No smell!

A month or so ago I started noticing a smell in my office. It was stale and peppery, like mature armpit sweat. But it only manifested in one particular corner of the office, to the right of my desk, just over my waste paper bin.

I checked around the bin for signs of dead animal or out-of-place organic matter, but there was nothing. I figured the smell might be getting trapped in the corner because of poor air circulation, so I started leaving my skylight window open wider and more often to let more air in. That still didn’t solve it.

Smell is an interesting thing for me. I don’t think my sense of smell is any more sensitive than anyone else’s. (Although I am one of these people for whom anything in the brassica family of vegetables, i.e. cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, brussels sprouts, etc. tastes bitter and awful.) But when I’m going through a period of depression bad smells make me tense, irritable, and even more unhappy. In fact, being hyper-aware of bad smells has for years been my most reliable symptom of depression, and a key signal that I need to start seeing my counsellor again.

But despite all the other stressors in my life this year, and knowing that I could get a whiff of week-old sweat if I moved my chair a meter to the right, I wasn’t feeling depressed in other ways. This apparent conflict made me speculate darkly about what else might be going on:

  • Has my nasal early warning system broken down? Am I going to be excessively alert to bad smells even when I’m not depressed?
  • Am I just imagining it? Have I broken through into a new realm of sensory hallucinations?
  • Alex is a teenage lad. His room is across the corridor from mine. Has the smell of teenage male invaded my space?
  • Is it me?? Have I crossed some boundary of weight, age, or inactivity that is making me stink?
  • Am I going to have to break my office space down to the bare walls and concrete to get to the real source of the problem?
  • Is this my life now??

Fortunately the obsession didn’t go too far. When I mentioned it to Abi, she nosed the corner, and agreed that there was a smell. And while I was away in Scotland the other week, she found the source!

On the half-height bookcase next to the waste paper bin, I kept a box of odds and ends and knick-knacks. A wooden clog Fiona had painted years ago, filled with USB thumb drives. Cables, stickers, old hard disks, concert ticket stubs, a can of compressed air. A roll of brown packing tape seemed a good candidate for organic chemical degradation, but when we took it out of the box and left it aside overnight, it didn’t smell at all.

Eventually we isolated the culprit: it was the box itself. An innocuous, apparently clean, stackable IKEA plastic tub. We took everything out of it, sniffed each item, and what was left was a pool of sweaty reek at the bottom of the box itself. The box. Normally at waist height on the bookcase, but just at head height whenever I leaned down to put something into my waste paper bin.

The relief I felt when Abi told me she had found the cause of the smell was amazing. Best present ever: I could have my peace of mind back! It wasn’t all in my head. I wasn’t going to have to re-calibrate my depression indicators. And I wasn’t going to have to burn the furniture and bleach every surface in my office. Bliss.

Marathon walk from Oostzaan to Woerden

A couple of weeks ago I set out to do another marathon walk. I had spotted a nice-looking stretch of countryside on the map one day, and thought it would make a nice long walk. The Amsteldijk extends from the heart of Amsterdam along the Amstel river, and winds through the countryside sandwiched between Amstelveen to the west, and Amsterdam Zuidoost to the east.

From Oostzaan to Uithoorn would be in the 25-30km range. But it had been two years since my last marathon walk (Oostzaan to Maarssen), and I wanted to push myself. I found myself a Saturday with a nice weather forecast, and walked all the way to Woerden. When I plotted the route beforehand I thought it came in at around 45km. But I think I deviated from the plan a bit, and when I checked the tracking data on my phone and correlated with Google Maps, it was more like 51km. (The figure on the picture below includes the 2.5km ferry from NDSM to Centraal.)

Walking route from Oostzaan to Woerden. (The 53.7km distance includes a 2.5km ferry.)

That’s the second-longest single-day walk I’ve ever done. It was also the first long walk with my new walking shoes, which are actually running shoes. (Asics Patriot 8) Back in August I did a 20km-ish walk to Muiden in the hiking shoes I have been using for the last couple of years. As has been far too common with these shoes, I ended up with lots of blisters. I also thoroughly bruised my big toe. For far too long I’ve been using rugged all-terrain hiking boots and shoes when most of what I do is urban walking over smooth paved surfaces. I don’t need rigid soles and toe protection against falling rocks. I need a soft breathable upper and good shock absorption.

Asics Patriot 8

So: running shoes. When I first tried them, they felt quite strange. I can stretch my toes sideways and the shoe stretches with them! If there’s a breeze, I can feel the wind reach in and actually cool the top of my feet! I had broken them in with a couple of weeks of daily use, but this was their first serious outing. They worked great! When I stopped for a break in Uithoorn and took off the shoes to air my toes out, my feet were still fine. I did develop blisters right towards the end of the walk. I can’t blame the shoes for that, though. The stretch of road from Uithoorn along Kromme Mijdrecht via De Hoef to Woerdense Verlaat is a windy single-track road for cars. There isn’t a separate bike or walking path, so I had to step off the road onto the uneven verge quite a bit. Along with increasing tiredness, I think this messed with my gait. When I start to walk unevenly, I get blisters. The last 5-6km stretch from Zegveld to Woerden Station was a bit painful, but I made it anyway.

I took pictures along the way, and dropped them into the non-social network account I sometimes use for this. Here are some good ones!

I love getting out just at sunrise
On the NDSM ferry, looking south to new construction
Amsterdam, obvs
The rowing coaches cycle along the dyke, keeping pace with the rowers, and shouting instructions at them through megaphones
See what I have to put up with?
Startled I made it this far. Still sucking at selfies.

Emoji and conceptual art

When Abi and I visited SFMOMA last year, the Sol LeWitt exhibit left quite an impression on me. Not because of the beauty of the works themselves, but because of their nature. The museum had a collection of wall drawings which were not drawn by LeWitt himself, but by other artists based on his instructions. For example, his collection Work from Instructions (1971) includes:

Plate 5. Using a black, hard crayon draw a twenty inch square. Divide this sqaure into one inch squares. Within each one inch square, draw nothing or a freehand line or lines.

Plate 6. Using a black, hard crayon draw a twenty inch square. Divide this square into one inch squares. Within each one inch square, draw nothing, or draw a diagonal straight line from corner to corner, or two crossing straight lines diagonally from corner to corner.

Plate 6, generated with JavaScript. Click or tap to refresh. (Source)

The instructions seem very clinical and precise at first glance, but you very quickly see how much flexibility and leeway they allow. With a “hard black crayon” you can draw thick or thin lines. The instructions say nothing about whether the thickness of each stroke has to be consistent across the whole twenty inch square. For Plate 6 there are four possible states for each square (nothing, diagonal 1, diagonal 2, cross), which gives you a gargantuan 2800 possible versions to play with. Each time an artist follows the instructions, you will get something subtly different, but still essentially the same. The art lies in both the execution and the instructions. We take this kind of duality for granted with classical musical works and theatre plays, often granting the composer and playwright the most credit. But for visual arts it feels subversive and unusual.

I was reminded of this while I was listening to the “Pumpkin Pressure” episode of Hello Internet. Brady and Gray talk about various emoji (frog face, crocodile), and which versions they like best — Apple, Google, Microsoft, etc.

Three frog faces from Emojipedia’s selection: Apple, Google, Microsoft

It struck me that the Unicode Emoji catalogue has a lot in common with Sol LeWitt’s conceptual art. The Unicode consortium defines the core essence of the emoji in a few short words, such as “frowning face with open mouth” (U+1F626 or ?), “shallow pan of food” (U+1F958 or ?), or “person in lotus position” (U+1F9D8 or ?). It’s up to the implementors to execute this concept and turn it into something expressive and recognizable at the scale of a tiny letter-size graphic, ideally within a consistent design framework.

I think the balance of creative expression here is tilted in favour of the implementors. But don’t underestimate the work that goes into deciding which emoji will be codified, and what the canonical textual representation will be. That’s art, too.

Indoor Skydiving

Right at the end of the summer holiday, Abi, Fiona, and I went indoor skydiving at City Skydive in Utrecht. It was amazing!

Alex and I had spotted the facility earlier this year while it was still under construction. It is just off the A2 to the north-west of Utrecht, very clearly visible from the motorway. On the day we went, Alex didn’t feel like coming along, so it was just Abi, Fiona, and me.

City Skydive from the outside

When you arrive, you sign in and wait for your flight trainer to come and collect your group. You get suited up in some unflattering flight suits (with built-in handles on the back and hips, so the trainer can throw you around more easily), and equipped with a helmet, flexible goggles, and ear plugs.

Suited up!

There is a small theatre space at the rear of the facility where the instructors give you a safety and instructions briefing. Although the noise is muted on the outside, once you get into the wind tunnels you can basically hear nothing, so they cover the hand signals and pantomime gestures they will use on the inside.

Hand signals

Depending on the package you have booked, you get 3-5 one-minute slots in one of the two enormous vertical wind tunnels. If this is your first time, the flight trainer works you through a set of exercises to drill you on the basic skills like how to turn, and fly up and down. If you get far enough through the supervised exercises, you’ll get a flight certificate that allows you to come back and dive on your own, but we didn’t get nearly far enough for that. Abi’s shoulder gave her some trouble, so she ducked out after just the one flight. The instructor allowed Fiona and me to take over her remaining flights, so we both got an extra minute. A minute might not sound like much, but it feels like quite a long time when you’re being physically battered into the air by up to 300km/h winds.

The wind tunnels viewed from the café area

After your session (or if you’re not flying), you can relax in the café area just outside the tunnels, and watch how other groups are getting on. I had a great time, and would love to go back again!