Orrery 3: Things Fall Apart

So far the only things I've varied have been orbital distances and speeds. What if I let orbital distances vary by as much as 1% per frame? (Images open in lightbox)

It's hard to not feel compassion for these figures: you feel their earnest desire to do the right thing. Ordinarily a computer is a perfect executor of your instructions: the insertion of randomness seems to also insert some humanity, some fallibility.

Orrery 2

The Orrery project is a kind of playground for exploring parametric variation within a very tight set of variables. I'm deliberately restricting myself to a small subset of possible variations using a single three-body system:

  • C orbits B between 2 and 6 times per orbit of B, in either prograde or retrograde direction, at a distance of 10 to 25 units;
  • B orbits A between 3 and 12 times per single orbit of A, in either prograde or retrograde direction, at a distance of 25 to 50 units;
  • "Planets" or "radii" or both may be shown.

Even within the small set of variables there are millions of combinations, an aesthetic landscape which we can explore. It's challenging to apprehend even a thousand variations. Different values generate different associations: some are like etchings of microscopic diatoms or pollen grains: some are stained-glass windows; some are "French" in some way I can't quite understand, others are reminiscent of Celtic patterns.

Complexity is another dimension, easily accessible just by looking at PNG-compressed file size. Twelve examples from a random set of 1,000: the four largest, four in the middle, and the four smallest files: click thumbnails to open larger versions.


Ongoing work prompted by the solar eclipse in Husavik on the 20th of March. Three-body system with orbital periods defined as a number of frames with integer multipliers (e.g. 2400/600/200). This is the beginning: it will get more complex from here on.


Stills from a live-animated installation I've been working for the last few days. Flybys of a mathematical object, a three-dimensional visualisation, built in Processing, of the amount of daylight by day-of-year and latitude. Tomorrow is the equinox: at just 50km from the Arctic Circle, the days are changing length faster now than at any other time of the year, seven minutes a day of extra sunlight.

In Húsavík

I'm in Húsavík, Iceland, for a month, in residence at the Fjúk art centre. I'm doing digital work, mostly using Processing, exploring natural phenomena: daylight variation by latitude, eclipses (we had one today!), geophysics.

Húsavík is a small town in the north of Iceland: fishing and whale watching are the main activities. People are friendly in that undemonstrative Nordic way. I've been here for five days and I know a few people: Arzu my studio-mate, Eggert, Marina, a progenitor of Fjúk, Hei∂∂i, Giuditta, Francesco, Dave. I know more people, awkwardly, with whom I've had interactions in a combination of their excellent English and my shameful, hello-point-thankyou Icelandic: at the pub, the bakery, the supermarket. When the day is nice (which at the end of winter at 66° north is hardly ever) I try to go for a run, to explore the landscape and to breathe deeply the cold, clean air.

It's wonderful opportunity: of course I miss my partner K, my family, my workmates, but it has never been easier to work and play and create from anywhere on Earth.


On Reading and Forgetting

I'm in the discomforting position of having the great majority of my books in storage, hidden in boxes, accessible in theory but opaque to my immediate view. I find myself unmoored, unsure of where I've been and where I'm going. Mike Jones write about his own collections

“...in recent years I have moved so regularly and am so perpetually short of shelf space that I never seem to get them into any order.
Regardless, I know what’s there and why. In and between them all – even the bad ones – I see stories and memories, narratives and connections, hidden delights and buried sorrows.”

 A well-thumbed book is easier to decode than a braid of browser histories, split between devices and applications and operating systems: our flirtations with different philosophies, our passing interests and intellectual crushes are lost from view. Now Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr and Reddit and Hacker News and Metafilter and Boingboing and Audible and Kindle conspire to disappear what we read.

An old person, their senses dwindling, dwindles all the quicker when taken out of their homes, away from the familiar accretions of a life. Our habitual surroundings provide context, confirmation of who we are. What does this unpapered, unremembered reading do to us? Can we find ways to archive our own experiences, to help us understand how we've become ourselves?
Time to plaster the walls and put up the shelves and unpack my boxes of books.

On New Year's Resolutions

New Year's resolutions are nowadays considered gauche, and yet the similarities between all our wishes tell us something important. We all want to eat better, exercise more, be smarter with our money, make better choices; we all want to find partners, or keep them, or be better for them, or to reconcile ourselves to their absence; we all want to be better children, siblings, parents, colleagues, citizens. We all want to be better human beings. 

For most of us, the new year comes during a time when our normal routines are temporarily suspended, where we achieve some critical distance from which to question our everyday behaviours, so it's not surprising that we come to think that our efforts over the last year have not been those of our best selves. Our days are long and full of compromise; our short-term desires are incompatible with our long-term goals; we long to live with clarity, to trace a straight path between decision and action, to live without frustration or regret. What better time than now to encourage ourselves to live the lives we think we should?

Wanting to be a better person is a resolution worth making.

The small rocks of your attention

Social media —Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, whatever your thing is— fit easily into life's interstices. It only takes a moment to check your feed, say something smart, chuckle at a joke.

But those moments add up. Together, they take up the space in your life that you could be using for thinking, dreaming, reading, loving. What projects, places, people are you missing out on because you don't have room?

On the four-day week

Recently there's been some extra interest in the four-day workweek that we practice at Icelab. We had a TV crew from the national news in last Thursday and I spoke to ABC radio on Wednesday. Today was Friday, my extra day off. What did I do?

I drove with my partner K to the city and had breakfast with her. I talked to a group of architecture students at the University of Canberra about how to give their presentations some design love. I had lunch (and, later, afternoon espresso) at some of Canberra's best cafés. I bought food and started dinner. I repaired a broken headlight on my car. I purchased some warm clothes and unpacked gear for a trip to the snow. I washed clothes and hung them out. I took out the compost. I booked accommodation in Melbourne and set up a new bank account. I read about politics and energy and urbanism and listened to podcasts about philosophy and technology. I talked with my friends and shared jokes and ranted about politics and thought about life. I collected wood and lit a fire and picked up K and talked other about her day and brought her home to a warm house with dinner on. 

Not working Fridays makes me a calmer, smarter, more engaged person, a more attentive partner, a better human. Yes, it will cost you money. An extra eight weeks off per year is a lot of time to make up. But it will give you riches beyond material wealth. You can always make more money. You will never get more time.

A universal basic income

As technology advances, it's inevitable that jobs will be lost to increasingly sophisticated robots.

We should be embracing that freedom from drudgery. No-one wants to stack shelves for Amazon.

But our current focus on jobs means that the less-educated get left on the scrapheap. That's bad for everyone.

A universal basic income is an essential part of an equitable, just society, where there is dignity for all citizens.

By breaking the nexus between employment and money for living, we free ourselves and our societies to do better things.

And don't think it's just manual labour that can be automated. "Knowledge workers" are next.

What is living well?

Something I struggle with daily is the competing obligations we have to our own lives and to our world.

Seems to me that a well-lived, happy life isn't compatible with trying to make the larger world a better place.

Politics, as it is currently practiced, rewards aggressiveness, mendacity, a lack of principles. Who would want that for themselves?

But unless people of courage and compassion and empathy and kindness stand up and fight, how will it get better?

Readings good, Amazon bad

Sometimes you'll get linked to an Amazon product page. Sure, you could buy it from there, but if you're in Australia, Readings Bookstore is a way better place to get your p-books. They have numerous Melbourne locations, a great website* and free shipping anywhere in Australia.

It would be convenient, would it not, not have a handy bookmarklet which would copy the product title from the Amazon page you were looking at and search for that title at Readings? Yes, yes it would.

What are you waiting for?  Drag the bookmarklet below to your favourites bar. Next time you're on an Amazon product page, you'll be ready**.

*Yes, we made it.

** I haven't actually tested this on more than two pages. YMMV.

On the permeability of the individual

We're accustomed to thinking of ourselves as atomic, indivisible entities. I am me, and you are you, and that’s that. I’m coming to see that this is only approximate. When people live and work together, sometimes—when it’s good—a gestalt entity emerges. Who can say who’s responsible for this piece of work, this meal, this idea, this experience? And as we offload more of our sensory and cognitive apparatus to a distributed digital armamentum, we share more of that apparatus with others. How long until the world mind?