Sunday, June 09, 2013

The Dancing Fountain

Aspen's Dancing Fountain 
The Dancing Fountain in Aspen is fascinating to watch. It has a number of water jets that produce streams of water at varying heights. The breeze blows the spray around the fountain, which is at street level, no barriers. Nearby are outdoor tables and chairs, some attached to cafes, others provided by the city for anyone who wants to sit down and enjoy the scene.

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The Dancing Fountain on Sunday afternoon

On past trips, I've enjoyed the fountain, but by chance this year the Aspen Sojourner magazine, a promotional glossy distributed to tourists, offered some added information about the fountain and its designers: an article titled "Water Logged: How a computer crash almost stopped the music for Aspen's dancing fountain."

Nick DeWolf was an engineer, computer specialist, and successful entrepreneur who retired to Aspen in the early 1970s. In the late 70s, along with sculptor Travis Fulton and engineer Peter Hutter, he developed the idea for the fountain, writing software to control its random motion while they designed and built other features of the fountain. (You can see a pictorial history of their efforts here at a Flickr set of photos about Nick DeWolf. Or read his obit here.)

According to "Water Logged," this critical software was almost lost -- and with it, the key to the fountain's dance. For one thing, the code was written for a now very obsolete computer in assembly language. And DeWolf had said that "its secret commands would die with him."

DeWolf died in 2006. By then he had changed his mind and in fact backed up the software. However, in 2009, all the computers that had the backups crashed, "taking the machine-specific code that conducted DeWolf's aquatic symphony with them."

A programmer named Roger Hollingsworth Jr. was found working as an operator of an earth-mover on a construction site, according to the article. Hollingsworth was able to disassemble and rewrite the original program to run on modern equipment, ensuring that Aspen's delightful fountain would keep dancing, using its "complex randomizer" to keep generating 15-minute cycles of motion that won't repeat for "hundreds of thousands of years."

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 "Nick DeWolf and Travis Fulton:
In recognition of your creativity
and generosity designing and
maintaining the Mill Street Mall Fountain

Children love to run through the fountain when it's hot out -- here are a couple more photos I took on a previous trip to Aspen, fun things that can now keep happening for centuries, it seems:

The fountain in June, 2011, during one of my earlier visits.
But wait: there's a contrarian view. Of course no one disputes the charm and appeal of dancing water spouts in glorious mountain sunshine. However, the sacred uniqueness of the initial 1978 computer code, and the suggestion that it can't be reproduced except by disassembling the original code are definitely questionable. Modern computer techniques for randomizing are probably even better than the original, and computer-driven mechanical systems like the water jets etc here are not exactly a lost art.  At the Aspen Center for Physics you could find a number of experts on such things. Or find them in a variety of computer-programming environments where similar work is done on a regular basis.

Sorry, but mythology is mythology, and most of us would rather think the secret of the fountain is in only one computer code that came down from Aspen Mountain in 1978.

UPDATE, June 10: This morning's New York Times has an article on the underlying question that's in play here: "When Artworks Crash: Restorers Face Digital Test." The question: "when a Web-based work becomes technologically obsolete, does updated software simply restore it? Or is the piece fundamentally changed?" Though not web-based, the fountain presented the same sort of problem, and the owners chose to keep the software as close to original as they could.

A beautiful day in 2011
For more see this web page.

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