Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Announcing the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest 2008

You've got to be sharp to win this one!

It's a fresh new year. Who knows what could happen? Although based on previous year's results, almost half of the exhibition has already been chosen and reserved for the judges, there's still a good chunk of space reserved exclusively for the contest winners. So get working!

It's probably too late to make changes to this year's contest, but there are some suggestions I'd like to make:

How about fewer judges? Do they really need that many to judge such a small contest?

Also, how about some Art judges? In fact, why not make the judge (note that's singular) someone who isn't involved in fractal art at all? like some curator or Fine Arts professor who has a reasonably respectable reputation in contemporary art (but not expen$ive)? How would that be a problem? Are the merits of good fractal art only discernable by good fractal artists? Will an "outsider" pick junk and not "understand" what they're looking at? Maybe a mainstream art judge will pick works that have good mainstream art merits?

Anyhow, get those submissions ready. Especially those of you who came so close to winning last year but still ended up becoming an honourable midget.

What else?

Well the war of words over last year's contests is over: Orbit Trap has won.

How can I say that? Because all I hear now in the minor skirmishes that take place, from time to time, here and outside the castle walls, are personal attacks on us OT writers. If there was a weakness in our criticisms of the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contests or the Fractal Universe Calendar, then our critics would be attacking those first.

I guess I've come to see the personal attacks as acts of desperation and last resort. They attack us personally because they can't find anything to attack in our arguments or what we've said. In fact, the personal attacks confirm to me that our arguments are solid and have passed the test and show that now our critics just want to change the subject. They attack us out of frustration.

I'm not totally indifferent to these attacks, but maybe because I've had very little association with these people and have never really identified with the fractal world that it allows me to be somewhat detached.

I would say these two primitive contests are proof that the fractal world is still in the stone age as far as standards go (i.e. professionalism, ethics), but because things are so undeveloped and in such a early state of advancement, criticism of the contests is quite likely to have a great impact because it's easy to start over and simply abandon both of these circuses. Fractal art has advanced so little that it's easy to change direction.

I would also say that since the two contests are all there is at the moment to represent the genre in this way (competitions) that they are perennial issues that won't go away until the issues they raise go away. Our adversaries like to portray the contests as personal projects and therefore make our criticism of them look inappropriate ("just get your own contest...") and yet the organizers use these contests to draw in and represent all of the genre, while at the same time using all that attention to pawn off their own artwork alongside "the best".

Those contests turned the spotlight on themselves - we didn't do that. They want the freedom to speak to the whole fractal world, but they don't want anyone to speak back to them.

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Monday, April 28, 2008

Fractal Art is mainstream now!

Yes. Apparently all the diseases and infirmities that I've been complaining about in the Fractal Art world are widespread and commonplace -- in the mainstream. The Fractalbook people that I said were obscuring the really serious Fractal Art "nucleus" like a cloud of mosquitoes are actually what most of the real world is made up of.

This oozing sore on the face of Fractal Art (the source of most online "itching") is in fact a sign that Fractal Art has arrived. A huge audience of shallow, distracted social butterflies is what mainstream is all about.

Here's what I stumbled upon (no pun intended): Social Blogging Creates Bland Popularity
Stumbleupon has arrived. Stumbleupon is mainstream and popular. Here's how Tony Lawrence describes its apex:
I used to use StumbleUpon to find good content. I don't bother any more, because it's now full of ho-hum content. Not "bad" content, but not exceptional. Not good enough for StumbleUpon to remain of interest to me.

That's Fractal Art in a nutshell today. Right up there with the best in the online world.

There's more from the reflections of Mr. Lawrence:
Point of reference: I've written a little less than 3,000 articles for this site. A handful have attracted attention on StumbleUpon or Digg. A small handful at that. Those posts weren't voted up because somebody owed me tit for tat: these were honest appraisals of value devoid of motive. But it's just a handful, just a very few.

And that's exactly as it should be, right? Nobody hits home runs every time at bat, but in the new world juiced by social media, you can bat 1,000 with the help of your pals.. all it requires is that you help them as they help you

Of course it's never so simple. There are always a few exceptions. Not everyone is getting with the program. They're the losers.
Again, please understand that I am NOT saying StumbleUpon or Digg or any of the others are full of junk. I'm simply pointing out that gaming the system as is now common practice produces mediocrity.

But should we just ditch the whole system and crawl back into our rabbit hole? Can't things be fixed? Isn't it just a growth phase that will pass, and in turn produce something more mature and substantial?
Please don't Stumble or Digg this post. Seriously - it's not of interest to the social media promoters and will only tick them off. We'll get hundreds of insipid comments from troglodytes who haven't read the actual post and wouldn't understand it if they did.

Insipid comments? Troglodytes?

Or how about this cheery, Solomon-like quote which Mr. Lawrence gleans from James Chartrand:
I'm disillusioned these days. It takes a lot to get me interested in anything, and as each day passes, I scan more and read less. I don't care.

I like that. Cynicism is better than mediocrity. It's better to be cynical than to applaud mediocrity. Cynicism is the beginning of something better. You don't find much cynicism in the mainstream. The mainstream is big, bright and fast flowing. When things are found in the mainstream they're usually belly-up and lifeless. "Dead things go downstream".

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Never a Discouraging Word

Is this blue right and proper?

Blue Buffalo (2001)

Aristocracy has three successive ages. First superiority, then privileges, and finally vanities. Having passed from the first, it degenerates in the second, and dies in the third.
--Vicomte De Chateaubriand

It will surprise none of Orbit Trap's readers to learn we have had no reply to our inquiries about how the Fractal Universe Calendar is run. Nearly two weeks have passed since I wrote to Avalanche Press, and nearly a month has gone by since I emailed the FUC editor. We were certainly not flabbergasted to pick up only radio silence.

However, I was a little taken aback to see this year's FUC editor's busy schedule leaves her time to chat with the calendar's supporters. The propaganda machine hums along without a glitch over at the Fractalbook niche of Keith MacKay's blog. And an insular group it is. Among that blog's contributors: Keith MacKay (former FUC editor), Panny Brawley (current FUC editor), Damien M. Jones (director of the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest), WelshWench (retired OT heckler), and kymarto (aka Toby, another retired OT heckler). An objective bunch dedicated to carefully weighing both sides of every issue -- to be sure.

I could pose my questions to the editor there I suppose. But wait. No. I just remembered that I'm banned at that blog after making just one post months ago. I guess I have no alternative but to respond here instead.

MacKay begins his post by urging fractal artists to submit to the Fractal Universe Calendar. He recounts his hits and misses in having material accepted (without crunching his acceptance rate with all other submissions), and he explains why he had fun serving as an editor last year. He forgets to mention that part of that fun probably involved placing two of his own images in the calendar while serving as one of the competition's editors -- including gracing the front cover for the 2009 version. He dispenses this wisdom:

My advice now is to participate in the calendar for the fun of it. Don't do it for the money. I mean, it's $200, or $400 for a cover image.

Well, he should know. But we're still confused -- probably because the FUC editors and publishers refuse to answer our questions. Our adversaries (like retired OT heckler Ken) have been adamant that the FUC editors receive only the inclusion of one image as a payment -- although editors are free to include other images (how many -- no one will say) of theirs into the final cut of 200 images given to "the publishing team." Is that true (we've asked and asked)? Or was MacKay also paid a total of $600 for having his two images selected/grandfathered in? The answer appears to be: yes. Don't take my word for it. Take his. Here's what he said in an OT comment thread last July:

I am getting $600 for my 2 images. I don't know, should I turn that down for violating somebody's notion on what good fractal art is? I don't think so. I need a new lens for my camera.

I dunno, Keith. Those heavy, epistemological, what-is-art underpinnings do certainly cloud the issue. What about recasting the question? Maybe from this angle: As one of the competition's editors, do you feel that reaping such rewards yourself might be regarded in some quarters as ethically suspicious and professionally sleazy? Any reaction to that line of questioning?

So, FUC editors are paid for having their own work included. Would that not make for even more incentive (or do I mean conflict of interest) to include plenty of your own material into the pruned mix sent on to Avalanche? We might be less paranoid if the editors or publishers would just spell out the boundaries for us -- like we asked. From where we sit, it looks easy for MacKay to urge artists to participate for "the fun" when, as an editor, he took in the competition's largest monetary haul last year, and his work comprised almost 1/6 of the calendar. I guess editors do have more fun.

Later in his post, MacKay can't resist sending OT a shot. In closing, he observes:

If you do have a question or concern about the calendar, contact the editor privately. That is the right and proper way to do it.

Really? And any other way is rude? Perhaps Miss Manners should inform the FUC web site about their glaring etiquette faux pa. Here's what the FUC site recommends:

If you have any questions or queries regarding the process which have not been answered in the FAQs please contact Panny via the enquiry form.

And that's exactly what I did. I used the enquiry form to pose my questions. Heard zip back. Wasn't I, in fact, contacting the editor privately? MacKay makes it all sound so laid back and informal. Gosh, maybe I should have just driven over to Brawley's place and dropped in for Sunday brunch. We could have genteelly conversed in homespun tones as we sipped sweet tea and nibbled cornbread in the rose garden. Her butler, Wilfred Brimley, might have served us bran muffins on silver platters as he cooed: It's the right thing to do.

In contrast to our boorishness, MacKay is well bred. He certainly has no qualms about pumping up the calendar competition in a public forum when -- in keeping with his own rules of decorum -- he could have more properly sent his support to the editor privately. Apparently, defending FUC's honor in a safe Fractalbook sacristy is not ill-mannered -- or, dare one suggest, even tawdry. But we who openly question the competition's workings must be held to a different (double) standard.

And there's more juiciness to be found buried in the comments. Like this zinger from MacKay:

I am confident that Panny will show the publishers what's out there by providing them with a range of fractal styles. The editor and publisher needs to see what is available.

It's a point Brawley wholeheartedly echoes:

I wish the Publisher would include some of the newer, fresher type of images, but that's not the proven method of a viable commercial venture for them. But you can bet your bippy that they SEE some of the great new works, whether they choose them or not.

I, too, wish the publishers would choose "newer, fresher" images so the calendar-buying masses will no longer have the archetype of a fractal seared into their brains as having to be a garish, over-saturated spiral -- the image of which will likely soon be appearing next to the word fractal in dictionaries everywhere. But aren't we all glad that the publishing team at Avalanche -- experts holding advanced degrees in contemporary art, I'm sure-- get exposed to the very best we fractal artists have to offer...before chucking everything innovative and experimental into the recycle bin and once more selecting the same old same old. I mean -- really -- what's the point? Why waste everyone's time -- and, worse, build up false hopes for artists who have submitted images on the cutting edge? It's like pitching movie projects like The Departed or No Country for Old Men to China's Shaw Brothers Studios. No matter how indie and hip a project is, in the end they will always just want to make another kung fu movie about Shaolin monks. This isn't a service. It's a shadow play.

Besides, we're obviously an ungrateful lot. To hear this crowd talk, we plebes should be on our knees thanking our betters for even letting us in the door. Rick Spix makes this point:

I think some folks don't realize that the two founders of the thing probably could just as easily have not included anyone else and kept it all to themselves as Tina and Linda were/are both quite capable of coming up with 13 top-notch pix by themselves had they wanted to. And easily too, I reckon. I, for one, am pretty grateful for that act of selflessness -- truly in the spirit of the old "Stone Soap Group" from the heydays of Fractint, imho.

Big of them, right? Of course, if the founders had kept everything to themselves, it would indeed have been a private publishing venture, and OT would have absolutely no problem with any of it. Artists would have been personally contacted and then contracted to publish their work -- much like Alice Kelley does with her Fractal Cosmos calendar. Instead, the FUC became a fuzzy competition with considerable insider privileges. It's hardly an open source utopia like Fractint. No one has to compete to contribute files to that software. There are/were no ruling-overlord-editor-types in the Stone Soap Group, so there was no one receiving special privileges or insider compensation. But the FUC editors definitely get a few perks while they are having all that fun. As we've shown, 40% of the included FUC images from 2004-2008 were the work of four past or current editors.

Brawley ends her pep talk with a return back slap:

Submit -- tell your friends to submit, and have fun!

As always, I thank Keith especially for his support. It's a very welcome change from some of the press the Calendar gets every year.

Ever wonder why those negative reviews turn up on your door step each year? Tired of that annual bad press resurfacing? Here's an idea. Fix your competition in two easy steps by:

1. Make it a true publishing venture. Pay editors a stipend (as in money but not art) to solicit material directly from artists who are making fractal art that adheres to "the Avalanche look."

2. Do not include an editor's work under any circumstances.

And you're done. That's it. And you'll hear no more fuss (from us, anyway) about the process. I suspect the content angle might still draw fire from time to time, though.

And speaking of hearing nothing...

We might have less cause to accuse you of imperial behavior if you acted less like royalty who can't be bothered. It just looks bad. It looks bad when you profit from having a privileged position and then boast about buying new camera equipment with your booty. It looks bad when you land grab via self-selection 40% of your own exhibition and then bill it as being filled with "the most important fractal artists in the world." Says who? Says you. It's a solipsistic loop. Can't you see that? Here's how I think you come across:

Let them eat spirals...

We're the phone fractal art company. We don't care. We don't have to.

And it's true. You don't have to care. And Orbit Trap doesn't deserve a response. Ignore us -- just as our adversaries suggest. Everyone knows, after all, we're bitter and cowardly. Better to huddle in your secure Fractalbook lairs where never a discouraging word is heard. Congratulate one another about the righteousness of good deeds that come from privilege and the fortitude of actions producing mutual benefits to the conclave. Whatever else, keep that chorus singing a refrain that you deserve the status you've claimed for yourself -- especially as you enter the third stage of the aristocracy. Omnia Vanitas.

Meanwhile, out where the serfs stand in muddy water, deadlines are approaching. The competitions must go on -- and will likely draw even more participants than in previous years -- participants who hope to at least be let in for a tour of the servant's quarters. Maybe this is the year you'll twist your pixels into enough of a formulaic spiral pretzel to finally get a country club invitation -- or, at least, you'll snag an email saying you almost made the grade. Or, better yet, perhaps this go-around you'll receive one of those 50 (and why not make it 250 this year?) meaningless honorable mentions from BMFAC. Then, you can feed your dreams a steroid drip. You're empowered at last merely by rubbing elbows with the powerful. Shout your triumph to the world (in an obscure forum thread): I've reached such a level of acclaim that I will no longer even have to be juried. I can just proclaim myself a winner with a simple speech act.

Word Made Flesh. That's you. You imitated masterpieces made by the masters. You took the fractal art courses in Mississippi. You colored spirals rightly inside the properly restricted stylistic lines. You, too, deserve to carve out some exhibition space or a calendar month (or two) for yourself.

But to those of you who do submit with less success, once all the fun you're having wears off, and the results turn out to be same as it ever was, and you're left feeling empty and cheated, and you find yourself still standing in a mud hole as you watch the emperor's carriage, shades drawn, pass you by...

...don't say you weren't warned. Because if you come, hat in hand, to us here at OT and begin talking of revolution, well, we now know from being lectured by our betters what is the "right and proper way" to respond.

We'll smile condescendingly, turn the blinds up, and pretend you never said anything at all.


Image made with Fractal Zplot. Post-processed until it became so blue it quit roaming.

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Monday, April 21, 2008

Geomo de la Fyre

Fyre embedded parameter file

Lately I've begun to seriously question whether using the term, "abstract" to describe any piece of artwork can be realistically used. I think the term abstract is itself an abstraction and is hopelessly inseparable from the world of realistic forms and imagery.

I think abstract is another way of depicting reality, that is, real things. It's because our minds instinctively try to interpret all visual experience in realistic terms. Abstract becomes real in our eyes.

We ought to speak of "abstraction" then, because our minds refuse to think in any language other than that of real objects. Abstract is a style or type of realism; a minimalized style, transforming real things and commonly representing them in a simplified way.

The other end of the "abstract" spectrum -- the opposite of simplification -- is the excessive detail of chaotic imagery. It doesn't look "realistic" but our minds translate such things so quickly that it soon becomes "something". Jackson Pollock's famous (notorious?) drip painting come to mind.

Fyre embedded parameter file

Maybe that's it; abstract art is suggestive, and therefore keeps triggering matches from our mental database of real imagery. We've all just seen too much of reality to go back to looking at even a blank canvas or a simple square without seeing it as a variation of something we've already seen in the real world.

Fractal art is an excellent example of this; fractal art often "looks like" real things and is almost always named after something real -- like it was a perfectly natural and obvious thing to do. Is it possible to look at a fractal image and not "see" something?

Some fractal imagery of course is obviously realistic as fractal patterns can be found in natural things (brocolli; the structure of trees; clouds...) so it's not surprising with those fractal images that one sees something real. But I'm thinking that all fractal imagery is converted into real images regardless of how "unreal", "non-representational" or abstract it may appear when analyzed.

Fyre embedded parameter file

Just as the state will appoint a lawyer to ensure that all defendants have representation in a court of law, our minds keep appointing realistic interpretations to represent "non-representational" artwork in the "court" of our minds. Abstract art never gets a chance to speak for itself.

Mark Rothko's famous smudgy square images (also infamous? like Pollock) I always thought of as being windows in dim rooms (although very expressive windows). The smudgy outlines resemble clouds or muddy water; an archetypal sort of imagery if there ever was one. I find these things realistic, but just "stylized", as if abstract was a style of rendering real things. In fact, take away the realistic qualities or interpretations and I think Rothko's works lose all their effect, as does all abstract work.

The human mind just can't handle abstract art.

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Friday, April 18, 2008

The Inner Workings of Walls

Fyre 1.0.1 embedded parameter file

Most have never looked beneath the surface of a wall, or even considered doing such a thing.

A wall is not seen as an object of substance, and therefore not thought of as having depth, or in this case -- inner workings.

What walls do, cannot be explained merely on the basis of color and texture. Just like skin, which is "skin deep", the smooth surface of a wall is deceptive and can easily suggest simple answers to all suggestions of deeper things.

People have often responded, perplexed, when asked, "what's behind this wall?"

Fyre 1.0.1 embedded parameter file

Once, as a child, when I had measured the rooms of our house, I was intrigued by the discovery of what appeared to be (by implication of my measurements) an unexplained space in a wall. There was the fireplace, there was the bookcase, and now, here -- the empty place.

Beneath all stairways, in every situation, without exception, there is a space. It's as if the ascension of the stairway, like the acceleration of a rocket, requires something equal and opposite. When the design of the house was negotiated, the living room declared, "If you are going to leave my room and go upstairs to another room, then you will leave with me -- your emptyness." "Cursed are you above all constructions, stairway. For leading a man where he should not go, you will forever be half-useless and the haunt of spiders, a Tower of Babel in the DNA of every double-floored home."

Fyre 1.0.1 embedded parameter file

Don't be surprised.

Imagine what you thought the first time you looked under the hood of a car and saw -- all those things. The car had done a pretty good job of hiding its inner workings. Perhaps you thought it just moved -- all by itself.

Yes, and so it is with the inner workings of walls. The engine revealed. The machine unmasked.

Woven within white wind, we whispered; what wonder was worked with walls.

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Monday, April 14, 2008

The Arabian Nights


Just like fractals, there is a special allure to the stories of The Arabian Nights.

And also like fractals, I think that special quality that makes them attractive comes from their unique origin: fractals springing from a strange new area of mathematics; and The Arabian Nights, from the Middle East.

I'm not even a student of literature, or even much of a reader at all for that matter, but I've noticed that there are artistic differences between the folk tales of the British and the Europeans, and with those of The Arabian Nights.

What are they, you ask? Well, read the book and find out. It's there, as curved and flowing as the arabic alphabet it was originally written in.

So I like fractals to be fractal-ish and The Arabian Nights to be Middle Eastern, retaining their Arab and Persian (Iran) origins.

How can fractals or Middle Eastern folktales be anything other than what they are?

Just as The Arabian Nights can be mistranslated or European-ized, fractals can be layered and "artist-ized".

For example: one translation of The Arabian Nights I read told how Sindbad returned to Baghdad after another voyage into the uncharted world and out of thanks for surviving, gave a large donation to a "church". Obviously it was a mosque, but why use a word which in 20th century English usage is never used to refer to a mosque? (And this was a version from the 1940's.) Why not change Sindbad's name to Sigfried or Samuel or Stephen, as well? Or substitute Basra with Vienna (not a good substitute for a busy ocean port) or Paris or London instead?

Anyhow, translation isn't always so simple and sometimes there is more than one reasonable rendering and the final choice can come down to subjective, stylistic preferences that grow out of long, complicated scholarly arguments -- the sort of things which I suspect bored Sindbad in Baghdad and drove him back out to sea... In fact, the Sindbad stories, although also of Middle Eastern origin, are not considered part of the Arabian Nights and were included by European publishers who regarded all Middle Eastern folktales as a single category, in the same way as "fractal" art includes, from time to time, imagery that isn't strictly "fractal", but looks like it.

I'm not arguing for a "pure" fractal genre, or even that such a category (is such a category even possible?) should have a special status; many of the stories in the "Arabian" Nights are very similar to those of Indian and Jewish origin. So in the literary arts as well as the visual arts, categories are a matter of degree because styles and methods are easily, even subconsciously, influenced and exchanged across (apparent) cultural boundaries. In such a context, purity has to be defined because very little is or can be isolated.

What I would say is: Don't overlook the "natural" beauty of a simple fractal formula rendered in a fairly plain way in a program like Sterlingware. There is no natural or "pure" way to graphically render fractals, but it is possible to use simpler methods which allow the fractal algorithm to contribute more of the imagery instead of less. Like a translation that doesn't attempt to embellish or transpose the cultural context of The Arabian Nights, sometimes fractal art can be more interesting by allowing it to retain its original "style" and making less adjustments to it.

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Saturday, April 12, 2008

An Open Letter to Avalanche Publishing

April 10, 2008

Avalanche Publishing, Inc.
P.O. Box 55
Delafield , WI 53018

Attention: Publishing Team for the Fractal Universe Calendar

Dear Publishing Team:

I am writing you out of concern for the protocols used to solicit materials for your annual Fractal Universe Calendar.

I co-edit Orbit Trap, a blog devoted to fractals and fractal art. My partner, Tim Hodkinson, and I have become increasing concerned about the manner in which several major fractal art competitions are run, including the Fractal Universe Calendar. There appear to some serious questions of propriety in these competitions over issues of professional standards and conflicts of interest.

We have not only published our inquiries on our blog, but I have also taken the time to personally contact this year’s editor, Panny Brawley, to see if she might speak to our questions. The FAQ page of the Fractal Forum site clearly states that any questions not covered in the FAQ will try to be addressed and added to the FAQ page -- or, if not, the publisher will be contacted. Here is the relevant passage:

We hope you will find that your questions have already been anticipated and answered. If not, please contact us. We will try to answer you personally, and add your question with it's answer to this page -- here. Where necessary, we will contact the publisher on your behalf for clarification.

I have now waited several weeks for a reply from Ms. Brawley, but I have heard nothing. I also have to assume that no one at Avalanche was contacted by her either, or I (or Orbit Trap) probably would have received some correspondence. Consequently, because of this lack of response, I have decided to write you directly in order to pose our questions.

One of our main concerns is why Avalanche Publishing solicits selections for the Fractal Universe Calendar using a competitive scenario. Although the web site claims “this is *not* a contest,” it certainly has the trappings of one. Your editor is actually more of a screener who whittles down the bulk of open submissions to a more manageable number. These finalists who have survived the initial cut are then sent to “the publishing team” who function as judges to make the final selection of thirteen images. This competitive framework is our major concern.

Such a competitive configuration seems to run counter to your usual selection methods. Under the heading of “Does Avalanche accept art submissions,” your own FAQ page on the Avalanche web site notes the following:

Due to the increasing amount of unsolicited materials we have been receiving each year, we no longer accept unsolicited submissions of transparencies and artwork. Avalanche editors will contact specific artists and photographers for submissions.

But all submissions for the Fractal Universe Calendar are unsolicited -- at least by your definition. None of the open submissions for the contest result from direct contact with individual artists. Or, on the contrary, are specific artists sometimes approached? Later, in the contest FAQ, the following appears:

“Q: Will artwork, other than that submitted to you via this website, be considered for inclusion for the calendar?
Yes -- possibly. In the past, Avalanche Publishing has requested specific fractals or fractal types. Special requests of individual artists may be made by approaching them directly.”

So content for the calendar is and is not solicited? If that is the case, why not just scrap the competition and have editors contact specific artists in the first place? Why not hire an editor who is a fractal artist, like Ms. Brawley, pay her a stipend, have her keep an eye on various fractal sites and art communities for a year, and then allow her to contact specific artists to submit works that fit with the calendar’s aesthetics? This would seem to be more in line with your usual practices. Moreover, by removing the competitive structure from the submission process, the questions about professionalism and conflicts of interest will vanish. As long as the Fractal Universe Calendar selection process is competitive, and the current practices are in place, questions of propriety will continue to arise. Here are a few that Orbit Trap has raised:

How are the Fractal Universe Calendar editors compensated for their services? We have heard mixed reports. One former editor noted that payment was strictly the inclusion of one image in the calendar. Another suggested that some monetary payment was also included -- either for doing the editing or for having an image published. We have also heard that editors are free to include their own work into what is selected for the initial cut. Is this true? Is there a limit on the number of his or her own work an editor can include to the 200 images sent to the publishing team? What is that limit?

We feel that including an editor’s work -- under any circumstances -- into material that she or he is editing should raise questions about professionalism. But doing so in a competitive format is even more egregious and increases the likelihood that conflicts of interest might occur. This is not fanciful thinking either. By our calculations, just over 40% of the images published in the Fractal Universe Calendar from 2004 to 2008 were the work of just four people -- all of whom were present or past editors.

Do you consider this ratio to be fair? Is this the reason the editors for previous years are not listed on the Fractal Universe Calendar web site?

Other questions:

--What protocols are in place to help prevent potential conflicts of interest -- like editors or even “the publishing team” recognizing the submitted work of friends or family? Blind judging is apparently not strictly used, since the Fractal Universe Calendar FAQ notes that signatures are allowed on submissions.

-- The same FAQ also states that the list of the final 200 images will not be made public. What is the reasoning for keeping this information private? There is no privacy issue involved, since artists willingly submitted their work for public show. Moreover, if given attribution, artists who made the cut might have added incentive to submit again the following year. Why not say who made the cut -- and even list the number of images by a given artist that were passed on to the publisher?

--Who exactly are the we mentioned throughout the text of the Fractal Universe Calendar web site -- especially since only one editor is listed? Is the reference to “the publishing team”? The only other person mentioned is someone who maintains the website. Is this person part of the us? And how is the site's web designer compensated for her services?

I hope you do not misunderstand us. We are not questioning your right to publish a calendar and to use whatever material you wish. We are just questioning why you are using a competitive framework. By doing so, and by using the current practices, you run an increased risk of raising questions about impropriety -- particularly in regard to standards of professionalism and to possible ethical shortcomings. If, instead, you managed the Fractal Universe Calendar selection process as a more conventional publishing venture -- hiring and paying an editor to solicit work directly from artists -- I would not be writing you in the first place.

I hope you will be able to answer our questions. I thank you for your time and effort, and I look forward to hearing from you at your earliest possible convenience.


Terry Wright

Orbit Trap


Snail Mail:
Cruel Animal Productions
P.O. Box 25901
Little Rock , AR 72221-5901

We have written about the Fractal Universe Calendar on Orbit Trap on and off for several years now. Here are links to several recent posts:



This letter has also been posted on our blog.


I mailed this letter today to Avalanche Publishing -- and I also sent the letter via the email contact on their web site. If I receive any reply from the publisher, I will publish it here on Orbit Trap. I certainly hope the publishers will be more responsive than this year's Fractal Universe Calendar editor has been so far.

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Friday, April 11, 2008

Ich bin ein Bernini!

The Ecstasy of St Clickism

It's not exactly a single photoshop filter, "bernini.8bf", but rather a syndrome of filters (to use a pathological expression).

The sierpinski effect from multicrystal.8bf (Ilyich the Toad) produces the sharp, stone-like appearance that extractor1.8bf expands upon so well. But it's the simple mirror,mirror filter that takes it to a whole new level, and in such a simple way, by creating nothing any more exciting than bilateral symmetry, like a face has.

Or one of the great works by Bernini.

The Ecstasy of St Theresa by Bernini in Rome, from Wikipedia.org

This might help you relate to my, sometimes, obscure perspective:

Processed with Extractor1.8bf (Mario Klingemann)

Symmetry adds some sort of majestic quality to these crushed and crumbled images, taking what would otherwise be, uh, something crushed and crumbled, and raising it up as a monumental, altarpiece-like construction.

Have you ever been freaked-out by fractals? Stunned by a spectacular image that has apparently grown out of a mere mathematical formula? That's how I felt, now and again, while making these Bernini-esque images.

Some I found a little disturbing:

Is it just me? Or is there a disturbing, skull-like head there?

This is like some scene from the altar of an evil, cult-like temple:

The book, the banner behind it, the black flags? You don't think that's scary?

What's odd, and adds to the wonderment, is that they all have such humble, clickism origins. They start off as some image (it doesn't really matter much what the image is) I've found on the internet. I then multicrystal.8bf it about 10 times till it looks nothing like the original -- just a wall of sierpinski blocks in the colors of the original photo.

In a variation of the crumblescapes I made previously, I add two seemingly uninteresting filters and then use the mirror effect in mirror, mirror. The two new filters are distortion effects. Distortion effects can be the most creative effects of all, literally making something out of nothing.

Revolver33RPM.8bf and Overlap4.8bf (in that order) both by the prolific filter writer, Andrew Buckle, from his Andrew's filters collection. They basically add a curved crushing effect, instead of the usual square crushing effect. I discovered this somewhat by accident, although I had already been using Overlap4 with extractor to make a couple of interesting "gravel clouds".

Take that twisted, crushed thing and mirror, mirror it and then apply the extractor thing to produce the black and white, high contrast images here.

Do you see what I see? If you're screaming, you do.

It's interesting how combining filters can produce such a powerful effect -- instead of the usual grey sludge that commonly results from driving half a dozen filters over the same image,
one after another
like a convoy of tractor-trailers
at night, in a rainstorm
obliterating a wet cardboard box
under their wheels
leaving in their wake,
shreds of box paper
pasted to the gleaming pavement

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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Snorkeling in Wool

Everything has been created out of sea-mucous, for love arises from the foam. -- Lorenz Oken

Hyperbolic coral forms by Christine Werthiem and Margaret Wertheim. Photo by Alyssa Gorelick.

From the "Goings on about Town" section of The New Yorker, 4-7-08:

Crocheting the Coral Reef: The Institute for Figuring, a Los Angeles based organization dedicated to bringing fractals, hyperbolic space and other high-flying mathematical and scientific concepts down to earth, has embarked upon an unusual project that's inspired by the plight of the Great Barrier Reef. It is promoting the creation of woolen models of a coral reef, using techniques of hyperbolic crochet that were discovered by the mathematician Daina Taimina.

More on the project from the New York Times, 4-4-08:

This environmental version of the AIDS quilt is meant to draw attention to how rising temperatures and pollution are destroying the reef, the world’s largest natural wonder, said Margaret Wertheim, an organizer of the project, who was in Manhattan last weekend to lecture, offer crocheting workshops and gather recruits. The reef is scheduled to arrive in New York City next month.


Ms. Wertheim, a science writer, and her twin sister, Christine, who teaches at the California Institute for the Arts, came up with the idea of creating a woolly homage to the reef about two and a half years ago. The Wertheims, 49, grew up in Queensland in Australia, where the approximately 135,000-square-mile reef -- and the billions of tiny organisms that it comprises -- is located. But the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef is much more than a warning about global warming. It marks the intersection of the Wertheims’ various passions: science, mathematics, art, feminism, handicrafts and social activism.

So what's the back story on hyperbolic crochet anyway? We turn to the Institute on Figuring for the real skinny:

Hyperbolic crochet was itself the outgrowth of an unexpected branch of geometry. For two thousand years mathematicians attempted to prove that the only possible geometries were the flat, or Euclidean, plane, and the sphere. Great minds expended themselves on the effort, only to discover in the nineteenth century that a third option was logically necessitated. The discovery of this new “hyperbolic space” ushered in the field of non-Euclidean geometry, the mathematics underpinning general relativity, which aims to describe the shape of the cosmos. Mathematicians’ skepticism about hyperbolic space had been based in part on their inability to imagine how it would look, for they had no way to model it physically. Most were thus astounded when, in 1997, Dr. Daina Taimina, a Latvian émigré at Cornell University, presented a hyperbolic structure made with crochet.

Nature, meanwhile, had discovered the form in the Silurian age. Lettuces and kales -- the crenellated vegetables -- are manifestations of nearly hyperbolic surfaces, while in the oceans, corals, kelps, sponges, nudibranchs and flatworms all exhibit hyperbolic anatomical features. And so a woolly manifestation of a reef is not as unlikely as may first be supposed. Through the lens of crochet we may thus discern a hitherto unsuspected line connecting Euclid to sea slugs. Ways of constructing once perceived as “merely” women’s craft, and dismissed from the cannon of scientific practice, now emerge as revelatory forms of a more complex, embodied way of thinking about the world both mathematically and physically.

Now you know, fractalists. Ditch those mice and tablets. Pick up your needles and hooks instead.


And this information popped up in my Inbox this week. From the New York Times, 4-6-08, "In the Web World of 24/7 Stress, Writers Blog Until They Drop":

To be sure, there is no official diagnosis of death by blogging, and the premature demise of two people obviously does not qualify as an epidemic. There is also no certainty that the stress of the work contributed to their deaths. But friends and family of the deceased, and fellow information workers, say those deaths have them thinking about the dangers of their work style.

This news will likely warm the dark hearts of some of OT's adversaries. Isn't this exactly what Tim and I deserve for our many blogging perfidies? The. Death. Penalty.

But wait. Haven't some our most vocal troll-hecklers recently gone on to form their own blogs? Hmmmmm.


And now -- an update on our attempts to get some direct answers from this year's editor of the in-progress Fractal Universe Calendar contest, um, competition, uh, sorta-publishing-like activity. Here's what we've heard so far:

That's right. Absolutely nothing. No emails. No letters. No updates to the FAQ on the FUC web site. But you already knew the answer, didn't you? And it's what we expected, too. After all, our fractal emperors can't spare the time to address the riff-raff and hoi polloi as their carriages pass through peasant villages. Better to turn a blind eye to such peon baseness. Why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?

And to think our adversaries say we are the cowards.

Besides, maybe if the BailOutters and UFractali and the most important fractal artists in the world* ignore us, we'll just go away.

Except we won't. We are here to stay and are committed to bringing fairness and professionalism to both the Fractal Universe Calendar and the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest.

And I've waited long enough for a reply from the FUC editor. Now, I'm going to write Avalanche -- the publishing company that produces the Fractal Universe Calendar. Maybe someone in the publishing house will be more inclined to address at least some of my questions. Stay tuned.


*It appears the link to this ostentatious, self-proclamation made about (by?) the self-selected, judge-winners of the 2006 BMFAC is no longer working. I wonder why? Just to keep its collective memory fresh for our readers, here is the claim that was made:

It [the 2006 BMFAC exhibition] will examine quality works from the most important fractal artists in the world.

Modesty is a vastly overrated virtue.
--John Kenneth Galbraith

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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Prose Poem

I remember the great arrival of the prose poem. I was taking a poetry "workshop" and there, suddenly, on a page in the poetry anthology was a clump of text without any explanation. This fragment of text, which was actually shorter than the poem on the facing page, had a title at the top, just like poems did, and the author's name at the end of it, just like you'd expect a poem to have. I thought it was merely an interesting excerpt taken from a novel, but we were all told, to the laughter of the whole class, that it was a new form of poetry, although consisting entirely of prose.

Although I had also joined in the laughter, me and a few people like me who found prose exhausting and poetry frustrating, immediately saw the potential for such a wonderful development. And we also saw the embarrassment of writing what was basically a piece of "prose", like a short story, but so short it couldn't even be the beginning of anything, and which was conveniently called a poem for no other reason than it seemed to fit in the same space as one.

A poem was anything short and didn't have to follow grammar rules. Prose took up a lot of pages and had "development". Maybe they should have been more specific. But it's too late.

Poems were short and prose was long. Poems made up for shortness by being intensive and therefore, hard to write. But not hard to write the way a novel is hard to write.

Since it's much easier to write prose, there has to be a lot of it to make up for this imbalance. Either way it's a tough job and a good poet actually gets the same respect as a great novelist because they both share the same pain. One kind of pain being extremely intense, but lasting only for about an hour, and the other, spread out over the course of several months and several hundreds of pages, acquiring unique qualities of its own, but reaching the same level of suffering when it's all added up at the end.

A prose poem was obviously cheating because it's so easy and because it's so short. Maybe that's the real reason we laughed so much when we first heard the idea. Could it really be true? Could there really be such a large, gaping hole in these prison walls of weekly assignments?

If you had a fantastic idea for something and could start by getting most of the entire first paragraph done...

I ran a marathon, once. It wasn't anything like how hard I had thought it would be. I only ran part of it. I ran for two minutes. And I could do it again. And again. Its my favorite sport now -- now that it has this new, modern form.

Think of each prose poem as a book. Think of each prose poem as just the fun pieces of the book. The rest of the book hasn't been written, but could be written, but that isn't likely because the book's already been gutted and it's most important parts sold on the black market as a prose poem. It's a masterwork of editing and the audience should applaud it's invention with a great sense of relief.

Relief from bad prose. And relief from bad poetry. There's none of either in a prose poem.

The prose poem is the perfect genre for people like me who love to write, but just not very much.

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Friday, April 04, 2008

The Continued Fall of the House of Usher

All text taken from The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) by Edgar Allan Poe, more or less...

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How to make Art from Garbage

Wednesday, April 02, 2008


All text from The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) by Edgar Allan Poe (in case you thought I wrote it...)

Recipe for Crumblescape
-Take any image, process 7 or so times with multicrystal.8bf (by Illyich the Toad)
-Process with Extractor 1 (Mario Klingemann, VM Toolbox), adjusting for optimal effect
Variation: use Mirror, Mirror (by Alfredo Mateus) to create a symmetrical appearance
Notes: don't grease the pan, don't sift the flour, let the smoke detector tell you when it's done.

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