I have always been mildly interested in biology: I liked animals but didn’t bother to learn their names or behaviour; I had an advanced biology course in high school but never studied the subjects extensively; I always enjoyed being in nature and outdoors, but never observed the biodiversity around or the impact we have as humans on nature.
Only recently I am beginning to be more impressed by all the organisms around us and passionate about our local flora and fauna. This is somewhat caused by my work, but primarily due to photography. I am learning the names of the birds I capture in the frame, Mädchen Klitzeklein tells me which plants I am seeing and the names of trees and flowers, I am more informed about the changes of our planet and the associated changes in biodiversity.
What also complements this increasing interest are the botanical gardens we have in our home town: There are three different ones! An old botanical garden in the city centre, an experimental botanical garden in the North, and the adjacent arboretum. All of them are marvelous in their own way. The old botanical garden has narrow, interwoven paths and leans against the historic defense wall of the city centre. I had the pleasure to work in the only building that is located within the garden for a year. I added an old smartphone photo of the raccoons that lived below the roof – at the displeasure of the facility management. The experimental botanical garden is in the North and has a lot more space. There are several greenhouses, a little lake, and a larger area for alpine plants. The arboretum is the largest one of the three and is located higher on a hill with a view above the city and towards the West. The photos of my latest blog post about primroses were also created there.
On my trips to the botanical gardens I rarely read all of the plenty information given. And on our recent hikes I have captured many pictures of insects; however, I have still absolutely no clue about the names, species, or general taxonomy of insects. Thus, I have a mission for my next trip: Inform myself about one combination of plant species and insect that I took a photo of – a blog post about them will follow.
Our society likes labels. People like labels. Putting things into distinct boxes reduces the complexity of life. Putting people into categories simplifies the complex communication with and about them. We also choose labels for ourselves. It is neither necessary nor impossible; conversely, it is quite arbitrary. The labels we assign are always chosen with respect to our environment and with respect to our own position.
There is a concept in autonomous automation called simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM): An autonomous agent has to navigate in an unknown environment by using its sensors that observe the surroundings. Thus, it needs to localize itself with respect to the world and it needs to map the environment. The former step, localization, requires a map – only with a correct map it can use its sensor data to infer the current position. The latter step, mapping, requires the exact position of the agent in order to build an internal representation of the world with respect to the current sensor data. So which task should be performed first?
Generally, solutions to SLAM are careful: mapping the environment and inferring labels has to be done simultaneously and with caution. It also relies on large amounts of data. Typically, SLAM is solved via iterative updates of both, the own position, and the map with labels. In every iteration, the already gained information about the own position and environment can be used to improve the estimate of both. Early overconfidence is not advised and can result in disastrous accidents; when used in cars, and when used by people. Sometimes, the latter are not careful enough.
Preface: This post will be a difficult one and is mainly meant for myself. I you keep on reading, be prepared for a challenging and heavy topic; and also read the addendum.
I think people think drowning isn’t nice. And I agree: it’s not; at least in the beginning.
(Nearly) Every year, for 10 years, a group of friends and I have been on vacation to the same coast section of the North Sea in Denmark. And every year, we enjoyed swimming in the troubled sea, with high waves breaking onto the shore. Why? Because it is a lot of fun: getting lifted by the waves, struggling to keep your balance, hearing the roaring sounds of wind and water. We also thought we know about the dangers and can judge them. But actually, we, or at least I, could not.
And in 2018, I had to experience it myself: As always, we went for a swim during a stormy day, with high waves continuously crashing around us, sometimes far out on the ocean, sometimes only at the last moment when rolling onto the rocky beach. As always, we were staying really close to the land: I was able to feel the ground between most of the waves. And as always, we were watching out for each other; quite a large group this time, some in the ocean, some on land, all of us with the sharp wind in our faces and salt on our lips.
But this time is also different: The waves are irregular and hard to predict, water and wind are cold and unrelenting, and I think I am in control — although I am not. After several minutes of childlike pleasure of dancing in the waves, I slowly realize that I am feeling rather cold. It’s not an abnormal feeling for me: I am rather skinny and my body always cools down quickly in the water. I decide that it’s time to get out and I start to paddle towards the land. It seems only a few metres away and the warmth of the towel already feels in reach. I take some steps and some strokes, always between two breaching waves. Ride the next wave, two strokes, two steps; ride the next wave, two strokes, two steps.
30 seconds later it feels like I should have reached the coast; but I realize I have not gained a single inch. The feeling of cold has already turned into an intense feeling of freezing; my limbs feel numb, my teeth start to chatter. I take stronger strokes, but only get more exhausted. And the waves don’t care. Ride the next wave, two strokes, two steps; ride the next wave, two strokes, two steps. And then: I don’t ride the next wave, it rides me. After I am back on the surface, I try to pull myself together and look around: I did not notice before that we have drifted off from the people on the coast who are already further away than I thought. But next to me is a good friend, still dancing in the waves and enjoying the elements. But it doesn’t feel right to call for help: The coast seems still close, I am a physically fit guy, not a great swimmer, but I have been in this ocean many times before. I can also still sometimes feel the ground below my feet, between the never stopping waves rolling in. And: What should I even tell him? How should he help me?
Another 30 seconds later, I feel as uncomfortable as I have never felt in life before. I still have not made any progress; the harder I try, the less progress happens. I feel a glimpse of fear creeping into my heart and it’s enough that I try to reach out to him, just a few metres away in the water. I tell him I am feeling uncomfortable and that I do feel like I am not able to reach the coast. But the wind carries away every single word from my lips into the far distance. I try it a second time. I try it a third time. And now, the fear isn’t creeping anymore, I am not dancing in the waves anymore. I am an immobile object that gets thrown around in the ocean as easily as a little pebble of sand in the wind. In only one minute I have lost any bit of control I thought I had. And suddenly, there is no weighing up of my manliness against some unknown fear of showing weakness, there is no more time to loose. Suddenly, I realize how serious it is: I need help. And I need it now. I scream, and finally I get noticed. It still takes a few more screams before the seriousness of my situation is clear to him. The next wave crashes above me and my body is slammed into masses of water. There is no sense of up and down, there is only water everywhere. I loose all sense of orientation. I still have air left, but the attempt to find back to the top depletes most of it. Suddenly, I am above the water again, take a deep breath in a hopeless try to fill my lungs again. But the next wave already slams into my body. And it repeats: wave after wave after wave after wave after wave after wave after wave after wave, second after second, every breath shorter than the one before.
I feel that my body slowly disconnects from my thoughts. I cannot feel my limbs let alone control them in any serious attempt. At some point in time, the air gets too scarce. And these few seconds, which feel like eternities, are also the ones where I experience panic and fear as I never done have before. It occupies the mind, every bit of it, fills your bones and muscles, and drowns you a second time, emotionally. There is no deciding any more. The body does what it needs to do: Fights the waves, fights the cold, fights towards land. And the mind does what it needs to do: It does not accept the unthinkable but also doesn’t see a solution. There is only fear. And, like the cold, it paralyzes my body a second time. And the waves keep coming, endlessly rolling above me. And my lungs keep filling, but not with air anymore, but with salty water instead. And slowly everything around fades away. I cannot see anymore, I cannot hear anymore, I am trapped within my brain unable to do anything about my fate.
And then it changes. I do not feel the raging ocean or the sharp winds, I do not feel the freezing cold or the rocks on the bottom of the ocean in my face. More importantly, the fear goes away and the panic is silenced. It’s gone. Completely. No more thoughts about what I might miss out on in live. No more thoughts about the persons I am leaving behind. Family. Friends. Hobbies. Work. It’s meaningless. The feeling that replaces these thoughts is much much stronger, it is more powerful. It is Happiness. It is tranquility. Absolutely impossible to put into words, but there it is: absolute salvation. Life can be strenuous, life can be exhausting, life can be difficult, and life can be disappointing. This right here is the opposite. No more distress, no more struggles, no more obligations, no more fear; no more life. If this is what the ending feels like, I am not afraid anymore. I am ready. I am free.
By now, my friend in the water has reached me and tries to push my body towards the shore line. Also, the people on land have noticed. And as you might guess, I got rescued by my friends early enough, but from my point of view it was as close as it could be. What I remember from the last minutes is not much and it’s mostly about my internal feelings. My body cooled down so quickly that I was not able to comprehend most of my surroundings any more. When I got pulled ashore I could not breath, nor see, only barely stand, or talk.
I had to learn that being back on land does not mean that it’s over either. First, it took several hours until my body could navigate this foreign world again. Then, it took some weeks to get my thoughts back in order. The following months after the incident, there were several occasions where I woke up in the middle of the night with panic attacks. For a few seconds I would not realize where I am or what was going on, but only experience the unrestrained panic I experienced in the cold water. And then, it took years to comprehend what this experience means for me, and this process is still ongoing. The year after, not a single one of us went swimming.
When I am writing about it, as I do here for the first time publicly, my hands still shake and my breathing is fast. I have been swimming two times since: The first time in an indoor pool where I could not finish 25 metres without the edge right next to me. As soon as I felt exhaustion in my muscles, I got panic attacks. The second time was in a lake close by and it was already far better. But I still hesitate when to go for the next try.
For me, the scary thing is not that I nearly drowned. I already nearly drowned once before as a little child but cannot remember much. Later in life, I got almost run over on my bike by a really fast car. And I have probably had other close incidents that I am not even aware of, as probably all of us have. For me the scary thing is to remember the feeling of the real happiness I could experience in these last brief moments. It was the most pure feeling I have ever experienced. And I struggle to comprehend it; even more to communicate it properly. I think it’s simply impossible to even remotely describe it, how it was, or what it was; and there is nothing I have found so far that resembles it. Remembering this can make life feel dull from time to time. But the more time passes the harder I can grasp how it felt.
So why am I still here? Because why not. I can be rather certain that there will come the day where I will get to experience that same feeling again; this inexpressible emotion, this other-worldly perfection and completeness I am craving for sometimes. But I learned that there is no hurry. And every moment I have on this world is one moment more that I can cherish for what it is. And thus, every moment here can also feel special no matter how difficult it might be. And it also reminds me: It doesn’t really matter what I am doing here; I have to create purpose myself. Only then I can find some sense.
I think drowning is nice. But it’s not; at least in the beginning.
Addendum: I struggled a lot with these experiences. Not only in the beginning, but also later on. Back then, I also searched intensively for reports from other people on the internet because I wanted to know how they felt, and how they dealt with an equal experience. But such reports seemed to be quite rare; this is also why I decided to share my own report here, even though it is difficult. By now I am fine; but I also got (some) professional help and advise anyone who is unsure, to seek out for help as well. I also have only talked rarely, or not at all, about this with friends and family. Because when speaking it’s even harder to find the right words. So to everybody who is reading this and has not heard about it before: I want to apologize that I can only pass on my thoughts in this form for now instead of telling you personally. And if you wondered: all photos are from the exact same stretch of coast, but from other years.
Information and entropy are closely related: Infrequent events carry more information than frequent ones; or, in other words, the lower the occurrence probability of an event the higher its information content. The total information of all possible events is the sum over their individual information content weighted by their occurrence probability. Conversely, with more information, events can be predicted better. And low information means a high entropy, thus low predictability. This is commonly referred to as the Shannon entropy and does not only apply in computer science.
We took one week off before the Easter holidays, but it’s difficult to plan vacations in these uncertain times. For two days and one night we took our T4 and went out into the unknown towards the Southern Harz Mountains. With little information what to expect, what to do, or where to sleep. For me, the less information, the more it feels like adventure. If you want to read in detail what we did, check out the latest blog post from Mädchen Klitzeklein. I will just show some of the photos I shot.
Our sleeping location was on top of a small hill and there was a wonderful evening mood and night sky. The views were calming and the colors powerful. The sun set slowly behind a group of trees and left behind unusually warm air for this time of the year. After another hour, the full moon rose over the next town.
The morning started early at 6 p.m. with some shots of the distant wind turbines. I also couldn’t resist to try some macro captures with the morning dew. The sun reflected beautifully on all the water droplets in the background.
Most of all, I am proud of the following macro shots of toads, ants, and oil beetles. Oil beetles are rather rare in our region, but on one of our hikes we saw multiple ones on a single path. On another hike, we stumbled over a lonely toad on the way. Very excitedly I took some shots before it leaped into the deeper grass towards the water reservoir. When we hiked further, more and more toads were crossing our path, which culminated in a section where it was even becoming difficult to avoid stepping onto them. I made well over 100 photos, but these three are the ones I like the most. The capture of the ant on the tree trunk is also Mädchen Klitzeklein’s merit who evoked the ants’ interest.
Reinforcement Learning is one of three main approaches for machine learning and can be described as follows: An autonomous agent observes the environment and performs actions to reach a pre-defined goal. A reward function gives feedback to the agent according to how close it was to reach the desired goal; otherwise, the agent has no information on which actions lead to the largest reward. The agent tries to maximize its gained reward in each learning iteration. And in every learning iteration the agent is caught in the exploration / exploitation dilemma: It could either exploit the already gained knowledge of the environment to safely receive the highest reward that it currently knows. But then it may miss other, still unknown options with potential higher reward. Or it could explore the still unknown environment to search for even greater reward. However, it may potentially walk off with even less than when taking the save option.
Solving the dilemma efficiently is difficult, but one intuitive way is as follows: In the beginning, most of the environment, and thus potential reward, is unknown, so the agent has to start by exploring a lot. With time, the agent knows more and more of the environment and can start to utilize its knowledge from time to time. After many iterations, it can then maximize the reward with the known options and only infrequently explore new ones.
The same applies in photography: I could either exploit a known place with known reward, or I could explore an unknown location. If I only choose the first option, I will never find all the beautiful spots out there. And if I always choose the latter, I will miss many good opportunities at good locations while checking out some new places.
Last weekend we decided for the latter: My father and I entered the parking lot at 5 a.m. to, again, get on top of Achtermannshöhe in the Harz Mountains before sunrise (check out Clear Skies and Minus 14 Degrees). From the weather forecast it was unclear if we will be engulfed in clouds or if the clear sky would stretch out above us. Luckily, it was mostly the latter, with some distant orange strips of haze and clouds illuminated by the rising sun. We persevered for 90 minutes in the freezing cold with numb hands and feet, but a breathtaking view made it worth it. In the North, the silhouette of the Brocken towers; in the East, black trees in contrast to orange and purple plains stretching behind; rolling hills dipped into pastel colors in the South; and in the West, the Upper Harz in blue and purple with alternating rows of dead and healthy trees.
After the hike back down we entered the parking lot for a second time, but this time with good memories and full SD cards. For the next adventure, I think I will choose exploration instead.
Last Sunday, I explored a small nature reserve close to our home I haven’t visited before. It’s characterized by small, shallow lakes, surrounded by reed belts and swampy meadows. The weather was rather disappointing but also typical for such an early spring day. The wind was blowing strong and cold from the east and the clouds scurried quickly across the dark sky. I had abandoned the first lens I bought back in October last year in favor of my newer ones, but I retrieved it for that day. It was an enjoyable change, trying to shoot some simple landscapes and to capture the mood of the moment. I also experimented quite a bit with some of the more hidden options of my camera and felt the black and white mode was appropriate for the scenery:
The day before, I had also spotted a lonely stork at the same nature reserve when driving by. He was on a wooden post that had not been occupied the year before, but I stopped only briefly for some quick photos:
So on Sunday I was hoping to meet him again to shoot some additional pictures. I was not only not disappointed, but this time he also had company. And both of them seemed to be neither interested in the dull weather and the light rain nor in the cautious photographer. Instead, they were rather occupied with themselves. They checked their nest under construction, watched each other gently, and synchronized their movements (intentionally, as it seemed to the external observer). In these situations, it is easy to forget the weather, the rain, the place, and time. I hope I can come back soon, and if the weather plays along, I am hoping for a picture of the two in front of the full moon next week.
At the moment I often feel as fortunate as I imagine these two storks feel in their newly built home. I also have someone to share home with, someone to fool around with, someone to synchronize with. It takes time, and sometimes it takes effort, but most of all it doesn’t take, but it gives: It gives moments of bliss and happiness and moments of gratitude and comfort. It’s the short daily breakfast, and the long adventures outdoors; it’s the willingness to try something new, and the teasing and playful banter; it’s the more profound conversation, and it’s the silent walks. And I feel my love growing more and more from day to day.