Magnetic Resonance Imaging: Phase C

Oct 23, 2016

This was the last part of the imaging procedure that I remember before deciding that I should probably take a nap. I didn't get a lot of sleep the night before, and let's be honest, being stuffed into the core of a superconducting magnet for a couple of hours gets boring after a while. I can only entertain myself so much... I can best characterize this part of the imaging procedure as "Shit got real."

Something cranked up deep inside the core of the machine and my vision went red, and then it started to bleed in and out. At this point I lost track of time because I started to lose track of where I was. I had to open my eyes periodically to look at the plain, white surface of the MRI's imaging tube because I wasn't able to watch it for long. Then a bunch of repeated shrieks and moans started kicking up all around my head and rainbow bursts started coming out of nowhere, flaring brightly enough to obscure my vision, and popping out of existence, over and over and over again. Those shrieks and moans did something completely fucked up to my kinesthetic sense.

I felt like I was falling, like I'd just fallen off of a high rooftop or been pushed out of a plane. My stomach lurched because it felt like it was the last part of me to move. I fell and kept falling... it wasn't pleasant, it was scary. It was like sky diving without a parachute. I fell and kept falling...

This was around the point that I decided that elfnapping was the smart thing to do, before I fell into vertigo and possibly threw up all over myself.

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A telephonic mystery.

Nov 05, 2016

If you've known me for any length of time, chances are you've heard about my fascination with telephones and some of the weird stuff that you sometimes find if you misdial once in a while. Sweep tones, ringbacks, ANACs, and more unusual things. However, it's rare that some of those weird things happen to ring me up.

A couple of weeks ago I started getting phone calls at all hours of the day; not terribly unusual in itself, save that every time I pick up I hear a prompt to leave a voicemail ("Press one to leave a voicemail.") Ordinarily you're supposed to get those when you try to call somebody and they don't answer, not the other way around. The few occasions when the call hasn't come at 0-dark-thirty and when I haven't been at work occupied by other things I've experimentally tapped '1' expecting to be prompted to do as suggested. Instead of an empty voicemail box I heard the recitation of what sounds like operational statistics of machinery of some kind by a clearly mechanical voice, probably a relatively cheap speech synthesis system. "Pump one has an emergency. Pump pressure is low. Pump two has an emergency. Pump pressure is low. Pump three is offline. Pump four is offline. Well one is offline. Well two is offline."

My first hypothesis was that the automated pumping system at a gas station somewhere was misconfigured and accidentally dialed my line. That seems like a flimsy hypothesis because I doubt that a monitoring system would be configured to dial a phone number in an entirely different state; it seems more likely that it would be configured to call an office in the same region or state. Also, such a monitoring system should not initiate a call with a prompt to press a key on the phone to leave a voicemail. During some experimentation, I was able to get the phantom caller to recite some figures, speak some of the specifics of the system events in halting, mechanical English, but little else. The user interface seems very limited, just a handful of menus and two or three options in each. A little detective work shows that all of the numbers are in or around Columbus, Indiana. After considering it a little more, I wonder if they're automated alarm systems of some kind because not all of them recite pump status but slightly different things. It seems certain that they're not configured properly.

While I do not advocate calling up any of these numbers and messing with them, because I have no idea what is actually on the other end, if you happen to occasionally get similar phone calls and are scratching your head over them I hope this article will shed a little light on the situation. Beneath the cut are a few of the numbers and transcriptions of some of the voice prompts to hopefully serve as search engine fodder. If worse comes to worse, you can always block the numbers and be done with it, especially if they have the propensity to catch you at bad times.

Oh, and if you happen to be the admin of one or more of these systems? Please double-check their configs. I think you've got a couple of bugs that need fixed. Somebody who really needs to get those alerts isn't.

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Upgrading Ubuntu Server 14.04 to 16.04.

Oct 29, 2016

A couple of days ago I got it into my head to upgrade one of my Exocortex servers from Ubuntu Server 14.04 LTS to 16.04 LTS, the latest stable release. While Ubuntu long-term support releases are good for a couple of years (14.04 LTS would be supported until at least 2020) I had some concerns about the packages themselves being too stale to run the later releases of much of my software. To be more specific, I could continue to hope that the Ruby and Python interpreters I have installed could be upgraded as necessary but at some point the core system libraries would be too old and they'd no longer compile. Not good for long-term planning.

First off, whenver you're about to do a major upgrade of anything, read the release notes so you know what you're getting yourself into. You'll also usually find some notes about all the new goodies you'll be able to play with.

In the past I've had nothing but trouble using the documented Ubuntu release upgrade process, so much so that I've had clients sign "I told you so," documents when they pressured me to do so because the procedure could reliably be expected to leave the system completely trashed, and a full rebuild was the only recourse. This time I set up a testbed in Virtualbox which consisted of a fully patched Ubuntu Server 14.04.5 LTS install. I ran through the documented upgrade process, and much to my surprise it went smoothly, leaving me with a functional virtual machine at the end of a 45 minute procedure (most of which was automatic, I only had to answer a few questions along the way). The process consisted of logging in as the root user (sudo -s) and running the updater (do-release-upgrade).

So, if it's so easy, why am I writing a blog post about it? Why worry?

Why worry, indeed. Read on.

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Magnetic Resonance Imaging: Phase B

Oct 23, 2016

I drew this depiction of what phase B of the MRI I had done in October of 2014 looked like. The sounds seemed to come from four places around me - two just above my head and two somewhere around my shoulders, or maybe my abdomen. I'm not sure because the sounds from the multiple points resonated weirdly inside my head and made some of my dental implants feel like they were buzzing (at the time that wasn't possible because they were all resin composite, but work with me here). The sounds made these weird, watery waves that made an almost but not quite X shape that alternately rippled like rain on a pond and quivered like a bowl of water on top of a really well constructed bass speaker cranked up to 7 or 8 right out of the amp.

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Pixitracker and writing music: Lively Debate v1.0

Oct 23, 2016

Within recent memory I got it in my head to try my hand again at writing music. While I grew up studying a couple of instruments (getting my teeth kicked in (literally) in middle school, and the generally poor state of my teeth until recently put the kibosh on that), and later in college I studied the piano (an instrument torpedoed by repeditive stress injury, unfortunately) I never really had the gift for taking sounds and melodies inside my head (though I didn't really recognize them as such) and turning them into actual music. Part of it was that I didn't have the mental structure to get them into a usable form. I'd always loved the music made with Amiga .mod and Screamtracker .s3m files and the way they're assembled - sampled sounds are played back at different pitches and notes are assembled into patterns, which are stacked into frames, which are... well... at the end of it you have an elegant set of patterns that make music when you play them back with the appropriate software. You would think that most of it would be techno music, and you'd be right. However, tracker music is limited by the samples you use, which means that if you wanted to you could sample an entire orchestra, or a band, or something else, and make something entirely different.

I've tried my hand time and again at learning how to use .mod trackers over the years. As far back as my BBS days, in fact. To say that the user interfaces are opaque is putting it mildly. They don't make any sense to me, and never have, and I say this as somebody who stares at hex dumps for hours on end.

About a year ago, while researching the state of music trackers for Linux once again (because, why not, I don't give up easily), I stumbled across something called Pixitracker. The thing that interested me right off the bat was the user interface; rather than the incredibly complex user interfaces of MilkyTracker or Radium I was greeted with a simple grid, where each box represents a note. Boxes are arranged into lines, which are arranged into frames. The number and length of of lines in a frame are variable, though the numbers must all be even. I don't know what the upper limit on the number of frames in a song is, but I'm pretty sure that I haven't come close to hitting the upper limit. Frames are arranged on a strip in the middle of the display, so you can assemble frames end to end to form a song. Pixitracker comes with a couple of songs right out of the box^Wtarball, and a very nice set of samples to experiment with. When playing back a Pixitracker song the software traces across each frame to show you what's playing, and it shows you which frame is playing at that time so you get a sense of how everything fits together.

Much more interestingly, each sample or instrument is represented by a little 8-bit sprite - a couple different kinds of aliens, a flower, a smiley face, a skull, a turrret, a fish, a kitty... in a bizarre fashion, this calls to my synaesthesia. By manipulating stuff that I see when I listen to music, it's made it significantly easier for me to translate what's in my head into a format which represents a song inside a computer. Even more cool, rather than flounder around figuring out how to use it Alexander Zolotov (Pixitracker's creator) has a Youtube playlist of videos that show you how to use Pixitracker. I watched them a couple of times each before I felt comfortable enough to play around with the dozen or so (a bit less, really) songs included with the software. After a lot of false starts, trashed local copies, and happy accidents I felt comfortable enough to start trying to write my own music. A few false starts later I assembled something that sounded nice; the trick I found (and this is personal, it probably will not work for you) was mapping what was going on in my own idiosyncratic sensorium to the samples in my collection, and then mapping them to the sprites in the Pixitracker user interface (or as close as I could get - there isn't a way to change the sprites though you can change the background).

One complaint about Pixitracker: It's not well suited for very large displays (Windbringer's is 3200x1800 and can't be resized easily). You can resize the window but the UI elements stay the same size, so you might find yourself leaning into the screen more than is comfortable for long periods of time.

Here is my first attempt at writing music with Pixitracker: Lively Debate v1.0

Magnetic Resonance Imaging: Phase A

Oct 23, 2016

Late in 2014 I had cause to undergo magnetic resonance imaging of my head as a diagnostic procedure. If you've never had one before, this procedure can involve a head x-ray (to make sure you don't have any ferrous material in tender places that might get ripped out by a very powerful magnetic field). It definitely does involve an hour or two laying on your back on a backboard with snug straps holding you in place (because if you move it'll mess up the imaging data) while you're stuffed into a relatively small tube in the core of the MRI machine. This meant that I had a couple of hours to enjoy the unusual sounds that MRI machines make when they're in full operation with someone inside. I'll admit, after the first hour or so I decided to take a nap and wait the rest of the procedure out, but while I was awake I made a point of memorizing what the sounds looked like.

The image beneath the cut is what a sequence of sounds near the beginning of the process looked like. The broad color bars on the left-hand side were some sort of deep thrumming or groaning sound on my left-hand side. The double vertical line of yellow blocks was a stacatto knocking sound that seemed to trace my head on my right-hand side from crown to neck. It also felt like my right hand was vibrating violently, like it was being shaken up and down.

This is only an approximation - I'm no artist so this is the best I can do. The background's black because I had my eyes closed.

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Still here. Just offline.

Oct 19, 2016

I'm still here - haven't forgotten this blog. In the rush to get a bunch of stuff done at work with some alacrity, I seem to have run myself into the ground. More specifically, I seem to be an alpha tester for this year's version of the flu and I've spent the past couple of days sweating, throwing up, and sleeping. There was also a late-night trip to the ER somewhere in there. Oh, and let's not forget the lucid fever dreams - they're quite entertaining when you have control over them. Somewhere in the Dreaming I made the aquaintenance of a tribe of ants deep inside in the BART tunnel system and started cataloguing their graffiti while exploring the tunnel system. Once I'm back on my feet I'll queue up a few posts which are long overdue, and for that I apologize.

Back to bed for me.

Lipstick as synaesthesia accessibility hack.

Oct 01, 2016

This afternoon at a gather I had chance to speak with Tarah Wheeler at some length, and she noticed that I spent most of the discussion reading her lips. As part of the discussion it came out that I'm a synaesthete and was having great difficulty understanding her because I was unable to pick her voice out of all of the distracting visual phenomena due to all of the other discussions happening around me, but I was able to focus on her lipstick and pick her voice out of all of the static. The discussion turned to synaesthesia as I experience it and she asked if she could interview me briefly on the topic as an issue of accessibility (note: I do not consider myself disabled because I experience synaesthesia, I thought everybody saw and felt sounds until I was 28). Here's the interview: