January 2006 Archives

Nam June Paik R.I.P.

I was extremely saddened to learn that the renown video artist Nam June Paik has died. Paik had been extremely sick for the past few years, so this was not unexpected, but I am shocked just the same. As I thought back about Paik and his groundbreaking work as "The Father of Video Art," I became aware that as an artist's role model, he had more impact on me than I ever realized.
I had the pleasure to study briefly with Nam June Paik, back when I was a lowly freshman in art school around 1975, and he came to teach as a visiting artist. I still vividly remember him and his strange lectures to the assembled students, as we sat on the grimy floor in the art school's video studio. Paik had almost singlehandedly invented what was known back then as the "Video Synthesizer." Today we would probably call it computer graphics, but back in the early 1960s, no computer was fast enough to produce elaborate video graphics, it had to be done with analog circuits. Everyone considered his invention as akin to wizardry, and the students all wanted to know how he invented it. Paik described, in almost incomprehensible English, how he just tore TV sets apart and started playing audio tones from tape recorders and music synthesizers into the TV circuits. He said he played around and fiddled and through trial and error, finally figured out how to control the deflection and color of the TV signal directly, turning the TV into an electronic sculpture. Nobody had ever thought to do such a crazy thing before. Eventually he figured out how it all worked and what he wanted to do, so he had analog circuitry manufactured to his specifications, and the Video Synthesizer, the visual equivalent of the music synthesizer, was born. Now we could perform on a TV like musicians playing an instrument.
But Paik had been invited to our art school not just for his innovations in Video Art, but because he was a performance artist in the Fluxus movement. Paik was notorious for his scandalous performances featuring nudity (like "TV Bra") or sheer mayhem with smashing TV sets and burning grand pianos. Nothing I say could possibly do justice to his work, or the mountains of critical analysis of his career. But I will always remember him as the jovial guy who taught a lesson that I will never forget.
While the assembled students were peppering Paik with questions about how his incomprehensible invention worked, he changed the subject radically. With a waggish smile, he said he would tell us a secret. He had discovered the most powerful artist's tool in the history of mankind, the Manhattan Yellow Pages. He said that the Yellow Pages was full of businesses that employed experts in the most obscure subjects, all you had to do was phone them and ask about something, and they would tell you anything you wanted to know. Even today, 30 years later, I still think this captures Paik's genius, he taught me that Art is not an act of creation, anybody can create something, there is nothing particularly original about that. To the contrary, Art is an act of invention and we can innovate only by building on the works of others.
Paik's most famous artwork is certainly "TV Flag," which is as much a sculpture made of TV sets as it is a set of video synthesizer recordings that play on those TVs. Here is a later edition of "TV Flag" produced in the 1990s, currently on display at the Hirshorn Gallery.


The Hirshorn web page describes the work, "...stars and stripes share air time with split-second news stills, rotating statues of Liberty, endless runs of ones and zeros (the binary language of computers), and a face that morphs through every U.S. president from Harry S. Truman to Bill Clinton. Paik's video is his paean to America and the power of learning from a youth oriented culture." But this is not the original TV Flag that Paik created in 1968 at the peak of the Vietnam War. That version is owned by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and I used to go to see it over and over. That version is full of images of jets and helicopters, guns and explosions, Vietnam war footage, and it is a bitter indictment of American imperialism filtered through the medium of Television. This was not "Medium Cool" of the "Television War" that Walter Cronkite beamed into our homes every night on our cold cathode ray tubes, this was a hot, angry blast of thousands of flash-cut images that washed over your subconscious faster than they could be recognized. It leaves the viewer with no clear memory of any specific visual images, just a vague, bitter aftertaste. It was the vision of America as it fought a war in Asia, produced by an expatriate Asian.
As I researched this article, I discovered, to my dismay, that Paik's seminal TV Flag artwork has died of old age, the TV sets have burned out and cannot be repaired, and the work has been disconnected and sits idle, the TV sets blank. This is unbearable news, almost as bad as Paik's death.
The loss of TV Flag's video equipment is tragic, the artwork depends on the physicality of the large CRTs, but the artwork could be renewed. I remember what Paik said during his lectures at my art school, he asserted that each replay of a video artwork was a unique original performance, just like every other time it was replayed. Back then, most video art was produced on videotape, Paik was almost unique in that he produced sculptures made from TV sets. But I am sure that Paik did not care what type of TV sets displayed this work, the TV sets could easily be replaced and the work could live again. But it would have to be done immediately. TV Flag may ultimately be doomed, it is the wrong format for the new High Definition TV sets. The video recordings could be transcribed into another format, but soon there will no longer be any cathode ray tube TV sets that can play this work. Surely TV Flag will live on, preserved for the future in a transcribed version. But we are the only generation that will be able to appreciate the full impact of the work both as an original sculpture and a video performance, and even further, as a sociological statement on that moment in our lives. Ironically, by creating a sculpture that incorporates an electronic recording that can be played over and over, Nam June Paik created an ephemeral work that, in its original form, will barely outlive him.


I have goosefoot. I have heard of pigeon toes and crow's feet, but I never heard of goosefoot. No, my foot doesn't resemble a goose's foot. Goosefoot is a condition named after a group of three tendons in the knee that vaguely resembles a goose's foot. It is more correctly known as Pes Anserinus Bursitis. And it hurts like hell!
The really stupid thing is, I did this to myself. I went power-walking for 30 minutes almost every day, without enough days off to allow my tendons to recover. So my knee tendons are inflamed and extremely painful even when I am sitting completely idle. Even worse, there is basically no treatment, there is not even any effective pain medication, I just have to grit my teeth and wait for it to subside on its own.
After finally getting an appointment an orthopedic specialist a mere two weeks after the intense pain began, I was informed that if I stay off my feet, I might be able to walk without pain in 6 to 8 weeks. I was also told that if my condition doesn't improve rapidly in a few more days (which is extremely unlikely) I'll have to be on crutches for a month or more. This totally sucks. And I have only myself to blame.
Kevin Marks recently posted an argument against Digital Rights Management on his weblog and apparently has submitted it to a working group in the British House of Parliament. When I read his argument, I was astounded. The entire argument is founded on an error, a miscomprehension of a fundamental theorem of Computer Science.
I could summarize Marks' statement into two basic arguments:
1. DRM is futile, it can always be broken.
2. DRM is a perversion of justice.
Marks opens his argument with a huge misstatement of facts:
Firstly, the Church-Turing thesis, one of the basic tenets of Computer Science, which states that any general purpose computing device can solve the same problems as any other. The practical consequences of this are key - it means that a computer can emulate any other computer, so a program has no way of knowing what it is really running on. This is not theory, but something we all use every day, whether it is Java virtual machines, or Pentiums emulating older processors for software compatibility.
How does this apply to DRM? It means that any protection can be removed. For a concrete example, consider MAME - the Multi Arcade Machine Emulator - which will run almost any video game from the last 30 years. It's hard to imagine a more complete DRM solution than custom hardware with a coin slot on the front, yet in MAME you just have to press the 5 key to tell it you have paid.
Unfortunately, Marks has completely misstated the Church-Turing Thesis. It is a general misconception that the Church-Turing Thesis states that any computer program can be emulated by any other computer. This fallacy has come to be known as "The Turing Myth." This is a rather abstract matter, there is a short mathematical paper (PDF file) that fully debunks the misstatement Marks uses as the fundamental basis of his argument.
To cut to the core of The Turing Myth, there has come to be a widespread misunderstanding that The Turing Thesis means that any sufficiently powerful computer can emulate any other computer. The Turing Thesis is much narrower, in brief, it states that any computable algorithm can be executed by a Turing Machine. This in no way implies that any computer can emulate any other computer. Perhaps Turing inadvertently started this misunderstanding by a bad choice of nomenclature; he labeled his hypothetical computer a "Universal Machine," which we now call a "Turing Machine." However, a Turing Machine is not a universal device except in regards to a limited spectrum of computing functions.
One joker restated the Turing Thesis as "a computer is defined as a device that can run computer programs." This may seem obvious now, but in Turing's day, computers were in their infancy and the applications (and limitations) of computers were not obvious. As one example of these limits, there is a widespread category of "incomputable algorithms" that cannot be computed by any computer, let alone a Turing Machine. For example, a computer cannot algorithmically produce a true random number, it can only calculate pseudo-random numbers. This fundamental application of The Turing Thesis has founded a whole field of quantum cryptography, encoding methods based on incomputable physical processes, such as random decay of atomic particles. Quantum cryptographic DRM would be unbreakable, no matter how much computer power could be applied to breaking it.
I contacted Marks to inform him of the Turing Myth, in the hopes that he might amend his argument, since it all springs forth from a fallacy. He responded briefly by emphasizing the case of emulating MAME, and cited Moore's Law. Apparently Marks is arguing that since computers are always increasing in power, any modern computer can break older DRM systems that are based on simpler computers. He also appears to argue that emulated computers can simulate the output device, and incorporate a device to convert it on the fly to an unencrypted format, for recording.
Unfortunately, Marks chose a terrible example. The original game systems that are emulated by MAME had no DRM whatsoever. It was inconceivable to the game manufacturers that anyone would go to the trouble and expense to reverse-engineer their devices. The code inside these game systems was designed to run on a specific hardware set, any identical hardware set (or emulated hardware set) could run the unprotected code. At best, these devices used "security by obscurity," which any computer scientist will tell you is no security whatsoever.
Ultimately, DRM systems must not be so cumbersome as to be a nuisance to the intended user. This has lead to a variety of weaker DRM systems that were easily broken, for example, the CSS encryption in DVDs. However, this is no proof that truly unbreakable DRM is impossible or unworkable. As computer power and mathematical research advances, truly unbreakable DRM will become widespread.
Having dispensed with Marks' first premise, let us move on to the second, that DRM is a "perversion of justice." I cannot speak to British Law, as does Marks, however it seems to me that his arguments invoke the aura of British heroes like Turing and Queen Anne, to pander to unsophisticated British Parliamentarians. While his remarks are addressed to Parliament, he has attempted to argue from "mathematical truth" that DRM is futile. I would have expected that his legal argument would have attempted to base itself on more universal international copyright agreements, such as the Berne Convention. But I will not quibble over the scope of the argument, and instead attempt to deal with the argument itself. Marks states:
The second principle is the core one of jurisprudence - that due process is a requirement before punishment. I know the Prime Minister has defended devolving summary justice to police constables, but the DRM proponents want to devolve it to computers. The fine details of copyright law have been debated and redefined for centuries, yet the DRM advocates assert that the same computers you wouldn't trust to check your grammar can somehow substitute for the entire legal system in determining and enforcing copyright law.
It appears that Marks' fundamental complaint with DRM is that it puts restrictions in place that prevents infringement before it occurs. Current copyright laws only allow the valid copyright-holders to sue for damages after infringement occurs. Marks asserts this prior restraint is a violation of due process. However, he is mistaken, the DRM end-user has already waived his rights. When a user purchases a product with DRM, he is entering into a private contract with the seller, he explicitly accepts these restraints. If the user does not wish to subject himself to these restrictions, he merely needs to reject the product and not purchase it, and not enter into that contract with the seller.
I can find no legal basis that would prohibit the use of prior restraint in private contracts. It would seem to me that this would be a common occurence. For example, I might sign a Nondisclosure Agreement when dealing with a private company, agreeing that I would not disclose their secrets. A company might even distribute encrypted private documents to NDA signatories.
Ultimately, Marks' arguments do not hold up to scrutiny. They are based on false premises, and thus cannot lead to valid conclusions. Let me close by following Marks' answers to the questions posed by Parliament:
Whether DRM distorts traditional tradeoffs in copyright law. I submit that it does not. It merely changes the timing of the protection afforded by copyright law. It merely prevents infringement before it occurs, rather than forcing the copyright-holder to pursue legal remedies after the infringement occurs.
Whether new types of content sharing license (such as Creative Commons or Copyleft) need legislation changes to be effective. Current copyright laws are effective in protecting individual artists as well as corporate interests. Amendments to private distribution contracts such as CC or Copyleft are unproven in court. There is no compelling reason to change current copyright laws.
How copyright deposit libraries should deal with DRM issues. Since all DRM-encumbered materials originated as unprotected source material, it is up to the owner to archive this material as they see fit. Certainly the creators and owners have no reason to lock up all existing versions of their source material, this would impede any future repurposing of their content. Since a public archive of copyrighted material has no impact on the continued existence of original source material, it is up to the libraries to establish their own methods for preservation of DRM playback systems.
How consumers should be protected when DRM systems are discontinued. How were consumers protected when non-DRM systems were discontinued? They were not. I cannot play back Edison Cylinder recordings with modern equipment, yet I could continue to play them back on original Edison Phonographs. Vendors can not be required to insure their formats continue forever, this would stifle innovation.
To what extent DRM systems should be forced to make exceptions for the partially sighted and people with other disabilities. Disabilities are as varied as the multitude of people who have them, no DRM system could possibly accommodate all disabled persons. Some accomodations make no sense, for example, an exhibit of paintings or photography will always be inaccessible to the blind. "Accessibility" is a slippery slope, there will always be someone who complains they need further exceptions. Forcing owners to provide exceptions for disabilities will only lead to increasingly costly demands for accommodations upon content providers, which would stifle their ability to provide products for mass audiences.
What legal protections DRM systems should have from those who wish to circumvent them. DRM systems should be afforded protections available under whatever private contracts they license their work, just as the law exists today. End-users who are entitled to Fair Use already have the ability to request source material from the owners.
Whether DRM systems can have unintended consequences on computer functionality. This is a design issue, not a legal or political issue. Nobody can doubt that any computer program can have unintended consequences.
The role of the UK Parliament... I abstain. Parliament is not my bailiwick.

In summary, I believe that Marks' argument is based on two fallacies, and that his conclusions are based on a political wish, not a legal or technical argument. DRM is a compromise, some people (even me) may consider it a poor compromise, but I cannot see any technical or legal reason to burden content providers with even more ill-conceived compromises.
If the Surgeon General had my best interests in mind, he would have issued a warning: quitting smoking can be hazardous to your knees. I quit smoking, and in the process, ruined one of my knees. I am in absolute agony.

A few months ago, I decided to quit smoking. It wasn't easy, but it could have been a lot worse. I used the nicotine patch, it went well but I gained about 10 pounds. Then due to some stressful events, I caved in and started smoking again. I went through all the trials of quitting and had nothing to show for it except the extra pounds.
So I decided to get more serious about quitting. I figured that the only way to succeed would be to exercise to avoid the weight gain. I went on the patch again, but this time it was absolutely horrible. One of the rare side-effects of using the patch is insomnia, sometimes I couldn't sleep for days on end. I finally got a prescription for some sleeping pills, they helped a little, but not enough. I was absolutely frazzled. But finally I got through it, and I could begin an exercise routine.
Back when I was a teenager, the new rage in exercise was Ken Cooper's Aerobics, and I followed it religiously. I had a racing bicycle and I used to ride 20 miles each way to high school from my house out in the country. I had great motivation to do the program and document it, I was allowed to skip Phys Ed classes, so I didn't have to mix with the jocks or the obnoxious Phys Ed teacher. I got in really good shape, the best shape of my life. I had occasional thoughts of becoming a bicycle racer, way back when Lance Armstrong was in diapers, and nobody ever heard of the sport. I finally gave up bicycling when I moved to Los Angeles where cars and bikes do not mix. This was vividly proven when a neighbor swiped my bike and was hit by a car, turning my beautiful racing bike into a pretzel.
The distinctive feature of the Aerobics program is that it progresses very slowly since it was designed for sedentary middle-aged men who were completely out of shape and on the verge of a heart attack. You are supposed to progress very slowly so you don't have a heart attack or injure yourself from over-exercise. When I was a teenager, I wondered how anyone could get so out of shape that they could only safely walk 15 minutes a day. But now that I am a sedentary middle-aged man, I completely understand. It doesn't happen intentionally, it creeps up on you slowly without you even noticing it.
I decided to start with a low-impact swimming program, since I live across the street from my city's indoor pool. I got in about 4 weeks of swimming, then suddenly school started and the local swim teams started monopolizing the pool, I could never get in to do laps. So much for that idea.
I decided to do it the hard way, running. Running gives you the most benefit in the shortest duration, but it is hard on your legs and ankles (especially if you're 6ft2in and 250lbs like me). I am not built for running, so I took all possible precautions. I got some really great running shoes, and expensive custom orthotics. I tested them out and the new technology was really great, it wasn't nearly as stressful on my legs as I expected.
The classic Aerobics running program starts with a slow 12 week progression of slow walking at increasing distances before you even start to jog, let alone start running. I started in early autumn, it looked like I had just enough time to get up to running speed before winter set in. I wanted to get up to speed before the coldest weather set in, so I could keep warm from my own body heat. But I got a late start, I spent a few more weeks on the patch than I expected, so now winter was here and I had to go out walking in temperatures as low as -10F. That was no fun at all, but I suppose it was better than exercising in sweltering summer temperatures.
Of course I didn't think I was in as bad a shape as the Aerobics program expected, so I pushed harder than the routine suggested. When it said I should walk 1 mile every other day, I did 2 miles. Then I increased to 6 days a week instead of 3 days a week. I was pushing hard, but I seemed to be making good progress. I exercised for 6 weeks before I lost a single pound, then suddenly I lost 4 pounds in one week. The program was starting to work, even if my legs were taking a beating. I was really motivated, I got an iPod and walked along to tunes by The Donnas, there is nothing quite so motivational as being taunted by teenage girls. I kicked it up a notch from 15 minute walking miles to 13 minute miles with 2 minutes of light jogging per mile. Then one day I was out walking in a straight line, in the home stretch, and my right knee began aching. It seemed only mildly painful, so I figured I'd take the next day off.
I woke up the next day and I could barely stand up, my knee was so painful. I didn't think I injured it, I was just going in a straight line, I didn't torque or twist it, I didn't fall, so I figured it was just a strain and it would go away after a few days. But it didn't. The New Year's holiday was approaching, I figured if it didn't heal after a week, I'd go to the doctor. I spent a week in agonizing pain, and then went in to the ER on Jan 2, figuring the doctors would be back from the holidays (I forgot that Jan 2 was a Monday and a holiday, oops). They took some wonderful X-Rays of my knee and declared the bone structure was in perfect shape, no fractures, no arthritis, not even any signs of wear and tear. But an X-Ray can't see the ligaments and cartilage, and the orthopedics clinic was still closed for the holidays. I made an appointment, which is still a whole week away. They gave me a stupid splint to immobilize my whole leg, and prescribed 3x the normal dosage of ibuprofen, which is almost 90% of a toxic dosage. It's not doing much for the pain, but I can tell when it wears off so it must be doing something. I was kind of hoping for better meds.
I decided to backtrack and see where I went wrong. I used the original Cooper Aerobics program, the same book I used as a kid. It calculates each activity by "Aerobics Points" and you need to do a minimum of 30 points per week to improve your fitness. You start out doing 5 points and work your way up to 30 points over several months. I looked around Dr. Cooper's website, and found out that they had recalculated the entire point system. I thought I was doing the recommended 20 points a week, but I was already doing 30 points. Oops. No wonder I got injured.
Now I have a setback of at least a couple weeks, maybe even months. Worst case I might need knee surgery, best case I need to rest for several weeks. I can't even get in to see the doctor for another week. Now I'm back to where I started from, and probably worse.
If I have to start over from square one, I'm going to do things right this time. I should have gotten a stationary bicycle with a built-in heart rate monitor. I looked at some used models before I began, but decent bikes start around $700. Besides, I want to move back to California in a month or two, and that would just be another expensive bulky item to move. So once I get relocated, I'm going to get a stationary bike, and I can get my aerobics points without pounding my feet on the pavement.

2006: Year of the Dog

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Each year I make a nice Japanese-style New Year's card for my blog. However, it is traditional to not send a card when there has been a recent tragedy, such as a death in the family. So I apologize for the absence of a handmade card this year. Perhaps next year I will be able to resume this tradition.