Watching the Watchmen

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Oh, Watchmen. They’re finally turning you into a movie (apparently after twenty years of trying and to the chagrin of author Alan Moore).

I loved this book as a teenager — I remember first getting into it around age ten, reading by sort of flipping from section to section out of order, not really understanding much but finding myself thoroughly absorbed in the Watchmen universe. The Rorschach section, especially, sticks in my mind.

These kinds of stories typically get abused by Hollywood. For example: the charisma-neutered Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie. But the preview’s pretty damned striking and Zach “300” Snyder is helming, so there may be hope. Also, they seemed to have nailed the look of Dr. Manhattan (the glowing blue naked guy) — probably the most difficult character to render to the screen. The only real casting miss seems to be Ozymandias, who duesn’t really seem to have quite that golden Master Race aspect to him like in the book. But whatever.

Very curious to see how this turns out. March 2009.


A Light-Weight Experiment

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Something has to happen with this blog. Apparently I don’t really have the time or the wit or the whatever-it-is to churn out the lengthier sorts of essays I prefer. So I’ve come up with a bit of an experiment for myself — a personal challenge. Every day for ten weeks I’m going to write (around) ten sentences about a single idea.

This seems like a good length to sketch out an idea. Feeling like I have to expand an idea out into some 3000-word treatise just adds a weight which suddenly turns the whole thing into another fucking task I have to add to the pile and then explain to my poor girlfriend why I’m spending another evening fiddling with my website rather than fiddling with her. So this is also an experiment with a somewhat lighter-weight blogging style (which I haven’t really tried for, like, years).

Blogs have, by and large, settled into a handful of formats — so maybe this is also an expression of my urge to shake Auscillate up a bit and start trying out some of my other ideas. Maybe I’ll even turn Auscillate back into an actual breathing blog again…


Mobile Music Workshop 2008, Vienna

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Art school graffiti.

Hello, there. I’m going to do a few more detailed write-ups and interviews for the Nokia Nseries Workshop blog, so I’m not going to get too much into the nitty-gritty details here. But I thought I should write a few words about the Mobile Music Workshop and my experiences here in Vienna. I’m sitting in the cute little apartment I’ve rented — it’s off in the western part of town in a neighborhood called Ottokring (after Ottokar II, I assume). The windows are open, letting in the air. And a few bugs.

Richard Widerberg talking about IMPROVe.

This has been, just to note, one of my least touristy trips to Europe ever. Between prepping for the Workshop, covering work, and just generally allowing myself the opportunity to sit around and read books or catch up on my TV shows, I just haven’t had much time or energy to go and do the full-blown sightseeing thing. I have been to Vienna before and to Austria several times, so I’ve seen the highlights, I guess. But in a way I’ve just experienced the city mostly how I would if I just lived here: Get up, go into the University for the conference. Work or read at home. Go grocery shopping. Etc. Not to say I just sat at home staring at my computer all day. I got out. Spent Sunday walking around town (shots from Prater are in my previous post). And yesterday I went to the MUMOK (Museum Moderner Kunst — Museum of Modern Art) and wandered around the old town a bit. The weather has been amazing — unseasonably warm according to one of the locals at the Workshop, very sunny and bright. Cool in the evenings.

Having a seat, waiting for the show.

MUMOK, by the way, has an exhibition going on called “Genau+anders” (“Exact+different”) which traces 500 year, or so, of pure mathematics impacting visual art. A lot of what they have up is, frankly, dumb. “Math-ish” art done by people who don’t naturally “get” math or who don’t really sit down and really explore it produce some really bland crap. Writing Fibonacci sequences on things and drawing squares around circles doesn’t really qualify as using art to “explore” mathematics. Or the other way around. It’s just kind of lazy. Math != Minimalist. That being said, there was some good stuff. Their earliest pieces, drawings of solids by Albrecht Dürer from the early 1500s were amazing. And for many of the more contemporary pieces if you detach yourself from the “math” and just accept them as “minimalist” or “suprematist” or whatever many of the pieces were very nice. The giant Sol LeWitt optical illusions, for example, were great (photo coming soon). But back to Dürer, for a sec: I found it very interesting to place into a larger historical context some of the “computer art” (god, what a horrible phrase) that I do and people at places like ITP do. And by that I mean stuff like that from Dan Shiffman’s Nature of Code class, stuff that aims to create art out of the math that computers are so good at handling. We’re in a luxurious position, in that to visualize a Platonic solid in a nicely rendered way requires a few lines of code, at most. Albrecht Dürer and his contemporaries — up through, say, 1970 — had to draw such things by hand, a much more arduous process. But I feel a similar kind of mentality going into it: A desire to See the Thing that the math describes. And a desire to play with it.

Using bikes as mobile instrument controllers.

Okay. I’m way off-topic. So: The Mobile Music Workshop. The reason I’m here.

One of the break-out sessions.

What is it? Well, it’s a small, three-day event that consisted of a mix of talks, workshops, and performances — all exploring in some way the notion of “mobile music” (obviously). So there were technical talks about new tools, design talks about the nature of interactivity and touch, and various technical demos. Lots of Nokia N95 phones — heh. And a few projects with Wii remotes and Nintendo DSes (both great tools for experimenation, by the way). The MMW moves every year and this year was hosted by the University for Applied Arts Vienna and had about 25 attendants. Most of whom presented something. There was only one event at a time, so we all did everything together. Which was quite nice, actually. I think I met and had good conversations with more new people here than I generally do at a big thing like SXSW where everything’s just so overwhelming. I had a great time.

Go PhonePlay!

My project — games made with PhonePlay — went off well. It took me a couple of days to get the European telephony stuff worked out (including one evening spent with tech support from one company on the phone and another in chat — erg), but once that issue had been ironed out, things became easy. I installed it at the University and showed my thesis game, called either “3001” or “Paddler,” and the game I made for Digium on my trip out there last December, called “Blocks.” (Naming these games has become somewhat of a problem — nothing I do sounds right. “Blocks?” “Paddler?” Awful names. But, anyway.) PhonePlay got a fine reception — people seemed pleased. I clumsily fielded a handful of technical questions and that was that.

A Wiimote-based performance.

Like I said, in the coming weeks I’m going to submit a bunch of articles about this to the Nokia blog, so I’m not going to get too deep, here. One subject Nokia might not be interested in, though, is the Nintendo hacking that has been going on. There were a couple of Nintendo-related projects at the MMW: One was a project called “Mobile Tangible Interfaces as Gestural Instruments” and featured homebrew musical software for the Nintendo DS. These were simple musical toys a la Electroplankton. Very nicely done. The DS is essentially a big-screen smart phone without the actual phone calling capability. It’s got the touch screen, the wifi, the mic, etc. The difficulty in programming it is probably what’s holding back development — why isn’t Nintendo pushing this, though? I guess the DS sells just fine on its own… Anyway, another such piece was a performance on the final night of the MMW which features three guys with speakers attached to mic stands which they could gyrate around the generate noise. (You can kind of see what’s going on in the photo above.) Attached in front of the cones of these speakers were Wiimotes which, I assume, measured the orientation of the speaker and could also be “plucked” to generate sounds (each Wiimote was mounted using an elastic sort of material). So the performance consisted of these three guys moving these speakers around in the air and plucking the Wiimotes. Clever.

Setting up for a vegetable-based performance with the Institute for Transacoustic Research.

Another performance that night was done by a group called the Institute for Transacoustic Research (see photo above and the two below). I don’t know much about these guys, but they seem to be a part of the larger group of people who do performances with entire vegetable-based instruments. Beating carrots on gourds and such. I saw them do a set in Barcelona when I was out there for SONAR in 2005. At the MMW performance they had a few vegetables in effect, but mostly they just had huge piles of kind of everything in effect. From carrots and potatoes to modified bass guitars and a video projection and homemade automated instruments and a mess of digital and analog hardware plus computers. And, as you can see, mice. It sounded good. And they were quite fun to watch because you got to kind of try to figure out what they were doing and there was so much to see them do. Very nice.

Live video projection, also from the Inst. for Transacoustic Research.

A mouse-based controller, also from the Inst. for Transacoustic Research.

So what else to say? This is a kind of messy, incomplete report of the event. I really didn’t even mention most of the cool stuff going on. It did feel like I’d found a warm little community of people, which is good. Jonah Brucker-Cohen (my thesis advisor) and Jamie Allen (my NIME professor) are apparently parts of this extended family, as well. So that’s cool. Hopefully I can stay involved. I’m a bit irritated with myself for not applying to NIME this year. That seemed to be the next stop for everyone…

Watching a performance.


In Vienna. On the Ground. Sort of.

Monday, May 12, 2008

These were all taken in Vienna’s Prater. I arrived in Vienna Saturday afternoon. The weather has been amazing, as you can see. Sunday I spent wandering around town, checking things out. Wound up at Prater, home of the Riesenrad (the century-old ferris wheel in the final shot).

I’m here for the Mobile Music Workshop at the Vienna University of the Applied Arts. I’m showing my thesis — PhonePlay, as it has been rechristened. Should be fun!

More details soon…


Notes on HTML 5

Thursday, January 24, 2008

I remember when Netscape 1.1 came out. Background colors were the big new thing. You could suddenly change the background color of your web page. Red. Blue. Black. Amazing. I remember when “tables” first came about: 1996 — about the same time I landed my first big web contract. HTML 3 hit soon thereafter. Then in 1998, HTML 4. 1998. XHTML 1.0 came about a few years later, but the changes were negligible (especially compared to the craziness of the mid-to-late 90s).

So in a very real sense the most basic technology of the World Wide Web — the HTML specification itself — has remained essentially unchanged for about ten years. CSS has become widely used, which is great. And “dynamic web” techniques with Javascript, AJAX, and such have become quite popular. So the web has changed. But HTML itself remains a bunch of <body> tags and <div> tags and <p> tags and <a> tags, etc… The same old pig underneath all of that fancy new make-up.

So here comes HTML 5, a new draft specification from the W3C. (I’m specifically looking at this document.)

Okay. Cool. Just hearing the term “HTML 5” brings to mind changing the way HTML works to fit the way we make and use the web today. So much of the day-to-day of web development involves awkwardly fitting new ideas into the increasingly creaky structures of HTML 4 and XHTML, even if most web people have become so used to this that they don’t even really consider it an issue anymore. Think, for example, of how one makes navigation on a web site. A developer must either appropriate <p> or <li> — for tasks they were not designed for — or they must use completely vague semantic tags such as <div> or <span>. Clunky. To say the least.

(Using the <table> tag for layout purposes is another prime example, even though most web developers no longer do this. The <table> tag was designed for displaying tabular data.)

Five years ago I wrote up my impressions of the XHTML 2.0 working draft. That document included many suggestions, including a navigation link tag (<nl>) and a new <section> tag to make page organization easier. And these (and other ideas in the draft) were great. But. They were merely incremental changes and fixes from the previous specifications. They didn’t address the semantic web very deeply and the specification has stalled. XHTML 2.0 is still just a working draft. It has changed quite a bit since I wrote about it, but doesn’t appear to have been touched much since the middle of 2006.

Semantic HTML and More

HTML 5 attempts to take semantic layout to all sorts of new extremes. (I’m looking at this doc about the differences between HTML 4 and HTML 5.) Look at all of the new structural elements:

  • <section>
  • <article>
  • <aside>
  • <header>
  • <footer>
  • <nav>
  • <dialog>
  • <figure>

Wow. Now we’re getting somewhere. The only major thing that seems to be missing as I look at it now is an <advertisement> tag. Imagine how easy it would be to automate translating web pages for mobile devices (for example) if they were all properly marked-up with tags such as these?

(Interesting to note: They reached this list in part by looking at Google’s web authoring stats, which Ian Hickson (quoted below) also developed, and seeing what people were already using. Clever!)

Besides the <advertisement> tag, what this collection appears to miss are structures that would be used with web applications. These are great for articles and papers. But now we’re all very used to apps like Facebook or Basecamp or Gmail which are most definitely not about presenting info that way. They’re dashboards and data views.

A List Apart further discusses and explains these semantic changes.

HTML 5 also appears to want to make life easier for developers. Take, as a quick example, the “ping” attribute for a link. This is an amazingly great idea. It invisibly (to the user) tells the browser to “ping” (notify) another script or page when the user clicks through a link. This could make tracking user activity much easier and save us from the obnoxiousness of all of those click-through and redirect URLs that we have to go through when clicking off of sites like Fark that want to know where we’re going. It also saves us the headache of that silly image or iframe trick for keeping track of web usage stats. Good.

The draft also describes much more flexible forms, scoped CSS styles (finally), and upgrades to the DOM (document object model) which would made dynamic Javascripting somewhat easier and more intuitive. Wonderful. There’s also some repetition and event-handling stuff in there which I don’t fully understand. I also haven’t read up fully on the new APIs for client-side storage, drawing, networking, and media playback — although integrating these elements more tightly into HTML seems like a good step for standards. The easier it becomes to do these things, the more people will play with them and make cool(er) stuff with them.

Another interesting addition are the <audio> and <video> tags for embedding media. If they can streamline the still amazingly clunky way we embed media, then make it so, Number One.

Slimming Down

The HTML 5 draft also strips away some fairly major parts of HTML 4. Including (drumroll, please) frames — the decade-old bane of usability and accessibility designers. I have a hard time believing that this will end the use of frames entirely, though. They’re still quite common they do have their use. And iframes will stick around, it appears. The draft also drops some other tags (and attributes) I’d basically forgotten about such as <big> and <dir> (directory).

Additionally, they are stripping everything having to do with presentation. No more “align” attribute. Not more “background” in your <body> tag. “Height” and “width” attributes look like they’ll also basically disappear. Bam.

Good! Frankly. If we’re going to split the content and presentation once and for all, then let’s just do it. We’ve been talking about it for over a decade. Although, again, I think breaking developers of their habits will be difficult enough — even those who want to write HTML 5-compliant mark-up — that browsers will still have to pay attention to those attributes. The same way browsers still know the <font> and <blink> tags. (Yeah, that’s right: I used a blink tag. I went there. And I loved it.)

And, again, I’m all in favor of seeing the HTML part of a web site become a very slim, streamlined, and very semantic sort of affair. The less crap, the better. Everything in it’s right place. Design in CSS. Content in HTML. It’ll make data portability much easier and will allow services such as Google which rely on semantic parsing to do a better job or what they do.

You get the idea. If you want to know the fine details, go read the docs.

Coming Soon?

So. XHTML 2.0 has been floating around in draft mode for at least five years. But today it seems relatively dull and incremental. HTML 5 has some exciting new ideas, though we have a wait before we see an HTML 5 web. WHATWG, the group spearheading HTML 5, say:

“It is estimated by the editor that HTML5 will reach the W3C Candidate Recommendation stage during 2012. That doesn’t mean you can’t start using it yet, though. Different parts of the specification are at different maturity levels. Some sections are already relatively stable and there are implementations that are already quite close to completion, and those features can be used today (e.g. <canvas>). But other sections are still being actively worked on and changed regularly, or not even written yet.” - WHATWG (source)


“It is estimated, again by the editor, that HTML5 will reach a W3C recommendation in the year 2022 or later. This will be approximately 18-20 years of development, since beginning in mid-2004. That’s actually not that crazy, though. Work on HTML4 started in the mid 90s, and HTML4 still, more than ten years later, hasn’t reached the level that we want to reach with HTML5.” - WHATWG (source)

Heavens to Mergatroid. 2022. Or later? Holy crap. But it sounds like it’s coming it bits and pieces — and parts are already implemented in some browsers.

“We’re trying a new spec design model with HTML 5, where certain parts of the spec can be considered “done” before others. This is because we have parts of the spec that are very mature, with multiple implementations, test suites, and active use, and we have others that are very new, and very much in flux.” - Ian Hickman (source)

At any rate, HTML 5 will slowly creep along. Maybe it’ll become a full specification, maybe not. But hopefully HTML will continue to evolve and become more useful. For a field that changes so much and so rapidly, it’s amazing that’s we’re still stuck with such (relatively) ancient specs as the foundation of everything webby.


Blogging at the Nokia Nseries Workshop

Friday, January 18, 2008

A Nokia N800 internet tablet -- and a hamster

So. In addition to blogging here (sort of), I’m now on the blogging team over at the sleek-and-shiny new Nokia Nseries Workshop site. (I love the official Nokia Sans font, just to note.) Anyway. I write about mobile technology and about how to do cool things with Nokia phones and other Nokia tech. Since I’ve been slow about blogging on this site, I figured I would post a collection of links to my articles over there every once in a while. So you could see what I’m up to. And maybe learn a thing or two if you’re getting into mobile application design yourself.

So here we are — my four most recent articles for the Nseries site. (I’ve added extra notes after some of them.) They’re all about writing software for your Nseries phone. Enjoy.

How to write and run Python scripts on your N800 [internet tablet]

“Put your N800 into developer mode and you’ll be able to write and run your own Python scripts. Here’s a step-by-step guide to how it works.”

The N800 is a funny little device. I won one at the MobileBarCamp a couple of months ago as a part of some jokey business plan pitch competition. (My group came up with something involving the remote torture of pets.) It’s not a phone at all — it’s a hand-sized Debian Linux box. It can run Apache. Ruby on Rails. PHP. It doesn’t seem to want to run Java, but whatever. Anyway, it’s probably been getting the most use as a video player on flights. And it’s good for small games. I’d call it an iPod Touch for the Linux crowd. What it lacks in sex appeal it makes up in hackability. And though I haven’t yet tried it as such, I could see inexpensive N800s being used for applications in which you need a bit of computing power but not much. Like as a Tivo for your radio (see next article).

How to script the FM radio tuner on your N800

“The Nokia N800 internet tablet has a feature you may not know about: a built-in FM radio tuner that you can script using Python. Here’s how it works.”

Now — finally — I own a radio in New York City. Turns out radio kind of sucks.

How to get started with Python on the N95 [phone]

“Find out what it takes to install Python, run a basic “Hello World!” script and get started with your own scripts on the N95.”

I’ve had the N95 for about a month as a development unit. It’s fun. It’s so easy to write J2ME apps for, which is my big thing right now. And it’s nice to have access to the GPS, as well. A few of us have a clever new idea we’re fleshing out at the moment for the N95 (and other GPS-friendly phones) — I’ll share more about that later. I’ve been using it as an iPod lately, as well, but I’ve kind of decided I don’t like having my phone and iPod as the same device. I get so bothered when people call me while I’m listening to music — especially if I’m jogging. First, it stops the music and rings in the earphones. Yack. And then I have to fumble around to ignore the call and get back to what I was listening to. No good. Otherwise, though, it’s a lovely device. Maybe I just need to get used to shutting off the phone part when I don’t want to be disturbed listening to music or watching something.

How to write apps with Mobile Processing on your N95

“Mobile Processing is a great application that makes writing Java (or, more specifically, J2ME) apps for your N95 simple. Learn how to set up Mobile Processing and write your first application.”

And more coming soon…

Yup. So that’s them. Let me know what you think! Either here or over there, though if you comment over there you’re more likely to get discussion.


Flying with Mark

Friday, December 21, 2007

I hate flying. I have expressed it many times before. And, I mean, I hate commercial flying. Although I am getting better: I’ve got five travel days in December alone and in order to maintain health and sanity I just can’t freak out each time I get into an aircraft.

So. It was a bit of a personal challenge to get it together to fly with Mark out in Alabama. The last time I had been in a prop plane, I jumped out of it (with a parachute). That was back before the Fear set in, though — I think I was 19. Anyway. I did it! Last Friday afternoon, December 14th, Mark took me for a short spin around Huntsville, Alabama. It was a beautiful day — mostly clear (as you’ll see) with a nice evening sun casting shadows and really throwing everything into a nice relief. Between moments of feeling extreme peril, I managed to get off a few shots. (Note: Mark did an excellent job flying — any sense of danger came from my own miswired brain.)

Here’s another shot of the plane. Mark owns a 2007 Diamond Star XL, apparently the plane in its class with the highest safety rating. And a nice looking vehicle, to boot. It’s a four-seater, but it seemed like three is really the practical limit.

This surprised me. Maybe it shouldn’t have. It shouldn’t have surprised me. But the majority of the instrumentation existed on two flat-screen monitors — one had the artificial horizon and various metrics, the other a GPS-tracked map of the area showing landmarks and, optionally, weather. There were redundant analogue gauges, as well, in case of problems with the digital systems. I mentioned to Mark that it made the whole thing feel kind of like playing a video game — you really could do basically the entire flight just by watching those screens. And pilots do. It’s called “IFR” — “instrument flight rules.” If you’re in a cloud or something, that’s what you use. (As a novice, even what’s probably extremely entry-level information is still pretty novel.) The opposite of IFR is VFR: “visual flight rules.” Anyhoo.

Here’s Mark talking to the tower. We both wore big headphones with mics to speak to one another and to the ground.

The Digium building is the L-shaped building about 3/4 of the way down and 1/3 of the way from the right. It’s angled like a “V” in the shot. You can also see a Saturn V rocket in the distance. NASA has a large research facility in Huntsville and there is quite a bit of aerospace business happening.

A nice sunset out of the side window.

Okay. So Mark buzzed his Farm so I could take some shots, but the tilting of the airplane really freaked me out. 30 degrees really does seem like a lot, especially if you’re more-or-less encased in a glass bubble. I tried to get good shots, but, well, I was hanging on for dear life. You can see Mark’s barn in the far lower left-hand corner, poking out of the trees. We could see the rest of the property quite nicely — the main house, the ravine, the open patches where we rode ATVs — but I just couldn’t get a good photograph off. D’oh.

Heading home, now. This is a shot just straight forward out of the cockpit.

And, finally, the Tennessee River.

So. I had a really good time and would probably go up again if invited. Though it spooked me, it really did feel more comfortable than your average commercial flight. A couple things probably contributed to this: 1) Mark sat there and gave me the play-by-play as things happened. So no surprises. 2) Flying slower, lower, and in such an open cockpit just felt generally more relaxed and pleasant than being wedged into a small seat with a foot-wide window to look through. Very nice. Thanks, Mark!


Newfoundland Trip

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Life got hectic, so I haven’t had a chance to blog about my trip to Newfoundland, Canada in August. It’s been almost three months — wow. Regardless I thought it’d be worth sharing a bit about it.

Newfoundland? Yeah. So. Many Americans of my generation have a shared experience of grandparents who served in or had other direct experiences of World War II. WWII was intense and surprisingly poetic, especially upon reflection — I think explaining and relating how you as an individual fit into this huge, overwhelming narrative became an important part of the identities of, especially, people who were young during that time. And as people such as my grandfather related their experiences of World War II, their stories became Stories that became cemented over time into legend. My grandfather on my mom’s side was stationed in Gander, Newfoundland during most of the War. And my mom and I have both heard stories of his time there for the the entirety of our lives, so the area has a bit of mythic significance, exaggerated somewhat by the remoteness of the place and the fact that (as far I know) know one I know has been anywhere near rural Newfoundland.

So my parents — Texans — took a trip up to Newfoundland for the first time a couple of years ago. Just to look around. Besides the grandfather connection, they also like remote places. Alaska. Kenya. Wilderness. And then they decided to buy a place to spend half of their year in (the Summer half). They got a place in Elliston, a hamlet of maybe thirty people out on the end of a peninsula up the east side of the island, just miles away from where John Cabot became the first Englishman to reach the New World in 1497. (St. John’s, the capitol and largest city in Newfoundland is the oldest English settlement in North America.) And not too far, actually, from Gander.

I got to go out August 16th through 21st. I stayed with my parents in St. John’s (above) on the first and last nights and in their place in Elliston over the weekend.

The bay in Elliston. My parents’ place is on the far coast a bit to the left on the waterfront. Apparently icebergs float along here until the late spring. Those buildings on the far left are downtown Elliston.

Foggy cliffs near where my parents live. Also home of a huge puffin population. Every summer Elliston has a Puffin Festival to celebrate these goofy little birds.

Puffin rock during a sunnier day. You can see puffins speckled about. This is, by the way, in the bay from the photo above.

One surprise about the area: Blueberries were everywhere. On the sides of trails. In the yard. By the road. Everywhere. My mom carried around a little container and grabs handfuls here and there which wound up in pancakes and cobblers.

My dad picked berries, as well.

This is an old boat (or replica) in Bonavista, where John Cabot landed.

Newfoundland is very rocky and craggy, not unlike Ireland or Iceland.

Lobster’s big.

Above is a lighthouse at King’s Cove, on the north side of the penninsula. Below is a church in the same town.

I could go on. But I won’t.

For something interesting, read about the collapse of the cod fishing industry. It’s a good “tragedy of the commons” sort of story.