Conference Backgrounds

In lectures and conferences, I tend to find that I concentrate better if I’m sitting in the front row. I also tend to take notes on my laptop.

Because I usually type in transparent or translucent terminals, I tend to look at my desktop backgrounds a lot. In the front row of conferences at lectures, so does the rest of the room.

I realized this when someone came up to me at DebConf2 to ask for one the background images I was using.

Since DebConf2, I make a point of using backgrounds hand-picked for their effectiveness as conference backgrounds: this usually means images which manage to combine extreme distractability and inoffensiveness. The following is one from my standard arsenal (click the image for the full size copy):


Time To Kill

Since I’ve heard of it’s existence, I’ve always wanted to take the trans-Siberian railroad from Vladivostok to St. Petersburg. I think spending a week or more on a train would be interesting. You can fly the same distance in a fraction of the time: What kind of person has a week or more to spend an the train? I’m pretty confident that the answer is: interesting people.

Even with all those interesting speople, I’m sure I’d have some spare time. In preparation for my as-yet-unplanned journey, I’ve started making a list of things I’d like to be able to learn that would be within my grasp if I just had a whole bunch of spare time with nothing better to do:

So far, the list is short but it includes:

Learning to walk while flipping a coin

I think it looks very cool when someone, preferably in a zoot suit and a big hat but still good without either, walks down the street flipping a coin while they go. Big valuable coins look the best.

When I try this now, I just drop the coin after a few steps and look like a fool chasing it down. I’m confident that a dedicated week of practice on a train would fix this.

Counting cards

Evidently, my grandfather spent some time as a card counter and pro-gambler. I’ve looked at some blackjack card-counting training software and the principles are pretty simple. It’s a routine that requires nothing more than practice and dedication.

If could go through a routine a few dozen times a day, I’m s sure I could count card decently in the St. Petersburg casinos upon arrival.

Whistling two notes at once

In a two-week break in eighth grade, I taught myself how to whistle. On my Siberian journey, I’d like to take this to the next level. I can already making a humming noise while I whistle. What I cannot do is vary the notes independently from each other to make two part harmony with myself. I think knowing how to do this would be extremely entertaining.

I suspect that this one, at least in the initial learning phases, would be the least popular with my trans-Siberian companions.

Fear Me!

I ended up at "Ground Zero" at this year’s anniversary of September 11th. There was a big anti-terrorism protest of sorts. I certainly consider myself anti-terrorism (as most people do) but this group were handing a flyer that gave me pause. One thing that caught my eye was the boldface text in the center of the page:

We should not be afraid of the terrorists! The terrorists should be afraid of us!

We can reword that replacing the word "afraid" with it’s synonym "terrified" and it starts getting strange:

We should not be terrified of the terrorists! the terrorists should be terrified of us!

Think about that one for a second.

It seems obvious to me that terrifying people, whether they’re al-Qa’ida or not, is not a good strategy for peace. These people, calling for revenge, are in the same breath trying to spread the message to "the terrorists" that fear only makes them more fearsome — and they’re probably right! But they should see that this is a two-way street.

This attitude of, "you can’t scare us and the more reasons you give us to fear, the more reasons we’ll give you to fear," one held by al-Qa’ida, George W. Bush, and these anti-terrorism protesters alike, blows my mind.

Introducing “Hill Units”

A couple days ago, I was in the grocery store shopping for orange juice. There are a lot more types of orange juice than I can even remember: "light" orange juice, calcium enriched, and a range of orange juices with differing amounts of pulp.

It was the pulp that threw me. They describe the amount of pulp in orange juice in purely qualitative terms: PULP, SOME PULP, and NO PULP.

This is totally inadequate.

I propose a quantitative measurement for the pulpiness of orange juice (or any other juices with pulp). I think an appropriate unit is the number of milliliters of pulp within a 1 liter of juice. To simplify things, we can call them "Hill Units."

Sharing and Declaring

On my way to Japan once, the moving marquee above the customs area at the airport warned passengers about the transfer of material in violation of copyright laws. I’ve heard of people that have had pirated CDs and DVDs they’ve bought overseas confiscated at borders and I’m sure this what they were talking about. Clearly, the larger smuggling rings are operating illegally and prosecuted.

But I’m curious to know if any one of the tens of million filesharers has been picked up at a border for an iPod filled with contraband? To me, it seems almost unimaginable. Even the people I know coming into the states with illegally pressed DVDs got little more than a finger wagged at them by the US customs officials (and they got to keep the 100 or so DVDs!).

Fact is, wrong or not, sharing music is not the same as stealing in the minds of most people who don’t work at the RIAA. The RIAA realizes this and that is their biggest problem. This is why we see "Don’t Copy that Floppy" and copyright education campaigns for kids.

The reason people aren’t worried crossing borders with pirated music may be because it’s not enforced. However, the reason folks don’t even consider declaring it in the first place is because they don’t see music, and intellectual goods for that matter, as something that has value in the same way that a Rolex or a leather jacket does. They don’t see unrestricted trade in "restricted" information as unethical.

The RIAA scare tactics in the rash of suits over the last couple years have scared some people off the P2P networks but the real fight, in my mind, is not over P2P but over the way that people conceive of their relationship to information in a much more general sense. The experience of everyone with an iPod at the border is a sign of how far the RIAA and their gang have to go.

Anthony Ashton’s “Harmonograph”

At OSCON this year the organizers gave us a discount coupon at Powell’s technical bookstore. By the time I got there the technical books that were of most interest to me had been raided pretty thoroughly (I must have good taste). So I was forced to be a little more creative.

Among my favorite finds from the day was a little book called Harmonograph: A Visual Introduction to Harmony by Anthony Ashton. The book is part math book, part shop book, part art book, and part music book.

A harmonograph is a simple instrument invented in the mid nineteenth century and that reached some sort of in vogue status before the beginning of the twentieth.. There are a number of different types of harmonographs but the simplest model has two pendulums suspended through holes in a table that are swinging at right angles to each other. One of those pendulums has a piece of paper attached to its top and the other one has a pen.

Now, Pythagoras found that musical harmony to appear when the ratio of the frequencies (or wavelengths) of the sounds being produced consist of certain ratios consisting of small numbers: like 1:1, 2:1, 3:2 (these would correspond to unison, an octave, and a fifth).

The book gives a crash course in the physics and math involved, the process of building a harmonograph, and idea of musical harmony. The rest is pretty pictures like this one:

A sample harmonograph image.

It’s very interesting to see the visual representation of certain harmonies which are very easy — non-challenging — to grasp audibly (unison and an octave) and to see that the harmonographs are equally easy to grasp visually. As we move to more complex and dissonant sounds, you can see the patterns getting more complex and the form getting lost in the "noise."

Ashton is really into harmonographs and has obviously devoted a large amount of his life to playing with and building and improving his toys2. I’m not so motivated to follow his lead but the book was interesting and fun. I read it one sitting on a Sunny day.

I’d love to see some way to create a computerized harmonograph that instead of just mapping individual harmonies, could actually work over time. It would be cool to, at a glance, be able to compare the harmonic make-up of a piece by Bach with a piece by Bartók.

If you’re interested, you can buy the book at your local bookshop or you can do it online at Powell’s.


For all I know, this is old news to Londoners but it struck me as noteworthy.

Olive Oil Party Spokesman

When in London a couple weeks ago, Dafydd Harries, and Dave Miller and I decided to make a trip to the (in)famous speakers’ corner on Sunday morning. We listened to an eloquent socialist, an orderly debate between a Christian and Muslim, some racist "Britain for (my definition of) Britains" loon and a few choice others.

As we were about to head out, I couldn’t help but notice a guy walking around a sign that reading "Olive Oil Party" who was calmly drinking a bottle of olive oil. Every once in a while he would pause to rub some oil onto his body, scalp and face but mostly, he was just chugging it (click to see the full size image).

He stood on the top of the step ladder and delivered what must be the party platform:

Down with Coca Cola!
Down with McDonald’s!
Down with junk food!
Down with Bush!
More trees less Bush!
Long Live Michael Moore!

The went into more detail and I lost a lot of it. I vividly remember his discussion of how foolish it was that the US had gone to war in Iraq; after all the US was going after the wrong oil.

Totally brilliant.

In any case, it wasn’t the most unbelievable thing I saw that day.

Self Portraits

Two related items today:

First: Jordi Mallach has gently helped me to the conclusion that I need a hackergotchi. I took a number of pictures with myself with a digital camera and have narrowed it down to a final four that I think are sufficiently embarassing to represent myself to the world. Comments and suggestions are welcome.

Second: It struck me that the guy in Candidate Two in my hackergotchi contest looked a whole lot like a major candidate in another major election going on at the moment.

I showed these to Dafydd Harries who made a visual comparison (below) to illustrate the nearly confusing degree similarity.


In the great tradition of free knowledge and the culture of derivative works, Micah Anderson has already sent me this remix.

Joe Wenderoth’s “Letters to Wendy’s”

I’ve recently picked up Letters to Wendy’s for what must be the third of fourth time. When I first found this book, I ordered it from one of the libraries in my college’s library system. When I went to the pick up the book, the person behind the counter was reading it. She’d liked it so much she had put in a recall for it — before I’d even picked it up! The library’s somewhat bizarre "the second person has precedence" system cut my checkout time down to two weeks and nearly forced a recall war between the two of us. It’s that good.

Letters to Wendy’s is written by Joe Wenderoth and is published by Verse Press (a small press publisher out of Northampton, Massachusetts). It’s pitched as a collection of prose poetry written on Wendy’s [1] comment cards: one-a-day for a little more than a year.

The pieces are often descriptions and reflections on Wenderoth’s experiences dining at Wendy’s. Here’s one example:

November 15, 1996

A beautiful women with a Biggie. Nothing else — just a Biggie. She sat alone; she seemed like she was waiting for someone. What lucky soul could make a beautiful woman with a Biggie wait? Who has that kind of power? What person would a beautiful woman with a Biggie find attractive? Only one answer made sense to me: another beautiful woman with a Biggie.

Another good example in the same vein is this:

February 3, 1997

I tried to order a Biggie coffee today. It couldn’t be done. I felt sort of childish asking, like my request betrayed my ignorance in the matter. Ironically, nothing could be further from the truth; I know — believe me I do — how wrong it is to have a coffee of that size (I know too that I would never have gone through with it). It’s sort of scary, but the truth is: I don’t know why I asked.

Other pieces are more reflections on life that span the gamit from profound to bizarre to mundane to obscene — and any combinations of the above. These reflections tend to be prompted by or refelecting on Wendy’s in some way. A good example would be:

May 20, 1997

I’d like to have my muscles removed. Resume the inanimate. Wendy’s allows me to extract myself from the retarded narcissism of animal thrivings. I sit still in a warm booth and get thought. All movement wants, in the end is stillness. The animate is just the failure of movement to get what it wants — one sleeping body. The road to heaven is paved with meat: the road to meat is not paved at all.

My personal favorites are the ones that are actually suggestions. Some of his suggestions I like more than others. Perhaps my favorite suggestion is this one:

December 26, 1996

A sort of hell-garden would be useful. Often, after a meal, I feel inclined to lay myself out in the elements, as though dead, to be picked apart by birds and dogs. It is surprisingly difficult to find a suitable space. The garden I have in mind would be a simple concrete square right off the dining room, and would offer several boulders which one could drape oneself over and feel properly exposed.

Since I read this two years ago, I’ve found myself gorged with food and wishing for a hell-garden on several occasions.

Many of the pieces are quite raunchy and many make me laugh out loud. Most can communicate to the endeavoring readers one more than one level. Of course, there’s no reason to read more into it than you want. The book is off-the-wall and a lot of fun. I recommend it highly. You can grab it, in a number of forms at the links below.

[1] For those who are fortunate enough to be out of the loop, Wendy’s is a fast food restaurant not unlike McDonald’s. As far as I can tell, they’re famous for square hamburgers and their somewhat ridiculously named Biggie® drinks and fries and a thick drink they serve called a Frosty.

What me? Produced?

On the airplane today, I listened to a radio description of Stuck in the Suburbs, a Disney made-for-TV movie where the major conflict involves a bunch of teen fans stumbling across a misplaced Palm Pilot and uncovering a sinister cover-up in which their boy-band style idol is unoriginal and just a product by the music industry.

I can only assume that Disney — owner of at least two record companies — is aware of the fact that in the real world, boy-band style idols are unoriginal and just a product of the music industry.

By my analysis, this is an example of the music industry using fiction to convince its consumers that the fact that music is an industry is fiction.


Don’t Copy that ©

For years, I’d heard stories about an artist in Rome’s Trastevere district who painted large images of copyright symbols. [1] In addition to what sounded like very interesting art, this seemed to me like a great opportunity.

My thinking went like this:

  • Granted: This artist has a copyright in her paintings of copyright symbols.
  • Granted: If someone were to become inspired by this artist and to, without permission, produce paintings that were not substantially different, these derivative works would be copyright violations.
  • This artist could (successfully!) sue someone for reproducing her reproductions of copyright symbols.
  • That someone, needed to be me.

In addition to sounding like a lot of fun, I would be helping the copyright system get one step closer to a total implosion and raise some awareness in the process. The entire situation would be ridiculous enough that it could trigger news stories. These stories would, explicitly or implicitly, reflect and bring attention to the concept of the copyrightability of ideas and concepts that, commonsensically for most non-copyright-lawyers, should not be copyrightable.

My original plan was simple enough:

  1. Start selling copies of the artist’s copyright symbols.
  2. Get sued.

The problems of course are that that selling paintings seems like a whole lot of work and getting sued kind of sucks.

As I thought about it, I realized that neither of these things was really essential to the plan or the goals; I merely needed to make it appear that the two things were happening:

All I really needed was a website and a press release and permission and participation from the artist.

The final bit was the only tricky party but seeing that this woman was painting copyright symbols and selling them, I figured that chances were good that she had either a good critique of copyright, a good sense of humor, or both.

To make the long story short, I met with the artist in Rome, proposed the idea to her. She liked the idea but wasn’t comfortable following through with it for a number of reasons I had to respect. Many of her other paintings are about media and information — usually about how there is too much. She simply doesn’t see value in using media or IP against itself in this way. We have the same goals but different ideas of tactics.

I still like the idea and would jump at another opportunity although I suspect publishing it here will do something to reduce its effectiveness.

[1] She paints other things as well, many of which I quite like, although it was the copyright symbols that really interested me as far as this story goes.

Every Morning is a Good Morning

I speak Amharic, the major language of Ethiopia. In Amharic, the word for morning is “ጧት” (pronounced twat with the first “t” hard). If you want to say something happens repeatedly, you just say the period of time it occurs in twice. For example: “day” is ቃን (qan) so “every day” would be “ቃን ቃን” (qan qan).

I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation in Amharic about any event occuring ever morning that did not make me blush.

Mundane actions like eating breakfast or brushing ones teeth seem different when you reflect on the fact that you are doing them “ጧት ጧት.”

Putting the “Crazy” in “Crazy Balloon”

I know I’m not the first person to suggest that many classic video games employ extremely annoying and aggravating music to break players’ concentration and make the games more difficult. Other games use music that encourages you to play faster or better.

Crazy Balloon deserves special recognition. The CB designers chose a soundtrack that was sparse, but unusually effective. As far as I can tell, there is only one sound in CB It is triggered when you pop your balloon and it is the closest audio approximation of having a long pin pressed into one’s temple that I’ve ever had the discomfort of witnessing.

I find that having heard this sound several times, I actually play better to avoid hearing it again. Playing a game well makes the experience more enjoyable and repeat playing more likely. This fatal flaw in this logic lies in the fact that the best way not to hear the sound is to not play at all. I suspect this is what most people do.

Crazy Balloon is supported by MAME.

Maximum Recursion Depth Exceeded

I think it’s cliche and unnecessary to mention the ridiculousness of the new film, Alien Versus Predator: a movie based on a video game which is turn based on two movies. I do so only to remind people of a less high profile instance of movie/video recursion released nearly a decade ago:

Street Fighter: The Movie: The Game

SFTMTG was, of course, based on the Jean-Claude film Street Fighter based, of course, on the Street Fighter video game series by Capcom. Luckily, the game designers of SFTMTG were careful to block any further recursion by designing SFTMTG to be so unbelievably bad that no-one, no-where, would ever consider basing a movie on it.

See for yourself. The ROM is supported by MAME.