Sunday, January 31, 2010

Photoshop Bugs

I've been using Photoshop for one thing or another for more than ten years.  It's an indispensable tool. But the lack of any decent competition (yes, I know about Gimp and Paint.net, thank you) has left Adobe with no incentive to improve.  They still add features, but in a haphazard way that leaves the menus not making any sense. The 16-bit processing is restricted in odd ways, so that they include a photo editor with a completely different interface before you even get into Photoshop. Once you're in Photoshop, you can't manipulate the hidden information that is too bright or too dark to be represented within eight bits.
But what really annoy me are the longstanding bugs.  Some of these have been around since Photoshop 4.0 at least (We're now on 11.0, by the old count.) Here are three:

The cursor bug: Sometimes, the cursor tool will change from a circle showing the size of the brush to a cross-hair showing the center of the brush.  The way to fix it is to go into File>Edit>Preferences, and change the Painting Cursors from "Normal Brush Tip" to "Precise Brush Tip."  Yes, that's the opposite of what you want to accomplish.

The color matching bug: When using Image>Adjustments>Match Color, it's supposed to work like this: you select a region from one image, you select a region from another image, and the colors in the second image are bent to match the corresponding colors in the first image.  It works perfectly, and gives beautiful results that would be hard to accomplish by tweaking the curves. The trouble is when you try to apply the remapping to the whole image, by checking "Ignore Selection When Applying Adjustment." When you do this, the colors within the selection change radically.  It comes up with a new mapping, that is always worse than the mapping before the box was checked. I don't care what mapping you apply to the gamut of colors not included in my selection, Adobe: leave them alone, map them all to purple, whatever, I can cope. But the colors that are included in my selection, when I check that box, LEAVE THE MAPPING ALONE.  IT WORKS FINE.

The Anisotropic Diffusion bug: Hidden away as a bullet on an otherwise useless filter (Filter>Stylize>Diffuse) is the anisotropic diffusion filter.  This can be very useful for preventing jaggies when an image is enlarged, or for painterly effects. It basically smooths along edges, never across them. The trouble is, it is applied to a small region (368 pixel by 90 pixel strips) at a time. This leaves an edge which is treated differently between the two regions. It's done for speed and memory reasons.  I think they've improved this one, but it's still present.

My hope is that Adobe will somehow come across this post and fix the bugs.  I've also submitted them to their bug report website. But I'm not holding my breath.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Six Signs the Circle



     When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back;
     Three from the circle, three from the track;
     Wood, bronze, iron; water, fire, stone;
     Five will return, and one go alone.


     Iron for the birthday, bronze carried long;
     Wood from the burning, stone out of song;
     Fire in the candle ring, water from the thaw;
     Six Signs the circle, and the grail gone before.




From the time I first read it, Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising was one of my favorite books. In the book, a young boy must find six signs of power in order to stop the advance of the darkness.  At the time, I tried to make my own six signs.  I whittled one out of pine, I glued some plastic jewels onto a gold colored canning jar lid, I scraped a pattern into the glass bottom of a bottle that my dad sawed off for me, and I tried to make another out of a stone ashtray from Pier One Imports. That was a long time ago, and I don't have any idea where those are any more, though I surely never threw them away. I also made a mask from feathers and antlers for my brother Steve's birthday, and included a note similar to the one Will receives in the book from his brother.
My brother David never forgot that I wanted a set of these, and for the last three years has been secretly working on making me the ones you see above (click the pictures to enlarge). These are made from the real materials (or nearly) and were crafted by hand.

Iron:  "a kind of ornament, made of black metal, a flat circle quartered by two crossed lines. It was about the size of his palm, and quite heavy; roughly forged out of iron, he guessed, with no sharp points or edges." This was cut from a cast-iron pan.  Afterwards it was seasoned in the oven, to turn it black.


Bronze: "a quartered circle identical with the one he wore on his belt, but gleaming with the dull brown-gold sheen of bronze." This was made by melting down thrift-store candlesticks in a homemade forge (blown air from a hairdryer helped the fire to burn hot enough.) The molten metal was poured into a plaster mold.


Wood: "Our wood is one which the dark does not love. Rowan, Will, that's our tree. Mountain ash... the skeleton of the wooden piece was left: a clear, smooth circle...there was no irregularity to it at all." This was carved from a piece of rowan, and oiled to make it glow.


Water: "It was wrought of iridescent glass, engraved with serpents and eels and fishes, waves and clouds and things of the sea." This one was made of molten glass poured into a sand mold.  It looks like ice from the shore of a lake.  It broke in the mail, but I fit all the pieces together and am going to glue them.


Fire:  "Gold of several different colors had been beaten together with great craftsmanship to make its crossed circle shape, and on all sides it was set with tiny gems, rubies and emeralds and sapphires and diamonds, in strange runic patterns." This sign is made of solid gold, which of course was impossible, so he cast it out of lead and covered it with gold leaf.  It is very heavy in the hand, but David pointed out that gold would be more than half again as heavy as lead. Around the side are the words in old English "LIHT MEC HEHT GEWRYCAN," which means "The Light ordered that I should be made."


Stone: "this was a natural flint, grown in the Chiltern chalk fifteen million years ago." This was carved from soapstone, which is the easiest stone to carve.

I told David that this was the best present I could think of. Here are some pictures of the making process.  Note that it's my Dad's homemade forge. I think it's a metal bucket with concrete lining the inside, and a hole to blow are in the bottom with the blowdryer.












Friday, January 22, 2010

Artificial Persons




Yesterday, the Supreme Court held that the right to free speech allowed unlimited expenditure on political speech by corporations.  In his dissent, Justice Stevens wrote, “Under the majority’s view, I suppose it may be a First Amendment problem that corporations are not permitted to vote, given that voting is, among other things, a form of speech.
 How can the first amendment be applicable to organizations of any kind?
Corporations were first called "artificial persons" in English courts in the 16th century.  Lawyers had tried to argue that their corporations could not be convicted, because the relevant laws began "No person shall...."
(The documents forming these early companies, by the way, were closely copied in the Mayflower Contract, and some of their language found its way into the U.S. constitution, which has influenced constitutions around the world.)
Adam Smith, with his customary foresight, worried about granting corporations these rights.  The problem was that corporations were superhuman—they tended towards immortality, growth in size, and growth in power. He suggested that laws limit the lifespan of any company.
The rights of artificial persons were first defined in law in regards to property. In the late 1700s, Stewart Kyd defined a corporation:
"a collection of many individuals united into one body, under a special denomination, having perpetual succession under an artificial form, and vested, by policy of the law, with the capacity of acting, in several respects, as an individual, particularly of taking and granting property, of contracting obligations, and of suing and being sued, of enjoying privileges and immunities in common, and of exercising a variety of political rights…."
Around the same time, Thomas Jefferson worried about the potential power of corporations. He tried to add an 11th amendment to ban “monopolies in commerce.” He wrote in a letter to James Logan, “I hope we shall... crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations which dare already to challenge our government in a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”
But he was soon to see his fears realized. Daniel Webster argued a case for Dartmouth College whose contract the government wanted to dissolve before the Supreme Court, ending with a touching plea for those who loved the small institution. He convinced Justice John Marshall, who wrote, "A corporation is an artificial being, invisible, intangible, and existing only in contemplation of law. Being the mere creature of law, it possesses only those properties which the charter of its creation confers upon it either expressly or as incidental to its very existence. These are such as are supposed best calculated to effect the object for which it was created. Among the most important are immortality, and, if the expression may be allowed, individuality -- properties by which a perpetual succession of many persons are considered as the same, and may act as a single individual. They enable a corporation to manage its own affairs and to hold property without the perplexing intricacies, the hazardous and endless necessity, of perpetual conveyances for the purpose of transmitting it from hand to hand. It is chiefly for the purpose of clothing bodies of men, in succession, with these qualities and capacities that corporations were invented, and are in use. By these means, a perpetual succession of individuals are capable of acting for the promotion of the particular object like one immortal being."
By this point, the analogy had become more than that—it was justified as referring to the individuals who made up the company acting in unison. The rights were expanded to include other amendments again in 1887, in the case Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company.
The idea has been further developed by later legal scholars.  In the 1952 Harvard Law Review, we find the following:
The conception of corporate personality is a simplification of the processes of thought. Its function is similar to that of an algebraic symbol. A mathematician finds it difficult to carry in his head a complicated expression such as x^2 + a x + b^2; and in order to simplify his mental processes he says to himself, "Let y = x^2 + a x + b^2," and then he uses y in his calculations instead of the longer and more cumbrous expression. So it is with the imaginary corporate personality in legal calculations. The lawyer finds himself unable to solve his problems if he thinks of a corporation not as a personified unit but as a shifting body of shareholders, or even as a real but impersonal entity; and he therefore says to himself, in effect, "Let the corporate personality equal the changing body of shareholders in respect to their relations to the joint property." By substituting the more compact idea for the more elaborate, he is enabled to reach correct results with less mental effort….”
The article also contains this fascinating tidbit:
“The famous dictum of Sir Edward Coke that corporations cannot be excommunicated because they have no souls, is seen to be illogical. This is illustrated by the history of the canon law, from which Coke derived his statement. Thus, Innocent IV held that corporations, or universitates, could not take an oath, or be baptized or excommunicated.”
One danger with all this is that corporations are legally required to work by only one motivation: to maximize the profits of shareholders. The only way Google can get away with the motto, “don’t be evil,” is because they can reasonably argue in court that in the long run, an ethical reputation will lead to greater profits.
The question I'm really interested in is, to what extent are the relevant decisions of corporations made by the executive (CEO), by committees, or (and this is most interesting) by policies and procedures that have been laid down beforehand and the employees are following? In the third case, these companies are acting as essentially programmed robots being treated legally as persons.
Anyway, that’s where the court is coming from.  It will be interesting to see how it all works out.  I can’t help but think that once artificial agents begin to exhibit what seems to be independent thought, that these laws will be applied to them as well. We will have to hope that the ethical basis of such machines is put on a surer footing.

Monday, January 18, 2010

"Pattern Recognition" and "Count Zero"

I reread Count Zero when I was in Athens last month, and it's still one of my favorite books. One thing that struck me was how similar the subplot involving Marly was to the plot of Pattern Recognition (a later novel by the same author, William Gibson.) In both books, a wealthy and mysterious older man hires (with a truly unlimited budget) a stylish young woman to trace the origin of an unusually evocative and eclectic collage. In Count Zero, the creator turns out to be an artificial intelligence residing on an abandoned space station. In Pattern Recognition, the artist is a brain-damaged woman.
What interested me was that in both cases, the mystery, having been traced back to its source, still isn't solved. We don't understand where the creativity in the machine is coming from; we don't understand where the creativity in the subconscious is coming from. We can tell in the novels that it has something to do with the richness of life and the tragedy of death and loss, but beyond that, finding the source of the artwork has just led to the realization that we still can't reach the source of the artwork, and perhaps never will be able to.