February 2002 Archives

Camera Obscura

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San Francisco's Musee Mechanique is closing, and the campaign to save it surges across the net. It is ironic that these old mechanical toys are being retired just after the closing of the popular exhibit at the Getty Museum, Devices of Wonder. But I am more concerned with the Camera Obscura adjacent to the Musee.


Back around 1990-92 when I lived in San Francisco, I often took visitors up to the Camera Obscura and the Musee Mechanique. It's the sort of place that you never go to yourself when you live near it, but when out of town visitors come, that's the sort of place to go. Back around '92 when I left SF, they were threatening to close the Camera Obscura but the local photographers and galleries banded together and worked to save it. It looks like they were successful, the Camera is on the National Register of Historic Places. But without the Musee, there probably won't be enough traffic to keep the Camera in operation. If the Musee goes, the Camera will probably be next. Unfortunately, the Camera is not something you can relocate to another location, it's there because of the view from the Cliff House.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

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I just learned that Slaughter and the Dogs are playing in my town tonight. I bought their first single Cranked Up Really High back in 1977, it was one of the first punk records I ever bought. I listened to their first album Do It Dog Style constantly and it's still in my all-time Top 5.


Now I'm faced with a terrible decision. Do I want my keep my current mental image of these original Manchester punk rockers as I formed it in my youth, or do I want to go see them now that they (and I) have become a bunch of old farts?
My friends were discussing ancient printing processes, and I pointed them to a very interesting site about the history of the "Toshaban." The toshaban or "gariban" process uses the stencil process like silk-screen printing, with the speed and low cost of a mimeograph machine. It flourished in the early 20th century and developed into a wide cottage industry of amateur printers across the entire country. My university has a huge collection of music and film fanzines from about 1900 to 1960 printed in this manner, some are fantastic works of art, and obviously took an immense amount of effort to produce.

The toshaban is becoming a lost art, but there recently has been a resurgence of fine-artists in Japan using the process. This website ends with a wonderful tale of these artists traveling to Laos to teach the toshaban to schoolteachers, who immediately loved the low-tech process for its simplicity and low cost.

I've posted a chart of standard Japanese paper dimensions. This will primarily be of use to graphic designers, artists, or researchers that need a quick reference to dimensions of prints, photographs, or other papers. This TIFF file is very small, only 216K and optimized for laser printing, but should be easily viewable if you zoom in (the type is very tiny, the original document was a wallet-sized card).

I picked up this reference card in an art supplies shop in Tokyo several years ago. This may seem like an extremely obscure set of information, but there really is an interesting story behind it. Governmental regulations on paper dimensions go back hundreds of years in Japan, and the archaic names in kanji (i.e. "hanga" or "half-picture") still give a hint of that ancient system.

A Picture of Me

By popular demand, here is something never before seen on the net: a picture of me. This picture was taken sometime around 1974, so I would have been around 14 or 15 years old. My old friend Will Neuhauser took this photo, and it's the only photo of me that I like. I'm taking a picture with a 4x5 Graflex Speed Graphic camera with sheet film.


I remember this picture, our high-school newspaper had an article about palmistry and I had to make a graphic design for it. I used my own palmprint and made a shadowgram of my hand in the darkroom. But the image proportions were all wrong for the page, which is why I rephotographed it with the Graflex, I was going to shrink it down. But it just would not fit, so I had to redo it from scratch.
I examined the entire newspaper staff for someone with the smallest hand, it turned out to be Mary Hoenk, our Editor-in-Chief. I made a shadowgram of her hand, it fit perfectly. But when I inked up her hand, I could not get a clear impression of the center of her palm, no matter what I tried. I finally told Mary to relax and let her wrist go limp, I took her arm and started shaking it until her wrist flopped around under my control, and then suddenly without warning, I whacked it hard on the paper sitting on the table! Mary immediately jumped up and started howling in pain, jumping around with the paper still stuck to her hand. I yelled "Don't move!" and carefully peeled the paper from her hand. The palmprint was perfect. She was hopping mad, until she saw the final result.

FujiTV News reports that 85 whales beached in Ibaraki Prefecture, 32 were transported to a nearby deep harbor and released back to sea. The "melon-headed whale" travels in pods of 100 to 500. Last year near this same spot, 50 whales beached themselves. Local residents of Hasaki that assisted the biologists in the rescue were left with the task of disposing of tons of dead whales. One local resident said "last year, we cut them up and ate them...they were delicious." And again this time, the prime cuts were quickly carted away by fishmongers.
The report concluded with government warnings against eating possibly-diseased whale meat, and complaints of the cost of disposing of beached whales. Kagoshima Prefecture recently spent ¥25Million (about $186,500) to bury whale carcasses, and Hasaki faces similar disposal costs.

Lust for Vinyl

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I seriously lust for the Denon DP-DJ151 turntable. This unique turntable has a preamp and Analog/Digital converter built in, and outputs a digital SPDIF stream. Drop the needle, and CD-quality digital audio comes out.

I like to digitize my old vinyl punk rock albums and convert them to CDs and mp3s. It can be quite a challenge, some of these indie records were pressed poorly and sounded like crap when they were brand new, let alone after 25 years of listening. Some of them were recorded in weird ways (like "fake stereo"), and it's hard to capture that ragged sound. But that's the sound I know and love, so I want to preserve it. With some digital audio restoration, I can do wonderful things to my favorite old music, and give it new life in digital format.
I'm looking to upgrade my equipment, but this Denon rig is a little out of my price range. The DP-DJ151 is available on the grey market for about $300, but that doesn't include the stylus and cart, so that's another $100 minimum, more like $200-250. And I need a SPDIF input box, I can get a cheap SPDIF USB input from Roland for about $350, but it would be preferable to use the fancy Edirol pro box which is more like $500. Or better yet, a Firewire box for about $750. But that's overkill, a Firewire SPDIF box will run 7 or 8 streams, I only need one. I'm trying to keep this project under $500, but it looks like it's out of reach at about $800 minimum to go all-digital. I called Denon, and a friendly tech suggested I just use this turntable's internal preamp (with RIAA EQ built in) and pump the amped output into my Mac's sound input. Hell, that's what I'm doing right now with a turntable and external amp, I wanted to step it up a notch and go all digital. Oh well..

The Year Without a Winter

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I can't believe it, the high today was 67 degrees, and it's been like this all winter, it's only snowed twice here in Iowa. It's the end of February and today I ran into a honeybee outside.


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Recently I've been watching the old Japanese film series "Zatoichi" on the Independent Film Channel. Zatoichi is a legendary blind swordsman who roamed Japan during the late Tokugawa era. Unfortunately I missed the first few films of the series, and I have no idea how the legend of Zatoichi began or why so many people want to kill him.

MIT Economics Lectures Online


I am particularly impressed by an online Lecture at the MIT Economics Department. Lester Thurow is lecturing on Globalization and the Economic Downturn. Presented in RealVideo (alas, RealPlayer works poorly in MacOSX under Classic).
Thurow is a much more compelling speaker than your usual economics pundit, he's lecturing to MIT Economics students with an attitude of "if you don't know this stuff, people will eat your lunch, and there are people running things right now that don't know this stuff and someone is eating our lunch." Thurow makes some interesting analyses about previous "bubble" cycles, like Tulip Mania or the Gold Rush, and compares it to the dot-com bubble and the state of telecommunications business today. He condemns certain businesses that are marginally profitable during periods of high growth but are massively unprofitable in times of low growth. This is something I used to lecture my bosses about endlessly. They'd proclaim a 20% increase in sales, but when pressed, would admit it only netted a 5% increase in profit. Then sales would dip 5% one month and they'd go deep into the red.
Thurow also has a few harsh comments about the Japanese economic problem. He asserts that the Japanese economy is rotten to the core because it has one legal principle that the USA does not, 2nd-generation mortgages, parents can assume debts that their children must repay. Thurow denounces these loans as indentured servitude, and would be outlawed in the USA as slavery. He asserts Japanese families are burdened with huge debts on homes and real estate, loans taken out when real estate prices were at their peak, and now are devalued to half of the loan's worth. Thurow suggests the only way to solve the economic problems is for the Japanese government to give tax credits to the banks if they'd write down the value of home mortgages and real estate loans by 40%.

I recently located a very old computer science paper (1MB PDF) from 1978, it was one of the most significant papers I ever read, it helped me understand the usefulness of computer applications in the arts, and it shaped my career path. With inspiration from this paper, I have always loved to apply modern computer technology to ancient technologies. So I decided to scan my old fading Thermofax copies and put them on the web.

This paper discusses an obscure area of Renaissance art, "anamorphosis." Early experimenters in perspective drawing discovered unique optical and geometrical tricks to distort images. The classic example is the painting "The Ambassadors" by Holbein, it has a distorted image near the bottom, when viewed from a certain angle the image is clearly visible as a skull.

Some images were painted for viewing in cylindrical or conical mirrors. Other artists used the technique on a massive architectural scale. Here is a grand fresco by Fra. Pozzo, it is painted on an arched roof but the architectural features seem to ascend to the sky. It is no wonder that anamorphic techniques were considered "miracles of art."

This little paper is one of the first attempts to convert these projective geometry techniques to computer graphics. I encountered this article when I was studying anamorphosis, back when I was a young Art student taking classes in mechanical drawing and perspective. I had some early computer programming and graphics experience with the primitive pen plotters and computer-output-microfilm of the day, but this paper opened up my eyes to new applications. But still, I could not envision the day, today, when I could do these tricks in Photoshop with a Free Distortion or Polar Coordinates filter.
In particular, I recommend you print out the last page, and cut out and assemble the little cone. Also notice the strange two-column word processing, which looks like it was done on an IBM Selectric terminal with multiple "golf ball" type elements for italic and regular. You don't see documents like this anymore!

Why Blog?

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So the interface issues are getting settled and now I'm starting to deal with the whole point of blogging. What got me interested was not an essay on blogging, but an essay on the iMac. Some editorialist said that the iMac should be a continuous record of your life. Your digital hub should be keeping track of the files you access through your days, storing your pictures, music, texts, etc.
My initial thoughts were that blogging would make it easier to keep track of disparate types of web links that I encounter. But now I'm thinking this is really headed towards "internal blogging." I don't want a public blab sheet of all my stupid random thoughts, I want to collect all my work, all the form letters I get about my student loan, my tax records, my bills, all scanned in so I don't have to deal with paper files. I want my phone book and records of my calls and faxes. I don't see anything like this happening without a software hub.
I see some possibilities for a personal blog hub in MacOS X, though. You can use MovableType with MySQL alongside other MySQL databases of personal records. If I could keep an local index database of archived records, scan and store them as they arrive, link Web-based record searches to .pdf files maybe, that would be a really useful thing.

On a whim, I grabbed a marathon of military shows from the History Channel to my Tivo, and oh boy did I get a bonanza of computer folklore. In the show "Silent Service: Attack Plans of WWII," the results of restoration and display of two historic military computer systems were on display. And oh yes the restoration is excellent.
One of the last remaining US WWII era submarines, the USS Pampanito, is moored in San Francisco at Fisherman's wharf. A group of history buffs and computer geeks in the bay area have restored the Pampanito's Torpedo Data Computer Mk 3 and ECM Mk2 cryptography machine.
I had heard in afc [alt.folklore.computers] in the past that a historic crypto system was on display near the Pampanito, I saw the sub back in about '91, and went inside it on the regular tourist thing, but this was before the restoration. According to the show, the ECM was only declassified in 1995, the unit on display is the only machine in civillian hands, and on loan from the NSA. I wonder if the NSA has other units.. Here's a link on techy details on the ECM Mark 2: http://www.maritime.org/ecm2.htm
Now that is one beauty of a piece of machinery, I wish you could have seen it in operation on video.
But more amazing were the details of the restoration of the Torpedo Battle Computer. The original TDC Mk 1 is credited to the Arma Corporation, E. Don Gittens of MIT produced the design, and is interviewed extensively on the program. He described redesigning the Mk 1 prototype unit for compactness and battle hardening, producing the Mk 3 units at Arma Corp, and going to sea to train crews on the complex TDC operations. The TDC is essentially a massively complex slide-rule, with motors and cranks that dynamically change the inputs over time. The output is displayed on cocentric rings with radial markings for compass heading, speed, etc. Here is a little paper by Terry Lindell, the restorer of the TDC: http://www.maritime.org/tdc.htm
They had a demonstration with crew of people in military garb, calling observations from the periscope, inputting them into the TDC, you could see the little black dials with ship's outline swinging as the Pampanito "turned" though it's maneuvers, and then a little red light marked "A" lights up, the attack solution has arrived, we're in position, Fire One!
As a bonus, it appears that some restoration has been done on the Pampanito radar system. They showed the radar antennae whirling around, little low-profile parabolic open-grid dishes about a foot or two across. But alas, it appears the radar display systems are as yet unrestored. The documentary provided much interesting coverage of how the TDC was used in night attacks. The TDC was originally designed for blind attacks with only sonar, but these were totally ineffective and the strategy was abandoned. With radar, accuracy was hugely improved. Subs could accurately attack from 4x the distance of previous sonar attacks, far beyond the range of enemy retaliation. Japanese maritime losses rose dramatically, the US subs could attack at night or in fog, attacking multiple targets in rapid succession.
Ah well, you really must make an effort to catch this show, I'm sure the History Channel will rerun it soon. "Silent Service" has many stirring submarine tales, but the last episode, "Attack Plans of WWII," ties all the tales together, into a battleground of technology and computing. We had advanced computers (albeit an analog system of cogs and gears) and radar and crypto, they did not, and it turned the tide of battle. The US Navy only had 2% of its fleet resources in the submarine service, but subs are credited with 55% of the tonnage sunk in the Pacific.

[I posted this message on Usenet in alt.folklore.computers]

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