Friday, 25 May 2012

photographic abstraction #3

Welcome to the latest instalment in my series featuring photographs that are not of or about anything. They are merely ‘compositions’. Part #1 of this series featured photos that had nothing done to them apart from cropping to achieve the desired composition, while Part #2 included one photograph (Let There Be Light) where the effect I was trying for was achieved by cranking up the contrast.

This time, in addition to cropping, I have boosted the contrast in all these photographs, which I think has been very effective. What I like is that this process gives the pictures a ‘painted’ look. All four photos are of concrete objects, but I’d be surprised if anyone can identify all these objects without prompting from me. However, if you really are curious, just ask.

I pointed out in Part #1 that my attempts to create interesting images are inspired to some degree by abstract expressionism. I admire the paintings of Kandinsky and Pollock but am much less enthusiastic about the work of Rothko and de Kooning. To date, I’ve managed one photo that I’d like to think is a passable imitation of a Jackson Pollock drip painting, which I shall reserve for a later instalment, while Rainbow in the present collection does bear a passing resemblance to work by Clyfford Still.

As always, you are welcome to suggest alternative titles for these pictures.




a streetlight named desire

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

dawn along the indus

Our local river is much smaller in both scale and power than its namesake in Pakistan, and unlike the original it no longer floods. I won’t pretend that it’s a riparian wilderness, because it was canalized in the 1990s and nowadays looks distinctly artificial, but it’s home to a wide variety of birds, and it is full of fish. There are remnants of the old course of the river, where the outer parts of some of the widest meanders have been bypassed, and these marshy areas are home to thousands of frogs at this time of year.

This year has been exceptional, in that millions of periodic cicadas are now drowning out the routine bird calls:

It takes a lot of insects to make this much noise (click to play):

…making it necessary to do any bird recordings before the sun rises:

The local birds kick off up to an hour before sunrise (click to play):

Early morning is a pleasant time for a gentle stroll along the river, as the following series of photographs shows:

Looking downstream (west). The high-rise buildings over the hill are part of Shenzhen, the ‘Wild East’, a city of ten million people that was a fishing village just three decades ago.

“As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow bend”.

Looking upstream from the same point where the previous photos were taken. The high-rise apartments mark the eastern edge of Fanling.

The confluence of the river’s two main tributaries.

And if you come back after dark, you will discover that the frog chorus has changed dramatically from that of a month ago:

Yet another frog chorus (click to play):

Compare this recording with the third one in We All Stand Together. Both were recorded in the same place.

Friday, 18 May 2012

empty gestures

It isn’t often that political activity in Hong Kong makes the news elsewhere in the world, so it’s unlikely that many people will be aware of the latest shenanigans in the territory. Briefly, in January 2010, five members of what the local media call the ‘pan-Democrats’ resigned from the territory’s Legislative Council in order to force what they claimed as a de facto referendum on democratic reform and the abolition of the territory’s so-called ‘functional constituencies’.

Functional constituencies are voting blocs based on voters’ occupations, but they cover only professional occupations such as medicine, law, education and accountancy and are thus fundamentally anti-democratic, because those who are eligible to vote in functional constituencies have two votes to the single vote that the remainder of the population are allowed.

The key point in this saga is that these five legislators immediately stood for re-election in the subsequent by-elections. The Hong Kong government is now trying to introduce a bill that would bar anyone who resigns from the Legislative Council from standing for re-election within six months of that resignation. The pan-Democrats are incensed.

It should be noted that not every Hong Kong political party with ‘democracy’ or a similar word in its name is genuinely supportive of democracy. The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), which supports authoritarian rule in the rest of China and takes a pro-Beijing stance on matters related to Hong Kong, reminds me of a comment made by George Orwell in Politics and the English Language:
…the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning.
Needless to say, the DAB is not included in the term ‘pan-Democrats’. And although the government’s proposed bill is opposed by all the parties that are included, most restrict that opposition to asking the government to withdraw its proposal. However, a couple of radical legislators have taken their opposition one step further by staging a filibuster in the Legislative Council. This has caused utter chaos in the council, with all-night sittings and suspension of proceedings because not enough members have been present to make up a quorum according to the council’s rules of procedure. This farce has also attracted a lot of hostility from the general public, because important business is being blocked.

The radicals believe that preserving the right of legislators to resign protects the fragile democracy of Hong Kong, but nobody is suggesting that a legislator cannot resign on a point of principle. Resignation in such circumstances has long been a cornerstone of democracy, but a resignation must involve a real personal sacrifice, or it is worthless. Resigning merely to stand for re-election in a subsequent by-election for the post that is resigned from is arrogant, and it is an empty gesture. It treats the electorate, collectively, with contempt.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

a close shave

Ancient Egyptian sailors visited Central America. Although this statement is both widely believed and impossible to disprove categorically, it doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny. It is an excellent example of how easily ‘evidence’ can be misinterpreted.

The principal reason for this belief is that the ancient Egyptians built pyramids, and so did the Maya and other Mexican civilizations, in places like Teotihuacán and Chichén Itzá. Obviously, either Egypt and Mexico developed their architecture independently, or the earlier civilization influenced the later. No other explanation is possible.

Apart from the purported similarity in architecture, what other evidence might support the second of these possibilities? Well, Thor Heyerdahl did cross the Atlantic Ocean in 1970 in a papyrus boat built to an ancient Egyptian design, but this proves no more than that such a voyage is possible. Set against this fatuous exercise is the observation that the pyramids of Mexico were built as temples. Egyptian pyramids were built as tombs.

In fact, the pyramid was the only option for any ancient civilization wanting to build high that had not invented the arch. Despite the many fanciful illustrations that have been produced by well-known artists over the centuries, the legend of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11: 3–5) would have been based on the ziggurats of Mesopotamia, which were also a type of pyramid. And the top of the tower, if it was ever built, would have fallen well short of being ‘in the heavens’.

In addition, we are asked to believe that Egyptian seafarers stayed long enough to pass on the secrets of pyramid building but failed to notice that their hosts had not invented the wheel, which would have been a screamingly obvious piece of technology to pass on. Finally, the Egyptian hypothesis is anachronistic: Egyptian civilization had collapsed by the time the first cities were being built in Central America. In other words, the Egyptian hypothesis violates the mediæval scholastic principle known as Occam’s razor (entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem: ‘entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity’), which in simple terms means that when faced with competing explanations for a given phenomenon, the simplest one is the most likely to be correct.

Thor Heyerdahl himself was notable for ignoring the strictures of Occam’s razor. His Kon-tiki expedition of 1947 is a classic example. Despite the overwhelming linguistic and ethnographic evidence that Polynesia was populated from the west, that is from Asia, he was influenced by oral histories in South America to attempt to ‘prove’ that at least some Polynesian populations, notably that on Easter Island, originated from this continent. He failed to take into account that pre-literate societies (no pre-Hispanic society in South America developed a system of writing) invariably have wild, fantastic notions of their own history. As with his ‘Egyptian voyage’, all he succeeded in proving was that such a journey is possible.

Unfortunately, thanks in part to a documentary about Kon-tiki that won an Academy Award in 1951, Heyerdahl succeeded in capturing the public imagination, which no doubt inspired and encouraged his later boating holidays. In the process, he has done almost as much damage to the practice of legitimate scholarship as Erich von Daniken, that other well-known popularizer of implausible hypotheses.

So, if you are tempted to put forward an idea without thinking it through, be forewarned that William of Ockham, the demon barber of woolly thinking and inventor of the razor that bears his name, stands ready to give your proposition an extremely close shave: his razor will carve it into little pieces, pinpoint the non sequiturs and logical fallacies, and spread them out for everyone to see the weaknesses in your reasoning. Occam’s razor: don’t leave home without it.