Net Neutrality in the US: Now What?

Comprehensive info. Time is of the essence, so forgive my inevitable errors.

For those like me who communicate through high-bandwidth media, the FCC’s proposal would be particularly silencing. Better to delay the video I was working on and make this one, rather than do nothing and possibly see all future vihart videos delayed.

A very different sort of video for me. An enjoyable challenge.

Script with embedded links, general links at end:

So say your local mail delivery truck stops in front of your house, which is good because two days ago you ordered two different books with two-day shipping, sent out at the same time from similar locations, and you’re pretty excited for them both.

The delivery driver picks up your two packages and starts reading the labels. One is from a small independent book store they’ve never heard of, the other is from a large chain they’ve already delivered like 20 packages from today.

Instead of just dropping them both off, the driver makes a phone call to the big book seller and says: “Hey, I sure deliver a lot of your packages.” The company replies: “Yes, our customers really like our stuff.” The driver says: “I’m pretty sure your packages take up, like, 30% of the space in my truck. We’re gonna need to hire more trucks if you keep this up.” the company says: “Wow, you must be so happy that our customers are paying you to deliver so many packages from us that you can expand your business!” And the driver’s like: “right, look, I’m thinking I don’t want to carry more than one package all the way to this customer’s door, and there’s this other package from another address for them so I might just deliver that one.

And the big company is like: “what? That customer paid for two day shipping from you, you can’t just decide not to deliver it, what, because we give you too much business?”

The driver says “relax, I’ll deliver it eventually, just might take a while. Unless of course you’d like to help us out, just a little extra shipping fee and we’ll deliver your book on time”

As the customer waiting for your books, what do you think you and the book company should do? Report the driver? No way what they’re doing is legal. So you report them, but it turns out their lobbyists have convinced the government that what they’re doing is ok. No, it’s not just ok, it’s innovation! Fine, maybe you can do capitalism to it. The big book chain starts using another delivery company, one that appreciates the amount of business they’re getting from those deliveries, and of course you’d rather pay for shipping from a company that actually follows through on their promises, and new businesses grow, hooray!

That’s how it should work, which is why a lot of people think that’s how it does work.

So say you have a one-hundred dollar a month contract with Comcast to deliver to you whatever data you order at a certain speed, and you order data from Netflix, and Netflix sends the data your way. But just before it gets to your house it has to go through cables Comcast owns, and Comcast says, “Wow, Netflix, you give us so much business, pay us money or we’ll slow down your site until it’s frustratingly unusable.” Netflix should be able to say “Yeah, no thanks, first of all you’re going to lose customers if you don’t give them the service they’re paying for, and second, why wouldn’t you want to lay down more cable and expand your business? Wouldn’t that make you more money?”

It would make so much sense if Comcast’s reply was, “Gee, Netflix, you’re right! We don’t want to lose customers, we want to lay more, bigger, cable, expand our business, and make more money!”

But, as anyone who pays for their own internet and has tried comparison shopping knows, that’s not how it works. Comcast can reply, “First of all, we’re not gonna lose customers. What can they do, move somewhere else, that has cables laid down by one of our very good friends? Second of all, we don’t need the business from delivering your content, we can already charge as much as we want. Look, this sucker is paying almost a hundred bucks a month for 10 megabytes a second on a good day. third, Netflix competes with our own video content; if Netflix is unwatchably slow and people leave to watch Cable TV, which we’ve conveniently packaged in with their internet service, that’s a win-win, and both wins are for us. Fourth, when your site doesn’t load it may be our fault, but the customer doesn’t see us artificially restricting the data they ordered, they see you being slow. So pay up.”

And Netflix did. This already happened.

Truth is, there’s a lot of homes and businesses where the local internet service provider has a monopoly. Capitalism does not work when monopolies block the way between producers and consumers. That’s not rhetoric, it’s math. Capitalism doesn’t work when it’s impossible for a new business to emerge in a market. Look how much trouble Google is having with Google Fiber, and they’re Google. In many parts of the US there’s a good chance that Comcast is your only option. You’ll pay for internet because you need internet, but you’ll be paying 3 times as much as people are paying for internet in Seoul or Tokyo, for service that’s 10 times slower. We’re being artificially held back, on purpose.

When you order a book, the delivery truck drives on their own driveways, public roads, toll roads, the private lane that goes to the book store’s warehouse, all the way to the street outside your house and then:

In this allegory, you pay Comcast to hire a company to make and maintain a driveway, so that the Comcast trucks can get from the road to your house, and because they built the driveway, only their trucks are allowed to use it. If you lived in Tokyo, you’d have a nice wide perfectly-paved road, but comcast made you a little dirt road full of pot holes. You’d like comcast to fix it, or to hire someone else to, but there’s no one else to hire, so instead of fixing it Comcast charges you even more and still doesn’t fix it.

Here’s the officially proposed rule the FCC is considering: internet service providers must offer some amount of access to all legal internet things, but they can offer a “fast lane” to certain content providers. This sounds like maybe Comcast and Netflix collaborate to put in a special cable all the way from Netflix right to your home to get superfast Netflix service, but that’s not what this fast lane is. It’s not even a nice new paved driveway. The “fast lane” means that comcast puts a gate at the front of your driveway.

The netflix trucks are allowed in right away because they paid off the gatekeeper. You invite your friend over, and your friend has to wait outside the gate for a while, even when no one else is using your driveway.

If you want to watch netflix right now, yes, you should be able to prioritize netflix’s data and slow everything else down. But if after that you want to torrent the latest vihart video, there’s no technical reason you shouldn’t be able to put that in the “fast lane”. You’re not paying your ISP for content, you’re paying them to deliver the content you choose.

Except they decided maybe they do want to control what content you can choose, and the FCC’s proposed rule would make that officially ok. Which is a huge reversal in the FCC’s position that happened when Tom Wheeler, a former cable lobbyist, became chairman.

In 2004, the FCC basically said, “Hey, ISPs, we made some network neutrality rules for you, yay for open internet!” And then Comcast started throttling bittorrent, which was against those rules. There was a court case that Comcast won, with the argument that the FCC couldn’t legally enforce those rules because they weren’t official enough. So the FCC created the Open Internet Order of 2010 and voted on it and passed it and finally, net neutrality had real offical rules! And Verizon took the FCC to court and was like, “Are you sure these rules are for us? Because, they look a lot like the rules for common carriers, and we’re not common carriers, so we’re thinking the rules don’t apply to us.”

And Verizon won. So if the FCC can’t enforce their own rules because ISPs aren’t classified as common carriers, a lot of people think the FCC’s next move should be to classify ISPs as common carriers.

Basically, a common carrier can’t discriminate among the things they carry. Airlines and Telephone Companies are common carriers, so Apple can’t pay Virgin America to not let any Microsoft employees on their flights; T-Mobile can’t purposely drop your call while you’re trying to order a pizza if Domino’s won’t pay them a cut of the order.

Up ’til recently, ISPs have been acting like common carriers. They built their businesses on customers’ expectations that they were common carriers, like other telecommunication services, and with the benefit of the legal protection given to telecommunication services, such as not being liable for the content that moves through their cables. In 1998 the Digital Millenium Copyright Act thing happened, which gave ISPs more protection from liability for their user’s actions, still back when ISPs acted as if they were common carriers. Right now ISPs control content without being liable for that content.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 helped ISPs become big and powerful, they merged and formed monopolies, and then they decided it was in their best interest not to be considered a “telecommunications service,” but an “information service,” which would be less regulated, and also have fewer protections, but since they were now protected by the DMCA that wasn’t a problem. There were a bunch of hearings. They won, they lost, and then in 2005 they managed to convince 6 out of 9 judges that even though the internet is a telecommunications service, they also do other things, and the Telecommunications Act that would have classified them as a common carrier telecommunications service does not clearly state that they have to be classified that way even if they also do other things.

Many net neutrality activists are asking you to call your representative and sign petitions and make an official comment to the FCC that the current “fast-lane” plan is not net-neutrality, and that the FCC should instead hold strong to its original plan of treating ISPs like common carriers by actually designating broadband internet as a title II common carrier telecommunication service. If you’re going to make that call or official comment I want you to make it with full confidence that it is right and fair, because it’s not legal to classify corporate entities as being whatever you want just because “yay internet.”

And the internet has other problems besides net neutrality. There’s only a handful of ISPs, they’re huge and powerful with huge powerful lobbyists, many of which are now FCC employees, they have local monopolies, they work for each others’ benefit instead of as competitors, and there’s no way for a new competitor to enter their market. Making them common carriers will limit the damage they can do but it won’t make them any less of a cartel.

Comcast is trying to get approval to buy Time Warner Cable and it’s completely nuts that the FCC is even considering it. We have antitrust laws because it’s one of those beautiful mathematical inevitabilities that without intervention, monopolies will form. If you think stopping the biggest ISP from merging with the second-biggest ISP is what antitrust laws were made for, please speak out against this merger and mergers like them.

Links included for doing stuff and learning more. You can call, tweet, or email Tom Wheeler and the other FCC commissioners and tell them what you think about net neutrality, the merger, concern over having so many previous cable lobbyists now working for the FCC, whatever it is you care about. You can ask your local representative in government to do what they can, you can sign petitions, and you can make an official comment on any FCC proceeding on the FCC website, which very few people bother to do because 1. most of the momentum around “saving the internet” is built up around signing up for 3rd party websites and mailing lists or retweeting and upvoting infographics and articles, and 2. For it to be a real official comment, you have to publicly give your real name and address, which might put you off if you’re not absolutely sure you’re doing the right thing.

I hope this video makes things clearer for you.

Politicians love when you personally contact them! It is a fact. If you’re not in the US, make sure your local government considers this state of affairs an embarrassment for the US, not something to model your own rules on.

List of FCC commissioners and their twitters, emails, blogs, instagrams, etc

Don’t know how to contact your representative? Find out who they are and let them know you’re watching them!

Comment form for proceeding 14-28 “Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet”

Comment form for proceeding 14-57 “Applications of Comcast Corporation and Time Warner Cable Inc. for Consent to Assign or Transfer Control of Licenses and Applications”

List of all proceedings available for comment

General “open internet” FCC inbox: petition for net neutrality in general
petition for reclassifying broadband as common carrier specifically

Learn more about all this stuffs:

Court case ruling cable internet as an “information service” rather than “telecommunications service”

Communications act of 1934, describing common carriers under title II

Telecommunications act of 1996, including Title V, the CDA

Communications Decency Act, part of the Telecommunications act of 1996, which protected ISPs from liability from certain things

The FCC’s Open Internet Order 2010
Verizon had the above overturned in 2014 as not applying to non-common carriers

Neither of these attempts at net neutrality got through:
Internet Freedom and Nondiscrimination Act of 2006
Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Bill of 2006

Data on internet speed and cost: “The Cost of Connectivity”

Terms to know
Antitrust law
Common carrier
Game theory
Net neutrality

Also see these other videos on the topic:
BlinkPopShift: Net Neutrality is Dead, Long Live Net Neutrality!
CGPGrey: Internet Citizens: Defend Net Neutrality
Extra Credits: What a Closed Internet Means for Games
Hank Green: The Net Neutrality Debate in 3 Minutes

Thank you Emily Eifler and Christopher Hart for their advice!

This video is Creative Commons non-commercial share-alike.

Breaking Boxes

Box box box box box

I order a lot of stuff online. In the past week I’ve ordered socks, postage stamps, 4 small glockenspiels and a new hammock for the office, among other things.

This means boxes, lots of boxes. I’ve got a process for breaking them down that is easy and doesn’t add strain to my hands after a day of typing and musicking. It involves using my feet instead.

My second secret channel is where I often share life tips such as how to squeeze toothpaste or press microwave buttons, and I’ve always thought box breaking might be fun to share as well. A couple months ago I was sick and kind of trapped in my apartment living via delivery, and with the boxes building up and not trusting my sickybrain to do more important work I wrote and recorded a script (you can hear my sickyvoice in it).

Then, I let the boxes build up.

And up…

Until finally I filmed the video about a month later, and returned my apartment to its box-free state, and edited and posted it a bit after that. Living with that growing pile of boxes was the hardest part of making this video.

The first minute-and-a-half are carefully written and edited. Then, instead of ending the video, the last piece of footage simply continues unedited for almost 11 minutes, until I turn the camera off.

I did this for a few reasons. First, might as well. The footage was already filmed and people can exercise their free choice to stop watching. Then, I figured some tiny percentage of people might actually want to see more examples of how to break boxes, or like the noise, or appreciate the excuse for a moment to relax and listen to ambient sounds before clicking back into the bright flashing whirl of the internet.

Mostly, I liked the contrast. Narration of a carefully-written and carefully-acted script over carefully-edited video, then the uneasy continuance of something clearly other, something unformed and unintentional, perhaps capturing the uncomfortable feeling of seeing someone who thinks they’ve already turned the camera off.

I’d like to explore that idea further, because looking at the comments I was clearly unsuccessful. I am surprised at the number of people who watch, or think they are supposed to watch, or that I want them to watch, the entire video, that the uncut continued footage is actually the substance of the video, rather than empty packaging.

There’s subtler meanings to the substance of the video itself that I won’t go into, but everyone seems focused on the box– after all, it’s the bigger and more easily-defined object!

I hadn’t planned to post here about this quick experiment of a video, but like many experiments with unexpected results I have more to say than I thought I would.

Speaking of unexpectedly interesting experiments, the latest microwave counting video has guest cinematographic rotation technician Henry Reich (who makes MinutePhysics). In retrospect it should have been no surprise that we would work so well together counting down with a microwave because we’ve done a fair amount of musical improvisation together, but it’s still fun to see how those skills transfer over. For me, at least. Watching, as always, is entirely optional.

Lost Memories: Interactive Art Code

Today I was reminded of a piece of “interactive art code” I’d created a couple years ago as a proof-of-concept of what could be done with Khan Academy’s CS platform.

The code and compiled result are shown side by side, so you can edit while seeing the result in real time. Editing is easy: click on a blue number and it turns into a slider, so you can try changing the variable “blowing_shifting_speed_of_change” from 10 to 0 or -129, stuff like that. Only this time, instead of editing this as part of learning to program, edit these numbers to participate in a piece of interactive art.

Lost Memories

You can save your result on the Khan Academy platform if you want (no signup necessary), as well as whatever you might choose to program (though I warn you that the way it is computed in real time does not always reflect what will happen if the code is run from the beginning, especially for cases like turning a speed to 0 when the thing moving has already moved). Variations of programs are linked to the original, which is how I re-found some of the earlier stuff I’d made that day that led to the above result.

It started with a cardioid generator that someone else had written.

Sum Of Circles

I didn’t have any experience programming in javascript, but I do understand cardioids and circle summing, which made the above example a great jumping-off point for me. Watching the thing change in real-time as I messed around with it was fun, so the obvious next step was to animate that action. I learned how to animate and came up with Drowning Bloom.

The embeddable player runs slow when more than one are animating at once, so I just made a slight variation with an integrated pause button of sorts:

"Drowning Bloom" with STOP

Next step, only slightly more complicated, an animation that loops back and forth: Phoenix

"Phoenix" with ASHES

One thing led to another and soon I had a simple animation I called Lost Memories of Desert Sand, and couldn’t stop staring. Here’s where I thought I was on to something, that there’s real power in the artsy interpretation of a simple piece of sum-of-circle code.

Thinking about code as an art form, I realized I wanted to write Art Code, that I wanted the code itself, and not just the resulting pretty image, to be the essential part of the art piece. I wanted writing code, editing code, changing code, to be part of the art. Not in a “coding is art” kind of way, but in an “interactive art code” kind of way. And thus Lost Memories of Desert Sand got a bunch of new variable names, ordering, and piles of comments, resulting in Lost Memories.

It is appropriate to the name of the piece that I’d forgotten it for so long, just one more quick project lost immediately afterward, then found years later, thinking “hey, that was pretty good, I should probably get that down on a blog before it’s forgotten forever.”

I think interactive art code is a genre worth pursuing, ideally by someone who knows or wants to learn javascript, which maybe is you? (If you make something, tweet it @vihartvihart)

My past self also managed to surprise me with this one: “Oops“.

Broken "Oops"

Oh, how I amuse myself.

Happy Pi Day? NOPE

It’s 3/14, beloved math holiday to many, and I’m here to be your grinch.

This year I rant about why Pi is not special, not infinite, and relatively boring. I mean, it’s nice, I guess, if you’re into that, but there’s so many more interesting parts of mathematics!

Original anti-pi video:

This is my eighth pi-related video!

Cookie Shapes

A new video, about an afternoon taking a break from math to bake with friends. No math allowed! Right?

Gonna talk about the process of creating this video, but first, the people.

Gwen Fisher is a mathematical artist whose work I’ve known for many years. Every time it’s something new: a new technique for creating woven beadwork (along with a math paper that generalizes the technique), or new fractal beadwork (along with a theory of what path the thread needs to take), and years ago when I posted about some beadwork hyperbolic planes I made, Gwen was the first to send me an email saying she’d tried my instructions, and then followed up with some new hyperbolic variations of her own that were well beyond anything I had the skill to create. After that, we finally ran into each other at one conference, and then another conference, and then I found out I’d just moved 10 minutes from her house, and the rest is history!

When Gwen introduced me to her sister Ruth I was surprised to find I was already a fan of her work as well: she was the Ruth in Sweets by Ruth! I like my coffee to taste like coffee and my chocolate to taste like chocolate, the perfect combo of which I’d found in Ruth’s brownies at Red Rock Coffee (please don’t stalk me), so I thought it a fairly strange coincidence. When we pitched the idea of making mathematical gingerbread shapes to her, she knew exactly what we needed: a sturdy dough that wouldn’t change shape too much while baking, while still being delicious, and would we like it to come in a number of bright happy colors that would suit themselves to being filmed? Yes, yes we would! And besides all those perks, switching from the gingerbread idea to shortbread allowed the most amazing edible pun.

I can’t remember when I first met Andrea Hawksley. She’s another person where I came into contact with her or her work many years ago, and have done so again repeatedly until it reached a tipping point. It could have been 6 years ago at MIT in the context of mathematical origami or computational geometry, or maybe it was at one of her mathematical dance workshops, or when I read one of her papers. I knew we were destined to be friends a couple years ago at a recreational math conference when I saw her casually and informally leading a group of people in cutting slits in extra conference flyers and slotting them together with icosahedral symmetry. That’s when I found out I’d moved not far from her as well!

I make mathematical art for a living, but I also like to do it for fun, and in the past couple years I’ve met up with Gwen, Andrea, and sometimes others, to have fun figuring out new technique for creating new math art, or see a visiting colleague’s latest work, or, in this case, to try out some mathematical baking. Except I had a new camera to try out, so I finally broke the casual just-for-funness by filming for a video.

That was over a month ago, and I’ve been working on this video since! Well, along with other things. But this video presented a lot of new challenges for me.

First, I usually start with a complete concept for a video, spend weeks on the script, then film and edit to that script. Many vloggers are extremely good at filming hours of footage of unpredictable things as they happen, then remembering and pulling out good moments to turn into a coherent story, perhaps framed and pulled together by footage of themselves talking face-on to a camera.

Sorting through hours of footage and pulling out anything resembling a story is not a skill I have developed, and if making this video taught me nothing else it is greater respect for those who do so on a weekly basis. I pulled out the best footage and sound clips I’d managed to get (working with a new camera, some stuff came out horribly), re-arranged events to follow more of an arc from less-mathy to more-mathy, and ended up with an edit that had no story and would only really be fun to watch for people who recognize an aperiodic tiling or truncated icosahedron when they see one. So I did what I do best: I created a story and wrote a script.

This is a trick taken from vloggers. Narrate about your day, cutting in actual footage of it. But I don’t “vlog,” my story was invented, and I wasn’t especially interested in following the standard format of talking to a camera. Could I do the frame story in my second-person notebook style? The notebook makes things personal, hands-on, as if you could be drawing this stuff yourself. It’s badly-drawn visual representations of things, not the things themselves, letting your imagination do the work. Would it make any sense to try to integrate that with real footage of real things?

Doing it in standard vlog style, except replacing talking-head with notebook, turned out much too jarring. I needed something more natural, something that helps your brain make the connections between what’s going on in notebook world and real world. Thus, I decided to try out real footage overlaid and framed by notebook-happenings. Then, there’s notebook footage, real footage, vocal narration, and real dialogue, and if I wanted to sometimes do fake narration over real footage, I had to make it super clear what was narration and what was real time, clear yet not jarring. For this reason, whenever there’s a switch from narration to real-world sound, there’s usually a cut from notebook to footage, or from footage to notebook. Sometimes real footage is paired with narration, so when switching back to the actual sound I can cut to footage-in-notebook view, which gives your brain all the cues it needs to make the transition seem right. Then, real-life and notebook-land is brought even closer together by sometimes popping up a quick notebook person to say something that’s clearly being said by a real person in the real footage, and it happens so quick that you don’t have time to worry whether it’s a transition to a different thing before you know it’s not.

All this was done carefully and consciously, so you can imagine why it took me a month!

Then, there’s the sound itself. I’d been worried about how the narration and natural sounds would work together, but as soon as I tried layering some stuff I realized I’d had a stroke of luck: my new camera records sound in 5.1, which turned out to be perfect, because it makes it really clear what is narration (mono, artificial) and what is from the footage (all around, like in real life). I knew I could take advantage of this, layering real noises on top of narration without the listener having any trouble keeping track of which is which. Still, the initial introduction of real-sound after narration was a bit jarring, and so I introduced the real noises by purposely mingling them with the narration, fake narration-me yelling about the broken color symmetry along with real-me, which connected the two sound stories right at the beginning and makes all the natural sound make sense and feel connected later.

Maybe you can see why one of my pet peeves is when people say I am naturally great at video editing and have some genius talent, which is both untrue and denies the hard work I put in. The truth is that I spend a lot of time identifying problems (lack of story, inaccessible to non-mathy people), studying what other people have done to fix them (frame story, narrating over footage), trying those things out and identifying problems with that (frame story is in wrong style, now add in rough transitions, things are worse than before), then trying out fixes for that (connect frame story to real footage by every means I can think of: overlay video, overlay sound, switch so quickly you don’t even notice), see what works, iterate. Even after years of doing this for a living, sometimes it still takes me a month to figure out a new problem.

Hopefully what you notice in the end is not the editing at all but the actual things we were making and the awesomeness of the people with whom I had the pleasure of making edible mathematical art. A lot of the frame story is made up (we went in with the full intention of making mathematical cookies, but that’s not a story, and is hard to sympathize with if you’re “not a math person”). The ending, however, is mostly true: after hours of patience, Walter took his chance to gobble up some of our best work.

The Ubiquity of Rainbows

If I weren’t staring at my feet, I wouldn’t have noticed.

Arched across wet pavement.

For a confused moment I look straight up, an even gray.

Lower, a rainbow strong enough to cast that reflection, my reward for walking in the rain, and as I stare and cross the bridge a second rainbow stealths its way above the first. They arch from end of town to end, and all of us over the babbling highway. The zeroth rainbow is left behind in the driveway.

I walk with head turned over shoulder, considering colors. I catch a passing biker’s eye in time for a split-second smile; I ponder how the experience of rainbows is ubiquitous enough that one split-second smile says everything two strangers in the rain have to say to one another.

Out of the rain, it takes longer.

I wonder if people in cars see it.

I am suspicious that violet cannot possibly be real.

It pops out against dark clouds, as if it were the same dark gray except for happening to be a color, as if all that’s a color about it is something sensed invisibly and overlaid on my perception. Being true doesn’t make it any less true.

The rainbow fades, the colors remain. I’ve always liked walking in the rain. When the air isn’t so empty.

Cars stop early for me, my weather-enhanced right of way.

My charcoal pants look blue; the overcast pushed it down from the sky.

The rain drips the trees into the road.

The sidewalk is something deep and rich—but gray is supposed to be drab and colorless and the sidewalk is so vibrant, so I have no word. I recognize that I’ve reached town by the yellow-painted curb.

Shops crowd out clouds’ shade with their own shadows.

It’s sharp footsteps and dripping gutters vs. smooth-whoosh cars.

During the return trip the earth rises, the sky sets; hills roll indigo through that tunnel.

At my mailbox the rain stains envelopes addressed “dear neighbor,” “valued customer,” “resident.” Something is fractured into its component parts. I focus on dodging snails as they explore the very gray sidewalk.

Old Guitar Songs [part1?]

Back in 2011 I’d just gotten my first real job and realized that I now had the supernatural ability to acquire a thing when I wanted a thing, using an unfamiliar sort of magic called “money.”

I used my new power to buy a guitar on craigslist. Next step: learn to play it.

In the two months after buying the thing, I wrote probably a dozen practice songs, designed to take advantage of exactly the skills I had. I made them real songs with lyrics to amuse myself, and because singing distracts from the pain of practice, and to give incentive to play well, and because composing is in my nature.

And then, comfortable enough in my amateur skills to add “guitar” to my arsenal, I slowed down and used the guitar only for things I actually wanted to use it for, like when I have a sudden need for a song about a snail for a video, or something.

Yesterday I suddenly remembered the existence of these old practice songs, and that having gone unplayed for the past two years I was at risk of forgetting them forever. Most had never been recorded, or even heard by another human being.

I got three remembered and recorded before my unpracticed fingers started complaining. I figured I might as well share them. I’d pile you with warnings and apologies, but they are what they are, and they exist, so here.

I’ll Be Here” is a song sung by mathematics personified. I gave an impromptu performance of it on a boat once. It’s got a very simple guitar part that involves mostly open strings. The only hard part was the little high melody that comes in sometimes. The long held note forces me to work hard and get the guitar “solo” right, because if I stumble or pause I’ll run out of breath.

The lyrics are me amusing myself with double meanings. Poor mathematics gets so much hate, despite being the most beautiful and reliable thing in existence.

Keep your ears out for inversions.


I’m tired. I’m tired. I’m tired of solving your problems!
You use me. Do you need me? Do you want me at all?
The way you look at me, like I’m something foul,
yet you keep coming back to me.
I’ll be here, you know I’ll be here, I’ll always be here.

Sometimes you forget me, but I don’t mind so much.
You don’t understand me, but that’s ok,
I don’t expect you to. I can be… difficult.
Will you keep coming back to me?
I’m tired, but I’ll still be waiting.

Why won’t you smile at me? Do you really hate me so?
Is something wrong with me? Some day will you not come home?
I’ll be here, you know I’ll be here, I’ll always be here.

I’ll be here, believe me! I’m trying so hard to please you.
You might never love me. I still have hope. But…
I’m tired, I’m tired, I’m tired.

Because I” starts super easy to play (the G is tuned down to Gb) and then, once I was comfortable with that, I started filling in more notes. The hardest part of guitar for me is all that finding-a-chord stuff you do in your left hand, getting the fingers down properly and firmly. But once they’re there on a good set of notes, you can just pluck strings and it’s like cheating. That’s what the B section does.

The important part is the chord AED# that hangs in the air after the word “I.” The point of getting a guitar wasn’t to jam out on tunes, it was to have another tool for expressing the things where words fail. Those three notes say so much more than the words ever could.

If you got to this blog post fast enough, you may be the first person besides myself to have ever heard this song.


I hate to say goodbye. Don’t you hate to say goodbye?
I’d like to tell you one last time
That I…

I should be moving on. You would want me to move on.
But I don’t want to let you go
Because I…

Through the years you’ve been by my side and I
Never told you, I Never told you

I’d give anything just to have you back
I’d give anything
I’d give anything

I guess I have to let you go. I don’t want to let you go.
There’s things that I can’t change.

The Puzzle Song” is where I’m starting to try and take advantage of some of my pianist skills, like the ability to use the fingers on a single hand independently to play rhythms like 2 against 3, to bring out a melody and make me sound better at guitar than I really am. It’s another one where you might be the second person ever to hear it.

The coffee table in front of the couch where I sat writing has a bowl full of puzzles on it, including some great 2-piece Hanayama puzzles. Seeing them and connecting that to the intertwining rhythms of the guitar part, I wrote a song from the perspective of one puzzle piece, to its counterpart.

It makes fun of some of the awful cliches of unhealthy relationships, except this time actually sung from one actual object to another, two things that were quite literally made for each other. It amuses me.

There’s a sock, and a shoe.
One is me, one is you.
And I need you! I know it’s silly, but I need you.

There’s a lock, and a key.
One is you, one is me.
And I need you! I know it’s silly but I need you.

Without you I feel broken.
When you’re not here, I feel incomplete!

Two parts so intertwined,
I need you and you need me!
Yeah, you need me!
Yeah, you need me!

There’s a you, and a me.
There’s an us. Together we…
Together we, together we
Together we can be complete.

That’s all for now! When I have time, I’ll record some of the others.

Like most of my stuff, these are Creative Commons Non-Commercial Share-Alike. Maybe they’ll come in useful for someone.

How to Microwave Gracefully (an account of how it happened)

Sometimes I start with a simple thought on Twitter, decide to take it to the next level, and before I know it things have gone entirely out of hand and I’ve gone from a simple tweet about missing NY bagels to a fully produced bagel love song posted on SoundCloud in a matter of hours.

This time, it started with some simple microwave advice. I ended up live-tweeting while I made a video in 2 hours, and I figured I should get it all formatted in a post before it disappears into the unsearchable depths of twitter forever. Might as well add some further details on what went on too, if you’re interested in a thorough case-study of how one might go about making a weird video. Yes, let’s get way too in-depth! It will mirror the unreasonable nature of the art itself!

This is the tweet that started it all:

Of course, the creative process started before then. It didn’t even start with me microwaving something, but with putting leftovers in the fridge and thinking that I would microwave them later. It is important that I was thinking about microwaving, and not actually microwaving, because when what came to mind was the actual physical process of pressing buttons rather than the food I was putting in the fridge and would presumably want to eat, I realized there was something there. Somehow pushing buttons on a microwave was not just a chore but something worth thinking about, and maybe even worth doing well.

I’d been microwaving using repeated-digit times for a while, but hadn’t thought about how this might relate to other people’s microwave experiences. Twitter is my go-to place to get instant feedback from many people on simple things. My first draft was something like:

Life Hack: use cooking times like :66, :88, and 2:22. Never press 0.

It sounds so much like a tweet. Simple, direct, overplayed. It unartfully communicates a way to press digits, while the prohibition against 0 makes me feel all “don’t tell me what to do!”

What I’d really wanted to communicate was how interesting it is that many people like nice round times, that cooking times on packages are rounded, how because of that we bring that want for roundness to something where it does not apply, something that has a completely different sort of roundness we can find in the flow of our movements.

Flow, yes! Time to ramp up the ridiculousness. There’s plenty of room within a tweet to impart some useful information while couching it in artful flair. This is how I strive to communicate: make the communication itself as enjoyable as possible while being sure that all the information you want to communicate is recoverable. The only way I can manage to edit my more informative videos down to manageable length is to cut every word that does not serve at least those two purposes (and hopefully more). This paragraph could be cut in half with good editing, but in the case of blog posts about videos about pressing microwave buttons it’s all or nothing, I’m afraid.

So if I’m going to tweet about how to press microwave buttons as if it mattered, it would be more fun to pretend it mattered. Glorify it. Make it an almost religious act. Yes, it’s not about efficiency, it’s about flow! 111 feels so good, even where 66 would do! And so came the final version. As soon as I posted it, I decided that as long as I was making pressing buttons sound like an important zen activity, might as well follow up with more instructions.

This final set of tweets communicates a more efficient button-pressing workflow, suggestions on how to implement and enjoy that workflow, implications of our human tendency to ignore our habits, and that I realize it’s all ridiculous and doesn’t matter but am enjoying myself anyway and invite you to join in the fun.

We haven’t even gotten to the video part yet, but as I have not seen many long posts on the art of tweet composition I thought some of you might find the above useful.

Now! As I tweeted those tweets, I was reminded of the most recent video on my second secret channel, in which I take instructions for flattening a tube of toothpaste to a ridiculous extreme. I saw the potential for a similar video.

But no, I wasn’t interested in spending energy on such a video. The toothpaste video took me four long days. If I were going to spend that kind of time on a video right now, I know exactly which other videos I would like to make first.

So I did some other stuff, while the thought nagged at me. I tried to ignore it. Those three tweets, meanwhile, were generating a ton of great replies with people’s agreement, alternate methods, using primes or favourite constants or using oft-neglected buttons like 7 and 9 so that they don’t feel bad (I blame Randall Munroe for creating a subset of the population who spend some of their human capacity for empathy feeling sorry for a button), so basically I was constantly reminded of it.

It’s been so long since I posted a video. Maybe I could make it really quick. Maybe I could make it tonight. It could literally just be a zen ramble real-time guided microwave meditation that I bet I could knock out in an hour. I already had three tweets worth of script written, and the rest would come instantly… maybe add a little hint of creepiness in there just for fun… hmmm! It has been a long time, hasn’t it! I might forget how to make videos altogether, if I don’t get in a quick practice session. Yessss.

By 11pm, I’d convinced myself this was probably a good idea.

People were interested in playing. My original goal was to finish by midnight. Under an hour!

Emily Eifler suggested I live-tweet the event. I’d never livetweeted anything before! Sure, why not!

It took 15 minutes to set up the shot, which involved coming up with the entire concept. I knew I didn’t have much time, and I thought it would be funny (for me at least) to have the visuals literally be someone staring at a microwave as it counts down. Simple and easy. But what’s in the microwave? I don’t have time for that! Imply something creepy and make sure the shot doesn’t include the microwave window. Showing the keypad is important, but in confined space with no editing how do I show my face? And if I back up the camera to include my face then not only can you not see the keypad clearly but you will see the microwave window, or the rest of my apartment, revealing more of my life and things than I am interested in having the internet see, not to mention the composition was terrible.

The only thing funnier than a real-time video of someone watching a microwave count down would probably be a real-time video of a closeup of the keypad. Literally watching a clock count down. This is the sort of daring art stuff I do just because I can. Yes, I can make a closeup of a microwave timer counting down, and people will watch it. My life is awesome. Strongly considering doing a longer followup along this vein. In fact, because it goes so well with this story and I cannot resist taking things to ridiculous extremes, and also because I have the emotional/financial luxury of not caring if I lose every single one of my subscribers, I’m going to do exactly that right now.

Ok, that was NUTS.

See, just because I make fun of the creation process of something doesn’t mean it isn’t art. And we learn surprising things when we indulge in projects that seem too simple to be worth our time. I don’t know if anyone will actually enjoy watching a video of me counting down from 9:99 to End, but for me, standing there in the dark behind the camera counting down into the mic, it was quite an experience. Definitely one worth having. So before we get back to the other video, let’s tangent a bit about this thing I just made.

I chose 9:99 because it sounds like a super legit big time to count down from, yet is not a real time, yet it still works on a microwave, still counts, feels more like 10 than 10:40, and I want people to have a small but worthwhile “aha” when they realize that counting down from 99, which they’re used to, is weird in this situation.

In the first few seconds I realized one second is not a lot of time in which to say a three digit number and I’m eventually going to need to breathe. Merely keeping up took all my attention at first; good diction exercise! I decided every ten seconds was a good amount of time to take a breath. Once I got into the flow enough to think more, I noticed that breathing after 0 put emphasis on 9, appropriate since we were in the 9s, and decided that in the 8s I’d breathe before 8 instead.

I amused myself for a few minutes with this scheme, but once it becomes a pattern that’s boring. I tried changing when the breath is, making it every 11 instead of every 10, to emphasize repeated digits. Then that got boring, which meant I had to amuse myself.

Creating boring situations and then trying to amuse myself within them is my absolute favourite hobby and valuable life skill. Nothing too crazy happened and I still don’t expect it to be interesting for anyone to actually watch, but I did get to try giving different arcs, flows, to the numbers, surprised myself by discovering how much of how we count is in the inflections, the “counting style” way of speaking.

I tried to go back to a simple robotic speech for the dramatic under-a-minute countdown, and somehow in context, after all that, it sounded lost and sad. I went with it.

Including parts where I’d had to do things over, I’d been standing around counting down for nearly 20 minutes. It was fast-paced and intense and physically demanding. If you don’t believe me, I dare you to try it, as loud and exuberantly as I did. I’m sure it’s great at parties.

I was in a zone, I was acting, improvising. I don’t know how much was part of the “story” I was weaving into the countdown and how much was real, but I felt slightly emotional, and a little shaken, when it reached the end. Ah, I can’t even count down with a microwave without throwing myself into my art! Ha. I bare myself to the world by posting this microwave video.

Anyway, back to the live-tweeting of the first video.

I had a hypothesis that with a little rubbing alcohol the greasy keypad might actually be reflective enough to show a bit of reflection. There’s something creepily voyeuristic about watching someone’s reflection. I already had the beginning of the script from the tweets, and I filled it out quickly. Zen microwave, breathing exercises to fill the time, stop. But instead of just demonstrating one possible zen time, why not two? It’s natural for it to not be done and have to put it back in for another 33 seconds, a good time to be familiar with.

I started typing “looks like it’s not done yet” after the first microwavation. But wait, what’s not done yet? Instead of a boring standard microwave sentence, this could be a funny/creepy reveal. Timing wise, it was the perfect place to do it. Start normalweird, reveal creepyweird 2/3 the way through. Same pattern I used in the toothpaste video. Finished the sentence as “looks like it’s not dead yet” and added a bit of creep to the second shorter set of breathing exercises.

Odd how typing out these few paragraphs on my script-writing thought process probably took longer than writing the script itself. I was using forms that already existed and ideas I knew well. The point was not to say something new or insightful. The point was to be fast.

The shot was set, the script gave me simple acting instructions, I slapped on some lipstick and mascara to help the reflection visibility, and was ready to film!

I’d never filmed something before where I cared about specifics but couldn’t see what the camera was capturing while I filmed. If I had a mirror, I might have been able to see if my reflection was properly in the shot while I faced away. As it was, I looked at the camera while putting my hand where my face would be. Seemed to work. Start filming. Press buttons and realize…

Yep, I was focusing on capturing the buttons, but once I was filming and saw the timer counting down I knew I wanted that in the shot. Unfortunately there was no way to get both the start button and the timer in the shot without widening it to the point where you see stuff I don’t want you to see. I’m moving so fast to try to finish by midnight that I don’t have time to type spaces between “step” and number anymore.

Re-set my shot and went for it! Actual filming only took a couple minutes, as it was in real time.

I had no idea if the footage was good, but it was 11:30, no time to do anything but transfer it to the computer and work with it. Unfortunately I didn’t have a mic on the camera. I’m so used to only recording visuals for my videos that I didn’t even think of it. I decided I’d just record the sounds I needed using the mic I had all set up at my computer, and edit it in.

On the bright side, as long as I was going to have to record and add sound effects, might as well record and add some extra stuff, that wasn’t in the original take. Hmmm, what other sounds could be added? Maybe some thumps, as if something’s really in there, to foreshadow the “looks like it’s not dead yet.” So, if you like the thumps, forgetting the mic was serendipitous.

Fridge is a recurring problem. I’ve strongly considered just always ordering out, always ordering perfect portions, and unplugging the beast altogether. I may yet do this.

I had manually held up the mic to save time, but there was a ringing in the recording that I guessed was caused by my hand vibrations. Re-recording with a proper stand setup fixed the problem, but took precious time. At least it was enough time for the files to transfer from the camera!

Made a few last edits to the script. Usually I make narration the driving force, lining up the video with the natural timing of my words. But this was a real-time video, so I hit play on the thing and tried to line up the narration with what I saw. No time to put thought into how I want to say things, no time to try again and get things lined up better– it was recorded, edited, exported from audacity and imported into premier within minutes. (I’ve done that process quite a lot). Even so, at this point midnight was out of the question, what with so much sound editing to be done. I set my sights on 1am.

Now the real time consumer: sound effects! My usual sound-first approach means I often import a single audio track and stick with it. Now, in order to get all the microwave sound effects in, and lined up with the video, I had a cumbersome pile of audio tracks.

I’ve done a bit of adding sound effects to things, but never from scratch, from absolute silence, on a real-time supposedly-live video like this. It was a good exercise.

And after adding those thumps, I thought some creepy breathing was needed.

Honestly, the discovery of the one-ear echo trick may be the most useful result of this exercise. Hear it alone here.

I’d recorded the breathing while watching the video, and as it wasn’t very complicated, I got it in and lined up quickly.

I have a lot of practice making videos by this point, but nothing like the experience I have with music. Producing quick unpolished recordings of improvised songs with improvised harmonies is not a very in-demand skill set, but I consider myself an expert.

A defining characteristic of expertise is that not only can you do a thing, but you know exactly how long it will take. I knew that 15 minutes would be enough to record some simple pleasant background thing (3 minutes each for 3 voices), edit and mess with the balance and add echo and stuff (4 minutes), and export, import, line-up, done (2 minutes). No technical difficulties, no testing out things and seeing what works, just do my thing.

Which meant that with 20 minutes I could relax and consider my game plan, make the voices something special, something that really adds to the video, is unique and essential to the video, something that truly belongs to this video and no other (a pet peeve of mine is when videos slap on random background music). The rhythm of button pushing is compared to Beethoven’s 5th in the narration, so that’s an obvious place to start. Put the rhythm of all sorts of nice key presses into the vocals, quote Beethoven a little…. Fun, but subtle, and with 20 full minutes I was sure I could do better.

Hmm, something that adds to the video… well, the content of the video is basically the narration, so maybe they could actually add to the video. Yes, they start innocent, just as the video itself does, and they don’t become creepy in tone (unlike in the toothpaste video for example), but rather become off-putting by interfering where we are not used to background music interfering, responding to the narration itself, and yet still a layer apart, commenting but presumably unseen and unheard by the narrator.

A nice device. Would love to find opportunity to use again and really do it right. Yes, forget what I said about the one-ear echo thing; this is the best idea to come out of this exercise.

So I recorded the vocals while watching the video and responding to things. The result is imperfect and if I had more time I would have had the responses scripted, funnier, organized to not accidentally overlap with each other or the narration, etc. Like, after the narrator mentions her sister, one voice says “you don’t have a sister” but in the end it’s really hard to make out.

Anyway, that brings us to 12:59!

The result was representative of the intention and work put into it, I think! Success!

Finally done, I took a look at the replies I’d been getting. Many people concerned about my fridge.

And that was that! The video finished exporting, I uploaded it to YouTube:

…and then, having fulfilled my promise to my twitter followers, I took a moment to reflect.

While writing the rest of this post, the 9:99 microwave video was exporting. I just watched it for the first time. I didn’t think I’d actually watch all the way through, but you know what? I like it. I don’t expect anyone else to like it, but I truly do.

Probably just runner’s high.


Short story: I wrote a song to Pat Rothfuss‘s lyrics for the super-fun charity event Wordbuilders.

Long story: I’ve got two favourite charity events. The Project for Awesome is a whirlwind crazy fun two days of the YouTube community banding together to decrease world-suck. Worldbuilders, by contrast, is a long-haul event with fun-crazy spread over an entire two months.

I started following Worldbuilders four years ago, because I was following Pat’s blog, because Pat wrote The Name of the Wind, which I’d already read twice at that point.

Some people get warm fuzzies from knowing their donation will help bring families out of poverty. Some people get warm fuzzies from imagining all the awesome stuff they might win. Personally, I get my biggest warmest fuzzies just from the atmosphere of books, books, more books, blog posts about new books, old books, books I might like, books other people like, special books, series of books, piles and piles of books. Oh, and their authors, too. So. It’s fun to follow.

This year Pat ramped up the fun by adding “acts of whimsy,” where when certain goals are met a person (such as other authors I am a fan of) will do a whimsical thing (FANTASY AUTHORS ARE ALL INSANE). Needless to say, having been a fan of Pat’s for years, I was super excited when he contacted me about doing something and now we are bestest friends. You can read his side of the story in his blog post about the song.

About the song: As soon as I heard the name, I knew it was The One. The sound, the rhythm, the creepy undertones, all wrapped up in a single word destined for music. Pat told me it was a duet for two female voices, and that it was sung in a circle. Perfect!

I could imagine that the first time through it was simple, a folk song everyone knew and could sing, but with each repetition a given pair of singers might make it increasingly complex, showing off their individual skill and creativity. I wanted it to have the unsettling changes in meter appropriate for a song called Knackerman. I wanted it to be interesting to listen to, despite being for just two a cappella voices. What I ended up with was fairly difficult to sing, especially when trying to record one voice with all its weird timings and no second voice to listen to and work from. The stomps and claps not only add a bit of percussion, but are essential for keeping time through the meter changes. Note the heart-beat stomps during “give me your heart” :D

I know what fans of TNotW who have already read Pat’s blog post are wondering: How could I possibly give up the chance to have Tinker Tanner? I don’t know! The heart wants what the heart wants.

Anyway, while I actually did this for fun, the story is that I’m doing it for charity, so if you like it, maybe buy someone a goat or something.

Edit: it is now on SoundCloud, where you can download it.

Thanksgiving Torrents


This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for peer-to-peer file sharing, and to celebrate, I’ve made another batch of my videos available as Torrents, including the Thanksgiving Dinner series I made last year (torrent|YouTube). If it’s not Thanksgiving where you are, maybe it is snowing and you’d like to revisit last year’s series on folding paper snowflakes, also space-time! You can find all the new torrents on my Torrents page.

This year I have been reminded repeatedly, in multiple ways, how important free peer-to-peer file sharing is. Yesterday my website went down without explanation because the hosting service I am paying for had technical difficulties, but the torrents of my videos still worked. YouTube changes the conditions surrounding their hosting service on a whim, for both those using it for free and those paying for it with ads, but torrents have no unique host or platform that can control how you see them. YouTube can decide to suddenly start showing advertisements before my videos, without notification (this happened earlier this year), but when you download one of my torrents I know you will get exactly my video and nothing else. No signing up for other services. No “featured video” thumbnails promising to teach you how to get girls’ numbers. No extra compression, degradation of quality, unexplained age restrictions, bogus copyright claims, “This video is not available right now,” etc. Just my video, on your computer, the way it was meant to be seen.

In a world where anyone reading this is probably already paying for internet access, paying for hardware, and probably also paying for other hardware that gets that internet access to your hardware, it concerns me how prevalent the idea is that it is good and right for people to accept an internet full of advertisements and alternate agendas in exchange for services as basic as hosting or transferring information.

I do not accept that.

I bought a computer and pay a monthly cable bill. I should not need to use an ad-covered site to communicate with my friends.

I bought a computer and pay a monthly cable bill. I should not need to use an ad-covered site to let people see content that I myself create and own.

And I don’t! So, thank you BitTorrent. Thank you for letting people who like my stuff download my stuff from each other using things they’ve already paid for. Also, thank you RSS for letting people get my posts without having to expose themselves to my frighteningly-yellow website and its faulty hosting.


And now, a note on the Thanksgiving videos, since I get a lot of questions about them.

I did not, in fact, eat any of the math food I created for the videos. Filming the series took over a week, and items went in and out of the fridge, sat out for hours, etc. The potatoes mostly dried out, and so did the bread spheres, so they were easy to deal with. The gelatinous cranberry cylinder got moldy pretty quickly. Throughout the series I replaced blackberries, covered up mold spots with mint leaves, etc.

The turkduckenen-duckenen was the saddest part. I had little expectation that I would be able to pull off a seven-bird binary-stuffed extravaganza, but I managed to debone and assemble all the birds and after sitting in the oven for ten hours it came out perfectly cooked and smelling delicious. Unfortunately filming the creation of it involved many hours of setting up shots and deboning on the counter under warm lights, and leaving uncooked poultry sitting out for hours is a great way to get sick, so I had to trash the whole thing. Still, I think helping teach hundreds of thousands of people about binary tree traversal is a more worthy end to a bird’s life than being eaten.