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August 03, 2004
The axis of compression. Or how the world around us is of a higher resolution that we really even might want to comprehend... An article in a recent issue of Der Spiegel, pointed out a strange little assumption. According to the writer we are fooling ourselves into the illusion of progress by further and further compressing our music. Yes, we all know that an MP3 contains much less information than the original recording, but we have been told that it does not really matter, since the compression happens in the part of the spectrum that we are not able to hear anyway. I had no idea that CDs actually were already a compressed kind of data carrier. There are supposedly some super-CDs out there and also audio DVDs which also contain the frequency range that are somehow closer to what we used to hear when putting that needle on one of those giant disks, called, appropriately: records. There were two more issues which concerned the writer of the Spiegel article, (Spiegel means Mirror, though it is more like the guardian,) if we believe that our brain is not able to catch some of the frequencies that end up being kicked out of the handy and quickly downloadable MP3s, then maybe the recordings are not done in a way that would preserve that inaudible part of the spectrum as well, making it somehow difficult to ever reconstruct the full and amazing effect of the entire music, which could become so very useful once one of the generations after us finally manages to use talk to other species, (Like cats, or dolphins, or maybe even squirrels,) and would like to use some early 21st Century recordings to do so. Oh well, so the frequencies are missing. We should not really care too much. It makes more commercial sense to pack 10000 songs onto a little portable device than let's say... 100... the music that fits into the pocket does not need to be perfect "just fine" is just fine enough. The second interesting issue, and this one is a very nice theory based on some home made non scientific experiments: supposedly our brain craves those missing frequencies compressed out of the music. I know it does not seem to make too much sense at first... How could the brain possibly miss something it never heard in the first place? Apparently some tests were made and it appears that listening to MP3 compressed music was more tiring than listening to those old giant black disks. It was almost as if the brain used some of its energy to fill in some of the blanks created by compression, as if it were trying to recreate the original, uncompressed music experience. It was as if the brain were busy decompressing the music we hear, in real time, as we hear it. Okay, this is really all very unscientific. I hope no government will ever use this post to preemptively attack some country made part of the axis of compression... but it somehow does make sense. I mean... just looking at this screen in front of me it does. I remember the very first time I pressed my nose against the thick glass of the vacuum tube of our giant Russian TV set in Poland. Gone were the happy adventures of Jacek i Agatka, my handmade early childhood on-screen heroes, and what appeared were little lights, the red, the green the blue, blinking at some intelligence bearing frequency. I stepped away, and there were my little heroes again. I stepped closer... again the blinking lights. The illusion of closeness to my little friends only worked when I actually stepped away from them. Intimate distance... A similar experience at a Helmut Kohl election poster a few years later in Germany. (No noses pressed this time.) The giant, self acknowledging smile of a politician with a PhD in history when seen from a distance, turned into a dirty mosaic of yellow and magenta and cyanide, with maybe some little specks of black here and there, when looked at from up close. (I later learned that Black in printing was named Kontrast but that's beside the point.) Clearly the manmade visual world around us is a compressed illusion of what we could maybe find in nature. We have just recently learned to imagine our world as something translatable into megapixels. So when we look at a JPEG, with its blocks of "good enough" approximations, what is our brain busy with? Is this why looking at the real thing is so much more relaxing? I know... the things we do not really get to see are probably not really relevant to that daily life stuff anyway... The stuff we do not take pictures of, does not really matter, much of it just does not even exist... (ahem... no I don't know that.) But just the thought that whatever object is around us, I mean the real thing... I mean... everything around us and in us has an almost unlimited resolution, doesn't it? Anything we touch, or all the other things we never get to touch. All of this stuff has a resolution far, far, far beyond what we can probably imagine. It is probably a bit embarrassing that I even express a fascination with the resolution of the things around me... this is the thing we are supposed to shed when about four years old, I guess. After pressing my nose against that TV set and seeing my childhood heroes disappear, I should have gone on and kill some time, some toys, something... and never press my nose against that TV again... (Why do I remember that there was a time when it fell?) Some 30 years later, my eyes are getting worse and worse. I spend my days and good portions of the nights in front of some sort of screens, or looking at some sort of other man made things, presented with better or worse compression... I read things that are most of the time just emailed to me... and they arrive in front of me on the same screens... all 72dpi, maybe 100dpi when in front of the right computer... I have not even noticed that my eyes got worse... my eyes were good enough for the man made environment and are even good enough now. And a similar experience with the hearing. The iPod is the loudest of the MP3 players because of Steve Jobs' hearing... If I can not hear something well, I also crank it up. I wonder if such compression and adjustments happen even beyond of what we see and what we hear. The thinking in general must also adhere to compression and decompression standards... the world is no longer made of little thoughts and fragile, subtle emotions, it is made of the good guys, and the thugs, the friends and foes, the prosperous and the evil doers. Even me thinking so immediately puts me into the fuzzy and the soft category I guess... but that's somehow fine I guess? I don't mind? I guess?... Sitting at the table in the living room, the shades closed because of the overwhelming brightness of the sun, I am looking at the roots of this plant in a glass of water right next to me. (It is here, no pictures, can you imagine it?) Over the last few days she has developed these pink roots with hard, bright red tips that look as if they were filled with fresh blood. The tips are slowly crawling out of the water. The roots themselves are covered with barely visible, soft, pink hair. The plant is developing some spectacular air roots as well. They grew from a few millimeters to sometimes 10 centimeters. Red and brown and pink. Their bark looks like old skin and it flakes like after a sunburn. A new leaf, still enveloped in a dark red hull looks almost moist as it is getting ready to unfold into another one of those chlorophyl factories the size of my hand. There are little droplets of dew, or whatever this might be, on some of the stems of the plant. The original remains of the plant, which was cut off its original roots because it seemed too large for its pot, are spawning a little green plant as well. This is all really insignificant stuff when it comes to the future of most of us, so they say, but boy... it is all happening in real time, uncompressed, at an almost unlimited resolution, and probably accompanied by sounds that are far beyond the reach of whatever is attached to our heads. And that's just a "simple", brainless plant... And I will have to draw it tonight... as it feels the right thing to do. Create something that is not compressed but rather a new arrangements of ink on some paper, inspired by the existence of something far beyond my comprehension... I guess that's how things can work... Am I glad I never threw away this little plant. And I am glad my eyes are still good enough to let me see it... or is it really just the eyes?