After three days of constant rain, grey weather and grey water, the skies are mostly clear. The sun is slowly approaching the horizon above the vast ocean. Despite low tide, large waves crash at the coast line and the water is shining in cyan, teal, and turquoise – unexpected, here in Denmark. And there are youths in front of waves. I’ve photographed people rarely, especially strangers, but this time I approach them and ask for their permission to take some pictures. It brings more joy than expected. Especially when they see the pictures afterwards and their eyes open widely, a slight grin on their face. My favorite pictures are the ones that show their facial expressions in the midst of the raging waters (not shown here).
Sometimes, nature can be too beautiful to comprehend. The birds causally sail the uplift above the ocean, the forces of water and wind no human structure can withhold, and the dazzling dark night sky scattered with uncountably many stars. In the end, human life is rather insignificant within the great universe we are in. Even if we manage to save this little planet for a while, our solar system will die eventually.
We’ll mix it up this time. Correct: Not I, but We. Because you’re going to get involved in this one. One simple question, many answers. Take your time to think about it before reading on; here comes the question:
Are the following pictures similar?
Let’s start with the basics: They are digital pictures shown on a website, saved in the same digital format. Not known to you, they also have the same number of pixels along the long side. To be exact, 1000 pixels as all pictures here in order to not occupy too much space (and to not get stolen – but who will steal them anyway…). Color information is stored in Adobe RGB color space, however, since all are black and white, the information for red, green, and blue is identical for every pixel anyway.
Not so fast, you will intervene. And you are right in doing so: While the long side is always 1000 pixels, they do not share the same aspect ratio, nor the same orientation. And it won’t be a stretch to claim that between every two pictures no single pixel is identical. So already after these first simple investigations we see a problem emerging: They are similar to a specific degree, identical in some respects, but disparate with respect to other criteria.
Let’s dive deeper: Are the images we see here the actual images, let alone do they inherit or show some of our reality? First of all, they do not show the full data gathered, since the original pictures are much larger, also encode color, and a variety of additional information in their RAW format. And in any case, they are just some arbitrary representation of reality without any real connection to it. One of endless possible portrayals of reality. While this does not directly touch on the original question, it is important to keep this in mind when we search and interpret their similarity.
Lastly, how do the overall pictures appear? Even if the single pixels are different between all images, combined they create patterns that can be alike. The pixels combine to a variety of forms, which, in turn, are received differently by different viewers. Waves, scales, oscillations, geometrical forms. And are they really creating these patterns or does the viewer infer them? Can we infer different patterns from the same picture?
I could go on for a while, but it’s getting too long. Let’s move on to the second question: Now, we also need to quantify the difference between every pair of pictures. On a scale from 0 to 100, how different are these two?
And what about these?
I think you are getting my point. We can create an endless list of metrics and choose what we think is best. We can apply these metrics to these simple images, or we can gather more data, larger pictures, RAW data, and then apply the metrics. We can weight and combine metrics to generate an overall score of similarity, we can try to assess how it performs in comparison to other scores. We can compare pairs of pictures and create a hierarchy of similarity. But it will never be the same when done by different people. And in the end, it’s quite arbitrary. Do we look at pixels, color, form, format, derived patterns, povoked emotions?
Most of the day I am doing such arbitrary comparisons. Not between images, but between DNA strands. Instead of pixels I am looking at sequences of A, C, G, and T. Depending on the chosen metric, a variety of results emerges. There is no correct metric, no correct similarity measure. There is no correct way to describe reality, neither to analyze and exploit it. There is an infinite number and every single one creates another distinct result.
But fortunately, in the end, it somehow seems to work – at least sometimes, when it solves a problem in biology research or medicine; but most of the time I don’t get how.
No consistent system of axioms whose theorems can be listed by an effective procedure is capable of demonstrating its own consistency.
Gödel’s incompleteness theorem
A 1: Being happy requires time.
A 2: Being happy requires fulfilling work.
A 3: Pursuing fulfilling work for a comfortable life requires time.
A 4: Time is limited.
Theorem: Living a happy life is possible in our given time.
Some topics keep occupying the mind. And for the moment, again, it’s balance; or, as here, phrased as: completeness. Can something be complete? Work? A picture? Life? And what makes it complete? Is it the experiences we make? The amount of satisfaction we achieve? The accomplished perfection? And can we ever tell when it is complete, or can we just decide that it is? Or is it just a feeling of fulfillment that cannot be proven?
I’ve felt completeness once, however, in unfortunate circumstances. Maybe we need to accept, or even embrace, the incompleteness. The imperfection of the picture, the irregularity in life. Maybe this is the distinctive feature, the remarkable quality, that makes our existence worthwhile. That makes the picture special. That motivates us to keep going, to keep on pushing and to go out to find the rare human experiences that enrich daily routines. Incompleteness, as the 10th Dan that cannot be achieved, as the optimal algorithm that cannot be written, as the last theorem that cannot be proven.
Maybe, someday, I will know; and maybe someday you will know. For now, I’ll keep on trying to find the proof.
Nothing really new from my side. Important elections coming up in Germany, but everything is as always: Internet and social media create echo chambers where every camp can confirm the superiority of their own arguments. Algorithms distort and decide. Alternative facts dominate and destroy. Little genuine discourse taking place. Four years ago we were horrified about the results beyond the ocean, this time we might elect a clown ourselves.
I have pictures for at least five upcoming posts in the queue. But they want to be sighted, sorted, selected, and set up first. The following selection is from our first evening at a seven day vacation at the coast – scenic sunsets, rough seas, wonderful memories. A lot more to come from the other six days.
There is a common thought that the best ideas come in the most unexpected circumstances. While showering, while washing dishes, or while taking a walk. I agree that distraction and activities that leave room for thoughts to roam freely are important; but I also feel that the flip side is just as important and does only seldom get recognition: deliberate creativity.
The walls are empty, stripped from the grimy holds that decorated this section over the past weeks. Boulder problems climbed by hundreds of people are gone. Problems climbed by only a few will be forgotten soon. But the walls are not meant to stay this bleak – new boulders are to be created.
For now, however, the holds are neatly arranged into their boxes; by color and by manufacturer. Large wooden volumes lay on the floor and wait to be placed somewhere on 45 square metres of wall – to change the wall shape and angle. Where to start? Which volume to pick? Which holds go where? What movements to create? How hard should it be? Everything is possible. The number of options are uncountably infinite.
But still, the result cannot be chosen by chance. It needs to be assembled carefully and put together accurately. It needs knowledge, experience, empathy, strengths, and: creativity. The movements shouldn’t feel similar because it will be boring. If the movements are to funky, most people will be turned off as well. Most boulders need to have an element of interest while the body positions still feel familiar. They need to be challenging, but without overloading the customer. All elements of this job require a lot of creativity. So again: Where to start?
Waiting in the shower won’t solve the problem of being creative. And the same applies for taking a walk. The only thing that will solve the task is to dive right into it and start. Routesetting has taught me this important lesson: Creativity doesn’t come to me on its own. It does not always present itself in unrelated tasks. I need to actively seek it out. I have to explore my mind, feel the holds, inspect the wall. I need to place volumes at different angles, arrange the holds on the floor, move my body, move my thoughts. Holds go up, holds go down again. Holds go up, this time slightly better. I try to replicate a neat move I saw. I fail. Instead, I find something new – sometimes worse, sometimes even better. Problems that require specific muscles movements, boulders that require intricate movements.
And if everything goes well, a new set of boulders decorates the wall. For people to try hard, to invest, to train on, to feel accomplishment, to show off, to feel their body, to cheer for others, to fail and fall, to scale and accomplish their goals.
I notice the same in my field of work: mostly, the ideas do not come to me on their own. I need to sit down and actively explore them. I need to draw diagrams and pictures for some hours until a new potential idea emerges. In photography, I do not sit at home and wait for my subject to appear. I go outside, in all conditions, change my viewpoint, change my approach, and only then, if I am lucky, I create something interesting, sometimes even something creative. And lastly, when writing on here: It’s useless for me to wait for the next topic to peak around the next corner; I have to actively engage in thought. And even if it’s not creative, at least it’s about creativity.
Also, the pictures aren’t to creative this time, but I still like them as they remind me of our wonderful vacations we had in Italy. Just look at those cute ducklings!
It settles slowly and weighs heavy. It dampens everything. It’s real, the disappointment. A single lantern in the dark – wiped out. Darkness all around. No more glimmer of hope, no light at the end of the tunnel. A lone tree on a hill – chopped down. Roots ripped out, green leaves decay. The remaining air in the lungs squeezed out; it’s impossible to breathe below the surface, impossible to reach the surface. An unsuccessful escape into the familiar. A short diversion by bright screens. Only to get pulled back into reality; another passed day, missed opportunities to progress. Surrendered without a fight. The cube is solved except the last corner, rotated by external force. The next move unknown, all pieces captured. A drawn out opening that does not deliver. A middle game never reached. The king tipped over, onto the rigid board. Only time is left, to reignite the lantern, to plant a new seedling. To pick up all pieces and organize them, for the next fight ahead.
As climbers and boulderers we come into contact with rock; a lot. Probably more than most people (except geologists). This comes with a certain appreciation for different types of rock. Around our region alone we have a combination of granite, limestone, sandstone, and basalt. The granite is rough and sharp – during summer nearly impossible to climb without destroying your skin. The limestone is smooth and slick, sometimes with nasty and small finger pockets. In comparison to Fontainebleau, most of our sandstone is fragile and crumbly, however, it had always a certain charm on me with its intricate structures and fascinating shapes.
Thus, a boulder can be aesthetically pleasing, especially if a clearly defined line from bottom to top is visible that begs to be climbed. It can inspire, motivate me to push harder than before. I guess everyone who had the pleasure to wander through the woods of Fontainebleau can empathize. But seldom, I had the same appreciation for the rock of mountains when hiking as I have for rock while bouldering. The dolomites thought me differently.
The masses are not here yet. Silent nature with the occasional gurgling of distant water: Calming. Few brown bears roaming the mountains: Concerning. Light is absent, stars occupy the dark canvas. Heavy breath, swampy steps, a steep ascent, a large plain to cross, another steep ascent. Never ending sedimentary rocks. Some ancient coral reefs, reaching into vast sky. Distant light. And finally: the mountains shoulder. Structures everywhere, patterns every. This rock is different. First views towards west. Rolling alpine meadows, interrupted by jagged peaks reaching high, layer by layer, color by color. Rocks on fire.
We only stayed for two and a half days, most of which was characterized by heavy rain storms. But we used all the moments in between to explore the Fanes-Sennes-Prags national park. And I am confident when I say: I have never seen mountains as beautiful as these. Again, I started in the very early morning hours in hope to reach one of the closest peaks, Lavarela. But this time I underestimated the pure scale of this monumental landscape and could not quite reach the summit after 3.5 hours of hiking. It didn’t affect the view with a large panorama towards west. I guess this was and will be my nature highlight of 2021.
There are some things, only mountains can do: provide panoramic views, enable climbing and steep hiking, exhaust the visitors, and: thunderstorms. We witnessed the most intense thunder in quite a while during our time in the dolomites. Bright lightning. Thunderclaps and rolling thunder. Constantly. Elevating and frightening. Marvelous und destructive.
Lately, I have been discussing frequently what makes a good photo. In the end, as most things, it comes down to personal preference. Many rules exist, but many exceptions to any rule exist as well. For me, I have found that the best photos do two things: First, I am flashed when I see them the first time. It strikes me like lightning; I am stunned and in awe. Second, they keep me engaged and hold my interest – like the thunder rolling through the valley, they develop and keep giving as long as I keep looking. New forms, new details, new patterns.
It’s been a year now since I have my camera. I am looking forward to the next year and I am hoping to produce at least a small thunderstorm of pictures; flashing bright and rolling afterwards.
The night is young, but the warmth of the last day has already faded. The cold creeps beneath my jacket. It’s 1:30 a.m., the goal in mind is Hochiss: the highest mountain of the Rofan mountain range at 2299 meters height above sea level. Thus, 1359 meters in altitude to go. Lone clouds are scattered across the sky and the moon peaks cautiously behind to throw dark shadows. During the first 20 minutes I pass the small village Maurach; a single car turns up the music as it passes. Then, I leave the streets and houses, and with them the dim lighting of civilization that seems to be present everywhere. I need a brief stop to retrieve the headtorch deep within my backpack; it hasn’t been used for a long time. After only 30 meters I need to change the batteries – and then the mountains begin, then I walk.
The headtorch bounces around in the dark forest, as do my thoughts in my head, mind and legs wander around together: Have I packed everything? Will I arrive in time for sunrise? Will I find the correct way? What will we eat tonight? How does the story of my current novel turn out? How fast are raindrops when falling from the sky? How good is the vision of cows at night? Will my knee hurt again?
All senses are sharpened, every noise of the forest seems loud and intense; but in comparison to the days, humans and nature are mostly sleeping. The path is steep and gets even steeper with every step. The stone I want to step on quickly jumps out of the way. Startled, I watch the toad disappear in the wet grass and everything goes back to silence.
From time to time I look into nature, and sometimes it looks back: small dots in the dark, reflecting the light, belonging to hidden bodies: Is it a sheep? A bear? An ibex? Sometimes their movement gives it away, sometimes they stay anonymous. The rabbit is pretty obvious though as it hops across the meadow, as are the cows with their bells that cling revealingly. Walking and thinking goes together, especially when alone. Thoughts come and go, as the surrounding landscape, from forest to meadow to rocky paths. Sometimes thoughts are easy and without any obstructions, but suddenly a steep and slippery slope awaits around the next corner.
I am fast, faster than anticipated at least. Another more difficult section waits below the summit; especially with limited light. Already at 4:10 a.m. I approach the last ridge towards the lone cross on the peak. Darkness makes it difficult to guess the distance but it doesn’t look too far. And indeed, 5 minutes later I am there: On top of the world – not exactly, but at least on top of the Rofan mountains, the Hochiss. I shut off the headtorch and look around at this miraculous scene illuminated by moon and stars: It’s simply breathtaking. 360 degrees of stunning views. Most haze got washed away by the severe rain falls the day before. A clear summer morning with crisp air. No other person in sight. Other peaks stretch below in every direction. The east-facing walls are already glowing in warm light.
Sweat and wind are never a welcome combination, especially when it’s also freezing cold. I try to dry my clothes from the sweat and put layers on layers on layers to stay warm. Gloves in July; later that day people will be amused by the thick jacket at my backpack. But later that day, the sun will also burn down on the innocent hikers and I will get a sunburn because I didn’t consider sunscreen when I started in the middle of the night.
Back to now: Already 90 minutes before sunrise it’s clear where the spectacle will occur: In the east, the very edge of the sky has started to shift towards a pale yellow. With every minute it conquers the sky and gets more intense. We follow our 360 degree view clockwise and see the huge mountains in the distant that belong to Berchtesgaden. The tones are shifting more towards a fiery orange, magenta, and lavender purple.
Towards south, Zillertal and Inntal are covered in a sea of thick and low clouds; just to the right of Inntal, the large mountains of the Karwendel are hiding in dark blues. In front of this spectacle, I can see all the way back to my starting point, the path winding below, towards the muted lights of Maurach.
It turns out that being early is better than being late. The time flies and I nearly miss the moment I came for. Secretly, the sun is already looming behind a far mountain. I have to change lenses and all settings in order to take a picture, but it’s already too late to properly prepare it. I did it no favor in banning it on canvas with the structure of the clouds across the valleys til the mountains at the horizon. The sun also seems as big as I have never seen it, as it covers the tip of a single mountain in the distance.
The light stays magical for another 15 minutes, but then, the miracle is over. After 5.5 hours, the second part of the day starts: Hiking across several other peaks to the summit Rofanspitze to meet up with Mädchen Klitzeklein. In the other direction, this can be done as a long via ferrata over five peaks; on my route, I am doing two of the peaks (Hochiss and Spieljoch) and go around two other ones (Rosskopf and Seekarlspitze).
On the way back I am first meeting some of the mysterious nightly lurkers. This time, they aren’t scary at all, skipping around the rocky hillsides like its a 5+ route. At 7:30 a.m. I also meet the first person who does his regular morning walk from his private cabin towards the peak. He is surprised to have oncoming traffic at this time.
After another two hours of fast hiking, my power is abandoning my body. Also, concentration is dwindling away – as is probably yours after this unusually long post. My day ended, comfortably, with the cableway back down and a lot of food and early sleep. So I’ll leave you, as usual, with some final photos.
Alex Honnold free-soloed El Capitan in Yosemite; people might describe such an action as dangerous or inappropriate, or even call him tired of life. For me, it is about the exact opposite: It’s about using your life, about passion and emotion, about feeling alive.
What’s the point in our journey? Do we live the 9–5 weeks until we are 67 and die of illness afterwards? It’s difficult to know beforehand how to live a life that we don’t regret; after all there is only a single chance (from what I believe). This can be a constraining or liberating thought, a coin with two sides. Either: Be careful! Stay save! Or: Use your resources consciously to find satisfaction – even if it might come with risk. This does not need to be dangerous at all though: A walk in the woods, a calm hour in the evening with your favorite music, or a long conversation with close friends.
However, for me, feeling alive also sometimes brings along risk. But it is a deliberate and calculated risk that entails joy, freedom, or happiness. It also entails an honest confrontation with oneself: How far am I willing to go? How good can I assess my own abilities? What is really important to me? So important that I am willing to take a risk? And from time to time the answer is the distant peak at the horizon or the high boulder I am walking by. The boundary is always moving, sometimes towards the safe side, sometimes towards the more dangerous side. And in case of an unplanned end, it’s probably the car ride or the swim in the sea that finishes the journey anyway.