Thursday, 26 April 2012

The Cinque Terre


Up in the north-west armpit of Italy, along the coast, there's a line of five villages built into cliffs that descend into the sea. The Cinque Terre, or "Five Lands". A couple of them look like backdrops from a science fiction film, so I was interested to see what they were like in real life. From south to north they go Riomaggiore, Manarola - picture postcards both - and then Corniglia, which is perched on a hill and looks relatively normal, Vernazza, which is like a flatter version of Manarola, and finally Monterosso, which has an interesting name but lets the side down a bit, because it's just a beach with some hotels. "Every July, peas grow there."

A train line connects them, but in practice you can walk between the villages along a set of well-marked hiking trails. I decided to do that, but therein lies a tale, because sadly the five villages are not what they were. Well, one of them isn't. Back in October 2011, Vernazza was hit by torrential rains and flooding, as documented in this alarming slideshow. The town is currently in the process of recovery, and I decided to leave them to it. They don't need someone wandering around taking pictures of everything. Monterosso didn't appeal to me, so I didn't go there, either. And although I planned to walk from Manarola to Corniglia, the trail was blocked by a rockfall. Looking down at the trail from a great height it seemed that some slate had slid.

In theory there are other paths, but - mindful of the downpour that totalled Vernazza, and the gathering clouds - I decided that the local mountain rescue people didn't need to practice their skills on yet another wandering tourist, and so I, er, chickened out. And restricted my adventures to Riomaggiore and Manarola instead.

I took an infrared camera because I have orders to wait here in the spacecraft, and that's exactly what I'm going to do. A cheap old Canon 10D, converted to record near infrared in the 590nm range. I have another 10D, converted to record 720nm, and I used the same lens, a Samyang 14mm, which becomes a nicely sharp 21mm-equivalent on an APS-C camera.

590nm infrared is a bit less stark than 720nm, a lot more vivid. The filter is deep orange instead of black-looking red. There's a lot more natural colour, although it's all bunched up in the red end of the spectrum and still has to be extracted and massaged with digital processing. Just like how certain animals massage the bellies of their young in order to aid digestion. Here's an example, with the original file at the top and the massaged version at the bottom:

For that image I swapped the red and blue colour channels, custom white balanced on the rocks, and once I had something to my liking I did all the dodging and burning that I would normally do to a normal photograph in order to make it look like one of the photographs they have in magazines.

Of course, the photographic process began when I took the pictures in the first place. The field work. The path between Riomaggiore and Manarola is trivially easy to walk along; the later paths are apparently harder, and assuming that the villages don't end up being swept into the sea I might one day find out how true that is.

For the record I used OpenStreetMap's data to tell me where to go. OpenStreetMap is one of the few open content experiments that might save your life one day, and is well worth whatever money you decide to donate. Does Garmin sell an official map of Italy? I'm not sure; they seem to have a detailed map of the Dolomites and a city guide to Italy and Greece. Here's a smaller map drawn on one of the tunnel walls in between Riomaggiore and Manarola:

It explains quite well exactly where the Cinque Terre are in relation to the rest of Italy. Further down Italy's left coast, much nearer the boot, is the Amalfi Coast, which is conceptually similar to the Cinque Terre but posher and closer to Naples, which is unfortunate.

On the hardware side I traveled with a Garmin eTrex Venture HCx. The next model up, the Vista, adds a barometer and a compass, which I don't need; both models have since been replaced by the eTrex 20 and 30 respectively, which don't add very much. As a consequence you can pick up the Venture cheaply. Is it better than the GPS in your mobile phone? I have no idea; my mobile phone makes calls, it doesn't have a GPS. "Go to the Astra. Go to the Astra."


Ultimately I disagree with Sartre's emphasis on progression. By taking the position that existence precedes essence he locks his philosophy into linear time, and imposes the notion that existence without essence is somehow incomplete. In an essentially meaningless universe it seems absurd to argue that the essential man is superior to the man who merely exists; that the cardinal in his fine robes is superior to the idiot pottering around the garden in his underwear. The cardinal has simply cloaked himself in a meaningless, tissue-thin set of arbitrary rules, masquerading as purpose. Compared to the immense complexity of the physical world - of the mathematics involved in understanding elementary particles, quantum physics, and so forth, and of the structure of the universe - even the most complex of human bureaucracies is essence-less. The difference between the idiot in his garden and the cardinal is, on the universal scale, too thin to observe.

Besides which, the idea that human beings begin as inessential is nonsense. The human animal was not obviously designed to build cars, or write novels; it is instead a machine for living, a machine designed by a process of evolution to live. Man is born with that essence, everything it adds after that is just a transparent, prophylactic sheath, designed to shield us from the cold reality of indifferent spacetime.

It's interesting to apply the principles of existentialism to the world of computers. A general-purpose computer has no essence until it is given some instructions. Until that point it sits and waits, perhaps running some low-level housekeeping tasks. Suppose it's asked to take a series of random numbers and sort them into an ordered list. The computer is now a list-sorter, rather than a nothing. But the ordered list only has meaning insofar as the observer perceives it to have order. The universe itself, if it could perceive, would observe the computer simply transforming one set of arbitrary symbols into another set of arbitrary symbols, for no purpose at all.

On a lower level the universe would perceive the computer as a mass of subatomic particles differentiated from their surroundings by their arrangement and the temporal periodicity of their motion, if observed over time. Of course, the universe doesn't perceive, and over no time at all the computer, the programmers, the list, are erased by the great churning force of entropy. The programmers die; the machine breaks down. The cardinal's cloak falls apart, the church loses its followers. The cathedrals fall down and become a heap of stones again. One set of atomic arrangements transform into another set, of equal value.

But the universe is interconnected. A computer running a program pushes electrons in a direction and with a force they would not have taken otherwise. These electrons cause ripples in the fabric of spacetime; the ripples weaken as they expand outwards, until they are indistinguishable from the action of wind upon the water, and of the tides. But suppose we could build a computer so large and powerful that, purely by running a program, the motion of electrons within its circuits has tangible effects on the physical world - and suppose these effects were so strong that they could disrupt spacetime itself? It would be The Crasher.

The obvious problem is that, by disrupting spacetime, it would disrupt its own functioning, but if it could be built strong enough - or its construction could account for feedback, and perhaps use it to boost the power of its thoughts - then the computer would become a universal machine. Not just capable of running any mathematical problem, but also of performing any physical action. Its thoughts would resonate with and amplify spacetime.

The question is, if such a computer could be built, has an alien civilisation already built it? I have to assume that it isn't possible for a civilisation to build a machine that can quickly destroy the universe, otherwise we would all be dead. In all the universe there must have been at least one civilisation that could do so and that would be insane enough to activate it.

I have to assume that the bubble of altered spacetime this machine produces would be subject to the laws of our universe, at least along its boundary, and thus would not be able to radiate outwards faster than the speed of light. Therefore the universe might well have numerous bubbles of altered spacetime expanding outwards like lethal cancers, altering spacetime as they go. Indeed, perhaps a distant civilisation *did* activate a universe-destroying machine, but its bubble of destruction has not reached us yet. Given the continual expansion of the universe it might never reach us.

Also, there was a damp-looking cat on the trail. It looked utterly bedraggled.

Nosegay, now there's a word you don't see very often these days.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

To Science

The tomb of Ottaviano-Fabrizio Mossotti
scientist and, obviously, ladies' man
shot in glorious 590nm infrared-o-vision 

Monday, 16 April 2012

The Beast of Babalon

Holga 120 / Shanghai GP3
and a little piece of red plastic

Cropped from a larger panorama that would make one heck of a gatefold album cover:

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Glaciers of the Senses

Holga 120N
Shanghai GP3 100

"The cleanliness which assists the surgeon in his work would prevent the engineer from doing his at all."

Helene Atsuko 1165

Helene Atsuko
Canon 5D MkII / 70-200mm f/2.8 IS

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Helene Atsuko: 14 / 36

Helene Atsuko
Canon 5D MkII / 70-200mm f/2.8 IS

Helene again
shot with a 720nm infrared Canon 10D
70-210mm f/4

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Port-la-Nouvelle, Ektachrome

Yashica Mat 124G / Kodak Ektachrome Plus
which expired in 2005

Jean-Paul Sartre once famously observed that "l'enfer, c'est les autres", which is understandable given that all of his friends were French people. If he had grown up in Cornwall (for example) he might have had a more positive outlook on humanity. Instead of writing about the dislocation of consciousness that occurs when an individual first perceives himself to be observed, he might have started up an ice-cream shop. Or a charming Bed & Breakfast. See, when you're pottering around in the garden in your underwear you don't have a sense of self. You just are. But if you notice that your next-door-neighbour is spying on you, you suddenly become a man in his underwear pottering around in the garden. You are aware that there is a thing, yourself. Being watched. And you feel shame. But it's sexy at the same time.

That was one of Sartre's key themes, the idea that existence precedes essence. At first you're standing in the garden in your underwear, but why? Pourquoi? (shrugs shoulders) You only become a gardener when you start to push the lawnmower. And if you choose to ignore the lawnmower, and study the clouds instead, you're not a gardener, you're a meteorologist / dreamer. Your essence is defined by the choices you make, and by your interactions with the environment, rather than being imposed upon you by your creator. Fundamentally you're a doughy mass of dough that may one day be bread, if you choose to bake yourself for an hour. Until then you're just dough. You could even argue that the act of killing someone is not in fact murder, but instead a process whereby you define the essence of that person; you are enabling them to become, actualising their essence, whilst simultaneously refining your own.

But still, Port-la-Nouvelle. It's not famous at all - I spotted it on the train to Perpignan - but it's pleasant to look at, so I decided to have a walk around. It was deserted when I was there, and so Sartre might have enjoyed it, because it had no French people. It does however have a cement plant, so he might even have said "l'enfer, c'est à Port-la-Nouvelle".

That was a joke, see. L'enfer is the French word for inferno, from the Latin infernus. And a cement plant has a furnace in it. Lise is a singer and pianist who's bloody hard to Google because she's just called Lise. Just like "Tiger" Ninestein from Terrahawks she has an army of clones poised to take over if her main body is killed.

No, seriously, I would be good on the radio. The first person who can do a really loud, really fast mash-up of the theme tunes to Captain Scarlet & The Mysterons and UFO, I'd play that. Heck, I could play something by Lise. But it'd have to fit into the running order. 'cause DJs time the show, they work out how long the tracks are, and then they arrange them into a running order, and talk a bit in between - they have to read out the time, and announce things. "And now, at three o'clock, the news". I can do that. Here's a good example of a DJ at work. And it is work, it's a job, an honest job. Like working in a cement factory.

Yeah, fuck 'em. The way they go around just driving everywhere. But apart from being a bit bland, were they really so bad? They didn't explore different genres with the same gusto as Blondie, and unlike Devo they never had a weltanschauung... and they never had the same transatlantic appeal as The Police, or Duran Duran. Here in the UK people only remember them for "Drive", from Live Aid, but they weren't even The Cars at that point. They could have been any band. Cutting Crew, Foreigner. Billy Ocean. Okay, Billy Ocean wasn't a band. I'm surprised to find he was British - born in Trinidad, moved to Romford at an early age. Do you remember The Rock & Roll Years? With the ticker-tape? And the exploding planes? Where are my slippers, I must have my slippers...

Port-la-Nouvelle, eh? It's a port. An actual functioning port, that looks like Blade Runner at night, with blockhouses and domes that you'd probably get arrested for photographing. And apparently it has beaches, although lacking any kind of information about the place I didn't visit them. Turns out that the beaches are far away. Port-la-Nouvelle has a lighthouse that everybody who has been there has photographed, except for me, because I didn't know about it. And you can't photograph something you don't know about, can you? Unless you do it accidentally.

But the reason I went to Port-la-Nouvelle was because I spotted a long road, and some trees, which apparently led to a nature reserve. A brisk three-mile walk, to the Ile Saint-Lucie, which isn't an island and no-one called Lucie lives there, or if she does she hides during the daytime. According to Foursquare only four people have ever been there; I was the fifth.

après mois, la plage

Monday, 2 April 2012

Beziers, Fuji Superia XTra 400

Yashica Mat 124G
Fuji Superia XTra 400

"I do pizzicato beef filé", sang John Lennon of the pop group Beatles, and I think we've all been there, haven't we? Fuji Superia XTra is Fuji's bog-standard print film, and I took some along on my recent trip to France. In its natural state it's surprisingly restrained, looking somewhat like this:

Albeit that it was an overcast day. In contrast Kodak Ektar, seen here under similar lighting conditions a day later in Montpellier, is warmer and yellowy-er:

You can't get more scientific than that. Two images shot a day apart in different locations under different lighting conditions. In general, though, looking through my results and those on the internet, Fuji Superia has a cool, slightly pale look that makes me think of faded plastic swimming pool furniture. When I think of Kodak Ektar I think of the yellow foam stuffing inside a couch, and I think of hot dogs with red ketchup, whereas Fuji Superia is a cucumber.

Fuji's professional equivalent of Superia XTra is called Pro 400H, and is apparently very neutral, and excellent for human skin. So if you have a large collection of human skin, and you want to catalogue it, Pro 400H is your go-to film. It's only slightly more expensive than XTra, too, but I happened to find some rolls of XTra that were short dated and very cheap. As far as I can tell XTra 400 is the only remaining 400-speed consumer-level colour 120 film.

The film is unspectacular by itself, and so I decided to process the hell out of it digitally. As if it was 1995 again, back when photographers used Photoshop on scanned film because they didn't have digital cameras yet.

American Photo, 1995. A very long time ago. Photography was nearing the end of its "cathedral" stage.

Beziers itself is a dump. Here's the main drag, which is a steep climb away from the train station and through a deserted park that's closed in the evening:

The one part of Beziers that doesn't have dog poo on it

Beyond the statue is another patch of empty concrete, of equal bleakness, adjoining a car park. To the right, some chemist shops and hotels and a small Monoprix. Straight ahead, a gang of people drinking beer they bought from the Monoprix. To the left, some dodgy takeaways, with gangs of men standing outside glaring at passers-by. The kind of takeaways where you pay €80 for a kebab and get a free gram of cocaine thrown in, which is nice of them. A free gram of something that might have been in contact with cocaine at some point.

Which is odd, because the surrounding area is nice. The south-central part of France starts at the Spanish border, and the train goes Barcelona - Girona - Perpignan - Narbonne - Beziers - Montpellier and Nimes, which is apparently also a dump. Perpignan and Montpellier are fine however. Shades of the Star Trek films, where the odd-numbered instalments were rubbish. If Perpignan and Montpellier are a lovely pair of bottom cheeks - smooth, fleshy, grabbable - then Beziers is the hole in the middle. My advice is to stay in Montpellier and spend half of one day in Beziers. Or skip it and go to Perpignan. Have a long walk around Port-la-Nouvelle.

The people of Beziers, circa February 2009

It's interesting to compare Beziers with Montpellier. They both have a main drag uphill from the train station, although Montpellier's uphill is just a slope. Beyond the main drag is a maze of twisty little streets where the old town used to be; to the right, a shopping centre. But whereas Montpellier's twisty streets have fascinating shops, Beziers just has twisty streets. Montpellier's shopping centre is huge, whereas Beziers' resembles a small multi-storey car park, with a lovely view of the train lines, next to a construction yard. Montpellier's main drag has an opera house, arts galleries, people of all creeds and colours; old people, young people, couples, locals, tourists, women. Women.

I mean, what the fuck is this obsession with balloons? Do they interfere with aeroplanes, or what? Lighten up, people of France. Balloons won't hurt you.

Beziers doesn't have that. No women.* Just gangs of men wearing the standard uniform of dark jeans or sports bottoms, with black puffy jackets on top. But who would go there to buy anything? The local sight is the cathedral, which was closed when I went there. Culture? Couldn't see any. Perhaps Beziers is the real authentic face of France, and Montpellier is just a student-infested facade, in which case I prefer the facade.

* Not during the daytime, anyway. At night, yes. But it'll cost you. Prostitutes rely on something called the sunk cost fallacy. If you've paid €80 to get into the club, it'd be a waste if you didn't pay another €40 for a drink; and you're not going to stop at that point, because you'd waste the €120 you've spent already. The €180, the €250, etc. Gamblers make the same mistake. No, not gamblers. Suckers make the same mistake. Gamblers know when to fold.

To be fair. To be fair. I can understand why Beziers doesn't work. And at the same time it still feels broken. See, the shopping centre - the Polygone, which is just a patch of rubble on Google Earth, so it must have been built in the last couple of years - is away from the middle of town but within walking distance, and I imagine that most of the residents shop there instead. The Lidl isn't in the centre of town, either, it's off down a side street. The posher shops that would have gone in the middle of Beziers must have moved out. At the same time it's an awkward walk to get to the Polygone, across a dual carriageway if you go from town, with a tiny unmarked pavement if you go from the train station, so there's no reason for anyone outside of Beziers to visit. Meanwhile the centre, hit by this exodus, is a steep climb away from the station, so again, why bother? None of these are insurmountable obstacles, but, for the third time, what's the point?

I surmise that the people who could leave rolled down the hill and left; the people who couldn't, didn't. Leaving a town of people who couldn't, waiting for nothing that didn't happen.

Also, it smells of pee.