Thursday, February 28, 2008

Picasso's Camera


Did you know that a cheap box camera with a cracked lens was responsible for one of the 20th century's most influential artistic careers?

Author Antonina Vallentin: "In 1906 the only contents of Picasso's studio were a day-bed, a long, rickety table, a tub and a small, rusty iron stove which was supposed to serve for cooking and heating. A dim light from a single window fell on festoons of cobwebs hanging from the ceiling. The furniture was completed by two dilapidated chairs. On top the table rested a worn box camera with a cracked lens, and nearby a glass prism."

That camera.

Jef Bourgeau, director of MONA, the Detroit Museum of New Art, mounted an exhaustive exhibition there in 2006, centered around Picasso's photographs. The exhibition's premise was that "a box camera that once belonged to Picasso has been unearthed with a roll of undeveloped film still inside. The resulting photographs -- intriguing images made jagged and more forceful by the accidental marring of the lens by the camera's previous owner -- now lend a sharper clarity to that period when Picasso was still coming to terms with the then revolutionary discipline of cubism."

The story starts with Italian artist and Picasso contemporary Gino Severini willingly giving his broken (and therefore useless) camera to Picasso, who was curious about the odd images it produced. Picasso played with his old new toy and ultimately realized that it showed him a new way to paint.

After Picasso's death his camera and a stack of unregarded negatives were discarded by his widow. Set out by the curb as trash, they were taken as a lot by a rag picker along with other odds and ends, and later sold at a flea market.

Eventually, by means unknown, the camera with film still inside found its way to Swedish collector Peter Hallstrom who "directed the Bergen University professor Dr Åke Neilsen and his team of assistants to supervise the meticulous task of bringing them all back to life" by developing sophisticated computer software with an inherent "aesthetic sense".

Development of the film and careful examination of the negatives in comparison to the artist's known works showed that images made by Picasso with this "defective" camera definitely inspired the cubism movement in the early 20th century.

The exhibit included supporting citations from a whole raft of artists, friends, relatives and scholars, either by quoting them directly or by intertwining the camera story with verifiable events from their lives. Andre Malraux, André Villars, Antonina Vallentin, Brassai, Dora Maar, Edward Steichen, Fernande Olivier, Gertrude Stein, Gino Severini, Jacqueline Roque, and Manuel Pallares are all mentioned, and maybe one or two more that I missed.

This is choice. The best part, according to Jef Bourgeau, is that 95% of the information is true.

Jef Bourgeau is called a "post artist". His talents span film making, video, painting, writing, music and computer art. The exhibition's online archive is priceless. This is a spoof by a true master of his media.

References:

Great review titled "Picasso's Camera" at thedetroiter.com.

Home page of the exhibition.

(The links below also belong to the exhibition.)
Picasso's photography.
Picasso's photos - circa 1905 through 1928.
The exhibition.
Picasso's children.
Picasso's poetry.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Porkulence


I used to be young.

I used to be skinny.

I used to have lots of energy.

Luckily, to make up for this, I've always been ugly. But I'm still fat.

Fat is relative. People always argue with me when I say I'm overweight, or when I tell them how to pronounce my name. No, seriously. My name.

I thought I got to decide this one, but no. Likewise with weight. I now jiggle. Have jiggled for about 10 years, especially going down stairs. It's like wearing a vest. Maybe it will stop bullets, and maybe not, but it's a vest, and I wear it every day, all day. I sleep in it too.

The good news is that it's already paid for. A friend came up with that line. I like it. Solace is where you come upon it. My vest is paid for and can see me through a few weeks of famine. And you can hardly notice it under my clothes. So it's not all bad. It is sort of dimpled and wrinkly but overall fits well.

Washable too. Even tans itself. Has a little hair around the nipples.

So recently I started eating more fat. Sounds dumb, but it was a good move.

For years I tried getting by without eating any fat, or very little. Every one of those years I gained weight, except during two strenuous backpacking seasons. During the first season I lost about 20 pounds and had a jolly time putting the weight back on. The second season was a little too strenuous, too quickly, and it laid me low for a few weeks while the old bod readjusted after some serious trail stomping.

After deciding to eat more fat I felt better. Immediately. The first day.

I gorged for a while, then settled in. I found that I could eat smaller meals, spaced more widely apart, and also feel better. Better fed, more content, less often ravenous. More stable all around. I still got hungry, but not within seconds. I came on slowly and built slowly. More like hunger and less like being hit in the face with a baseball bat. Pretty good.

But I don't seem to be losing weight. Only half the battle won so far.

Yesterday I finished a book on the Shangri-la diet. The idea is to eat flavorless calories between meals and let them kill your appetite. It doesn't work for everyone but it sounds like it's worth a try. You either eat small quantities of flavorless oils or small quantities of plain sugar diluted in water. Either one works.

I'll try the oil-and/or-sugar diet for a couple of weeks and see what happens. Yesterday (it was an exciting day) I swallowed a tablespoon of oil between first and second breakfasts.

First breakfast is a cup of cocoa (powdered milk, cocoa, a dab of brown sugar, and lately some oil). Second breakfast these days comes about three hours later and has been bulghur wheat with oil and spices.

But I was hungry for real food, was off balance all day. Today I did it differently. I had some oil a couple of hours after second breakfast and then went all the way through to late afternoon before I decided to eat (and wasn't especially hungry).

This is good. This is like the next step of switching to the high-fat diet.

Fat isn't bad. Some fat is, and too much of anything is. Olive oil is good, and so is canola oil and similar oils. They can actually lower cholesterol and mellow out the body overall. You can do the reading if you're interested.

In case you want to check out the Shangri-la diet, the book is short: "The Shangri-la diet: the no hunger eat anything weight-loss plan, by Seth Roberts". Or see his web site.

He's done his homework, tried it himself, and has lots of testimonials from people everywhere. It's simple and cheap, and the idea has been around for quite a while. I first read about it in "Extreme Alpinism: Climbing Light High and Fast", by Mark F Twight. Twight, a climber, mentions gulping a couple ounces of olive oil when needing an extra shot of energy. The oil doesn't do it, the body does, once it's been reassured by a long, slow, slippery, high calorie trail of oil flowing down the gullet. This is a way of tricking the body.

There is a similar way of losing weight by eating very small meals very often. The last I really heard of this was on the Oprah show a year or so back. Janet Jackson was telling how she lost 60 pounds or thereabouts (with the help of a trainer and lots of exercise). You keep eating, never getting hungry, and the body never clues in to the fact that it's starving to death. But it takes discipline.

You have to eat every hour or so, and before you get hungry, and never too much. Never a real meal. I did it once but can't do an encore. So I'll see if Seth has the answer.

I'm waiting to read a book by Gary Taubes. At least some of his ideas are similar to those of Seth Roberts. The Taubes book is "Good calories, bad calories: challenging the conventional wisdom on diet, weight control, and disease". He's in favor of fat.

Rather than trying to explain his ideas, I'll provide links to a couple of items in the New York Times.

One is "What if It's All Been a Big Fat Lie?" and the other is "Carbophobia". (You may have to sign up for a free account to get to them.)

Munch. Jiggle.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Living Like a Nica (book review)

I like this book a lot, and I respect the author. Despite the byline of "Phil Hughes and Ana Patricia Lopez", I'd bet that almost 100% of it was actually written by Phil Hughes, who has a lot of experience in a lot of things.

From the bio that I found under "Linux for Dummies", (a book he co-authored) "Phil Hughes [was] the president of Specialized System Consultants (SSC) and the publisher of Linux Journal magazine." Since 1968 he has worked in computing as a...systems programmer, consultant, trainer, and writer. In 1983, armed with that one English class he took in college, he turned SSC into a company" that specialized "in documentation for UNIX systems."

I'll break this up into positive and negative sections and try not to sound stupid.

First, the bad stuff.

This book needs an editor. Editing, formatting and design don't improve a bad book but the lack of them hurts a good book, and this is a good one. "Living Like a Nica" is a good first draft, one you would hand off to a friend for a sanity check, but not a final version. This is odd given Mr. Hughes's publishing background.

Punctuation is inconsistent and sometimes bizarre, a kind of thing I've seen before from those writing on Unix or Linux platforms.

Some examples (which may not reproduce here: see illustration) are: don´t, aren't, ¨busy¨, “important possessions”, where the apostrophe-like mark in the word "don't" is a sort of right leaning thingy not on my keyboard. The mark in "aren't" is a standard apostrophe. The quotes around the word "busy" are absolutely new and look like horizontal colons. The quotes around "important possessions" are real quotes, not the double apostrophe you find on a standard keyboard. We should see standard characters used consistently. But we don't. Not polite to readers. Needs more work.

Photographs and maps are low resolution. Poor to the point of uselessness. Considering that the book is a PDF-only work that can be radically magnified onscreen, higher resolution graphics are a must. The maps really suffer since enlargement just breaks them into pixels and blocks of color instead of unfolding them into more and more detail. "Which blobs are the roads again?"

It also doesn't help that many images overlap neighboring text. This is a layout issue. The author said he used Scribus when maybe he could have done a better job using the simpler OpenOffice.

Poor grammar and lightweight spellchecking are also too common: "Thus, I could let it be know that I am looking for electrical work." Mr. Hughes is better than this, and his conversational style is one of the book's highlights. But he makes the reader trip too often. He also gets into convoluted slippery sentences that sometimes end with no meaning having been produced. Call the editor, quick.

And there is repetition an editor would have caught. Take the desk story that appears on pages 14 and 40 (and I believe is mentioned again somewhere toward the end of the book).

Page 14: "I now have an L-shaped desk that is eight feet on each side, has seven drawers with locks on three and a keyboard drawer. Made to my specifications out of laurel. It cost about $225."

Page 40: "...the desk in my office. It is L-shaped and about three meters on each side. It has seven drawers, three with locks, and a keyboard drawer. It was custom made from laurel for about $225."

Arrr.

"Living Like a Nica" got me interested enough to look up more information. I'm now in the middle of "Nicaragua" by Moon Handbooks. It has none of the lithe grace of "Living Like a Nica" but fills some holes and raises questions that are not covered well in "Living Like a Nica". (Raises some neck hairs too.)

Like:

* Prevalent diseases (malaria, yellow fever, hepatitis, Chagas disease, polio, rabies).

* Weather and climate: Mr. Hughes generally likes it, but as I recall doesn't mention hurricanes at all, and isn't too specific about how vilely hot and humid or unforgivingly dry and dusty the weather can really be. I also don't remember much about floods or volcanoes (the country has several active and dangerous volcanoes).

* Environmental degradation and deforestation: One book says the country could be deforested by 2025. Another says by 2015. And there is a long history of heavy pollution from pesticides and other substances, including untreated sewage.

* Poverty: Is extreme and pervasive. In 2000 Nicaragua became the poorest country in the western hemisphere, and malnutrition is common.

* Crime and war: There may still be bandits roaming up north, and traveling off established routes requires local inquiries about how to avoid land mines.

OK, now the good side.

This book is about more than punctuation. It really is good. It's a story of one man (whom I suspect most of us would see as moderately well off since the sale of his publishing business) who set off to explore another kind of life, and who chose to live among, like, and with his new neighbors.

The writing style is comfortable and open, conversational and easy, and that is good. I think the book could be better if Mr. Hughes's wife, Ana Patricia Lopez, had made a higher profile contribution. No doubt she helped a lot but her explicit thoughts about life in her native country would add richness.

Mr. Hughes provides many examples of actual life in Nicaragua, and the book covers much you wouldn't ordinarily find. Like how to deal with a neighbor whose chicken your dog has just eaten. Or what it's like to be a self-proclaimed Taoist in a traditional Catholic society.

The book also offers practical advice, such as how to go about searching for a property to buy (as a residence), or how to start a business. And things like how to deal with government or business bureaucracies (generally, if you don't like the answer you get, try another office or come back later).

It would be nice to have more specific instructions on how to accomplish things, and where to go for more (and more official) information. Things like buying (and registering ownership of) property. Exactly how to buy a car or import one you already own. The steps needed to become a permanent resident or a citizen. How to guarantee a reliable financial link between a U.S. bank and a local one for those living on investments or a pension.

True, the author does cover these but in a general way, and there are no directions on where to go for iron-clad, rock solid information. This keeps the book from bogging down, but an added set of resources would be even better. (See the references for some clues.)

Two nice things, though. First, a discussion of skills you might need vs. skills you might already have, and what to do with them. And second, how to live well close to the ground, on little money and without fuss.

If you've done much camping or backpacking the possibility of living without a washing machine, car, or television set isn't frightening, and might sound like freedom. Mr. Hughes is enthusiastic, no doubt about it. "I see Nicaragua as the land of opportunity--much like the US was 50 years ago," he said in a Linux Journal article in May, 2007.

"It is hard for someone paying $2000/mo rent to imagine living on $200/mo but is is possible. And it is possible to live well here for $500/mo.

"If a Nicaraguan could live on $600/year and I paid more than that for car insurance then they must know something I don't. I figured it out.

"I moved to Esteli Nicaragua over three years ago. It is a big little town in the mountains in northern Nicaragua. It offered a good compromise between the 'city conveniences' I need (basically regular mail service and decent Internet connectivity) and being three minutes from the country. It also is a relatively inexpensive place to live and has decent weather year round."

That about sums it up. I like it.

Phil Hughes References:
Book: Living Like a Nica
Nica Plaza, "A resource for all in and interested in Nicaragua"
Nicaragua Living online forum
Phil Hughes in Linux Journal, December 2007: What's New Down Here?
Phil Hughes in Linux Journal, May 2007: Where is Phil Hughes?
Scribus publishing software
OpenOffice office suite
Etc.:
International Living Magazine

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Customer Service, Where Ha' Ye Gone?

I've recently had a few interesting times dealing with reputable businesses. Hold on a sec. Maybe I should qualify that. I'd have to call one of them a formerly reputable business.

I had a hosting company, in the sense that I contracted with them for services. My first account worked out really well. They were a relatively small company that the owners had built from the ground up. They were on top of things and had created a bunch of custom features and though not a giant company had a good reputation.

I bought in. I had a few small problems, mostly due to inexperience on my part, and the service was great. I always sent a final email thanking the service technician when my problem got resolved. I figured that I owed. I figured that people like to be thanked. And I was grateful.

Times were good. My site stayed up, it worked perfectly, I added to it, and had no further problems. So after almost two years with this company, they were the obvious choice for my second site.

A few months before this I'd seen a few emails coming in about the hosting company "joining forces" with some other company. Or maybe they called it "teaming up", or something like that. I vaguely wondered if something unfortunate was going on, but since nothing seemed to be changing, I ignored it. About the only change I could see was that they were offering more services at lower prices. Whatever.

Not too very long after setting up my second account I began checking it every morning. Every now and then the site would be unresponsive. I wondered if my internet service provider or my DSL provider was having problems, but then before I could get too worked up things seemed to resolve themselves.

This happened maybe once a week for a few minutes. Then it seemed to be getting worse, but it was sporadic. I'd had some problems early on with my DSL provider, a major phone company whose telephone support had been vile. But they had been OK for several years now. I wondered if I was getting hosed by them again, or if my ISP was mucking around, though they had been dead reliable and even had helped me figure out that the phone company was lying to me when outages were really the phone company's fault.

Anyway, one day my site simply did not work. I checked everything I could. Browser OK (I have four installed). Computer on and running. Other web sites came up OK. In fact I could access any other web site that I could think of except my own site number two.

After pulling some hair out and thrashing around looking to define the problem, my site was suddenly there again. This happened several times over the following weeks. It seemed to be down about 20 to 30 minutes, and then it was back. I kept notes.

Finally one day when this was happening I submitted a support request to the web host, documenting what I'd seen. The logs for my site showed nothing and there were no reports from the hosting company, or notes in their forums.

The response I got was to let them know if it happened again. I think I ate my tongue. But after a few minutes I got back on track and let it slide.

Then a few days later it happened again. After a half hour of thrashing around checking things I saw my site come up again, but five minutes later it went down and didn't come back for another 20, so I submitted another support request. And got pretty much the same response, so I kept after them, saying that I'd at least expect them to check things and let me know what they checked, when, and supplying some proof.

I got a condescending response from someone who said he was a technical support supervisor. He mentioned a couple of things that weren't all that deep and basically let me know that they were not interested in following up on my problem.

OK fine. I love you too.

About a week after that my site disappeared again. The original site was still doing fine. I never did have a problem with that, but the newer one was down. I decided to log on to the control panel and check the logs. I don't know much about web servers and the back end stuff, but I can make some sense of it.

Except that I couldn't get there. The whole server had disappeared from the internet. I checked the company's forums for an announcement, and checked my email inbox but found no news, so I submitted another support request in case they were unaware. I got a reply that they knew there was a problem. And beyond that they supplied nothing else, ever.

A couple of days later I received an email notifying me that my request for support had been resolved, so I queried them. They said that after three days of inactivity, their system considers all support requests to have been resolved. Period. Thank you very much now go away.

Then my site went down again and so did the server. Totally gone.

I submitted another support request and asked that it go straight to a supervisor. I said I was fed up with a web site that kept disappearing, and a server that did the same and wanted some answers and a resolution.

OK, children, now it gets fun.

After some back and forth the person identifying himself as a technical support supervisor told me three interesting things.

One was that they would provide no support for application programming problems. He said that if I was having problems with my web site I should contact my developer and work things out there.

I had a contact form on my site which had been working fine, but after the server disappeared it stopped working. Cold. Dead. I hadn't touched the site in several weeks and made this clear several times. Nevertheless, this guy had to make a point of telling me not to even think of getting any help of that kind.

Up to that moment it hadn't occurred to me for the obvious reason that I had had a perfectly working site and hadn't changed a thing. It could not be my faulty code.

The second thing this guy said was that they would provide zero help configuring anything whatsoever within my account. Since I was on an Apache server on Linux, there were .htaccess files and file permissions and things to fiddle with. But I hadn't, and hadn't asked for help either.

Then the third thing I was told was that if I thought that the goofiness I had been experiencing were due to hardware, operating system or server software problems, it was my job to verify it (right, from my apartment 1500 miles away), document it, and tell them exactly what they had to do to fix their system.

And by the way, we didn't notify anyone or put the outages on our company forum because that's reserved for major outages. (He didn't answer when I said that having my server disappear was a major outage for me.)

Talk about your body slam.

So there I was, having been told that no matter where the problem was, they were not going to do anything to help. Thank you very much and please don't call again.

Luckily my first account had only about a month to run, so I found another host that looked good. I even queried one of its customers. Everything sounded OK. A little more expensive, but I could consolidate two accounts into one for about the same total cost.

So then I notified the first company that I was going to move my first account, and in case I missed the deadline I did not want my account to be automatically renewed (which they normally do). This unleashed another load of stuff that went right into the fan.

It so happens that they have no way of closing an account unless they do it immediately. Their system is set up in such a way that they cannot indicate that an account just runs out and dies. According to them. So they could either close it immediately or if I ran over they would have to bill me for another entire year and then refund me (if things worked out that way).

The information on the company wiki said something else, but they didn't accept that. I got into a major email battle and made it clear that I would consider it fraud, and fight them up one side and down the other. All that fun stuff. They kept saying that the giant robot in the back room would not listen to them. Etcetera. It was lovely.

I spent about two weeks updating the style sheets for my site (on my desktop) simplify them and bring them up a notch or two in quality. I finished that and got my site moved over to the new host without a problem, and then managed to cancel my account with about a week left to run. Later I noticed that they had changed the company wiki to explicitly say that they could not cancel in advance.

A few weeks later I was ready to move my second site. First I had to get my domain name pointing at the new host's servers. I went into the control panel about three times and for the life of me could find no option to let me make the change.

Sounds like it's time to submit another support request. So I did, lucky me.

The reply I got was "You could change the domain nameservers via BackStage >> Domains >> [redacted].com, click on the 'Edit' button on the left and then you will be able to do that. Hope this helps."

Like I hadn't' been there.

So I replied, and told them that there was no 'Edit' button and sent a screen capture.

Of course the reply I got (from a different monkey) was "Hi, On Domains tab: [redacted].com click on that 'Edit' to change nameservers."

Lovely day in the neighborhood. Lovely.

Eventually, out of desperation I went looking around some more and accidentally stumbled on that elusive 'Edit' button under the name of the account that I had closed about a month earlier. I'm sure they never expected me to find it there, but I did.

So after gluing most of my hair back on I closed that account too, with 16 months to run. No refund of course. They'd never think of that, but I'm glad to be free, and the new hosting company is another small one, with real people working there, and it's their livelihood and they don't offer the lowest prices but they are actually on the job.

So far it's working.

Part two in this story is about a gift to my sister.

I sort of missed Xmas. I wanted to get her something. It's been especially bad for her since her birthday is about two weeks before Xmas, and she's been shorted all her life. Mine is in the warm months so I never had that sort of conflict. I can't understand why my parents didn't move her birthday to July instead. They muffed it and she's suffered.

So I owed her. I haven't been that good either, but now that I'm a geezer I realize I won't have another six decades to put it off. If I don't do something now, maybe there won't be a next year to make it up.

Chocolate and coffee seemed good.

I ordered some chocolate. Goofy web site but pretty good deals. Fantastic service. When you submit your order you can specify delivery options, such as an acceptable temperature range, or let them decide when it's cool enough to send chocolate, and so on.

An email confirming the order arrived shortly, then another one told me when the order shipped, and included a UPS tracking number. I followed the order and notified my sister when it had arrived, in case maybe it hadn't really. Then I got another email confirming that the order had been delivered. Everything went beautifully.

I've been buying coffee locally from a great company for 20 years. This was a good chance to share with my sister, and since the coffee company had an online store, all I had to do was order and pay, and let it all rip.

RIP. You know what that means, but I didn't get too much peace out of this one.

I selected two pounds of premium beans, then went to check out. I entered my billing info, credit card number and all that, but when I put my sister's name and address into the shipping address form the system changed the billing info to the shipping info.

I found this out after I submitted the order, on a summary screen. Too late, Jake.

I had to log on to the site (you need to set up an account in order to order) and filled out a contact form notifying them of the difference between the shipping and billing addresses (and that they were two different people). Silence.

I kept checking with my sister. No coffee.

After about a week I logged back into the coffee site and saw a note about the order having been shipped, but there was nothing else there. No tracking number, no way to follow up on anything. After 10 days my sister informed me that the order still hadn't arrived so I logged onto the site one more time and sent them a few flames. I gave them a day and a half to provide me with a definite delivery date, which had to be within the following week, or I'd have to cancel the order and demand a refund.

So then I get an email. Finally someone wants to talk.

Dear sir, so sorry. Order has been faithfully delivered. Here is fables UPS tracking number. Please see for yourself. Meanwhile we are sending a duplicate shipment Real Soon Now just in case. So sorry please.

It was about then that my sister went snooping out in the office of her apartment complex and found that her original order had indeed arrived and gotten stuffed away somewhere. Since they hadn't notified her (as they used to do) she hadn't thought of going out digging around.

The other half of this is that if I had had a tracking number in the first place I could have told her to go look on a particular date, to verify that it had or had not actually been delivered.

So I'm a butthead. My sister is at fault for not being curious enough, and the merchant created a bad experience by being secretive about all of this. I still don't know if the second, courtesy order has even been shipped. I just logged in to the web site and the address was still wrong, about a week later. And so on.

Great coffee though.


References:

Chocosphere. In Portland, OR

Batdorf and Bronson. In Olympia, WA

Ruby on Rails Hosting Info. Research a hosting company through customer reviews, such as this, for example.

Monitor Website Availability. (If you can afford to pay for it.) Send out HTTP / HTTPs requests to websites at regular time intervals to ensure they are up and running. Track Website Performance. Effectively monitor the responsiveness of your website over a period of time. Web Application Monitoring. Record & playback a sequence of HTTP requests. eg: Monitor your shopping cart, etc. Monitor Web Page Defacement. Check for the presence/absence of keywords. Get notified if your web page content changes. Instant Alerts: Instant Email/SMS/RSS alerts if your website goes down. Reports and Trends: Track website performance over a period of time and conclude on possible trends.