Songs About Fractals, Ikea and Modern Life

Smomo_halfJonathan Coulton is a software designer from Brooklyn who composes and performs very smart songs about math, shopping, gambling and other golden moments. His song about Benoit Mandelbrot, fractal pioneer, has a particularly poignant refrain:

Take a point called Z in the complex plane

Let Z1 be Z squared plus C

And Z2 is Z1 squared plus C

And Z3 is Z2 squared plus C and so on

If the series of Z’s should always stay

Close to Z and never trend away

That point is in the Mandelbrot Set

Jonathan performs at the mind-expanding Poptech conference in Maine where I saw him last year. Listen to his tunes, check out his literate lyrics, and buy his new album, Smoking Monkey. How often do you listen to music that makes you feel smart?

The iPod as an Education PDA

At a sparsely attended digital technology conference here in New York yesterday, speaker Mike Lawrence, technology expert for the Orange County (California) Department of Education and an Apple Distinguished Educator, presented an eye-opening seminar on the educational possibilities of Apple’s wildy successful iPod digital music player. As I wrote earlier this month, the iPod is a handy, portable 20 or 40 gigabyte disk drive. Lots of students listen to music on the iPod, and according to Mike, teachers have been adapting it for a number of interesting educational applications:

  1. Course-related music
  2. Digital “books on tape”
  3. Historical audio like the 9-11 Commission proceedings
  4. Broadband assignments like movies and multimedia files that would otherwise bog down a school network
  5. Digital photo storage for student-created work and for courseware
  6. Language translation for the iPod from Talking Panda

Mike demonstrated several add-ons like the Altec Lansing iPod speakers and the Apple Airport wireless links. He also described the launch of, a new web site that will cover developments in this interesting area. Teachers have always been smart about adapting new technologies to the classroom. Hooking up the ubiquitous iPod is a stroke of genius.

Digital Rights Management: Experts Lay Out the Straight Skinny

This week saw two visionaries talking about important issues of copyright in the Digital Age.


The prolific Cory Doctorow has published notes from his recent talk to Microsoft’s Research Group about the wrong-headedness of DRM (Digital Rights Management software). His five key points:

  1. That DRM systems don’t work.
  2. That DRM systems are bad for society.
  3. That DRM systems are bad for business.
  4. That DRM systems are bad for artists.
  5. That DRM is a bad business move for MSFT.


Andrew Orlowski, the San Francisco bureau chief of the U.K.’s excellent The Register, tells U.K. music executives meeting in Manchester “How the music biz can live forever, get even richer, and be loved.

Both speakers reflect the current wisdom about the future of digital media, and I’ll bet both were met with cautious skepticism by executives whose careers and fortunes depend on things staying the way they are. There’s always a tendency to try to be upbeat when you tell somebody that they’re doomed, and both Doctorow and Orlowski make a great effort to be friendly and constructive, but at some point you’ve got to stare it in the face: Digital media has opened a Pandora’s Box of disruption that will tear down pre-electronic business models and force new thinking about how to get paid for intellectual property.

Watering My Garden Should Be Easier

Nova3panel_3Back before desktop publishing and graphical user interfaces, the hot high tech in publishing was the minicomputer. I sold dozens of these Data General Nova series minis (pictured above) into typesetting and publishing houses in the late 1970s. The main system console was a Teletype keyboard/printer, but when the going got tough you had to enter system patches and diagnostics on the front panel switches. Each number or command was represented by a particular series of up and down switches, with a switch at the end to “deposit” or record the data into a register. I spend several lifetimes entering DG assembler code that way, sometimes doing it over and over again in case I made a mistake.

The interface was perfectly user-abusive — the opposite of user-friendly — but in about ten years the mouse, the menu and some smart thinking about the user interface came along to make computing a lot friendlier and more forgiving. Nowadays everbody who uses a computer expects a Windows-style interface. Everybody who uses a VCR expects the little boxes and triangles for play, rewind, pause and record. Everybody who uses a phone expects to select options from a menu with an up-and-down cursor. Our best technology works hard to be obvious and simple to use with a relatvely standard interface.

EwtimersExcept for electronic water timers for garden sprinklers. I’ve used several different models (two pictured at right), and they all suck in the same way: their user interfaces are awful, abusive, opaque. You would think something simple like: “Turn the water on every day at 6 a.m. for one hour.” would be easy to set, but these gardeners’ marvels have simple-minded computers that are no help to the user, blind interfaces that are impossible to check, and esoteric functions that are too complicated to apply.

The main problem with these technology bricks is that electromechanical engineers built them with as little grace and wit as engineers are capable of. They’re clocks, but on the GreenThumb EasySet there’s no display to tell you what time the machine thinks it is. They’re meant to sit at faucet-level in an unlit garden, but the Gilmour 9400 has a low contrast LCD display with tiny unreadable characters. There are complex formulas for skipping a day or boosting the flow on weekends, but they’re way too hard to program. At $40.00 or so they’re more expensive than most pocket calculators, but they have a minimum number of buttons so every button has to do two or three jobs. You never really know if you’ve got it working. When I’m not at home, I put a bucket near the sprinkler to collect some water so I know that the timers actually turned the water on like they were supposed to. They make me feel so stupid.

Here’s what I want: A wireless browser interface for my electronic water timer. If I’m lucky enough to have WiFi access in the garden, I should be able to call up the unit from anywhere on the web, set the time and check the action. Maybe I have to bring a WiFi laptop near the faucet to set the timer. Or maybe the logic unit detaches from the plumbing part so I can bring it within WiFi range to configure. I wouldn’t need any buttons or displays on the unit itself, just a simple CPU and WiFi link, and I’d be able to have the most customized watering schedule — Sundays off while I’m pruning, extra flow during August, no water during eclipses, whatever else you can think of — with feedback that tells me when the water actually flowed. I want an information technology approach in the garden that matches the automation and ease of use I’ve come to expect in the rest of my consumer electronics products.

Re: Orrin’s “Induce Act”: iPods Don’t Share Music, People Do

HatchThe grasping and clumsy “Induce Act,” aka the Inducing Infringement of Copyrights Act of 2004 co-sponsored by U.S. Senators Orrin Hatch (R-Utah, left) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), targets peer-to-peer filesharing networks like Kazaa and eDonkey to the benefit of the music and movie industries. As proposed, the Induce Act would make anyone who creates a product or service that induces a violation of copyright law legally responsible along with the actual copyright violator. If you build a machine that can copy music or movies or TV shows or videogames, you’re guilty. And you are liable for $30,000 per copy.

The Supreme Court addressed this issue in the landmark 1984 Sony Corp. v. Universal City Studios decision. It held that, while a VCR could be used to violate copyright, Sony wasn’t itself violating copyrights and the machines had “substantial non-infinging uses,” so the devices and their manufacturer were clear. A generation of important information technology inventions flowed from that decision, and now Senators Hatch and Leahy want to choke off any further digital development just because it hurts their friends at the media conglomerates.

Check out this paragraph from this summer’s Wired News story Techies Blast Induce Act:

Between 1999 and 2004, Hatch has received $159,860 in campaign donations from the TV, movie and music industries, according to, which monitors campaign donations. In the same period, Leahy received $220,450. They each received less money from the Internet, computer and telecommunications industries.

Using the numbers, I make it a competitive $184,210 for Hatch and a measly $55,950 for Leahy from the computers, Internet and telecom sectors. Somebody may have to start writing checks to put an end to this quackery.

Hatch is moving ahead with his very bad policy, but many people are up in arms:

On balance, the Information Age has been a good thing. We all benefit from the creation of new, better, cheaper and faster ways of creating and sharing ideas. Nobody defends the theft of intellectual property, but it’s not the government’s job to insulate a handful of sappy conglomerates from digital technology’s invisible hand.

(For a good rant on this topic, see Eliot van Buskirk’s ZDNet piece: Why Orrin Hatch’s INDUCE Act is insane.)

Graphics Teachers Technology Conference: Teaching the Teachers

Gttc2For years in the early 90s a group of volunteers in New York ran a conference on Election Day for graphics teachers covering the latest developments in desktop publishing, digital imaging, multimedia, electronic documents, digital prepress and printing. In the constant shufflings of the New York Board of Ed, the event got canceled in favor of other, more institutional “staff development initiatives. “

This November 2nd, thanks to the volunteers at the Graphics Arts Education Advisory Commission and the conference host, the Parsons School of Design, we’re once again holding the Graphics Teachers Technology Conference and opening it free of charge to New York middle school and high school teachers. The excellent Diane Romano, president of AGT Seven, has agreed to keynote the conference, and we’re getting great response from speakers and volunteeers across all the spectrum of graphics fields.

If you know anyone who can speak compellingly about graphic communications issues, or who can help out (in advance or on-site) managing the event, or — very important — who can help us pay for the coffee and donuts and sandwiches, email me or sign on through the REGISTER NOW click on the conference web site. People business are always going to conferences to get up-to-date, to get charged up and to keep their skills sharp. Here’s a chance for us to help teachers do the same.

E-Censorship is Uncompetitive

Googcn_2Whole classes of people in the world see an Internet much smaller than the one I see. Internet censorship always starts off with the best of intentions &#0151 save children from dirty pictures, block malicious software, keep workers’ noses to the grindstone, avoid any glimmer of risk or litigation, maintain state security. A Google search in China, for example, doesn’t even report the existence of web sites that the Chinese government blocks from its citizens, according to an article in

In the West, cybercensorship is often committed by lawyers who are paid to worry about what happens if some dope on the night shift displays a pornographic GIF, but it’s not just skin sites that are channeled down the Memory Hole. The leading Internet filtering firm WebSense, for example, watches more than 80 categories of suspect web sites. Using WebSense software, a corporation’s network manager, IT manager, or &#0151 even worse &#0151 HR manager can mix and match which categories out of the 80 are hidden from employees’ view. Your company’s Catbert can restrict the obvious topics like Adult Material, Drugs, Gambling and Job Search, but WebSense offers more “granular” controls for killing off Restaurants and Dining, Hobbies, Streaming Media and MP3. More insidiously, the modern Bowdler can keep the over-curious away from categories like Cultural Institutions, Educational Institutions, Political Organizations, Alternative Journals, Religions (pick Traditional or Non-Traditional) or Abortion Sites (pick Pro-Choice, Pro-Life or both).

Most everyone agrees that he who pays the piper calls the tune: the company is paying for the wire so the company decides how the wire is used. But after it filters out all of the Fun, after it locks out all of the Culture and Ideas, it can then go after the Information that people might mis-use in their work. The WebSense program can choke off Financial Data and Services, Reference Materials, Information Technology sites, Dynamic Content and Instant Messaging, among other too-useful temptations.

If all that the censorship software embargos are the sexy sites, not much is lost, but as the lawyers and HR directors and compliance officers have their quarterly reviews of Internet policy, it’s all too easy to justify adding one more category to the spike. So it happens that a filtered Fortune 500 exec sees only the web sites that the filter-monkeys want him to see; his small business or offshore competitor, on the other hand, usually sees the full Internet &#0151 warts and all. And like the Chinese Internet user, the big company browser with all his overhead doesn’t even know what he doesn’t know. To paraphrase Dean Wormer, “fat, scared and stupid is no way to go through life, son.” The less Internet you see, the less competitive you’ll be.

360° Digital Photography

The first thing we do when we get a new technology is try to produce the same old work with the shiny new equipment. Much of the discussion about digital cameras, for example, centers around how many pixels and how many features you need to duplicate the functions of a traditional film camera. That’s fine, but in the conference program for the Digital Photography + Imaging Expo, we’re also interested in the things that are uniquely possible with digital technology. Once there’s a computer inside your camera — once the images are stored in ones and zeroes — new applications are born: emailed snapshots, networked databases, desktop photo printing, wireless photoblogging, collaborative retouching, instant proofing and more.

360vrOne of the most beautiful new digital photography formats is the 360° panorama. Artists using Apple’s pioneering QuickTime VR and other image processing tools create virtual reality scenes that viewers can “walk through” on a PC screen. Award-winning panorama photographer Jook Leung and his team at 360VR Studio produce stunning panoramas and virtual tours that have to be viewed on a computer screen. (See the highlights on 360VR’s home page and on-line gallery, but be sure to have a robust PC with the right software installed.) This is a new photography application you can’t manage without digitization. While it’s possible for Leung to print panoramas to paper, it somehow seems like a 20th Century use of a 21st Century technology.

Personalized Digital Confetti

Confotti2_1There are a lot of digital printing services on the Internet. You can get anything from 4″x6″ snapshots to 6′ wide grand format sign segments from your downloaded picture files. One of the coolest is which prints your photos onto 1″ diameter confetti disks. Send up to 10 different images and get a bag of custom confetti — 800 two-side custom image pieces plus 2,400 smaller generic pieces — for $16.95. That’s roughly nine 8-1/2″x11″ pages of two-sided color printer output die-cut and mixed with generic confetti. Confoti also prints stickers and durign the conventions this summer showcased both Bush and Kerry campaign confetti.

Wireless Camera Flashlight

Camlite_2Bad boys, bad boys. Whatcha gonna do? Watcha gonna do when they come for you? The dashboard video cameras that give us so much pleasure in syndicated televisions shows like “World’s Most Dangerous Police Chases” will soon have a handheld Camera 2. At the U.S. Maritime Security Expo in New York this month, Camlite Video Systems showed a cop-sized flashlight with a camera wirelessly linked to a Sony Video Walkman. (The whole rig is available in an attractive fanny pack option.) With a range of only 1,000 feet, a fairly grainy analog signal, and a price tag of upwards of $3,500, you probably won’t find this unit in many civilian applications. The brochure suggests DUI stops, searches and seizures, domestic distubances and “patron removal incidents.” But as part of the pervasive video surveillance trend, it may not be too long before somebody launches a late night show along the lines of “World’s Weirdest Cavity Searches.”