as before. I did a review of basic trigonometry, which I needed, and having found that I could manage at least the simpler trigonometric identity problems, I could return to calculus.

One of the most useful books for me is "Calculus for Dummies" by Mark Ryan. I also have the companion "Calculus Workbook for Dummies." I am not a dummy and in fact these books are not at all made for "dummies." What they do is explain in more detail, and with more worked out problems, what the teacher doesn't have the time to do. Or if you are not in a class at all, as with me, the book is the only teacher I have (unless I try to reach one of my Friendly Mathematicians, all of whom live in different cities from me).

Much of first year calculus is, as other students have told me, lots of heavy-duty algebra. I was fascinated and relieved to learn some basic algebra processes from the book, that I never learned in my own studies, such as how to remove fractions from the numerator of an expression. There are some basic calculus "identities" that the book presents which were not all discussed in my previous textbook, which also weighed about twice as much as "Calculus for Dummies." This does not mean that the "Dummies" book is lightweight.

I am back in the land of limits, those calculus essentials which occur everywhere, even in real life. In mathematics, they are safely graphed on paper rather than expanding into the three-dimensional world of traffic. Are calculus limits also aesthetic limits? It is possible for a person in the arts to have such demanding, high, and elite standards for a work of art, that nothing can ever be done nowadays that would be worthy of the name of "art." This equation of perfection can never be satisfied, and a working artist must then toil under a sense of perpetual inadequacy when faced with the unyielding graphed standard. But adopting this mathematical attitude to aesthetic work is like finding that place in some functions where the output hits a discontinuity. The graphed line loses itself in "positive" or "negative" infinity, an abyss which defeats any purpose, any understanding, and any possibility of progress.

Posted at 2:56 am | link

Thu, 24 Jul, 2008

Summer Pastorale

I have been spending what I call "Country Saturdays" driving around the Northern Virginia area looking for landscapes that I can photograph or paint. I don't drive too far because these are only one-day trips and I don't want to use too much expensive gas. This last Saturday I went out to Fauquier County, which is in the foothills of the Shenandoah Valley. It is horse and wine country. You will find large estates with mansions, and wineries, many of them offering wine tastings. I thought of moving there some years ago, before I got my job in the city, but I couldn't find a dwelling that was right for me.

Fauquier, to my delight, has set aside some of its land for "easements," where no "development" is allowed to take place. They want to preserve its rural atmosphere. This is a countryside dominated by the very rich, so as long as their money and their taste for "country" living (drinking chilled Virginia white wine on their deck) has influence, the land will continue to look beautiful. If I were rich, I'd have a house here too.

As with all pastoral art, the landscape is "manufactured." Photography is no exception. The power to shape the image is the user behind the lens. The meadow and the trees may be real, but they are placed by artifice, as much as any office building or parking lot. They just are a lot more pleasing to a serenity-seeking city person like me. I love summer so much that I want to keep it with me all year: misty hills, green meadows, forest edges, chirping birds, the rumble of distant thunder. I managed to capture this image from a moment's snapshot. It looks ever so calm, even furnished with the appropriate herd of cattle, but traffic was whizzing by me at high speeds while I took the picture at the roadside. That's all right … all I need is the image, the memory, and a sip of white Virginia wine.

Posted at 3:38 am | link

Tue, 22 Jul, 2008

Classical Virtual Realism

As some of my art friends know, I've been working on a self-guided program to really learn how to draw the human figure. Drawing people has always been my weak spot as an artist, and the only proper way to learn to draw people is to go to life class and draw from the live model, time and time again, as much as you can. But the logistics of my life here in the big city make it difficult for me, as I would have to drive to an art school, find parking, and be walking outside after dark. And it would also cost money which I don't have, to pay for live classes.

So I have taken to drawing figures from model picture books. There are many of these, including newer ones for artists just like me who need models to draw from. There are also model photo Websites like this one which feature loads of well-posed nude and clothed models, though in order to use most of the site's pictures and resources, you have to pay a fairly large (for an artist) subscription fee. I haven't tried it, but it may be worth it.

What I do is select a picture from one of my model books and pretend I am looking at a live posed model. I start with a rough sketch just as I would in a life class, except it is rather small because it has to fit on a sketchbook page, which is then scanned for my records or for further Photoshop work. If I want to, I then refine the rough sketch and make it sharper and more defined. I work in pencil, because it's the easiest medium to use, and I can also erase it. I am not sure whether you are supposed to erase when doing life drawing, but I do it anyway.

What I then have is a virtual figure drawing. By the standards of "classical realism," as put forth by the various neoconservatives in the art world (such as these guys), it is not real drawing because I am not working against the challenges of a time-limited model pose, it's not something three-dimensional but a two-dimensional "flat" photograph, and I'm not drawing on the traditional large-format newsprint with charcoal, or pastel paper with chalks. I am using the spawn of the machine devil, that wicked contraption the computer with the equally wicked magical spell of Photoshop. But I believe I am finally learning to draw a human figure that does not look like a building.

Posted at 2:37 am | link

Tue, 15 Jul, 2008

Learning is not fun for me

I often hear people say to me that they just love learning new things. They love to go to classes or workshops where in a friendly atmosphere they learn to do various crafts or skills, or foreign languages or customs. These same people ask me, why don't you go learn your math or physics in a class at a community college or something of that sort. And they are always shocked when I tell them why I won't go.

For them, learning is fun. For me, it's torment. You'd think now, that can't possibly be true. After all, didn't I do brilliantly at least in my undergraduate years? Aren't I just so smart and all? How could I hate learning? Well, I don't hate the concept of learning something, but I hate the process. Learning anything, for me, feels like having something carved into my flesh with an X-Acto knife. I will learn it only because it leaves scars.

That's ridiculous, right? How could I hate learning when you find it so much fun? And if it's so painful, why do I do it? Have I always hated it? The answer is yes, from elementary school on. I have always hated being in class in a group of other people, having to sit still, and having to follow a teacher far away from me writing something incomprehensible on a blackboard. I have no hearing impairment, but I find it hard to follow the voice from across the room. I am quickly left behind in any classroom situation. Not only that, I am a poor reader and have a lot of trouble following any text. My friends read a book in a week, which would take me months to read.

Then follows the humiliation. I have never learned anything without some level of humiliation and indignity. It is never joyful to realize how little I know about what I want to learn. And it's always maddening to encounter people (of the learning-fun variety) who assault me with well-meaning lessons in their specialty which leave me behind in the first sentence. There are also the geeky types who like to overwhelm me with how much they know, to prove their superiority.

Then why do I bother to learn new things? Sometimes, I'm just plain curious and curiosity overwhelms my fear and revulsion. I want to know something enough so that I'm willing to endure the pain and suffering which brings me the knowledge. My studies of the Zoroastrian religion fit into this category.

Another reason I learn despite the pain is practical: I need the skill to earn more money or to do a job related to my art work. I spent most of 2007 learning Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop for this reason. I minimized the pain by working from books, at my own pace. The same is true with my current struggles to learn how to draw human figures. I am learning to draw from photographs of models, without having to endure art classes and the complicated logistics of getting myself to an art study venue.

Sometimes I learn something because I want to gain the status that a specific knowledge brings. This is one of the reasons why I have been studying mathematics. I view someone who knows mathematics and physics as higher in intellectual and social status, and simply more powerful, than someone who does not know these things. If knowledge brings status and power, I'm willing to put up with some pain to get it.

I have never questioned why learning is painful for me until recently. I just assumed that it was part of the package. But some friends, hearing me say this, recommended some self-help books related to a trendy modern malady, "adult attention-deficit disorder." Since this is hard to diagnose, and in some opinions doesn't even exist, I have not thought about it previously. But when I read the descriptions relating to learning, reading, and being in the classroom, as well as in the workplace, I was astonished how closely the descriptions fit me. I have always suspected that I had some form of mild learning disability, for why would I struggle so hard to learn simple things? Why would I be so frustrated even though I was "bright?"

One of the books which I found enlightening is DRIVEN TO DISTRACTION by Hallowell and Ratey. This book talks about the syndrome as it appears in both children and adults. They also give a useful set of steps to cope with it and overcome its effects. Interestingly, the authors say that American culture, especially as it is now with its overwhelming amount of speed and stimuli, can cause "attention-deficit" and sensory overload even in normal people. So I am not alone in being driven crazy by ordinary life here in the big city.

I continue learning stuff despite the suffering it causes. I try to create situations where it is least painful. If I go really slowly and break my assignments up into small pieces (as the book recommends) it is easier for me. I can do a little bit at a time: one drawing, one photoshop layer, one math problem. I'm hoping that even with ADD it ADDs up.

Posted at 4:25 am | link

Fri, 04 Jul, 2008

A Fountainhead of Fireworks

This is my American essay, though I am staying clear of politics according to my rules for the Electron. It's about something which every literary and artistic person without exception, has contempt for, but I don't. I'm not talking about flag pins on lapels. It's about Ayn Rand and her books, which have inspired me ever since I was in high school.

Every few years I return to Rand's two big works, THE FOUNTAINHEAD and ATLAS SHRUGGED. This year I have been re-reading parts of FOUNTAINHEAD. I do this periodically not only to re-connect with what inspired me in the past, but to see what new things I can find in myself and in the text. I have also been doing a lot of web explorations about architecture in general, and looking at the way architects (or, as the clever term has it, "starchitects") design, work, and advertise their achievements.

Any architect will tell you that Rand's book totally misrepresents the profession and process of architecture. And at the same time, architects in America are constantly teased by Rand's popular portrayal of what an architect is like. The standard behavior is to dismiss Rand's architect as a romanticized absurdity, a world away from the busy group process of real architecture, which leaves no room for "rock stars" with big egos. Current architecture (other than superstars like Frank Gehry or Rem Koolhaas) also has no room for individual vision and achievement, which seems to be, from what I have gathered, no longer possible.

OK, architects (no architect is reading this, never mind), I know that for you guys Rand is a campy embarrassment that you wish you never heard about again. But for me, sitting here in my studio, she's a reason to go on working and making art. Rand herself was more concerned with what she often called the "sense of life" evoked by a literary work, rather than realistic details or characters. And what she wants for her sense is, for me, quintessentially American.

Rand came to this country from Communist Russia, re-named herself with a "strong" name, and went about doing what people do best in America: invent and re-invent themselves. She worked in the movies, which were the most powerful engine of imagination in the pre-Internet twentieth century. She brought her stylized cinematic devices to her written texts, creating "camera angles" and posing her characters with words, not pictures. In a way, Rand's work for me is more of a "graphic novel" without pictures, rather than a "literary" book. If it weren't for very severe copyright restrictions, I would have already attempted to adapt some of Rand to a graphic novel format.

And that's the way I look at the Architect Hero. Standing there in the sunlight, wind blowing through his carrot-top hair (she gave her architect hero Howard Roark the requisite heroic red hair) looking proudly at the gleaming skyscraper rising into the air, the building he designed. Ignore the campy or phallic references. Take it seriously for once. If you are an artist of any kind, are you condemned by the modern world of mediocrity to turn out nice pretty little things which customers like? Or are you condemned by the modern world of all irony all the time to turn out nasty little things which are designed to disturb, shock, but ultimately entertain your circle of jaded urban hipsters?

What if you wanted to create something which wasn't ironic, which was about freedom, individuality, standing up for yourself, making a better world? What if you wanted to create what Rand admired in the music of Tschaikowsky and Rachmaninoff, (and, in my mind, Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland as well) a grand gesture as bright and visible and lofty as a firework burst, something that said not only "Here I am," but "Here is what I stand for!" And even, sometimes, "This is my country at its best." This sentimental desire is considered childish and vulgar, just as Rand's writing is. But what if there were something to it? Do I need to feel guilty if I wished that I could make that grand gesture, or at least try for it? There are skyscrapers made of electrons and photons, waiting for me in Photoshop.

Posted at 4:31 am | link

Tue, 01 Jul, 2008

Invisible Bird by Gregg Plummer, album review

Gregg Plummer, based in arty San Francisco, has been making ambient music for more than a decade. Most of what I've heard of his is seriously moody, much more for contemplation than any kind of driving action. His new album, "Invisible Bird," which is self-published, is definitely in the meditative mood category. "Invisible Bird" consists of ten medium-length (5 to 7 minutes long) sound picture pieces, each with an enigmatic abstract title that reveals little.

Plummer, at least in this album, does not stray beyond tonality. He builds his pieces from major and modal harmonies, with a couple of the tracks settling into pentatonic sequences. He can build a piece from just a few notes, which would qualify him as a "minimalist," but his textures are lush enough to amplify the minimal harmonies into a larger statement. In this he is similar to Tim Story, and this album does indeed remind me of Story's heartbroken style, especially the last track, "Goodbye for Now." Plummer may be one of the few composers I know who can evoke a sad mood with a major key. Like Tim Story, there is an implied narrative in these quiet, slow image-pieces, but the composer isn't telling you what it is.

In the later tracks, Plummer explores a more spacey atmosphere, including the lovely nebula-lighted Track 8, "Dreams and Visions," which would not be out of place in a planetarium. As for that "Invisible Bird," the title track (number 9) is the chilliest piece on the album. There isn't a lot of scary material on this CD, unlike the disturbing "They Await" on his previous album VAST. In fact, Plummer in a communication to his listeners has said that he removed an extremely scary piece from "Invisible" because it didn't fit. And he was right to do that. A quiet track is much more in keeping with the wan and wistful mood of this set. There's no clue for us listeners as to what the "Invisible Bird" might mean, though the equally minimal graphics for his album include a smudgey photograph of what might be a dove, with a single word: "Peace." It may or may not be a comment on the state of the world today.

You can listen to samples from this album online, and buy it if you like it, here.
And you can visit Gregg Plummer's website here.

Posted at 3:01 am | link

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