Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Alleyways and Interstitials

I have been thinking about Interstitial Infrastructure: those hidden, undocumented architectures of the physical and/or virtual worlds, not necessarily temporary or permanent, but that don't fit within the predetermined social framework: like makeshift clotheslines, suspended between high-rise apartment buildings, draped with colorful articles of clothing, unforeseen and unanticipated by urban planners or governmental officials; like shanty towns of ad hoc shelters, arising on land otherwise undesired; like cars parked on empty lots and bare fields in the urban metropolis, sporting hand-lettered "For Sale" signs, the artifacts of a makeshift, interstitial economy; like flea markets and garage sales, sprouting up in areas not originally intended for public commerce, with haphazard, makeshift advertising signs, fashioned from cardboard boxes, weighed down in the medians of nearby intersections by bricks and stones. Artifacts, all of these examples, of things otherwise hidden and indistinct, the Dark Matter of the social metropolis that reveals invisible fissures in an otherwise flawless facade.

I was walking through an alleyway in an older, well-established part of town, behind a strip of established businesses, and happened upon, high up on the worn brickwork, the half-faded detritus of an old painted sign, partially obscured, left over from decades ago like archaeological evidence of a previous civilization, whose passing is measured not in centuries but in cycles of economic ebb and flow. The few words I could make out indicated some radio or television shop. But, given the street address, would I be able to Google the history of this building's past business occupants? No; these businesses faded into the dustbin of history long before the internet's arrival. Instead, one would need to peruse the dog-eared pages of old City Directories in the local public library for a clue about this long-since-faded local history, whose intrinsic value may lie only within the passionate concern of the archivist, in an age when intrinsic value is meaningless, the concept of worth being measured only by consumer marketability or political expediency.

In an age when it is assumed everything is documented and Googleable, it comes as a surprise that many things aren't, in fact, Googleable. I wonder if the presumption of Googleability itself is a fundamental mistake we too easily fall into, and in whose wake are left countless unrecorded stories of lives left lost. It is as if the internet remains merely a sieve between whose skeins countless minutiae are left undisturbed, uncounted, unfiltered; lost. We may never know, unless we dust off and rebuild those once vital but now fallow mechanisms of local and personal history-making.

Alleyways themselves are interstitial, and long since obsolete. Housing developers have long ago abandoned the alleyway as a waste of subdivision real estate, and local municipalities have reinforced these tendencies by moving the function of waste collection, once hidden from public view in the alleyway behind one's residence, boldly onto the front curb, overtly proclaiming these once mundane, modest and private activities, like toilet stalls absent the modesty that comes from a door of privacy, a Panopticon-like compromise for the sake of efficiency and expediency. Private vehicles used to be parked in garages behind one's residence, out of sight, accessed by alleyway, a carryover from the even more ancient carriage house of the pre-automobile era, rendering the streetside of one's residence more pedestrian accessible and aesthetically pleasing. But since alleys have been dispensed with, suburbs are now blighted by the detritus of countless automobiles crowding driveways, curbsides, even front yards, the fact punctuated by the recent phenomenon of adult children remaining in, or returning to, their childhood nests; the after-effects of economic devastation and expediency-driven urban planning.

We can grasp the real hidden cost of riddance, when the interstitial, these intermediary fissures between the overt structures of society, have been efficiently and effectively put out, there being nowhere else for the once hidden to remain hidden. Organic growth happens through fissures in the existing matrix, ever expanding and widening, offering space from which new growth can fill in and expand. Interestingly, any attempts at the covering over or elimination of the interstitial, rather than removing all possibility of further organic growth, results in unforeseen, unpredictable consequences. Parasitic economies, seemingly devoid of self-sustenance, paradoxically remain, even thrive, in times of social or economic unrest. These parasitic neural and limbic systems seem inextricably intertwined with their feeder economies, waxing and waning along with the flux of growth and death in the local economy, their social impact uncounted, undetermined, unknowable. These often are manifested in the black markets of sex, stolen property and illicit drugs. The tendency for organic growth remains implicit, like weeds sprouting from between slabs of concrete, their presence intrinsic, but unplanned and unwanted.

There is this concept, documented in William Gibson's new novel "Zero History," referring to a person who has no traceable background, who remains unGoogleable. He posits the question of what it will take, in the near future, to remain unGoogleable. I suspect some of my older relatives might be unGoogleable; they have no direct internet presence or email account. There is the possibility they might exist in some local governmental records website, and the certainty that they exist in Social Security, IRS and insurance databases; but whether this constitutes having an internet presence is debatable. These are the denizens of Information Alleyways (in contrast to the Information Superhighway), the interstitials within which the hidden remains unseen.

Gibson postulates that, like Dark Matter in the observable universe, up to 90% may remain unseen, whether in Information Alleyways or "Darknets," those hidden recesses of the internet that officially don't exist, maintained by both governments and private interests, that remain removed from public scrutiny, the inverse of Democracy in the Information Age.

Our personal participation in the public square of the internet presents a dichotomy: on the one hand, excess openness on social networking sites opens up the possibility of one's private information to exploit, while on the other hand having one's private information secretly held only within governmental-corporate data bases, outside of our direct knowledge or scrutiny, sustains a background level of uncertainty and fear. Both end up having a similar affect upon our psyche, in that we feel our lives are out of our control and exploitable by unseen or hidden forces. What many of us are sensing, but cannot express in concrete language, is that we are desiring of the need for purpose-built interstitials, alleyways through which the private or mundane can proceed, hidden from public scrutiny, while the public front yards of our virtual and real persona are neat, orderly and aesthetically pleasing. This is the intrinsic benefit of ensuring the sustainability of personal privacy, in an age when individuals are cultivated from birth to death as a fertile source of information for the benefit of, and consumption by, governmental-corporate interests, a kind of meta information farming. Our hidden desire is that such information farming be conducted as organically and sustainably as possible.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Signal from Noise

"Necklace", digital pinhole image from Lumix G1 at ISO2000 using pinhole body cap

The sound of the wind, whistling through trees and around obstacles, to some of us comes to resemble the voices of people, distant and mysterious, a strange accompaniment of unwanted companionship.

There is in this interstitial region between random chaos and ordered regularity a synthesis of both noise and information, like subatomic particles popping in and out of existence within the strong gravitational field of a black hole; order from disorder, information from noise, something out of nothing. Magic.

Sometimes I can perceive of it, barely on the edge of consciousness, late at night, with the fan quietly running across the small distance of my room, with one ear covered by a pillow and the other barely picking out the fan's quiet whisper from the background of neural chaos, the signals and noise mixing and processing into something that comes to resemble a proto-voice, not distinct enough to clearly discern spoken words from, but possessing the resonance and timbre of a human-like intonation.

It is like the experience of reclining on a sunny day and gazing up at the clouds, making out shapes and forms from one's imagination. We seem to have this uncanny ability, us humans, to anthropomorphize inanimate forms into the shapes and textures of the human persona. We see faces in trees, animals in clouds, hear voices in the distant wind. We turn noise into signal, something out of nothing. Alchemy.

There are those among us who are more adept at the discerning of voices and the seeing of faces than the rest of us. We call them prophets, seers, visionaries, artists or madmen. They raise our consciousness, adding to the genetic pool of cultural awareness in a manner that the rationalist logician can never do.

Life is ordered, in contrast to some random mix of proteins and molecules. Somehow, we find that the highly ordered structures of living systems, being innately different from mere random collections of the same types of molecules and elements from which they are made, possess the rigor of an information system. We wonder, marvel even, at the miracle that is biological life, the complexity of multiple interconnected systems that pass energy, matter and information back and forth. Could it be that such order could have arisen from disorder, that noise could have crossed over that magical boundary that seperates the ordered from the disorderly and have become information, the stuff of life?

As a child, I used to gaze up at the ceiling in my bedroom, which was covered with a heavy texture of plaster, and make out shapes of all kinds. Many of these shapes became familiar enough to me that I could repeatedly make them out again and again, locate them with ease, like hidden works of art that only I was privileged enough to see. These were the fruit of an active imagination that, coupled with a field of semi-random patterns, became a fertile ground for the art of concocting harmony from disharmony.

I have long appreciated disorder and noise in photographic imagery. I am as much attracted to the emulsive granularity of a fast black and white film as I am to the tack-sharp vibrancy of a highly ordered color image. I like it when shapes and forms are barely distinguishable from the background noise, or focus is purposefully softened and indistinct, lacking the sharpness of line of the sophisticated optic. It is for this reason that I have enjoyed the pursuit of pinhole photography, and also the genre of the gritty, grainy street photo. Order from chaos, structure from formlessness, something out of nothing. It reminds me that we live constantly on the cusp, on the interstitial between the orderliness of our expectations and the unpredictable reality of life on a wild and havoc-filled world. The ideal future that we wish to create for ourselves is in reality as indistinct as are the fleeting glimpses of substance we discern from the everyday chaos that surround us.

More recently, we have substituted the mathematically ordered array of pixels for the random distribution of silver halides, suspended within a clear film support, as the primary technology of image-making. Yet the sea-change to digital photography has not eliminated the element of randomness and noise from photographic imagery. Such noise is still in evidence; although its appearance may be slightly altered, the underlying haze of quantum electron noise is as real as are the apparitions within those images that we recognize as the forms and faces of our friends and family. Noise, disinformation, continues to accompany us (as much social and political as physical); it seems as inevitable as the rising or setting of the sun that our ordered tesselations of pixelated images would continue to produce a haze of random noise, yet there it remains, like a distant echo from long ago when the world was but young.

Like sand being squeezed through the fingers of an ever-tightening grip, we are frought with dismay over the calamaties that seem to fall all around us, when word is brought of drought and disease and famine and holocaust, of social upheaval and war, exploitation and brutality. These come as dark surprises in the night of our youth, the unexpected something we thought somehow had been made obsolete, only now to remind us of our ever-present vulnerability within this world, encompassed on all sides and in all dimensions through and through with the curse of random chaos, like some darkness released long ago from Pandora's box. We come to realize that the very fabric of our existence is a precious pattern of harmony, woven in a thread of noise and random chaos, that lies in back of everything, and which on ocassion makes itself visible.

(Posted via AlphaSmart Neo)

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

The Ride Less Travelled

(8"x10" box camera paper negative, 240mm Fujinon Xerox lens stopped down to 3mm aperture)

Today I took a motorcycle ride, early in the morning, with the intention of just riding, not really planning any specific route or destination, just to enjoy the cool morning air and freedom of the road.

My motorcycle is not your typical breed. The usual bike is either of a sport-oriented design with powerful inline engine, short wheelbase and racing suspension, or a heavy V-twin cruiser bike, like a Harley or one of its many Japanese derivatives, with a more laid back riding position, but less sophisticated braking and suspension. While the Harleys are legendary, their belt drive and air-cooled engines, combined with premium price, don't attract me. I'm more of a loner, looking for something the usual person wouldn't consider. This is true in cameras as well as many other aspects of my life.

I started motorcycling later in life than the typical rider. I didn't ride a dirt bike as a kid, for instance; although I did a lot of bicycling, there's only so much skill that transfers to the engine-driven variety. So I started off with an Italian motorscooter, the 49cc variety that doesn't require a motorcycle license endorsement. I learned the basics of riding this way, even commuting 30 miles round trip per day on the little dude, and learned to ride comfortably and alert in heavy traffic (a task that remains uncomfortable to many motorcyclists).

Several years later, the limitations of the little motorscooter got the better of me (I couldn't ride out of town, or on faster roads), and I therefore attended the Motorcycle Rider's Safety Course, and soon afterwards bought an entry-level sport bike. The motorscooter began to collect dust, and I eventually sold it off (which I've subsequently regretted).

Several years later I began to get bored with my ride, and was looking for something different. I looked into sidecars, but then began to get interested in trikes. I eventually found a local shop that does trike conversions, and that's where I found my present ride. It's a Lehman conversion of a mid-1990's Suzuki Intruder 800, an older Japanese water-cooled, shaft-driven cruiser bike. By trike standards it's small, and doesn't have the smoothness and creature comforts of a triked-out Honda Goldwing, for instance. But it was affordable. Think older cruiser bike with three wheels.

For storage I looked around and found an aluminum toolbox that I converted into a trunk box, and bolted to the back luggage rack. I repositioned the rear turn-signal lights to the back of the box for better visibility. And that's about it.

It's a different ride; other bikers ask me about it, wondering if I'm somehow physically (or mentally) handicapped, why not a two-wheeler. There's this unspoken stigma of being a trike rider, like you've got to be handicapped, ailing or elderly to justify one. In actual practice, more upper arm strength is required to ride a trike than a two-wheeler, since you can't use counter-steer and weight shifting to induce a turn; and riding twisty, bumpy mountain roads is more of a challenge, requiring more riding skill. For instance, the rear axle conforms to the contour of the road, sometimes causing side-to-side motions that cause the chassis to lean in the opposite direction from that required to safely complete the turn one has already committed to (i.e. you're in a sharp left turn on a high mountain road and the right wheel dips into a road depression, causing the body to lean right, fighting your turn). And you're constantly adjusting for the crown of the road, shifting your weight off the center of the seat and inducing a steering bias in the opposite direction, like an airplane crabbing into a sidewind, something a two-wheeler never thinks about.

But I've also been in situations where having three wheels instead of two has been a blessing, like suddenly rounding a bend in the road and a crew is tearing up the road and you're forced to ride on the gravel shoulder, or the asphalt has been ground down to a rough macadam that causes your front wheel to drift uncomfortably back and forth while your handlebars are vibrating with a bone-jarring staccato, or you find yourself on the interstate highway in 50 mph gusty crosswinds. It is not only times like these that I'm glad I have a trike, but also that I've been able to take my grandson for rides, something I (and his parents) would have been much less keen on with a two-wheeler. I've told him on numerous occasions (enough so that I honestly think he now believes it) that he's a real lucky kid to have been riding on the back of a motorcycle since age seven or so.

I arose early this morning (preparing my body clock for a return to my work schedule tomorrow morning), rolled the trike out to the driveway and gave it a good washing. After drying it, I geared up and went for my ride. As I stated earlier, I didn't have any planned agenda, but there's a usual route I like to take, especially nice on a cool, late summer's morning with the sun peaking over the Sandia mountains through a smattering of high clouds, the cold air drifting down from the higher country from the night before, the day promising rain later on. It feels like neither summer or winter, spring or fall, sunny or cloudy, only cool and comfortable, like a pleasant dream before some inevitably rude awakening. I rode up to Tramway, then proceeded north along the mountain's foothills, and curved west, heading down to the Rio Grande valley, from which I could see the entire city and surrounding desert vista, and distant mountain ranges, all laid out in a dramatic panorama, the cool morning air enveloping me in a cocoon of comfort. I rode up through the Sandia Reservation, past tree-lined fields of hay and alfalfa, past herds of grazing cattle. I decided I was heading to breakfast at the Range Cafe in Bernalillo, but got there only to find that they didn't open till 9am. So back down the same road I went, past the cool, verdant fields, through the north valley of Albuquerque, then into downtown, heading up Central Avenue - the old Route 66 - to end up at my usual breakfast haunt at Winning Coffee.

I had the good sense, prior to heading out, to bring the AlphaSmart Neo and a novel to read ("Lowboy", by John Wray), but was uncertain whether I should have taken my writer's bag with fountain pen and notebook instead. No matter; the method isn't as important as the fact that I can sit at breakfast and write, the trike parked outside, ready for my return. Around the university district near UNM the traffic police are constantly writing tickets to parking meter violators; motorcycles, however, are exempt.

There are times in the year when one is glad they are not on a motorcycle. Like in a torrential summer's downpour, or a wintry blizzard. But for the rest of the year motorcycling is a uniquely pleasant experience. One rides along country roads past fields alternately cultivated and fallow, the subtle temperature and humidity differences between the two signaled by strikingly obvious variations in sensation, one moment cool and moist, the next moment hot and dry, only to be followed by cool and moist once more. You notice these things on a bike that you don't in a car, even with the windows rolled down. You can smell the breakfast burritos cooking as you ride past a little north valley eatery. You can smell fresh roast brewing as you ride past a local coffee shop. This time of year you can smell the almost-marijuana-like aroma of freshly roasting green chiles smouldering in the cool morning air. You can also smell the truck ahead of you is burning oil (not all the smells are pleasant, but that's life). Riding a bike, one feels immersed in the environment, part of the landscape, not merely watching it float by as if on a cinematic screen, caged in steel and plastic.

The day is beginning to warm up, and my coffee cup is empty. Time to saddle up. It's going to be a good day.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Relieving the Typecast Logjam

"Bouquet" - 8"x10" paper negative image

What I've been doing instead of typecasting is, along with writing on my Alphasmart Neo, cobbling together a box camera that shoots images from adapted and homemade optics onto 8"x10" photo paper. This has actually been an ongoing project for the last year; each month or so I make progress on some feature of the camera. Last month I completed a months-long design and build of a homemade mechanical shutter.

The Mechanical Shutter in Action

The Fujinon Lens

This week I adapted a Fujinon Xerox 240mm F/4.5 lens into this camera, which now gives me a choice of three lenses to use, in addition to a pinhole aperture. The top image is a quick still-life that I exposed in my garage, using a crumpled white painter's cloth as backdrop. Unfortunately, due to the design of this lens (although it is of very high optical quality) it cannot be stopped down to smaller apertures like I do with my other adapted lenses, by fixing an aperture plate to the front element. No, this lens design requires an internal aperture, between the lens elements, unless severe vignetting in the corners is desired. I am therefore given the unforseen restriction of using this lens wide open, which limits the use to scenes whose illumination is sufficiently dim to warrant the use of my simple mechanical shutter or hand-operated guillotine shutter for >1 second exposure times.

In the meantime, the last few months I've typed a few pieces onto index cards using my Underwood Universal, which have subsequently been gathering dust in a little pile on my desk. It is high time, I think, that these get dispersed amongst the Typecast-o-sphere-ians at large. It is with this in mind that I submit, for your approval, the bulk of this summer's typecast logjam.


As Seen Printed

A Note From


Why Not