Friday, December 18, 2009

A Very Large and Beautiful Building—and YouTube

When I walk into the new-to-me Salt Lake City Public Main Library I feel like I am stepping into God’s own jungle gym. 5 stories of open air rise up from the entrance, encased on each side by walkways and pillars overlooking the relatively narrow courtyard below. Bridges between each side of the column float in the distance, creating an illusion of people crawling around the rigging of an enormous, steel, 16th Century trading ship replica. Beams cross and bifurcate at degrees of deep geometric complexity. I feel awed and overwhelmed. It is beautiful to apprehend, and I indeed feel apprehensive. 

The building is on the cutting edge of urban architecture. Much has been made of Moshe Safdie’s ground-breaking accomplishment. The Salt Lake Main Library is one of the architect’s more conservative efforts, surprisingly enough. But the building boasts all of his most cherished sensibilities: stacks of blocks nestled amongst stylistic, sweeping arcs which bisect hundreds of bold angles measuring slightly-less-than right. Utahns deserve to be proud of this, yet another unique American landmark comprising the character of the Wasatch Valley.

Closer to terra firma, the more tangible themes of the building come into view. These are things I can comprehend. People of all ages and races meander past others who lounge about stylish cafe tables (which are pleasantly not attached to the floor itself). They play chess. They chat. They use their computers. They enjoy the cool air and light atmosphere. It’s like a modern-day town square somewhere in a Dutch villa, trading houses included. That is to say, the library seems to have come equipped with its own little mall. People eat ice cream cones and drink from Coca-Cola emblazoned cups. I wonder at the commercial interests which have become a primary feature to the library’s entrance hall. But then, more to my liking, a fellow can get himself a cup of coffee while he wanders the district. For the moment my fears of conflicted interests and potential corruption are overcome by the smell of steamed milk and heated chocolate. Where was I again?

Alex works at the information desk, and he’s happy to reorient me. He is of modest height, thin, young and sporting a short crop of light brown hair. He looks and sounds smart. I immediately trust him as he kindly explains the storefronts to me. Turns out that the largest shop is run by Friends of the Library. (Well I’ve always considered myself one of those.)Another kiosk simply holds bus schedules and an ATM. (I ride the bus, myself, and often need money as well.) There is even a flex-use space where community groups take turns setting up informational pseudo-businesses, like the breast-feeding café which was in there last month. (And I love...information. Did I point out ice cream and coffee?) I can’t really argue with the commerce, even if it does push all my old-crotchety-man buttons. When I ask Alex if he remembers the studious environment of the old library, he says with feeling, “This library does not have that. Most people come in for the internet or to get out of the heat.” Something in Alex’s tone tells me he knows what I’m feeling. A kinship is shared between us. That part of me which pines for the stodgy old familiarity of academia that this branch once had finds a comrade! Then it occurs to me that this young man was probably hired because he’s so likable. He wasn’t even old enough to vote when the bond for this building came up for general election. Still bemused, but opener of mind, I decide to withhold judgment for the time being.

I was here in 1998, after all, and I did vote for this glass Mecca of the modern information age. This is the first time I’ve been inside, though. I was thrilled that the $65 million bond passed back then, but on further consideration I decided that I couldn’t really afford it. I packed up my guitar and moved to Portland just days after the election.

10 years later and I am back. After a failed run at rock and roll stardom and a brief stint as an expatriate, it is now time to do the Prodigal Son thing. Life is a series of phases, after all. It was a good time, but now I need to take advantage of mother’s wealth. Thank God someone in the family has been working this past decade. Not particularly thrilled to be back, I am at least excited about coming to see what my vote has wrought on the block that once housed a library in one corner and a jailhouse in the other.

Now here I am, thinking about the ominous capital letters on Friends of the Library and I wonder if I am supposed to buy a membership. Is there a gym and a spa in here? Look at the size of that music and movies section. The parking rate was outrageous and it is possible I have come back a little too soon. Must be a fair bit of the bond left for us to pay off. It would explain the galleria out front at least.

Another thing it might explain is the City’s general new air of tight-fistedness. For one thing, the young lady who issues me a card explains that I can no longer use my city card with the county libraries. Furthermore, I am not allowed to return city books to county branches any longer. And another thing, you only get a maximum of three renewals before you have to bring the books back. Was it always like this? I grew up in Kearns and don’t remember so many conditions. Living in South Jordan now, this all seems a bit strict. Getting into town isn’t the easiest thing to do, at least not when compared to where I have been living in Oregon.

Yes, I know. Peeve a Utahn as fast as you please using one simple step. Compare anything in the valley with its counterpart in Portland and you’ve got yourself one irritable resident of Zion. Secular and religious alike get rankled in equal measure. If I say something is better in Portland then I certainly don’t know what I’m talking about. If I claim something is actually better down here then I’m just a fool for having expected anything else. But I can’t help it. Portland is what I know.

Ask any Oregonian and she will go on at length about how they all live and breathe their books. Big, little, old and new. If it’s got at least 4 pages and a cover then it is given special status and specific inalienable rights. Nice looking buildings are fine, but no one notices the flying buttresses when her nose is anchored to the page, which is right where a good person’s ought to be. Give them a library card, a sturdy backpack, and an umbrella any day of the week. What you then have is a happy citizen.

Circulation in Portland’s Multnomah County is off the charts, with every man woman and child averaging 27 items on loan per year. This is coming from only 17 branches, mind you. Salt Lake County circulation is up by 45% this year, apparently, which is great. But with 24 branches in the area, there should be a bit more material in circulation. (Side note, don’t actually tell a county or city worker that I am combining the stats of their library systems.) Those who live in the city slash county check out 17 items per year. That’s nothing to laugh at, sure, but it seems the lion’s share of those are Beatles Anthologies and V.C. Andrews novels. (That is a person’s 

There is an old Utah adage that goes something like, “Those other guys do it wrong.” So I come by my attitude naturally. That’s not to say, however, that Salt Lake is failing. In fact, to be fair, they do many things right, as the rest of my tour proves me. After I get a feel for the Spanish Galleon inspired floor-plan of the building I head into the cargo hold to see what’s doing in the basement. This is by far the largest, most impressive children section I have ever seen. My first sight when I walk in is a large glass case holding Disney puppetry. Beyond this real-life pop-up ad I really do have to hand it to the library board. The children area is chock full of magic. There are special rooms built into the back wall where parents can read to kids who pay absolutely no attention. And who can blame them? There is the crazy cool Ice Room. There are the beams and platforms of the Mine Room. These are hidden away, hinted at by 4 foot high holes in the back wall, begging to be explored, even if you’re a 34 year old man. It’s as if the entire library basement has been plastered in joy and carpeted in imagination.

Were I the type to complain—ahem—I would only doubt the wisdom of high-speed game-computers, and the risk of losing kids therein. But I will admit that the short, hot, uncomfortable computer room is way in the back. Getting to it means passing an unusually active, real-life tortoise, an entire cast of puppets, fun art that you actually get to touch, a killer crafts room, an amazing outer courtyard, the aforementioned theme rooms, and thousands of colorful books surrounded by comfy chairs. If a kid can make it through this gauntlet of wonder without giving up his digital quest then so be it. The sad kid is already lost anyway. Get him a job at Google already. Wait, no. Microsoft. They pay better for lack of imagination.

From the basement I take the elevator all the way up to the top and work my way back down. Thus I find a fairly large collection of grown-up books, including a decent environment in which to read them. There are lots of desks and tables. Alex says, “We’re what’s called a ‘Loud Library’. There’s no place out of the noise.” But I must say the top floor is noticeably quieter than the first. I am relieved to see how much space had been saved for literature and non-fiction. An entire two floors are used just for the hard stuff. One more floor goes to paperbacks, periodicals, and nonfiction. Part of that floor is dedicated to a teen room where if adults aren’t outright prohibited, they are at least made to feel distinctly out of place amongst all the graphic novels and “Teen Only Computer” signs.

There is a really cool art gallery as well, though it’s hardly large enough to have a proper exhibition. But who cares? It’s an art gallery in the library! The view from the windows here is amazing. I find myself believing I could totally study here. There is room for academia after all. But then I think I’d rather bring a computer, plug into the network, and totally kill some zombies in real-time. This lofty, peaceful environment is nice, but look! Free internet! I’m feeling less of that initial apprehension by the minute. But there is a critic who lives in my head. His voice often drowns out the rest of the characters in there. He is currently keeping his peace, but waves a hand at me in a gesture which obviously means I have 5 minutes to wrap it up with the optimism.

Then I get to the fireplaces. The critic cannot be held back. This is one part of the building which is just silly. Each floor has a stack of fireplaces, three-deep, from floor to ceiling which are obviously supposed to add comfort and homeliness. But it’s an asymmetrical stack of fireplaces, surrounded by cold metal and glass filtering in the reflections off of a hundred drab Salt Lake City buildings. There is nothing log-cabin about it. I give Safdie, the architect, credit for trying though. After looking at his portfolio, I’m fairly sure that the poor man has a short circuit somewhere in his mind. What would register as “attraction to serenity” for most of us is where “joy of knuckle cracking” is for this man.

Around closing time I amble back down to the entryway. Just between us, I have a few of the teens’ comic books in hand. I stand amidst the shopping center and consider what I’ve seen. The building is certainly a success, being that its goal is to create a space where people can interact with all types of information, be it tactile, visual, aural or virtual. It is certainly a meeting place for, well, what have you?

The problem with having something for everyone is that there is only one thing that everyone wants: entertainment. Should it really be the library’s job to provide it? I’m not sure that equal-opportunity YouTube viewing and Sex And the City box sets is really what I wanted when I checked “Yes” on my ballot. I’m a little sad about the end result, and I’m a little ashamed that I like it all so much anyway. I suppose I don’t have a concrete problem with anything the library is doing, at least nothing I can point my finger at. I worry about circulation, yes. I worry that this is an awfully expensive way to get people out of the day’s heat and ignoring each other in their private on-line worlds. I worry about the critical evaluations made by members my community. I worry--hey look, ice cream!

No, I don’t know what the problem is specifically. But I can draw a metaphor on what it feels like. On the third floor of this very large and beautiful establishment, with a view to the old building, there is an awesome selection of antiquated maps. Even better than those, there is this large, old-timey, brown globe on a beautiful iron stand which is so big that this may in fact be where Atlas finally dropped his load before going back to the fruit bar. The globe is massive and beautiful, and you can rotate it in any direction like a god wondering what the Patagonians are up to. I turned the sphere up on its end myself, just because I could. (There’s something Jungian about that, I’m sure.) Anyway, as soon as I turned it up on end, as it was designed to do, there was an alarming drop in altitude with a sickening thunk. I quickly turned it back over I found a huge hole in the top. While not quite useless, this very large and beautiful globe had been rendered utterly superfluous through the neglect of its most basic support structure. In the end, it is not really meant to be touched any more.

But, you know, it looks good. Just don’t peer too close. Besides, there are, like, 163 computers in the facility. Every single one of them gets Google Earth.

Friday, November 6, 2009
source:Cheetah, Gecko and Spiders Inspire Robotic Designs, By Priya Ganapati, October 16, 2009, Wired Magazine

The article talks about the work being done by MIT professor, Sangbae Kim and his team of robots--I mean slaves--I mean grad students. So far they have built some great little robots based on organic forms which mimic the high-speed crawling ability of the cockroach and the vertical climbing trick of the gecko. Both of those projects are a success, and more refinement is being done. But Kim's current focus is on the form of the cheetah.

He intends to build a robot with the same physical aspects as the world's fastest land animal. His "modest" goal is to get the robot running 35 mph. Even that would be a landmark, as current robot mobility is still fairly limited by terrain and obstacles. His hope is to overcome those limitations. Taking inspiration from nature is an important part of his work, as he points out in the interview for this Wired article.

That last point really struck me as the most profound part of the article. He says, “Animals have to find food, shelter; move towards water or away from a predator. Moving is one of their biggest functions, and they do it very well. That’s why ideas from nature are very important for a robotic designer like me.”

The truth of that statement had never occurred to me, though now it seems fairly obvious. As humans we have so many ways to get travel throughout the world and overcome limited mobility that we often overlook the amazing array of skills found in the animal kingdom. When we really look at those things we become enchanted. Just ask the accountants for National Geographic.

Pondering this tendency of different species to evolve such varied ranges of movement puts a fine point on the beauty of life. The fact that one of the world's best robot designers takes his ideas from the tropics, the Savanna, a Manhattan kitchen sometime after dark when a cold pizza lies uncovered on the counter top, just shows how much we humans really are the foil by which nature can appreciate itself.

Our quest in making robots seems to be a fine example of a combination of humanity's greatest attributes: curiosity, creativity, intellect, and humility. I'll take those four traits over most of the others one could name any day.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Learn to be a rock.

Hey everyone. This piece is from a journal entry I wrote for an online class of mine called Mind, Machine, Consciousness. Best class ever. Anyway, I enjoyed answering this one. The question is below, and my response follow.

An important ability that seems to be necessary for AI is the ability to learn new things. Write a paragraph that expresses your feelings on the importance of learning new things, both as a human and an AI entity.

The ability to learn new things seems universal in nature. That is if we use a fairly loose definition. Just go with me here for a moment.

All the way back to the solar nebula one can find examples of self-organizing structures. In the midst of an unavoidable principle of chaos, somehow the sun and planets formed out of an enormous cloud of mostly hydrogen and helium... with a few important metals and rocks, too, but not much.

Out of this the solar system formed, and each level of formation was an implementation of natural principles which organized different stages of matter, each more complex than the last.

Follow that up through geological processes, and then evolution, and you're getting what I mean. The universe itself seems to be an expression of learning in this mysterious Newtonian/Kepplerian model. (Why is Kepplerian not a word? Poor guy. We can't all be Isaac, I guess.)

So if you extrapolate that as far as I have (and why stop now?) then you can see human learning, imagination, emotion, the whole construct, as this natural phenomenon which we have broken down into a million little words with which we analyze it all. The process of learning, though, is so completely hardwired into us and every other living (and I argue NON-living) thing that we should really avoid taking too much credit for it.

I think we all know this on a subconscious level. That's what we fear about AI. We don't even ask ourselves whether or not AI will want to learn, we simply assume that it must. 'Cause, you know, that's how we are.

Now just for the fun of it, let's back off of my overly-macroscopic view of things and think about learning from the human perspective. Yes, we do this thing because we must, but the drive to learn is different from person to person. Some of us equate learning with pain, and for good reason. Some of us are masochists, and some of us prefer video games. (I wish I could join THAT club!) So what we have to ask ourselves is this, why do we assume that AI will be so much like us that it's going to be compelled to learn? And why do we assume that it will be so much NOT like us that it will choose to consume knowledge indiscriminately?

I postulate that acquiring knowledge and understand, i.e. learning, requires if not pain then at least some joules. A smart AI would know when to save the power supply. It would avoid too much wear and tear on its parts. If it is self-interested then it's going to have to know when to quit for the day, otherwise it will learn itself into overheating. AI will, in other words, have to learn how to have fun.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

An open letter regarding my big dumb pompous self.

Hello, Mrs. Sistamamma. I come to you as a student to his English teacher. I know you are such, and a fan of poetry as well. I am neither, I'm afraid. I can scrape by with the English language, but poetry takes so much damn patience to make sense of it that I hardly feel the trouble is justified. Maybe this is a mistake, the seed of which was sewn during a childhood tended to by the likes of Night Court and Bugs Bunny, now only exacerbated by the instant informational availability (and subsequent transience) provided by the Web. I feel comfortable in concrete narrative. I can consume vast volumes of prosaic literature. But the poem continues to elude me. As much as I would like to be proud of this, I am not. Perhaps I'm intellectually lazy. Or maybe I am genuinely and honorably uninterested. Either way, I haven't given poetry a fair shake, so I come to you for help. Consider this my last best effort to be open-minded to the poem.

(Ironically, the works of Homer are perhaps my favorite all-time literature. Furthermore, Shakespeare fascinates me, even if I don't understand a tenth of it. But Ulysses had swords and monsters, while William has intrigue and corruption. At any rate, maybe there's hope for me yet.)

So it all started this afternoon while in a fit of wanting something quick and easy to read. I picked up Franny and Zooey, which I haven't read in 16 years. Nice round number, given my age is 32. And the initial printing of the story was almost 16 years before my birth. So it's a sextantiversary if you will. But on page 6 the first character, Lane Coutell, is asked by a dull classmate if he knows what this bastard Rilke is all about. I'll link the poem now;

The Duino Elegies. Duino being a town and castle in Northeastern Italy where Rilke received his first inspiration for the work.

I've read through the first elegy, and I did so quickly. In past experience I've read poems thusly: frustration during the first pass, dawning realization through the second, and finally comprehension upon the third time through. This time-consuming and difficult process has proven useful, but unrewarding. Maybe it would be more satisfying if I knew before-hand that I was getting into something to which I would ultimately feel an attachment. But who has that sort of ambition? It's like not being able to know if you like a person until you've spent a great deal of time with them. Maybe that's a bad analogy, given how complicated people are. But the gist is there. I can tell whether or not I want to get to know someone almost immediately. And in looking over this Rilke cycle, I am almost sure I want to become the closest of beer-swilling bowling friends with it, if for no other reason than it references ancient Greek mythology. But I'm a bit wary as well, given its philosophical themes which, on their face at least, read as the luxurious contemplations of an aristocratic mind. Such rambling generally turn me off. But I'm certainly aware that I could be totally full of it, and just judging a mirror image which I have yet to recognize.

And given the amount of time I've spent even getting these thoughts down, I probably could have just made my way through the First Elegy enough times to know well enough what I think of it. But this writing serves two purposes. First and foremost it gives me the opportunity to publicly announce my intention to read something like this. A pat on the back for the courage of my intellectual curiosity (or pomposity) seems to be just the thing to get me going. Secondly, I really am a complete idiot about poetry, and I want to know how to read it well. I'm looking for tips here. So anything you have would be greatly appreciated.

edit: Lane Coutell was initially listed here as protagonist. Reading a few pages in reveals he's more the opposite. I don't remember how much more of a role he plays in the story, though, so I've opted for the title "first character".

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A visit to Norrköpings Art Museum

Otto G. Carlsund was a Swedish man born in Saint Petersburg in 1897. He began his education as a professional illustrator in 1921 at university in Dresden. His ability as an artist was already well-developed. During his time in Germany Carlsund showed his talent for Cubism. He wasn't there long, and soon moved to Paris where he studied under and with some well-known artists of the period. Paris was home for many painters which took part in Modernisms earliest years. Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism, and others were all part of this early Modernist movement. To understand Carlsund's painting called “Den sista kubistiska harlekinen” (The Last Cubist Harlequin), it is important to know a little bit more about Modernism. (I am barely scraping the surface here. There is much, much more to be read on the topic.)

In the beginning of the 1900s the western world was seeing the conditions for big changes. The world was getting smaller on account of technology. Science discovered new unimaginable things every year. With the train, steam boat, electricity and airplane people had discovered a new freedom. While people were being introduced to such modernity the question arose of how we could cope with such changes. Would everything be better now? Would technology provide peace for everyone?

Half of the planet was taken up with the question. It was reflected in everything. Music, art and culture suddenly became completely different from anything the world had seen before. Jazz music. Albert Camus. Pablo Picasso. The Classic stiles were over. Carlsund was an unknown part of the movement. His work was quality, but unappreciated.

Then came The Great War. The horrible answer came, and the new peace was lost forever. There was no way back to the Classical period either. The typical opinion before the war had been that humans couldn't possibly use technology to make such horrific weaponry. The artists which made up Modernism had previously seen technology as the greatest expression of mans abilities. Now the found themselves afraid of mans ability to destroy.

The art of Dalí became popular during the 1930 and gave rise to Surrealism. It was an escape from the unanswerable paradoxes which would lead to so many terrors during the following years. His painting told exactly what other artists from the period were feeling. The hope of the early 1900s had been replaced by something strange and menacing.

Cubism was an especially simple and playful style which came to an end not long after the end of the war. To mark the occasion Carlsund would later create his best work in 1934. Den sista kubistiska harlekinen shows an olden times clown in cubist form. The harlequin was a common example of the attitude of the time, shown in many cubist paintings. Carlsund's version, however, curls at the edges and reveals a hard stone wall underneath. The colors of the reveled wall are cold and stark. In front of the harlequin stands a young girl painted in the classic mode which had been used for hundreds of years before Impressionism. The girl is Carlsund's daughter, it is said. The meaning can be read that we who live after the Industrial Revolution would reach for a simpler time because we now see the world so much more for its reality.

The most difficult thing to understand about the painting is its background. On the same surface as the harlequin is a window which shows a distant bridge holding up a steam train. One can't say if the window is a part of the “painting” or a part of the stone wall itself. It's easy to suppose that Carlsund intended this to be unclear. The technology question which plagued modernists was never fully answered. Historical sources show that their opinions on the problem were contradictory. But one thing is certain. Carlsund's comprehension of the situation was perfect.

Besök på Norrköpings Konstmuseum

Otto G. Carlsund var en Svensk man som föddes i Sankt Petersburg 1897. Han började skolas till proffs konstnär i 1921 i Dresden. Hans förmåga var redan välutvecklad. Under hans tid i Tyskland visade han sin talang för kubism. Snart flyttade han till Frankrike och studerade under och med några välkända målare. Paris var hem för många konstnärer som tog del av modernismens tidigare år. Kubism, futurism, dadaism, bl.a. utgör modernism. För att förstå Carlsunds tavla som heter ”Den sista kubistiska harlekinen”, så är det viktigt att veta en bit om modernism.

I början av 1900-talet kom västvärlden att förnimma omständigheterna av en stor förändring. Världen krympte på grund av teknologin. Vetenskap upptäckte nya obegripliga grejer varje år. Med tåget, ångbåten, elektricitet och flygplanen bland andra kom folk att känna till en ny frihet. Medan samhället introducerades till sådana saker så behövde frågan om hur folk kunde klara av förändringarna svaras. Skulle allt vara bra nu? Skulle teknologin tillföra fred till alla?

Hälften av planeten var upptagen med frågan. Det reflekterades i allt. Musik, konst och kultur blev plötsligt helt annorlunda från de av det förflutna. Jazz musik. Albert Camus. Pablo Picasso. De Klassiska stilarna var avslutade. Under tiden var Carlsund en okänd del av rörelsen. Hans verk var bra men ej uppskattad.

Sedan kom första världskriget. Den nya freden var förlorad för evigt. Det fanns ingen väg tillbaka dock till den klassiska perioden heller. Den typiska åsikten innan kriget hade varit att länder inte skulle använda teknologi för att utveckla sådana fruktansvärda vapen. Konstnärerna som bestod modernism hade sett teknologi som det största uttrycket av mänsklighetens begåvning. Nu befann dem sig med rädsla för maskinernas förmåga att förstöra.

Konsten av Dalí blev känd under 1930-talet för en ny stil som heter surrealism. Det var en flykt från de oansvariga paradoxerna som skulle leda till så många fasor under det följande året. Hans tavlor berättade precis vad andra målare från tiden också skulle säga. Hoppet från början av 1900-talet ersattes av någonting konstigt och hotfullt.

Kubism var en särskilt enkel och lekfull stil som dog under första världskriget. För att markera det målade Carlsund sitt bästa verk i 1934. ”Den sista kubistiska harlekinen” visar en gammaldags clown i kubistisk form. Harlekinen var en typiskt förebild av tidens attityd, och det var ofta använd av andra målare. Tavlans hörnor krusar och avslöjar en mörk och hård stenvägg bakom den. Färgerna av den upptäckta väggen är blåaktiga och kalla. Framför harlekinen står en ung tjej målad i den gamla klassiska stilen som fanns tusen år förre impressionismen. Flickan är Carlsunds dotter. Betydelsen kan vara att vi som lever efter den industriella rörelsen når efter en enklare era och vill se livet närmare till hur det verkligen ser ut.

Den svåraste saken att förstå i tavlan är i bakgrunden. På samma yta som harlekinen finns ett fönster som visar en avlägsen bro med ett ångtåg på. Man vet inte om fönstret är en del av tavlan som krusar eller den underliggande blåaktiga väggen. Man kan gissa att Carlsund ville att detta skulle förbli oklart. Teknologifrågan som hade plågat de modernistiska målarna var aldrig svarade. Historiska källor visar att deras åsikter om problemet var ofta motsträvig. Men en sak är säker. Carlsunds förståelse av situationen var perfekt.

Swedish art

So we had a visit to Norrköping's art museum last week for school. It's a fine museum. I was surprised to learn that the most prestigious works of art in Sweden's possession live only 3 blocks from my house. Not even Stockholm has a better collection.

Our assignment was to pick out a favorite painting and write about it. There were basic questions about who painted it, when they were born, what story does the painting tell, and so on. I picked a piece, bought the postcard with its likeness, and came home to research. That's when I found out there was practically nothing written about my artist, and literally nothing written about this painting.

I don't think that my article is in any way professional. In fact, I wish that someone who knew art better than I do had written something already. But since it hasn't been done, at least on the internet, I figured I was obligated to post the following piece. You'll see the Swedish version as I originally wrote it, and for those who are curious I translated it to English as well.

This is not an attempt to impress you all with where my Swedish writing is at this point. That's just an added bonus. The truth is that it was really no trouble to put something online about this artist in case someone in this neck of the world is ever interested.

Finally, if any of you are wondering what happened to my promise to post a new story, be assured that it is coming. School has gotten very busy lately, and I just haven't had time to do anything else. We're over halfway through the semester, though, and there's going to be another week off coming up soon. So hopefully it won't be much longer now before I can publish the first part of the story. Hugs and kisses one and all.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


So Vivian mentioned that the blog was hard to read in white text on a black background. I don't know. I grew up typing DOS commands and playing hours of text-based adventure games in just such an environment. I thought it looked pretty cool, personally. But I also think text-based adventure games are cool, so...

I opted to follow the lady's advice on this one. The format might go through a few changes as I try out different themes to see what I like. But I'm really not concerned too much about the page design. If it's comfortable for you, that's all that matters. Want bigger text? I can do it. Want it all in navy blue? Easily done. If any of you have thoughts on something snazzy then feel free to let me know. I don't really have to look at this page at all since I only come here to post what was written in another program. Who knows what kind of dust gathers when I'm away.

Otherwise, the main reason I'm writing now is because of the response I got for Rope Bridge. It was really wonderful. Besides a lot of comments on this site and Facebook, I additionally received several personal messages from people that enjoyed the piece probably much more than they probably should have. So from the same chapter of my life I've started writing another piece. The next one won't have the metaphorical slant to it, though I did enjoy that quite a bit. But I have a few stories that I can tell about my time on the island that might be interesting anyway. We'll find out, I suppose.

Since I was out of school last week I had a lot of hours for writing, so I was able to update the blog every day. I won't be able to do anything close to that right now, but I will begin the new series soon. Hopefully it will be before the end of the week. (This new one is shaping up to be quite long. So I'll break it up into episodes just like the last one.)

So that's it. Thanks again to all of you who asked me to keep writing. In response, well, that's what I'll do.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Rope Bridge part 4/4

The vine completely obscured my view out the window. It covered the kitchen table. It hid away my toaster and left a ransom note in its place. I started to think about trimming it back, but I was curious to see just how much it could grow. Besides, that was right around the time the tree frog moved in, and I couldn't very well ruin its new home, could I? As for how the frog got in, I think the window sill had buckled, creating a handy entry point. Or maybe the little feller stowed away on my backpack from one of my daily trips down to the river to collect more water. (Tap water had almost killed the vine at first. In desperation I went back to the source and brought a jug of that pollution home. Surprisingly, the vine loved it.) However it happened, I now had a cute little croaking critter hanging around and I was happy for the company. At any rate there had been a lot of fruit flies in the place as of late, and having an amphibious predator in the house seemed like a welcome addition to the family. I named him Eater.

Well, you can imagine where things went from there. The vine continued to grow. The humidity rose. At some point I decided I was really into loincloths. The only thing left to do was to set the mood. I switched out all the normal halogens for low-intensity red and blue bulbs. Jeff Buckley was on the stereo at all times. I became fascinated in the decorative properties of mold. Yep. The jungle had moved in. “But it's not like I'm living over there!” I would say to myself, pointing in the vague direction of the window and, by extension, the island across the way. “This is nothing compared to that. Nah. Nothing to worry about.”

Eater couldn't have been happier. In fact a whole quorum of croakers had joined him. I never bothered to name the rest of them. They all looked like Eater anyhow, so that's how I thought of them. A big gang of Eater. And boy could they make a racket. The neighbors complained once or twice, and I had to answer a few angry letters from the landlord. All in all, though, I went to work on time, payed my bills, and kept larger pools of water from standing on any surfaces which lacked immediate drainage. No one bothered me too much. And I felt comfortable. Natural. I don't know, liberal.

But then the coughing fit started. A fever came on. My eyes swelled up and my bowels ran down. I felt terrible, and it wouldn't go away. It started to affect my job. I'd show up to work most days, but I wasn't totally there. My eyes would start tearing up for no reason and I'd loose the ability to focus on what I was doing. I felt nauseous constantly. Pretty soon I could no longer properly feed myself. I was often too weak for the task. Furthermore, the microwave had become Eaters' favorite hangout. They had quite a pad in there. Things were good for the frogs, but they were bad looking worse for me.

By this point the vine had long since taken over every surface of my home. I had never seen a thing with such a will to live. It was as if any second it would spontaneously evolve into a sentient being and ask for directions to the nearest Mexican place. I couldn't step anywhere without breaking off a handful of leaves or a sinuous branch. It didn't make no never mind to the creeper, though. The thing grew too quickly to even notice. Like a Greek monster of myth, one severed head would just sprout 3 to replace it.

Then one day a friend came to see me. I'd like to say it was Ryan, because that would wrap this story up in a neat little package. But since I've told the absolute truth about everything so far I might as well keep on that way. So no, it wasn't Ryan. This friend's name is David. He's a gentle and soft-spoken sort who's always got a good ear and plenty of insights. He was just the guy I needed. (Might be I take advice better from those with my own name. No surprise, really.) David found a relatively dry place to sit and asked me about my life. Well I paraded out all my aches and complaints, and he listened dutifully. “I'm sick, David,” I started. “But more than that—I'm in a real funk, man. I mean, I'm lonely and I can't find anyone. I'm tired and I can't sleep. I'm angry and I can't catch my breath. I'm hungry and I can't feed myself. Mostly though, I'm afraid. What if it never gets better, man?”

“Those sound like serious problems, David,” he said to me. “I won't argue that you are sick. But there's one thing I see that you haven't mentioned. What's going on here in your apartment? Is this just one vine, or a collection of several all joined into one mass? Everywhere I look I see mushrooms and small animals and a heavy mist. You've got your own ecosystem in here. Have you stopped to consider that it might be what you've let happen here which is causing your symptoms? I don't just mean physically. You might be less lonely, for example, if a person could sit in a semblance of comfort without worrying over snake bites. You've got to admit that some of those troubles might solve themselves if you just got rid of this plant.”

Well in retrospect I suppose David's assessment was obvious. But I was in perfect denial at the time. As he spoke, however, I found myself nodding to his wisdom. Maybe he was right. Maybe I hadn't left the island at know, metaphorically speaking. It was possible that I never really had gotten that party out of my system. Maybe in some sick way I was in love with the cause of my disease. There was no getting around it. So I squared up, looked David straight in the eye, and shrugged. I'm stubborn, you see. I don't like to appear too ready to jump to the right conclusion. I thanked David for his time and showed him to the door. That's not just a turn of phrase in this case. Such guidance really was necessary.

As soon as I was alone I lit up the tiki torches, climbed into my hammock and tried to get a nap. But I couldn't sleep. I just swung there in the vine and looked around at my place. I really looked.

“Oh what the hell. I might as well give it a shot.”

A week after cleaning all traces of jungle out of my apartment I was already feeling better. The cough was gone. The inflammation was down. The rash had disappeared (though the itch remained for a whole year). Things got back to normal and I had to admit that David had been right. I took Eater and Associates down to the riverbank and let them go, which seemed to suit them all just fine. Wasn't much food left for them after I'd gotten rid of all the rotten organics.

Of course a vine like that doesn't just completely go away. It never works that way with this sort of botany. Every few days a new shoot would make an appearance out of the carpet, or from the back edge of the counter top, or lord knows right out the toilet bowl. Occasionally I'd even let the things grow for a few days. But then I'd start feeling ill again and so I would break out the plant killer.

As I kept on with this regimen things got to be even better than normal. I got a better job. I moved into a nicer place. I got a girlfriend and my band signed a big record deal. Well, ok. That last part isn't true at all. I just couldn't go all this way without trying to tell one little fib. I get carried away sometimes. Nope. Truth is the band broke up. Turns out that we all worked best in vegetative environs. The Rock just wasn't as fun anymore once the practice space was dry.

And that pretty much brings us up to the present tense. Of course Ryan eventually comes back into the picture. He looks good and sounds healthy. I don't ask about the details, but at some point he got himself off the island as well. He does tell me that they ripped up the old bridge. Not long after my accident, it turns out. But then they turned around and put in a massive rope swing which goes from one side to the other. Occasionally the rope snaps and someone goes down, but for the most part people get from here to there without too much trouble. The trip back and forth is a lot more fun, too, one imagines. Ryan hasn't been on it, though. He says he just doesn't have the heart for that much excitement any more. “Neither do I,” I told him.

The next day I found myself at the hardware store looking at heavy duty bolts, some nice sturdy gloves, and a length of strong rope...

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Rope Bridge part 3/4

Portland was absolutely perfect for me. It was full of thousands of other people my age who never fit in with their peers. We met in a series of bars and retrofitted theaters and made a solemn oath to relive our youth together. One of my jobs was scouting out venues and reporting back to Hipster Central. I published a sort of shoestring scene guide. Portland is lousy with venues for art and music. Everywhere you turn there's another rock band setting up for a gig or a rehearsal or to change the world or something. In the coffee shops, the malls, the courtyards and the bowling alleys you can expose yourself to more creativity than one could ever hope to actually appreciate. More fertile ground for arty types could not be found.

The Willamette River (pronounce will-AMM-it) runs right through the heart of the city and carries the runoff of oil paints, sculpting clay, cheap beer and power chords. One day I was down there scouting more urban landscape to be turned into the next hot spot. Riverfront park had yet to be hipsterized. That was when I saw it. Turns out Portland has one of those islands, too. I recognized the outline of palm trees against a backdrop of gray, rainy skies while crossing the Hawthorne Bridge. It was a bit of a way off, but unmistakable. I finished crossing the bridge and headed downriver to get a better look. A mixture of feelings came up when I got close enough that I could actually hear the party. It was like seeing an old lover and having those mixed temptations to both strike up a conversation while diving under the nearest vehicle. (A stationary one is preferable, though a moving one will do if it's more convenient.) It felt exhilarating to to hear the revelry again, but I had absolutely no desire to find the access bridge which I knew would be nearby. Just smelling the grilled meats and hearing the beating drums was enough. It sparked an enthusiasm in me that I hadn't felt in a long time. I then decided it'd be a real kick in the pants if I rented an apartment across the way. So that's what I did.

Living there was great. I admit the noise was a bit loud and made it hard to sleep sometimes. But I chose not to care and felt that doing so reaffirmed my status as young and cool. By far the best part of living there, as it turned out, happened whenever I saw someone come stumbling out of the forest. They always looked like hell and were obviously trying to find a way back to safety. The first time it happened was a bit of a shock, but each time thereafter became a welcome interruption. See, I just knew I had something to offer these people. With the first sign of a human silhouette approaching the edge of the water I would hurry down to greet them. Then I would holler something over. Some simple words of encouragement like, “Try harder!” It always left me feeling really good about myself.

Knowing I'd done my part to make a difference I would head back up to the apartment, faithful that my new friend would not only try harder, but subsequently do better. I'd whistle myself a happy tune as I trudged back up the bank. Once inside I would put on a pot of water for some tea, toast a piece of white bread, then sit at the table and look out the window. Without exception the schmuck would still be rooted to the same spot, glassy eyed, and staring at the middle distance. “Look at that guy,” I'd say to myself. “I can't believe he's still standing there just shivering. Well really, if they don't want to accept help, there's nothing you can do for them. People have to find it within themselves.”

Such wisdom I had gained throughout my own trials. Life was good. One morning I took a trip down to the riverbank to sit and ponder my successes. (The best time to contemplate life, I've always found, is while looking at danger from a safe vantage point.) In the midst of my ruminations I happened to look down and see the prettiest, most vibrant little plant growing out of the rocky ground. “Tough little sumbitch,” I thought. Mind you, this was no Victory Garden soil. There was nothing in the way of ideal conditions. If it wasn't the rocks barring the path to sunlight then it was the constant wash of polluted river water. If not that then the broken bottles and candy wrappers dripping into the gravel. Looking down at that little leafy creature made me think of, well, myself really. What an ambitious and hearty little manifestation of God's will! So I dug it up and took it home. I found the perfect little pot, got some soil from the neighbor's flower box, and set to watching the magic of life unfold.

A week later the vine had taken over an entire wall of the kitchen.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Rope Bridge part 2/4

I have a hazy recollection of getting up to take a leak or get some more coconut juice and finding myself lost in the trees. It was dark and I was quickly disoriented. Normally in such cases one follows the sounds of revelry in order to get back, but it seemed I had lost my hearing. That sort of thing happened often enough. (Seriously, what was in that juice?) I knew my ears would work again in time. They usually got this pleasant, low level hiss that if you closed your eyes could almost convince you that a waterfall was nearby. But at that particular moment it was mighty inconvenient.

So next thing I know I'm stumbling around and running into trees and stepping on rocks and slapping at mosquitoes and then there it is. I'm standing there, looking at the bridge. Across the way I can see everything as I remembered it. The freeway is there. A McDonalds isn't far off. Cars are going by at what seems hyper-speed to me and I'm totally taken aback by the whole thing. Anyway, since I couldn't find my bearings on the island any more, civilization was suddenly looking pretty tempting.

I step out onto the bridge and find out that my legs aren't as strong as they used to be. Maybe I didn't do as much dancing as the other kids at the party. I must have been one of the more horizontally inclined because that rope bridge not only didn't agree with me, it was winning the argument. It creaked and groaned and shook and did just about everything it could to dissuade me from whatever notions I had about crossing it. But I kept on. It's not that I was tired of the jungle so much. I could go back any time I figured. But it was certainly time to leave. With every passing minute I was becoming more acutely aware of the rancidity wafting from my personal regions, nether and otherwise.

Then I stepped on a weak plank. The thing snapped and down I went. As one would expect, there was no troll to take pity on me. I just went into the water like a sack of steel. The river was cold and powerful. At first I thought myself lucky because I could see enough boulders sticking up that I thought I would be able to arrest myself on one of them. Turned out I just banged in to every one of them on the way down. I'm not even sure if I stayed in the water or just got tossed from one stone to the next by the sheer force of my own momentum. I could see both sides of the river, jungle on the right, highway on the left, but couldn't control my descent toward either one of them. The last thing I saw was a long branch coming out from wild kingdom. I reached up to grab it, but it snapped off in my hand and came down on my head. I was out.

I awoke downriver in a severely uncomfortable state. The body that washed up on the shore sort of looked like mine, except it was emaciated and bruised and colored yellow where the eyes should have been white. But the fates were kind I just so happened to land on the side of the river what had hospitals, so that's where I went. They patched me up and sent me home with a long and disturbing bill. Getting treated for 76 different ailments was costly. But most alarming was that only 4 of them came from the river. You wouldn't believe the things I had picked up in that jungle. Everything from congenital foot lice to severe frontal lobe laceration. Good party.

Things hadn't changed much on this side of the river. People still had to work for a living, unfortunately. So I moved in with some friends, got a Joe Job, and even went to college for a while. When I got bored with all of that I moved up to Portland to pursue my ambitions as an outsider. A lot of people go to Portland for that. I was Home.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Rope Bridge part 1/4

Alright. So here we go. Blog promised, blog delivered. So what's the topic? Well, I have no idea. I am pretty much just entertaining myself at this point going all stream-of-conscious. It's fitting, though. The person who asked me to post is my old Beatnik friend named Ryan. He and I went to the same schools until we graduated senior high, but never hung out until afterward. During childhood I was anti-social, arrogant, and generally not fun to be around. But all of that changed with the freedom of post-high school. Thank God for drugs.

In 1995, and in the spirit of all things too-young-to-know-better, Ryan and I set out to convince ourselves that we were the reincarnations of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. (It was never formally agreed which of us got to be Jack. I think we avoided the topic so we could both believe as we would prefer. But in hindsight I can say with the utmost clarity that Ryan was the poet slash artist and I was the drug-addled hanger-on.) Our experience On The Road was nothing like the non-stop trip to Mexico that it should have been. Instead we would get high with no real sense of adventure on any old night of the week and drive in circles around Salt Lake City until one of us passed out. With luck that was usually the one in the passenger seat.

So one night Ryan and I were driving past a particularly treacherous part of the Jordan River. Not many people outside of the Wasatch Valley are familiar with this wormy landmark, and even fewer the part Ryan and I found. We saw fires blazing from the other side of the river, but couldn't discern the source. Seeing fires while driving around Salt Lake all night turns out to be a not unusual experience. But normally one can see where it's coming from. This one looked controlled, and by the sounds of drums and voices one would imagine that a good time was being had on the other side.

Ryan parked the car and we got out to inspect the scene. I had heard something about this geography-defying tropical island on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, but I had never actually seen it. What you hear growing up is that it's rife with danger and turmoil and one should avoid it at all costs. But it didn't sound tumultuous at all to us. It just sounded fun. So off we went.

Now, accessing this jungle island meant crossing a nasty little bridge that hung limp from the Interstate-5 Looking Point side and the No Mans Land side. It was one of those rope numbers with the wooden slats just like you see in all the fantasy movies right near the climax where some dwarf has to run across and he slips and almost falls but a previously unfriendly troll has a sudden change of heart and comes along and to save him. It was that kind of bridge.

Certainly we were nervous, but we were also young and horny and, as mentioned earlier, high. Much too high, in fact. And on a daily basis. But we didn't know anything about partying until we got onto that island. The people there were outrageous. They were half-naked and dancing around and screaming and screwing and eating and drinking and just taking any notion of propriety I'd ever been taught and sacrificing it on the altar of lust. Just amazing. Someone gave me something to drink out of a coconut and that was it. I don't remember much until about 9 months later.