Thursday, December 27, 2012

Erikos

Disappointing as it may be, after half a year of job hunting, I am still unemployed, so it is time to move back to The Netherlands. Right after graduation, I was quite optimistic, as a fistful of studios had shown interest in my work, but during summer, I realised once more that a Canadian 'Wow' means just as little as a Dutch 'leuk'. That is, most of the studios that had asked me to contact them, did not even respond to my email or phone calls. One the major studios had already told me they were not going to eat through the red tape of supporting me getting a work permit. I appreciate their honesty in this, but in general, the bigger studios have no problem in hiring people, while the smaller studios shy away from the necessary formalities. On top of that, I learnt that it is not always an advantage to be a Max the Mutt graduate, as the reputation of the school seems to be less than stellar.

During the school's Industry Night, I learnt that two of the four 2011 graduates were still unemployed, while one of them seems to be freelancing in his home country; I do not now about number four. So, I was already a little prepared that it would not be so easy to find a job but, of course, I had hoped to do better. Of the seven 2012 graduates, I know that one is working, one is fighting the evil Turks in his homeland Greece and I can only hope he will survive, as he still owes me $2. I spent some time practicing google-fu, but I have not been able to secure a definite status for the others. I wish them good luck.

For now, I will need to find a home in The Netherlands, and hope to start freelancing there, although the emphasis will be more on illustrating than on animating, as the Dutch do not really have an animation tradition. In the meantime, I will keep looking for jobs abroad, preferably out of the euro zone. I am a firm disbeliever in Europe, and am afraid the single Greek who still owes me $2 will be the least of my problems.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Hole in one!

There is good news and there is bad news. Two of the three cavities were more like suspect discoloured spots, which need to be monitored to see how they develop. The other one was so superficial that the dentist could treat it without anaesthesia. At least, that is what he expected, but the end of the story was an impressive three-surface restoration, good for a whopping $200, which needed to be anaesthesized anyways. It was a somewhat disappointing case of 'one for the price of three'...

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A short history of brushing teeth

Once upon a time, life was simple and my mother taught me to brush my teeth by making firm horizontal strokes with a tooth brush. Not long after, in Kindergarten, two cartoon characters Snoeptand and Appeltand (Candytooth and Appletooth) taught me to make little circular movements with the brush, to reach all nooks and crannies of my young teeth. Later, the dentist taught me to move up and down, pressing firmly on the gums. I have seen it all.

About ten years ago, the deplorable state of my teeth forced me to a dental hygienist who asked me to demonstrate my brushing regime, only to respond with a compassionate "Tsk, we haven't done it this way for decades" The newest craze was the Bass method, where the brush is pushed onto the gums at a 45 degree angle, and moved horizontally, supported by triangular toothpicks and tiny little interdental brushes.

My Canadian dentist gave me a Sulcabrush, which is a relatively hard pointy brush to clean teeth where they sink into the gums. Now, this was a marked improvement. Until I started using the Sulcabrush, my gums were bleeding every now and then, but after a few hard days, during which my gums bled daily, they ended finally up in a much better shape, where they were no longer sensitive or bleeding.

Today I paid my dentist another visit, for another lecture on tooth brushing. Horizontal brushing is bad for your enamel. You're supposed to start on the gums with a little vibration, and to finish with a vertical wipe, away from the gums. Looks like I have been abusing my teeth for over ten years, and the session was concluded with the message that a grand total of three cavities need to be treated.

Next trend will probably be diagonal brushing. Mark my words.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Hat trick - finale

Years went by, and I passed through a series of jobs in information technology, with less and less enthusiasm. The applications of computer science had never excited me.

The story of the Wise Men had already been forgotten, and Knowledge-based systems were no longer hot and sexy. Jan Treur's Artficial Intelligence group had quietly moving into the next biggest thing: Agent Systems, without too many people realising that the contribution to the field of knowledge-based systems had been minimal, from a theoretical, practical, scientific or any other point of view. In fact, the old papers on knowledge-based systems were reused, and sold again as new results on agent technology, which was not too surprising, given their overall vagueness. To be honest, I did not really care, until a former colleague brought the following to my attention:
Brazier, F.M.T and Treur, J., Compositional Modelling of Reflective Agents; Intl. Journal of Human-Computer Studies 50:5 (1999)
The paper is predictable agent systems versions of our earlier paper on logical methods in protocol analysis, and more than 6 pages are literally copied from the original, without proper reference. For Treur, this fits in a long tradition of selling his own results more than once, but for Brazier, this is a pathetic case of stealing research. In both cases, it is plagiarism, or scientific fraud.

Somewhat naieve, I thought the issue would be quickly sorted out through one or two letters to the responsible committee within the Faculty of Sciences of the VU University. However, I had underestimated the clamshell nature of the department.

To cut a long story short, over a period of more than one and a half year, a grand total of 10 professors, including prof. dr. J.W. Klop, director of the Division Mathematics and Computer Science, prof. dr. W Hogervorst, dean of the Faculty of Sciences, and prof. dr. H.E. Bal, chair of the Scientific Council of the department, were involved in this case. Most of them did not seem to really care, and none of them had the guts to openly express their opinion on the problem. The whole issue was concluded with a constructive move from my side: I agreed to consult a wise man, for a confidential advice that would be binding for all involved. This was a mistake.

I feel it is mainly the requirement of confidentiality that does not work in delicate cases like this. Any authority will think twice before publishing an wishy-washy opinion on scientific fraud: there is a reason why court cases are public. Anyways, as soon as I realized the expert chosen, prof. dr. J.-J. Ch. Meyer, had closely collaborated with Treur in the recent past, it was too late. The binding advice consisted of some loosely formulated opinions on the matter, without any conclusion. The wise man wore a black hat.

The case of the Wise Men was my main motivation for turning my back on science. In my opinion, modern scientists fall into four categories, which are best summarized in Dutch: "onderzoekers, onderwijzers, ondernemers en onderkruipers". That is: researchers, teachers, enterpreneurs, and rats. Over the past decades, teachers have been quietly replaced by their competitors, and it has become impossible to make a career out of teaching; a sad development pushed forward by a government who believes that science is a short-term investment. Those thriving on this new wave are competitors who know how to play the games of money and media, and while I have no problem at all with scientists who popularize or monetize their research, I do have big issues with the rats who lost the connection with science. 

Issues with modern science are leveraged by the clamshell nature of traditional universities, who are fighting tooth and nail to keep up appearances, covering up cases of scientific misconduct until bubbles burst. Well-known Dutch examples of Anthonie Stolk, René DiekstraDiederik Stapel, and Dirk Smeesters,  show an introvert culture where scientific fraud pays and is not always easy to expose. I believe it is all too easy to burn a man like Stapel at the stake, with his colleagues, co-authors, employers, PhDs and publishers watching. For more than a decade, the community had loved to hang around with the man with golden hands, ignoring signals that his performance was too good to be true. It takes a community to create a fraud.

The Department of Mathematics and Computer Science proved to be an excellent environment to make scientific career, at the cost of others. The 'Tweede Fase', once intended as a plan to educate young researchers, eventually degenerated into a system that abuses ambitious young researchers as cheap labour forces, kept quiet with empty promises, all too willing to pay with money and energy for the ambitions of those who are a few steps higher on the ladder towards scientific mastership. The Ponzi scheme never worked for me, while it paid the Braziers and Treur of the community called 'science' really well.

Till the present day, this case has never shown up in any of the official reports of the Faculty of Science of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Taking into account that the issue was reported to the 'Wetenschapscommissie' of the Faculty, it once more confirms my suspicion that effort was taken to cover the whole issue up. The current Faculty of Science seems to be as corrupt as the old Department of Mathematics and Computer Science.

I do not really regret my leaving. After all, I am still wearing my white hat.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Hat trick - publish or perish

For a couple of years, I loved the job, eating my heart out. I spent most of my time on research, studying the theoretical underpinnings of knowledge-based systems, and discovered the pleasure of teaching, taking a fistful of teaching courses myself, designing a new course for the new AI program, coordinating tests and exams, writing a syllabus, and on top of that I found pleasure in cooperating in the organisation of a workshop, editing proceedings, and the writing of a grant proposal.

All went well. The first couple of papers were accepted for publication, the new course was a success, and the department decided to offer it to all computer science students, the workshop proceedings were being published by Ellis Horwood, and the grant proposal was awarded, leading to a new project being started. And yet, I more and more got the feeling that I was being used.

The official version of the story was that, as an Assistent In Opleiding (AIO), I was woefully inproductive, which implied that I was not fully paid. More precisely, in my first year as AIO I received less than minimum wage, even less than my bursary plus salary from the days when I was a parttime teaching assistent.  It started to nag me more and more that the department never gave me credits for my teaching, and my application for a real job was routinely rejected by the department. Also, when the Ellis Horwood proceedings were published, it became apparent that my supervisor had started a liaison with IBM: as an editor, I had been silently replaced by Thomas Wetter, an IBM researcher.  More than once, colleagues of the Faculteit der Wiskunde en Informatica told me they considered me more a lecturer than an AIO, but, although the compliment felt good, it never translated into career opportunities.

In the meantime, the deeper I delved into the nooks and crannies of knowledge-based systems, the more I realised that much of the research in the Artificial Intelligence group was actually second-rate software engineering, semantics and logic, cleverly repackaged and sold as New, Amazing and Wow. Many people seem to believe that knowledge-based systems are no systems at all: I beg to differ. Attempts from my side to work on hard-boiled logic programming, semantics and temporal logic were sabotaged by my supervisor. The time spent on teaching and organising, and the increasing struggle to push my research through was now wreaking havoc on my planning: the end of my contract was approaching real fast.

The department choose the cheap route, which was not unusual in those days. Instead of offering me an extension, they decided to dump me into unemployment. As a sign of good intentions, I was granted use of my office at the university. I kept doing research for about one year, with less and less enthusiasm. When I asked attention for the issue in a usenet discussion group nl.aio, I realised it was not just my supervisor I had problems with, as my posting was almost immediately removed from the servers by the department's system administrators. A short discussion with a Human Resource manager from the Vrije Universiteit made it clear that the university did not intend to help me finding a job at the university or its hospital as system administrator, database administrator, web designer, scientific programmer or instructor: I had served my purpose as a cheap labour force.

Every now and then, I have to chuckle when I remember that day. Years later, a professor at the Vrije Universiteit invited me to apply for a job as scientific programmer: he told me he was having a hard finding a good candidate. I still believe that Human Resource Management at the Vrije Universiteit is totally incompetent, at the edge of being corrupt. They seem to be more concerned about their position within the organisation, than about providing services to that same organisation.

To wrap it up, I decided to not finish my thesis and I left. I was not the only one: none of my fellow AIOs from Jan Treur's Artificial Intelligence group finished his or her thesis there. I had expected to never look back to my time at the Vrije Universiteit, but it was exactly the story of the wise men that called for my attention, and brought back not-so-good memories.


Saturday, August 25, 2012

Fester for President!

An old professor of mine used to say that the best things are made by a single person who knows what he is doing. I feel this definitely applies to the Fester Fish series of cartoons by my fellow student Aaron Long.

Fester Fish is a somewhat selfish (bwahah), happy and blunt little creature that is so fishy he is almost human. He made it into his own series of cartoons, the most recent of which saw the light this week. The style is fishy best described as retroish 30-ish rubberhose animation, which dates back into a period when cartoons were still done by single animators, continuously kicking a small group of enthusiastic assistents to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man had gone before.

In those days, cartoons were hand-drawn on paper, inked and painted on cells and shot on camera, time-consuming processes which are now condensed into popular software like Adobe Flash. As a result, Fester's founding father could do without the aforementioned enthusiastic assistants, and he had nobody to kick but himself, and the occasional voice actor, which allowed him to miss his own deadline by no more than a single day.

Apart from the retro style, what I like about the most recent 'Fester Makes Friends' are the curvy background elements, the Droopyesque chase, and the unassuming simplicity of the story. It is especially the latter quality that I find missing in recent blockbusters like 'The Princess and the Frog' and 'Brave' that make me scream in agony: "Come on guys: it's only a story!"

Storytelling seems to have digressed in an almost democratic political process that satisfies a huge committee, including shareholders, the members of which seem to have their own agenda. I believe animation needs more enlightened despots, directors with both a vision and the authority to make that dream come true: Fester for President!



Thursday, August 23, 2012

Hat trick - room service

My job as a PhD student at the Vrije Universiteit started smoothly: I had been offered the position right after graduation. I was given a small office in a quiet corner of the fifth floor, close to the library, at a respectable distant from the class rooms.

The only inconvenience of the place was the fact that there did not seem to exist any key, and the room was completely empty. Despite repeated requests from my side, and promises from the office of the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, the room remained empty and the key non-existent. I confess that, eventually, I stole furniture from other rooms, and I had an illegal copy of a master key made, to create a workable situation. I was perfectly happy in my little corner, but the situation did not last very long.

The fifth floor was taken from our department, and to be given to another department, so the office was really, really, really sorry, but I had to leave my office, to share an office with a colleague. Now, I had never had any problem with this young man, but scientific research needs focus, and I really needed a place where I could concentrate. To sum it up: it did not work. For about nine months, I spent most of my time in a little corner in the university archive, where I had created a little office space for myself.

Those days, the two powerful facilities of the department's secretary and manager were combined into  the single person of Corry van Rossum, and on top of that, she was in a relationship with the chair of the department's PhD Committee, prof. P. Holewijn. PhD Confidante Ilse Thomson was part of the same clique, which rendered PhD Students utterly powerless when it came to issuing complaints about this or that.

Not long after I had vacated my office on the fifth floor, a new name appeared on the door that once was mine: Ira Pohl was a good friend of the chair of the department. The floor remained in use by our Department for at least three more years, and while, eventually, I managed to get an office for myself, it became very clear to me that the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science was not just about Mathematics and Computer Science.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Hat trick - the long wait

Workshop proceedings are usually published right before the event, and it was a little disappointing to find that EKAW'91 changed course last minute. The proceedings were to be published in Springer's Lecture Notes in AI, but it was decided to postpone publication until after the event, to allow participants to include some of the discussion from the workshop into their papers. Being inexperienced and somewhat naive, I believed every word of the explanation.

Editorial handouts were to be handed out during the workshop in Crieff, but in the end, it was decided to send these through email. Things were getting smelly when I heard a rumour that all submissions had been accepted for publication. This usually means the workshop has a lower status, as well as the resulting proceedings. The only thing that gave me hope, was the fact that the volume would be published in LNAI, which does have a certain status.

The rest was silence. The anticipated editorial notes were never sent, the EKAW'91 organizers did not respond to my emails, and the proceedings did not happen. 

It must have been about one year later when the news spread that there would never be a publication in LNAI. There was no contract with Springer, there had never been a contract and there would never be a contract: a fraud in the organizing committee had been lying about it for more than a year. Another member of the committee took his responsibility and published the volume as a GMD report, which is better than nothing, but it lacks the status of an LNAI volume. So, there it is, my first official publication:
Langevelde, I.A. van and Treur J,  Logical methods in protocol analysis; In: Linster, M and Gaines, B.R. (eds.) Proc. of the European Knowledge Acquisition Workshop - EKAW'91 (GMD Studien Nr. 211), September 1992.
With EKAW'91 I realized for the first time that science is not populated exclusively with knights of truth and reason...

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Hat trick - smalltalk

The Dutch writer Multatuli once started a letter with the apology that he had not had time to write a short letter, so he had written a long letter. His wisdom very much reminds me of EKAW '91,
the organisers of which were of the openminded sort, which meant that a huge number of researchers was invited to speak for three minutes each. 

Speaking about complicated stuff is not easy, it takes a lot of practice, and most people, including myself, struggle with it forever. As a result, most of the workshop was filled with short high-speed presentations of enthusiastic people who tried to cram the usual 30 minutes into the 3 minutes allowed, twisting their tongues, gasping for air. It was not a pleasant sight. I thought I did not too so bad, until the chairman killed me right after the "In conclusion" of my final sentence.

Fortunately, I managed to turn my defeat into a victory, weeks later. I was invited to give a presentation about the same topic, for an audience of exhausted PhD. students, near the end of a pretty dry seminar that had already lasted for too long. As I had not had time to totally revamp my presentation, I had decided to stick to my short three minute version.

I must have been 4 minutes into the allotted time, when I reached my conclusion. The chairman looked up in shock, the audience rewarded me with the big applause I have ever had. 

I was a wise lesson learned. EKAW '91 totally changed my view on scientific presentations. Had I always had the ambition to tell about my research, after that workshop I focussed on the message of RTFP (Read The Fucking Paper),  presenting right enough material to lure people into my paper. Usually, this works well.

A dire consequence of the decision to cram an awful lot of papers into one workshop, is that the conference proceedings resemble a telephone directory, big enough to be returned to the rain forest in its entirety. It took almost a year to get this sorted out.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Hat trick - the experiment

The motivation for tackling this simple puzzle was that research in knowledge engineering usually involves some informal way of knowledge elicitation, where knowledge from a human expert is made explicit so that it can be formalized into a model. My supervisor thought it would be a good idea to follow this process to the letter.

To this end, a student was invited to solve the puzzle, reasoning loud, with a tape recorder registering the process. It was interesting to find out how the process of explicitly verbalizing the reasoning seemed to interfere with the reasoning itself: once or twice, our subject muttered phrases like "Okay, so suppose I'm wearing a white hat, then... erm... nonono, what did I just say?" Apart from small glitches, the reasoning was in line with my expectations, and the transcript obtained was neatly translated into a logical model, involving meta-level reasoning.

I was proud to find that the resulting paper was accepted by the European Knowledge Acquisition Workshop '91 (EKAW'91), which took place in Crieff, Scotland. For the first time in my life, I was going to travel abroad.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Hat trick!

Two wise men are brought together to solve the following puzzle. Each is wearing a hat, without being able to see it: they can only see each others hat. Now, our wise men are told at least one of the hats is white. Their challenge is to find out the colour of their own hat, by logical reasoning.

The puzzle is attributed to Martin Gardner who published it as early as in 1961, but is probably much older. It comes in many shapes, ranging from prisoners to be executed (yikes!), to children with muddy faces, with two, three, or even countably infinite (yeeha!) hats, and, of course, all colours of the rainbow. 

The puzzle was also the topic of the first and last paper I wrote, and as such it conveniently marks the start and end of my scientific career. I think it is interesting enough to devote a series of postings to.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Rainbow

The rain was so brightly lit by the sun that it looked like silver: these were the perfect conditions for a rainbow. And indeed, I found a spectacular one at the other side of the building, enveloping the city from its west end, covered by clouds, til the bright city center. There was a second one, and even a third one, inside the first.

It is sheer coincidence that my final film 'City Colors' ends with a rainbow, which is a symbol of hope, the meaning of which dates back to the days of the Great Flood. When I downloaded my pictures from my camera, I noticed that the date of my camera is incorrect. All rainbow pictures are dated Tomorrow...

More to see...

During Max the Mutt Industry Night, I had the pleasure of spending all night next to the theatre where the final films of this year's graduates are screened. I will never forget how every few minutes another melody with accompanying sound effects filled the room, and every time exactly one pair of eyebrows jumped up: "Yep, that's me!"

The school can be happy with this year's round of final films. Starring in alphabetical order: Jennifer Foreshew ('Victor Tours Paris'), Sara Guira ('The Magician'), Aaron Long ('Trainfilm'), Benjamin Luk ('The Jump'), David Mark ('Nutjutsu'), Justin Mark ('Boss of the Woods'), Connor Ross ('Tyrannical Fury'), Jen Schollen ('The Inventor'), Ashley Vanchu ('Sock Hop'), Erikos Petrou ('Melodia'), Alina Shamova ('Inspiration'). I will never forget these names, and I hope you will remember them after watching their films at the Max the Mutt YouTube Channel.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Operational issues...

In early March, I sent the board of the Dovercourt Baptist Foundation a letter about the way the student residence here at New Horizons Tower has been torn down, while all complaints were answered with blunt intimidation; I asked them for a justification from a Christian perspective. The letter was intercepted by NHT management, who refused to pass it along.

Yesterday, however, I received a response which seems to have been signed by Michael Harris, president of the Dovercourt Baptist Foundation. Without even apologizing for the fact that the response is three months late, the letter states that "we consider this to be an operational issue and not a matter for the board, and as such you should direct your concerns to the management of New Horizons Tower" The response came to me as an email from NHT management.

It was interesting to discover that the response was directed at "Izak van Langevelde", that is me, while I only used a formal "drs. I.A. van Langevelde" in my letter. I sincerely doubt whether Michael Harris ever read the original letter. More to follow, I will keep you updated.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Switching gears

The last few months have been very busy for me. Producing my short film 'City Colors', building a portfolio, a website, presentation boards, a booklet and bookmarks to hand out at the school's Industry Night. It all ended last night, at the school's graduation ceremony. It is over.

Over the past four years, I have thought more than once that you can only be a student once in your life. Being a student is so much more than being in a position to learn. It has a lot to do with growing up, and that is something I did about twentyfive years ago, when I was a student in Computer Science. As a result, yesterday's ceremony was more about fetching a diploma, than about turning over a new leaf.

Yesterday does signal, however, a new phase in the masterplan, dubbed 'Operation Switch' about five years ago. Now that I have completed my formal education as a visual artist, it is time to look for a job, and finding a job at this side of the world means that I will need to get work permit first. I consciously made the decision to first graduate, and build a portfolio, and only then to start the formal procedure to get a visa. Over the next few weeks, I hope to start sorting out the formalities.

In the meantime, feel free to take a look at my portfolio site, which features my final film titled 'City Colors', and a good selection of other artwork I have worked on over the past four years. Enjoy!




Thursday, April 19, 2012

Dark Horizons

Quite a few people asked me, slightly worried, about the state of affairs at New Horizons Tower. The student facilities have been torn down, while the students are still paying for it, whoever dares to complain is told to leave, and the remaining students will be forced out this month.

An interesting development was that I have been offered a larger appartment in the tower, for the same price. On my reply that they cannot buy me, management responded by offering me $750 and, really, I only have to accept it, and they do not want anything in return. They discovered they cannot intimidate me, so they are trying to catch me with honey.

I decided to report the whole issue to the Board of the Dovercourt Baptist Foundation, which happens to reside at, you guessed it, New Horizons Tower. I sent a more or less formal letter, through registered mail, as a probe to test the waters. I was not really surprised to learn that my letter had been intercepted by management, and they refuse to pass it upward. A second attempt through the pastor of the church failed in a similar way.

As Shakespeare wrote: "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark." A good deal of the organization here seems to be rotten to the bone. I have sent out some more probes, and activated some contacts here and, also, there. I love puzzles. Really.

Friday, April 6, 2012

My Ass

In my first week at Max the Mutt, I was caught by one of the security guards in the mall around the corner: he wanted to see what I was doing. At that moment, I was still sneaking around, trying to sketch people without being noticed myself, which is exactly the behaviour which triggers the alarm bells of those responsible for public security. We had a nice chat about school and life in general, and I somewhat reluctantly showed him my sketchbook, which was at that point filled with 'blind contours' and very rough 'gestures', exercises which are more about the drawing process than about anything else. He tried to say something nice, but his blank stare suggested he was thinking something else.

It became a habit over the past three and a half years. I returned almost every day to try to catch human nature in all its beauty, peculiarity, ugliness, flirtyness, playfulness, whateverness. For almost two years, it was strictly technical for me, and I did my sketching as the bodybuilder pressed his kilogrammes, the pianoplayer plays his scales and the athlete runs his circles, for the sole purpose of getting better at it. And only after two years did I get some satisfaction out of it, finding pleasure in the occasional nice drawing.

I have started to wrap it all up. I am building my final portfolio, and there will be pages from my sketchbook in it. When I took some time scanning them, I realized I do not really care which ones to put in: they are not all good, but there are so many of them that I do like. A quick estimate suggests I have been doing about 20 quick studies a day for more than two years, for a grand total of more than 14000 quick studies.

Today I spent some time in a coffee shop around the corner, sketching my coffee away. A lady spent some time watching me, bent over and said: "You're good, you're really talented" I had just completed sketch number 14001. Talented, my ass...

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Levator scapulae

It happened more than a year ago, during a life drawing session. The female model was wearing a robe, which fell open when she bent forward in my direction, granting me a clear view of her anatomy. The teacher was standing right behind me, and whispered over my shoulder: "Lucky you, from this angle you can see her levator scapulae really well!" I had to look that one up, it is a muscle which, as its name suggests, is used for raising the shoulder blade. Ah, that is the pleasure of an anatomically inclined teacher.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

It's contagious!

"No man is an island entire of itself", so let me take some time to talk about my influences. I compiled an influence map, and I will leave it as a puzzle to find out who is who.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema left The Netherlands for Victorian England, where he rose to great fame as one of the foremost Pre-Raphaelites. I am a sucker for draperies, marble and classical settings, and love to ponder about the stories this man is telling in paint.

Walt Disney had the gift of gathering, inspiring, moving and directing a team of great artists around him, an effort which leaves its traces until the present day. I think I appreciate him most as a storyteller, who singlemindedly told us stories which still enchant the crowds. When the world almost succumbed in an economical crisis, heading straight towards another catastrophe, Disney dared to dream about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a classic which is still popular, not just as another well-told fairy tale, but also as mandatory literature for generations of animation students.

Gil Elvgren may be the mystery guest here: why to include a pin up artist here? His illustrations of pretty and naughty usually do not fit the modern definition of 'pretty' and 'naughty', but I really admire the craftsmanship by which he celebrates the female form, in a sense that seems to be missing from so many tits and asses that are supposed to adorn the modern media. Also, it is this same nostalgic feeling which attracts me to Norman Rockwell, that I also feel in Elvgren.

André Franquin became famous as the creator of Gaston Lagaffe, but he has also done a terrific job taking over Spirou and Fantasio from Jijé, adding the Marsupilami to the Spirou universe. I love his loose style of drawing, as well as his fantastic sense of humour. He intrigues me most because of his depressions, which kept him from being productive for so many years. It is his "Idées Noires' where the dichotomy between his hilarious sense of humour and the darkest depressions surfaces. I think Franquin is one of the most prominent members of Jijé's Marcinelle School, which once filled the bulk of the Spirou magazine Peyo's Smurfs, Morris' Lucky Luke, Roba's Boule and Bill, Wasterlain's Docteur Poche, and many other. Spirou, or Robbedoes as it is called in The Netherlands, was the comic magazine I bought every week as a kid.

Quinton Hoover is appreciated because of his Art Deco flavored designs for Magic: the Gathering, a game I was involved in around the nineties. I think it was his art that gave me this wowiwannabeeabletodothis feeling. He may not have risen to the status of his colleagues mentioned here, but his Vesuvan Doppelganger will always remain a good memory for me.

Roger Leloup once worked in Hergé's studio, on backgrounds, vehicles and aircraft, but he became well known as the creator of Yoko Tsuno, Japanese electronic engineer who is fond of detective stories, time travelling and technology. His background still shows, as his scenery and vehicles are well-researched and convincing, while his characters are, generally, weak. The design of the heroine got more and more refined throughout the decades, while most other characters look awkward. While I love the earlier stories, the later stories are more and more contorted. He is still on my list of favourites, because of his earlier work.

J.C. Leyendecker is, I think, the only artist here I only know by his initials. He mostly known because of his fashion illustrations and magazine covers, featuring gayish young men. I love his work because of the bold sculpting, both of faces and costume, and his way of efficiently filling the background with what seem to be casual strokes of a palette knife.

Alphonse Mucha, and with him the whole Jugendstil, or Art Nouveau, movement, enchants me with his swirly organic lines in flowers, female hairs and seemingly translucent paintings. I have always been a fan, but when I saw his exposition in Rotterdam, I was completely sold.

Anton Pieck has been reviled as kitsch for half a century, but is more and more appreciated as an artist. His oevre of illustrations and designs reflects a child-like mind that dreamed of good old days, fairy tales and Dickens style nostalgia. What is usually considered 'typically Anton Pieck' is not special to me, but I love his illustration of the Arabian Nights and fairy tales, and I am totally in love with his woodblock prints. It is hard to believe that this man has been a highschool drawing teacher most of his life, who illustrated and designs only in his free hours. His designs for the Dutch fairytale park the Efteling has placed him in the top of Dutch concept artists until the very present day.

Rien Poortvliet is special to me because of his sheer craftsmanship. Knowing that the man was self-taught makes me feel jealous. He once admitted that he really could not draw so well: when he had trouble drawing the big wheel of an old wagon, he was eager to hide his shortcomings by adding a character right in front of it. I believe I could live with such handicaps. His work on animals, gnomes and Dutch folklore is precious: it breathes a true love for God and His creation.

Norman Rockwell did many covers and illustrations that, for me, breathe the spirit of the fifties. That is a little odd, since in this period I had not even entered the design phase. I think I love this stuff so much because in my early youth, a lot of illustrations from the fifties were still around. Strong storytelling work, solid craftsmanship: I love it.

Rembrandt van Rijn. Can I say more?

Gustav Tengren is one of the least famous artists in my influence map. He did do a lot of backgrounds for Disney features like Snow White and Pinocchio, which backed up the American way of storytelling with a classic European look.

Marten Toonder founded the first major Dutch animation studio, which played a major role in raising generations of animators, cartoonists and illustrators. You still read it in interviews with the past generation: "Yes, I worked for the Toonder Studios." Toonder became most famous through his creations Oliver B. Bumble and Tom Puss, and a wealth of remarkable, colourful and recognizable characters around them, as well as his additions to the Dutch language. This year is the Toonder Year in The Netherlands, and a promising Toonder biography by Wim Hazeu will see the light. I cannot wait.

Willy Vandersteen is the creator of Suske and Wiske, or Bob and Bobette in English. Virtuose stories, with a dab history and magic, Antwerp dialect, and a somewhat messy loose drawing style. Until not so long ago, I kept buying each new book, until the quality dropped far below zero. I have always loved the original stories, liked the newer stories and more stylized designs of his successor Paul Geerts, while I could not care less about the modern studio work. Suske, Wiske, Tante Sidonia, Lambik, Jerom, Krimson, Schanulleke, Sus Antigoon, Professor Barabas en Theofiel Boemerang will always have a special place in my heart.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Goldfish!

I must have been 6 years old when my mother brought me to the dentist for the first time. At this point, the man leaves his drills and needles at home, it is just to get used to The Mood.

The only thing I remember, is that I went into a somewhat sterile looking, smelling and sounding environment, in the company of my brother and sisters who seemed to be already used to The Mood, as they were all nervous. And there were goldfishes.

On each and every subsequent visit to the dentist, my mother showed me a pond that could be seen from the waiting room: "Look! They have goldfishes! That's nice, isn't it!" And with each visit, I got more and more used to The Mood.

Forty years later, I have grown into and gotten over a panical fear for The Mood. I am wearing dentures now, and have learnt to relax into The Mood. One thing has never changed: whenever I see a goldfish, I think of the dentist.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Gluttony

I had the pleasure to learn that today's model is a good friend of my teacher in 'Acting and Improvisation' from three years ago. It triggered the memory of a good story told by a guest teacher in that class, David, a specialist in mask play.

He had spent some time in Italy with a famous master of Commedia del'Arte masks. I forgot the master's name, but I still remember that whenever David referred to his master, he seemed to take a fresh breath and said 'Maestro' with a face that showed nothing less than the deepest respect.

When the Maestro had asked him what he wanted to learn, he had expressed his ambition to create a series of masks about the Seven Cardinal Sins. The Maestro looked at him in disbelief: "You want to do seven masks... in three months?" He picked one: gluttony.

He spent the next three months sculpting, working and reworking his mask. And when he took a closer look at the finished mask, he saw a familiar face. It was the face of his father, a man who had always loved to wine and dine...

Monday, February 20, 2012

The joy of sketching

If there is one thing about school I'm taking seriously, then it is my sketchbook: I have a strong feeling that everything I learn boils down to the ability to capture life as we know it, in the shopping mall, in the coffee shop, on the streets, wherever, whenever, however.

My teachers have always stressed the importance of sketching every day, and through the years, they have been increasingly positive and encouraging about my sketchbook. That is not to say I am satisfied about my skill level, but it merely suggests I am on the right track. My teachers keep telling me about that one lucky student that was hired by an animation studio, just because he was found sketching every day in Union Station. You never know.

Today I was sketching at the Starbucks, right opposite a man who had a somewhat peculiar build, with a matching pose, more hanging than sitting with his body weight resting on his sacrum, and his arms folded as in spasm. Now, I am always interested in awkward poses, silly walks and wicked proportions, but the whole figure felt so uneasy that I directed my energy towards the other coffee addicts. I ignored the man, but soon felt he was not exactly ignoring me. You never know.

He kept a stealthy eye on me, glancing over the edge of his laptop screen, and looked away whenever my eyes crossed his. After a while, he stood up and walked to a display behind me, and in the reflection of the window I could see he was now looking over my shoulder, looking at my drawings. Without saying a word, he returned to his table, to continue our little game of cat and mouse. You never know.

When I stood up and put on my coat, I saw him hesitating. I decided to take a little longer to dress up, and to put away my drawing implements. After all, you never know.

The man stood up, walked up to me to introduce himself and compliment me for my sketchbook. At least, that was what I had expected. "I saw you drawing, and... ah... well...did you draw me?" I told him I had not, but before I could even feel sorry about the missed opportunity, he continued: "Are you sure?" Yes, I was. It all ended with a harsh: "Good, because I don't want anyone to draw me, under no condition, understood?" Well, you never know.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A Tale of Two Towers

I had seen it coming. The old management here at New Horizons Tower, a residence tied to the Dovercourt Baptist Church, had been in place since its foundation in the seventies of the previous century, and they had managed to forge a pretty close community, where seniors, students and staff lived together in good harmony.

I do not even know whose stupid idea it was to bring students into a senior residence, but it worked. Most of the seniors seemed to appreciate the energy of the students, some of whom had only started to explore their own talents, while the students were kept more or less under control by a happy platoon of grey-haired grandfathers and grandmothers, armed with canes, riding their walkers.

Having lived here for almost four years, I saw them coming and going, both the students and the seniors, in the morning and the evening of their lives, and me being somewhere in between, around lunchtime, I think. Things started to change about one year ago, when the Administrator of New Horizons Tower retired.

The new administrator introduced a new style of management, which was obvious from the moment she crowned herself CEO. While her predecessor was found among his staff, seniors and students, the CEO rules the tower from her office. The old management was quickly replaced by her trustees: an army of blackshirts for whom management is a matter of time and money, instead of people.

The old marketing director will probably kill me for calling him old, but I will stick to the term anyways. My intake into the tower started a little stiff, but he managed to provide me a smooth entrance. The irritations that arose once or twice were quickly ironed out through a personal meeting, and his good sense of humor and fatherly words made me leave his room in a better mood. When I once expressed my worries about the ability to stay at New Horizons Tower for the full length of my program, he reassured me that "Student presence alone causes happy and bright feelings among most of the seniors living here. [...] Students interested living at NHT will find accommodation at NHT at any given time." It felt good.

The former head of housekeeping was usually whirling around in what looked like a white laboratory coat, which not only screamed "This place is clean" but also provided an unusual contrast with her beautiful afro-american looks. More than once, she hurried to bring clean towels or sheets, and informed every now and then whether things were okay now.

The head of the kitchen reminded me of an old teacher of mine. I still do not know what the man did, or how he did it, but he ran his business smoothly, and the self-service buffet for students always perfectly suited the needs of young people who usually have no time or clue when it comes to healthy food. To be honest, the combinations were not always brilliant, but my complaints were usually answered with the willingness to improve.

A precious place in the dining room was reserved for a sweet old lady who served the students. She knew everyone by name and school, and had a wonderful memory of who liked to eat what, and a magical instinct for what kept people alive. I can only speak for myself, but it was she who really made me feel at home here.

As a neighbour of mine used to say it: "We didn't even know how good it was here". To be honest, I feel a little uneasy that only now I feel the need to express my gratitude towards the old staff: Danish, Joan, Leonard and, especially, Christine, I miss you all.

It started in the dining room. The student facilities were quietly removed: within a few days, the steam tables, the microwaves and the fridge were all gone. Only after my protest that this made it impossible for students to warm up their late dinners, kept in the fridge at their request, was it admitted that the late meal service had been cancelled. During a blazing hot summer, it was no longer possible to get a pitcher of ice cold juice from the fridge, and drinks were reduced to one glass per meal. Although this regime was recently relaxed a bit, during the heat of the summer, requests to get a pitcher of juice at my table, were bluntly refused. The regime extended to the floor lounges, where fridges, once kept stocked with juice by kitchen staff, were now only restocked twice a week, with tiny little packages of juice, enough for everybody to have two drinks a week. Personally, I do not care so much, as I am an ardent Coca Cola drinker and buy most of my own drinks anyways, but for seniors who need to stay hydrated during a hot summer, the situation was dangerous.

From that moment, students had to wait at their tables to be served, which often took too long for those who start at 9:00. More than once, the selection of bread during breakfast and lunch was limited to cheap white bread, so after a while I started to buy my own. The quality of meat degraded quickly, and the seafood served at times was so scary that I did not even dare to touch it. At the same time, the monthly rent was raised by $50.

It became apparent where the money was spent. An ambitious plan to renovate the tower was presented, and it went much further than tackling the usual wear and tear of a building that is more than forty years old. To the contrary. Maintenance was no longer a priority, so my room now has a broken thermostat, the toilet keeps running and the door opens barely wide enough to enter, which is not so much a problem for me, as for the somewhat heavier built cleaner. The new CEO goes for looks and status.

I guess I was one of the first to complain about the new situation. Whereas the old management usually saw this as an opportunity to improve, the new management was pretty blunt: "If you don't like it here then why don't you leave?" And leaving is what people did. I especially remember my neighbour, who left with tears in her eyes. She had a good friend to go to, and felt really sorry about all seniors who have nowhere to go.

A few seniors told me they had issued complaints on the internet on a review site http://www.n49.ca, but these had been quickly removed by the new management. A quick scan learnt that this site is more about advertising than about reviews, as places under review obviously have the freedom to remove reviews they do not like. The single positive reviewer there finally admitted she represented the tower, and stressed that founders and board of New Horizons were so happy with the new situation. Another reviewer correctly summarized this as the new situation: New Horizons Tower is no longer about serving seniors and students, it is about founders, boards, status and money.

Last weekend I was once more reminded about how things have changed. The cleaner had taken my old bar of soap, and forgot to bring me a new bar. No big deal, so I reported the issue at the front desk, expecting them to solve it there and then, either by improvising a new one, or by calling the head of householding. To my astonishment, I was told the relevant manager had gone home at 5:00 pm, and I had to wait till Monday. When on Monday, the responsible blackshirt bluntly entered my room to tell me not to make a problem of a bar of soap, her empty gaze made me realize that, for her, this a nine-to-five job, not understanding that seniors and students do not come and go when she does.

The Director of Resident Service laughed me straight in the face, and told me, once more, to leave if I did not like it here. Well, this is definitely going to happen, as I hope to graduate in a few months, and the terms of my contract do not allow me to stay after that; I am looking for a new place, to stay the rest of the year. What happened tonight made me think.

When I came home at a somewhat unusual time, I found the blackshirt who poses as a Student Liaison sneaking from door to door on my floor. When he noticed me, he jumped up high, and pushed a sheet of paper into my hands, without even looking me into the eyes. By the time his rat-like appearance had sneaked into the emergency staircase, the essence of the writing dawned on me: students are no longer welcome at New Horizons Tower, and rooms must have been vacated by April 30.

It does not really hit me, as I hope to move out soon. However, I really feel sorry about the seniors here, the other students, and the Bloorvillage neighbourhood, which will loose a unique community to the greed, status and money that has threatened much of what connects people in a big city of Toronto. I am also worried about the Dovercourt Baptist Church, who either do not care about the residence once founded, or adhere to a Gospel which is not mine.

The new management has claimed that the only people unhappy are those who hide the anonymity of the internet. Well, I'm too honest for that. You will not see me sneaking around the building, pushing letters of intimidation underneath doors, like Ian Anderson. You will not see me laughing into your face from the safety of my office, like Sylvia Teasdale. I have the courage to stand up straight and to defend my opinion.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Loose ends

I just entered my final term here at Max the Mutt, which consists mostly of building a portfolio with work gathered over the past three years, producing my final film and preparing a board for presentation at Industry Night.

Over the past years, I have been working on a fistful of stories, and I picked one to use in my graduation project. Last term, I completed the character design, this term I will be developing the storyboard, and by the end of the term, I hope to produce the film. Originally, the school had a clear-cut idea of how this should be developed, but a last-minute decision was made to produce this traditionally, which means that, at least in principle, students should be able to get better results, although it implies the production will take longer. It also means that two of the courses slated for this term, i.e. Storyboarding and Toon Boom, have lost much of their purpose, as a storyboard will have been completed earlier, and most of the Toon Boom software will not be used in our production. We will see how this turns out.

Completing my education also means completing another phase of Operation Switch, and starting a new one: finding a job. I decided to put this to rest until graduation, in order to concentrate exclusively on my portfolio and my final film. It also means finding a new home, as the place where I am living now is a combined senior and student residence. Despite my age, being no longer a student does not automatically make me senior. So, lots of exciting things to look forward to, I hope to keep you informed...