Thursday, November 17, 2016

My life with Kimon Nicolaides - Part I

My next stop was Kimon Nicolaides' The Natural Way to Draw, a classic from 1941 with no less than a Spartan reputation: it guides the aspiring artist through a curriculum of 25 schedules, each of which takes 15 hours to complete. Not discouraged by the cheesy cover blurb that promised it to be "not only the best how-to book on drawing, it is the best how-to book we've seen on any subject", I decided to go for it. As I was unemployed, I had the time to follow Nicolaides to the letter.

I believe Nicolaides is mostly remembered for coining the term 'gesture', meaning the action of the pose. However, he frustrated the living shit out of me with his 'draw not what the thing looks like, not even what it is, but what it is doing', and the examples in the book are not very helpful either. I did follow his directions of drawing 'rapidly and continuously in a ceaseless line, from top to bottom, around and around, without taking the pencil off the paper' without ever feeling I got anything out of it. However, letting the pencil wander around became a habit, which, like so many other habits, started to feel good.

The other directions from the book were not as problematic for me, and with iron discipline I drew myself through the exercises of blind contours, quick contours, modelling in crayon, ink and watercolour, composition, drapery, design and analysis. And yet, even after completing the full working plan, I neither felt nor understood how things came together into a coherent body of skills. The main thing I got out of The Natural Way to Draw was the benefit of drawing every day, but I am confident I would have experienced the same amount of progress, or lack thereof, if I had filled up the pages on my own.

Although the experience was a frustrating one, I did feel some formulae resonating in my mind. The book opens with a Da Vinci quote: "The supreme misfortune is when theory outstrips performance" and I cannot even begin to explain how much I agree, both from my past life in computer science and my attempts to study art; however, it was exactly this misfortune I felt having completed the Nicolaides work plan. Another tidbit is "The sooner you make your first five thousand mistakes, the sooner you will be able to correct them". Nicolaides kept bugging me...

The more I think about it, the more I see this as the weakness of his approach. I totally agree on emphasising the action of the pose, but doing so without paying attention to structure or proportions makes absolutely no sense to me.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

My life with Kimon Nicolaides - Prologue

When I got interested in art, around the turn of the century, I marveled at a whole new world of dots, lines, values and colours. After an introductory course at De Werkschuit in Gouda, I choose to paint in acrylics, and joined courses of life drawing and portraiture at the same art centre and, later at the Vrije Academie and Adelbert Foppe's tekenstudio, both in Den Haag.

The more I drew, the more I found myself running in circles. The courses all boiled down to the same idea of carefully looking, and drawing what you see, without any underlying system. My drawings felt flat, and I wondered whether I would ever be able to draw from life. That is, draw people walking, talking, living, as opposed to carefully copying a patiently posing model. Also, while I did study anatomy, I was clueless about integrating my knowledge of the human body into my skills. So, I started my quest for a unifying curriculum.

It did not take very long for me to stumble across Betty Edwards' Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Although I really liked the exercises and little eye openers, the book did not do a lot more for me than to reiterate what I already understood, i.e. how to map the three dimensions of life to the two dimensions of the artist. I kept searching.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Inside out

Of some men it is said they strip girls with their eyes. I am worse, and that is not because I do not limit myself to girls. I skin them alive.

In animation school, I was taught to draw the human figure inside out. That is, first summarize the pose using simple lines to denote the directions of the big masses of head, rib cage and pelvis, and the limbs, through what is called gesture. Second, build the important masses on top of these lines through use of cilinders, spheres and blocks, and, third and finally, impose the relevant anatomy on top of these.

Academical as this may sound, the fun of the procedure is the application to live humans in what is called 'life drawing'. I have always preferred the English term above the Dutch 'modeltekenen', which has a sense of artificiality. A model is an abstraction of living human being, frozen in a pose to serve the budding artist. The Belgian artist Jijé, nom the plume of Joseph Gillain, believed that 'school is an anomaly: the studio is the real thing'. I like to push it even further: 'the studio is an anomaly: life is the real thing'.

I have always loved to watch the human in his natural habitat, walking, sporting, shopping, playing games, maybe posing for others, but not for me, trying to summarize its acting, its energy, its being. It took me years to grow comfortable in the act of working inside out, and the more I learnt about the human body, its anatomy, draperies and peculiarities, the more satisfaction I got from working from life.

I learnt that, indeed, the naked model is for beginners, while daily life, usually wrapped up in layers of costume, especially in the Canadian winters, is for the advanced, as the human body must be shown inside, like a magician conjuring  a rabbit out of his tall hat.

Hiding in my little corner in the Dufferin Mall I picked my subjects carefully, summarizing their acts in a few lines, then taking my time to dress up the gesture in volume, anatomy and costume. I admit there was a time I was so fascinated by anatomy that I stopped before the final step.

I will never forget the day a lady sitting next to me seemed to be intrigued to watch me drawing. I whipped out a quick series of warming up gestures, before I lost myself in anatomy. When I realised I was basically drawing naked version of mall visitors, it was too late.

So, there is at least one Canadian who came to believe I am a dirty old man. If you read this, I hope you understand I am a budding artist.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Little Pear

The Chinese restaurant around the corner, the oldest in town, caught fire last year and has been boarded up since. It makes the little strip mall look even more desolate: the only shops remaining are a drug store, two barber shops, a shop for hearing devices and a fast food joint. The view of a defunct shopping street has become all too common in a country which is being slowly pulled down by a bankrupt Europe.

Looking over your shoulder seems to be one of the symptoms of getting old, as there is more to see in the past than in the future. Walking by the restaurant revived an old memory: the story of Little Pear.

Little Pear, or 'Kleine Sjang' as the Dutch translation of the classic by Eleanor Frances Lattimore was titled, has always remained with me as the first book I had selected all by myself from the library. I was proud that I could easily read the whopping 343 pages, which is quite a feat for a six-year old, but, above all, it was a revelation for me to discover how a book could make me travel to another space and time. Little Pear introduced me to China, with its colourful kites, mysterious magicians and complicated script,

I became intrigued by the idea of writing my own name in Chinese, and was excited to learn that the Chinese restaurant had its name 'Azië' painted on its window. How convenient! I had already collected three out of four characters, and all I needed was a Chinese 'k'. Not long after, a second Chinese restaurant opened: 'De Lange Muur', and I was utterly disappointed to learn it did not exactly help me to solve my problem.

To be honest, it took me decades to realise the silliness of my attempts to spell out my name in Chinese. If there anyone Chinese out there who can translate my name, which means 'ĺaugher', to Chinese, I am definitely interested.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Radar failure

The interests of the Dutch consumer are taken care of by a flock of organisations, magazines and television programs which pay attention to sad cases of consumer abuse, rare cases of company kindness, pitfalls, traps and other bumps in the road from shop to trashcan. There is the Consumentenbond, which is mainly concerned about its paying members, ANWB, for consumers on wheels, Eigen Huis, for the besieged home owner, and, on television, Kassa and Radar.

Radar boasts an active forum, so it seemed a logical place to seek support in the MacCity case. The discussion started evoked some critical remarks, some supporting gestures, as can be expected in a discussion forum, but no concrete pointers on how to proceed. At the very least, the discussion could serve as a word of warning for those dealing with said companies, so, as such, it served a purpose.

The discussion on the Radar forum had lived happily for three months or so, when MicroFix' CEO joined, demanding that my 'false accusations' be removed. I countered some of his irrelevant claptrap, was actually waiting for some sound arguments on Dutch consumer law, service, quality, and the sorry state of Apple, but he immediately bailed out.

It did not take too long for the entire discussion to be removed by the Radar forum moderator, because documents provided by MacCity seemed to have proved that some of my statements were incorrect. My request to see those 'documents' was refused with a simple 'this is between you and MacCity.' Earlier, MacCity, MicroFix and Apple had refused to provide any documentation supporting their claim that I had gotten the new logic board I had paid for, but now MacCity was all too eager to send this documentation to Radar, which accepted it without questioning, and used it against me?

I sent a complaint to Radar, asking them to give me a chance to defend myself. All in all, it was simply my word against the word of MacCity et al., and Radar had blindly chosen the side of MacCity, based on confidential 'proof', which could not be checked for authenticity or relevance. At the very least, Radar should apply the basic journalist's principle of an adversarial process.

To my astonishment, Radar replied with an easy way out: Radar has no journalist pretentions, Radar just facilitates and moderates discussions among consumers and companies. My reply that applying the adversial process is not just a matter of sound journalism, but also a sign of good manners has remained unanswered, so far.

Radar has lowered itself to a level where Radar is about Radar. Without sound journalist principles, and without good manners, it has become another sad instance of pulp fiction, another talk show that is just about getting cheap attention, scoring high ratings, and hitting next days' front pages. Dutch commercial television has had its fair share of sub-standard productions, but Radar is still on the government-funded public net, which provides an incentive to produce quality. I hope to start a discussion with the responsible broadcast company, AVROTROS, about the position of Radar on the public net, but in my honest opinion, Dutch consumers can fly without Radar.

In Radar speak, this is why I would like to nominate Radar for a scalding hot shower.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Consumer Rights Carroussel

Dutch law protects consumers by stating that one can expect a product to have certain properties, and that the seller must repair or replace a product which does not live up to its expectations (Burgerlijk Wetboek, artikel 7:17). However, the law leaves unspecified what these expectations are, so in practice, said article is just a starting point for endless discussion.

In my opinion, I can expect a €700 logic board of good quality to last longer than one and a half year, so I decided to seek legal help. In The Netherlands, the Authority for Consumers & Markets (ACM) 'keeps track of the latest trends and developments for consumers and businesses. ACM looks specifically at the energy, telecommunication, transport and postal services industries, and, more in general, at competition and consumer protection law. We take action against businesses that do not play by the rules. And we take a broader perspective when looking for what is needed to solve the underlying problem in a market. When using our instruments and powers, the effect of our actions is central.' Sounds promising, isn't it?

The ACM mission statement is phrased in more political wordings: "The Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) creates opportunities and options for businesses and consumers – opportunities for innovation, new products, services and businesses, and options for consumers so they have a real choice, and are not afraid of making a choice. That is why we want businesses be open about what they offer. And finally, consumers should be informed of what their rights are. Therein lies the key to having well-functioning markets" It took me a while to learn the total lack of commitment embedded in this mission statement.

The ACM prefers to be approached through Consuwijzer, the Dutch government's counter for consumers: "With us, you can find independent and reliable information about your rights" Consuwijzer invites the abused Dutch consumer to register a complaint: "This is to your advantage, because ConsuWijzer registers each question and complaint. Your signal will directly reach this monitor (ACM), who is legally qualified to intervene if companies do not play by the rules" So, I explained my case with MacCity to the Consuwijzer website and indicated that I was both registering a complaint and asking for advice. I received an email confirmation, which promised a reply within six working days. The procedure had started. At least, I thought so.

The next day, Consuwijzer sent me a sloppy email summary of my case, which would be passed on to ACM. A note added that it is Important that I ask questions and register complaints with the ACM, as the ACM can start an investigation, have the authority to fine a company, and force companies to find a solution for a given probem. A popular saying warns that if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Indeed, Consuwijzer added they will not solve my problem: they just give me advice about my rights. That is a little disappointing, but I can live with a decent advice.

Six days went by, without a word of advice.So, I emailed Consuwijzer for clarification. They replied my case was complex, indeed, and could not be handled through email: I had to contact them through phone, to receive a detailed advice, tailored to my situation. Great!

It took me a week get connected to a Consuwijzer consultant through telephone, but the consult did not last too long. Without going into the 'complexity' of my case, the lady referred me to Juridisch Loket. My question of why she could not have given me this 'advice' through email remained answered.

Juridisch Loket is funded by the Dutch Government to provide free legal counselling to people that do not have the financial means to hire a lawyer. My email was routinely answered with a standard reply about consumer rights, and I found out I needed to make a phone call (25 cent per minute) if I wanted more specific support. I was not exactly the only client willing to pay 25 cent per minute for free legal advice, so Juridisch Loket kept me waiting for almost half an hour. When I finally got through, a consultant told me that my case was too complex to be solved through phone, so I needed to visit in person, making sure to bring all  documents relevant to my case.

The nearest office of the Juridisch Loket is one hour from my home town, but at least I would have the chance to talk through my Complex Case with a Real Lawyer! My consult lasted 20 minutes. Without even looking into the specifics of my Complex Case, a dark-haired bimbo refered me to a real lawyer, who was available for providing subsidised legal help. Her computer had the flu, so details were to follow later.

One week later, the Real Lawyer told me he was not really interested in my case, or, in his words, costs and benefits were out of balance. I left with a strong impression that the case was too much work for the standard fee he would get from subsidised legal help.

To sum up, The Netherlands have a nice carroussel up and running, with Consuwijzer, ACM, Juridisch Loket and subsidised legal support, which is mainly running to support itself, and not exactly functional as a tool to protect the innocent Dutch consumer from scam artists. For practical problem solving, it is probably more effective to hire the local motorcycle gang. Our noble King has dubbed this principle 'Participation Society': every man for himself.

Fortunately, there are a number of independent and critical consumer organisations, on television in print. In my next posting, I will explain how helpful these are.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The state of Apple

I might have been willing to chalk off my bad experience with Apple as a sad isolated incident, if there had not been an obvious pattern visible in the media. Problems with high-end Mac Book Pros are structural.

Over the past decade, Apple has been washed away in the craze of making laptops smaller and lighter, to an extent where quality is jeopardized. Modern MBPs are so compact, they cannot dissipate their heat properly, and as a result, their components and their connections are slowly dying an untimely death, which is dubbed 'MeltBook Pro syndrome'. In addition, modern MBPs are basically a big blob of glue and solder, as all components are permanently glued or mounted to the logic board, making it impossible to upgrade, repair or replace them. That is, if one component dies, the whole laptop dies, and repair is not economically feasible. I do not think it is coincidence that the expected life of a MBP is three years, which is exactly the period covered by the AppleCare guarantee, which Apple buyers are advised to pay a premium for. If you want Apple service, pay for it,  buy a new machine after AppleCare expires, or shut up.

The MeltBook Pro syndrome is aggravated by design flaws, that expose the pattern as crystal clear. Owners of the 2011 generation of MacBook Pro have been enraged for at least one year, as their build of laptop suffers from failures closely tied to the Graphic Processor Unit failing, due to excessive heat. It is often suggested that this failure is caused by the use of lead-free solder, but a constant factor in this slate of problems is Apple looking away.

A petition titled 'Replace or Fix all 2011 MacBook Pro with Graphics Failures'  has been signed by more than 33,000 supporters, but Apple does not care. Apples discussion features a whopping 742-page long thread by Apple customers trying to get attention for their high end MBP dying, and the responses, or lack thereof, by Apple Stores and Apple Authorized Service Providers. While some customers are offered a free logic board replacement, many former Apple fans are paying as much as EU 700 for a repair, which in many cases lasts no longer than a few weeks. Sounds familiar? Customers are desperately trying to avoid the syndrome by switching off the dreaded GPU, by drilling holes in the bottom of their beatiful aluminium unibody, or by baking their machine like a pizza. The common pattern here is that Apple does not care. A Facebook page has been created to ask attention to the '2011 MacBook Pro and Discrete Graphics Card Issue' and, yet, Apple does not care. In the US state of California, a class action suit has been filed, and Apple does not care. In Canada, a national class action has been filed. Apple does not care.

Over the past decade, Apple has developed into a company, big enough to ignore its customers. While Steve Jobs' Apple created innovative products to suit the creative professional, Tim Cook has turned Apple into a money machine that pleases its shareholders, performing parlor tricks like taking the Icebucket Challenge or Coming out of this Closet, to entertain the masses. Walter Isaacson, author of The Innovators, stated in an interview with Think Big that Steve Jobs' favourite product was not so much the Mac, the iPad, the iPhone or the iPod. Steve's favourite was the Apple Team.

I am afraid that Steve Jobs would be seriously disappointed by his favourite product in its 2015 edition. While Apple Inc. will continue to profit from selling out the Jobs legacy, there is no way a misled team will continue to create great products. We will see why 2015 will be like 1984...