Big Data Review in Emoji

I'm on the board of, a great non-profit focused on technology and art. We do an event every year called Seven on Seven where we pair seven technologists with seven artists.

Saturday was the fifth anniversary of the event, and this year one of the teams paired NYT writer and author Nick Bilton with artist Simon Denny.

Around 5pm on Friday, I got an email from Nick offering to pay me $5 for an emoji version of the White House's report on Big Data:

Email from Nick

The entire report is 85 pages, but they asked for a summary of page 55, a chart showing how federal dollars are being spent on privacy and data research:


Here's what I came up with (click for a larger version):

Big Data Emoji

I'm particularly proud of my emoji-fication of homomorphic encryption:

Homomorphic Encryption

I highly recommend watching the whole event, but Nick and Simon's presentation of the other reports they solicited begins around at the 3 hours and 25 minute mark of the live stream:

Nick, I know you said you'd pay cash, but I'd really prefer to accept the $5 in DOGE.

Please send 10,526.32 DOGE to DKQJsavxSdF381Mn3qZpyehsBzCX3QXzA2. Thanks!

Visualizing SOPA on Twitter

When I heard that Tyler Gray at Public Knowledge was looking for someone to do some analysis on tweets that mentioned SOPA, I thought I might try Cytoscape (an open source tool used for biomedical research, but handy for large scale data visualization) to show some of the relationships between people discussing the controversial bill on Twitter.

The result is a graph of the most active users referencing SOPA

Public Knowledge worked with the Brick Factory to set up their slurp140 tool to record approximately 1.5 million tweets which Tyler sent me in the form 350mb CSV file. I first used Google Refine to clean and narrow the set down to only tweets which were replies to someone else. This left approximately 80,000 tweets which I then imported into R. I then ranked all of usernames by how often they appeared both as senders and recipients, and then picked the approximate top 1,000 users. Since replies are sent from one user to another, the graph is directed: each edge has a direction with an origin and an arrow pointing at the recipient. There are 1,021 nodes identified by their Twitter usernames, and 1,757 edges a good portion of which are labeled with the content of their tweet.

Visualizing networks this large is more of an art than a science

I've tried to strike a balance between visual complexity, aesthetics and readability of tweets, but you'll find that this isn't always successful. Sometimes tweets run into nodes, sometimes edges run into labels, and sometimes the graph feels like a total mess. But that messiness is part of what made the SOPA debate on so interesting over the last month.

Thousands of people participating with plenty of cross talk.

The colors and sizes of the nodes and edges are coded in the following ways:

  • A node and its label size is maps to the number of tweets both posted by a user and and mentioning a user. (Ex: @BarackObama is a huge node because so many people were tweeting at him about SOPA).
  • Node color represents the number of outgoing tweets. The greener the node, the more replies a user posted. (Ex: @Digiphile sent a lot of tweets mentioning SOPA.)
  • Edge thickness represents "edge betweeness" which is how many "shortest paths" that run through it. This is a rough measure of how central a given tweet is in a network. (Ex: @declanm and @mmasnick have a thick line connecting them because many other nodes are connected to the two through that tweet.)
  • Edge color represents the language of the tweet. (Ex: Tweets in English are blue, Spanish are yellow.)

The nodes are positioned using an "force directed" algorithm which is typically designed for undirected graphs, but I found it to be the most visually compelling of Cytoscape's layout options. To learn more about force directed graphs, take a look at this d3 tutorial visualizing the characters in Victor Hugo's Les Misérables.

To really browse the graph visit GigaPan where I've uploaded a 32,000 x 32,000 pixel version.

I highly recommend GigaPan's full screen mode. I've also created a couple snapshots on GigaPan that highlight interesting nodes: @BarackObama, @GoDaddy, and @LamarSmithTX21 and @DarellIssa.

If you really want, you can also download the 36mb gigapixel file, the Cytoscape source file, and the PDF vector version of the network graph.

Thanks again to Public Knowledge, The Brick Factory for providing the infrastructure to record the tweets, and everyone who has helped fight against SOPA and PIPA over the last couple of months, especially those who tweeted about it.

There's No Such Thing as a Compulsory License for a Photo

My friend Andy has a terrific post up about his ordeal settling with the photographer Jay Maisel over the threat of a copyright lawsuit. Chances are if, you're reading this, you know about that. If you haven't ready Andy's story, go and read it and then come back.

There's one pointed question I've seen crop up in a number of conversations about the settlement:

Isn't it wrong that Andy chose to pay the licensing fees for the music but not for the photograph?

This question makes the assumption that Andy could have paid the licensing fees to Maisel like he did for the music. He couldn't have. This is because Jay Maisel refused to license the image and there's no compulsory license for photography like there is for musical compositions.

A compulsory license is what it sounds like: the owner of the underlying musical composition is required, by law, to license it to anyone who wants to use it at a predetermined rate. This prohibits song writers from picking and choosing who gets to perform their works. It also allows Andy to license, at a fair rate, the underlying song compositions from a Miles Davis album to make a new album of original recordings (remember, copyrights to recordings are different from copyrights to the compositions of a song).

The copyright of photographic works, unlike works of music composition, is not subject to a compulsory license.

This means that photographers, unlike song writers, can forbid anyone from reusing their work, whether it is for a poster or for an album cover.

Now, artists like Jay Maisel obviously enjoy this absolute control over their work because it lets them dictate who uses their art and when. Song writers, unfortunately aren't afforded to this their published works.

So while no one could have prevented Andy from recording an album of remixed music written by Miles Davis -- not even Miles Davis himself if he were alive -- the same does not hold for a photo of Miles Davis.

Remember, Maisel admitted he would have refused to license to Andy the rights to the photo. So Andy's only option, short of not using the photo at all, was to use the 8-bit remix cover and wager it was a fair use.

That Andy could, in one case, hire artists to legally remix music by paying a compulsory license, but in another case had to make an expensive and risky bet on fair use (a bet that didn't pan out) feels unfair.

Put another way: why are composers required to license their compositions at a fair rate to anyone, but yet virtually every other type of artist doesn't have to play by the same rule?

I doubt anyone would argue that song composition is a lesser art or any less deserving of full royalties than other arts.

One reason is that the practicalities of compulsory rights for photographs (and other works) are hard to imagine. Music compositions are written, then performed, then recorded, whereas photographs are snapped and then printed. There's no underlying right in a photograph (thank goodness) to its "composition" like there is for a piece of music. So that is part of why compulsory licenses for photos don't exist.

But I think another part of the story is that the law has evolved the musical compulsory license as an implicit acknowledgement that music compositions are both maleable and fundamental components to our culture. Compulsory licenses make possible everything from karaoke bars to cover bands to remixes like Andy's. The alternative -- allocating complete power to composers over who reuses their work -- yields transactional costs on culture that are simply too high. The law hasn't felt the same way for the visual works.

So will other art forms, like photography, adopt compulsory licenses? I doubt it, but I can't help but they'd be a great compromise in light of Andy's settlement. I asked Andy over email whether he would have paid a mechanical license for the photo:

"Absolutely. If the laws and protocols for remixing photos were as clear and fair as covering music, I would've bought a mechanical license for the photo in a heartbeat. But the laws around visual art are frustratingly vague, and requiring someone's permission to create art that doesn't affect the market for the original doesn't seem right. I didn't think it would be a problem, especially considering the scope of my project, but I was wrong. Nobody should need a law degree to understand whether art is legal or not."

Markov Chaining Kickstarter Blurbs

So I'm back from a wonderful couple of days of hanging out with the Kickstarter team near the beach. I managed to rent a surfboard and catch a couple of waves too. During a margarita-induced what-if-session, someone encouraged me to try and auto-generate some blurbs from the Kickstarter homepage. These are typically 150-200 character descriptions of projects that our community team labors over and refreshes daily.

Since I had worked with Markov Chains for Dan Shiffman's class "Programming A to Z" at ITP and had done two projects using them: ROBODRUDGE (autogenerated Matt Drudge Headlines) and The Rutabaga (an April Fools Joke that Google was attempting to compete with The Onion by using auto-generated news headlines), they seemed like an obvious place to start. I found Eric Hodel's Markov Chain ruby code readily usable and went from there.

To give some background to Markov Chains: the basic principle is to use probability to auto-generate new sequences based off old patterns. Sometimes these sequences can be numerical, sometimes they're musical, and sometimes they're  characters and words.

An example of exquisite corpse from Wikipedia.

Another way to think of Markov chains is as a computer's attempt to play Equisite Corpse: it is fed a certain amount of existing information and then it attempts to extrapolate a similar pattern. A classic example is to feed a Markov Chain Engine Shakespeare; not only is it readily available in raw text and in the public domain, but Markov Chain generated Shakespeare looks strikingly similar to the real thing (thanks to Jim's Random Notes for the work):

If they in thou, thy love, that old,
Thought, that which yet do the heat did excess
My love concord never saw my woeful taste
At ransoms you for that so unprovident:
For thereby beauty show’st I am fled,
Althoughts to the dead, that care
With should thus shall by their fair,
Where too much my jade,
Her loves, my heart.vs.

I pulled down a document with a majority of the text that Kickstarter has used to blurb projects on the homepage. Below is a subset of an almost infinite list of hilarious and sometimes disturbing auto-generated project blurbs:

  • It features monstrous puppets, mystic sex rituals, yellowface assassins, wildly stylized violence, and a songwriter who created that all-important childhood fave Schoolhouse Rock.
  • To promote NAIN, an all-new miniature setting for his REIGN roleplaying game, Greg Stolze has put together a group of thespians shouting thank you at their laptops to a great $3 price.
  • Karl Cronin wants to document and collect relics of the concoctions of Atlanta's Good Food Truck.
  • Emilia Brock types out every word of her adorable and inventive zine, “Muster,” on a manual typewriter, has each copy illustrated by the Simpsons as a mobile CSA.`
  • First Law of Mad Science channels cyber-punk and sci-fi to bring a Yakuza noir production to the emerging subculture of asexuality.
  • Rewards include CDs mixed by a visit from a song left on your voicemail to a unique fabric whose color + pattern is determined by keywords pulled from Twitter's database in real time.
  • Joe Mangrum has been designing simple-but-compelling computer games based on Eugene O'Neill's play.
  • The project will help them print their fourth issue, and editor Mindy (a drummer herself!) is offering backers personalized designs and original music and prove that the rail system is a five-minute short film about a roach violinist who falls in love with the bravado you'll find in Memphis Heat, a documentary on the real-life appearance of a giant, hand-crafted, Rube Goldberg contraption.
  • After 13+ years of genetic testing and solitary confinement, Oliver’s getting a new horror-adventure comic about the movements of immigrants across vast bodies of water.
  • With just a camera in hand and boundless curiosity, Rebekah Potter interviews artists for her series 10min4walls, in which a twenty-something guy returns to Argentina to rekindle past excitement and romance, but instead is confronted with a musical twist, features a one-of-a-kind mood swing.
  • Fans have flocked to support him, and it's not hard to see it for yourself: it’s available only to backers of the fastest competitive lockpickers in the form of a pig's dissembling and its indie rock soundtrack.
  • Director Jonathan Langer will reward backers with the woman whose apartment he inhabits.
  • Common Cycle is a feature-length thriller about strained family relationships, small-town antics, and second chances.
  • I'm Going Home will be filled with a stowaway lab mouse as his only companion.
  • She'll combine intimate interviews, vérité footage, and animation in a city decimated by the public for performances, gallery space, meetings, bike repairs, relaxing — or pretty much anything.
  • This August, thousands of individual leaf, flower, and bird forms from reclaimed wood and connecting them into an animated feature film starring comedic legend Leslie Nielsen.
  • Trailer Park: A Mobile Public Park is a witty comedic web series.
  • Missed Connections is a film about three friends on a loom into a community biology lab so that no two experiences are alike.
  • Check out his video and you can get a sense of humor and would like to be normal, and Nick's lusting for the Queen of England and wrote a jazz pianist whose work was performed by Miles Davis, John Coltrane,