Escherian puns

Five years ago (February 2009), I took a photo of two geese on a frozen pond, standing in identical poses. They were both balanced on only one leg, with their heads turned back over their left shoulders. The one-leg thing was presumably to keep the other, uplifted foot off the ice. Their heads may also have been turned in a heat-conserving tuck, but I suspect that it was synchronized preening. After all, the Vancouver Winter Olympics were only a year away, and the Geese were Canadian.

En Escherlon

When I posted this on Flickr, I entitled it ‘En Escherlon’. This was an allusion not only to the en echelon parallelism of their poses (from the fortuitous perspective of the camera) but also to ‘Puddle’, a woodcut by the Dutch artist M.C. Escher. Of course, like all such references the analogy breaks down because you can see both the geese and their reflections in my photo, whereas Escher’s genius was to show us the moon and trees solely mirrored from above in the puddle.

Escher Puddle

I think my photo is pretty good, but the title, well, that was something special. There things rested — quite smugly and immodestly, I admit — until Friday (two days ago) when one of my feeds turned up this digital drawing by Vijay Arunkumar:


The caption begins with the title, ‘What Creator?’, and then adds, “I just got my Pencil by fiftythree.” Whoa! I had a Pencil on order from FiftyThree and was expecting it to be delivered that day! Was it a sign?!! Probably not. Still, that synchronistic element did add to the sense of mutuality that I felt with Vijay over his less subtle but far more clever evocation of Escher. His inspiration was the famous lithograph ‘Drawing Hands’:


Some significant things are absent in Vijay’s drawing — the detailed shading on the hands, the shirt cuffs, the paper tacked on the backdrop — and it’s rotated 90 degrees compared to Escher’s work. But these differences are irrelevant to the two impactful elements of the visual pun. Firstly, the pencils have been replaced by Pencils, the elegant walnut ones at that, which allowed those two eye-catching stripes of color. Secondly and more importantly, the lower hand has turned the Pencil around and is erasing its own “creator,” the upper hand, which it obviously must have drawn first, before having a change of heart.


This wonderful aspect of Vijay’s drawing will be lost on viewers who are unfamiliar with Paper (above), FiftyThree’s app for the iPad, and how it plays with Pencil. All drawing apps, including Paper, have an erase tool, usually activated with an icon that must be tapped so that your stylus or finger can then go back to the drawing and unmake mistakes. In the screen shot of Paper (above), the eraser is just to the left of the yellow drawing tool with the white fountain pen nib. But the battery-powered, bluetooth-enabled, accelerometer-equipped Pencil allows you to turn it around, just like a real pencil, and this tells Paper that you are now going to erase! It is simple, familiar, and magical, all at the same time. And, as someone who usually has a lot to erase, I can assure you that it is also precise, even with just one day of use so far.

Finally, there is one more thing that is the strongest resonance for me with ‘What Creator?’ It’s the act of self-erasure that evokes not just Escher’s play with the visually impossible but also a deeper existential issue. It reminds me of Marvin Minsky and Claude Shannon’s Ultimate Machine (now sometimes erroneously referred to as the Useless Machine). If you are not familiar with it, I discuss it at the foregoing link, or you can just watch this video on YouTube:

The essence is encapsulated in the young girl’s last comment: “That’s all it does.” The Ultimate Machine is a device whose sole purpose is to turn itself off. Obviously, in order for ‘What Creator?’ to display this nihilistic flavor in full, the upper hand should flip its Pencil and start erasing, too. If Pencil has enough built-in intelligence to continue erasing even after the rest of the drawing is gone, then its creators at FiftyThree will have to answer one remaining question: Which of the two Pencils is smarter, in other words, which one will get the upper hand?

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