Older blog entries for steve (starting at number 94)

As I write this, my skin cells are dying by the thousands and their cellular contents are being digested by the excretions of hundreds of larval trombiculid parasites, or, as we call 'em here in Texas, chiggers. I can't say exactly what kind they are because they're too small to see and most of the hundreds of known species can be found in Texas. We have a lot of other fun critters here, like killer bees and mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus. I don't mind them so much - at least you can see them coming and take a swat at them or run away.

So, how did this sorry state of affairs come about, you may ask. Susan and I were at Campion Trails trying once again to get the perfect macro photograph of a Civil Bluet Damselfly. This particular damselfly is less than an inch long, so getting any sort of shot at all requires one to get pretty close. We ran across a lot of Civil Bluets and Brown damselflies in one particular spot off the main trail near the river. For about five minutes I was perched on the ground in the leaf litter.

There are two main species of nasty flesh-eating chiggers in Texas (most species eat things other than humans, like crops). One prefers grassy areas and leaf litter while the other prefers swampy areas and decaying wood. I was in an area that both species would have loved.

One thing you need to know about chiggers is that they hang out together in small clumps by the thousands, commonly called "mite islands". I don't think anyone knows exactly why and there's a shortage of acarologists to study such things these days. If you enter the mite island, your luck runs out, while a person standing right next to you will remain completely unscathed. As you've probably guessed, I was kneeling in a mite island. Susan, standing a few feet away, remained completely unscathed.

At the time I didn't notice anything unusual. The little alien parasites are too small to see even when they're hundreds of them walking around on you. They have to get between your skin and something to push against (like socks or an elastic waistband) in order to get enough traction to jam their head through your flesh. Once in place, they start injecting digestive fluids that disintegrate and dissolve skin cells. But it can take hours before there's any noticable sensation.

Usually, a photo expedition to the wilderness of Texas would be followed by thorough decontamination procedures; showering, washing clothes, looking for blood-sucking parasites, etc. But Campion Trails is a local rollerblading and bicycling trail where the only danger would normally be tripping over an armadillo or being hit by a startled mourning dove. So we drove home and had dinner. I watched Futurama and spent an hour or two coding while I had two socks full of chiggers that were slowly eating their way north.

Just prior to falling asleep that night I recall having some vague notion that I must have a mosquito bite or two on my ankle because I felt a slight itch. I awoke the next morning to the realization that I had a few chigger bites. Somewhere around 100 on my right ankle, about 30 on my left ankle and 20 or so more scattered around in other locations. And, of course, other chiggers from my socks would have spread around to anything they touched and there were probably quite a few living in the bed. There was lots of cleaning that day. Washing sheets, washing clothes, vacuuming rugs.

If the presence of chiggers in Texas is a bad thing, it's partially compensated for by being the home of the best known remedy for chigger bites, Chigarid. Anyone who's had a chigger bite can tell you that those puny medicines you'd use for a bee sting or a mosquito bite won't do much to relive the pain and itching of a chigger bite. You need the atomic bomb of itch medication. Chigarid is a noxious and highly flammable combination of collodion (a dangerous 19th century photographic fluid, later used as an explosive), phenol (yes, the carcinogenic stuff phenolic resin is made from), and camphor. This bizarre combination of toxic waste basically seals the bite, and sometimes the chigger, under an airtight layer of deadly plastic from which nothing will ever escape alive.

If Chigarid isn't available, I've heard that clear fingernail polish makes a tolerable substitute. I've also heard tell that meat tenderizer, a common cure for jellyfish stings, may bring partial relief (I never quite bought into this though - the chigger is using its own meat tenderizer already and I don't see why you'd want to help it!) . Of course those who have multiple chigger bites may consider immediate amputation of the affected limb preferable to all the above.

The feeling of having your flesh digested by parasites is not a good one. But Texas chiggers don't carry any dangerous viruses like some of our other insects. So in a week or two I should be good as new.

I'm begining to think the hydrogen economy may be closer than we realized. There has been a sudden increase in hydrogen FUD lately. This makes me think somebody out there is getting scared that a conversion to hydrogen might hurt their profits. First we had the report from MIT that said vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells would have just as much green house gas emissions as traditional fossil-fueled cars, so there would be no reason to favor them - oh, but wait, in the fine print we read that the report assumes we're going to burn fossil fuel to make the hydrogen to put in the fuel cells that power the cars. The whole point in converting to hydrogen is so we're not burning fossil fuels, of course.

And now we've got a Caltech study that tells us using hydrogen will damage the ozone layer - oh, but wait, in the fine print we read that the report assumes that 20% of all hydrogen produced will accidently escape into the atomosphere. So, are we supposed to believe this would cause worse damage than if 20% of all crude oil leaked out of oil tankers into the oceans? I'll still go with hydrogen thank you very much. Also in the fine print of the Caltech study, you'll discover that it's all just based on guesswork and no one really has any hard data that proves even the massive hydrogen emissions they hope for would cause any damage.

Next, I suppose they'll be telling us hydrogen is dangerous because, unlike safe fossil fuels, it might catch fire or a that a switch to hyrdogen would result in more people being run over by hydrogen powered cars. It all makes one wonder who's paying for these loony anti-hydrogen studies all of the sudden though...

1 Jun 2003 (updated 1 Jun 2003 at 04:42 UTC) »

Susan and I just returned for a second viewing of The Matrix Reloaded. Susan has decided that it's really a musical rather than an action movie; with well choreographed martial arts set to music in place of more traditional dancing. Could be. Seemed to me that bits of it were very derivative of Naqoyqatsi - a lot of the music sounded like knock-off Philip Glass and several of the 3D, swirly, green wireframe visuals looked awfully similar - that's not exactly a complaint since I like to listen to both real and simulated Philip Glass music. I could have done without "The Twins" - they were boring, predictable, and totally uninteresting. Hopefully we won't be seeing them next time around. I read lots of complaints in reviews about the length of the "rave" scene and about Morpheus' speech in the temple but I found both of them appropriate. The Morpheus speech seemed like a nice Shakespearean touch. I could imagine Henry V (or Captain Kirk) giving the same speech in another time and place.

We finally agreed on what happened in the room with the architect this time. And we're more or less in agreement that some variant of the meta-matrix theory will likely turn out to be true. The only part that still doesn't quite add up is why Neo has to fly all the way across town to get to Trinity if she's falling off the same building he was in? And, if she's supposed to really be all the way across town - why is the backup power system to Neo's building located in another building that far away - that doesn't even begin to make sense. (yeah, and if it's supposed to be a backup to the power grid itself, that means Neo's building doesn't have its own backup power. Equally unbelievable; even the little building our office is in has backup power.) Is it supposed to be some sort of Superman making time go backwards by flying around in circles thing? Who knows... But, the first Matrix had the whole nutty thing with machines using human body heat for power (ummm, didn't anyone think about how many megawatts of power would be needed to support all those humans just to drain off a few lousy btu's of heat?). But movies wouldn't be any fun to watch and discuss if there weren't a few plot holes to argue over. And this was definitely a fun movie to watch, lest anyone get the wrong idea.

It's been a busy month but I can't let the month get away without posting at least one news update! A lot of my time lately has been sucked up helping a variety of local groups with computer issues.

Susan completed an update of the website for the Frisco Association for the Arts. It looks a bit more artsy than the old, interim site. We're just starting some work on the Arts of Collin County site but it's got a ways to go before it's ready for prime time.

I also helped set up my first foal cam recently. Barry Jordan has a couple of horses out at his ranch and wanted a webcam so everyone could watch the birth of a foal that was due this month. He's limited to a dial-up link and MS Windows so it presented a number of challenges. Barry and Eric Yundt (both fellow DPRG members) had been working on it for a while and they actually did 99% of the work but I got drafted to help out and provided a windows binary of wget that solved the last remaining roadblock to getting the image from the webcam to the windows box and then up to the server. The dial-up link limits the refresh rate of the image but it's still kinda cool.

Speaking of DPRG stuff, I've been spending a good bit of time helping get the new DPRG computer lab up to speed. Using a couple of Linksys routers I picked up on eBay, we've now got high-speed Internet access. I've got a Red Hat 7.3 box set up to act as the LAN server and it's also going to host development environments for several of the microcontrollers commonly used in the group. So far, I've built GCC cross-compilers for the Atmel AVR and Motorola 68k chips. I've also installed Pete Gray's Linux port of Small-C for New Micros' IsoPod (these are really cool little boards). More to come as I get time.

I upgraded my workstation at the office to Red Hat 9 a couple of weeks ago and was pleased with the results. It really should have been called 8.1 as it seems very much like 8.0 but without a lot of the bugs. The GUI looks great; anti-aliased fonts, professional looking icons, I can run the occasional KDE program without it looking all goofy like it did on previous versions of Gnome. Overall it looks way better than Windows XP but not as good as OS X (yet).

After a week or so of playing with 9 on my workstation, I got brave enough to upgrade one of our servers this week. The biggest problem I ran into on the server was that wu-ftpd is gone and there was no explanation of why or what replaced it. There was just no ftp service, no wu-ftp entry in the xinetd directory, and RPM -q indicated wu-ftpd wasn't installed. I eventually found that vsftpd replaced it but isn't running by default. My initial impression is that vsftpd is a piece of junk. The first problem is that it has some sort of problem running under xinetd so you have to run it as daemon. Once I got it running, I started getting complaints that it was corrupting files. A little investigation revealed that vsftpd pretends to support ASCII transfer mode but really ignores ASCII mode requests and just sends everything in binary mode resulting in corrupted text files. After a bit of poking around, I found a setting in the config file that turns off this bizarre behaviour. I suppose it was the frequent security issues with wu-ftpd that prompted Red Hat to make the switch but I'd much prefer they'd picked something else to switch to (and it would have been nice if they could mention this sort of drastic change in the documentation somewhere)...

Stephen Hawking Lecture Report

Susan and I drove down to Woodland Hills Friday to hear a public lecture by Stephen Hawking. He has been in Texas most of this month working with the new Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics at TAMU. The lecture was held at the outdoor Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavillion (yes, the same Mitchells that paid for the TAMU physics institute).

The lecture, titled A Brane New World, gave a nice little introduction to M-theory, an offspring of string theory that attempts to unify Quantum Mechanics with General Relativity. It also covered the structure of the universe and why we seem to be able to perceive only 3 spatial dimensions when most modern theories of space-time say there should at least 10 spatial dimensions.

Having shown up early, we waited in line to get in for a half hour and then sat for about 45 minutes before the lecture started and observed the audience. There seemed to be three major groups represented: physics students and faculty, a contingent of wheelchair-bound disabled, and a spectrum of geeky regular folks like us. The place was packed and it's actually nice to realize there are enough people interested in a public lecture on science to pack a place like that.

Eventually, our wait was over and the lights went down. There followed a series of introductions including one by George and Cynthia Mitchell. George noted, among other things that, we should thank his wife Cynthia "'cause she owns the damn pavillion and gave me permission to hold Stephen's lecture here". After the last introduction left the stage empty, Hawking emerged from backstage, rolling much slower than I expected. I suspect the slower speed is required to give him time to operated the controls and steer. He made the entire 30 second trip to the microphone at center stage to the sound of a standing ovation and at least one enthusiastic shout of "GO HAWKING!" (at which Stephen showed a really big smile - something I've never seen him do in interviews).

An attendent showed up briefly to move Stephen's hand from the wheelchair controls back to his computer input paddle. He immediately began composing and seconds later said "Howdy!", much to the delight of his Texas audience. One thing you don't realize from seeing edited TV interviews is how long it takes for him to compose each sentence. He talks with a roughly 50% duty cycle. For each sentence he speaks, he spends about the same amount of time selecting words and building the sentence. This time is reduced somewhat when he is giving a public lecture because he has pre-composed much of his talk. Most of the time it appeared he merely needed to queue up the correct sentence or paragraph which took only 10-15 seconds of silence. But when he wanted to add a spontaneous statement or change something there was a more significant time delay.

The brief periods of silence punctating the lecture gave it a very unusual quality. I wonder if it was not unlike hearing R. Buckminster Fuller speak - he was also known for punctuating his public lectures with long periods of silence during which he would appear lost in thought.

The actual content of the lecture mostly consisted of describing M-Theory and the brane model of multi-dimensional space-time. The way the theory goes, there are 10 or 11 spatial dimensions but we see only three of them because most are curled up so small that we can't detect them. One of those extra dimensions, however, may be as much as 1cm in size and allows multiple 3-dimensional "branes", one of which is this thing we mistakenly call "the universe". The next brane along the way might have some other total different 3D "universe" on it. The interesting thing is that while most of physics is limited to the 3D branes, gravity can pass beyond into adjacent branes. If we were able to detect gravity from matter in an adjacent brane, it would appear to have the qualities of matter without being matter - dark matter. The term "shadow" was used to describe contents of adjacent branes. Shadow worlds, shadow civilizations, etc. Lots of good fodder for SF writers in there.

He pointed out a couple of ways in which these theories could be proven by observations of tiny black holes or other phenomena (and mentioned that he'd really like for one of those phenomena to be observed because, if it were, he'd probably get a Nobel prize. ;-)

Anytime I hear these modern, multi-dimensional space-time theories, I can't help thinking back to R. Buckminster Fuller, who believed in 12 dimensional space way before it was popular. Using only some string and a ping pong ball, Fuller concluded that there were four (not three) observable spatial dimensions, each composed of 3 lesser-dimensions that did not allow spatial movement but only tiny rotational movements (I've forgotten the term; "turbining"?). He believed that where we went wrong was in the arbitrary decision that spatial dimensions had to be at 90 degree angles to each other. In a Universe with 3 dimensions at 90 degree angles, he reasoned, a cube should be inherently stable - but it isn't. A tetrahedron is inherently stable, however, because it has four planes, each of which is in one of the four basic spatial dimensions. Unfortunately Fuller has almost joined Tesla in being so obsessed on by nuts that many scientists tend to discount his work these days. one has to wonder what a modern physicist like Hawking could do taking Fuller's 4D space as a starting point.

One of Hawking's descriptions of the structure of the real universe was a hyperspatial bubble. The bubble's surface is the 3D brane that we think of "the universe" but, in reality, it may simply be a side effect of all the hyper-dimensional fun going on inside the volume of the bubble. Everything we known may just be a reflection or shadow of reality. He noted that his is somewhat analogous to a hologram and explained that he was an expert on holograms because he had played one on Star Trek:TNG. This segued into a brief video clip from the Descent episode with Hawking, Newton, Einstein, and Mr. Data playing poker on the holodeck of the Enterprise.

He closed with a mention of the Large Hadron Collider Project and the hope that it could create artificial black holes that might help prove or disprove M-theory. It struct me as ironic that he was here in Texas, home of the ill-fated Super Conducting Super Collider, talking about the need for a giant collider. If it weren't for politics, we probably could have presented him with some home-grown Texas black holes (no doubt they'd have been twice as big as those puny European black holes).

10 Mar 2003 (updated 11 Mar 2003 at 04:40 UTC) »

Sinus update

It's been about one week since the surgery. I'm off all but a few of the drugs, I'm back to my usual routine at work, and I feel great; better than I've felt in a year. I can breathe, taste, and smell. I feel a few years younger...

ODP/dmoz update

The latest RDF dump error report shows no XML character errors for the third week running. Invalid UTF-8 sequences are down from hundreds to just two this week. It's definitely the best dump ever and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that this week's dump will be 100% error-free at the character encoding level. In anticipation of that, I've started compiling an ODP RDF ToDo list of other bugs and optimizations that need work. I've made some progress with one of the oft-requested features for the dump which is to break the full 1GB dump into smaller, category-specific dumps. While testing things out, I'm hosting the smaller dumps locally but if they start seeing a lot of use, hopefully they'll get moved to an ODP server with enough bandwidth to handle them.

The day of surgery arrives

Susan and I showed up at the hospital outpatient area Friday morning at 8:30am. For 15 minutes or so, I signed permission and disclaimer forms. Then we were given a map showing the route to the outpatient waiting area. We sat there watching TV for another 15 minutes. Then, about 9:00am a nurse escorted me to a private room while Susan stayed behind. I had to strip and put on one of those crazy hosptial gowns that were designed to fit some non-human species of creature. I also got a little pair of blue hospital slippers; essentially socks with little diamond-shaped, rubber traction areas stuck on the bottom.

Then I waited. And waited. At one point a phone began ringing loudly. After a little investigation, I discovered the ringing phone to be one of several phones underneath one of the two beds. It rang for a good five minutes. (I've noticed that anywhere you go in a hospital, phones are ringing but no one ever answers them). I went back to waiting.

About 9:40am, a couple of nurses showed up and started in with all sorts of preparations and testing. One of them went through a list of questions about my medical history and had me sign more disclaimers while the other took two blood samples, my blood pressure, temperature, an EKG, and finally a urine sample. Interestingly, neither of them had any idea why I was there or what sort of procedure I was going to get. They gave me a Vioxx tablet (a heavy duty pain killer) and then griped that I drank too much water to swallow it. This progressed into a more general complaint that I wasn't supposed to drink any water for 12 hours prior to surgery. I said I'd been told not to eat any food for 12 hours, but nobody said anything about water. They said water was food and I said it wasn't. I convinced them I hadn't had much water and they eventually dropped the matter and left me alone again.

10 minutes later a nurse showed up with Susan in tow. I gave Susan a bag with my clothes and turned over my glasses to her. Then she was sent to a different waiting area (the "day surgery waiting area"). I was taken to a surgery prep room. The nurse who escorted me there asked what I was in for (I still hadn't run into anyone who knew what sort of surgery I was supposed to have - very reassuring). When I told her I was having sinus surgery, she started telling me how brave I was because sinus surgery was unbelievably painful and she would never let anyone do surgery on her nose because she didn't think she'd be able to bear the pain. Great... I told her it couldn't be too bad if I was getting general anesthesia; I shouldn't feel anything. Yeah, but wait until after you wake up, she said.

Crazy light show

Once in the prep room, the anesthesiologist showed up and started hooking up all sorts of tubes and hardware to my bed. Eventually she stuck a needle in my arm and gave me some sort of drug that she said would relax me. Wow, the drug hit me pretty quick. I don't know if I was any more relaxed but I spent the next 10 minutes or so trying adjust the vertical hold on my vision because my feet and the rest of the room were slowly revolving around my head. Things started getting a bit fuzzy here but the doctor showed up briefly and talked to me while the room rotated. He said he'd done more than 1500 of these procedures and never had any problems. Many of the patients he did were "revisions" - that is, he was correcting screwed up procedures done by other doctors. I asked him how my condition rated among the 1500 or so he'd seen. He said it was definitely going to be one of the more memorable ones he'd done. I lay there a while longer watching a clock precede my feet up the opposite wall and over the top of my head. It was about 10:45am.

The room had slowed from complete revolutions to simply bouncing up and down several feet when two nurses came in, got my bed and rolled it down a series of corridors and through some operating room doors. The anethesiologist was waiting and said, "you may feel a slight burning sensation" as she adjusted something outside my range of vision. I asked something to the effect of, "so this is it, I'm going out now?". I don't recall an answer...but about that time I ceased to exist.

There followed some disjointed memories of lying in a bed with various people standing over me. At one point a nurse was asking if I was feeling okay...someone was asking me if I had any relatives waiting for me at the hospital...it was about 4pm...the doctor was telling me that my sinuses were as totally screwed up as he thought from the CT scans and that they'd sent stuff off to the lab for testing to see if it was baterial or fungal...Susan and someone else were standing over the bed talking about pharamcies and how I was taking a long time to wake up.

Susan apparently decided to go to a nearby pharamcy to pick up some of my drugs while I continued to phase in out of reality. Eventually, she was over my bed again and I seemed to be going through about 15 minute cycles of relative coherence and unconsciousness. During one of my waking cycles, I decided we'd better get out while we could and convinced Susan I was ready to go. I don't remember much after that but we did eventually make it home where I slept for quite a few more hours.

Ending the day in the ER

The good news is that I'd awakened several hours later at home and was not in much pain at all. I felt a bit like someone had punched me in the nose. I also have a vast array of drugs to take. Zyrtec, liquibid, prednesone, augmentin, amoxil, hydrocodone, and some sort of nasal spray. Now for those who haven't been reading my weblog and don't know me, I should preface the following by telling you that I suffered from reflux fairly badly some years ago and have some scarring and strictures in my esophagus that cause it be a bit narrow. My esophagus was dialated to about 6mm and for all practical purposes works fine again. However, I can't swallow things larger than 6mm, obviously.

An 875mg Augmentin is 21mm long, 10mm wide, and 7mm thick. It's a big pill. There is no way it's going to fit down a 6mm esophagus. This would have been perfectly obvious to me any other time so I suppose I was still spaced out from anesthesia. I popped one of those in my mouth and swallowed it. Big mistake. There are two major tight spots - one at the top and one at the sphincter where the esophagus attaches to the stomach. The pill hit the strictures at the top and I knew instantly I was in trouble. After some major gagging, it move passed the top strictures and was now in the middle section of my esophagus. Having something stuck there is both fairly painful and debilitating - your brain sort of shuts off and you get tunnel vision and go into some sort survival mode where all your awarness is focused on trying to swallow.

I told Susan it wasn't going down and wasn't going to come up now that it had passed the halfway mark. And I knew from past experience that the pain was going to be fairly intense when it hit the sphincter. We decided help would be, well, helpful, at this point and Susan called 911. An ambulance showed up fairly quickly and dragged me off to the Irving hospital ER. They had looked at the Augmentin pills at the house and were fairly impressed that anyone could swallow what they termed "those horse pills". Most of the ambulance trip was spent trying to explain that my nose bleed had nothing to do with the problem at hand and that the pill was stuck because of scar tissue from reflux. One of the ambulance guys spent the whole trip trying to figure out how to spell my name.

I then had to explain all the same stuff to the ER staff. This was not the busy ER you see on TV. This was a big empty ER with a lot of bored doctors and nurses hanging around. They didn't really seem to have much of an idea what to do with me other than stand around, watch, and tell each other that I'd swallowed a really big pill.

All this time the pill had been slowly moving down my esophagus and finally hit the sphincter. There were several moments of really intense pain and I had a couple of stomach convulsions and then... nothing. I told them that I thought the pill had made it into my stomach. I asked for some water so I could test my theory by trying to swallow. And, indeed, all was okay again. It tooks us another half hour to get out of the ER and back home. I got a replacement prescription for the Augmentin - they don't have pills small enough to swallow, so I ended up getting a liquid version that tastes pretty nasty instead.

Despite my ER adventure, I've spent the last two days resting and actually feel pretty good now.

The day of reckoning for my sinuses has arrived. I check into the hospital tomorrow. Nearly every one of my sinuses is a solid mass, so the doctor will be doing several types of endoscopic surgery to get things working again. Even though it's an out patient procedure, my case is complicated enough that it's estimated to take 3 hours or so. Because of the time involved, general anesthesia will be used. I don't know yet if the doctor is using the latest laser hardware or the older rotating burr gizmo. I believe the imaging data from my earlier CT scans will be used for live tracking of the endoscope location during the procedure.

So, what are the actual procedures, I'm sure everyone is asking. Well, the first is a Total Ethmoidectomy. The posterior and maxillary ethmoids are sinuses located between the eyes. They have a honeycomb like structure made of thin bone. The goal of the procedure is to destroy and remove the honeycomb of air cells, leaving a single cavity that will drain more easily.

Then we have a Bilateral Frontal Resection and Bilateral Anterior Resection which seem to be nothing but fancy medical talk for, "we're going to blast some holes in both sides of the front and back" of something. (In this case, the something is more of my sinuses.)

And, finally, a Bilateral Sphenoidotomy. This involves enlarging openings in the sphenoid sinus. The sphenoid sinus is very close to the optic nerves and the carotid artery - let's hope I don't sneeze in the middle of this one!

Why does this whole thing remind me of the scene in Total Recall where Quaid removes the tracking device from his nose...

ODP RDF Exports

The RDF exports seem to be coming out like clockwork again from ODP. The first was riddled with errors but the second is much, much better. No illegal XML characters in either file and only one had UTF-8 errors. With luck, the next one will be error free. I'm going to attempt to create smaller RDFs of ODP subcats for those who only need one or two categories and don't like downloading the full 1GB RDF.

Gecko to music conversion using 3 bit tuples

I was driving home from work recently after a particularly stressful day when some random synapses fired in my brain (or perhaps just burned out from stress) and an idea formed...

Standard diatonic musical scales have eight notes, a power of 2 that can be represented by a 3 bits. We're used to thinking of our data primarily in terms of 8 bit bytes. But any file on your computer is just a stream of bits and could be processed in 3 bit chunks rather than 8 bit chunks. So, I thought, that means every file on my hard disk is potentially a piece of music.

I was up late playing with the Perl pack and unpack functions and eventually cranked out a simple byte to note converter that will take any arbitrary file as input and produces MIDI note data as output. After re-attaching a somewhat disused Yamaha keyboard to my Linux box, I picked a file to test the program with. I started small with a 1478 byte plain text file that contained a Backus Naur diagram of the Ring Tone Text Transfer Language. The result, while a bit odd, could be described as music of sorts. With seeming success at hand, I looked for more interesting data.

Next, I took a 24Kb JPEG photo of Nimon, one of our Geckos, and converted it. The resulting music had a Danny Elfman-like urgency to it and was a bit of an improvement over the RTTTL composition. However, the MIDI file was 500Kb and creating it consumed nearly all available memory on my box. It was at this point that I realized the MIDI::Simple module that I'd grabbed from CPAN wasn't really designed for stream use or for large volumes of data. For some reason it wants to hold the entire collection of notes in memory before writing the output.

More interesting though, was that the real Nimon seemed to take an interest in the music created from her image. She came out from under the hollow log she usually sleeps under and stood on top of it holding her head up in the air as if listening. Who knows what a Gecko hears - maybe she was just feeling the vibrations from the sounds and thought an insect was around that needed eating.

No data is lost in the conversion and it should be trivial to convert the MIDI file back into the the original data. In fact, since the music uses only one timbre and is not polyphonic, it shouldn't be too hard to convert from the music itself back to the original data. It's not an efficient data transfer medium, however. Music usually plays at around 96 or so beats per minute, each beat is just 3 bits of the original data. So a 24Kb JPEG becomes an 11 hour musical work!

Despite the inefficiency of music as a data storage or transfer mechanism, tradition says that when a new way of encoding data is found, one has to encode the decss.c file. I present decss.mid, an illegal circumvention device in C Major, Opus 3.

17 Feb 2003 (updated 17 Feb 2003 at 06:45 UTC) »

We received another BSA threat-letter at NCC Friday. That's two in as many weeks. It was the usual collection of vague threats that if we didn't rush out and buy some Microsoft, Adobe, and Macromedia software the BSA might have to search our office for unlicensed software and fine us a few million dollars. This time I called their toll free number and told them to remove us from their mailing list because we were tired of getting lame marketing letters disguised as legal threats. (feel free to call them yourself and let them know what you think of them - hey, it's a free call! 1-877-536-4BSA) I also told them we'd instituted a company-wide policy to discontinue the use of all software products made by BSA members in favor of Free/Open equivalents because of the marketing-by-extortion methods of the BSA. The girl I was talking with claimed they removed our address from their list and, after specifically asking her twice to do so, claimed she had made a note in our file about our new policy. So, will they really remove us from their list or will they put us on the list of companies to target with audits? Time will tell.

ODP finally solved the problem with RDF generation and a new RDF dump showed up on the 13th. The downside is that the dump is still riddled with invalid UTF-8 sequences and illegal XML characters. On the last RDF, I provided offsets of a lot of the errors by waiting for an XML parser to bomb-off and then looking for the problems with a hex editor (which is time consuming when you have to start over on a 1GB file after each error). This time I decided to be lazy and wrote some quick C code to do it for me. Strangely, a search on the net had failed to locate any UTF-8 or XML checkers that would work on arbitrarily large files. And most XML validators don't check for illegal XML characters or invalid UTF-8 sequences, they simple fail unrecoverably when the they hit one. Anyway, I processed the RDF files and posted a list of errors in the latest dump. So with a little luck, the next RDF dumps will be much cleaner.

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