May 2003 Archives

Strange MacOS X Bug

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I was horrified by an obscure bug I discovered when I was working in Photoshop the other day. I opened Photoshop, created a new file, and when I saved it, the default folder where I had last saved files was open, and I just hit return like always. Then I stopped to think, hey wait a minute, I just threw that folder in the Trash! So I looked in the trash, and indeed, inside the trashed folder, there was my newly created Photoshop file. I pulled it out and saved it in a safe place.
This is not how an Open/Save dialog box is supposed to work. Yes, it's supposed to remember the folder you last saved to, as a matter of convenience. But MacOS X apps should never save files into the Trash. It just does not make sense.
Update: Thanks to Vince Mease, I discovered that this bug is not at the OS level, it does not occur with Apple applications, only 3rd party apps. Apple's apps work correctly, but many non-Apple programs do not understand that you aren't supposed to save to hidden folders like .Trash

The Photographer Without A Camera

For many years, I have not owned a decent camera. This is particularly galling for many reasons, not the least of which is I have a BFA degree in Photography. I have always owned great camera equipment, at various times I've owned top-end cameras like the Canon F1 and Hasselblad 500 C/M, I worked hard to afford these expensive toys, only to fall on harder economic times and be forced to sell them. Now I only have a used Canon AE1 and it is a piece of crap. This is a camera that's been bought and resold over and over at the local camera store, I bet it was owned by a dozen different Photo 101 students before I bought it for $50. I took some test shots and it's just inaccurate enough to be completely worthless for serious photography, so I never use it. I had better results from disposable cameras.
Photographers tend to be obsessive about equipment, especially cameras. It's one of the worst faults of photographers and photography as a medium, they tend to become obsessed with technical aspects of the process, to the detriment of their aesthetics. That's one reason why I mostly gave up photography and focused on painting, to focus on a message and a meaning in imagery, and not on the process. But I have continuously done photo printing for many years. I have a huge darkroom rig but no cameras to make films to print in the darkroom. So I use non-camera processes, like photograms, contact printing, etc. My photography professor always said that a great photographer should be able to make great prints, even with a pinhole camera. I tried to go one step better, I can make great photographs without any camera. My approach to photography is more like printmaking than camerawork.
These non-camera methods only go so far, especially with someone who can work a camera like I can. But I've agonized for years about what camera to buy, nothing I've seen (or can afford) has the features I like. I considered digital, but it was too expensive for a decent resolution camera. A pro digital camera could cost the same as 3 or 4 good film cameras. I even considered old classic medium format cameras, and I came really close to buying a Graflex Speed Graphic 4x5 and even a Rollei 2 1/4" twin lens reflex. If I can't get along with the new computerized cameras, I can still do wonders with medium format film. But I could not decide what to get.
But now my agony is over, I just received a wonderful birthday present, a new Canon Powershot S50. 5 megapixels is just about bare minimum resolution for what I need, and overkill for some work. There are digicams with slightly better lenses, but not this small and pocketable. It's about the top of the line for current prosumer digicams, and it looks like it will be a good value for many years. I bought a 1Gb CF memory card for $180 after rebate at Amazon, but it still hasn't arrived yet, so I can't really use the camera yet. I can only fit about 5 pictures on the free 32Mb CF card that came with the camera.
The S50 has so many cool features that I've resumed work on some old photo projects that were too unwieldy to do on film, as well as some new ideas. They're too complex to describe, and what would be the point of describing a photographic idea anyway? The proof is in the work. I'll just have to make some images and prove my ideas.
Now I have no excuses, I finally have the tools I need to do some great work. I always tell people that digital tools for the arts are so good these days, that if your artwork sucks, it's not because the equipment or software sucks, it's because you suck.

How To Be Rich

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Slacktivist was musing today about small change and rolling coins. I had to laugh because it used to be my job to sort and wrap coins.
My father was a banker, and even as a young teenager of 12 or 13 years old, I used to do odd jobs around the bank. One of the jobs I got stuck with was running the coin sorter. Every Saturday morning my father brought in the coins from the laundromats in his apartment buildings, and many of the other local merchants brought in cloth bags full of coins, since there was a full-time coin counter (me) working on Saturdays.
The counter was a huge machine that looked like it was built in the 1930s. I dumped the coins in the hopper in the top, the coins spun around on flat metal surface with round holes to let the coins drop through. The front of the machine had a round tube where you stuck the paper coin wrapper, then push a lever, and with a loud vrooom the machine would dispense one wrapper full of coins right into the tube. I could press a lever to set the coin dispenser to dollars, half-dollars, quarters, nickels, dimes, or pennies, and it knew how many coins to dispense in each roll. If I held my finger at the right depth in the bottom of the tube, the coins would center evenly in the tube for a nice crimp. I whipped each uncrimped tube from the roller, and with a couple of taps, I folded each end quickly. I could produce a roll of coins every 2 or 3 seconds, and sometimes I had to do that for hours on end. It was a noisy, dirty, filthy job. I especially hated wrapping nickels. the soft metal blackened everything it touched.
I remember I was required to empty my pockets before sitting down at the workstation, and empty them again afterward to make sure I wasn't stealing. After handling all that change, I even had a metallic taste in my mouth, so the last thing I wanted was any coins in my pocket. But I was always attracted to the bad coins that didn't make it through the sorter. I always collected the foreign coins, slugs, and unidentifiable round objects, looked through them maybe hoping I'd find something valuable like a gold coin, but it was always worthless junk. But I was always astonished at the variety of odd coins I handled, and even to this day I will pick up about any round object and add it to my collecting jar of round junk. But I digress..
Ever since then, I always hated small change. Men's pants seem designed to dump your change when you sit down. I usually dump all my change in a bowl, if it doesn't fall down the crack of my couch first. It can be difficult to get rid of accumulated change, as the Slacktivist noted. And therein lies another tale..
My sister's (now ex-) husband, as a joke, gave me a copy of "How To Be Rich" by J. Paul Getty. I was working at the Getty Museum at the time, so I had to read it, just to see what the mindset of J. Paul was like. The book purported to be a manual on how to be rich. It claimed to show you how to become rich, but all the schemes seemed to require multimillion dollar investments. In order to become rich, it seems one must already be rich. There is an old saying amongst economists, "making one's first million is almost impossible, making one's second million is almost inevitable."
Finally towards the end of the book, J. Paul admits these schemes are beyond the reach of mere mortals, so he throws us wage-slaves a bone, a practical scheme to become rich. He called it "the unspendable quarter." He suggested that you pick one denomination of coin like a quarter, and at the end of every day, empty your pockets of every smaller coin into a jar. Aggressive savers could accumulate 50 cent pieces and lower (wow, when did people get 50 cent pieces as small change?) and less aggressive savers could save nickels and pennies. I decided to give it a try, I saved all my change. I saved an astonishing amount of change.
So now it was time to reap the rewards of my plan to become rich, I took my bags of coins to the teller at my local Bank of America branch. I was informed that they don't count coins. They didn't even have a change counting machine. They suggested I try another branch. I tried dozens, I was refused at every branch. I finally worked my way to the main office, they offered to send my change to the main Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco, where it would be counted and automatically deposited into my account. The service fee was $75. Ouch. I asked them if they would accept the coins for deposit if I wrapped them myself. The said they could accept them, but they'd have to unwrap them all and have them recounted for the $75 fee, after all, how do they know I didn't wrap 49 pennies in each roll instead of 50?
Well, it seems that accumulating small change is not the way to become rich after all. Now I was faced with the task of getting rid of all that change. The quarters were fairly easily dispensed of. I used to carry around ziploc bags full of quarters, $20 or $30 worth. As much as I hated to carry around change, now here I was stuck with carrying around heavy bags of change. Many of the stores where I shopped got really tired of that guy with all the change, I could often be seen lining up little rows of $1 stacks of quarters at the cash register. My pants pockets all had holes in them from carrying all the heavy change. It took months and months, and I still barely made a dent in the pile of change, and most of the easily picked quarters were nearly gone.
One day, the owner of my corner store asked me why I always had so much change, and I told him my lengthy tale of woe. He said he wasted a lot of time going to the bank for rolled coins, and he'd take them. I told him I had hundreds of dollars of coins, mostly nickels and pennies, he said he'd take them gradually. So I set about rolling all the remaining small change.
I was unemployed and broke at the time, so as I set about wrapping coins, I kept thinking about an essay Phil Dick wrote about being poor. He said that being poor forced you to become a skilled accountant handling extremely small sums of money. You have to learn how to budget your remaining 35 cents accurately, because misspending a single dime might mean you do not eat dinner. I was in a similar state, there were many weeks my food budget was paid for by rolled coins. I couldn't even afford coin wrappers, I tore strips of newspaper and rolled them manually, and wrote "pennies" or "nickels" on the outside. It was the same old filthy, dirty job I had when I was a kid, but without the nice machine, and even dirtier because of the old newsprint. I decided to measure how many coins I could wrap in an hour, as a comparison to the machines. I discovered that once you get down to sorting pennies and nickels, you can barely wrap about $10 of change an hour. You're barely making above minimum wage wrapping your own money, you might as well throw it in the garbage.

White Tornado

I've been going through my photo archives and pulling a few notable images, and this is one of my favorites. I don't remember exactly how I got this card, it must have been when I was on vacation in Okoboji when I was a kid. I have a small collection of local weather-disaster photos but this is the best image I have, even if it is in a terrible state of preservation. As far as I can determine, this is the first image ever captured of a tornado. Up to this time, film was not fast enough to capture a moving tornado, even after the invention of fast film, it took a while for a lucky photographer to be in the right place with their bulky view camera equipment.

Twin Lakes Cyclone, April 11, 1909

Even back to the early days of photography, there were stormchasers that mass-produced prints. Usually they came in the aftermath of the tornado and took photos of the devastated area, and sold stacks of prints to the locals as mementos.

Fonda Tornado March 26, 1921

Computer Graphics Circa 1975

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I scanned some photographs of some of my earliest computer graphics experiments, they are very primitive but I still like them a lot.

SOL-20 Graphics

This image was produced sometime around 1975, using my hand-built SOL-20 computer with a Graphic-Add display board, giving an amazingly high resolution of 128x64 (or something like that). I wrote programs in BASIC to draw bezier curves, and output via assembly-language graphics routines. It was a lot of work for such low rez output. I photographed the image on the 9" monitor with a Polaroid SX-70 camera, you can see the curvature of the screen if you look closely. Somewhere in storage I have some better quality photos of this image, with some 3D sculptures made from this pattern. I traced the curves on tracing paper, cut layers of wood, then glued them together like a topographic map. My display of photos and sculptures was the first exhibit of computer graphics at my university's art school.

BlogTV: Old McDonald's, Sugamo

BlogTV responds to the first ever request from a viewer. A correspondent in Japan drew my attention to a recent story he saw on FujiTV, and indeed, my TiVo captured the story. This story (5min25sec, English and Japanese subtitles) is about a McDonalds that caters specifically to elderly customers, and has some interesting observations about language usage in older vs. younger Japanese speakers.

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Japan's commercial culture is a youth-oriented culture, and corporate institutions like McDonalds primarily target young customers. But the Tokyo district of Sugamo is hangout for the elderly, and of course the Sugamo McDonalds must adapt.
Our first linguistic challenge comes from the interviews with the elderly customers. Demosthenes is said to have cured his stutter by practicing speaking with pebbles in his mouth. Here we face the opposite task, we must challenge our listening comprehension abilities by trying to understand old folks talking with a mouth full of Big Mac. I always like to observe the speech patterns and mannerisms of the extremely elderly, but I can't decide if the 92 year old woman is discreetly covering her mouth when she smiles, or pushing her dentures back in.
A nearby shrine attracts the elderly people to Sugamo, and we briefly see the ceremonial cleansing of the temple's statue with water, the figure is Jizo, the wise bodhisattva that protects the weak and innocent. The attendance at this McDonalds doubles on the days of temple observances, which by tradition are days of the month ending in the number 4 (the 4th, 14th, and 24th).
But none of this is within McDonald's control, their clientele is a gift from the Gods. What McDonald's is primarily concerned with is how to sell burgers to these customers most profitably. And we should observe closely, the simple transaction at a cash register is one of the most ritualized interactions in Japan. In such ritualized situations, any deviation from standard routine may cause confusion or even panic. This store has anticipated the quirks of their customers and adapted the process for them. For example, older customers are less familiar with English loanwords like chikin nagetsu so the menu substitutes the conventional Japanese word tori niku (chicken, literally "bird meat"). Drink sizes are not Large, Regular and Small, but the traditional dai, chuu, shou system. A magnifier is available so customers with failing eyesight can read the menu, it goes by the interesting name of mushi megane, literally "insect eyeglasses." In English it is called a Fresnel Lens, apparently the circular ridges of the flat lens evoke the multiple lenses of an insect's compound eyes.
There is an old saying in Japan, "okyaku-sama wa kami-sama," the customer is God. So clerks must be particularly attentive to the everchanging needs of even the most demanding customers. One woman tests the patience of a clerk by changing her order even after it is rung up, she admonishes the clerk to listen more closely. Even a forgetful God that cannot remember an order issued moments ago, must be obeyed strictly.
The story closes with more interviews, everyone is happy and full of hamburgers. A woman in a rakish hat expresses her gratitude for being allowed to rest and relax here, she bows deeply with her hands clasped together as if in prayer, and smiles.

Philip Guston

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I was reading ArtNews today and saw a short article on the painter Philip Guston (unfortunately it is not available online). I saw one picture of Guston's studio and burst out laughing, it reminded me of something..
When I finished my BFA in painting, I had to take a seniors seminar. I liked the teacher, but sharing this particular class with a mixed bag of undergrads was always dicey. When we weren't savagely critiquing each other's work, we usually watched videos. There were a couple of students who idolized Philip Guston so the teacher arranged for a viewing of a long documentary shot in Guston's studio.
Our university has a rather nice Guston painting in its museum, and he's a major influence in some circles in the painting school. Of course, like any artist, I am absolutely convinced my interpretation of Guston's work is the correct one and all other points of view are absolutely incorrect. And my fellow students who loved Guston so much had the most egregiously incorrect interpretation I'd ever seen. I had to share a painting studio with one of them, he was always spewing out awful Guston pastiche paintings, and doing stupid stunts like spilling plaster everywhere, like on my still-wet oil paintings.
But anyway, these Guston devotees and I watched the film avidly. They excitedly discussed every detail, as Guston mixed colors and demonstrated his brushwork. The film spent about 30 minutes watching as the painting's primary layer was executed, Guston discussed the imagery in this work, and then stopped work for the evening.
The film returns early the next morning and Guston is just setting up to paint again. But the huge canvas he's worked on all yesterday is now blank. The filmmaker asks Guston what happened. Guston says, "I got up this morning, decided I hated it, so I scraped it down and wiped it all away with turpentine." I suddenly burst out in uncontrollable laughter, I couldn't stop myself. Guston was playing a monumental joke on his devotees who would be so stupid as to draw any interpretation of his work from the way he painted it. I laughed so hard, the teacher stopped the VCR and asked me what was so funny. I said, "we just learned precisely how Philip Guston does NOT paint."

Old Polaroid

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Here's an old Polaroid SX-70 image I took many years ago, probably around 1975. Lucas Samaras invented this technique to alter SX-70 images by pressing into the emulsion with a stylus, it was wildly popular with Polaroid owners. It was tricky, you had about 3 minutes to work with the emulsion while it was still developing, and the results were always unpredictable. This picture of some potted plants was about as good a result as I ever got with this technique.

Altered SX-70 Photo

Of course this technique isn't going to impress anyone that ever used Photoshop and the Smudge Tool, but it was a revelation to photographers back in the 1970s. Photographers tend to treat their technology as inviolate and perfect, gouging prints with a stylus while they developed was exactly the sort of thing you were supposed to never do. Polaroid discontinued this type of film just as the technique became popular with fine artists, and it died overnight.
When I looked through my old SX-70 prints, I was astonished to see several prints with a large crack through the middle. Polaroid promised us that the SX-70 process was the most archival process they could make, and the prints would last for hundreds of years. The dyes are still in great shape but the emulsion is cracking. It doesn't do much good to have stable dyes if the supporting emulsion is going to shrivel up and die in 25 years. I decided to have an almost microscopic look at this altered image to see if the emulsion was in good shape. It isn't. But it looks really cool.


I expected these prints wouldn't hold up over the years so I'm not too surprised at the fine cracking. It's adding a patina to the images they didn't have when they were first made, I kind of like it. These images are some of the first experiments in one of my most abstract ideas, that my prints should be interesting at every single viewing scale, from microscopic on up to normal size, and that you can only get these effects by seeing the image firsthand. So this web image only gives a tiny hint of the cool stuff happening in the fine details of this overall image. And that's one of the other problems with Polaroids, every one is unique and can never be reproduced properly.


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Yee Mee Loo's used to be my favorite drinking spot, back when I lived in downtown LA's Loft District. I always took my friends to Chinatown and Yee Mee Loo's since it was such a crazy place. They had a huge altar behind the bar with a statue of Hotei, the fat-bellied laughing buddha. The bartenders burned huge amounts of incense on the altar and the air was always thick and smoky with a strange fragrance. The establishment prided itself on having never ever cleaned the interior. Cobwebs covered with clumps of dust drooped from the light fixtures. Every wall surface was brown from smoke residue. Yee Mee Loo's was also famous for their clock that ran backwards, I don't wear a watch so their clock was always a torment after a few drinks.
But mostly I liked to take people to Yee Mee Loo's because it was near a live poultry shop. All my friends liked to see the chickens and other small fowl stacked in cages by the windows. One day I took a friend out for a drink and we went by the poultry shop. As we approached, I saw about 30 cats standing around the back of the store, yowling, scrambling around by a fence, keeping them from the dumpster which was overflowing with waste. I'd never seen anything like it. We tried to avoid that scene, I told my friend to peek in the front window. He looked through the grimy window and started screaming and freaking out. He asked me if it was always like this. I said, "what? It's just some chickens in cages." He said no, I should take a look for myself.
I looked but I couldn't see anything. It was just a dimly lit shop with some cages of chickens and quail. They seemed to be awake and flapping around agitatedly, which was odd because they're usually asleep at this time of the evening. My friend said "no, look at the floor. I thought it was just a grey floor, I couldn't really see it through the window grime. He insisted I should look closer, and wait. And then I freaked out. The floor was grey because it was a wall-to-wall carpet of rats. Some of the chickens got out of their cages and were being chased around the room. I told my friend we're getting the hell out of here, and we ran back past the dumpster area. Now our eyes were more accustomed to the light, we could see what was happening. There was a huge battle between the cats and the rats swarming over the dumpster.
I never ate at a restaurant in Chinatown again.

BlogTV: Telephone Locks

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Disinfotainment is occasionally lucky to capture video of recent inventions in Japan. New technological devices can provide an insight into social problems and conditions, the way the inventor solves the problem reveals much about that culture's mindset. Unfortunately, it also shows us their blind spots, as this news segment from FujiTV (4min38sec, Japanese and English subtitles) will reveal. I'll skip most of the translation since English subtitles are available, but there are Japanese language points of interest for students as well.

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Japan has always had the reputation as a safe place where nobody even has to lock their doors and windows. But Japan's burglary rate has increased 30% over the last decade. The newspapers and TV news are full of stories about gangs of foreigners that have learned to pick common Japanese locks, and can burglarize apartments at will. Some of this media coverage is outright racism against lower-class foreign residents, but regardless of the reasons, many households are rushing to upgrade their locks and security systems.
This video announces the latest security system by NTT DoCoMo, a door lock operated by keitai denwa, your cel phone. And what a system it is. You can activate the lock either by remote control, or by dialing on your cel phone. I can immediately see problems here. The lock can be accessed from the outside by anyone with a cel phone, you're merely trading one security problem for another. You're betting that there are fewer phone hackers than lockpickers. The announcer describes the lock as the kagi-ana no nai kagi, the keyholeless lock, it cannot be accessed from the outside. But this could also be a problem, I hope it has a battery so you can still activate the lock in a power failure, fire, or earthquake. But what concerns me more is the privacy aspects. Your phone is creating a complete database of every time you leave your house. I'm not sure I want this data collected. Advanced versions of the system have video cameras accessible by cel phone. The system may not stop a burglar from getting in the window, but the motion detectors will trigger the cameras, and conveniently email you an image of the burglar. These cameras will become attractive nuisances for hackers, especially since they are marketing these security systems to single women that live alone. Somehow I forsee trouble.

BlogTV Tech Notes

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I've been completely reworking the BlogTV system, so I thought a few tech notes were in order. I've released most of my streaming video methods to the public, the methods rely on commercial software but there are other ways to do the job. This is just one of them.
There were some big problems with the last video, I found out I made some tiny miscalculations cropping the video, the codec insists the video be resized to exactly 50% with pixel heights in multiples of two. I did everything about .001% wrong, causing the video to crash when played. But I appear to have the problem under control now.
I got a lot of hits from the Jobs video, and I had to limit the system to 5 streams. This may force me to change the way I put the videos in the blog. This is the first time I've had so many videos up on the monthlong page, if I put up 6 videos on the page at once, it will error every time it loads, thinking it doesn't have enough bandwidth to stream more than 5 videos at once. This could be a problem. I've been playing with some of the fancy in-window player systems, but the coding is virtually incomprehensible. I think people use something like Livestage Pro for this, ooh it's expensive.
I just upgraded to QuickTime 6.2 and QuickTime Streaming Server 4.1.3. I was worried about how well they would run on my ancient G3/400 server, but it was a smooth upgrade. With the new QT6.2, I'm considering using MP4 encoding for the videos, but preliminary experiments don't look good. I've gone to a lot of trouble to tune the video codecs so you can see subtitles clearly, and the MP4 codecs are weak on fine detail, the subtitles show a lot of artifacts and become illegible. If I can work this one problem out, it looks like MP4 is the way to go. MP4 will require QT6, I hate to force upgrades but QT6 has been out for ages. It's a big download for a 56k modem user, but they will probably benefit more than broadband users.
I noticed that SCOLA has been providing a better signal lately. I usually have to adjust the brightness up and the contrast down, but I'm working on a new video and it didn't require any adjustment at all. I have no way to preview these videos on a wide range monitors, so if you think the video is too dark or too bright, or bad contrast, please let me know and tell me what platform and monitor you're using. Thanks.