Thursday, 26 April 2012

The Cinque Terre


Up in the north-west armpit of Italy, along the coast, there's a line of five villages built into cliffs that descend into the sea. The Cinque Terre, or "Five Lands". A couple of them look like backdrops from a science fiction film, so I was interested to see what they were like in real life. From south to north they go Riomaggiore, Manarola - picture postcards both - and then Corniglia, which is perched on a hill and looks relatively normal, Vernazza, which is like a flatter version of Manarola, and finally Monterosso, which has an interesting name but lets the side down a bit, because it's just a beach with some hotels. "Every July, peas grow there."

A train line connects them, but in practice you can walk between the villages along a set of well-marked hiking trails. I decided to do that, but therein lies a tale, because sadly the five villages are not what they were. Well, one of them isn't. Back in October 2011, Vernazza was hit by torrential rains and flooding, as documented in this alarming slideshow. The town is currently in the process of recovery, and I decided to leave them to it. They don't need someone wandering around taking pictures of everything. Monterosso didn't appeal to me, so I didn't go there, either. And although I planned to walk from Manarola to Corniglia, the trail was blocked by a rockfall. Looking down at the trail from a great height it seemed that some slate had slid.

In theory there are other paths, but - mindful of the downpour that totalled Vernazza, and the gathering clouds - I decided that the local mountain rescue people didn't need to practice their skills on yet another wandering tourist, and so I, er, chickened out. And restricted my adventures to Riomaggiore and Manarola instead.

I took an infrared camera because I have orders to wait here in the spacecraft, and that's exactly what I'm going to do. A cheap old Canon 10D, converted to record near infrared in the 590nm range. I have another 10D, converted to record 720nm, and I used the same lens, a Samyang 14mm, which becomes a nicely sharp 21mm-equivalent on an APS-C camera.

590nm infrared is a bit less stark than 720nm, a lot more vivid. The filter is deep orange instead of black-looking red. There's a lot more natural colour, although it's all bunched up in the red end of the spectrum and still has to be extracted and massaged with digital processing. Just like how certain animals massage the bellies of their young in order to aid digestion. Here's an example, with the original file at the top and the massaged version at the bottom:

For that image I swapped the red and blue colour channels, custom white balanced on the rocks, and once I had something to my liking I did all the dodging and burning that I would normally do to a normal photograph in order to make it look like one of the photographs they have in magazines.

Of course, the photographic process began when I took the pictures in the first place. The field work. The path between Riomaggiore and Manarola is trivially easy to walk along; the later paths are apparently harder, and assuming that the villages don't end up being swept into the sea I might one day find out how true that is.

For the record I used OpenStreetMap's data to tell me where to go. OpenStreetMap is one of the few open content experiments that might save your life one day, and is well worth whatever money you decide to donate. Does Garmin sell an official map of Italy? I'm not sure; they seem to have a detailed map of the Dolomites and a city guide to Italy and Greece. Here's a smaller map drawn on one of the tunnel walls in between Riomaggiore and Manarola:

It explains quite well exactly where the Cinque Terre are in relation to the rest of Italy. Further down Italy's left coast, much nearer the boot, is the Amalfi Coast, which is conceptually similar to the Cinque Terre but posher and closer to Naples, which is unfortunate.

On the hardware side I traveled with a Garmin eTrex Venture HCx. The next model up, the Vista, adds a barometer and a compass, which I don't need; both models have since been replaced by the eTrex 20 and 30 respectively, which don't add very much. As a consequence you can pick up the Venture cheaply. Is it better than the GPS in your mobile phone? I have no idea; my mobile phone makes calls, it doesn't have a GPS. "Go to the Astra. Go to the Astra."


Ultimately I disagree with Sartre's emphasis on progression. By taking the position that existence precedes essence he locks his philosophy into linear time, and imposes the notion that existence without essence is somehow incomplete. In an essentially meaningless universe it seems absurd to argue that the essential man is superior to the man who merely exists; that the cardinal in his fine robes is superior to the idiot pottering around the garden in his underwear. The cardinal has simply cloaked himself in a meaningless, tissue-thin set of arbitrary rules, masquerading as purpose. Compared to the immense complexity of the physical world - of the mathematics involved in understanding elementary particles, quantum physics, and so forth, and of the structure of the universe - even the most complex of human bureaucracies is essence-less. The difference between the idiot in his garden and the cardinal is, on the universal scale, too thin to observe.

Besides which, the idea that human beings begin as inessential is nonsense. The human animal was not obviously designed to build cars, or write novels; it is instead a machine for living, a machine designed by a process of evolution to live. Man is born with that essence, everything it adds after that is just a transparent, prophylactic sheath, designed to shield us from the cold reality of indifferent spacetime.

It's interesting to apply the principles of existentialism to the world of computers. A general-purpose computer has no essence until it is given some instructions. Until that point it sits and waits, perhaps running some low-level housekeeping tasks. Suppose it's asked to take a series of random numbers and sort them into an ordered list. The computer is now a list-sorter, rather than a nothing. But the ordered list only has meaning insofar as the observer perceives it to have order. The universe itself, if it could perceive, would observe the computer simply transforming one set of arbitrary symbols into another set of arbitrary symbols, for no purpose at all.

On a lower level the universe would perceive the computer as a mass of subatomic particles differentiated from their surroundings by their arrangement and the temporal periodicity of their motion, if observed over time. Of course, the universe doesn't perceive, and over no time at all the computer, the programmers, the list, are erased by the great churning force of entropy. The programmers die; the machine breaks down. The cardinal's cloak falls apart, the church loses its followers. The cathedrals fall down and become a heap of stones again. One set of atomic arrangements transform into another set, of equal value.

But the universe is interconnected. A computer running a program pushes electrons in a direction and with a force they would not have taken otherwise. These electrons cause ripples in the fabric of spacetime; the ripples weaken as they expand outwards, until they are indistinguishable from the action of wind upon the water, and of the tides. But suppose we could build a computer so large and powerful that, purely by running a program, the motion of electrons within its circuits has tangible effects on the physical world - and suppose these effects were so strong that they could disrupt spacetime itself? It would be The Crasher.

The obvious problem is that, by disrupting spacetime, it would disrupt its own functioning, but if it could be built strong enough - or its construction could account for feedback, and perhaps use it to boost the power of its thoughts - then the computer would become a universal machine. Not just capable of running any mathematical problem, but also of performing any physical action. Its thoughts would resonate with and amplify spacetime.

The question is, if such a computer could be built, has an alien civilisation already built it? I have to assume that it isn't possible for a civilisation to build a machine that can quickly destroy the universe, otherwise we would all be dead. In all the universe there must have been at least one civilisation that could do so and that would be insane enough to activate it.

I have to assume that the bubble of altered spacetime this machine produces would be subject to the laws of our universe, at least along its boundary, and thus would not be able to radiate outwards faster than the speed of light. Therefore the universe might well have numerous bubbles of altered spacetime expanding outwards like lethal cancers, altering spacetime as they go. Indeed, perhaps a distant civilisation *did* activate a universe-destroying machine, but its bubble of destruction has not reached us yet. Given the continual expansion of the universe it might never reach us.

Also, there was a damp-looking cat on the trail. It looked utterly bedraggled.

Nosegay, now there's a word you don't see very often these days.