Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Prognostications, Ahoy!

Whitby.  We've heard of the place, on the coast of Yorkshire, home of the madhouse in Dracula, the place with the lightning, the cemetery; the scene of that great Gothic battle against evil.  One imagines it a dreary place, lashed with wind and weather, with dark clouds clinging to the rocky shores.

But Whitby is actually somewhat of a tourist place, and always has been; a place for the people of northern Yorkshire to go to the seaside, an old fishing port (where Captain Cook learned his trade), connected to the North York Moors, where from Georgian times until the present, people go to walk and look.  And Whitby jet, mined there since Roman times, was very popular among the Victorians.

George Merryweather was a doctor living in Whitby, an honorary curator of the Whitby Philosophical Society in the mid-19th century.  His habit of inventing things, so common among the people of the day, led to his invention of the Platina Lamp, a long-burning light source:

"In a communication from George Merryweather, Esq. to Professor Jameson, dated Edinburgh March 5th, 1831, it is proposed to extend the aphlogistic platina lamp, by constructing the body of the lamp, of tin large enough to contain a quart or more of alcohol.  This will be sufficient to keep the platina in a state of constant ignition for thirteen or fourteen days and nights.  Such a lamp, while entirely devoid of glare, affords sufficient light to shew the face of a watch in the dark of night.  ... if it be connected with an unfailing reservoir of alcohol, the lamp may be ignited for years.  The spongy platina does not appear to be, in the least, deteriorated by being kept in a state of constant ignition."

-- The American Journal of Science and Arts, Volume 20, under "Miscellanies"

 However, the thing which Mr. Merryweather became truly famous for was his "Atmospheric, Electromagnetic Telegraph, conducted by Animal Instinct," or, more shortly, his Tempest Prognosticator," which he built for the Great Exhibition of 1851.  It is a beautiful structure, with a bell at the top designed to look like the dome at St. Pauls.  Around the bottom are placed a dozen glass bottles; threading from tiny hammers around the edge of the bell are threads, which connect to a piece of whalebone just inside the neck of each bottle.  Inside each bottle is poured an inch of rainwater and then -- oh happy home! -- each bottle is occupied by a leech.  A common, ordinary surgical leech.

Being a doctor, Merryweather had observed that medical leeches responded to barometric pressure or electrical charge in the air, or whatever it is that allows smaller animals to know when bad weather is afoot.  The leeches' response was to climb -- probably a good response for water-dwelling creatures just before a rain, so that they don't get washed away.  So when Merryweather's leeches climbed to the top of the bottle, they nudged the piece of whalebone, which caused the string to move and ring the bell.  It's not clear, but it appears that the more the bell rang before a storm, the worse the weather to come.

Interestingly, Merryweather knew that his observations would come under question.  He set up a system, using the incredibly efficient postal system of the day, wherein he would post a letter to Henry Belcher, President of the Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society whenever his Prognosticator gave him warning of an impending storm.  Because the postal system delivered mail several times a day, the letters were postmarked with both date and time, proving that he had predicted the storm before it happened.  He did this for all of 1850, and his Prognosticator was surprisingly effective.

The thing that is interesting to me about this invention, which few people actually talk about, is the way in which Mr. Merryweather was working to span that growing gap between the natural world and the newly-ascendant scientific world, using "instinct" as an accurate gauge for something as practical as weather-prediction.  Interestingly, however, meteorology was a very appropriate battleground for this clash, as the scientific method did not always work so well with the chaotic ways that weather systems worked:

"…Faced with problems in constructing meteorological knowledge from the weight of precision observation, meteorologists turned their attention towards kinds of knowledge that stood outside conventional methods and instruments, however extensively situated, however precise and continuous.  The reputation of popular weather wisdom explained how meteorology persistently remained a key site for attacks on the dogmatism of scientific culture, and it forced meteorologists to consider the problem of evidence that seemed to escape the forms of number, weight, and measure." 
-- Predicting the Weather: Victorians and the Science of Meteorology, by Katharine Anderson

In other words, meterologists couldn't simply get by predicting whether people would die at sea based on simple measurements; they had to rely, in some part, on other things they found to be true:

"Eccentric as it may appear, the Tempest Prognosticator embodied widely shared assumptions about forms of knowledge, instruments, and meteorological science.  Its plausibility was based on two key perceptions: first, the precision and infallibility of sensations; and second, the importance of instruments to modern knowledge.  Both are crucial for understanding the relationship of weather wisdom and scientific meteorology.  The complex instinctive behavior of some "lower" forms of life modeled a natural form of automatic precision."
 -- Katharine Anderson, above

I had never really thought before how much the battleground between accepted wisdom/magic and science was fought to a much later date in meteorology, but it makes sense: for, if there's one thing Chaos Theory and satellite technology have taught us, it's that weather is a fickle, far-ranging thing, and telling sailors whether to go risk their lives merely on a barometer is something no one is completely comfortable doing.  Anyone attempting to predict the weather, even today, is likely to come under criticism and even scorn when their predictions appear to be caged in ambivalence; so Merryweather must have thought he was onto something wonderful.  He even tried to convince meterologists that his leeches could be hooked up to a telegraph system, with a minimum of difference in design; but not surprisingly, they did not take the bait.  They already had their feet set on a road in which animal instinct was discounted, and would continue to be discounted, until the late 20th century.

(The Tempest Prognosticator is now kept at the Whitby Museum)

Read more about the Prognosticator

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Dragon Hunters

By pure accident tonight, I watched Dragon Hunters, an animated French movie for kids which was released in America in 2008 with English voices, most notably that of Forest Whitaker as the hugely muscled, sweetly earnest Lian-Chu.

Based on a French TV series which I'd never heard of, the movie is a 3-dimensionalized story about two men, friends from their days in an orphanage, who work as dragon hunters, along with Hector, their blue... dog? dragon? rabbit?. Gwizdo, the unscrupulous brains of the outfit, is a fine foil for Lian-Chu's stolidly heroic personality, and though they never seem to get the money they need, they have each other. Their quest in life is to make enough money to retire to a little farm, where they will grow -- "sheep," puts in Lian-Chu, whenever it comes up: Lian-Chu is an avid knitter.

The two are discovered by Zoë, a young girl who lives in a vast castle with her blind dragon-hunter knight uncle, who doesn't appreciate her. She dreams of becoming a knight and dragon-hunter, and has left home to find knights who can help her uncle kill the "world gobbler" dragon who is coming, as it comes every twenty years, to wreak distruction and disaster.

This sounds like a normal fantasy, similar to many animated features churned out by Hollywood. Believe me, it's not. The art direction, the scenery, and even the premise is actually totally unique. The landscapes are an amazing fiddle of physics, requiring conceptual leaps which are both disorienting and wonderful, because they live in a floating world, made up of fragments of land which float and move, but nevertheless have their own gravity. Moving through this space consists, often, of stepping from chunk to chunk of ground which either floats near you by accident or is held in place by roots or other debris. The opening scene, where Lian Chu is trying to kill a slug-like dragon which drags him around and around a variety of little ball-like floating planetoids, scraping off the vegetation which takes to the air, floating all around them -- this is like nothing Hollywood would make. The whole thing has a non-American flavor, from the weirdness of the world to the odd details of character and humor.

It's these details that are wonderful, funny and awe-inspiring and vivid, like when Hector, in the middle of an action sequence, pulls a booger out of his nose, and in the next shot wipes it, unnoticed, on Gwizdo's sleeve. Or the passing moment when Zoe comes out from behind a pillar, pulling up her pants. Or when, as they come closer to the end of the world, they encounter the wreckage of some past civilization, looking like Prambanan and Palmyra, all taken apart and floating everywhere, filling space with lost chunks. Or the calendar Zoë's uncle makes to predict when the World Gobbler will return, which gives the inspiration for some of the best credits I've ever seen, full of awesome little clockwork devices that appeal to the deepest part of my clockpunk soul. The details fill out the movie, taking it out of the realm of mere kid's adventure and putting it up with Carl Barks' duck comics or the best of the Asterix books, an endlessly repeatable classic.

Oh, and did I mention the music? I noticed gamelon-ish music going by, as well as some sort of arabesque mix, and I believe there was a Cure song in there somewhere; quite a collection, and very un-Disney.

It was so engaging, so awesomely mind-bending and beautiful in its production, that I found myself looking around for more by the same people. But it seems to be a combined effort of several French cartoon directors and writers, and what they've done before is mostly for TV. However, make note of Guillaume Ivernel, who did the really beautiful backgrounds for the Dragon Hunters TV show and was the art director as well as co-director for the movie with Arthur Qwak, the creator of the series. So the luminous anti-gravitational universe through which the characters walk -- and which gives the whole thing its surreal style -- is his doing, though the original concept came from Qwak. It's clear that they had a blast doing this movie, and though it may be a one-off, one can't help hoping for more.

More details about the movie here.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Mechanics for Pure Aesthetics

As it turns out, I just signed the contract for my novel, Songs for a Machine Age, which will come out next November from Hadley Rille Books. This is a good thing, a nice thing, and it makes me happy.

However, in the process of all this, I've been having to think where the premise for this book comes from. Like all things such as this, there are layers of influence; and my love of the 18th century and its pointless, beautiful machines, created solely for the pleasure of their existence, has been around so long that I can't put a finger on it; but I think the place where I can start for the influences of this book came from a robotics class I took for educators.

It began with training us how to use the robotics kit that we were being given, in the hopes (I think) that we would buy it and use it and it would become the Next Big Thing. The people teaching us were deeply involved in First Robotics, a big, expensive robotics competition for high school students. They started the workshop with how to build things, how to use the tools at hand, and how the various available parts worked. We all built the same thing, a little remote-controlled car, and experimented with the various parts.

My experimentation was to put two large wheels and two small wheels on my car, the sizes being diagonal to each other, so the car could not ever have four wheels on the ground at once. This meant that when I changed directions, the car would rock back and forth in a very interesting way. I wanted to build a tower on top with moving parts so that the moving bits would sway or swing as the car rocked.

However, the robotics people thought I was odd. They went on to do a series of task-based design assignments; we were supposed to find creative ways to pick something up and move it to a targeted area, or follow a line, or push a ball somewhere without losing it.

I came away from this event totally fascinated with the difference between their way of thinking and my own. I wanted to do robotics so I could build interesting things that were beautiful and could move; they thought robotics were about, well, industry. Building a car. Moving a thing from here to there.


The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that machines, in our modern world, are all about tasks, about work, about doing things for us. They are our slaves, our brawn, extensions of us; but they don't do the fun stuff. They do the work. We give them assigned tasks. They were birthed from the can-do attitude of the 19th century, not the Cartesian ideals of the 18th century. Instead of "how can we reproduce, or enlarge upon, the miracles of nature," it was "how can we increase our productivity so that we might subjugate nature, overcome the laws of physics, and make things easier for ourselves?"

What happened to the idea that machines might be agents of miracle? True, computers and their ilk do many miraculous tasks, and enrich our lives with music, video and the like; but we are still listening to and watching canned people, not enjoying the machines for the sake of themselves. We are not looking at the idealistic side of it; we are simply wanting good bandwidth. One of the only places in common culture where the workings of the machine are considered, are prized, is in the world of robotics. And in robotics, at least in the traditional venues, they care mainly for tasks.


Except for Burning Man, and Maker Faire, and, in its purest form, Steampunk. Except for some areas of the art world. In other words, people who like to make stuff, and arty people who like to find out how things work. People who like their machinery tactile, silly, creative. Why should we only purchase goods made in factories? Why shouldn't we create our own devices? Why shouldn't we hack the manufactured goods and turn them into something beautiful and divine and oh-so-ours? Bring the beauty back into our lives?

Automaton Caterpillar, probably by Henri Maillardet

Before I wrote Songs for a Machine Age, I hadn't thought clearly about all of this. What I actually said to myself was, I want to write about a place where the only machines in the whole culture (with a very few exceptions, like flour mills) are entirely aesthetic. A place where machines are honored, admired, and used only for the celebration of religious festivals. I began to write Neddeth's Bed, to find out what that place was like, and as it progressed, I began to think more deeply about this place: how did the culture get this way? Did they just naturally not think of the practical applications of machines? Or did something happen in their history?

What if, for example, the Industrial Revolution never happened? Or, even better, what if something went so awry with the Industrial Revolution that a country rose up against it and threw out the whole idea of manufacturing, reshaping their culture to be entirely based around making things with one's own two hands? And what if the need for technology, for cool devices and complex machinery is regulated by a class of people who were educated entirely for the purpose of making beautiful machines, who are experts on the bad old days -- drilled in the horrors of manufacturing -- so that it won't happen again?

I still haven't finished Neddeth's Bed. Songs for a Machine Age came from the questions I had while writing Neddeth, and grew into a fun adventure novel, with all of the above questions as background. But the layers of understanding, like so many things, went on from there, and now I'm working on the next layer down, the reason why their revolution happened. What could possibly change a culture so much? I had to find out, so I am writing it; and it is definitely not a fun adventure novel. So if you need me, I'll be in the basement, peeling the onion of my world -- and rooting around in all the machine-parts.

...and... if you want to see some machines that distinctly remind me of some of the Festival Devices I imagined in Songs, check these out:

Such amazing attention to detail! Seriously, it's extraordinary how every tiny piece of these devices are carefully crafted. Just exactly like I imagine the devices in the book. Now if this artist only made things that were ambulatory...!

More on U-Ram Choe

Odd bonus: Interesting blog post about Descartes and automata.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Visualizing Depression, Happiness as Esprit d'Escalier

You can always tell what state my mind is in by the state of my house. I am not really bipolar, but I do swing back and forth in energy levels; sometimes it's clean (more rarely than I would like), more often it swings between the clutter of doing lots of things, and the clutter of neglect.

Sometimes, the clutter of neglect happens because I'm not home much, or I have too many commitments. Other times, it acquires a patina of depression. This is when things get bad -- the place doesn't smell right; the dust bunnies are mingling too much with the stuff; there are too many things on the floor; everything is collecting dust. That same pair of little girl leggings has been in that same place for two weeks. None of the chairs are sit-able with all the things piling up, and the plants need water.

Depression, for some people, is a familiar place, a landmark, some scenery you thought you had left, but now find yourself back in almost without knowing it. In my particular scenario, there is a big black hole that I have to stay away from. It has a certain gravitational pull, and if you simply march thoughtlessly ahead, you will fall into it. Once inside, the whole paradigm is geared toward "DOWN" and like the Red Queen, you have to run as fast as you can just to stay at the level you find yourself. My sister-in-law says it's like an ant-lion's hole, with the loose sand, so that no matter how hard you claw your way out, the terrain underfoot just keeps shifting out from under you, sliding you back.

It's easiest simply to steer clear of the hole than to get out once you've moved over that edge. I know where the hole is, and I know the surrounding countryside well enough that I recognize the signposts to stay away from. There are things that push me toward it, but there are also things which carry me away from it: by consciously thinking positive thoughts when it looms, I can change the countryside I walk through -- just a bit, but enough. Like a compass needle pulled toward the North, my thoughts veer toward the hole if I'm close enough, but unlike a compass, I can, with effort, wrench those thoughts off to a different direction -- and by doing so, find myself in a completely different country.

Weirdly, pasting a smile on my face often helps; the smile becomes a real one disturbingly quickly. I'd heard from someone that the act of smiling in itself can help you feel better, and it does. Which says all kinds of things, like those people I can't stand, who smile all the time, may in fact actually feel good about themselves. Or that Americans have crummy lives, because they smile so much to stay sane.

Other ways people think about depression: I have one friend who says her world becomes two-dimensional, like nothing has any substance anymore. It's all just cheap cardboard cutouts of reality, and all the people she knows, all her friends and family, have lost their depth. The world becomes shallow and lusterless.

For me, I become slow. I labor along, and I'm never able to accomplish anything: the day simply goes past before I can get there. I wind down like a film coming to a halt, and lose the ability to get enthusiastic. Food doesn't taste good, so I eat a lot of it to try to make up for the lack of interest by trying again and again. Sleep is unsatisfying, so I do more of it if I can.

Another friend of mine is absolutely the opposite: she says depression winds her up. She gets tense, buzzes around uselessly, doesn't accomplish anything because she's rattling apart. She snaps at everyone, and can't concentrate on anything. And she can't sleep.

Someone else described it this way: it's like a thickening veil between you and everyone/everything else, and you can't reach through it. Sort of like a cataract of the soul, isolating you and making it hard to see where you're going, what you're doing, why you're even doing it.

All of these descriptions have an element of the world moving away, becoming distant, of reaching out and not being able to touch anything or feel it touch you. When things are really bad there is this desire to make it all stop: the reaching, the isolation, the inability to communicate across vast distances. Sometimes there is the sense that it's all your fault, that you have isolated yourself, or that others have turned away because you are a bad person. It's hard to live with, and it's hard to live with yourself. The whole thing becomes exhausting. You find yourself just wishing you could wink out, be gone, stop.

"It was as if what I wanted to kill wasn’t in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, and a whole lot harder to get at." –Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Elizabeth Wurtzel said, "I start to think there really is no cure for depression, that happiness is an ongoing battle, and I wonder if it isn't one I'll have to fight for as long as I live. I wonder if it's worth it." Which is an interesting point. Because what are the gauges by which we measure happiness? How do you know if you've won the battle, if you're getting the happiness you've been fighting for?

The truth is, we don't know until it's past. "A long and happy life" is something people often say in eulogies, in biographies; but did the person with the "happy" life actually know they were having it, while they were having it? Or is that something you can only judge in hindsight? Is the "long" part of that statement mandatory for the "happy" part to be assured?

An interesting study came out recently that compares satisfaction and happiness levels. For example, people with children are generally less happy than people without children; however their satisfaction levels tend to run higher. What is the difference between satisfaction and happiness? Unfortunately, I got this information third hand, so I don't know what the creators of the study call happiness, or what they call satisfaction. But I think it's actually an interesting point to consider.

I suppose I would say happiness consists of moving unobstructedly through the world, of being able to take those moments that are beautiful and really wring some enjoyment out of them -- notice them as they go by. It is a matter of being. You are happy; your happiness is a state of being. In the case of the person who has had a "long and happy" life, that happiness may be an artifact of hindsight, of perspective: only when you get far enough away from it do you realize that all that -- that hurdy gurdy and running around and having meltdowns and tears and holding each other close and kissing your child's head -- that held all the ingredients of happiness. But, for most of us, I think we don't know it's happiness nine-tenths of the time.

Satisfaction, on the other hand, is about doing. You get satisfaction from the things you do. When your life is satisfying, there is the sense of a job well done, a completion, a feeling that you have done well. You look at your child and see someone well-read and capable and vivacious and you feel that you did the best you could. Your garden is full of flowers; you grow tomatoes and you knit sweaters and you work hard at your job. These are all good things, and honestly, satisfaction is an important emotion to have.

The thing, I think, is not to allow yourself happiness as a reward for satisfaction. The doing of things has, I think, ruined many of our lives, because we don't allow any cracks for the happiness to get in. If there are no pauses, the happiness can't slip in on us unawares. Those moments of quiet, that happiness, they need nourishing; and if the doing of things balloons outward to fill all available space, then you will look back on your deathbed and say, "My, I've had a full life," and if you're lucky, you'll confuse fullness with happiness.

Because there are always those moments of joy, some of them tiny -- like watching your daughter lean down over her book in the sunshine, her hair hiding her face, and seeing the beautiful line of her back; or when the first curling leaves of your garden begin to sprout; or even that moment when you take the time to sit outside somewhere beautiful with a glass of wine and watch the sunset with someone you love and like talking to. In those moments, if we take them carefully and in the spirit of trust, we can allow the happiness to take root, like a shy plant, and grow through the hurt, the isolation and the busy-ness. And with it, the world will begin to poke through the caul, begin to thin the membrane, the heaviness between ourselves and the world. The isolation can diminish, the compass needle can be taught to point elsewhere, and at the end of it all, we'll be able to see and touch everything again.

"It's not catastrophes, murders, deaths, diseases, that age and kill us; it's the way people look and laugh, and run up the steps of omnibuses." -- Virginia Woolf

Monday, November 7, 2011

Coming Home from World Fantasy

It wasn't until I was coming home that I noticed it: a sinking feeling, a sort of settling back into the greyness of my body. I had been burning, bright and smart and heard; I had been ageless, interesting, interested. I had been in the company of people who also burned with the clarity of their intelligence.

Now, on the plane, I was falling back into the usual me, flying as it were into a sort of miasma of banality, back into my age, my weight, the sense of disengagement. In other words, back to paying too much attention to other people's world-views and priorities, because they outweigh mine. It was as if I was some kind of outcast who, for a moment, had lived with her tribe, and was now going back to the other tribe, the one to whom she didn't quite belong, and whose opinions and judgements seem, in the immediate day-to-day sense, to shape the world. In fact, to shape me.

It sounds terrible, doesn't it? Sometimes a little perspective can feel like that. I found myself thinking of a story where the person has a talent -- say, the ability to save lives, or the ability to make beautiful things -- and they are brought into the place where the rich people live because of their talents; for a moment, they see how much they really shine. Then they have to go back to where they live, a place where, perhaps, the powers-that-be put something in the water, or the air, and everyone there never looks up, never shines, never thinks about anything outside their little sphere.

My father grew up in Detroit in the 1930s. I may have mentioned this before, but his family had a cottage on Lake Erie in Canada, near where my grandmother grew up. Every vacation, and even some of the school year, my father would go and stay at the cabin, where they would swim, or go ice-fishing, make things out of the clay they found along the bank. Then, inevitably, they'd come back to Detroit, over the bridge. Detroit, being a coal-fired town in those days, could not be seen from the bridge. My father says that as they came closer, you could see the steeples and the taller buildings poking up out of the dark haze that obscured the rest of the city; and as the bridge went down, they would descend into that haze, go back to Detroit life. For him, it was merely a symbol of going home.

Imagine, then, if this talented person in the story were to descend back into the place they came from, exactly like descending into the haze; but instead, it's a haze of lost ambition, disinterest in learning, provincial thinking. A sort of purgatory imposed from above, in which even the most brilliant and talented people only stand out a little through the miasma, the creative and intellectual smog. What kind of story would that make? Having been outside the smog, would the person understand, and rebel? Or would they live tragically, knowing that if they could only live in the untainted area permanently, they could be brilliant and useful and shining? Or would they understand that they might be alleviating some of the smog, challenging people's paradigms, by their very existence? I dare you to write it, and I'll write it too. Maybe we can compare notes.

In the meantime, all I can say is, hooray for the internet! May the tribes all keep in touch with each other, keep their tribeness in the best way they can.