A Photon, Sturgeon’s law, and the size of everything

There’s this video of the solar system where you travel away from the sun at the speed of light, like a photon. After three minutes this photon reaches the first planet, Mercury, which looks like a small marble. It takes more than eight minutes to reach Earth. It goes on and on for 45 minutes through empty space, passing a little ball every now and then. Alphonse Swinehart took a few liberties while creating this video. First of all, there is no sound in space — which can be emulated by switching off the sound of your device. But more importantly, all planets in our solar system seem to be perfectly aligned. Which in reality they are not. Which made me realise that almost every photon that leaves the sun will never meet anything at all.

I had to think of this video while I was watching the Universal Slide Show in the Image Section on the incredible Library of Babel. The Library of Babel contains all texts that have ever been written, and all texts that will ever be written. It also contains all pictures that have ever been created, all pictures that will ever be created, and even all pictures that have never been taken: every portrait of every person who has ever lived is in there somewhere. The Universal Slide Show shows all of the images, one at a time. I’ve been watching the slide show for quite a while, and so far, all of the images look similar: an image of random noise. This made me wonder. What are the chances of hitting an image of something that can be recognised? Would it be a similar change as a photon traveling from the sun passing by something in the solar system?

This made me think of the ultimate conclusion of Sturgeon’s law. Sturgeon’s law states that 90% of everything is crap. You could apply Sturgeon’s law to the remaining 10%, and conclude that 90% of the things that aren’t crap, turn out to be crap after all. And so on, ad infinitum. When you replace crap with emptiness, you have the changes of a photon passing a rock: very close to zero, but it happens. And if you replace crap with noise you have the chances of seeing a recognisable image on the Universal Slide Show, or finding a readable text in the Library.

The universe is filled with countless stars, and filled with even more planets and other stuff. But the chances of a photon ever hitting one are almost zero. The Library is filled with incredible amounts of readable stuff, and almost unimaginable amounts of recognisable images, yet the chances of stumbling upon one are almost zero.

And then I read that the Library of Babel is bigger than the Universe.


All the books ever, for free

If I wait long enough — and I keep paying my hosting bills the next six trillion years — my server will generate all possible different rectangles in my Daily Rectangle project. It is a long term project.

Jonathan Basile is not as patient as I am. He created this project that is much bigger in size and ambition than my simple rectangles. He created — and finished — the Library of Babel.

At present it contains all possible pages of 3200 characters, about 104677 books

And yes of course, it also contains this blog post.


Train masonry

A few weeks ago I saw this image of train doors that were closed by a brick wall. I grinned and moved on. I definitely didn’t think about how much work would go into vandalising a train with masonry. Today I saw the making of. Two people took a lot of effort to create this wonderful piece of uselessness.


The Greek Time Clock

When you ask somebody in Greece to wait, you don’t ask them to wait a minute, you ask them to wait two minutes. The interpretation of these two minutes in Greece is different than two minutes in, for instance, The Netherlands. In The Netherlands people are pretty strict about time. Two minutes will be exactly two minutes, or a bit less. In Greece on the other hand, two minutes can be anything from five seconds to two hours, or more. The perception of time in Greece is different. If you say you’ll meet at seven, nobody is really surprised if you show up at eight. I have to say, I enjoy time much more in Greece than here in The Netherlands. I want to enjoy time here as well.

I fixed it

So I created this Greek Time Clock. It shows you the exact time, give or take one hour. And it updates every two minutes.

If you want to use it as a continuous clock on your tablet, you might want to add this version of the clock to your home screen. It prevents some tablets from going to sleep.


Random white images

More than 629 days ago I created a site called One Nothing A Day for an ex-colleague of mine who went freelancing; the thing I remember most vividly about freelancing is the fact that you can do nothing for long periods of time. I loved that. Hence this site. Every day it generates the word nothing, set in a randomish font and displayed in a randomish color. The font and the color are based on the date and the time. I was discussing this site with another colleague of mine, Maarten P. Kappert — the mastermind behind the first version of Minimalissimo, which was absolutely brilliant.

Minimalism

Maarten is an aesthetic minimalist, and we always joke about everything that’s not white. I even copied every post from his blog for a while, replacing his comments with criticism on everything that’s not white in the picture. We’ve been playing with the idea of extreme minimalism for a while now, so you may understand that we both considered the One Nothing A Day site to be inaccurate, to say the least. So we created a new blog.

Amor vacui

On this blog we wanted to publish white images. We tried search engines, and sites like Flickr, to find these images for us, but alas, there was no way to make sure that all these images were solid #FFFFFF. So I created the whole thing myself. Every night around midnight a cronjob is fired that generates a new, white image. Its dimensions are based on the last four numbers of the Unix epoch time, which will probably result in a unique image every day. In order to not distract the viewer, the images are displayed on a white background with — carefully measured — enough white-space between them. In a few years this will be a very very long page.

The details

A while ago on Twitter I asked people when they think a site is finished. Most people said never, which is often true, but Peter Gasston said that a site is finished when all supporting elements are in place; 404 page, icons, metadata, page titles. So we added a page title. I created a 404 — not suitable for people who are afraid of non-white. I added an enormous list of white icons of different sizes so you can all bookmark the site to the homescreen of your particular device. It will look wonderful. I even made sure that the code looks nice if you view the source, with plenty of white-space, so even nerds will be happy. In the source you might have seen that the images are perfectly accessible to everybody, even to people who can’t see them. The alt text neatly explains that it’s a white image of certain dimensions.

Follow nothing

Of course you can stay updated. The site has its own RSS feed, and all images are also posted on Twitter and Flickr. They should all get updated somewhere in the middle of the night, when it’s dark; when true minimalists need their dose of white images the most.

I had a wonderful day yesterday designing this whole site together with Maarten, with all these tiny details, with all the things in place. I finally created a true site about nothing. I created a website that looks white.


A URL as a present

Yesterday I read about the art that Constant Dullaart makes. Many of his creations are actually websites, and if you want to buy the work, you buy the domain, with the content. After you’ve bought it, it’s your responsibility to take care of it, to make sure that it doesn’t break. Just like physical art. This solves a problem many digital artists might have with using the web as a medium. You can just sell the domain. Once the maecenases get used to the idea of owning and hosting a website we can start making real web art. Wonderful. This realisation came right on time.

Why?

In the beautifully designed Mobile Book you can find some illustrations by Mike Kus. The chapter about responsive design is illustrated by a work I particularly like. My wife liked it too, we didn’t like one of our walls in our hall, so we decided to paint the illustration on that wall. I ordered some stencils, painted the illustration onto the wall, cursed the inflexibility of the physical world, ordered some new, slightly smaller stencils, and finally repainted the illustration.

What

Now, I didn’t ask Mike for permission, I just painted his work onto my wall. So the least I could do was thank him for creating such a beautiful thing. I thought about sending him a book. But that’s boring. I thought about sending him a poster, but I don’t think these salads compare to the fantastic work he’s created. So when I read about the possibility of selling URLs, I realised that I could also give away a URL. I decided to create a semantically correct, responsive version of Mike’s illustration and give it to him. This is how it works: People with very old browsers will see a purely textual representation of the work while people with other less capable browsers will see the colours that have been used as well. Isn’t that nice?

Native web art

In one of his fantastic talks Bret Victor defines computer art as without behaviour, it’s not native. I changed that quote slightly to Without adaption, it’s not the Web. Anything on the web needs to adapt to the possibilities of the device and browser the visitor chose to use. If it doesn’t it’s not webby. Back to the illustration.

For people with big, modern browsers I used somewhat modern CSS to style the semantic HTML in such a way that it looks like the original illustration: Same layout, same order. For people with a smaller screen, the illustration is reflowed to fit within three columns. The illustration is laid out over two columns on the smallest screens. By my definition — since it adapts to its environment — this version of the work is webby. If you resize your browser window continuously, you are interacting with the work, and the work shows behaviour by reflowing the layout. So in Bret Victor’s terms, this is native computer art. Could it really be that this present is real, native web art?

Happy

I’m very happy that Mike actually likes the things I did to his work. He was excited about the painting, and he was excited about the semantically correct, responsive web version too. I was a bit concerned that he might not have liked it, you never know how people react. In that case I would have kept the painting on my wall, and I would still have given him the URL with its content. But I would not have written about it. And if he wanted to, he could have just deleted all of it. Just like physical art.


Rijks Vasilis

Behind every QR-code is a picture of a wonderful work of art. That’s what my five year old daughter thought for a while. She has an old Ixus camera and a few days ago she was making pictures of something on our wall. She wasn’t happy with the results so she asked to use my iPhone. Again she was not happy with the results, and she gave up. Later, when I was looking at the photos on my phone I saw that she had taken pictures of QR-codes. They didn’t do what she expected. The day before I had shown her that you could find amazing pictures behind these weird blocks. She didn’t know it doesn’t just work with every camera.

The thing on our wall that she was taking pictures of is a work of art, called RIJKS VASILIS. A while ago I came home and it was just there, without any explanation. A big triangle, pointing towards the words RIJKS VASILIS. The triangle consist of 28 QR-codes that direct you towards some lovely works of art, and to one picture of a salad. To truly understand this work, you have to know that I hate QR-codes and that I love the new website of the Rijksmuseum. This work is made by my beloved friends Robert-Jan Verkade, Marrije Schaake and Maaike de Laat with the help of my even more beloved wife Katrien Vermeulen. I’ve tried to figure out why exactly they made it elsewhere.

It’s a weird object. While I think QR-codes are among the most ugly inventions ever made by humans, this thing is actually nice to look at. The repeating pattern is nice, but the geometric shape is a bit clumsy, which makes it human: The codes are all the same size, but the borders around them are of various widths. And then, the distance between them varies too. Compulsive people should probably not look at it for too long, but others might agree with me that exact symmetry and perfection are boring: even without a QR-scanner this is a fascinating thing to look at.

There is a website of this work, with all the QR-codes on it, so you can enjoy the works too. The website lacks the sloppiness, but does have some wonderful things to think about. For instance, I love opening the URL in the browser on my phone. And not because it looks so nice. The only way to actually see the pictures behind the QR-codes is by using an app on another phone. And I don’t have another phone. But I do have my memory so I just look at the codes and imagine looking at The Nachtwacht. Or that weird Japanese print of a giant cucumber with a cricket on it. Or the inspiring painting of the household of Jan Steen. Who would have ever thought that, to amuse myself, I would be looking at QR-codes.

Finally the weather is getting better here in The Netherlands, so my daughter and I were playing outside, on the doorstep. Suddenly my daughter cried out with joy! Close to us a van was parked with a QR-code printed on it. Would it be a beautiful painting of a swan? Would it be that marvellous statuette of a rabbit? Would it be the salad or one of the amazing old Japanese prints? She still doesn’t get it. Why would anyone, ever, want to point towards a crappy contractor’s site?


Nothing has happened

This wonderful site has been neglected for a over year. I’ve been busy with very useful things, like work, design, publishing, and talking. My mind was filled with functional stuff. There was not much room for my beloved nonsense. But a few weeks ago it started itching again. Badly. All the stuff I was doing made so much sense! Yes, sensible stuff can be interesting too, but at the same time it is so boring! I started thinking about art again. About the fact that we miss the influence of non-practical thinking on the web. I had some fantastic evenings with some fine artists, talking about this and other stuff. Stuff that has a function, but in a completely other way than the economic, efficient function that everything is valued by. I met with my old arts teacher and we had an incredibly inspiring evening. Me listening, him and his wife talking about art. So inspiring.

The last post I wrote on this blog was about Nothing, and after that post, nothing happened here. On the site one nothing a day, more than 400 nothings have been published since, though. It is by far the most active project I’ve ever made. And the most lazy project: It updates itself while I procrastinate. Or while I do useful stuff. I still think it’s a wonderful site and every night still get a bit excited when I click on yet another fresh, random nothing.

A while ago I was curious about all the different colours that were generated in the past year. So I created this page with just the colours, not the letters. The function I wrote to pick a random colour is not so random. Several patterns can be found by resizing the browser window, or by scrolling the page. Colours are clearly not chosen randomly and there are dark and light periods, and maybe even more and less saturated periods too. We could investigate why exactly this happens. Or we could just enjoy resizing our browser window in an endless procrastination loop.

I hope this post will inspire me to write more about my dear nonsense.


One Nothing a day

The most pleasant memories I have about the time that I was a freelance web developer are the memories of me doing absolutely nothing. Not just for an hour or two, but for days and days or even weeks in a row. I like doing nothing. I think idling is a good thing, it’s pretty scary to see what negative connotations the word nothing has, just look at those synonyms! If there’s anything I miss about freelancing it’s not the liberty, the money, the responsibility or the pride (and certainly not the angst for lack of work or the insane hours you make when you’re busy), it’s Nothing that I miss.

Nothing


It’s always the last button

As we gain knowledge over the years about the things we design, the design get better and better. When you look at the first web sites and compare them to the things we create today you can say that we made some improvements. This rule, that design gets better over the years, does not apply to remote controls for DVD players.

There are a few things I want to do with a remote control for a DVD player: skip unskippable trailers, go to the menu, and play the damn movie, finally. You’d think that three buttons would be sufficient. Mine has 33.

33 buttons