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Media Formats, No Numbers and Netcat

A tale of geeky obsession, art, music and open source.

The Betamax video format was released two months prior to my birth and so it is perhaps not such a great surprise that having grown up during the VHS vs. Betamax wars — and with the equally spectacular and unattainable LaserDisc (I'm not sure I knew anyone that had one) in the sidelines — that I'd go on to develop something of an infatuation with media formats.

The Internet is a fantastic tool for fuelling obsessions and in more recent years I've discovered ill-fated formats such as the, quite frankly amazing, Capacitance Electronic Disc. But this is only the tip of the iceberg and, furthermore, it turns out that I am far from alone in my interest in bizarre and outmoded formats: there is a Dead Media Project complete with database and mailing list (!) and New York University even have a course dedicated to media archaeology.

A John Foxx inspired work

When I was invited to participate in a group show of artwork inspired by musician and artist, John Foxx (perhaps best known as founder of the band, Ultravox), this provided the perfect opportunity to further explore my interest in novel methods for recording and reproduction, while paying homage to a personal favourite, the ethereal instrumental solo piece, Mr No.

I obviously wanted to create something that complemented the music and its retro-futuristic aesthetic, which finally gave me an excuse to make use of nixie tubes, which were used to display a decimal representation of the individual samples from an uncompressed digital recording of Mr No. The idea being that numbers are displayed at a rate whereby it is just about possible to transcribe them with pencil and paper, thereby performing the act of downloading. The only catch being that it would take around 4 weeks to transcribe the 3'18” piece of music in its entirety...

This was not simply an homage and the intention was to also raise questions concerning copyright. Does installing the work in a gallery constitute public performance of the music, or even distribution? If you copy down the numbers is this copyright infringement? You can read a little more about the piece on my website.

The nixie tube displays are driven by an original BeagleBoard and software crafted by a good friend of mine, Paul Downey, who has made it available under an open source licence on GitHub. Which brings me nicely on to the next part of this post, concerning the spectacularly geeky band, Netcat.

A kernel module LP release

Netcat, a Seattle-based band whose music could best be described as avant-garde or experimental, are quite clearly also big fans of open source — publishing the code used to make their music via GitHub, while selling physical media (cassette tape, no less) via a store based in Seattle's achingly hip Capitol Hill (known to many for its association with the grunge music scene).

As if it were not enough to be named after a popular networking utility, the band's latest release is named Cycles Per Instruction and features tracks with catchy titles such as Interrupt 0x7f. But wait, it gets better: the album has been released as a Linux kernel module. Yes, that's right, a device driver! This music release, err software, creates a new device, /dev/netcat, the output of which can be redirected to music player software in order to listen to the LP. Genius. Sheer genius.

The band do also point out that, “If complexity isn't your thing”, there are digital download and cassette — because, of course, every sane person still has a tape deck —releases available.

You'd be forgiven for thinking that the music probably won't be very good and I must admit I had my reservations. However, I'm pleased to report that it's excellent, that is provided that experimental music is your thing. In any case, it's certainly worth a listen and also a read of the blurb on their Bandcamp page, which describes the equally impressive processes used to create the LP.

Honestly, I'm in awe, and if they ever release a single in hand-wired diode matrix ROM format they can put me down for a copy. No, make that two in case one of them develops dry solder joints!

Andrew Back

Open source (hardware and software!) advocate, Treasurer and Director of the Free and Open Source Silicon Foundation, organiser of Wuthering Bytes technology festival and founder of the Open Source Hardware User Group.
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