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M5

Video

M5 bus route as seen by Google Street View, with each panorama synced to the GPS log from my trip and time-scaled to 1/100 its original duration. (The original QuickTime file is available for download. It's 300 MB.)

Concept

Beyond the changing neighborhoods, demographics, architecture, gentrification, etc., the thing that struck me most about the M5 was the pace and aesthetics of the trip. The bus is a truly strange thing to take in New York — particularly the M5, which one could easily substitute for a ① train. Buses are slower than the subway if you're heading uptown or downtown, and often slower than walking if you need to go crosstown. The contrast between the lazy pace of the bus (we averaged 7 mph) and the rush of the city outside the window was disorienting.

Yet taking the bus connects the rider with the city. Conversations are overheard, ridership changes from neighborhood to neighborhood, stops are missed, etc. I wanted to use Google's images to explore and subvert this connection between person and place. Living in New York represents a commitment to place and physicality — it's overpriced, it's cramped, it's a lot of work — but we deal with it for the sake "being there" and sharing the experience. Google's Street View suggests that we don't have to leave our chairs to see a place, and flattening Google's 360° panoramas to fit in a rectangular frame (as done for the video) takes this further, suggesting that we don't even have to swivel our heads.

Essentially, I used Google backwards. Instead of using Street View for reconnaissance or as an alternative to making an actual trip, I used their service to outsource the documentation of the bus ride I had already taken. The result is a complete departure from the actual experience: An hour and 40 minutes spent on a bus in the physical world is compressed into a 60 second approximation; a digital copy of my analog trip on the M5.

Technique

I ran a geo-tracking application on my iPhone for the length of the bus ride. After the trip, I downloaded all of the lat / lon / time coordinates and fed them into a Processing program I built to place the points on a map and interpolate points in between those captured by the phone. (In this manor 447 original waypoints from the trip were extrapolated into 1490 film frames.) I was careful to keep the time coding intact, so that the pace of the video — while accelerated — would be true to the pace of the bus ride. From there, I sent the data to another bit Processing code written to query Google and download, composite, and save the imagery from their Street View feature for every lat / lon point logged in the previous step. Next, one more Processing program glued together the stills in sequence to create a video.

I'll post my code shortly in case it's of use to other ITP students or other others. The Street View-scraping program, in particular, demonstrates the how trivial (and handy) it is to eavesdrop on HTTP headers and reverse-engineer a simple API like the one Google uses to load Street View source images.

Oh, and the source images, I imagine, are © Google.

Outcome

The resulting video wasn't quite what I expected — my attempt to capture the halting pace of the trip by adjusting the frame rate to reflect the speed of the bus at different points along the trip ended up looking more like a bandwidth-related glitch than an intentional effect. Also, the GPS signal I used to map the points was pretty noisy, and tall buildings cut the signal strength down considerably. In midtown, the position jumps around, shaking the resulting video around and cutting from block to block, destroying the sense of forward motion — in one sense it's an honest reflection of midtown's packed streets, but in another sense there's something satisfying about such a security-camera-filled and densely networked part of time falling off the GPS radar.

October 6 2009 at 4 AM

Thoughts on Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Walter Benjamin's The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction seems very much in tune with the post-WWI era of its origin. It's kind of dark, grim, and maybe even a bit defeatist (though these observations could just be artifacts of the essay's translation.) There's this sense that we were at the brink — at the mercy — of the new all-powerful medium of film, where the fight between politics + communism vs. aesthetics + fascism will be waged.

As with most of the readings thus far, it seems most interesting to recast his predictions and perceptions of art and production / reproduction into the present. Two of his ideas seemed particularly ripe for reconsideration:

First, Benjamin laments the expense and infrastructure required to create a film — and the resulting need for large, paying audiences, and perhaps the disproportionate creative power in the hands of large organizations (see Goebbels). Yet today an iPhone crams the means of (video) production in a pocket, and distribution (YouTube, Vimeo) are basically free. Today, access to an audience is (at least conceptually) meritocratic. (Though it could be argued that the patterns of consumption around social media might resemble a return to the cult-and-ritual mentality of art-production that Benjamin thought technology had liberate us from.)

Second, he describes loss of the (supposedly) interactive medium of performance to the passive mediums of photography and film, and goes on to suggest that a lack of interactivity actually gives reproducible mediums disproportionate power over us: "[...] the camera intervenes with the resources of its lowerings and liftings, its interruptions and isolations, its extensions and accelerations, its enlargements and reductions. The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses." Interactive mediums, or even the access to the authors and other viewers of a piece of (new) media again disrupt Benjamin's take on where things were headed.

(For discussion: Some of the characteristics of new media and the web — cut, paste, subversion of medium, absurdity, excess — suggest a return to Dadaism. I was surprised to see Benjamin dismiss Dadaism as a mere presage to popular film.)

October 5 2009 at 11 AM

Lab: Electronics

Here comes the electronics lab:

3.2: The voltage regulator worked fine, delivering a steady 5.00 volts. (For the record, my 9 volt AC adapter was also measured a weirdly accurate 9.00.)


3.3: Switch worked fine.


3.4: In series, the voltage dropped evenly from LED to LED. Up to 3 red LEDs would light but a 4th killed it.


3.5: In parallel, the amperage across the circuit (between the last LED and ground) was 14 milliamps.


3.6: The potentiometer worked as expected. (At first, I accidentally plugging both ends of the pot into power — this turned the curve of voltage from the potentiometer into a dip — it was high at either extreme, and lowest (but not 0) at the center. Might be a useful behavior for future applications.)

September 29 2009 at 9 PM

Thoughts on The Machine Stops

Though the ending was wincingly melodramatic, the bulk of E.M. Forster's The Machine Stops was eerily prescient — even more so given the 1909 publication date. (I thought his prediction of "imitation marble" — like the formica surrounding my kitchen sink — was particularly apt.)

Still, I might have dismissed it as too hyperbolic a warning were it not for a recent brush with the possibility of losing my place in the cloud. I let a typo through while entering my Google account credentials, which brought up a screen declaring that my account had been deleted (for some reason, I was served this doomsday message instead of the usual "incorrect password" elbowing). Though I don't yet depend on them for air, food, or "medical apparatus" — I'm struck by how anxiety-inducing it was to see the words "this account no longer exists" on my phone. To rebuild from zero seems wearisome at best, and impossible at worst. This threat of silence brought real, physical anxiety. Without my GMail archives, saved articles on Google Reader, my contact lists, etc., rebuilding — much less remembering — my "thousands" of acquaintances would be impossible. My social, professional, and personal existence seem perilously leveraged by a single entity. Who even knows where the actual bits that represent this existence reside — Google's estimated to have about half a million servers, spread across a dozen countries. This can't be good. (But the very nature of cloud computing makes it so damn easy to ignore.)

Forster's take on the inversion of the idea of the frontier also held my interest. Before the latter stages of the industrial revolution, nature provided the frontiers to be pioneered / conquered / etc. — the west, agriculture, sanitation, space, etc. But in the information age, it's became fashionable to cast technology as a kind of frontier (Or so it was in the '90s... now it seems we're in transition.). Yet, Forster turns this notion around, imagining technology conquered and the physical world turned back into frontier — this is particularly clear from the descriptions of the Earth's surface: Kuno assures his mother that "I shall take all precautions" in the face of the surface's perils. (The parallels to current ecological concerns are impossible to miss.)

September 28 2009 at 3 AM

At the Tree Museum

I spent a rainy Sunday afternoon at / in / around the Tree Museum.

[flickr-photoset:id=72157622468005774,size=s]

I came upon the following trees on my route from 149th street to 170th and back again:

Tree 9 — Eric Sanderson, author of local history book. Planted as a street tree, but common to the region. Only the isolated trees survive after an epidemic of fungal disease. See The Manahatta project.

Tree 31 — 32 year Bronx resident. Recalls canopy of trees where you could find some shade. She named tree 31 Ezekiel.

Tree 32 — Director of the Bronx Museum. Saving a 3-storey tall apple tree that would have been in the way of museum expansion.

Tree 28 — Bronx singer-songwriter plays a song about the honey locust.

Tree 27 — Music. Overlapped eerily with some live music playing further south in the park.

Tree 16 — Valerie Capers, wrote a song about things to do in the Bronx.

Tree 15 — Franz Sigel Park history.

Tree 12 — Professor, narrates a history of Franz Sigel. Immigrant contributions.

Tree 10 — Andrea Polli, ecological concern.

Tree 6 — Resident, can't recall trees in her childhood. "You don't have to leave the neighborhood to live in a better one." Founded the Sustainable South Bronx community organization.

It probably would have been wise to heed the advice from the woman behind the desk at the Bronx Museum. After listing the current exhibitions, she mentioned the Tree Museum, with the weather-conscious caveat: "You'll probably want to do that some other day."

It was just a foul and wet and windy day. The Grand Concourse was just about completely pedestrian free — at least along the stretch I explored. Husks of inside-out umbrellas dotted the sidewalks and parks. It seems like the Tree Museum is grounded in sociability — take a walk, hear some history from the locals, maybe meet some people around a tree — but my trip was mostly silent, and the only people I met were pre-recorded on the other end of my cell phone.

What I wanted when I dialed the number was a conversation (and that's what we're wired to expect after dialing a cell phone), but while the exchange was purely reactive, not interactive. Also, standing in front of a tree with a phone to your ear leaves you in an antisocial posture, compounded a bit by the novelty of having a conversation (of sorts) with a tree (arboreal schizophrenia?). In some ways, the phone's technology brings isolation from, rather than immersion in, the neighborhood and community. The whole process might work better in groups, or on days with more foot traffic when someone might ask what's going on — sharing the experience would improve it.

The trees were sparse enough that the walk felt a bit like a scavenger hunt — and the positioning of the placards meant I spent more time staring at the sidewalk and less time looking up at the trees. When I did find a tree, I ended up almost subconsciously taking its picture — which seems like the facile and obvious thing to do, but also in line with the scavenger hunt sensibility, proof that the treasure was found.

The absence of people also drove home the sense that the trees are a kind of witness to the history and change in the neighborhood, and I was interested to learn from tree 9's recording that many were planted when the street was created, which must make some of them exactly as old as the concourse itself. (I had previously assumed that the concourse was carved out of existing forest.)

I would have liked more connection between the phone narratives and the immediate environment — the most effective moment of the trip was the overlap between a live band at the south end of Joyce Kilmer Park and tree 27's musical recording.

I'd like to go back on a brighter day, to see how a busier concourse contributes to the messages from the trees. Otherwise, the emptiness made the experience feel more like a monument to something lost than a museum of something existent.

September 27 2009 at 5 PM

Billions and Billions of Photos

Will we ever run out of photographs?

As the web accumulates photos (another 6,037 posted to Flickr in the last minute...), and as projects like Photosynth start to infer intermediate perspectives between these images, one could conceive of collisions — multiple instances the same image, pixel for pixel, from two different authors.

Multi-megapixel full-color pixel images weighing in at dozens of megabytes distance us from what, exactly, these images are at the computationally atomic level of bits. Going back to the same concept on a smaller scale, makes the simplicity of the computational representation of an image clear. Black and white makes this exceedingly basic — an image can be as simple as a grid of 0s and 1s:

Ditch the grid, and you're left with a big binary number:

100000000000001000000000100010101000001000011100
100000100010000001111111000001000001000001001111
000001001001000001001111000001001001000001001111
000001001111000001000001000001000001000001111111

Convert that to base ten, and you have:
3,138,742,632,065,979,126,417,490,138,422,209,858,437,835,786,299,168,264,319

The picture's just a number. It's just one of the possible black and white images that could fit in the 12 x 16 pixel grid. In fact, it's image number 3,138,742,632,065,979,126,417,490,138,422,209,858,437,835,786,299,168,264,319 out of 6,277,101,735,386,680,763,835,789,423,207,666,416,102,355,444,464,034,512,896 possible images.

Every single one of the ~6 octodecillion possible 1 bit 12 x 16 images could be generated computationally. We don't need a camera, a photographer, or an icon artist — a simple program looping through and rendering each possibility would, eventually, stumble upon that exact spray can. And, eventually, it would run out of images to render, and the creative possibilities of a 12 x 16 pixel 1 bit canvas would be exhausted, or, at least, definitively explored.

These numbers are huge — incomprehensible. For all practical intents and purposes, these numbers are as good as infinity, and yet, they're finite in every objective sense.

Scaling this idea up to the high-res color images typical of the web, the number gets even more ridiculous. You can find the number of possible distinct images for a given bit depth and resolution with the following formula:

Possible Photos =(2^Bit Depth)^(Width * Height)

This brings up a few questions.

First, this exposes an inherent and often unconsidered flaw of digital mediums — finite resolution means finite potential representations, suggesting a degree of determinism in digital systems.

Second, what might one discover by traversing the range of possible images with an algorithm instead of a computer? Would anything be discovered? Might we see glimpses of the future or past? By definition, these photographs would all have to be present in the set — portraits of every human, past and present, confidential texts, etc.

Third, what does this say about photographic creativity? Is creating a photo an act of genesis and original thought, or is the photographer merely colliding with an inevitable, preexisting combination of bits?

Fourth, exploring data sets like this also brings up the question: What's the threshold of perception? How many pixels do we need to have before something representational emerges? Of course, deciding on any threshold implies compromise, and the representation of different facets of reality can move this threshold radically. For example, a single black pixel could be said to represent a dark room, and therefore could be said to hold some representational qualities. Representing text on a page or the nuances of a tree, however, would require thousands (maybe millions) of pixels.

A few artists explored this idea in the 90s:
Jim Campbel's The End (1996)
John Simon's Every Icon (1997)

It's also worth considering that this concept is agnostic to the actual way in which in a particular bit string is interpreted. For any digital object of a particular size, this theory of finite possibilities can be applied and explored.

For example, artist Kyle McDonald explored this idea in sound, generating every possible sequence of the chromatic scale's 12 notes:

September 24 2009 at 3 AM

Time Fork: Personal Version Control

It would be great to pick a point in your day to “fork” — to split time into two distinct paths, and consider / test / explore different outcomes. How, for example, would my day be different if I ordered that Falafel spicy instead of regular? My fantasy device would make answering this question easy.

The closest we’ve come so far to building interfaces to time travel are the version control systems used to manage source for big software projects, and the DVR systems common to cable and satellite boxes. So my device — The Time Fork — attempts to make some of these ideas accessible and intuitive. The device assumes that the basic mechanics of time travel, multiple universes, quantum mechanics, etc. are all sorted out.

To keep things simple (accumulation of features is left to subsequent iterations), let’s assume a few things:

1. You can only maintain a maximum of two time channels simultaneously — e.g. when you fork at, say, 10:00 AM, you’re left with the current instance of existence, call it Channel A, and one new one, which also starts at 10:00 AM, called Channel B.

2. Time only moves forward in the currently active Channel. If you spend 5 minutes in Channel A, then after 5 minutes of real time, the time code for Channel A would advance 5 minutes, while Channel B would remain stuck in the past.

3. Forking overwrites and the other time channel. For example, if you fork Channel B at 10:05 AM,

To keep these issues and the irritating paradoxes of time travel as subtle as possible, my design is built around the most familiar of time-management objects: the wrist watch.

The setup is as follows:
It looks like a relatively generic wrist watch, but there's an extra set of hands on the face. The hands are color coded to represent which of the two possible time channels they represent.

Then there are two buttons, "Fork" and "Switch".

"Switch" toggles the wearer between the two parallel universes. For example, if it's 10:15 AM in Time Channel A, and 11:00 AM in Time Channel B, hitting the switch button will move the wearer from one channel to the other.

"Fork" overwrites the inactive channel with a new version of the present. For example, if you're at 10:15 AM in Time Channel A, then pressing fork will set Tim eChannel B to 10:15 AM.

Instead of a push-button, switch might be better served with a rocker or toggle switch, so that it would be immediately evident which of the two channels you're currently existing in.

September 23 2009 at 2 PM

Lab: Analog In

This week's lab came together without incident. The LED's change in brightness was far from linear, though. The full range of adjustability was probably covered in the first quarter-turn of the potentiometer. Mapping the value sent to Pin 9 (via pulse width modulation) could fix this, but I wonder if it's a flaw in the circuit or just a property of the LED.
Also, seeing the code for the PicBasic on Tom's page about analog makes me appreciate how much boilerplate Arduino spares us.

Here's the video:

Also, an aside: Any reason to favor the byzantine 6-hookup breadboard power configuration (left) over cleaner 4-hookup approach (right)?

Update: Just a style thing. When you're using a voltage regulator, using six is more convenient.

September 23 2009 at 5 AM

Thoughts on Orality & Literacy

Some thoughts on Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word The full text is available online to NYU students.

The immediate temptation after reading the first four chapters of Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy is to reconsider and recast his claims in the context of the web.

There are many ways in which communication on the internet resembles a continuation of the arc of high literacy Ong outlines: Blogs perpetuate the written diary’s solipsism. Email and SMS nudge away holdouts of secondary orality like phone calls and voice mail. The trend towards concision — the 140 character obsession, for example — has dispatched with the “formulary baggage” and “copia” associated with orality.

These newfound parallels to (and efficiencies over) pre-web literacy are inevitable enough. But even as our dependence on the written word intensifies, the web also seems to shift the spirit and style of communication back towards Ong’s definitions of orality. Yes, the bulk of our interface with the web consists of lines and lines of text, and yes, it’s missing so many of the existential elements that characterize a physical conversation — nevertheless, the tone of the web is often better aligned with traditions of orality than literacy. As such, the web disrupts Ong’s narrative of orality’s decline and literacy’s ascent.

Flickr, YouTube, and similar platforms offer obvious counterpoints to the web’s textual fixation — but the comment text annotating the imagery on these sites, and the general state of discourse on the web, offers more evidence of a return (relapse?) to orality.

Ong describes the essential challenges of writing: “To make yourself clear without gesture, without facial expression, without intonation, without a real hearer, you have to foresee circumspectly all possible meanings a statement may have for any possible reader in any possible situation, and you have to make your language work so as to come clear all by itself, with no existential context.” he writes. “The need for this exquisite circumspection makes writing the agonizing work it commonly is.”

The web’s glut of emoticons and long strings of emphatic punctuation don’t really solve these challenges — instead, they sidestep writing’s agony by adding some orality to the text. And since every post is predicated on the anticipation of a response, a kind of meter finds its way into the communication — more Illiad and less Finnegans Wake.

In chapter 3, Ong lays out a list of characteristics of oral culture ... it's interesting to see how many of these are aligned with the current state of communication on the web. Here are a few that stand out:

Aggregative rather than analytic — a sense of truth emerges on the web through aggregation of common opinion, forming pockets of (local) consensus.

Redundant or 'copious' — The need to keep text short may reduce redundancy on the individual level, but part of the aggregation process mentioned above depends on (even assumes) overlap and repetition across individual opinions.

Agonistically toned — The web is rich soil for polemics, hyperbolic insults, and has ample supply of the "your mom" jokes Ong cites as oral tradition.

Empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced — Online communication seems to straddle these categories. Distance abounds, as does empathy and participation.

Homeostatic — "Sloughing off memories which no longer have present relevance." In some senses, the web has an incredible memory — information sticks to it readily, and tends to endure. In direct comparison to oral traditions, the web hardly tends toward homeostasis. Yet, if the web's currency is attention, then mere existence of information is not the whole story: it's important to consider where the mice and eyes are pointed, and these tend to move quickly from one focal point to the next. (From meme to meme...)

September 20 2009 at 8 PM

Sensor Walk

Doorways, automobiles, and rooftops seem to accumulate sensors. Many were out of order — presence seems more important than functionality in some cases.

September 16 2009 at 2 PM