Friday, March 29, 2013

Engines of Creation

I told him how much I wanted to be paid if I was successful.  He locked me in his business on Friday night. …   When he came back on Sunday, I had the solution wrapped and ribboned.

The folks at Code.Org created a video with Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and others, encouraging kids to learn to program computers.  That much is laudable.  Disgracing the video, with an odd anti-capitalist mentality, is a segment by Drew Houston of Dropbox about how much fun it is to be a programmer.  (View from the 3:00 minute to the 4:00 minute mark of this 5:44 announcement.)  Was it the fun of 48 hours in three days to solve a tough problem?  No, it is the fun of skateboarding in the office, playing ping pong, and chatting with your fields.  The segment also touts free food including gourmet cooking three times a day.  But where do these come from, if no one works?  Blank out.  (Firms are not launched with perquisites, benefits, and privileges--but more on that in another post.)

From the 3:17 mark: “… to get the very best people we try to make the office as awesome as possible."  Fantastic chef, free food, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, free laundry, snacks, even places to play, and scooters. “All these interesting things around the office: places where people can play or relax, or goto think or play music or be creative.”

Back in the 80s when the concept of a “Dot.Com Meltdown” was inconceivable on several levels,  working as a technical writer for a software start-up I was paid a salary of $400 per week for a 40-hour week. I would come in on my own time on Saturdays and find most, if not all, of the four programmers there, also.  This was neither the first nor the last time that my co-workers and I at that company or for some previous or subsequent job worked “for free.” 

It was not unusual. Computer programming was the quintessential brain work that people did because they loved it.  As well as we were paid, getting paid was a bonus., a secondary consequence.  Thus, hackers created Open Source software and formalized it with the Open Source Foundation.  Unix became Linux and GNU: Gnu is Not Unix.  Freeware and shareware abounded.  Companies made money selling it.  Individuals made money creating it and marketing it.  But we did it because the "fun" - the ecstasy of creation - was in the work.

“But first, I want you to think and tell me what made me give years to this work. Money? Fame? Charity? Altruism?... You see, I’m never concerned with my clients, only with their architectural requirements. I consider these as part of my building’s theme and problem, as my building’s material—just as I consider bricks and steel. Bricks and steel are not my motive. Neither are the clients. Both are only the means of my work. Peter, before you can do things for people, you must be the kind of man who can get things done. But to get things done, you must love the doing, not the secondary consequences. The work, not the people. Your own action …”  (Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, Plume edition, 1994; page 604)

Continues below click "Read More"... 
(A jump lead walks into a bar.  
The bartender says, "I'll serve you, but don't try to start anything.")

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Start the presses!

The fundamental principles of composition are constant.  Styles are invented, transformed, evolved.  Good styles depend upon the adaptation of principles and then validate those principles.  The composition may be poetry or prose, music or dance, sculpture or painting, but the same principles govern: order, structure, and motion; rhythm, melody, and harmony; contrast, conflict and resolution.  These make a symphony or a skyscraper or this page. 

Typeface is a film by Justin Nagan about the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Company and the Wood Type Museum of Two Rivers, Wisconsin.  For about a hundred years, wooden type was the preferred mode for very large printing, from political protest placards to circus posters to billboards, and everything else that required type more than 72 points (1 inch) in size. These letters were larger than your hand, some a foot high. 

The film also ties in the re-birth of the old letter presses, history not just as it was but the adaptation and assumption of traditional tools and media to new expressions, bringing a “crazy growth in letter press printing.”  Students in university graphic arts classes make the pilgrimage to Two Rivers and then apply their insights on Chandler and Price, Steracle, and Vandercook presses.  At the museum, they acquire a three dimensional understanding of letters that is not available from  computerized typesetting.

The bonus features in this disk deliver the nuance and context.  Among them are an extended history of wood type and “The Most Ambitious Type in the World: Louis John Pouchée.” 

When I win the fight with Blogspot, these blogs begin with an opening paragraph in blue Helvetica Bold 12 point.  The body is in Georgia.

 “Since millions of people see and use Helvetica every day, I guess I just wondered, "Why?" How did a typeface drawn by a little-known Swiss designer in 1957 become one of the most popular ways for us to communicate our words fifty years later? And what are the repercussions of that popularity, has it resulted in the globalization of our visual culture? Does a storefront today look the same in Minneapolis, Melbourne and Munich? How do we interact with type on a daily basis? And what about the effects of technology on type and graphic design, and the ways we consume it? Most of us use computers and digital fonts every day, so are we all graphic designers now, in a sense?” 
Also on Necessary Facts 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Hacking Computer Security: BSides Austin 2013

The 3-1/2 day event  (March 20-23) kicked off with a screening at the Paramount Theater of Code 2600, Jeremy Zerechak’s documentary about the origins and present reality of computer hacking and privacy issues.  The festival officially began the next morning at the Wingate by Wyndham in Round Rock.  Registration was $10 per day for the official 2-day event.  The movie was extra.  Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and beer (courtesy of New Republic Brewing of College Station) came with the price of admission. Conference schwag included t-shirts and complicated ballpoint pens. Other giveaways and door prizes were plentiful. Officially closing Friday at 5:00 PM,. an after-party and Saturday field trip to Texas A&M’s Disaster City training center capped the hacking holiday of hard work.
Three men standing. One shirt is yellow, the other blue, the third red.
Star Trek theme with
Command for the volunteers,
Blue for attendees
and some Redshirts.

Special two-day games included a lockpicking contest, a social engineering challenge, and “capture the flag.” 

Lockpicking is a traditional cultural aspect of hacking.  The practical side for computer security professionals is that business managers typically hang five dollar locks on server racks with millions of dollars of data: you need to know your exposed risks.

“Social engineering” is the engagement of hapless intermediaries as tools to reveal and expose software and hardware. The two-day challenge was limited to the hotel and the adjacent shopping center: the residential neighborhood with its homes, day care, school, and senior center, was off limits. 

“Capture the flag” involves a server loaded with typical applications. The defense team must keep the system up and running while offense teams attempt to break in.

Sponsors included RackSpace, Digital Defense Inc., Visible Risk, RSA, Rapid 7, Palo Alto Networks, Mandiant, ISSA of Texas, Pwnie Express, Security Innovation, Tenable, The Denim Group, Milton (providers of shwagg), Last Pass, Haking, the International Association of Forensic Investigators, Longhorn Lockpicking, and New Republic Brewery of College Station. Also mentioned were "Protect Your Nuts" and "Kommand && Kontrol: Revenge of the Carders."

Money was collected for two charities, "Hackers in Uganda" and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, via the sale of conference buttons.  EFF is famous for protecting and extending rights in cyberspace.  "Hackers in Uganda" is to be a film by Jeremy Zerechak.
About half the attendees sat in the big room for box lunches
Friday lunch: about half of the 175+
attendees sat in the big room.

BSides San Antonio will be held in May, DFW in November. (BSides Texas here). 

Summaries and reviews of talks delivered follow below.
(Much of this presentation began as posts to the Group64 and the Austin Tech Geeks local groups on LinkedIn.)

Monday, March 18, 2013

Seeing in the Dark: Your Front Row Seat to the Universe.

Seeing in the Dark by Timothy Ferris is a narrative rhapsody honoring amateur astronomy.  You do not need even a telescope to be blessed by the wonder of the skies.  City lights are not a barrier.  Certainly, a large telescope deep in the countryside, above the surrounding landscape is best. Building your own observatory is the epitome of the hobby. But for anyone, anywhere, passion and patience deliver the rewards.  Seeing in the Dark is about the people whose love and work open the universe for themselves and others. 

John Dobson built large, rugged, cheap telescopes that he set up on the streets of San Francisco for onlookers.  He did not invent the Dobsonian Reflector, but he popularized it; and now hundreds of stargazers enjoy instruments that would have been the envy of professionals a hundred years ago. Here is the deeper lesson: you do not need the Wilson Observatory at Mount Palomar to discover the skies for yourself – and even to publish work of academic quality – because the pioneers of astronomy from Galileo forward did not have such tools. 

Galileo, Kepler, Caroline Herschel and hundreds of others all relied on telescopes that were severely under-powered – arguably mere toys – compared to today’s instruments.  Many of them were amateurs because astronomy was not an academic profession until late in the 19th century.  Today, astronomy is one of the few endeavors of scientific exploration and discovery where amateurs contribute significantly to the work of professionals.  (Numismatics is another: more on that later.) 

Ferris warns that some tension does exist, as amateurs occasionally do not care about or understand the astrophysics of the objects they see, track, photograph, and measure.  Largely, though, the working relationship is one of mutual admiration and appreciation.  Amateurs are free to devote themselves to work that professionals cannot afford to do. 

Amateurs and professionals carry out the same work with the same tools: telescopes, cameras, spectroscopes, and more, including even radio telescopes that bring information about the universe from far beyond the sadly narrow visible band.

The book version of Seeing in the Dark by Timothy Ferris (Simon & Schuster, 2002), was followed by a PBS presentation in 2007.  The movie is better. 
The Book

The book is padded with basic astronomical information about the planets and stars that appears in every astronomy book.  The print version of Seeing in the Dark is a long narrative, devoid of pictures.  So, while Ferris told me everything I already knew about The Great Red Spot of Jupiter (and many facts that I did not), I had to goto Wikipedia to learn what a Richey-Chrétien telescope is and to bolster my limited understanding of the Cassegrain reflector. 

The PBS website for Seeing in the Dark (here) is replete with supporting articles, how-to guides, and biographies of accomplished amateurs (few of whom appear in the book, which introduces others). Of course, the PBS website also gives helpful links to Local Societies, Books, Videos, Magazines, Websites to Explore, resources on “Astronomy & the Arts” a Glossary and much more.  Perhaps chief among them are the links on astrophotography.

Looking through a telescope is at once startling, edifying, and disappointing.  We are treated to images from the Hubble space telescope.  You are not going to look through a $500 five-inch (130 mm) reflector and see an 8x10 color glossy print of the Andromeda Galaxy.  But you will see pretty much what it really looks like – or looked like 2.5 million years ago even before our ancestors stopped dragging their knuckles -  because when you look into space, you always look back into time.  And more to the point, amateurs who are accomplished and gifted viewers do measure up even against the great Hubble.  


Friday, March 15, 2013

Images from SXSW 2013

Another day and night of fun and splendor as 6th and Congress remains the focal point of energy in downtown Austin. On Saturday, March 15, Oliver and Wilder Lee moved across the street. Balafon player Abou Sylla returned from last year. The Yellow Roses returned from yesterday. The Magician and Sonia did not

A rapper with his own videographer and a portable generator to power the sound took up the northeast corner. The valets at Ruth'sChris could not park in their garage because a pianist and his lively and talented skittle band blocked the entrance. Also making a video of some sort, a fake priest declaimed to his cast of actors and actresses about "The Church" (whatever he might have meant about that.) As the night ground along, the crowd flowed back and forth more quickly and also slid down the socio-economic scale. I finally had to warn a mild vagrant and his really nice dog that they were not going to sleep in the doorway of Brooks Brothers. 

Oliver on bass and Wilder Lee with banjo and percussion
The flash is connected to the camera ...
Thursday, March 14, was "Camera Day." Cameras are common enough at SXSW, of course, but the shutterbugs swarmed the streets with equipment closer to field artillery than to anything you carry in your pocket.  This was a professional shoot. They took about 50 clicks with her sitting and then standing on the corner in "Vogue" poses.

The camera is connected to the flash over the model

a gentlemen's club

Right space; wrong time. He missed the Yellow Roses.

Sonia was more interesting with eight knives stuck in the box.
She assisted her father with his magic tricks.
Even blindfolded Sonia can see what is behind her.
She actually missed this one: Dad's fault of course.
These were some of the people who worked the intersection of 6th and Congress on Thursday.  Blues and bluegrass, rock or skittle, tuba, xylophone, acoustic and electric, break dancing, no corner goes unoccupied for long.  These shots were possible only in the moments when the on-lookers were sparse.  To get me to work, we just waited for traffic to stall and did a "fire drill." Later, on my way to a bus stop after work, I found the poet Bill Keys up a block, once again surrounded by girls. (Oh, why I did choose technical writing?)  

Friday the 15th Abou Sylla plays the balafon
Saturday the 16th
Signing the "Charity Life" tour bus (

This is basically a clearing house for small and local charities.
You can pledge as little as $5. Your favorite charities save
the burden of administrative staff.
Saturday the 16th "Chico Chico" plays "Puttin' on the Ritz"


Thursday, March 14, 2013

Happy Pi Day 2013

That we celebrate Pi Day is curious. Granted, e = 2.71828… does not lend itself well to February 71 or the 27th day of the 18th month, whereas March 14 exists and finds millions of kids in school mathematics classes.  Yet our fascination with Pi – versus the speed of light, Planck’s Constant, G, or anything else – may speak to a basic belief that reality is not just easy to understand: it is fun. 

You can make a pretty good compass from a length of string and a thumbtack. In ancient Egypt, geometers were called “arpedonapti”, those who knot ropes.  (Garden of Archimedes at the University of Firenze (Florence) Italy in English here.)  You can make a right angle by knotting any convenient length of string into a 3-4-5 triangle. With a known right angle, much else can be drawn and thereby computed.  This was important to the Egyptians because the annual flooding of the Nile erased boundary lines.  

The compass is more reliable, precise, and accurate than a knotted rope. The inventor that instrument has been lost to time.  We can call him "Daedalus" for convenience.  Clearly, the architect’s compass (bow compass or divider) had to have been a specific and sophisticated invention. The earliest known is from the 6th century BCE.  Wikipedia on the Drafting Compass.  Wikipedia on the Divider Caliper.  The invention of formal geometry is credited to Thales of Miletus. Pythagoras of Samos was a near contemporary. This was also the time when philosophy was supplanting religion for explanations, when coinage was replacing commodities as stores of value, and when hereditary rulers were replaced first by tyrants and then oligarchies and democracies. Those were heady times

By the European Middle Ages, the importance of builders (masons) made the compass a symbol for God’s work and order within the universe. 
William Blake's Ancient of Days
from Wikimedia commons

The opinion that a benevolent God placed us within His creation was different from the classical view that life is unpredictable because even the gods cannot change the work of the Fates, three blind sisters who spin, measure, and cut the threads of our lives.  In our postmodernist era, we have fallen back to that pagan view, perhaps best stated by Albert Einstein.  While he denied that God plays dice, he felt that the universe is stranger than we can imagine.  That may well be true – and it may also explain some aspect of our fixation on pi.  It is at once understandable and unpredictable. 

Yet, paradoxically, formulas to generate pi are known.  (See the presentation on “Machin’s Formula” by Dr. Milan Milanović here.)  Interestingly, you can find the nth digit of pi without knowing the preceding numbers.  (See "Fun Facts" from the mathematics department of Harvey Mudd College here. )

One Million Digits of Pi:
Four Million Digits of Pi:

Previously on Necessary Facts:

Monday, March 11, 2013

SXSW 2013

South by Southwest is iconic. Music is the core experience, but much more is associated and affiliated from Interactive computing to a Film Festival with multiple venues. Technically not an SXSW event Bill Gates was here to dedicate a new computer engineering lab at UT.  As a security guard posted to 6th Street and Congress Avenue, SXSW comes to me.

Bill Keys writes poetry on the spot.
Round here we're all swimmers
Everything that has ever breathed this sweet air
was conceived in a liquid medium
Blood is smarter than the nerve
              the heart quicker than the brain
Swimming is more sensitive than a jog.
Photographers are ubiquitous.  I like to take snapshots, too.  I wonder what they see that I do not.  Of course, I see them: gangs, droves, clubs, and clutches of them.  Austin is no more or less photogenic than any other town, but they are here for SXSW.  My ex taught me that the best camera is the one you have with you right now; and so, therefore, the best subject is the one before you.

Posed, but nice.
My buildings are the Scarbrough and Littlefield, both built in 1910 and both competing to be the tallest -- but, by law, no taller than the State Capitol Dome.  That has changed, but the Art Deco of the Scarbrough and the Beaux Arts of the Littlefield draw photographers.
Pedicabs work for tips and they are regulated by the city.  They are limited by law in where they can go and what they can charge. Austin is a one-party people's republic, politically like Ann Arbor, Berkeley, and Portland.  The city council just outlawed disposable plastic bags.  So, now the stores give away plastic bags even larger and thicker than the old ones, very undisposable.  And paper.  Lots of paper. The Austin City Council chose to chop up the Amazon, rather than drain Saudi Arabia.  Moral choice are so difficult...  But, that aside, pedicabs may be the sine qua non of capitalism.
Pedicabs wait out the rain at Halcyon coffee shop
In the late 1600s, in London, bank runners were supposed to carry papers from place to place.  However, they stopped at coffee shops and there they exchanged their notes.  This was the origin of the merchant banking clearinghouse as we know it today.  The same coffee shops also gave birth to the insurance industry.  It was at the Lloyd's Coffee House in 1688 (the year of the Glorious Revolution), that news of shipping was posted, bringing in the modern insurance industry.

Previously on NecessaryFacts:
Images from SXSW 2013
South by Southwest 2012
Stadtluft Macht Frei
Around Austin
Austin at Night

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Thank You Notes

“Thank you” is rare enough, even by email. If you want to stand out, send a handwritten note. Even if you practice often and own a passel of pens, it takes time. Making time says that you honor the recipient. You can improve your handwriting with a browse through a calligraphy book and some practice on scratch paper. You can spend 89 cents each on a three-pack of fiber calligraphy pens or you can invest $890 in a Mont Blanc fountain pen.
Fountain Pen Geeks
conventions, product reviews, chat and more

You can go to extremes with paper or rely on a basic 25% cotton sheet.  Fine laid 100% cotton or linen are always nice, but not always perceived for what they are.  Be aware that some modern parchment finish or other fineries take modern inks differently. Covers (envelopes) are another parameter.  The U.S. Postal Service democratically treats all envelopes equally – by machine.  Therefore, anything oddly sized or shaped costs extra.
fountain pens for kids, and much more
Sometimes, I am able to ask the USPS counter clerk for commemoratives.  Commemorative stamps celebrate special events that you might like.  (The "regular" stamps are called "definitives" to philatelists.)  If you know a local coin store that is a member of the American Numismatic Association, they often have sheets of old stamps at a discount, 80% or 90% of face value.  It is nice to be able to celebrate baseball, national parks, space exploration, or whatever else ignites your passions.

The important consideration is how the message is received. If you care enough to make the effort, it will show in the final product.

A Man's Home is His Market
Capitalist Culture