Saturday, 18 October 2014


Sometimes an idea comes into one's life from several angles at once. This week, for me, it was compression.

1. Compression and Information

I've been reading James Gleick's "The Information" recently - just finished the chapter where he described Chaitin and Kolmogorov's simultaneous discovery of the notion of "interestingness" and randomness of numbers, and the extent to which a number can be described by an algorithm that is shorter than the number itself. Some can, some can't. (It's hard to prove that a number can't be compressed, or that any compression algorithm is the most concise.)

Chaitin considered applying this notion to science - a scientific theory is essentially an attempt to compress the observed data into a terser form (which, come to think of it, ignores the predictive quality of a theory - but anyway...).

Chewing this over in the back of my head, I thought that scientific theory is simply a more rigorous/structured form of our everyday functioning in this world. We compress information all the time. When dealing with people I know, I have a preset mental model of them that (usually) helps us to rub along together. When I drive, I deal with the road at a conceptual/symbolic level of white lines, traffic lights, road signs, speed limits, etc.

Compression of data in computer science can be loss-less (the uncompressed data can be reconstructed with absolute fidelity) or lossy (we only have a "good enough" facsimile of the original). The JPEG image compression used by most digital cameras, for example, is lossy, with "good enough" defined in terms of our ability to recognise the image after the "noise" is discarded.

Compression is good, it lets us get on with things.

There are times, though, when it's necessary to uncompress, to experience life in it's raw, undiluted glory, to become incapable of functioning in the normal way, because of the sheer grandeur of it all. To see everyone that we meet as an ineffable mystery, an unknown miracle, an impossible marvel. This is the experience written of my Rumi, Kabir, and other holy fools.

Being a living intelligence entails a certain balance between the compressed, capable outlook and being open to the point of incapability. every moment is a choice. I strongly suspect that sticking to either one is dangerous in the extreme. Certainly, mechanical, unreflexive compression can, in extreme, lead to the "them and us" thinking of racism, sexism and any other-ism, pigeon-holing of the light that inarguably resides in all of us (whatever it might be, no theological, rational or other baggage required) as "other".

2. Compression and Comics

Scott McCloud gave an excellent opening talk at Kendal yesterday, at the Lakes International comic Art Festival, that touched on much more than the comic-book medium. Two things struck me particularly in what he said (amidst much else that I'm still digesting):

  • he described cartoons as compressed visual descriptions - shorthand notations for describing people that cut right through to the parts of our brains that recognise humans, stripping the visual description of everything but the bare minimum needed to communicate the character's state of being.
  • digital comics have lifted some boundaries on the comics form that were previously taken for granted. They do not spell the instant demise of print comics, but they force practitioners of print into greater awareness of what they are doing e.g. printing on paper, working within a fixed page size. New media challenge the old media rather than killing them - challenge can be constructive.

So, compression. A compressed, cartooned character communicates more efficiently than a realistically rendered one. Reduced cognitive friction eases the flow of reading, which is, on the whole good. Provided our goal is to function. If, as in life, there is a balance to be struck between
functioning/getting through the day and some other transcendental outlook, then what is the visual equivalent of that? Can it buy us anything in terms of good storytelling - the higher goal that all the elements of comic-making should be serving - and can efficient cartooning lead to pigeon-holing, if practised mechanically?

Whatever the case, describing a character in any form of storytelling requires some deep insight into their inner lives. A writer must love all their characters if they're to have life. I don't know "the answers" to these, I suspect there are none, and would rather live with the questions. I'll finish with a quote from Jacques Lusseyran, that seems appropriate, in describing how he saw other people after going blind:

"Frankly, hair, eyes, mouth, the necktie, the rings on fingers mattered very little to me. I no longer even thought about them. People no longer seemed to possess them. Sometimes in my mind, men and ladies appeared without heads or fingers. Then again, the lady in the armchair suddenly rose before me in her bracelet, turned into the bracelet itself. There were people whose teeth seemed to fill their whole faces, and others so harmonious they seemed to be made of music. But in reality, none of these sights is made to be described. They are so mobile, so alive, that they defy words."

Try drawing that! Well, I'm going to try. Using photographs as a starting point - far removed from the cartoon approach. Wish me luck!

A Wooden Man in Wode

An evening's non-goal-oriented digital doodling and looking through old photos.  should have been preparing for the improvisation work at LICAF that is happening today, but this happened instead.

Friday, 17 October 2014

The Second Sleep

An interesting news story:

The business of sleeping in one uninterrupted 6-8 hour session is a modern phenomenon, largely aided and abetted by cheap artificial lighting. There are common literary and historical references to a “the second sleep”, and a period of wakefulness during the night commonly devoted to prayer and reflection.

This is interesting in it's own right, but itt sets my imagination going too. Fictionalising this, it’s like the discovery of an extra day in the week, potentially with supernatural or otherworldly visitors, a gateway into something rather strange. Again, there’s a possibility of using this as a framing device for stories in the graphic novel, with the nocturnal visitors of the Second Sleep meeting and talking with a variety of people.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Improvised Comics - Getting There - A Local Handy Reference Map

Because we love you all! Simply print off onto an improbably-sized roll of paper, and stumble about the High Street of Kendal apologising to those you bump into or knock over as you trp over the tail end of this useful "little" map.

See you all tomorrow!

Imaginary Friend

Even the closest stars are so far away as to appear as nothing but little dots in the sky. Stars dwarf their planets, so our ability to see planets of other solar systems is minimal.

We can, however, infer their existence, by looking at minor, cyclical changes in the signals from the stars themselves.

A planet orbiting a star will exert a small tug upon it’s parent, towards or away from us, at different points of it’s orbit. This wobble is just large enough to be picked up as changes in the star’s radial velocity.

Inferring the presence of a planet from these changes in the light is difficult. where several planets orbit the star, at different frequencies, the changes in signal are laid on top of one another. it is necessary to look for evidence of a repeated pattern, and subtract it from the sum of the signal, gradually working backwards, uncovering evidence of further regularities, and hopefully of further, less influential planets.

Other entirely unrelated factors may also contribute to the changes in signal, further compounding the problem.

The search for life on systems outside our own is fraught with false hope and disappointment.

The Gliese 581 star is a close neighbour, only 20 light years away. In 2007, strong evidence of a third exoplanet, within the goldilocks zone, was discovered. A year later, a radio signal sending greetings from Earth was sent there.

More recently, better data has allowed us to factor in the presence of sunspot activity from the signal, peeling back another layer of noise. Subtracting that strengthened the regularity of the signal detected for the planets dubbed B, C and E, but D, previously considered to be a strong candidate for life, has faded from the picture entirely. (The others are well outside the Goldilocks zone.)

By the time our signal of hope reaches Gliese, it is likely that we will know that it’s intended target was nothing but a mirage, an artefact of our inability to see more clearly when we were younger.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

A Sense of Place : Bristol M-Shed Museum

Some nice photos I took of Bristol Docks Museum (a.k.a. "M-Shed") a while back, but the key question I'm tying to answer here is how can page & panel layout communicate a sense of place? A jumbled, textured, busy place, with a lot going on at once, and everything bobbing up and down.


Another "test swatch" for the Improvised Comics thing at LICAF this Saturday, using some of Paul Want's fine photography. Starring players of Kendal Community Theatre (and a local newspaper!)