Wildfire

Today I'm going to write about something a bit more serious, happening in my home state of Kansas. There is a large wildfire burning in southern Kansas and Oklahoma, southeast of Wichita. They've had to evacuate a few towns, like Medicine Lodge and Sun City, both of which I've been to. The ash and smoke are obscuring the sky and falling all the way up in my hometown of Lawrence, which is a few hundred miles away. It's truly an apocalyptic vision, and all the more disturbing when the livelihoods that have been wrecked are taken into account.

 

A firecrew moving towards the line

The fortunate thing is that the area is mostly pastureland, and not densely populated. But it's wreaking havoc nonetheless, having destroyed so far over 400,000 acres of land. The fire isn't anywhere near being contained, and continues to balloon outwards, devouring more communities in its wake. It's very early in the season for a wildfire, but there has been a drought that has been going on for years now. Unfortunately this is most likely a harbinger of more woe to come this summer in the region; don't forget that naturally Kansas is mostly beautiful rolling prairie (ie, grass), and a burn off is hard to slow down.

Flames on the horizon line

The people of Kansas are by nature stalwart and down to earth, accustomed to hardship and hard work. I love the people of my homestate. Overwhelmingly friendly, kindly interested in others, interesting and diverse. But my heart aches for the circumstances they are up against with this record-setting fire, and the likely scenario of more to come.

One of my strong memories when I was a child was of visiting my grandparents in Harper, Kansas. My parents and brother and sister and I all went on a short day excursion to visit Sun City. It was very small, with a one block long downtown; clearly a farming community. I remember two businesses downtown. The first was a closed down pool hall; it wasn't particularly unique at first glance, but we went and looked in the windows, and to our surprise we saw all the pool tables were still there, with pool cues and balls on them as though left in mid-game. But the entire scene was covered in a quarter of an inch of dust! It was such a surreal image, that never left. I wish I had my camera then! After we took in that sight, we went to a saloon across the street, where the proprietor was a kind old farmer. We lingered a bit and he talked to my parents; he gave us kids some water. That was my only trip to Sun City, but it's never left me. 

The sun-baked southern portion of Kansas has always been beautiful to me. Cottonwood trees, rattlesnakes, wheat fields, the omnipresent winds, and huge blue skies. It's no wonder that Wichita was so instrumental in the beginning years of flight (so many companies were there: Cessna, Lockheed, Boeing, it really was the center of the industry); the best views of the sky are in Kansas, how could someone who lived there not want to explore them? 40,000 foot stormfronts can be seen for hours before they hit. I love that area, and always will. 

 

I hope they get the rain they need, and are blessed for harvest season. And I'll be keeping an eye on this wildfire, praying for those caught in the face of its devouring maw, and offering assistance in anyway I can. Keep the firemen in your prayers too, fighting field fires is a terrifying job; extremely dangerous as well. The only solace I can take is maybe after this burnoff, the ash will help make the fields fertile for a great harvest next year. 

Smoke in Wichita from the fire.

 

 

Spring is here!

It's official: Spring is finally here! Even though in our neck of the woods it has decided to show up with 40 degree weather and a bunch of rain. Despite the inclement weather, I decided to do a bit of portraiture to welcome the warmer days ahead.  

 

 We're here for ur eggs.  

We're here for ur eggs.  

Lately we've been planting for the growing season, and I've been drawing a bit more. So that's been keeping me both busy, and outside (two of my favorite states).  

 

 

 Are you pondering what I'm pondering? 

Are you pondering what I'm pondering? 

One of my favorite creative forms is portraiture, however. Especially children, since they are so unpredictable and impulsive. You never know what you'll get when photographing little mites, but you're guaranteed to get something you didn't expect.  

 

 

 I emerge victorious! 

I emerge victorious! 

Flexibility and good humor are the main ingredients to successful portraits with really small children.  

 No I didn't see a smile over there.  

No I didn't see a smile over there.  

 I've almost got it! 

I've almost got it! 

 Charge!! 

Charge!! 

All in all, children are just a wellspring of happiness and impulse, and those are two of the best thing I can think of.  

 

P. 

JRR Tolkien, fantasy, and a simpler life as inspiration

I am undoubtedly not the first person to think of Middle Earth as a place of refuge from modern hustle and bustle, technology, and the minutiae of modern life. In fact, JRR Tolkien himself viewed it that way; the Lord of the Rings trilogy was in many ways written as a response to the industrialization of the Oxfordshire surroundings he loved so much. This harkening for more simplistic times is something that resonates with many of us in the modern age.

Rivendell by Alan Lee

 

Sometimes when I'm heads down in coding, I've spent too much time gaming, or I'm just exhausted from the most recent infuriating 24 hour news cycle tempest in a teapot, I find myself reading the Sagas of the Vikings, Lord of the Rings, or losing myself in the rich and incredible illustrations of amazing fantasy artists like Alan Lee (who also was responsible for much of the aesthetic of the movies) or Brian Froud. Unsurprisingly, my places of solace have also trickled irretrievably into my own artwork and hobbies. 

Nazgul by Lee. Look at that beautiful gestural line work in graphite! The Nazgul speak deeply to the reptilian fear of the unkown and threats in the night.

 

This need for simpler societal rules, a commune with nature, and a black and white moral code draws me back again and again, as does the reflection in the artwork associated with this lore of elegance, muted colors, and well-executed simplicity. My personal theory is that this resonates so deeply because much of our ancestral history ("our" in this case being humanity) had much more in common with that sort of environment than the modern, too quickly fabricated one. There's a part of every human that seeks out the wind in the trees, a crackling fire, and staring at the stars and wondering about our origins. Rising with the sun, modeling our lives on harvest seasons, and protecting our loved ones from the darkness beyond our doorsteps. I think this essential calm reflection is ever harder to find (and one reason I am very much enjoying living in the country again). 

 

Warmth, firelight and solace: Another Alan Lee Illustration

 

Do you find yourself detaching from the modern world? What environments do you seek, and what stories resonate in your heart? I'd love to know.

Apple, the US Intelligence Community, and Encryption

Today I'm going to write about something different. I'm sort of a hybrid creature: I'm a creative, but I'm also a techie. While my last few posts have been about creative inspiration, this time I'm going to head in a different direction and write about something that's been in the news recently. Perhaps you've heard of recent events concerning Apple and the FBI. If you haven't, a quick synopsis would be that the FBI has submitted a court order to Apple, requiring them to develop a tool to break the encryption on the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino terrorists (ostensibly to gain iMessage access, since that is behind the encryption wall). Tim Cook has written an open letter refusing the court order, and here's a link to the letter: http://www.apple.com/customer-letter/

I'm very much pro-America, and pro-Defense. I've gotten asked quite a bit over the last few days what my opinion is on Apple's stance, and it's seemed to surprise people that I side with Apple. But, I do. I think the letter addresses a lot of very valid points, and leaves a few out that I'll address my feelings on myself.

First, I feel the government is overstepping its bounds to require a company to develop a tool that breaks their own software. Namely, to defeat the entire point of the tool in the first place. As Tim Cook stated, they do not currently have the ability to de-encrypt the information, and it would take quite a bit of work to be able to create.

Secondly, I don't feel the FBI is being honest in saying that they would only use this tool this one time. That makes no sense at all, and besides, the case seems to be pretty strong against the terrorists, without needing any more information. The nature of how terrorist cells work implies that the foot soldiers who carried out the attack wouldn't be privy to information about future attacks (for one thing, they usually aren't that organized, and for another, it would make no sense to tell people on a suicide mission about things that will happen after they *boom*, for obvious reasons), so I don't know what valid information would be gained that justifies the potential security breaches.

This brings me to my third point: Asking Apple to break encryption on millions of devices, to gain access to non-essential data on one, is a security threat in which the potential threat does not justify the gains. In the past 5 years or so, the federal government has shown itself to not be the best custodian of highly sensitive data. From Snowden, to multiple intrusions from other state players, including the hacking of the databases that hold the SF-86s (which holds the most sensitive information about its most sensitive workers), to not even maintaining the minimum of professional security on highly sensitive data (anyone hear anything about how Hillary Clinton was safeguarding classified data, btw?), there's just not a lot of trust there. The thought that IF the government was made a custodian of such a powerful tool, that they would treat it carefully and protect it as it should be, just hasn't been proven. At all. In fact, I would put money on Russia or China getting their hands on it within six months. And that's just not worth it. 

Despite my strong pro-United States stance, I am with Apple here. I feel at this point in time, the marketplace has been a better guardian of sensitive data than the government, and until the tables are turned, they'll just have to take their medicine. The sensitive data that apple devices hold for millions of US citizens is just not something that I want in the hands of our enemies at the click of a button, and I think it's something they would be able to get. INCLUDING, by the way, biometric data, which is not something that can just be reissued (when's the last time you got a new fingerprint?)

The last point I'll bring up on this is the fact that there are tons of legal precedents that this case will have in international law, but I am not knowledgeable enough to really comment on it. It bears thinking on though.

 

Femmebot Fatale: Humanity, Technology, and the Future

Last night we watched Ex Machina, an excellent movie about a femme fatale robot in the very near future. It's beautifully shot, in austere locations that really did a great job building an atmosphere of isolation, modernity, and the relationship of man to nature. 

The film is a visual feast for the eyes, with a palette of greys, charcoals, warm golden honeys, and cold, unblinking indigos. It's exceptionally executed, with perfect visuals and acting. The female robot, Ava, is a hybrid between a coquettish female, all doe-eyed innocence and wide-eyed wonder, under a veneer of subtle, newly discovered sexuality. This is cross-bred with clearly visible technology and futuristic calculation; her body almost looks more like human-shaped alien armor than human physiology. And this is the contrast that sets up the plot.

 

Ava ends up being a femme fatale, ultimately using her female wiles to manipulate a hapless male and achieve her own goals. This theme is one that has been popular in science fiction since the very beginning of the genre; one of the first movies I ever saw (and technically one of the first movies in general, really), Fritz Lang's Metropolis, centered around this very same idea. It's one I find myself drawn back to as engaging; clearly in the human psyche there is a part that is very cognizant of the power a gorgeous female can have over a male, and the weakness this can cause in what is normally seen as a rational being (and clearly, disaster usually ensues).

 

What's interesting in this genre as of late, and sci-fi movies in general, is the warnings that are getting louder and more frequent about AI and its ultimate potential dominance over humanity. Honestly, I see these warnings as having a lot of truth to them, and it's something I worry about myself. In our quest to placate ourselves with banality and ease, we easily hand over responsibilities and mental tasks to machines. Increasingly it becomes harder to tell the difference between them and us, and I can see the horizon line getting closer. Most of the programming community either openly acknowledges it, or addresses it by looking askance at the issue (most likely because it's a huge topic that is pretty scary, since it looks as though it's a future we are barreling towards). When humanity is confronted with a potential scenario they are afraid of, but don't know how to address, that topic bubbles to the surface as "fiction", and art. And thus we see this genre expanding. Transcendence, Ex Machina, Her, Oblivion....these movies all speak to these fears. In the 1950s and 60s science fiction movies overwhelmingly dealt with fears of nuclear war. Our fears now are AI.

The femme fatale-as-machine genre gets directly to the heart of the issue (no pun intended) in the most emotional of ways. In all things, humans are least rational when it comes to love. The entire world has been upended by star-crossed lovers of human nature, throughout history. Recently General Petraeus had his entire career waylaid by a love affair, and had to step down from being head of the CIA after one of the most successful martial careers since Vietnam. Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, Marilyn Monroe and JFK....there's no shortage of stories where love or lust have been the undoing of powerful men. When you combine the acknowledgement of the power of women and the fear of what effects that can have, with the cold calculations and limitless intelligence of AI....well, throw in the fact that AI females wouldn't actually need humanity for love, breeding, or have much of a reason to keep us around....it makes for pretty good story.

 

Bladerunner


Aesthetically the hybridization of the female form with post-Industrial age love of machinery, and you have some potential for amazing creativity. It's a match made for the sensibilities of the modern age. Soft feminine beauty, cold machinery, fear of ultimate power and intelligence: a heady mixture that our media just can't leave alone. I expect as we grow closer to the nexus of AI and human power in the future, the genre of femme fatale robots will just continue to thrive. And I'll be watching it all with my hands over my eyes, and a sardonic grin on my face.

Outerspace, Innerspace

The last few weeks I've had Outer Space on my mind quite a bit. Space travel and the space program have always been a big inspiration to me, both as a person, and creatively speaking as well. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that I'm a scifi nerd, either (Ha! There's one for the cheap seats). I've always felt incredibly lucky to have been born in the century where the entirety of humanity got to experience Outer Space for the first time in a tangible way. 

My first favorite movie was 2001: A Space Odyssey. I remember an astronaut speaking to my class in 3rd grade, and I got to hold a shuttle tile. Growing up in Kansas, with some of the best views of the skies in the country, I have clear memories of staring through a telescope with my dad in a field, finding craters on the moon. Seeing the smudges of the stars of Pleiades, resolving themselves into distinct and separate shapes.

Even now, I'm lucky enough to live within a smattering of miles of Wallops Flight Facility, and have finally gotten to see with my own eyes, rockets launching into space. It's an incredible age that we live in. The last few weeks have been big ones for me in terms of inspiration. David Bowie died, and though of course I didn't know him as a person, it hit me harder than I would have realized a few weeks ago. "Space Oddity" has been a favorite of mine since the first time I heard it. The helplessness, the sense of mission, accepting responsibility for inevitability, and the ultimate sacrifice of self in lonely dire straits. What a picture to have from just a few lyrics.

Just a few days ago on January 28 was the 30th anniversary of the Challenger explosion, yesterday was the 13 year anniversary of the space shuttle Columbia disintegrating over Texas. Apollo 1 had the fire on January 27, 1967 that killed 3 crew members. 

There have been a lot of sacrifices for all the advances we've made, and many of them within a few days of one another. Lots of scientific and technical strides exist entirely due to the Space Programs and what they've uncovered, but for the rest of us, they've allowed us to dream and see and breathe and just exist in a world that touches the rest of the universe. We know we are part of a galaxy, and not an island. And that's an amazing thing.

I'll leave you with one of my favorite photos, of Anna Lee Fisher, one of the first female American Astronauts. She was also the first mother in space. 

 


Beware the Ides of January

It seemed as though winter just wasn't going to hit this year, but I had a vague memory of feeling that way in previous Decembers, so I thought it was best to hold out as best I could. Sure enough, this week, a blizzard struck, and I had as much winter as I could bear for a couple days. I find myself enjoying the inspiration of living in a place with all 4 seasons, distinct and separate. Much of my inspiration comes from the landscape and nature in the Maryland countryside near where I live, no matter what the season. The color palettes are some of the most distinctive effects.

The cool silvers and deep grays of the winter, with the bright vermillion sprinkle of the occasional holly tree. The slate gray of the angry bay, austere and lonely. And finally, the monochromatic splendor of the ice and snow covered moonscape I have before me right now. It all goes into the hopper on creative sourcing, and I welcome it. 

I enjoy the silence of the cold winter nights, with the crystal clear sky showcasing the stars in their most magnificent brilliance. Solitude and isolation are two of the situations in which I find myself most inspired to create, and as such I try to capture those moments when I can in my personal scrapbook, to be called up at a later date to recenter me.

Without further ado, a picture of the surface of the moon (or, Hoth, or, my yard after a blizzard. Whatever works.)

Thanks for stopping by,

P.


Welcome to Shieldmaiden!

Hello and welcome to Shieldmaiden Creative! I'm excited to share the new website with everyone, and look forward to making more posts in the future. I'll be sharing new design and photo projects I'm working on, as well as the smaller side projects I do on my own time to brush up on different skills. In the next few days I'll be posting up a few of my recent pet projects; please check back!