TITLE: Reviewing a Career Studying Camouflage AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: September 09, 2009 10:04 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Camouflage Conference poster A few years ago I blogged when my university colleague Roy Behrens won a faculty excellence award in his home College of Humanities and Fine Arts. That entry, Teaching as Subversive Inactivity, taught me a lot about teaching, though I don't yet practice it very well. Later, I blogged about A Day with Camouflage Scholars, when I had the opportunity to talk about how a technique of computer science, steganography, related to the idea of camouflage as practiced in art and the military. Behrens is an internationally recognized expert on camouflage who organized an amazing one-day international conference on the subject here at my humble institution. To connect with these scholars, even for a day, was a great thrill. Finally, I blogged about Feats of Association when Behrens gave a mesmerizing talk illustrating "that the human mind is a connection-making machine, an almost unwilling creator of ideas that grow out of the stimuli it encounters." As you can probably tell, I am a big fan of Behrens and his work. Today, I had a new chance to hear him speak, as he gave a talk associated with his winning another award, this time the university's Distinguished Scholar Award. After hearing this talk, no one could doubt that he is a worthy recipient, whose omnivorous and overarching interest in camouflage reflects a style of learning and investigation that we could all emulate. Today's talk was titled "Unearthing Art and Camouflage" and subtitled my research on the fence between art and science. It is a fence that more of us should try to work on. The talk wove together threads from Roy's study of the history and practice of camouflage with bits of his own autobiography. It's a style I enjoyed in Kurt Vonnegut's Palm Sunday and have appreciated at least since my freshman year in college, when in an honors colloquium at Ball State University I was exposed to the idea of history from the point of view of the individual. As someone who likes connections, I'm usually interested in how accomplished people come to do what they do and how they make the connections that end up shaping or even defining their work. Behrens was in the first generation of his family to attend college. He came from a small Iowa town to study here at UNI, where he first did research in the basement of the same Rod Library where I get my millions. He held his first faculty position here, despite not having a Ph.D. or the terminal degree of discipline, an M.F.A. After leaving UNI, he earned an M.A. from the Rhode Island School of Design. But with a little lucky timing and a publication record that merited consideration, he found his way into academia. From where did his interest in camouflage come? He was never interested in military, though he served as a sergeant in the Vietnam-era Marine Corps. His interest lay in art, but he didn't enjoy the sort of art in which subjective tastes and fashion drove practice and criticism. Instead, he was interested in what was "objective, universal, and enduring" and as such was drawn to design and architecture. He and I share an interest in the latter; I began mu undergraduate study as an architecture major. A college professor offered him a chance to do undergraduate research, and his result was a paper titled "Perception in the Visual Arts", in which he first examined the relationship between the art we make and the science that studies how we perceive it. This paper was later published in major art education journal. That project marked his first foray into perceptual psychology. Behrens mentioned a particular book that made an impression on him, Aspects of Form, edited by Lancelot Law Whyte. It contained essays on the "primacy of pattern" by scholars in both the arts and the sciences. Readers of this blog know of my deep interest in patterns, especially in software but in all domains. (They also know that I'm a library junkie and won't be surprised to know that I've already borrowed a copy of Whyte's book.) Behrens noted that it was a short step from "How do people see?" to "How are people prevented from seeing?" Thus began what has been forty years of research on camouflage. He studies not only the artistic side of camouflage but also its history and the science that seeks to understand it. I was surprised to find that as a RISD graduate student he already intended to write a book on the topic. At the time, he contacted Rudolf Arnheim, who was then a perceptual psychologist in New York, with a breathless request for information and guidance. Nothing came of that request, I think, but in 1990 or so Behrens began a fulfilling correspondence with Arnheim that lasted until his death in 2007. After Arnheim passed away, Behrens asked his family to send all of his photos so that Behrens could make copies, digitize them, and then return the originals to the family. They agreed, and the result is a complete digital archive of photographs from Arnheim's long professional life. This reminded me of Grady Booch's interest in preservation, both of the works of Dijkstra and of the great software architectures of past and present. While he was at RISD, Behrens did not know that the school library had 455 original "dazzle" camouflage designs in its collection and so missed out on the opportunity to study them. His ignorance of these works was not a matter of poor scholarship, though; the library didn't realize their significance and so had them uncataloged on a shelf somewhere. In 2007, his graduate alma mater contacted him with news of the items, and he has now begun to study them, forty years later. As grad student, Behrens became in interested in the analogical link between (perceptual) figure-ground diagrams and (conceptual) Venn diagrams. He mentioned another book that helped him make this connection, Community and Privacy, by Serge Chermayeff and Christopher Alexander, whose diagrams of cities and relationships were Venn diagrams. This story brings to light yet another incidental connection between Behrens's work and mine. Alexander is, of course, the intellectual forebear of the software patterns movement, through his later books Notes On The Synthesis Of Form, The Timeless Way Of Building, A Pattern Language, and The Oregon Experiment. UNI hired Behrens in 1972 into a temporary position that became permanent. He earned tenure and, fearing the lack of adventure that can come from settling down to soon, immediately left for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He worked there ten years and earned his tenure anew. It was at UW-M where he finally wrote the book he had begun planning in grad school. Looking back now, he is embarrassed by it and encouraged us not to read it! At this point in the talk, Behrens told us a little about his area of scholarship. He opened with a meta-note about research in the era of the world wide web and Google. There are many classic papers and papers that scholars should know about. Most of them are not yet on-line, but one can at least find annotated bibliographies and other references to them. He pointed us to one of his own works, Art and Camouflage: An Annotated Bibliography, as an example of what is now available to all on the web. Awareness of a paper is crucial, because it turns out that often we can find it in print -- even in the periodical archives of our own libraries! These papers are treasures unexplored, waiting to be rediscovered by today's students and researchers. Camouflage consists of two primary types. The first is high similarity, as typified by figure-ground blending in the arts and mimicry in nature. This is the best known type of camouflage and the type most commonly seen in popular culture. The second is high difference, or what is often called figure disruption. This sort of camouflage was one of the important lessons of World War I. We can't make a ship invisible, because the background against which it is viewed changes constantly. A British artist named Norman Wilkinson had the insight to reframe the question: We are not trying to hide a ship; we are trying to prevent the ship from being hit by a torpedo! (Redefining one problem in terms of another is a standard technique in computer science. I remember when I first encountered it as such, in a graduate course on computational theory. All I had to do was find a mapping from a problem to, say, 3-SAT, and -- voilá! -- I knew a lot about it. What a powerful idea.) This insight gave birth to dazzle camouflage, in which the goal came to be break an image into incoherent or imperceptible parts. To protect a ship, the disruption need not be permanent; it needed only to slow the attackers sufficiently that they were unable to target it, predict its course, and launch a relatively slow torpedo at it with any success. a Gabon viper, which illustrates coincident disruption Behrens offered that there is a third kind of camouflage, coincident disruption, that is different enough to warrant its own category. Coincident disruption mixes the other two types, both blending into the background and disrupting the viewer's perception. He suggested that this may well be the most common form of camouflage found in nature using the Gabon viper, pictured here, as one of his examples of natural coincident disruption. Most of Behrens' work is on modern camouflage, in the 20th century, but study in the area goes back farther. In particular, camouflage was discussed in connection to Darwin's idea of natural selection. Artist Abbott Thayer was a preeminent voice on camouflage in the 19th century who thought and wrote on both blending and disruption as forms in nature. Thayer also recommended that the military use both forms of camouflage in combat, a notion that generated great controversy. In World War I, the French ultimately employed 3,000 artists as "camoufleurs". The British and Americans followed suit on a smaller scale. Behrens gave a detailed history of military camouflage, most of which was driven by artists and assisted by a smaller number of scientists. He finds World War II's contributions less interesting but is excited by recent work by biologists, especially in the UK, who have demonstrated renewed interest in natural camouflage. They are using empirical methods and computer modeling as ways to examine and evaluate Thayer's ideas from over a hundred years ago. Computational modeling in the arts and sciences -- who knew? Toward the end of his talk, Behrens told several stories from the "academic twilight zone", where unexpected connections fall into the scholar's lap. He called these the "unsung delights of researching". These are stories best told first hand, but they involved a spooky occurrence of Shelbyville, Tennessee, on a pencil he bought for a quarter from a vending machine, having the niece and nephew of Abbott Thayer in attendance at a talk he gave in 1987, and buying a farm in Dysart, Iowa, in 1992 only then to learn that Everett Warner, whom he had studied, was born in Vinton, Iowa -- 14 miles away. In the course of studying a topic for forty years, the strangest of coincidences will occur. We see these patterns whether we like to or not. Behrens's closing remarks included one note that highlights the changes in the world of academic scholarship that have occurred since he embarked on his study of camouflage forty years ago. He admitted that he is a big fan of Wikipedia and has been an active contributor on pages dealing with the people and topics of camouflage. Social media and web sites have fundamentally changed how we build and share knowledge, and increasingly they are being used to change how we do research itself -- consider the Open Science and Polymath projects. Today's talk was, indeed, the highlight of my week. Not only did I learn more about Behrens and his work, but I also ended up with a couple of books to read (the aforementioned Whyte book and Kimon Nicolaïdes's The Natural Way to Draw), as well as a couple of ideas about what it would mean for software patterns to hide something. A good way to spend an hour. -----