Saturday, October 06, 2007

Don't make me hate you

A generation of new consumers is learning to hate the recording industry.

Faced with declining music CD sales, the RIAA (Recording Industry Association or America) has been aggressively pursuing lawsuits against consumers that download unlicensed music. The result of this is that hundreds of thousands of college and high school students have found themselves being threatened with legal action.

Justified, or not, the long term result of this campaign is that kids are learning to despise the industry. Since the majority of music sales come from the young people, what is the long term effect? I suspect this is not a great business strategy.

Too damn expensive.

If CDs cost $3.95 instead of $12.99 sales wouldn't be declining. That's the real problem, not downloaded music. I'd rather rip music from my own CDs than mess with iTunes.

When asked about unlicenced downloads, prehistoric rocker Bob Dylan replied: "Well, why not? It ain't worth nothing anyway."

Musicians support the RIAA, right?

Well, musicians have hated the recording industry since Mr. Edison first produced his wax cylinders. Musicians have regularly been screwed by an industry that pressures them into signing unfavorable contracts. Even on a hit record, the artists only make a few pennies.

A few hits from the Recording Industry Legal Hall of Fame.

The Artist Formerly Known as Prince: When Warner Brothers trademarked the name "Prince", the artist named Prince Rogers Nelson found that he couldn't use his own name. In frustration, he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol.

John Fogerty formerly of Creedence Clearwater Revival, was sued by Fantasy Records for plagiarizing himself. They claimed he sounded too much like his voice, which they owned. He refused to play any of his hit songs from CCR from 1974 until 2005 when Fantasy records was sold to a new owner.

The band Radiohead is releasing their current album entirely online. Customers can pay whatever they want, or download for free. Since the band only makes a few cents for each CD and iTunes sale, they figured anything they sold online would be pure profit.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

A senseless waste of time

  1. You get in your car and press the start button. A small screen on the dashboard displays “Starting…”. Two minutes later you can drive off.
  2. You turn on the TV. The screen displays “Starting…” Two minutes later you’re watching TV.
  3. You pick up your electric toothbrush…

Why does it take 2 minutes for my computer to turn on?

Nobody would stand for this kind of inconvenience from an everyday device like a toothbrush, TV, or automobile. There aren’t any accurate statistics on this, but from my experience the average computer takes over 100 seconds to boot up. That time is spent accomplishing several important tasks. This includes the hardware BIOS boot time (about 22 seconds), loading the OS, loading device drivers, connecting to the network, and starting programs like anti virus scanners. Apples are somewhat faster, and Linux computers are slower.

There’s a story that Apple’s Steve Jobs once delayed release of the Macintosh to reduce boot time by ten seconds. Ten seconds! His rational for this was interesting: multiplying 10 seconds for five million Mac users yielded one and a half years (per day). By reducing boot time by ten seconds Apple could save lives!

There are approximately 700 million PC users on the planet today. Each PC takes about 100 seconds to boot. That means a staggering 2200 years of human life is wasted waiting for PC’s to boot every day. Given an average human lifespan of 67 years - over 33 human lives are squandered every single day.

“Microsoft should be prosecuted for crimes against humanity.”

The BART from San Francisco to Oakland goes directly underneath the San Francisco bay. At its deepest part, the tunnel is approximately 150 feet underwater. I took my very first trip on the BART in September 2004 with my cousin Ed who lives in Oakland.

It was around 6:00 PM and the train was crowded. I didn’t even think about traveling under the bay until the train stopped unexpectedly. My fellow passengers groaned, but didn’t seem too upset. After a couple of minutes the lights flickered and we were plunged into darkness. Now people were getting nervous. Ed had a small flashlight, and so did a few other passengers.

“This happens all the time, right?” I asked.

Ed said no, this was his first time. A nearby passenger chimed in, “I’ve been riding for 25 years, and this is the first time.” We started looking for the emergency exit.

Just then the conductor came on the intercom:

“Ladies and gentlemen, we apologize for the inconvenience. We’ve had a malfunction in the trains braking system. To fix the problem we have to power down the electrical system and reboot the computer. The lights will be off for approximately five minutes.”

Friday, August 31, 2007

Patron saint of the geeks

I was crossing the Karlov bridge in Prague when I noticed an unusual statue. The inscription says it represents Saint Bytus, patron saint of geeks.

Bytus was a Christian saint from Sardinia. He was martyred for advocating of the use of zero during the persecution of scholars by Roman Emperor Eugenius in 404 AD. St. Bytus is considered the patron saint of actuaries, mathematicians, gilders, anatidaephobics, and dyslectics. He also protects against falling meteors, lightning strikes, rabbit attacks, and oversleeping. Bytus is often confused with the homophonic St. Vitus, best known for his association with dance known as "St. Vitus Dance".

Saturday, August 11, 2007

A walk in the Alps

(Click on this picture for an expanded view)

This image is a composite of several photos my son took in Switzerland in late July. The location is in the Alps near Interlaken, just above a place called Obersteinberg. Across the valley, there is a good view of Eiger, Monk, and Jungfrau, three of the tallest mountains in the country. We were at the top of a pass, and the image covers about a 250 degree angle. Kinda makes you want to yodel.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

How to tell if you're asleep.

"It's late and I am in a strange building with a huge echoing vaulted ceiling. The room is crowded with people, all busily going somewhere. In my hand is a piece of paper with important instructions. I need to read the instruction or I will never get home. When I look at the page, I can't read it! The words are blurred. I focus and the letters become clear, but I still can't read it. The message is meaningless gibberish."

It was, of course, a dream, but it got me thinking. I've noticed that I can never read anything beyond a few simple words in my dreams.

Am I an illiterate dreamer? Perhaps.

It's hard to remember dreams. They seem so real at the time, but when you wake up, they fade. When you analyze them, it's clear that dreams are illogical and dissociated. You jump from place to place, people and objects change form; it's all very unreal. I'm sure some people have consistent, realistic dreams, but I never do.

Why can't I read? I call this "star wars syndrome". In the star wars movies, there are lots of really cool machines. They look realistic, like the ships could really fly, and the speeder bikes could really zoom around. It looks real, but it's all made up! The machines are just the fantasy of some talented prop maker and CG artists. From a movie making perspective, the props just have to fool the viewer into thinking they are real. As the movie viewer, your brain ignores all the little mechanical details and perceives them as real.

This isn't that different from everyday life. For example, when you see a car passing on the highway, you don't really look at it carefully. You see a car-sized object moving along, your brain recognizes that it's a car, and you don't pay anymore attention. That's a good thing because you'll see hundreds of cars, and there's no need to carefully observe them all.

Let's get back to dreaming. When you're asleep, your eyes are closed and the brain isn't getting visual stimulus. Anything you "see" in a dream is being constructed by your brain. Like the props guys in star wars, your brain doesn't have time to make up all the details. If you see, for example, a written piece of paper in a dream, your brain supplies just an outline of the paper.

What happens when you take a closer look? The brain fills in the details. The paper has little black letters printed on it. So-far, so good. Now you start reading the letters. Here's where the problems begin. You brain has to fill in the actual words on the paper, but that's actually really difficult. When you're awake, it takes minutes and hours to compose a written document. In the dream, your brain isn't any faster. The best it can do is a bunch of blurry gibberish.

Ta-da! It's not that you can't read in a dream - it's that you can't write. Well. at least you can't write fast enough to fool yourself.

Sunday, July 01, 2007


"the words of the prophets
are written on the subway walls
and tenement halls." - Paul Simon

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The annotated half-a-bee

Perhaps one of the greatest unrecognized philosophic works of the 20th century is Monty Python's skit "Eric the half-a-bee". At first glance this seems a trivial, even silly, skit describing the antics of a man with a handicapped pet insect. Closer inspection reveals it to be a muti-faceted examination of the nature of human existence. Following is the text of the skit, annotated to show the hidden, but subtle references to philosophy, music, and language.

* * *

Half a bee, philosophically, must, ipso facto, half not be.[1]
But half the bee
has got to be,
vis a vis [2]
its entity - do you see?

But can a bee[3]
be said to be
or not to be
an entire bee
when half the bee
is not a bee
due to some ancient injury?

La dee dee, 1 2 3,
Eric the half a bee.
A B C D E F G, [4]
Eric the half a bee.

Is this wretched demi-bee, [5]
half asleep upon my knee,
some freak from a menagerie? [6]
No! It's Eric the half a bee.

Fiddle dee dum,
Fiddle dee dee,[7]
Eric the half bee.

Ho ho ho, [8]
Tee hee hee,
Eric the half a bee.

I love this hive employee-ee-ee [with buzzing in background]
bisected accidentally [9]
one summer afternoon by me [10]
I love him carnally. [11]

He loves him carnally... [together]
...semi-carnally [12]

The end [13]

"Cyril Connelly? [14]
No! "Semi-carnally"

Cyril Connelly [sung softly and slowly]

***This is the actual end of the skit.***

1)This is a pun on Rene Descartes's famous "Cogito Ergo Sum", or "I think therefore I am".
2)Vis-a-vis : Literally, "face to face." Means "in comparison with"
3) The German philosopher Schopenhauer had this to say about Shakespear's soliloquy:
"The essential purport of the world-famous monologue in Hamlet is, in condensed form,
that our state is so wretched that complete non-existence would be decidedly preferable
to it. Now if suicide actually offered us this, so that the alternative "to be or
not to be" lay before us in the full sense of the words, it could be chosen unconditionally
as a highly desirable termination ("a consummation devoutly to be wish'd" [Act III,
Sc. I.]). There is something in us, however, which tells us that this is not so,
that this is not the end of things, that death is not an absolute annihilation."
4)Uses the following chords:
C D (A bee, cee dee)
F D7 G
5) Demi: a prefix, signifying "half"
6) Menagerie: A collection of live wild animals on exhibition
7)Fiddle dee-dee: Used to express mild annoyance or impatience.
8) Laughingly
9)Bisect: Cut into two parts
10)The author expresses pain and guilt at injuring a living creature.
11)Carnally: Of or relating to the body or flesh; bodily
12) Semi: A prefix to a verb, noun, or adjective meaning "half".
13) This is a literary misdirection to fool the listener into think the skit is over.
14) Cyril Connelly (1903 - 1974) was an English intellectual.
Perhaps his best known work is the autobiography Enemies of Promise (1938), in which
he attempted to explain his failure to produce the literary masterpiece which he
and others believed he should have been capable of writing.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

New clues to origin of the banjo.

The origin of the banjo remains shrouded in the mists of history, but historians have recently uncovered a fascinating clue about its beginnings. Researchers studying the Bayeux Tapestry at the Louvre Museum in Paris recently noticed what appears to be an Akonting, the early predecessor of the Banjo, in a depiction of King Harold.

The Bayeux Tapestry (French: Tapisserie de Bayeux) is a 20 in by 230 ft long embroidered cloth which depicts the events leading up to, as well as, the Norman invasion of England in 1066. The tapestries are believed to have been commissioned in the 1070s, possibly completed by 1077.

In scene 3 of the tapestry, King Harold is shown picking a banjo from the prow of his ship as he prepares to land in Ponthieu, north of Normandy, the territory of the fierce Count Guy. The tapestry depicts Harold being seized by the soldiers of Count Guy who is angered by the sound of the instrument. After a series of negotiations, Harold is rescued by Duke William of Normandy.

If this research proves true, it could set our knowledge of the banjo’s origin back nearly 500 years

Friday, March 16, 2007

Small is big

I want one of these. This 2 X 2 X 2 computer is a fully functional PC. It runs a version of the Linux operating system, and has numerous useful connectors including a USB, Network, and Video port. The "box" is manufactured by ShimaFuji, and sports a an older 300 MHz Intel processor. Price : around $300.

What's it good for? I sure I could think of something.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

The house doesn't always win

What are the odds of winning the lottery? For an Australian syndicate, they were nearly 100%. Back in 1992 a clever group of investors figured out they could buy all 7.1 million possible numbers in the Virginia lottery, thus ensuring that they win the $27 million prize.

The Australian syndicate, International Lotto Fund, collected about $3,000 from 2500 investors. These not-lucky investors will collect an average of $10,800 paid in yearly installments of $540. The foolproof plan almost failed when they ran out of time, acquiring only 5 million tickets. They won anyhow.

The Virginia State Lottery grudgingly agreed to pay up. The rules say tickets must be purchased through a lotto terminal, but the Australians bought theirs in bulk from a grocery chain. Despite this technicality, Virginia decided it would be bad publicity to refuse.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Transporter Bridges

There are really only four ways to transport cars or people across a river: Over, under, on, or through. In other words, bridges, tunnels, ferries, or fords. We'll leave out the myriad of impractical variations, such as catapult, dirigible, parting (i.e. Moses), teleporting, etc. Basically, if you want to get across without getting your feet wet, your options are limited.

While in Newport, Wales (UK) I came across another variation: the transporter bridge. Transporter bridges are an old idea, first developed in Portugalete, Spain in 1893. The basic idea is that you build a giant gantry crane and lift things over the river. Vehicles drive on to the gondola, and operator transports them across and deposits them on the far bank. This configuration has several advantages in situations where you need an extremely tall bridge without an extensive on-ramp and off-ramp.

The bridge at Newport was built in 1906, and is currently still in operation. The gantry is 242 feet tall, and has a 592 foot span over the river Usk. Remarkably, this massive iron contraption is powered by only two 35 horsepower electric motors.

For various reasons transporter bridges haven't caught on - there are only a few of them around the world. Transporters have a limited capacity - about six cars, and take eight minutes to cross. They have all the annoyances of a ferry without the boat ride.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Von Haeckel's demons

Ernst Heinrich Philipp August Haeckel
was a German naturalist and illustrator who lived from 1834 until 1919. Although an accomplished biologist, physician, and philosopher, Haeckel is most famous today for his illustration. In addition to technical virtuosity, his works have a certain surreal drama. Take, for example, his illustration of bats. The faces of the bats convey strange demonic personalities that go beyond mere realism. The faces are laughing, sinister, and brutish - they have an strange nightmare quality.

Haeckels illustration of sea anemone's have a lurid dreamlike quality. They seem more like some alien landscape on a far away planet then lowly inhabitants of earthly seas.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

The migration of pens

At work I can never find a pen when I need one. The case at home is completely different – I have too many pens, but they never seem to work.

At first I thought this was just another manifestation of Murphy’s Law. It seemed like one of those little irritations in life that are unavoidable. After giving this matter some thought, I realized that these are two expressions of the same phenomena.

Here’s the mechanism: At work I use pens all the time. If I’ve got a pen in my hand and some other task presents itself, I put the pen in my pocket. Usually, I take it out again and use it. At the end of the day, I forget the pen is there, and it goes home in my pocket. Result: not enough pens at work.

Ah home, when I change into my bedclothes, I take everything out of my pockets and place it in a container. This container soon fills up with old receipts, buttons, change, and lots of pens. When the collection of pens reaches an unwieldy mass, I transfer them to a pen holder.

I don’t use pens all that often at home, and since I have an oversupply, they sit around unused. That’s why pens at home never seem to work – they are old and dried up. To make matters worse, instead of throwing out non-working pens, I set them down, thinking that I’ll resuscitate them later. Somehow that never happens. Result: lots of non-functional pens at home.

This may seem trivial, but American Business looses billions of dollars annually to pilfered office supplies. I suspect that if it wasn’t for cheap pen imports from china, this would be a significant drain on the American economy.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Falling out

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists recently moved the hands of the doomsday clock forward to 5 minutes til midnight. After years of relative peace-of-mind, the threat of nuclear attack once again is increasing.

Growing up during the 1960's and 1970's, I had a fatalistic attitude about nuclear attack. The Russians and Chinese had thousands of missiles targeted at the USA, and the chances of survival seemed low. We didn't take it very seriously.

Back in the 1940's and 1950's, when the threat was new, preparation for nuclear war was a top priority. The USA had just emerged from World War II, and a lot of people had first hand experience with aerial bombing. They had a straightforward attitude about civil defense - be prepared and follow procedures. (I.E. Duck and Cover). All over the country government, industry, and private citizens were building fallout shelters. They considered a nuclear attack not only possible, but likely. See film HERE.

Now, you can walk around most cities and see reminders of that bygone era on the walls of public buildings - the once ubiquitous fallout shelter sign. Although the shelters are probably long gone, the faded signs remain. These signs point the way to blocked up doorways and long forgotten cellars.

What's down there? I always imagine the shelter, with its cots and canned supplies, moldering untouched under fifty years of dust and cobwebs. The floor is stacked with wooden crates of saltines, gas masks, and gray-green cans labeled "water, potable".

Could you survive a nuclear strike from Iran or North Korea, or a dirty bomb from Al Queda? The chances are pretty good unless you happen to be near ground zero. For high probability targets such as New York and Washington DC, public fallout shelters may make sense once again. We've come a long way.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Unseasonably Warm

The MLK holiday has traditionally been a big weekend for skiing. This year was different. It was 75 degrees and partly cloudy on January 15th down on the coast of North Carolina. My son and I went canoing and camped on the beach. Don't fight it - enjoy global warming.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The human camera

Over the holiday break I visited the ancient Mayan city of Tulum. The city was built sometime between the years 1200 and 1450 by the Mayan peoples of Quintana Roo, Mexico, and served as a fortress and place of worship.

We just had one day in Mexico, and had time for a hurried tour of the ancient city. The tour took six hours, but most of the time was spent on the ferry boat, queuing, and in the back of a tour bus. Our time at Tulum was limited to an hour and thirty minutes. To our chagrin, we discovered that the camera batteries were dead. Luckily, I had my drawing pad.

Taking a picture is too easy. If you’re an amateur like me, you point the camera, click, and move on without giving it too much thought. The camera is unerringly accurate, but somehow misses the essence of a place like Tulum. When you have to sit down and draw something, the experience is completely different. An artist experiences the scene from his own perceptions, and his own mental model of the scene before him.

The first thing I do is put an imaginary frame around the image I’m going to capture. I do this by sketching in a rough outline of the scene. This forces me to make the critical decisions about what to show and what to ignore. In twenty minutes, I only had time to pick a few details to draw.

My next step is to figure out the perspective and placement of objects, and draw in a few guidelines. This is where I had my first surprise. Normally, when you draw a western building or structure, filling in the perspective is pretty easy. Almost all western structures started out as architectural drawings, and adhere to the conventions of formal perspective. The lines are straight and intersect at precise angles - everything lines up.

When you start drawing Mayan structures, you realize the Mayans didn’t use architectural drawings. Things don’t quite line up. It’s not that they are imprecise – it’s that there is a completely different aesthetic at work. I suspect the Mayan builders built things from a human, rather than mathematical point-of-view. Walls curve outward, doorways lean inwards, and every interior space is unique.

The final part of the drawing is the easy part – fill in details. Any problems I had in the construction of the perspective will cause me grief at this part. If I didn’t get the proportions right, I’ll fudge the details to make it work. That’s okay though, because the eye tends to skip over this sort of minor discrepancy. Strangely enough, one of the hardest parts of finishing the drawing is the sky. There is no good way to draw a blue sky with white and grey clouds using a graphite pencil. I usually just leave the sky blank, or draw in a few fake cloudlike blobs.

A photograph is obviously better, right?

Well, not always. The overall effect of Mayan architecture is quite different from that of Western buildings. The temple at Tulum is striking from a human scale. Its massive solidness communicates a sense of awe and power more like nature than the works of man. To a Mayan villager, the very sight of this city must have been overwhelming – certain evidence that the priests atop the temple were more gods than men.

In a strange way, the drawing captures this experience better than the mechanical eye of the camera. By drawing the scene, I have to pick out which items are important, and which are to be ignored. The drawing captures the scene as seen by the brain, not the eye.

When I was researching this post, I went to Flickr, and searched for Tulum. My search brought back about 27,000 images. Many of these were of drunken college students at Mexican bars, but there were lots of photographs of the ruins. Some of the Flickr photographers are skilled artists, and have done a masterful job of photographic composition. Nevertheless, I couldn’t find a single image that exactly captured my experience of drawing the place. Even those few pictures taken from a similar point of view show a different reality. The camera image is less vertical, and somehow more orderly than reality. The frame of the photograph is sharp and unyielding. The blue of the sky is relentless.

That’s just not the way I remember it.
© 2008 Raoul Rubin