Monday, May 29, 2006

dreams and memory

i had a nice little dream last night. It was very simple; all that happened was that I was walking past a garden, saw a place that I recognized from my childhood, and put it back to rights.

It was one of those special little places where a kid might have hidden or played without anyone noticing. In this case, it was a small patch of dirt under a bush near a garden wall. In the dream, I had a very vivid memory of how I used to play there, and how there used to be a small cup made of turned stone that I would place in a certain spot.

I stopped as I walked by, and it seemed wrong that the cup was not in its place. Searching the grounds, I saw that the cup was nearby and half-covered by dirt. I went into the garden, unearthed the cup, brushed it off, and put it back in its proper spot.


The interesting thing about this dream was a certain quality of the memory. I don't know if you're like me, but I often have a similar experience when I visit old haunts. These little secret spots just jump out at me. I never remember them until I see them, and then all the little idiosyncrasies come out. I remember what each knot on a tree means, which bush was King Kong, and which one was home base. These little spots are just packed with personal meanings.

The place in my dream was like that. But because I found the spot in a dream, I find myself thinking, "it's not real", even though it feels more like a real childhood memory than a dream. So today I'm idly pondering the differences between "real" memory, dreaming, and the memories created in dreams.

Was the place I came across last night a 'real' childhood memory manifesting in a dream? Was it the rediscovery of a place where I had dreamed before? Or was the dream just the sensation of being surprised by 'memory'? What would be the difference?

If every elements in a dream comes from memory composites, is it the same with childhood imaginings? Does every childhood meaning come from an earlier memory association? When the second bush in the row became King Kong to me, I must have known about King Kong. And I must have wanted to represent King Kong some way in my daily life. This makes sense to me.

But more than clarify what last night's dream was (beyond a conglomeration of memories, dreamed derivatives of those memories, and my own dreaming and waking associations), it only redirects my questioning.

This dream highlights a particular class of meaning that dreams share with the wandering imaginings of childhood. It's a kind of meaning that is highly personal, and which doesn't reason well. It is the space where toys have living personalities, where "four" is not "two plus two", but a calm intelligent friend who moves slowly - maybe like an elephant.

The adult world has an odd prejudice against these meanings. The common analogy here is the cobweb - these remnants of childhood meanings must be cleared away. It was just like that this morning - like waking from childhood into adulthood. And this morning as I got up and focused on the tasks of the day, I dispersed the invisible touch that allowed a stone cup to keep its soul.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

pics and thoughts from the Maker Faire

babyface2.JPG Note: some other posts (and updates) related to this project are from Dec 09, Oct 07, and Oct 05.

hey. It's been about a month since the Maker Faire, and I wanted to show some peeps new iterations of the back-lit carvings I've started doing, so I thought I'd finally post this. check it out.

The rest of this post I'm going to talk about what I've learned from doing this. The questions to answer: What's going on here mentally for the viewer? What have I learned about materials? What have I learned about images? What's next?

Sitting at a booth and explaining this over and over again made me really think about what's going on here in the mind of the viewer. Why is it interesting at all?

As far as I can think right now, there are four elements that confuse the viewer and make the effect surprising.
  1. apparent vs. real light source,
  2. reflected vs. transmitted light,
  3. topographical sculpture vs. light-image, and
  4. angle-specific legibility
1. More than a photographic print or a projected image, this technique brings your awareness to the way light creates the image. You see it, you know it's back-lit, so you think the light source you are supposed to interpret is behind the surface. It's as if you expect a silhouette. This conflicts with the impression of a different distinct light source in the image. So, for example, the face above looks lit from the left, though it's actually lit from behind.

2. Another way there's a bit of a mental bender here is that you know that you're seeing transmitted light passing through a translucent material, but the experience of the image above is that you're seeing reflected light bouncing off opaque skin.

babyface-w-hand.JPG3. You know you're seeing a topographical surface rather than a simple projection, so your mind is constantly flipping back and forth between seeing the topographical surface and the image the light creates.

4. The specific topography of the image also creates some serious distortion when viewing the image off-angle. Viewed off-angle, the image is almost unreadable. It becomes even more so when it's un-lit or projected on a curved or off-angle surface. The experience of walking by the object is really nice for Halloween because you can't really understand the object until you pass the precise angle at which the image is legible. There's a surprise factor when the image suddenly pops out at you.

These four factors combined create an experience of cognitive dissonance. It was kind of fun sitting at the booth and watching people react to the baby face. From a distance the image looked like a simple projection. But when close, the mind starts to reach for other explanations of what the object is. Watching the faces of the viewers was interesting - lots of knotted brows, blinking, and "whoa" expressions. It's almost like it makes you dizzy.

Speaking of cognitive dissonance, it was really surprising how many people entered the room and said, "I can really smell the pumpkin in here!" It seems that the mental cue of "carved fruit lit from within," made everyone think that the smell was pumpkin. There was a strong smell in the room from the heated watermelon, but it was clearly a watermelon smell once you were able to get past the idea of a jack-o-lantern. When I pointed out to people that there was no pumpkin, they were pretty surprised by that too.

Ah, the human brain; how we are creatures of habit.


okay, so that's about as much as I've thought through what makes this technique interesting. For the Maker Faire, I put most of my effort into trying new materials. Though I only ended up showing stuff in styrofoam and watermelon, I tried some other things which aren't ready to show yet.

So far, pumpkin is still the best material to work with, except for the rotting factor. I definitely had the best range of shadows working in pumpkin. The styrofoam had a good gradient and was easy to work with, but there's no point where it becomes completely opaque, so you never get a real black.

Pumpkin naturally has a skin on it, so you can get pretty decent blacks when it's back-lit. It also has a pretty dense flesh, so even after you take off the first layer of skin, you've still got a pretty dark shade to work with.

Watermelon, on the other hand, has a very translucent flesh and rind. As soon as you remove the skin of the watermelon, you get a very hot spot of light. If I went down to a small-wick candle for the back-light, I may have had more range in the shadows, but I wouldn't have been able to display in the low-light conditions I had; I would have needed a pitch dark room. In the end I had to work most of the darker areas on the watermelon just by scratching the surface of the skin. Just scratching the surface meant that the depth of the carving was lost and so the interesting distortions when viewing off-angle were also lost. sad. Conclusion: watermelon is delicious but annoying. Perhaps cantaloupe would work better.

To imitate the pumpkin skin, I thought about skinning the front of the styrofoam with spray paint, but I ended up not doing it. I prefer the idea of solid materials to layering. To me, the cool thing is that the image is created from the carving depth, not by line drawing or outline painting.

Here are my recommendations for picking a material:
  1. Start by determining the level of light you're going to have at your display.
  2. This determines the strength of light you'll need for your back-light,
  3. And that determines the thickness you need of your material for it to be fully opaque in front of your back-light.
  4. At this point, pick a semi-transparent material that can be near opaque at a reasonable thickness in front of your back-light. An opaque skin on the front may be helpful.

I fielded a lot of questions about image selection at the Makers Faire, and what follows is the best advice I've been able to come up with.
  • use images that have strong directional lighting. You may have more than one source of directional lighting, but very diffuse light is not good. Stronger gradients are better. Camera-mounted flash-photography is bad.
  • something that needs very fine detail for it's impact makes the carving very tedious - so avoid extreme subtlety in expression if you're doing portraiture.
  • make sure you're picking an image where the light source in the image has an interesting interplay with the back-lighting. So don't pick a silhouette, or something front lit. it should be off-angle lighting to emphasize the cognitive dissonance i talked about earlier.
for the rest of the intstructions, you can still check the instructables site.


Where to go from here?

Well, one thing that should be clear from the images I've carved so far is that I've been paying a lot more attention to materials, mental processes, and the light characteristics of the images than I have been paying attention to the content of the image.

I need to give that some thought. I seem to like portraiture, which isn't a bad thing for this...

I also haven't yet given enough thought to how the reflectivity of the front surface of the material could interplay with the translucence coming from the back-light. My next plan is for some reflective carvings instead of doing them back-lit. I think I'm going to stick with portraiture, but I'm going to try to put more effort into making the content work.



Saturday, May 27, 2006

an ent.

that's right. an ENT. I'm talking about lord of the rings here folks.

last weekend, I made a little surprise for my aunt sallie. she's really into having carved bears, trolls, kittens, kitch, etc, scattered all over her house. She collects masks, and I've made her a couple over the years (i gave her my halloween mask from last year...), so this was right up her alley.

anyhow, don't tell her yet, because I want it to be a surprise, but last weekend I finished the driftwood sculpture that I started earlier in the spring. I had told her that I would carve her a face for one of the trees around her cabin at Bear Valley (near Arnold, CA), and now it's done. I think it turned out just about as well as this sort of thing can.

My goal was to use the natural shapes of the driftwood, and so it was mostly about finding the right pieces and then removing the excess. My first time working with both driftwood and chain-saws. Fun!

The Ent for Aunt Sallie

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Aatcon B Michels must die.

Tonight I am faced with a heavy decision. For the last four years I have been receiving credit offers and other assorted junk mail addressed to:

Aatcon Michels
I have no idea how this got started. My best guess is that a scanning character recognition technology mistook an "R" for a "tc".

Born of a bureaucracy that did not record the date of his birth, I believe Aatcon is now nearing four years old, although he does not appear as a child. It seems that Aatcon sprang into the world a fully formed 25 year-old male made entirely of information.

There's very little that I know about Aatcon, but from what I can tell, he and I are identical in nearly every respect. He is my double. During a previous check of my credit report, I discovered that Aatcon had registered himself as my official alias. I didn't chose my alias. He chose me. He has the same credit score, the same social security number, the same address. When I move, so does Aatcon. I know this because I get his junk mail. As soon as I update my address, Aatcon follows suit - harmless enough.

The only differences that I am aware of between myself and Aatcon are the name difference (clearly), a difference in corporeal form (I believe he lacks form entirely), and - this is the strangest of all - he seems to get consistently better credit card offers than I do.

From any given mass mailing, your average American will get one piece of junk mail. Aatcon and I - together - we get two. And rarely does my offer match Aatcon's. If I get an offer of 2.99% APR (good for the next six months) with 3% balance transfer fee not less than $5 and not more than $50, Aatcon gets an offer of a 0% APR (good for the next 15 months) with no balance transfer fees.

Sometimes I wonder about this. What do banks see in Aatcon that they don't see in me? Don't we have the same credit-bureaucratic identity, except for our names?

This is why the difference in our credit card offers is so much more confusing. If he shares my credit history, shouldn't we get identical offers? I wonder if Chase Bank simply finds aliases more trustworthy.

I find it difficult to believe that Aatcon has gained his superiority through positive action of his own. As far as I know, he doesn't do anything except get junk mail. Supposedly he lives with me and shares my credit cards, but I see no evidence that he does anything at all. If he had an IRA, or had paid off his educational loans faster than I have, I think I would know.

So, this leads me to believe that Aatcon has gained his superior credit through inaction. There may be things that I have done that make me seem to be more of a financial risk than Aatcon. But what information could banks have?

If, during my life, I've done something wrong enough to blemish my credit - if there's a file out there speaking badly of me - I'm betting it's got the name "Aaron Michels" on it. That file has probably never even heard of Aatcon.

Maybe the banks know that "Aaron Michels" was picked up during a police sweep at a protest in DC in 2000. Or that I was a member of an anti-capitalist organization, heavily surveilled. Does that count against me, while Aatcon gets off scot-free?

Am I grasping at straws here? Why else would I be treated differently from Aatcon? What does he have that I don't?

Could this be a case of anti-corporeal profiling? It may be a bit early for this allegation, but I'm starting to think that banks have an unspoken bias against physical beings. In this case it seems clear that Aatcon, a being of purely bureaucratic origins, is getting preferential treatment when compared to an identical being (me) whose only deficiency is that he also exists outside of the realm of the credit agency database.

Imagine how I feel when I open my credit offer, and then I see Aatcon's offer. It's terrible! Chase Bank, your prejudice reflects badly on you and on all banks. This is the 21st Century. Judge me based on my credit score, not because I have skin!

This brings me to the decision I must make. Tonight I checked my annual free credit report again. What I see surprises me. I see that Aatcon has taken over.

At first Aatcon was my alias, and I didn't turn him away. I didn't report an error on my credit report and have him offed. I saw that he was behaving responsibly - there were no unexplainable accounts on the report, no expenses I had not authorized. No harm, no foul. Live and let live.

Although I wouldn't say that Aatcon and I were tight, I thought we were building a relationship. I even enjoyed seeing the odd piece of junk mail made out to him. "Ha Ha", I would think to myself, "good ol' Aatcon". And now I discover this. According to Equifax we are now registered as:
Name: Aatcon B. Michels
Social Security Number: XXX-XX-XXXX
Age or Date of Birth: July 3, 1977
Formerly known as: Aaron B. Michels
It seems that Aatcon has chosen to escalate. He's even changed my birthday.

I cannot tolerate being "formerly known as". My decision is this: If Aatcon wants war, it's war he'll get.

Aatcon - if you are listening - you have made a grave miscalculation. It's true, you can hurt me. You can steal hours - even days or weeks - of my life. Those hours will be eaten by the grinding bureaucracy of the credit bureaus, and I am willing to make that sacrifice. But this is a war you cannot win. You cannot touch the meat of me, whereas I can enter your world, trap you, hunt you like an animal.

What options do you have? If you devastate my credit, you only hurt yourself. If you eliminate me from the credit bureau's records, claim that data line as your own, declare yourself king - what are you king of? Without me, your realm in the database is meaningless. There will be no further bank accounts opened. You will never get your IRA. You will waste away, become a shadow of yourself, a shadow of myself.

Once, you were a shadow that I loved. You were a companion. An emissary from the land of bureaucracy. We had good times together. You were pure, raw, innocent information - a shining example of the creative power of papers, information processing, and minimal oversight. You gave slavishly anonymous processes a name, an absurdly beautiful name. You lived. And I loved you.

But today you have forced my hand. Do not forget that it is your arrogance and greed that has started this war. Once I have begun, I will enlist the bureaucracy that created you, and with whom do you think they will side?

Your mother and father are amoral. Human parents would protect their offspring, but your parents will not. Credit card offers may show that in good times the bureaucracy favors you over me, but it will not be enough to save you. Your creators will eradicate you without a second thought. And in a flat tone, vaguely reminiscent of the humanity they mimic, they will apologize to me for the inconvenience.

war reporting below

REPORT 1 - Aatcon 2 : Aaron 0

The first battles appear to be won by Aatcon. My "free online credit report" session expired. It seems I only had one free view per year at Equifax. Arrr. I may have to go the paper route with "Privacy Guard" materials.

It also appears that I have been locked out of the TransUnion website. They claim that I have a previous account, but I cannot find a record of this account in my email archives. My file-keeping wiles appear to be no match for an entity born of mis-handled paperwork! I must dig deep if I hope to prevail.

REPORT 2 - Aatcon still on top.

I have been unable to retrieve my TransUnion password by verifying "other details" about my identity. This is a clear case where I have been too smart for my own good. One way I try to avoid spam is that I have many email addresses that I only give out once. All these accounts then forward to my main account. This way, I can track which services sold my address and I can individually block addresses that collect spam. But, in this case, when I have to log back into a particular account (that I thought I'd only use once, perhaps), my spam-blocking technique can bite me in the ass.

To verify my identity, I need certain "other details". First, there's name. Another is email address, another zip code, and finally, there's birthday. It seems pretty simple. But when I do the math, it turns out not to be so simple.

First, the variable of the name. I don't know if TransUnion has been infiltrated yet. Should I say that I'm "Aaron Michels" or should I pose as Aatcon? This brings up the possibility of a rather odd scenario. If I sneak into my TransUnion account posing as Aatcon, how do I then justify eliminating that identity?

Me: "Hello, I am Aatcon. You must now help me. Aatcon does not exist, he is in error."
Customer Support: "You don't exist, sir? And who is in error?"

The second hurdle, and the biggest one - I can't remember which email address I might have given to a "TransUnion, TrueCredit, or a TrueCredit partner", and I don't have any records to help me. I could sit here trying variations. I'd probably hit the right one sometime within my first twenty tries. Next, I've got the problem of zip code. In the last four years I've used 4 different zip codes. Which one is it? Finally, should I input my birthday? Or Aatcon's?

All of these variables compile to create 320 possible combinations. An easy task to try them all if you are made of pure information, or are a hacking program, but an infuriating task if you are a human made of flesh.

Aatcon, you are proving to be a worthy opponent. I am on your turf, and I know it. You may have the upper hand now, but I will bring this war to you. Your evasive maneuvers can only hold out for so long. Remember, I still have the option of doing this by phone and paper, realms over which you hold considerably less sway.

Patience is a virtue. I will wait until dawn, and the hours of customer support. Surely they can flush my lost email address from the bushes.

REPORT 3 - Are the tides turning?

Recent battles have been more mixed. TransUnion did flush out my email address. An old one from 2003, it seems. By evening I should have access to the TransUnion account.

Experian informs me that they are unable to flank Aatcon until the bureaucracy that created him has been scuttled. They were able to give me only one lead. Apparently an account mysteriously named "RBS NB CC" had some involvement in bringing Aatcon into this world. Who are you, RBS NB CC? Who are you working for?

Searches for RBS NB CC turned up nothing. Searches for the address (the only other data I have for them) turned up: a medical malpractice attorney, a litigation attorney, and the FBI. They all list 1000 Lafayette Blvd. as their address, but two of them list suite numbers attached to 1000 Lafayette Blvd. The FBI? Suite numbers? Is RBS NB CC a suiteless entity in an office block? Is Aatcon a creation of the FBI? In 2003 I was anti-war organizing...

But no. Looking further down the google list I see... a small bank that I've never heard of. This is probably the culprit. Their phone system says they'll be on a four day weekend.

Stalling won't help you, Aatcon.

REPORT 5 - June 4th.
Well, maybe stalling did help. It's been some time since I've posted a war update, and though the tides had seemed to be turning in my favor, there's one variable that I didn't take into account. I have myriad responsibilities that Aatcon does not seem to share. Preparations for my wedding have stretched my war resources thin. Although I'm assuming Aatcon may also be getting married, I don't see him doing any work for it.

It seems that being a corporeal being has drawbacks that I didn't anticipate. While Aatcon actually does very little else than infiltrate my accounts, I am devoted to many other activities than simply rooting him out. Meanwhile, I continue to receive Aatcon's mail. Maliciously, I shred it.

When I am done, there will be no record Aatcon ever lived. No songs sung, no single credit document with his name. Complete annihilation. This declaration of war will be the only remaining mention. History is a one-sided affair, I'm afraid.

UPDATE: November 2006

UPDATE: March 2007

Monday, May 08, 2006

vegetarianism, Peter Singer

I've always said that I'm vegetarian more for environmental reasons than for "animal-rights" reasons. Mostly I had thought about vegetarianism as a way to reduce the size of my ecological footprint. Getting protein from higher on the food chain is inherently less efficient (40-120 times less efficient, depending on the animal and the way it was raised, according to the numbers I've seen).

Reading an interview with Peter Singer in Salon this morning, I came across these additional interesting figures on vegetarianism and oil consumption. Although a part of the ecological footprint concept includes oil consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, I hadn't seen the vegetarian argument distilled into a greenhouse gas interpretation... nice.
Second factoid [from Singer's new book, "The Way We Eat"]: 284 gallons of oil go into fattening a 1,250-pound cow for slaughter?

That's a figure from David Pimentel, a Cornell ecologist. The fossil fuel goes into the fertilizer used to fertilize these acres of grain, which are then harvested and processed and transported to the cattle for feed. We get back, at most, 10 percent of the food value of the grain that we put into the cattle. So we are just skimming this concentrated product off the top of a mountain of grain into which all this fossil fuel has gone.

So even if we all started driving Priuses we'd still have these cows to worry about.

Yes. In fact, there's a University of Chicago study that shows that if you switch from driving an American car to driving a Prius, you'll cut your carbon-dioxide emissions by one ton per year. But if you switch from a typical U.S. diet, about 28 percent of which comes from animal sources, to a vegan diet with the same number of calories, you'll cut your carbon-dioxide emissions by nearly 1.5 tons per year.

Thursday, May 04, 2006


hey yalls.

i meant to post some pitchurs from the Makers Faire. it was a lot of fun. I just got back from St. Louis, and now I'm headed to this event near LA and to see my new first cousin once removed. I'll post about both when I get back.