Category: Post

Self-defeatist Vintage Valentine

     Sarah recently went through a giant bundle of used valentines that she bought from an estate sale, some dating back to the 1940s. There were all sorts of gems in the stack, but the one below was my favorite. While I’m a fan of the literal, sad-sack interpretation, we did manage to puzzle out a few alternate explanations (ie if the penguin isn’t a “cool valentine,” then he’s a “Hot” valentine, maybe?).

Click the image to embiggen.


Crossword Puzzle as Musical Notation

     As a part of my ongoing effort to become indistinguishable from a senior citizen while still in my early 30s, I’ve been doing the New York Times Crossword lately. In order to protect myself from feeling like an idiot, I usually only attempt the Monday and Tuesday puzzles. Occasionally I’ll try the Wednesday. Often Sarah and I will work on the puzzle together at a restaurant, intimidating other patrons with our coolness.

     Anyway, it should come as no surprise that my very favorite puzzles are the ones with some sort of “high concept” built in. The best is when the answers not only follow a theme, but when something about that theme is echoed in the visual structure of the puzzle. The NYT recently ran my most favorite concept puzzle of all time. SPOILER ALERT: if you plan to do the March 15th NYT crossword – STOP READING NOW!

     Below is an image of the completed puzzle. The theme answers, in green, are as follows:

  • Composer of 20 across: Beethoven
  • Work by 16 across: Ode to Joy
  • How the circled letters of 20 across are played: In C Major
  • Items you might play 20 across on: Piano Keys

Coded Joy.


     So, yes: the theme is Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” Ok, ready to have your mind blown? The circled letters, highlighted in yellow, denote the key musical phrase from “Ode to Joy,” with the letters moving up and down within the crossword grid corresponding to notes moving up and down the keyboard.

     Awesome, right? I know, I was pretty excited. If you’re into stuff like this (And really, who wouldn’t be?) the special features section of the DVD release of Crossword documentary Wordplay has a great collection of theme puzzles being described by their authors. Nerd alert!

It's Educational

     Awhile back I bought tickets to the Detroit date of Pixies’ Doolittle tour (Recent Pitchfork review: “If they really are doing it just for the cash, this is one hell of an argument for capitalism”), put the date on my calendar, and forgot all about it.

     Yesterday, I got an email from the Pixies mailing list wholly dedicated to talking up the opener they’re bringing along on the tour in an effort to get people to check them out in advance. Nothing about them. I have never seen a band do that before. Cool.


Book: Art Of McSweeney's

     This weekend I managed to read all of the Art of McSweeney’s monograph, and I unsurprisingly loved it. It features, in equal measure:

  • Lots of talking about extrapolating books into crazy, conceptual forms.
  • Lots of discussion of design choices, production compromises, and why they were made.
  • Thorough oral histories of collaborative projects, organized chronologically.

     These probably aren’t the bullet points that Chronicle Books would pull for the dust jacket, but that’s what I was looking for, and that’s what I got. The only other book that has ever brought all of these things together in quite the same way for me is Chip Kidd’s Book One Monograph. To me, the unusual (?) balance of experimentation, design, process, and first-hand documentation that these two books share is inspirational in the unguarded, overtly-earnest sense of the word. They are easily among my favorites, ever.

     Not hurting things, either: the oral history bits of the McSweeney’s monograph also hold some interesting insights from my favorite people working in publishing. Chris Ware and Jordan Crane both talk through the production processes of their elaborate book design projects (McSweeney’s #13 and Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends, respectively); with plenty of mock-ups, rejected versions, and diagrams illustrating the journey from concept to product. My favorite excerpt, though, is of Paul Collins – a favorite of mine ever since I discovered his writing in the pages of McSweeney’s #4 – sharing the details of how his work first ended up in the quarterly:

PAUL COLLINS: I wrote to Dave the day after buying Issue 1. I’d been sending this piece about Victorian astronomer Thomas Dick all over the place, and getting rejected everywhere. I was a total unknown who’d never published anything, and the piece had absolutely no news hook. It had unhookedness of biblical proportions. So I sent Dave the article with a cover letter that read, in its entirety: “Everybody hates this. Maybe you will too.” About a week later I got an email from him asking me to send him everything I had. For the next couple years, every new piece I wrote went straight to him and into McSweeney’s.

DAVE EGGERS: This was when we were still sort of figuring out what the focus, if anything, would be. At the time, I was just opening the mail and reading everything. The MO hasn’t changed much over the years, I guess. My advice to any aspiring writer is to do some research and write about something other than relationships and living in New York. Those are worthy subjects, sure, but journals get a massive amount of similar material. When, like Paul, you send a series of stories about history’s most peculiar inventors and explorers, then the work stands out markedly.

     The series of stories in question went on to form the basis for Banvard’s Folly, another of my favorite books.

[This has been Adam forcing himself to write something and publish it in one sitting. Carry on.]

Extremely Mutual

This weekend, I actually sat down and read a current issue of the New Yorker for the first time since subscribing a decade or so ago (Usually I tear out the articles that look “good” and get around to reading them anywhere from six to eighteen months later).

The scientology article everyone has been raving about is indeed insane and awesomely thorough – the full text is online, so you should read it. BUT: my favorite bit of the whole issue was this little bit from Tina Fey’s Essay ‘Confessions of a Juggler,’ which is not online:

Network executives really do say things like “I don’t know. I don’t want to fuck anybody on this show.”

(To any exec who has ever said that about me, I would hope that you would at least have the self-awareness to know that the feeling is extremely mutual.)

The Case of the "Audiosonic Identiglyph"

Updates are at the bottom: update 1, update 2, and update 3. Also: an interview (of sorts) with those responsible for the record.

Sometime last week, I became aware of a new 7″ vinyl release called “Greetings from the World Wide Web,” which appears to be a split release between Detroit band Fawn and eCommerce-centric digital agency Brand Labs. The record was described in the Facebook event invitation for its release thusly:

“Greetings from the World Wide Web is a bold experiment in 21st century consumer outreach protocol by Brand Labs of Rochester, Michigan. By utilizing the Audiosonic Identiglyph (AI), the modern businessperson is no longer limited by the archaic constraints of print and digital media when the time comes to seek out new markets. Using the AI allows the businessperson in question to access as yet unreached customers by promulgating the most critical information about their operation in an easy-to-use, algorithmically encoded audio file that is ready-made for broadcast over the public airwaves – ripe to be captured, decoded and interpreted by any clients within range of the transmission. When you think next level ecommerce, think Brand Labs.”

So yes, encoded audio on vinyl: laser targeted to the confluence of my interests. I’ll bite. With full knowledge that I may well be indulging a wild goose chase dressed up in an attempt to “go viral,” I tracked down a copy via a friend, and have since spent a fair amount of time digesting it.

Before I dive into the nerdy bits, though, I’ll say that the Fawn song is good and you can listen to it here.

The Sleeve

The front cover is decorated with a nicely-executed parade of unlabelled illustrations referencing the high points of internet meme-dom, some more obvious than others. The last one in the second row is my favorite – deceptively understated!

Parade o' Memes.

The back cover sports the ‘Audiosonic Identiglyph, surrounded by several paragraphs of purposely stilted-sounding copy. The text claims that the audio on the Brand Labs side of the record is created using the following process:

“Using dual-tone multi-frequency signaling technology and the Goertzel algorithm (s(n) = x(n) + 2cos(2πω)s(n-1) – s(n-2)) our in-house image processing division converts the Identiglyph to a series of tones which are then converted to a single unbroken groove of varying depth, which is subsequently transferred to a vinyl disk that can easily be read by a common phonograph.”

A scan of the back cover is below, clicking it gets a larger file.

The 'Glyph' in question w/ associated patter.


While I originally recorded the encoded audio onto my laptop for de-nerding purposes (see below), Brand Labs have since uploaded an MP3 of the encoded “Identiglyph” here. A note about the mp3 – while this comes directly from Brand Labs, the right channel is a solid square wave of noise – not sure if that’s part of the puzzle or an oversight. Either way, I’ve isolated just the left channel as an MP3 below. You can download the file here.

The finest in nerdy home decor.

[audio:|titles=Left Channel]

After doing some preliminary googling and wikipediaing, it was clear to me that just as the liner notes had indicated, the audio was indeed a high-speed series of DTMF tones (An example that sounds similar can be found in this youtube video). Despite downloading and experimenting with all manner of DTMF decoders, however, I never found a reliable, reproducable decoding of the audio.

Worried that I might be chasing down a joke, I took to twitter to see if I could wrest any clues out of Brand Labs:

@Brand_Labs @Kay_Aitch_Eyy Is your “audiosonic identiglyph” actually decodable? A first pass at DTMF decoding is yielding “99999999” for me.

@adamkempa Via the Director of Marketing: The process of encoding is proprietary, but it involves both the DTMF and the Goertzel algorithm.

.@adamkempa Via our Director of Marketing: “We have a high confidence level that most consumers will meet with decoding success.”

So… that didn’t yield much in the way of new information, and at this point, my “This-is-just-a-dumb-stunt-and-there-is-nothing-encoded” spidey sense was tingling. I tried following up one more time for a hint or at least direct confirmation that there was something to be found:

@Kay_Aitch_Eyy Would your director of engineering agree with that statement? Any recommended decoding method? #keeptrying? #foolserrand?

.@adamkempa Via Marketing Director: “There are no fool’s errands. Work is noble in each case.”

Hm. I still can’t tell if I’m being toyed with, but prefixing every response with ‘Via Director of Marketing’ tends to instill the opposite of confidence in me.

The next night, I did a bit more meddling with DTMF decoders and then I had to call time on the whole ordeal, as I’ve got other projects that are demanding my attention. If it were simply a DTMF encoding, I would think the Brand Labs folks would be counting on a reasonably simple method of decoding it, but I haven’t yet found one. I still believe there’s something encoded there, and in my experience the best way to figure these kinds of things out is to post them on the internet (Case in point).

My suspicion is that there’s some missing piece to the puzzle in the changing numbers of lines in each section of the outer ring of the ‘Identiglyph,” especially as there is a clearly identified ‘Start’ point.

Better quality 'Glyph.'

In the days since I stopped digging, Brand Labs has put up two additional pages here and here, each continuing the pseudo-official tone; and has seemingly issued a press release, which all the copy & paste newswire business blogs have dutifully reposted. I leave this in your hands, internet nerds. Godspeed.


Lo! Already, the great internet is yielding results! After seeing my plea for help on Twitter, Scott David Herman swiftly deduced that the Identiglyph encodes the latitude and longitude of Brand Labs:

@adamkempa: The identiglyph lines = GPS coords. Outer ring: 42.676409. Inner ring: -83.126796. It’s Brand Labs’ address.

This explains the decimal point on the right, and the inverted black and white of the inner ring could even be meant to reflect the ‘negative’ of the longitude.


Punching the decoded latitude and longitude into Google Maps…

The encoded latitude and longitude...

…we get a location in Rochester, Michigan…

Brand Labs on the map...

…which matches up exactly with Brand Labs’ address! Progress!

But where to next?

9/29/10: Another update!

Two more answers regarding the visual Identiglyph:

1.) My co-worker Karl Tiedemann was the first to posit that the three rings of dots around the central icon represented the atomic configuration of silicon:

@adamkempa The dots orbiting the strange nucleus represent the atomic configuration of Silicon:

2.) Commenter “Lazenby” reinforces the Silicon hypothesis and also adds that the center-most symbol is the astrological symbol for earth:

So… we’ve got the location of a digital agency, Silicon, and Earth. I guess that kind of holds together? Still nothing on the audio front…

10/3/10: The final chapter?

I’ve been away from email all weekend, so there’s tons of stuff pieced together into this update. Let’s start with some refinements to the interpretation of the imagery we’ve arrived at thus far.

Early on Friday, TheHarmonyGuy noted in the comments to this post that the angular cross / circle shape that surrounds the symbol we had previously identified as representing ‘Earth’ is used in typography to signify ‘Currency:’

Now THIS is a symbol I did not know about.

Soon after, Sid dug further into the symbols at the center of the glyph, noting that the ‘Earth’ symbol at the center has held many varied meanings, and further pointing out that the ‘Currency sign’ can also denote a Hexadecimal number, which was much more likely to be applicable in this case:

Both the above-mentioned Sid, and another commenter on this post, ASDR, made valiant attempts at decoding the DTMF tones, but ran into very much the same results as I did in my efforts: each DTMF software decoder they attempted to use arrived at different results.

Late on Thursday night, I had posted a question on Ask Metafilter, seeking recommendations for ways in which to attack the DTMF decoding. There, a poster recommended slowing down the recording but maintaining the pitch, so that slow decoders might perform better on the recording. I tried this without any luck and at this point it dawned on me that since resolving a DTMF tone to it’s respective data is heavily dependent on accurately reading the frequencies, any change in pitch could make the recording almost impossible to improperly decode. I compared the MP3 with the original audio I pulled off the vinyl, and noted a noticable difference in pitch, so I was rapodly losing faith in the decodability of the audio.

Late last night, Metafilter user Rhomboid posted his findings to the Ask Metafilter thread. His description of the encoding and how he cracked it is meticulously detailed, based on a string of smart solutions compensating for the frequency inconsistencies. He even shared the source of the custom Perl script he ended up writing to do the decoding.

Decoding the tones with adjusted frequency expectations resulted in 22221 symbols, which were then converted to binary and renamed as a JPG, producing the 216×216 Identiglyph image below:

While there are still some unanswered questions (Earth -> Currency / Hexadecimal -> Silicon -> Brand labs?), I was mostly interested in the encoded audio, so I’m satisfied. I’ve inquired about talking to the team who put this together, so an epilogue to this whole affair may appear at a later date.

In the meantime, a HUGE thanks to everyone who played a role in cracking this: Rhomboid for doing the heaviest lifting in walking the audio all the way through to an image; ‘ADSR’ for spending time further exploring the DTMF angle after I’d given it up; Scott David Herman, Karl Tiedemann, ‘Lazenby,’ Sid, and ‘TheHarmonyGuy‘ for providing bits of the visual Identiglyph Puzzle, and Andy Baio for helping get the word out to the nerds of the internet (The number of seemingly automated Twitter accounts that simply retweet his link feed truly surprised me, though it shouldn’t have – as it has remained the gold standard for so long). Oh, also the internet, for always making any question I post on it get answered, except for in enterprise software support forums. Even the magic of the internet doesn’t work there.

1/2/11: The creators speak (But never break character)

After the dust settled on the decoding excitement, I emailed Brand Labs in an attempt to speak candidly about the project. They agreed to answer any questions I had, but never broke character in doing so. I’ve pasted the full exchange below for the curious.

What were the origins / inspirations of the project?

As we began to dig below the candy-colored surface of today’s social media and digital marketing, we began to see an entirely untapped source of consumer outreach: namely, algorithmically-encoded analog audio. It was so very obvious that we nearly tripped over it. As for our inspiration, we drew from a classic: NASA’s Golden Record from its Voyager missions. It bore the fundamental elements we felt were lacking from current marketing outlets and its mission was simple – tell the audience who you are, what you do and where you may be found. From that inspiration, it was a clear, straight line to our final product. Even the inclusion of popular music as a cultural touchstone for anyone who came upon the artifact (in this case, “Hip Parade” by FAWN) was directly inspired by NASA’s inclusion of Charles Berry’s composition in their project.

Was the intent that the audio would actually be decoded, or was this meant as a “No one will ever do this” exercise in absurdity?

It has always been (and continues to be) our assertion that the public would be able to easily discern our intention, and that they would certainly have a basic understanding of the Goertzel algorithm and dual-tone multi-frequency signaling technology (we did all go to junior high school, after all).

Were you surprised at how quickly the audio was decoded?

We believe the speed with which the audio and the Identiglyph were decoded simply proves our original assertion that the public’s interest and aptitude in amateur cryptography must never be underestimated. In point of fact, had it taken longer we would have been sorely disappointed in mankind in general.

Were you surprised at some of the variance that got introduced, and how involved the decoding got?

A great man once said that one man can never fully know the mind of another. If one accepts that as an ultimate truth (as we do) it follows that a certain amount of unpredictability must be engineered into any given process, as was the case here.

So… “Audiosonic Identiglyph…” …really?

We occasionally and arbitrarily disdain the contemporary trend of assigning “catchy” or “clever” names to items that may be better described in a clear and straightforward manner. In this case, we chose to call a spade a spade.

Encoded audio on vinyl, speaks to a very niche market – was that the target?

Our target is universal and our goal was to ensure the durability of our message. The vinyl “record” offers many durability benefits that digital media does not. As for the encoding element, the simple fact is that languages die (e.g. Esperanto or Canadian) and we’re in this game for the long haul. We intend to be offering online commerce consulting and marketing services long after the English language is nothing more than a quaint memory.

Has everything encoded in the record been properly deciphered? Or are there still a few details we’ve got wrong?

To the best of our knowledge, the lion’s share has been fully decoded with the possible exception of the precise location of D.B. Cooper and the remainder of his ill-gotten gains, however, as that portion of the project wasn’t central to our goal, it would be fair to say that the decoding is complete.

What has the feedback been like so far?

To this point, the feedback has been equal parts amazement, ennui and rabid consumerism, which, in the introduction of any bleeding edge technology, is an entirely predictable result.


This is such a horrible idea, it has to have been done before. Just in case, though, I’ve posted it here. Inspired by this tweet, I give you my artistic masterwork. I call it ‘The Circle of Life.’

The Circle of Life


When I was a kid, there were three fictional devices that I desperately wanted to be real:

  • The Lightsaber (Star Wars)
  • The Hoverboard (Back to the Future II)
  • Penny’s Computerbook (Inspector Gadget)

This weekend, I FINALLY got a computerbook, and I totally just wrote this blog post on it.

Justifying Joanna?

For some reason, the universe decided that today was the day that I should articulate exactly why I like the music of Joanna Newsom. Over the course of the day, I found myself involved in three wholly separate conversations (One over twitter, one over email, and one in person) where the other party was asking me why I was so fervently aboard the goodship Newsom.

Below is a fleshed-out version of an email I sent to a friend, who had written to ask me to give him my ‘pitch’ on why he should bother with this new album, “Have one on me.”


Why I Like Joanna Newsom

Lyrical turns of phrase: For me this is a huge, huge part of the appeal. In my hyper-subjective view, her lyrics are simply in a class way, way beyond most anything else working pitchforkians into lathers. Without fail, I’ll come away from listening with a bizarre word usage stuck in my brain, or a line that seems like it SHOULD be clunky but ends up fitting together perfectly. On ‘Ys,’ the particular line that often stuck in my head was:

Picking through your pocket linings – well, what is this? / Scrap of sassafras, eh sisyphus?

Arrangements: I reserve special admiration for people who can put together 12 minute songs that focus on story and songwriting and not ‘Jamming.’ The fact that the music to these marathons doesn’t wear or become horrifically repetitive is also a worthy achievement in my opinion. Enlisting the likes of Van Dyke Parks to throw together her string arrangements also certainly helps.

Instrumentation: The harp parts she writes always seem to have a strong focus on rhythm, while necessarily skewing towards arpeggios – which I just like in a subconscious way. Also, watch any live performance from the “Milk-eyed Mender” tour – you kind of have to admire the effort that goes into playing these insane, intricately-picked songs and singing so demonstratively at the same time:

Singers that can be described as ‘demonstrative’ are usually pretty touch and go for me – ‘look at me I’m sad’ or ‘look at me I’m angry’ or ‘look at me I’m really FEELING this part’ will almost infallibly result in a big ‘NO THANKS,’ but something about ‘look at me I’m a really happy crazy grandma’ gets a pass from me. I can’t explain it.

The voice: I get that people hate the voice affectation, and I totally understand that being the polarizer. For some reason, though, it’s never bothered me. For what it’s worth, I think her voice has definitely been ‘softening’ from album to album. A lot of the abrasive, crackly edge that you hear all over the first album is rounded off on the latest one, while the character and weird-metered delivery are retained.

Finally, I’m not gonna deny it, she is very fetching.


Ok, end of email. While digging around on youtube for examples, I found the video below: a really nicely-done cover of Newsom’s ‘Book of Right-on,’ edited in the ‘Pomplamousse‘ style. The percussion and harmony accents are particularly slick.