Slow Chopin productivity music

When I’m writing, it’s nice to have music that won’t try to distract me. Unfortunately that rules out lyrics and sometimes even melodies. One trick I like is slowing down nice, existing music to the point where it is more of a texture than a song.

Here’s a public domain recording of Chopin’s “Anhang,” funded by the Musopen Kickstarter campaign to release free recordings of his entire oeuvre, slowed down by a factor of eight with Audacity’s paulstretch plugin.

When I went to upload it, I wanted a cool cover graphic. I took one of the only known photos of Chopin, and glitched it manually with a hex editor, entering new values, copying and pasting, and deleting things sort of at random. This was my first time glitching an image like that, and I relied heavily on tutorials from Doc Pop and Steen for how to do it. I couldn’t really get anything to work with a PNG, but once I converted to JPG I was able to get something like this.

Freddie Glitched

Oakland’s awesome public records request system

Oakland’s employee compensation database is the kind of public record that should be proactively available, even with historical versions, without requiring a formal public records request. But since I couldn’t find it online, I filed a request, and got to interact for the first time with Oakland’s very cool RecordTrac system for handling those requests. RecordTrac is a Code For America fellowship project that launched a year and a half ago, and it ensures the entire process is online and publicly available, so users can see every request that gets filed and what response it received.

The value of that system becomes obvious pretty quickly after you start using it. For example, when I started looking through the compensation database, one fact that jumped out immediately is that some Oakland police officers make significantly more than their base salary in payment for overtime work. In fact, the highest paid Oakland government employee in 2014 is a police officer who got some $165,000 in overtime pay. What could possibly be going on with overtime at OPD?

Searching through the public requests database turns up another person’s request, specifically covering OPD and overtime. Those documents were released in the last few days and are immediately available to me and any other interested member of the public. That’s incredibly helpful to both me and the city. I get the records I’m looking for much faster, and can send follow-up requests without waiting for another round trip, and Oakland doesn’t have to process as many duplicates.

It also comes in handy where there are no responsive documents. Traditionally those requests don’t see a lot of publicity because, well, there are no documents to report on. But sometimes their absence is an interesting data point itself. Take, for example, this request for agreements between the Oakland Public Library and law enforcement on disclosing patron information. It would be a much larger story if there were agreements like that, but it’s nice, too, to be able to refer to the request turning up no responsive documents.1

If all this seems familiar, it may be because services like Muckrock, where I’m a frequent user, have implemented the same kind of thing on the requester end. Every request gets a permanent URL, where all associated documents are connected and made publicly available. Like RecordTrac, it keeps the status of requests updated, and notifies requesters when new information has come in.

Muckrock definitely makes the public records experience better, and has built an impressive collection of returned documents. But there’s an emergent property of the agencies themselves putting all that information online in the first place.

Oakland was lucky to pilot this program, and the avalanche of requests related to Occupy likely taught the city a lesson about handling them efficiently.

RecordTrac is already free software, and as of about six months ago, the developers rolled the software into a hosted product called NextRequest. Hopefully that means more pickup by agencies and governments, bringing a much-needed update to the public records requesting process’s usability and transparency. It can be funny to see Muckrock joke about how dated much of our country’s FOIA infrastructure is. But it’d be better to see it fixed.

  1. After I tweeted about this request, the Oakland Public Library reached out to emphasize its opposition to that sort of agreement. []

Emoji history of US copyright

The number of kinds of works covered by copyright has increased a lot over the years. The first copyright act, in 1790, covered just books, maps, and charts. Subsequent laws have added things like music, photos, and film. For a real history you can check the Copyright Office circular, but here’s an emoji timeline.

1790: 📚🌎📈
1802: 🐾
1831: 🎼🎶
1856: 🎭
1865: 📷
1870: 🎨
1897: 🎤
1912: 🎥
1972: 💿
1990: 🏠
1998: 🚤

And a selection of Supreme Court cases:

1903: 🎪
1984: 📼
1991: ☎📚

(By the way, WordPress now supports emoji. Go WordPress!)

The original racist emoji issue

Over at Ratter, I’ve written about how the unrecognized character symbol is showing up in an unfortunate context with the new emoji-of-color, and how this all relates to an Ur-issue of emoji racism. In my opinion, the moment this became an issue was when Apple exported emoji that mostly looked white to us.

After all, the Unicode Consortium only provides the list of possible emoji to platforms like Apple, Android, and Twitter — it’s up to the platforms to actually draw them. Platforms like Apple got a descriptions from the Unicode Consortium like “HAPPY PERSON RAISING ONE HAND” or “POLICE OFFICER” and they created the pictures we’re all familiar with. Because Apple was one of the first platforms to draw emoji, their versions — which feature mostly white faces — became the canon.

This was harder to write than I expected, but I think it’s an interesting and surprisingly convoluted issue. Hopefully this explanation helps people understand some of the forces at play here.

The US government should release these 7,584 fruit paintings

The federal government is sitting on 7,584 historical agricultural watercolor paintings that it should make freely available to the public today. Currently, people have access only to low-quality previews of the images; the United States Department of Agriculture, where the archive is held, should serve the public interest by making the entire collection of high quality scans free for all.

B-JuVUECUAAly4p

The USDA’s National Agricultural Library hosts the Pomological Watercolor Collection, which contains images of different varieties of fruits and nuts, commissioned between 1886 and 1942.

They’re remarkable as art, and also have serious scientific importance: they are some of the only documentation, for example, of thousands of apple types that no longer exist. The USDA has called the Pomological Watercolor Collection “Perhaps the most attractive as well as historically important of NAL’s treasures,” and it was cited just this week in a Washington State University article about apple preservation efforts.

The public should have access to these images, and that access should be automatic and unrestricted. Fortunately, that is technically possible: the USDA, through a grant from an environmental non-profit called The Ceres Trust, went though a multi-year digitization effort and now has high-quality scans of every image. However, members of the public can currently only view low-resolution versions online, can only request up to three high-quality scans free of charge, and must pay $10 per file beyond that.

apple

And though the order page touts the fact that a portion of proceeds will go to conservation efforts, the numbers just don’t add up. I suspected that conservation costs are orders of magnitude higher than reproduction revenues, so I asked. Through a FOIA request to the USDA, I obtained the digitization project report, as well as a breakdown of the last three and a half years of revenues that the collection has generated.

Digitizing the images cost $288,442. Since the collection went online in 2011, members of the public have ordered just 81 images, for a total of $565. That relatively tiny amount simply cannot justify the cost to the public of keeping these images behind a paywall.

There’s no question that these paintings, if made more available, could be creating value for the public. High quality images could be used in printed teaching materials, which can spur conservation efforts and spark agricultural research interests in students. They could illustrate relevant articles on Wikipedia, providing historical context from over a hundred years of agriculture. The high quality scans could be examined closely by independent researchers to turn up new information.

The collection could even expand if it is accessible enough, as the National Agricultural Library described in its own report: one researcher, on hearing about the digitization project, contributed seven contemporaneous paintings of blueberries that had been stored in his lab.

almond

Again, here’s the USDA’s own words on the importance of public access to the collection:

With today’s growing interest in heirloom varieties and others that are no longer commonly grown, the collection is an invaluable storehouse of fruit knowledge and history.

That knowledge is better served if the public has access to the scans, and it’s possible to do that today. If the cost of hosting and bandwidth is an issue, the Internet Archive and Wikimedia Commons would almost certainly be willing to host even the highest resolution scans.