Older blog entries for steve (starting at number 224)

It’s 2012, Time to Talk Resolutions?

Another year gone and it’s time to take stock of things done and make some plans for the new year. Do you want me list off a lot of goals and resolutions for 2012? I didn’t think so – too boring. How about if pull out my list of goals for 2011 and tell you some of the stuff I actually did. Things really done are always more interesting to read about.

After devoting a huge amount of 2010 to getting Dallas Makerspace off the ground, I took most of 2011 off from hackerspace managing. I attended meetings and helped out now and then but most of my time and interest went elsewhere.

In late January 2011, I joined a team of Camerpedia editors in saving the website from being assimilated by Wikia. We relaunched it under the new name Camera-Wiki.org. I developed quite an interest in Vivitar history and have been collecting many of the oldest Vivitar lenses; not just to document on Camera-Wiki but also to shoot with. Camera-wiki.org has been a huge success and has attracted lots of new editors. It’s growing at a faster rate than it ever did in it’s previous incarnation and we’re working hard to improve the quality as well as the quantity of the content. Hosting is paid for entirely through donation, so if you appreciate old cameras and lenses, why not help us out by donating a few dollars to our hosting fund!

I’ve continued to pursue photography in other ways. I did several more shoots with models in 2011. I did several paid shoots including a gig as the official photographer for the 2011 Vex World Championships. My photo essays continue to be published in Robot Magazine and Servo Magazine. One of my photographs was displayed in a local art exhibit, meeting another of my goals for the 2011. I hope to be in more exhibits during 2012.

Susan and I attended lots of art exhibits, music performances, and a few lectures. I managed to get to several Pecha Kucha and Spark Club events. Much more of the same for the 2012 I hope!

If you’re not an Advogato or robots.net user, you won’t really care but I finally managed to get the long-awaited libxml2 parser into the mod_virgule code base. It’s still a bit buggy but no more so than the old parser and it provides a good path forward for consolidating and simplifying the code. Whether mod_virgule can remain relevant in the world of Facebook and Google+ is another question. Perhaps 2012 will provide the answer to that one.

2011 was the year I finally created some ornaments for the annual Blue Yule charity auction at the MAC. I also volunteered at the 2011 Art Conspiracy Auction. That took care of two more 2011 goals. I hope to find a few more outlets for my artistic and creative sides in 2012.

As usual, there were goals I didn’t meet in 2011. I didn’t finish the project of scanning all my family photos. This has turned out to be much more material than I’d anticipated. I’ve scanned thousands of old photographs and negatives so far. Hopefully 2012 will see the scanning portion of the project completed.

2012 is an election year but with Obama running for his second term that means there is only going to be a Republican primary this year. I consider myself an independent but still feel compelled to vote in the primaries, which means this year I’ll be voting in the Republican primary regardless of how I vote in the final election.

At present I’m leaning toward Ron Paul for the primary vote. I don’t really like any of the choices but Ron Paul seems the least insane of the bunch and I think may be the only one of them who holds any positions at all that I actually agree with.

So for the next four years, the State of Texas will consider me a Republican despite my claim to be an independent. I’m pondering whether I should start going to my local Republican group meetings and see if I can do anything to reform them or shift them a bit toward the center or at least slow their movement toward the right-wing fringes. Unfortunately, I don’t think reason mixes well with the far right (or the far left for that matter). I’ll report on my experiences if anything interesting happens.

Syndicated 2012-01-09 03:24:53 from Steevithak of the Internet

Steevithak’s Pecan Pie Recipe

Like Pecan Pies? I do and I’ve been working on a way to make one that doesn’t involve using corn syrup. It’s taken a few years to perfect this recipe. The family Thanksgiving dinner each year is about the only time I make one, so the testing and revision cycle is a bit extended.

I should also explain that the reason I want to avoid corn syrup is primarily for the taste. I loathe the stuff and always have. I’ve avoided it for years, even before research began to show that HFCS was bad for you. I’m by no means claiming that this pecan pie is healthy – it still contains massive amounts of sugar. So bake and eat at your own risk.

In place of corn syrup, I’ve used another type of invert sugar – cane syrup. I get this at the local farmers market but it should also be available in most grocery stores that carry organic products. Because one of my goals was to avoid the super-sweet machine-made flavor of corn syrup, I’ve opted to combine the cane syrup with a small amount of molasses. Molasses is actually the waste product of producing cane syrup and other refined cane sugars; all the vitamins, minerals, and taste ends up in the molasses while most of the pure sugar ends up in the syrup. By putting a little molasses in, you get a much darker, more complex taste. The exact ratio of cane syrup to molasses is something you’ll want to adjust to your own taste. The Rum and brown sugar were chosen for the same reasons, they add a bit more complexity to the taste.

You can also change the sweetness a bit by adjusting the ratio of pecans to filling. For a sweeter pie reduce the number of pecans to a single layer on the surface. To decrease the sweetness, increase the number of pecans so that about half the thickness of the pie is pecans.

Also, one note on the Cinnamon is due; I’m using true cinnamon, aka Ceylon cinnamon. If you’re using grocery store Cinnamon (actually called Cassia), then you’ll probably want to use only 1 teaspoon or leave it out altogether. The tastes are quite different. If you’re not sure which you have, you have Cassia, it’s the substance most commonly sold as “cinnamon” in grocery stores. And if you’ve never tasted true cinnamon, I highly recommend buying some trying it out.

Ok, so on to the actual recipe.

Steevithak’s Pecan Pie
Revision 2.0 [2011-11-21]

1 Cup Cane syrup
2/3 Cup brown sugar
4 Tablespoon melted butter
1 Tablespoon dark rum
1 Tablespoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon molasses
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
4 eggs
1 1/2 cups broken pecans
1/2 cup pecan halves
2 9 inch unbaked pie shell

Pre-heat to 350 degrees, use rack in middle of oven

Prep fresh pecans:
Bring pan of water to boil. Blanch pecans in boiling water for 1 minute. Oils that lead to bitter pecans will form a dark scum on surface of water. Remove pecans and rinse well. Toast pecans at 350 F for 10-15 minutes.

Construct the crust
Combine two pie shells for double thickness to help offset sweetness of pie. If you’d prefer, you can also make your own crust. This is left as an exercise for the reader.

Make the filling
Microwave cane syrup in 30 second bursts, or set in a saucepan of warm water, until the syrup is pourable

Combine the syrup, brown sugar, melted butter, rum, salt, vanilla, cinnamon, and molasses in a large sauce pan. Heat to boiling point, stirring constantly. Boil for 1 minute. Remove from heat and let cool.

While syrup cools, beat eggs in a separate bowl until creamy. When the syrup has cooled below boiling, stir in the beaten eggs and broken pecans.

Bake the pie
Pour mixture into pie shell, add pecan halves on top by hand. Add aluminium foil to cover exposed pie crust around edge. Bake for about 50 to 55 minutes. The pie is done when the top layer forms a deep golden brown crust that is firm when tapped. Aluminium foil may be removed during last 15 minutes for a more well done crust edge.

Syndicated 2011-12-22 21:46:03 from Steevithak of the Internet

The Art Instinct by Dennis Dutton

I finished reading The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution by the late Dennis Dutton a while back and it’s about time I write a short review. Actually, I read it aloud to Susan. In addition to our own personal reading lists, we usually have a shared book that I read aloud when we’re on long drives or working on some project around the house. We alternate between fiction and non-fiction. Susan selected the Art Instinct because it covered topics we’re both interested in: art, evolution, aesthetics, anthropology, the human brain, to name a few.

The title is most likely having a bit of fun with Steven Pinker’s 1994 book, The Language Instinct, which examines how the brain evolved an innate capacity for language (also a great book by the way, did I ever write a review of that one? Hmmmm). Dutton’s book uses a similar model. He argues that our sense of aesthetics is not just an arbitrary social construct as presumed by many art critics and academics.

He leads into his arguments by attempting to answer the question of why landscapes depicted in calendar art are so uniform – in every country, in every climate, everywhere in the world. A well-known 1992 study sought to explain why humans find one particular type of landscape more beautiful and appealing than all others. We favor this type of landscape whether it occurs in calendar art, golf courses, public parks, or classic paintings. Americans favor it, as do Europeans, Inuits, Russians, even members of the most remote and primitive tribes who may never have seen this type of landscape before.

The landscape we favor happens to be identical to the Pleistocene savanna of the type that occurs in Africa. Evolving hominid hunter-gathers who favored this type of savanna had much higher chances of survival. It’s a landscape with direct evidence of game animals, variegated cloud patterns, evidence of water, low forking fruit-bearing trees (food sources and easily climbable to escape predators), alternating open and wooded spaces. If you’ve never read it, the original study is: Evolved Responses to Landscapes by Gordon H. Orians and Judith H. Heerwagen.


Frederic Church landscape with elements we’ve evolved to find attractive.

After going over the various non-evolutionary explanations and why they were found wanting, he moves on to similar cases of direct evidence of evolution shaping our aesthetic tastes. Can evolution explain, for example, why blue, the color of the sky and water is the most common favorite color? Green, the colors of plant life, is our second most commonly expressed favorite color. Our desire to see blue and green came to mind as I was writing because I’d just returned from an exhibit of paintings by Cathey Miller. She paints residents of the mythical Cathedonia in luminescent shades of blue or green. Somehow, I find a sort of perverse pleasure in knowing that the part of my brain which finds Cathedonia paintings appealing evolved to help my Pleistocene ancestors survive.


Watching by Cathey Miller, from the Cathedonia Blue Morpho Series

The tricky part is getting from the easy cases like agreement on colors and landscape to a more general description of beauty and aesthetic taste. It’s hard to look for the origin of a thing until you can agree on what the thing is. So, a large part of the book is involved in trying to precisely define art. Much time is spent or edge cases that are controversial – is Duchamp’s Fountain art? Are other readymades art? Why are expertly made forgeries not respected as much as expertly made originals? What about people who insist this or that category of art isn’t really art (e.g. abstract art, rap music, photography, etc).

Once he’s established a working definition or art, he goes after the problem of understanding how an innate sense of beauty could have evolved. He examines what we know about our evolutionary history to see if we can discover ways in which an innate art instinct would have direct survival value or if it could be an adaptive effect of some other survival characteristic that natural selection would have favored. Alternately, he looks at whether the art instinct is a result or adaptation of the other major evolutionary mechanism, sexual selection; like the Peacock’s tail – a case where sexual selection trumps natural selection. A bright tail actually has a negative survival value but serves as a fitness signal to the females (“hey, look, I’m so awesome at this survival game, even this flashy tail isn’t a problem. Mate with me!”).

Contrary to what art academics have argued for years, that art is culture-specific, Dutton presents world and history ranging emprical evidence that human appreciation for beautify is innate and occurs everywhere and at every time humans exist. To put it another way, Dutton’s revolutionary argument is that beauty is not “in the eye of the beholder” as folk wisdom claims but is rather part of the core workings of every human brain that evolved over millions of years.

What makes Dutton’s effort interesting (to me at least) is that it’s not just some random guy’s opinion, it’s an attempt to find an empirical, objective way to think about beauty and art; something that is not easily done. His efforts stop short of providing definitive proof that the evolution of our aesthetic sense followed the path he describes but he makes a convincing case.

Whether you’re a cognitive scientist or an artist, you’ll find this an interesting read. Who would have thought that it was Darwin and not some philosopher who finally figured out how beauty works! If you’d like to find out more about the book, visit The Art Instinct website. And you can read more about Dennis Dutton on his personal website, DennisDutton.com

In February of 2010, Dennis Dutton summarized the book in a 15 minute TED talk. The book offers enormously more detail, fascinating anecdotes, and mountains of evidence collected around the world and throughout history. But if you’d like a quick overview of what his book is all about, you can’t beat this TED talk.

Syndicated 2011-12-07 18:47:36 from Steevithak of the Internet

Help Stop Some Bad Legislation

More bad legislation is headed our way. Sorry for the long rant, I hate politics but it seems unavoidable sometimes. If you already know all about the PROTECT IP legislation, feel free to skip the following rant, but please scroll to the bottom of this post, click the PopVox links and register your opposition to the bills.

Big media corporations are trying to buy more legislation that will boost their profits and restrict our freedoms. This time they’ve written legislation that will create a “great firewall of America” similar to the one in China. It will allow the government to block access to any website their corporate donors disapprove of. It would do a lot of other bad things too. How can they get away with this, you ask. The media corporations claim this legislation will stop “pirates” (by which they mean people who share ideas and creative works with their neighbors, not people in funny hats who steal your boat and make you walk the plank). Here’s how the Fight for the Future blog describes the new legislation:

It’ll give the government new powers to block Americans’ access [to] websites that corporations don’t like. The bill would criminalize posting all sorts of standard web content — music playing in the background of videos, footage of people dancing, kids playing video games, and posting video of people playing cover songs. This legislation will stifle free speech and innovation, and even threaten popular web services like Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook.

But even though the legislation would make us all suffer, maybe that’s worth it because it will eliminate piracy, right? Wrong. It won’t affect piracy at all. Zeropaid posted a detailed explanation of 8 technical methods of circumventing these censor ship laws that would allow piracy to continue unaffected while the rest of us lose our freedoms.

So it makes life worse for us and doesn’t affect piracy? That sucks but like a Ginsu knife commercial, this is the point where I say “but wait, that’s not all! You also get a broken Internet!” That’s right, this legislation was written by Hollywood lawyers who don’t have a clue how the Internet actually works and have probably never even used it themselves. The technical changes this legislation requires to allow censorship of the Internet will literally break the Domain Name System. Anyone who knows anything about the technical side of the Net knows Paul Vixie (as in Vixie cron, BIND, that sort of thing). He described in detail all of the breakage that will be caused to the Net if these bill pass and also noted that it would create new security issues:

Say your browser, when it’s trying to decide whether some web site is or is not your bank’s web site, sees the modifications or hears no response. It has to be able to try some other mechanism like a proxy or a VPN as a backup solution rather than just giving up (or just accepting the modification and saying “who cares?”). Using a proxy or VPN as a backup solution would, under PROTECT IP, break the law.

Just a few of the groups who are helping to oppose this awful legislation include the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Reporters Without Borders, Human Rights Watch, The American Library Association, Public Knowledge, Center for Democracy and Technology, American Association of Law Libraries, and Association of Research Libraries. Even a few of the least evil corporations like Google are opposing the legislation. But unless there’s a big outcry, Congress will do what the highest bidder pays them to do. A lot of big companies stand to profit from this legislation. They are paying a lot of money for it to be written and passed. The MPAA supports it – that alone should be enough to convince any reasonable person that it’s bad legislation!

The bills are S.968 “Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act of 2011″ and H.R.3261 “The Stop Online Piracy Act”. Like most bills, these have deceptive names. The bills will neither stop online piracy nor prevent threats to creativity. The bills are themselves a threat to online innovation and creativity. What they will do is help a few big corporations boost their profits while significantly curtailing your freedoms. That’s just how the bill-naming process works these days.

So what can you do? Unfortunately not much. Legislation has become a commodity that’s bought, written, and passed by large corporations with lots of money (that’s what the Occupy movement is protesting – the 1% who influence our legislative process to further their own greed). But you can at least make your opposition clear to Congress and entertainment industry folks who are buying this legislation. The easiest way to do that is to write a letter to you congressional representatives. If you’re used to doing that anyway and know who they are, please do it today.

If you’d like to fire off those letters but don’t have time to write and mail a paper letter, you’re in luck. There’s a cool site I’ve been using call PopVox that allows you to track bills through congress and fire off a letter supporting or opposing a bill with just a few clicks of the mouse. These electronically delivered letters count just as much as papers letters. The other cool thing about PopVox is that your opposition or support will be tabulated in a nice pie chart so everyone can see the stats on who’s for and against the legislation. H.R.3621 was closing in on 99% opposed and 1% supporting last time I checked the numbers (hmmm… where have we heard those numbers before?).

Here are the PopVox links for the two bills:

Syndicated 2011-10-28 20:41:03 from Steevithak of the Internet

What’s All This Occupy Dallas Stuff Anyhow?

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To borrow and mangle a phrase from the late Bob Pease, what’s all this Occupy Dallas stuff anyhow? I’ve been hearing wildly contradictory reports of what the Occupy Wallstreet group is about. Now the group or movement or whatever it is, has begun spreading out to other cities around the world. When Occupy Dallas started a few days ago, I decided I’d probably get a better picture of what’s going on if I just had a look for myself and talked to some of the people. That’s what I did and I thought it might be interesting to others if I shared what I found out. I can at least confirm or dispel a few of the things I’ve been hearing in the media.

The whole thing seems to have started with Adbusters but was quickly joined by Anonymous. As people in more and more cities began taking up the cause, more groups started latching onto the concept, making it unclear which groups are the “real” ones. There is now an “Occupy Together” website that seems to have coalesced into a center of information for the movement, though it dis-associates itself to some extent from the the Occupy Wallstreet group. But for the most part, I think it’s safe to say that Adbuster, Anonymous, and Occupy are the focus of activity.

Officially, the group offers a fairly straightforward description of itself as a peaceful protest of the masses (the 99%) against abuse of power and wealth by the few (the 1%). They’re also protesting corporate greed, abuse of power by government; influence of government policy by wealthy individuals and corporations; and the political turmoil that has resulted from the two-party political system in the US (but it’s important to note that the group is not limited to the US). The group does not claim alignment with any specific political party and claims not to have a general right or left leaning. They claim to have no specific agenda.

I talked to a few participants in the Occupy Dallas group in person at their protest event and online. I also shot some photos of their base camp. I visited on Thursday when the primary protest was at the Federal Reserve Bank on Pearl Street and the base camp was at the JFK Memorial. After spending one night there, my understanding is that they’ve moved the base camp to Founder’s Park and the primary protest will begin moving to other major financial institutions such as Bank of America. At the time I visited there were estimated to be about 500 people involved. My guess is maybe 300+ were at the JFK memorial at the time and I saw more along the path between the memorial and the Fed, so estimates in the 400-500 range match the best guess I could make.

Here’s my impression along with my take on how accurate the media reports about them have been:

The people who were at the protest included Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Libertarians, Ron Paul supporters, Ron Paul opponents, Obama supporters, Obama opponents, Tea Party people (I have to note again that, as a tea drinker, I still hate that they’ve besmirched the good name of tea). There were fringe nutty people including assorted conspiracy theorists who thought the Federal Reserve, or the lack of a gold standard, or you-name-it, was part of a conspiracy to take away their freedom. But overall, it seemed less conspiracy and nutjob dominated than the Tea Party seems to be. There were a lot of college aged kids but an almost equal number of older people, including many who looked to be at or past retirement age. There were an almost equal number of men and women protesting. Many of the cars driving past on Main Street were honking and gesturing support. I didn’t see any passing drivers showing opposition.

Some in the right-wing media have begin claiming that these protester are law breakers and violent. This is completely false, at least in Dallas. The protest and base camp were peaceful. The police had set up barriers to provide a safe protest area around the Fed for the protesters. The police and protesters were interacting, talking, joking, laughing. At one point policemen were helping protesters carry water and supplies to their base came. As the protesters have noted, the Police are part of the 99%, so there’s no reason for any hostility. I’m aware there has been some violence on both sides in the Wall Street protest but nothing out of the ordinary for a large protest and, in any case, nothing like that has occurred in Dallas (yet). The only way I can see a problem developing is if one side or the other stop being cooperative. But so far the protesters and police seem to be communicating, with the police willing to accommodate peaceful protest and the protesters willing to locate in areas acceptable to the police.

I heard Bill O’Reilly claim these are “anti-capitalism” protesters. I believe this is false.
No one I talked to expressed opinions that seemed even remotely anti-capitalist. The Dallas Fort Worth area has real Communist and Socialist groups; members of neither group were present at the Occupy protest. I think part of the problem here is that the far right has come to idolize money so much that they sometimes have trouble distinguishing greed from capitalism.

I’ve seen media claims that the protesters are all “hippies”. This is false. I saw a handful of people who might be described visually as hippy-like; long scruffy hair, tie-dyed clothes. One or two were hauling around acoustic guitars. They were greatly outnumbered by people who looked perfectly normal for Dallas. I saw people who fit just about any genre you want to mention from businessmen in suits to mohawked punk rockers on skateboards.

I’ve seen media claims that the group is a right wing movement associated with the Tea Party. I think this is definitely false. I heard that the Dallas Tea Party people at one point had planned a protest at the Fed to coincide with the Occupy protest but I’m not sure if it happened or not. There were at least a couple of Tea Party people present, there were also some Ron Paul supporters, Republicans, and anti-Obama people. I saw about the same amount of what I considered anti-right-wing signage as pro-right-wing signage. Also I’ve noticed the right-wing media outlets like Fox have started putting a lot of effort into casting the Occupy movement as left/evil/commie/socialist, so I assume as Tea Party people get the message from upstream, fewer of them will be willing to associate with the movement.

I’ve seen media claims that the group is a left wing movement. This one is trickier. I think it’s false in the sense of the left as the Democratic or Progressive US political party. But it may be true in a general sense depending on one’s definition of left. There were a few Obama supporters in evidence but there were also a lot of people looking to oust Obama in the next election, some even wanted to make demanding Obama’s resignation an official part of the group’s goals. More than a few of the protest signs seemed to me to be left-leaning but others I found moderate or even right-leaning. During the time I was there, I heard lots of talk about fending off attempts by the liberal MoveOn group to take over Occupy, take credit for it, or push the Occupy movement toward the left. The majority of people I saw or talked to believe the Democrat/Republican and Left/Right pardigms are in part responsible for a lot of our current problems and wanted nothing to do with either side. Overall though, I’d have to say there were probably more people I’d describe as left-leaning than right-leaning at the Dallas event, enough to put the average for the entire group slightly left of center.

Media reports have said that the group doesn’t know what it’s protesting or demanding. In my experience, this claim is closer to being true but is not entirely accurate. As a group, there seems to be consensus that what is being protested is 1) corporate greed 2) abuse of power by government 3) use of money to influence elections and legislation by indivduals and corporations. At an individual level, though, nearly everyone you ask has some additional gripe to add. Many are protesting specific politicians such as Obama, or specific institutions such as the Federal Reserve. Some are protesting abstract concepts like the personhood of corporations.

I heard a lot of debating and arguing amongst protestors while I was there. One protester would start in about a Fed conspiracy or the gold standard and another would disagree. For the most part the arguments sounded good natured and peaceful. But it was clear there was very little consensus in the group on what the root problems were (beyond the basic ones already mentioned) and no agreement on what the desired outcome should be.

I also heard a lot of complaints that I found contradictory and, well, baffling. For example one response I got included this complaint:

“We are fed sub standard and tainted foods by mega national food companies. We are sold cheap, sub standard and often dangerous goods made by corporations”

I thought about asking what happened to this person’s free will. The protesters are camped out within walking distance to the Dallas Farmer’s Market where they can buy food grown by local farmers. There are plenty of coops going where you can buy locally grown organic food and meats. Dallas even has a growing community garden trend. There are plenty of foods available that are grown locally, are not sub-standard, and are not grown by mega-corporations. The same can be said of many other goods. What this guy seemed to me to be saying, after correcting for reality, was more like “I choose to buy sub-standard food from mega-corporations and I demand the government stop me from doing that”. Which doesn’t really make sense when you consider the same group is complaining about too much government interference in our lives. It seems like there’s a bit of a personal responsibility gap in their reasoning.

This leads to the next media claim that was close to being accurate; the claim that the protesters are largely hypocrites. I found this one close to being true but perhaps less so than the previous one. I’m sure everyone has seen one of the photos of corporate product laden protesters protesting corporations. If you take a look at my own photos of the Dallas event you’ll see that the protester do indeed have a massive corporate footprint. They were using smart phones, social networking services, wearing corporate made clothes bearing corporate logos, drinking corporate bottled drinking water in plastic containers, using corporate made cameras, etc.

To what extent is that hypocrisy though? In many cases they’re not objecting to the existence of corporations or to corporate made products, just the excess corporate greed and corporation’s use of wealth to influence government. On the other hand, individuals like the one who made the comment about sub-standard food certainly sound hypocritical. A lot of the changes the protesters want might come about pretty quickly if they simply acted in line with their words. I wonder how many of them are eating locally grown foods, wearing locally made clothes, using an electrical provider that offers 100% renewable power, etc. While I don’t think it’s entirely fair to say the group as a whole is hypocritical, there is certainly plenty of hypocrisy to go around (but I suspect that I and most of my readers are guilty of little hypocrisy in this regard too).

One of the protesters told me this was largely about “gaining a voice”. After some reflection I think that may be part of our problem. We’ve been so conditioned by our political system that our role should be talking, protesting, arguing but never doing. I think it never occurs to most people that they can actually do something themselves. I certainly sympathize with the primary complaints of the Occupy movement and hope their protests do some good but, in the end, somebody still has to find some solutions and actually do the work. I’d love to see a group as enthusiastic as the Tea Party or the Occupy Movement who actually wanted to DO something instead of just complain about things, however justified those complaints may be.

That’s all the insight I’ve got for now and it’s probably worth about what you paid for it.

Syndicated 2011-10-08 22:16:11 from Steevithak of the Internet

Help Preserve Vivitar History!

Want to help preserve the history of an American camera and lens company? Let me tell you a story…

I’ve been using some of my spare time in the last few years playing with vintage cameras and lenses. I search for interesting vintage items at estate sales and online. I recently came across a very unusual lens, the Vivitar Professional 180mm f/2.8. It’s large, heavy, very good quality, and completely unknown. It was attached to a Pentax Spotmatic camera that I picked up for a few dollars and no particular significance was placed on the lens (it’s just an old Vivitar, right?) There was no trace of this 180mm lens to be found online until I started posting queries and information about it. No printed Vivitar price list or lens resale list that I’ve consulted had any record of it.

I took my mysterious Vivitar lens to Don’s Photo Equipment to see what they thought. Their conclusion was that I had either a one-of-kind prototype or a custom-made lens. The serial number suggests I have copy #2, so it’s highly likely that at least one other copy existed at one time. The lens is badged “Vivitar Professional” which is itself a rare thing. Only one other lens is known to have been made with that badge, the Vivitar Professional 135mm f/1.5, a lens designed and built for NASA in the 1960s, a small quantity were also made for sale to the public (some say as few as 30 were made). A little online research has turned up at least 3 existing copies of the Vivitar Professional 135mm f/1.5 that occasionally sell on eBay when one owner gets tired of it and passes it on to a new owner. It appears the 180mm may be even less common.

I hope to find time to shoot a series of test images with the lens soon. For now, I do have photos of the lens itself as well as one sample image I shot with it during a recent model shoot on the Texas-Pacific Railroad Bridge south of downtown Dallas (check out the rest of the photos from that shoot too!)

As I seached for info on my Vivitar Professional 180mm I realized just how little is known about Vivitar. German lens companies like Carl Zeiss or Japanese lens companies often have huge websites devoted to them and numerous books written about them. But there is almost no historical research to be found on Vivitar. I’m trying to remedy that by putting some work into the Vivitar pages on Camera-wik.org. I’ve been slowly piecing together Vivitar’s corporate history from old newspaper archives and scraps of info gathered from patents and other government filings. I’m also compiling a comprehensive list of lenses and other products they marketed. They sold a large number lenses designed and manufactured by a dozen different companies. Trying to piece together the lens families and an accurate lineage of each lens is proving to be quite a challenge.

And this is where you can help out in preserving this piece of America’s photographic history! I need two things: 1) Vintage photography magazines from 1938-1978 with lens reviews and Vivitar advertisements (e.g. Camera 35, Modern Photography, Popular Photography; Vivitar also advertised extensively in Playboy and Popular Science in the latter part of the time period). If you’re reading this and have any old camera magazines with Vivitar info from that time you’d like to get rid of, let me know. I’ll put them to good use, including scanning any public domain advertising and making it available to vintage camera researchers on Camera-wiki.org. 2) If you have any old Vivitar lenses of any kind that you were thinking of dropping off at Goodwill or the Salvation Army, send them my way instead. I’ll photograph them, review them, and add the data to Camera-wiki.org. And afterwards, I’ll give them to the photography group at Dallas Makerspace where they’ll be used as loaners for local photographers.

Syndicated 2011-09-01 04:59:58 from Steevithak of the Internet

What I’ve Been Up To Lately

Happy July 4th, everybody (or to the handful of people who read this blog anyway). Rather than go to one of the big fireworks shows this year, we decided to stay home and enjoy the air conditioning. I can hear neighborhood kids setting off illegal firecrackers down the street as I write this. The cats are curious about the noise.

Over the last several months, I’ve continued playing with vintage camera equipment but I’ve slowly been transitioning from shooting with vintage roll film cameras to SLR and DSLR cameras with a variety of vintage lenses. I started out with a KMZ Helios 44-2 lens that came with a Zenit SLR. I’d been wanting a Russian camera for Commie Camera Day. I used it to shoot photos of some vintage Russian MIGs. Then I picked up an M42 to EOS adapter so I could play with the lens on my Canon 40D.

In April I found a bargain Yashica YUS 135mm f2.8 lens. With a Y/C to EOS adapter it works great on the 40D. In May I came across a Soligor 300mm f4.5 with Nikon mount. I can use it on the 40D with, you guessed it, a Nikon to EOS adapter but it also mounts on Susan’s old Nikon FM as well. The Trinity river basin picked this time to sprout millions of bright yellow Mexican Hat flowers, turning the Trinity Greenbelt into a yellow belt. I hauled all my new old lenses along and tried them out, along with my old old Canon 300mm f4.

I’ve continued experimenting with film as well. With the help of Steve Reeves, I managed to get some color photos from a roll of 1968 Ektachrome that I’d found at an estate sale.

Other than photography, nothing new on the art front. Despite our clock doing really well in last year’s SEED auction, I wasn’t able to get in this year. But I’m still hoping to be involved with this year’s ArtCon somehow, if not as an artist, at least as a volunteer.

One project that has been taking up lots of spare time lately is scanning. I’ve been scanning family photos, negatives, slides, and documents dating from the early 1900s to the present. I’ve scanned several thousand items already and there are many, many more still to do.

I’m still taking it easy on DPRG and Makerspace activities but I’m beginning to feel a little more motivated and may try to get a project or two going again soon. Ed and I have been talking about Noise Boundary a little lately, so more robotic music hardware is one possibility.

Syndicated 2011-07-05 02:48:02 from Steevithak of the Internet

Goodbye Camerapedia. Hello Camera-Wiki.org

When I became interested in vintage cameras, I discovered an invaluable website called Camerapedia. It was a huge wiki created by a vintage camera geeks from around the world with photos and specs for thousands of cameras. I started contributing in a minor way with what little I could; a new Argus C page here or a new link for the Bilora Bella page there.

In January, I visited Camerapedia to look up some information on a new Kodak Retina IIa. What I found instead was a disturbing discussion about Camerapedia itself. One of Camerapedia’s most prolific contributors had revealed some inside information about a brewing take-over of the site. Brandon Stone, the website’s founder and, unfortunately, sole owner of the Camerapedia domain name had entered into some sort of secret negotiations with an unnamed company to sell the domain.

There was a lot of concern about the refusal of the parties involved to offer any explanation or even name the company. It turned out they may have been justified as the company was Wikia, not exactly a well-liked name in the Wiki community. For those not in the know, Wikia operates something like the Borg from Star Trek. They move from one free community wiki to another, assimilating them through unfriendly, if not unethical, means. The content from each wiki is moved to Wikia’s ad farm, the old domain name redirected, and Wikia takes control of the administration of the Wiki, leaving the community as little more than unpaid workers supporting Wikia ad profits.

Obviously no wiki wants this, so how does Wikia get away with it? One of Wikia’s tricks is to target a wiki in which a single person controls the domain name. They offer a tempting sum of money to this one person to sell Wikia the domain name. Wikia then announces to the community that they’re going to “help” the community by providing them free hosting. This is the part where a Borg representative shows up on the main viewscreen of the Enterprise and says, “You will be assimilated, resistance is futile. Your technology will be adapted to service the Borg.

By the time the Camerpedia community realized what was happening, the domain name had already been lost and only days remained before the domain became nothing but a redirect to Wikia’s servers. Fortunately, things didn’t go as smoothly as Wikia had hoped. A rebel force quickly formed among Camerpedias admins and contributors. Even though I’d been only a minor contributor, I had the privilege of becoming technical lead for the “rebel alliance”.

It was January 25 and time was critical. Wikia put the Camerpedia site into read-only mode that day, which meant they’d started the assimilation process and we now had only hours left. During the day I began receiving page lists and other information from inside sympathizers. Luck would have it that this was a Tuesday, so I skipped my usual DPRG Robot Builders Night Out meeting and stayed late at the office coding.

I set up a database and installed MediaWikia on a local server. Meanwhile, a Perl script was collecting XML exports of pages and edit histories from Camerpedia. By midnight, the export was complete and I started loading the data into my local MediaWiki. For a 10,000 page wiki, this was a time consuming process that continued throughout the night.

Without direct access to Camerapedia’s database, it wasn’t possible to get user account info. None of the sympathetic admins had access to the data either, so the backup plan was to export the public user listing and grab all the user profile pages. However, Wikia finished the assimilation and the old site went dead before that could be completed. I had a partial user listing and was able to get a large number of user profile pages, however. I wrote a quick Perl script that evening to generated random passwords and create an importable CSV file of user data.

Thursday evening, I skipped my usual Dallas Makerspace meeting and spent the time reconstructing the correct MediaWiki configuration to make the site actually work. Camerapedia relied on an assortment of MediaWiki extensions that took some guessing to figure out. I hadn’t thought to save the old version info page and Wikia reconfigured things on their assimilated version of the site.

While I was busy with geeky stuff, Voxphoto and others worked on selecting a new name and other organizational issues. As you may have guessed, the site is now called Camera-Wiki.org. Simple but descriptive; plus it had the advantage of all three major TLDs being available as well twitter and Facebook namespaces.

There were still more minor hurdles over the next weeks as we operated largely in secret. The new website was live on a local development server but before we could launch we had to find inexpensive scalable hosting. The community was already making donations to pay for the hosting. It seemed like a conflict of interest to host this at my facility, so I suggested Dreamhost. I’d had a good experience with Dallas Makerspace’s MediaWiki site hosted there. We opted for two virtual private servers, one running MySQL and one running Apache. Low-end VPS systems are not as fast as physical servers but are easily scalable, allowing us to start out cheap and scale as traffic increased.

Voxphoto started a Camera-Wiki flickr group and we began quietly letting other contributors know what we were up to. Membership in our group grew quickly and thousands of photos began pouring in. As with the original Camerapedia, the new Camera-Wiki.org, doesn’t host photos. We embed flickr photos hosted by the individual contributors. This saves money and bandwidth for us and makes it much easier for people to contribute a photo.

However, the hosting arrangement with flickr presented one difficulty for us. Camerapedia had a policy of accepting non-CC-licensed photos by using a blanket usage license that the user agreed to when submitting a photo to the Camerapedia flickr group. The wording mentioned Camerpedia by name. With a different name, it was no longer clear that we still had permission to use those images. Time to write another script.

This time I wrote a PHP program that used the MediaWiki API to export a list of every flickr image in the wiki. Then it used the flickr API to retrieve the license, user, and group affiliations for each photo. If a photo was CC licensed, we ignored it, if the user was a member of our new group and had already granted permission, we ignored it. What remained was a list of about 1,500 photos with potential copyright issues. This list was moved into a page on the wiki and we crowdsourced the problem to the editors. In most cases we were able to contact the photographers and get permission, in others we were able to replace them with CC images or images from our own group.

Interestingly, Wikia faces a similar problem with their assimilated version of the Camerapedia site. Many of the contributors allowed their photos to be used under a CC license that prohibited commercial use. Wikia is a for-profit company whose business is using those photos to sell ads. So far, they’ve made no effort to remove these photos, despite multiple direct complaints from some of the photographers asking for their removal.

We’re now very close to making an official public launch and things have slowed down enough for me to write this overly verbose blog post. I need to give credit here to all the Camerapedia admins and contributors like Voxphoto, Uwe, Dirk, Hans, HaarFager, Süleymandemir and many others, who did a lot of hard work to make this happen (sorry, I know I’m leaving out a lot of names there!). Voxphoto has been busy working on the new Camera-wiki Blog and keeping our Twitter feed going. He also designed our interim logo (a bit of a joke on the idea of forking a camera site). Vox and the other editors have also done a massive amount of work on the wiki itself, adding new pages and improving old ones.

I should also thank the many MediaWiki developers, experts, and users I sought help from along the way. More than once I was helped by people who identified themselves as “Wikia survivors”, some whose wikis had successfully escaped the takeover as we seem close to doing and others who lost their wiki and eventually gave up and moved on to other interests.

Finally, this is still an ongoing struggle and you can help. Let people know that instead of Camerapedia, they should be using Camera-Wiki.org now. Camerpedia was a well-recognized source of vintage camera information and there are links to it all over the web. Unfortunately, all those links now point to a domain that redirects to Wikia and their ad-encrusted, outdated version of the content. If you see one of those Camerapedia links, take a moment to change it or email the webmaster and let them know to change it – from camperpedia to camera-wiki.org – and maybe before long we can say for sure that the Borg didn’t win this one.

Syndicated 2011-02-27 19:13:04 from Steevithak of the Internet

Goals and Resolutions

January is the time of year for setting goals and checking to see how I did on last year’s goals. It’s probably more interesting to hear about things I’ve done or tried and failed to do than to hear about what I plan to do in the future. I’ll stick with the former. We get enough of the latter from our politicians.

I achieved a lot of my minor goals and resolutions last year. I relaunched my blog, made reasonably regular blog posts, and consolidated my online presence under a single name, I got a couple of nice photo essays into Robot magazine, I did two photos shoots with models, got some photos into a museum exhbiit (at their request even!), I repaired and shot usable photos with several vintage cameras, I finally participated in the 24 hour video race!

I also did a few things that weren’t on my ToDo list but were still really cool, like speaking at Pecha Kucha, demonstrating robotic music to an art class in Denton, hearing the Buzzcocks play live, painting highway pillars in Deep Ellum, and meeting lots of cool people.

But the one really big thing from 2010 has to be helping to get a Dallas Hackerspace started. Back in January 2010, Ed and I hatched the plan. Through the first half of the year Ed and I were meeting weekly at Cafe Brazil or where ever we could find free WiFi, planning and organizing, trying keep things rolling. I also got invaluable advice starting out from folks like Sarah Jane Semrad. During the first half of the year, it sometimes felt like Ed and I were pushing a train up a steep hill. I took on way more projects than I could possibly do but somehow managed to get most of them mostly done (thanks to getting lots of help from friends).

Towards the end of 2010, Ed took a job in Pittsburgh but things had gathered so much momentum by then, that instead pushing a train up a hill, at that point it felt like the train had crested the hill and was accelerating down the other side, with me hanging on for dear life. The group gained so many new members that it took on a life of its own. It didn’t quite turn out the way either Ed or I expected but that’s a good thing – it proves the group can survive without me or any one person at this point. I’m looking forward to being just a member of Dallas Makerspace in 2011 and having more free time to devote to other ventures.

There were goals I didn’t meet in 2010. I had set a goal of doing one Noise Boundary performance per month but that fizzled out after April; initially because I was too busy with the hackerspace and later because my partner in noise, Ed, left Dallas. I utterly failed to get the long-awaited libxml2 HTML parser patch into mod_virgule. I did spend time on it and it’s very close with only one annoying bug yet to solve. I also have software patches for Apache and ChucK that didn’t get submitted. Garage renovation plans were thwarted by a series of set backs.

Some of those things will get bumped to my 2011 list along with a lot of new goals and resolutions. Will I get anything done in 2011? Stay tuned to find out. I plan to have fun trying at least.

Syndicated 2011-01-23 05:33:38 from Steevithak of the Internet

Random Holiday Updates

It’s nice having a few days off for Thanksgiving! Yesterday we had a nice family Thanksgiving dinner. Afterwards our family tends to break into two parts, those who want to watch sports on TV and those who don’t. I’m the latter group of course. We played a variety of games including a four hour marathon session of Mexican Train dominoes. I lost pretty badly this time (but I expect to make a comeback during the Christmas holidays).

My niece also tried out us old folks on an iPhone app that guesses the names of real or fictional characters by asking a series of questions. The trick is, even if you beat it, the app learns the identity at the end and adds the personality to its growing database, making it harder for the next person to win. Susan tried first with a fictional British spy but it guessed Napoleon Solo pretty quickly.

I had better luck with a fictional character from the 1930 pulps. After asking a zillion questions, it finally gave up, making me the only winner of the evening. Who was my character? Professor Jameson, an Earth scientist who was the first fictional character to be put into a cryosleep-like state after death; awakened millions of years later by a machine race called the Zoromes who placed his brain into a robot body and reactivated it. An obscure character but an important one, inspiring both Asimov’s robot stories and Robert Ettinger, the “father of cryonics” in the real world. Collecting a fairly complete set of Professor Jameson stories is only possible with the help of eBay and a lot of research. But it was kind of cool to point out afterwards that I had authored a fair amount of the Wikipedia article on Neil R. Jones, author of the Professor Jameson stories.

Besides holiday fun, there’s been a quite a lot of activity since my blog post last month. The TEDxSMU project went very well. There’s a nice TEDxSMU recap. with links to photos and video over on the Dallas Makerspace blog. Speaking of Dallas Makerspace, we also pulled off a successful first annual open house. Blog post and video will be up soon. We’re estimating between 150 – 200 people were there; way more than we expected. We also did a small art and technology discussion at Art Bytes, part of the Dallas Museum of Art’s late night program.

The downtime during the holidays has also given me time to ponder my over optimistic list of 2010 New Year’s goals and plans. But it’s not too late and I still hope to check a few more of them off before 2011 rolls around. In fact, I better get to work on that right now…

Syndicated 2010-11-27 00:12:10 from Steevithak of the Internet

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