Technology

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We All Live in a Science Fiction Novel

I am writing this on a laptop computer. Here, in the twenty first century, this seems pretty normal, but I thought, how would I have described a laptop computer to my grandfather, who never lived to see one. It would sound like science fiction.

It is like a small metallic briefcase, except when I open it up, it is not empty except for the papers, books, and maybe a slide rule inside. The top part of the inside of the brief case is like a large piece of glass, lit up from behind. On this glass are words and images. With the right commands, I can make pictures I've taken appear on the piece of glass. I can make movies play. There is a small black dot above the glass. It is a camera lens, and I can take a picture as well, which can then be displayed on the glass.

On the lower half of the metallic briefcase, there are two very small gratings. Behind these are speaks,so I can hear the sound of the movies. I can also listen to music or other recordings with the sound coming out of these speakers. On the left side is a small hole where I can insert a small metal plug, with wires than lead up to headphones. These are not like the headphones that bomber pilots used in World War II. They are very small fitting into each ear, instead of encompassing the ear. That way, I can listen to the sounds without disturbing people near me.

Between the two speakers in the lower half of the metal brief case are the keys of a typewriter. Yet unlike the typical arrangement in cascading rows, the keys are all flat, next to one another. The normal letters and numbers are on the keys, but there are special keys with just symbols on them or with abbreviations like 'esc', 'fn', and 'alt'. These keys, together with the normal letters and numbers can be used for writing, the way I am doing now, or for entering the commands that control what is displayed on the piece of glass, or sounds out of the speakers.

Below the keys is a small piece of metal. By moving my fingers around the piece of metal, I can also control the computer. There is a symbol that displays on the glass. As I move my fingers on the piece of metal, the symbol moves around the glass until it is positioned over the section of glass I desire.

Then, there are other things, hidden in this metallic briefcase. There is a battery so it works even when it isn't plugged in. There is a radio. This radio is different from the one you listen to music or the ballgame on. It is used for the briefcase to communicate with others computers around the world. Not only does it receive information, it sends it out as well. Other computers listen for this information, and then send back appropriate information as a response. In face, the pictures, movies or sounds are often information send back over this radio.

It would be more than my grandfather could take in, and the discussion might change to other topics. He might notice a strange small green light flashing from the dog's collar. Inside of the small black box on the dog's collar would be another radio. This one would only receive very simple information. With a different device, I could send messages to the dog's collar making the collar make beeping sounds to call or warn the dog, and if the dog didn't respond, I could send a message that would cause the dog to experience a small amount of pain, an electrical shock. Yes, a device to remotely control the dog.

It is all like science fiction. He might wonder where people ever got such ideas. That, I would say, is a great question. I might point out to him that even his life would seem like science fiction to those a generation or two earlier. Messages sent through the air, like smoke signals that people couldn't see. The ability to capture the reflection on a lake or mirror, and make it permanent in a photograph. Carriages that could be moved around without a horse pulling them.

Last night, my dreams were filled with three dimensional printers. Printing has come a long way from the strike of a key on a ribbon full of ink to make the typed word. It has come along way from the strange smelling mimeographs that my kids have no memory of. It has come a long way from the typesetters craft.

Now, a nozzle sprays rapidly drying ink on a piece of paper, or puts some black dust on the paper that gets stuck to it by a charge from a laser. We take laser printers for granted in our offices and sometimes in our homes. What if, instead of printing on paper, we could print one piece of plastic on top of another to make a three dimensional object? What if we could this with clays, metals, or even wood product? How about with food or living cells? It isn't really all that far away.

And so, if we can pull ourselves away from the gladiators, the bread and circuses, and the entertainments of today, what can we imagine?

Yes, we all live in science fiction novels. Are we up to the task of hero or heroine in these novels? How are we adapting our lives to the constant sources of information and entertainment, to being able to easily get in touch with many people from around the world in an instant? How is all of this changing us? Perhaps most importantly, how is this helping us bring about the next science fiction novels?

Hacker, 2013

For Allen Ginsberg and Aaron Swartz

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.
The angry fix they sought was far different from that of Ginsberg's friends.
These hipsters were typing something other than 'starry dynamo' into the search engines.
They were Google mapping the seats of power at midday, not the negro streets at dawn.
They were fighting a in new revolution, a revolution that would take their life and liberty.

A junkie with a knife can be scary. He'll take the cash in your pockets and rush off for his fix,
leaving you shaken as you walk home. But a hacker with a mission, now that is dangerous.
He will shake the very means of production and distribution, the economy you depend upon
to get that cash into your pockets.

It's all well and good when they take down an Arab dictator.
It's tolerable when they change the news media and political process, as long as it can be co-opted by the press and politicians.

But when they start threatening the profitability of the legal and academic presses in the greatest democracy of the world, they must be hounded, driven underground, labeled hacker and felon, until they kill themselves.

Aaron Swartz, Carmen Ortiz, Lanny Breuer and the Digital Revolution

Yesterday, as I wrote about institutionalized racism in America, I asked the question, "Is there something we should be learning from Sandy Hook or the death of Aaron Swartz?" Perhaps part of the answer is that we are in the midst of a digital revolution, and sometimes heroes die during revolutions.

Typically, people talk about the digital revolution the way they talk about the industrial revolution, moving from one mode of production and distribution to another. Yet with any revolution, there is upheaval. There are winners and there are losers. Are we seeking to make the digital revolution as equitable as possible? What happens to the losers? How do they fight to avoid losing any privileges they had prior to the revolution?

I think these are all important questions to ask as we think about Aaron Swartz, for it seems that much of what he fought for was to make the digital revolution as equitable as possible. How do we make information as accessible to all people as possible?

If we look at PACER or JSTOR, we see similar patterns. There were means of production and distribution that made sense in the time of the printing press. Much of the information in court papers and academic journals was produced using taxpayer money and should be available to everyone for little more than the cost of production. Prior to the digital revolution, there was one cost structure for producing and distribution information in systems like PACER or via JSTOR. As the cost of production and distribution of electronic reports plummeted, some people were benefiting from the cost differences and others were being left out.

The prosecution of Aaron Swartz was an effort by the losers in the digital revolution to cling to power. The idea of Aaron Swartz as the epitome of the digital native, confronting U.S. District Attorney Carmen Ortiz, an up and coming political figure defending the status quo as the epitome of the digital immigrant is a compelling narrative.

And, it has played out in the digital political battlegrounds. The online petition site, We The People, set up by the Obama Administration, has a petition calling for the removal of United States District Attorney Carmen Ortiz from office for overreach in the case of Aaron Swartz. In the first three days it received over thirty thousand signatures, more than the threshold of twenty-five thousand signatures necessary for the administration to consider it.

The battle continues on, online. This afternoon, the Boston Globe ran the article, Reports: U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz’s husband attacks Swartz family on Twitter.

The article shows images of tweets, alleged to be from the husband of U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, where he goes after some of the thought leaders in the digital revolution such as Mitch Kapor and Dan Gillmor. Yes, the battle lines have been drawn and President Obama is caught right in the middle.

Meanwhile, another blog post says, OK, But Can We Also Fire Lanny Breuer?. Perhaps U.S. Attorney Ortiz was just an ambitious foot soldier caught in the cross fire. Perhaps the General that needs to be taken out is the Department of Justice's Criminal Division head, Lanny Breuer.

We are seeing Congressional approval rates plummet, the approval rating of the Supreme Court slip, and one has to wonder what happens to the approval ratings of the Justice Department as the Swartz affair just adds more damage to a tarnished agency.

Yes, we are in the midst of a digital revolution. It is about changes in the modes of production and distribution, but it is shaking up power structures and real people, good people, are getting hurt in the cross fire.

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RIP Aaron

"Some days it seemed like all there was was gray". With those words, Aaron Swartz started off a blog post about his relationship with Quinn Norton. This morning, I started off my blog post about driving to a funeral with, "It was a grey January morning as I climbed into my black 1997 Nissan Altima and headed north".

It seems appropriate that my RSS feed is full of posts about Aaron Swartz who help with the creation of RSS. The posts are by some of the bloggers I respect most, David Weinberger, Ethan Zuckerman, and Larry Lessig to name a few.

I don't have stories of meeting Aaron when he was 14 or of him staying at my house at some point. I'm not sure if I ever met him, but given our mutual friends and mutual interests, I suspect we probably met somewhere along the way.

Yet Aaron's death hits me hard. Perhaps it is because of the recent death of my mother and of my cousin. Perhaps it is because now, more than ever, we need people like Aaron fighting for open access to information on the internet, in the courts and in our government.

There is not much more to say than I am so sad.

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SuperCollider, Middletown Remix and Raspberry Pi

At work, I've been speaking with people involved with Middletown Remix. As part of the project, I met with Ron Kuivila, who teaches electronic music at Wesleyan. His biography on Wikipedia mentioned SuperCollider, "an environment and programming language for real time audio synthesis and algorithmic composition". So, last night, I downloaded Supercollider and started playing with it.

I downloaded the Mac OSX universal image version 3.6.2 and started it up. It comes with documentation built in and it was fairly easy to get started. On my Mac, I had to use Shift-Return to kick off snippets of code. The server didn't appear as described in the documentation, but using s.boot; did the trick. The instructions saying to use Cmd-. to stop the sound weren't exactly clear. That's the command key and the period key.

Once I got that far, things started to come together really nicely, and I had my computer making some interesting sounds. Another bit of documentation that I found very interesting was How to Program in SuperCollider. It explained PBind which gave me the ability to play some tunes.

It took a little bit of remembering music theory, to get a scale that sounds half way decent.

(
Pbind(
\freq, Pseq([ 1/1, 9/8, 5/4, 4/3, 3/2, 5/3, 15/8, 2 ] * 440, 5),
\dur, Prand([0.2, 0.4, 0.3], inf)
).play
)

The next subject it looks like I need to explore is SynthDefs.

With all of this coming together, the next obvious question was, what other devices could I run SuperCollider on? There is a great blog post on SuperCollider on the Raspberry Pi. I plugged in my Raspberry Pi, loaded the SuperCollider program on it and tried to get it to run. It seemed to run okay, but the instructions talked about using Overtone to control the SuperCollider server, and I haven't gotten that far. Nor have I done anything with Synths yet, which is what I read about in the SuperCollider 3 Server Tutorial.

It does seem like an exciting project would be to use a large number of Raspberry Pi's running SuperCollider, and perhaps some sensors to make them react to what is going on around them. This could be used to create a sound installation, perhaps similar to what Ron spoke about with his rainforest installation.

I also started playing with SuperCollider for Android. I got it to start and make a sound, but not do anything subsequent. Their page, How to control SC Android remotely didn't seem to work with my Android. and server remained listed as inactive. However, using the same commands to my Raspberry Pi, I did manage to get indication that the Raspberry Pi SuperCollider server is running properly.

That pretty much captures where I am with SuperCollider, Middletown Remix and Raspberry Pi this morning. It's time to get about my chores. If've you're playing with SuperCollider and/or Raspberry Pi, let me know what your up to.

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