Saturday, February 28, 2009

Something About American Beauty

I was mentioning my new blogging experience to Don, one of our overnight security guards, and we got talking about journals, blogs, written histories for our descendants and the like. I told him about talking with my daughter earlier in the day. One of her iPod songs had a line about "meeting Miss America" which reminded me about the time I played piano for a contestant in some beauty pageants.

Leslie was a year or two older than me in high school. She had acted in the school musicals, I believe, and was venturing into the pageant world. So we spent hours practicing "I Can't Say No" from Oklahoma!. And we went to the Junior Miss pageant, won at the Miss Gresham pageant, and got to go down to Seaside for the Miss Oregon Pageant. 

Because this was the big deal -- with press, lunches, dinners, rehearsals, and all other manner of time consuming activities -- her family could barely see her. We only a little rehearsal time in the high school gym to get used to the raised stage and standard lack of acoustics.

The big night came and on we went. We got through our routine and I only mangled one short section. Of course, I was sure that I had blown it for Leslie. I immediately left instead of waiting for the rest of the show to get a ride back to the downtown motel where I was staying with her family. The walk in the summer darkness was only 2-3 miles; just right to give myself a pretty good dressing down.

Everybody wanted to know where I'd been when I finally showed up. I explaind how I had messed up and was sure that was going to affect Leslie's changes. Of course, nobody else had noticed and wondered what I was talking about.

This is where Kristin chimed in with, "That's what I do, too!" May the psychological quirks of the fathers be visited upon the daughters ...

Something about this story reminded Don of his father's workmate at the factory on the South Side of Chicago. The chum told his old man that his daughter had various things to go to and needed someone to go with her. Was his son interested?

So, Don was asked but he declined. To me he said, "Why would I want to go out with some dumb, Polish broad?" He continued, "After awhile, though, when I finally met Kim Novak ...." and his voice trailed off.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The "Mother of All Demos": December 9, 1968

My friend Tom passed along this link to what may be the greatest demoing of hardware and software in the computer industry.  If you think that interactive, collaborative, mouse-driven, networked, hypertext linked, teleconferencing and electronic whiteboards are new, take a look at these excerpts from Douglas Engelbart's demo of the system that was being developed in 1968.

Engelbart and the Dawn of Interactive Computing

The excerpts require that you have QuickTime installed.  You can also visit the Stanford University MouseSite to view the full demo as a stream or as Flash clips.

Everything old is new again. Or is it that everything new is really old.

A Composition About John Cage (1977)

See the notes at the end of this post for background information and specifics of this version. See Wikipedia for information on Cage, his art(s), his influence.

(The following is a text composition that utilizes some of the principles and techniques of composition as developed by John Cage. To adapt some of the instructions from several of Cage's own scores, "This is a composition indeterminate of its performance. The performer is free to read any elements of his choice, wholly or in part and in any sequence.")

13. On mushrooms:
They have almost no nutrition value but "they taste so good they make you happy. And make your stomach happy."

"That's the nice thing about mushroom hunting: you don't have to find any."

When asked how to tell the good from the bad, he replied, "You have to know each one -- like people."

19. Several people expressed surprise and astonishment that the publicity for reading included the work "mellow" in reference to Cage. After all the times over the last nine years that I've been at performances or readings by Cage, that is probably the word I've used most because it is the most accurate. The audiences have not always been as mellow, however, as they become uncomfortable with the spirit of freedom he lives and espouses.

17. John Cage. Is 65 years young. Studied with Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg. Tells stores. Invented instruments. Played chess with Marcel Duchamp as part of a performance. Hunts mushrooms. Has quit smoking. Is music director for Merce Cunningham and Dance Company. Will have a piece played by the Chicago Sydmphony Orchestra this season. Uses the I Ching and its methods for composing. Worked as a graphic designer. Often laughs his marvelous laugh. Is on a very strict macrobiotic diet for his arthritis. Has written three books and edited another. Studied Zen with Dr. D.T. Suzuki. Is a social critic. Taught at the School of Design in Chicago for a year. Wears blue jeans. Lives in New York City. Is fun and interesting.

1. Composition is the union of elements into a whole. There is no right way or no wrong way -- just different ways. Composition happens whenever elements are combine to create a new thing. Cage was on of the first to closely study the process of composition and apply its procedures to many activities. Text pieces like Mureau, based on Thoreau's journals, are composed in a manner reminiscent of his early tape collage pieces, such as Williams Mix.

6. It was a beautiful autumn Monday -- clear blue sky, moderate temperatures, slight breeze, brillian hues of the changing and falling leaves. On the way to Glen Ellyn, we pulled over to lower the top of Philip's battered VW; John hopped out and over to a nearby tree to examine mushrooms.

8. He explained his method of writing the Wake pieces as a "Duchampian technique of finding something." Some of what he found was marvelous, pearls of beauty that he spun out in his deep, sonorous voice.

25. While driving through Elburn, John spotted a stump in a yard surrounded by mushrooms. We came back to it later and found several varieties in pretty good condition. I asked how he saw them from the road. He pointed to his eyes; no words, just a smile.

20. I went down to the School of the Art Institute to catch Cage's morning talk but I was late because the Ravenswood el line was screwed up and the place was jammed. Only current students and faculty were being admitted, anyway, so I ended up going to lunch with Bob Snyder of the Sound Department and talking about synthesizers and concerts.

18. Fueled by a day in the woods, good food, and wine, our conversation was gaily serious as it ranged over food and diet, art, friends, living in Chicago, puns and jokes. By then, Jim Grigsby had joined us for dinner. It was a good thing several of us were sitting on the floor because that's where we would have ended up anyway after the continuing barrage of subtle and dry wit from all quarters, and especially from John.

21. One of Cage's most famous and controversial pieces is 4'33" even though very few people know it by name or have ever seen the score(s). Often referred to as "Cage's silent piece", it is one extension of his belief that music and life should be integrated more fully. Just as not hearing something spoken does not mean there is nothing to listen to, a performer not making sounds encourages us to listen to what other sounds there are. Cage is not the only one who has written a silent piece; Philip Corner has written several and many others have also contributed to the repertoire.

14. "We're in a concert hall constantly."

"Something to tell your grandchildren, that you heard Finnegans Wake in less than an hour."

11. He began his introduction by reading from an Arthur Treacher's handout. The audience loved the way he talked about the various orders of battered shrimp.

12. The reading ended with the bizarre theater of a persistent and not too coherent man rambling his way through word strings that were, I think, intended both as questions and diatribes. Throughout it all, Cage's Zen-like calm was only mildly perturbed. He offered to read the Arthur Treacher excerpt again for the late-comer but then realized -- mercifully -- that time had run out.

9. Upon encountering one of Cage's indeterminate pieces (in which the performer makes a large number of the choices as to what happens, how and when), many people convert the permission to choose into a license to not choose. They abdicate their responsibility to act seriously -- to act with thought -- in favor of acting without thinking. Craftsmanship of performance disappears in the muck of ego and 'total freedom'; caring spontaneity becomes could-care-less-ness. There are many bad performances of these pieces. Cage himself, on the other hand, cares passionately for the life of his work. It shows all the way from the precise conceptions, the elegant calligraphy and graphics, the obvious practice and development of new techniques to the meticulous concern for performance situations -- proper lighting, good miking, effective movements. It is all of a whole and wholly professional.

23. Claes Oldenburg asked the first question after the reading. "John, are you going to continue to make reductions?" He replied that he was actually more interested in doing mixes like Mureau and that was what he planned to do.

4. Was it just chance that the name or syllable "John" recurred throughout the text he read? Given the structuring technique (Mesostics, his book M gives a complete description), I suppose so. But things like that make me take Jung's theory of synchronicity very seriously.

7. When we went mushroom hunting, John was hoping to find something know as the "Chicken of the Forest." He had found it before when he was living down at Champaign-Urbana and working on HPSCHD (a large multi-media piece). We didn't find any.

24. After the reading, Cage was talking to Chicago composer Raymond Wilding-White about doing a map piece on Chicago similar to the one he did for the New York issue of Rolling Stone last month. The Chicago piece might have waltzes and marches.

3. Six of us went stalking the wild mushroom. John Cage, Alene Valkanas and Philip Yenawine (from the MCA), Edward and Regina Mackiewicz (relatives of Alene's and mushroom hunters) and myself. We started out in the Mackiewicz's back yard which had many different kinds. Somebody suggested heading to the woods but John delayed, saying, "The best time to pick mushrooms is when you find them." A little later we headed for the forest preserves out near Geneva and Elburn. Coming into one, I mentioned the large wooden sign with lots of rules. John said, "When you see the rules you begin to think you must have been there before."

5. On computers:

"We should use the computer when we want lots of answers to one question." But not when we have lots of questions.

"When you give them anything interesting to do, they balk."

15. He read a recent text based on James Joyce's Finnegans Wake entitled "Writing for the Second Time Through Finnegans Wake." It was a systematic reduction of the book into 35 pages of poetry and sonic delight. "More and more my ideas seem to need some kind of copyright permission."

10. In front of the Museum of Contemporary Art on the night of Cage's reading was a sign that said, "John Cage Has Sold Out!" It was crowded just right.

2. The four of us from the city went back to Philip's place to cook up the spoils of the day. We had several varieties of mushrooms, dandelion greens, brown rice and some kind of artichoke. I never thought I would see the day I would be sitting at a table helping John Cage clean mushrooms, but that's just what Alene and I were doing. Philip was in the kitchen with the vegetables and the telephone.

22. He and his ideas have been jeered, ignored, praised, discussed, blamed, undersood, quoted, analyzed, published, accepted, performed, debated, documented, imitated, dismissed, misunderstood and enjoyed.

16. I asked the I Ching what it thought of my writing this piece about Cage. It answered with hexagram no. 15, Modesty, changing to no. 32, Duration.

Some excerpts:
no. 15

Modesty creates success.
The superior man carries things through.
Modesty that comes to expression
Perseverance brings good fortune.

no. 32

Duration. Success. No blame.
Perseverance furthers.
Thunder and wind: the image of Duration.
Thus the superior man stands firm
And does not change his direction.

Thus reinforced, I decided to continue the piece in the style I had begun regardless of the possible problems of publication.

26. While tramping through the woods, we were often silent, intently searching. (Three of us were complete novices at this.) Sometimes, John would call our attention to the sounds of the birds in the trees overhead or to distant trains. "Do you hear the music?" "Look at this. Isn't it beautiful?" Leaves rustled underfoot and twigs and branches cracked. I kept track of people by listening for them unless they got too far. Then the forest mutes the little sounds.

Note 1: This piece was written on October 5, 1977, for possible publication in the Chicago Reader. The Cage reading took place October 4, 1977, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, IL. This piece was not accepted for publication. This blog publication is its first public appearance.

Note 2: The numbers were added for this publication and indicate the original order of the sections in the typescript. (This was done back in the days of typewriters so it really is a typescript.) In both the original version and this new one, the ordering of the sections was done by "selection without replacement", to use a statistical sampling term. The original method involved individual pieces of paper and a bag; for this version, daughter Kristin helped with a deck of cards to reshuffle the elements.

Note 3: Very minor formatting changes have been made to facilitate the translation from typewriting to the Web.

Two Outta Three Ain't Bad

When developing software, especially as a contractor, a useful choice to give the client is:

  • Small
  • Fast
  • Cheap

Pick two!

Similarly, when marketing software development or the resulting software, the choices are:

  • Good (Quality)
  • Fast (Performance)
  • Cheap (Value)

Pick two!

Although I think these rules of thumb are still true, one should consider that Bill Gates' and Microsoft's fortunes have grown to almost Midas-like proportions by not always choosing even one.

Friday, February 20, 2009

For Most Purposes, 355/113 Is Close Enough

Do you have problems remembering the value of pi beyond 3.14?  Or is your calculator lacking the pi key?

Just remember the fraction 355/113 -- it gives the value of pi accurately to 7 decimal places. 3.14159269... The second 9 is where it breaks down, it should be a 5 as you can see in the following truncated 'true' value:

3.14159 26535 89793 23846 26433 83279 50288 41971 69399 37510

But how close is that? Is it close enough?

Obviously, closeness depends upon what you are calculating.  Let's work with the size of the earth. According to, the diameter of the earth is 7,926.28 miles at the equator. (We won't worry about the irritating fact that the earth is not a true sphere but one slightly squashed at the poles.)

Using the above fraction and the value returned by the Excel pi() function, we get values of 24901.1451327434 and 24901.1430182957 for the distance in miles around the equator ( C = pi * D ).  The difference between the two is about 0.00211 miles or about 11.16 feet too long using the 355/113 method.  Or about 0.000008% off.  Sounds like 355/113 is close enough for government work.

Note 1: When doing calculations with mixed multiplications and division -- such as 7926.28 * 355 / 113, make sure you do all the multiplications before you do any divisions.  This will minimize the effects of accumulating round-off errors.

Note 2: When writing the Handyman program for the Color Computer which had no floating point math hardware, I used this method in calculating circular areas such as windows and rugs.  Handyman was an early do-it-yourself home calculator program figuring paint, wallpaper, flooring, etc. needs.

Note 3: 355/113 is the most accurate rational approximation with a denominator less than 10,000.

Note 4: According to Wikipedia, a value of pi "... a value truncated to 11 decimal places is accurate enough to calculate the circumference of the earth with a precision of a millimeter, and one truncated to 39 decimal places is sufficient to compute the circumference of any circle that fits in the observable universe to a precision comparable to the size of a hydrogen atom."  Use the 50-place value given above if you need more accuracy in your work.

And the Grammy goes to ....

Chris Willis, long-time friend and musical co-conspirator.  It's nice to see Chris' years of recording and broadcast work with the Chicago Symphony and other recording venues finally earn him the big enchilada.

Chris is on the left and producer David Frost on the right in this shot from the Grammy Awards in early 2009.

From the CSO Resound web site: The engineers of the CSO Resound album Traditions and Transformations: Sounds of Silk Road Chicago (David Frost, Tom Lazarus, and Christopher Willis) were awarded the Grammy® in the Best Engineered Album, Classical category. Traditions and Transformations features the CSO side by side with the Silk Road Ensemble, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and pipa player Wu Man in a fascinating musical tour that blended Eastern and Western influences.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

My 15 ( times 300,000 ) Minutes of Fame

To be accurate, this should called my "... Minutes of Anonymity".  In 1980, I was moving from the record store business into some kind of software (I had no idea exactly what that would entail or how to proceed.)  I had just licensed a small utility program for the Apple II to a small publisher in the area (The Image Producers, Northbrook, IL.)  They had a new client with a new computer and needed some programs written.  It turned out to be the new Color Computer from Radio Shack.

The computer was based around the Motorola 6809 microprocessor (I still think that was probably the best 8-bit processor ever designed.)  It was outfitted with a whopping 1K byte of memory (that's right, 1024 bytes); and half of that was used for the screen display.  Programs had to fit into 4K of memory (that's right, 4096 bytes) that would be in a ROM cartridge.

To begin, I took a train trip out to Oregon to visit my parents (lots of reading time when riding the rails from Chicago.)  I took the sketch of the game design (by Al Baker and others) and the technical manual for the 6809.  By the time I got back, I had taught myself the instruction set by coding (only on paper) most of the code needed for a Forth system (Forth is a relatively obscure stack-oriented, RPN notation language.)

I dove into the game and after many long nights (I could only work on the development and test hardware at nights since we had to share these rare resources), the game emerged.  Super Bustout was one of the first three software titles available when the machine came on the market.

I was being paid by royalties (and advances against) so by the time the game had run its course, I knew I had provided some fun (I hope) to around 300,000 machine owners.  Given that some would never play, and some would play quite a bit, I'll go with the total given in the title.

My name was never on the game so it was just another game by some programmer in a basement somewhere.  But it bought me a new Compaq luggable (one of the first IBM clones) and a new used car (my first ever, I was only 31 or 32.)   


Several lifetimes ago, I was going to be a composer.  It defined my life and my work (not my jobs -- that's a topic for another time.)  In fact, I even was a composer for awhile.  I had pieces played at schools, was a visiting artist at a university in Iowa, collaborated on an evening of video and electronic music at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, shared coffee and aesthetics with other composers and musicologists.  A close friend had some of my scores framed and used them as part of his apartment decor.

I met some famous composers and performers ("famous" being relative to my chosen genre of avant-garde weird s**t.) Someday, I'll post a reworking of my rejected article about going mushroom hunting with John Cage intertwingled with a review of his concert at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA).  Luciano Berio was a teacher for a music and theater class at Northwestern University (NU). Frederic Rzewski listened and commented on my work while at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC).  I interviewed Steve Reich and was invited to a hoity-toity dinner party on Chicago's Gold Coast; the planned article never came to fruition.  Thomas Willis was music and arts critic at the Chicago Tribune; he was also the first professor I worked for as a teaching assistant (at NU).

After about 10 or 12 years, though, I finally succumbed to the intellectual lure of those new gadgets called computers.  I found many similarities between the creation of music and the creation of a program.  Limited space, limited time, limited capabilities, limited resources -- all to be bent to the purpose of a new creation.  The composing that had become a serious hobby as living a life happened disappeared to be supplanted by the new hobby of programming. Eventually, the new hobby became the new way of life and sustenance.

But the dream and aesthetics still bubble under and up through the warp and woof -- FormerComposer seems an appropriate acknowledgement.

What and Why

Now in my sixth decade, review, revision, recrimination, and repurposing seem appropriate.  This is a place to share some of what I've learned -- or continued not to learn.

To capture historical moments before the details of memory flicker out.  To pass on to my children some things that never seem to have the right time or place to convey.  To rant about the continued human predelictions for inanity and stupidity.  To pass along interesting thoughts, rules of thumb, skewed perspectives, and other privileged activities that come with the years advancing.

I hope to share pointers to information and perspectives from others -- both those known personally and those who have been a crucial part of defining me even though they were unawares.

Maybe this will just be a high-tech soliloquy but I hope not. 

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of Atheism
free debate