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Archive for March, 2008

Imaging by Numbers Art Exhibit

Saturday, March 29th, 2008
Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art
Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art

Today I visited the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University. I was there to see the Imaging by Numbers: A Historical View of the Computer Print art exhibit.

Quoting from the Imaging by Numbers exhibition flyer:
“This groundbreaking exhibition examines the intersection of digital technology and the graphic arts by surveying the use of computers in printmaking and drawing. From electronic waveforms and plotter printer drawings to experiments with computer code and software and inventive combinations of digital and traditional printing techniques, Imaging by Numbers features approximately 60 works by nearly 40 artists… from the 1950’s to the present.”

There were works by Manfred Mohr, Jean-Pierre Hébert, Ben Laposky, Otto Beckmann, Michael Noll, Kamran Moojedi, C. E. B. Reas, and Richard Helmick to name a few. There were also two works by Joan Truckenbrod who taught the first computer graphics class at Northern Illinois University. I am happy to say that I was fortunate enough to get into that graduate level course. You can read more about this in my article Recollections of my Introduction to Computer Graphics.

Another smaller exhibit that is running concurrently is Space, Color, and Motion which features animated images and one very cool computer controlled magnetic ball creating patterns in a sandbox.

If you are in the Chicago area and art thinking of seeing the show, do it now because the exhibit ends April 6. Admission is free! The Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art is located on the grounds of Northwestern University at 40 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston, IL.

I found out about this art exhibit by way of the American Art American City Exhibit Calendar web site created by the Terra Foundation for American Art. The calendar consists of listings of current exhibitions in Chicago area art museums.

Here is a list of links you may find useful.

Ad Astra, Jim

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New Version of Photoshop FITS Liberator 2.2 Released

Friday, March 28th, 2008
Photoshop FITS Liberator screenshot
Photoshop FITS Liberator screen shot

A new version of the free ESA/ESO/NASA FITS Liberator plugin for Photoshop was released earlier this month. This plugin makes it possible to open FITS files with Photoshop. For you Photoshop users who are not familiar with FITS, the Flexible Image Transport System is the standard file format for astronomical data, like that of the Hubble Space Telescope for example. For more FITS information visit my Making Astronomical Art with your PC Resources page which I created for students in the astronomical art class I taught at the Adler Planetarium.

According to the release notes, the following enhancements are in this new release:

  1. Universal Binary for Mac allows native CS3 operation on Intel-based systems
  2. Flip image checkbox allows image orientation to be selected on import
  3. Stretch Root functions now operate antisymmetrically about x=0
  4. Version 1.1 of the Astronomy Visualization Metadata (AVM) standard is fully supported. For more information see
  5. Improvements to importing coordinate metadata from the FITS header

I went to the version 2.2 download page and downloaded this new version. There is also a Photoshop action called Colour_composite.atn that can be downloaded. This action automates the production of color images from the individual RGB grayscale layers. I’ve never used their action preferring to use one I created myself. I installed the plugin without difficulty. On opening a FITS file (M27 for the curious among you) I observed that the main dialog for this new version was essentially the same with the only modifications being to the Stretch Function dialog (item 3 in the list above) and the addition of a Flip Image option (item 2 in the list above).

You can learn more about the plug-in, how to use, and even get some sample FITS files from the ESA/ESO/NASA Photoshop FITS Liberator Home Page.

Ad Astra, Jim

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Challenger Center Student Art Contest

Thursday, March 27th, 2008
Apollo 11 mission patch
The Apollo 11 mission patch

The Challenger Center is hosting a Student Art Contest in support of space tourist Richard Garriott’s upcoming space flight. Richard is best known as the creator of the massive multi-player online game Ultima. I’ve never met Richard but I have met his father Owen Garriott who first flew in space on a Skylab mission. Owen’s second and last trip into space was in 1983 on the Spacelab-1 mission.

We’ve come a long way since then because Richard Garriott will be going into space as a tourist. While Richard is not the first space tourist, he will be the first person to travel to space whose father also traveled to space. Set to depart October 12, 2008, Richard will have tourist class accommodations on the less than roomy Russian Soyuz. His final destination is the uxorious International Space Station Resort located in low Earth orbit. His one week vacation is said to cost around $30 million. It’s grand to be witness to the birth of a new industry – space tourism. I only wish that it had happened sooner. For a lower cost alternative trip to space, I recommend one of the suborbital flights to be offered by Virgin Galactic. For more information about the space flight of Richard Garriott, check out Richard Garriott’s Space Mission web site.

The Challenger Center’s involvement is that Garriott will be working with classes at the fifty Challenger Learning Centers around the world as a part of a “Garriott Science Challenge” program. Science related classes will be conducted as a part of the program before, during, and after Richard’s trip to ISS.

In conjunction with the “Garriott Science Challenge”, the Challenger Center is conducting a Student Art Contest. The objective of the contest is for students to submit designs for a space patch. The contest, which was announced March 8, has a deadline of April 18. For contest rules and to enter the contest, see Challenger Center Student Art Contest Rules and Submission Form. Designs already submitted can be viewed at Garriott Challenge Student Design Gallery. Note that at the time of this post, no entries have been submitted.

Ad Astra, Jim

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Doomed Diskettes

Tuesday, March 11th, 2008
The Doomed Diskettes

I recently undertook the Herculean task of going through all my diskettes, moving their contents onto my hard drive if worth keeping and then disposing of them. I had been pretty good about backing up data files and program installations to the extent that over the years I had accumulated in excess of 1800 diskettes. I haven’t actually used diskettes for several years now, all of which were created on old PCs. Going back through these diskettes was like going through a dust laden trunk from the attic. The worst part of going through all my diskettes was that the data transfer rate was agonizingly slow. You get used to the speed of CDs and USB memory sticks and then you pop in a diskette and drum your fingers as you wait.

This was not my first experience with migrating to a new media. Recall that 3.5 inch diskettes were preceded by 5.25 inch diskettes. Try today to find a disk drive able to read those! But that transition was very simple given that those diskettes (at least the ones I had) only held 720 kilobytes of data and I didn’t have very many of them. That was a piece of cake migration. This was different: 1800 diskettes able to hold 1.44 megabytes of data each. Not only did I have an order of magnitude difference in the number of diskettes but each diskette held twice as much information as their predecessors.

Amongst my old disks I did find quite a few surprises. The best gem was a diskette containing the source code and executable for the classic computer game Colossal Cave. I can remember playing this text-based adventure game in college – accessing the host system it was on over my 110 baud modem. If memory serves me correctly, this game was the original computer Adventure game.

Some of the other software I came across included:

  • CorelDraw version 2 (1991)
  • Windows 3.0 (1990)
  • PhotoFinish 1.0 by WordStar (1991)

The oldest software I found was IBM DisplayWrite 4 dated 1986. DisplayWrite was IBM’s first word processing software for the PC and an abomination it was. Rather than use it at work, I went out and bought a copy of Samna’s Ami Pro which was later purchased by Lotus and became Word Pro. I also found a diskette of software and references to BBS’ (Bulletin Board System). BBS’ were computer systems that you would dial into with your modem – the only way to fly in those pre-Internet days. Most of the BBS’ I wanted to connect to were a long distance phone call away and this was back in the days when long distance calls weren’t cheap.

The oldest data files dated back to 1989 and consisted of tables of data on near Earth asteroids. I also found backup copies of all the issues of Spacewatch and PSF News from the time when I was the editor of those publications.

At the finish of the project, the stacks of diskettes to toss numbered in excess of 1,700. I kept about 70 diskettes containing software, system utilities, etc. and another 20 blank diskettes. I next went through the files I had copied to my hard drive more closely, deleting those I considered either unimportant or redundant. At the conclusion of my project, I had just over 180 megabytes worth of files. It’s remarkable to think that of the files contained on over 1,700 diskettes, I was able to write all those I kept to a single CD with room to spare.

It’s even more remarkable to consider the great strides that have been made in data storage. In the early 1980’s diskettes could hold only 100 kilobytes of data. Today I have a portable USB hard drive that fits in my pocket and holds 250 gigabytes of data. Measured in terms of my 3.5 inch 1.44 megabyte diskettes, that’s the equivalent of 177,777 diskettes! (See Math Note 1 below) Here is another analogy: if each of my 1.44 megabyte diskettes had been filled to capacity, then my entire collection could have been written to four CDs or just one DVD.

Just as work grows to fill the available time, so to do files grow to fill the available space. When I started working with graphics files some 20 years ago, the files were small enough so that a number of them could fit on a single diskette. Today the size of my graphics files has grown to the extent that some consume the bulk of a single CD. And liberal use of a digital camera means that I now have tens of gigabytes of RAW files to back up. Now we have music and videos as well. At present I have in excess of 20 gigabytes worth of MP3 files and I expect that number to continue to grow. And there is every reason to believe that this trend will continue.

What does this all mean? The continued evolution of data storage technology means that the medium we save our files on today will not be accessible in the future. Combine this with our ability to save files of ever larger size in ever larger quantities. The bottom line is the next migration from CDs and DVDs to their successor could be a real nightmare – a task too hard even for Hercules.

Happy Computing, Jim

Math Note 1: Okay so I have a portable USB hard drive that holds 250 gigabytes which works out to be equal to the storage capacity of 177,777 3.5 inch diskettes. The picture at the top of this post is of a pile of something over 1,700 diskettes. That pile measures about 30 inches long by 14 inches wide and 13 inches tall. So a 5,460 cubic inch volume of space can hold 1,700 diskettes. Assuming the same degree of packing, it would take 570,980 cubic inches of space to hold 177,777 diskettes. That’s 330 cubic feet or a space that is approximately 7 feet long by 7 feet wide by 7 feet tall!. Imagine all that squeezed into a space that fits in my pocket.

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