Space Music Art: “Spinning Up”


You can track Satellite 0c66 (NORAD ID 40956) here! It’s currently over Turkey!

This is a song (with chords & lyrics) about the Doves of Planet Labs - small satellites that are ferried to the ISS and released into low-earth orbit, to circle the Earth sixteen times a day, powered by solar-panel wings. They will eventually image the Earth once per day, enough observe changes in the environment and the movement of large object clusters – down to 3 square meters.

Each flock stays up for a while, then burns up on re-entry, leaving no trace.

In 2014, along with other Pier 9 artists in residence, I submitted a side panel design to ride on a spacefaring little Dove. I was across the globe in London, and worked up a demo on the guitar, then created a simple new rotary musical notation – “iris notation”. Eventually, seven of our designs were selected, to continue the space gallery program that Forest Stearns founded at Planet.

“Spinning Up” includes a slightly modified quotation from Yuri Gagarin:
“Облетев Землю, увидел, как прекрасна наша планета. Будем хранить ету красоту, и приумножать её!”
– Orbiting the earth, I saw how beautiful our planet is. Let us preserve that beauty, and foster it!

The iris notation is inspired by:

  • the iris of a camera or a human eye
  • the layers of our planet (I rotated it 23.4º to match the Earth’s axial tilt)
  • the Voyager golden record
  • tiny planets, moons, other satellites, and rings in a minuscule astronomical system
  • crop circles (the ”aliens” and “home/family“ associations are both strong for me)

The following was mostly written a year and a half ago. I’m so happy to finally share. :)


Etched panels, first view




This project synthesizes a few of my favorite media: music, language, and visual arts… plus, of course, space and robots! The end result is surprisingly tiny, particularly in this horizontally-challenged blog format…



1. Invented notation

Something futuristic, developed organically. The first couple of versions reminded me of microbes with flagella.

I started with an attempt to represent different lengths of metal bars, like on a kalimba, or string divisions, as on a violin, or amounts of water in a glass, that would give relative pitches dependent on ratios. These frequency ratios would be constant, regardless of the size of the string or metal piece, meaning that the tune would work on a large variety of implements. I was going to have three different musical parts, which would interweave when played on three types of instruments.


But this was far too ambitious – considering, for once, the practicality of collecting/building three instruments, then practicing and recording the result… I needed something more streamlined and elegant.

The above version includes annotations for rests and repeated notes. I then twisted it into a circle, connected everything together, and decided to simply leave rests as empty spaces. It’s more prettier and more intuitive, so it won out over my attachment to the underscores. (Same reason I switched to Sindarin-style Tengwar, back in the day.)

I kept the central part of the notation — holding to a Western scale, pretty much just the notes of the scale on a numbering scheme, starting with one dot above the bracket as “middle C”. Two dots for the next note in the scale. Three dots, four, and then a circle. A dot below the bracket for the first note downward (“B”). And so on. There aren’t many accidentals in the song, so I haven’t had to deal with sharps or flats yet :)

I added chords by writing the component notes of each chord next to each other… C – E – G for a C major chord, etc. (That’s the top-left chord among the six above.)

The trickiest part here was wrangling Photoshop and Illustrator, which, until tonight, I didn’t have on this computer. Oy vey.


2. The theme

The first concept was dropped, though I’d still like to use it someday: Three tunes, based on historical photographs of the Earth — starting with the Blue Marble (three interlocking parts, going from clouds/ice up to a watery middle third and then the desert); we’d zoom out to Earthrise; and finally, we’d gaze from afar at the Pale Blue Dot.

My second concept began as a sort of reverse lullaby or waking-up song for the Earth, and became the current set of lyrics, sung by the Doves to the people of Earth. Like most songs, this started out with a simple hook (“you sent us spinning up”) popping into my head while I was eating something after noodling around for a while.

[That's the first draft I submitted; check out the new rough draft here!]


I’ve been reading a lot of singularity-focused scifi lately, including Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross’ The Rapture of the Nerds, and Charles Stross’ Accelerando. Plus, my job with Pinoccio focuses on mesh-networked robots — and I’m now hooking them up to my brainwaves. Together, these lead me to see the Doves as a sort of sensory extension for the human race — as though we, as a collective, have become a cyborg; the satellites, as a collective, are an introspective set of eyes. The images they send back to us are low enough in resolution that they don’t capture individual humans. We cannot help but see ourselves in aggregate, along with the consequences of our actions upon the Earth, de- and reforestation, floods that affect our neighbors.

Having recorded the song in Garage Band (using the “Megaphone” filter for the Gagarin quotation), I pulled the mp3 into Praat (an amazing program I used for Phonetics/Phonology in college). This shows you waveform of your song, which contributes a nice horizontal component to the design (as the satellites’ side panels are so flat). If you zoom in further, you can also see the spectrograph, or a sort of Fourier transform slice for each instant in the track, shaded from light (little activity in that frequency) to dark (strong activity). It’s quite something!



3. All together now

Finally, I traced and trimmed everything together in the correct dimensions, as a vector image – which required smoothing the waveform down into something simpler. I’d prefer to have it actually reproducible by alien species, but hey, we’ll get there…

Why, after all, a song? Well, music has stoked my own fascination with the bittersweet majesty and crushingly grand scales of space. A few chords can evoke emotions that may not be captured by visuals or words. A few favorites:

  • Brian May, ‘’39“– the lead guitarist of Queen who went on to earn his Ph.D. in astrophysics…
  • The entirety of ELO – Time
  • David Bowie, “Space Oddity” / “Starman”
  • Benson, Arizona” (theme from Dark Star)

I won’t pretend I’ve wrought something on a level with those. But, however my submission fares, I’ve had a wonderful time assembling a new artistic work from all those lovely stimuli.


Dove 0c66




Special thanks to Forest Stearns, Emi Watanabe, Sarah Brin, Noah Weinstein, and others that I’m doubtless forgetting, for pulling this show together. You’re amazing!

And to Ted Scharff and the Wolfram Cloud team for help with pulling and using the TLE satellite data for future projects. Rock on.

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Hide and Seek

I recently put a blog post on Hackster about treasure hunts, since it was VOLTRON HOLIDAY: Easter and Passover at once! Some fun stuff there. Also, I just finished reading Ready Player One, which is an excellent quest book saturated with ’80s pop culture and a frenetic worldwide competition for fabulous riches, inside of a shared immersive virtual world. Nerd candy.

In that spirit, I thought you might enjoy the techy riddle hunts I created years ago for Matt’s birthdays. In between, here’s the wonderfully layered packaging for a shipment of ESP8266 chips I just received.


Quest #1: Ann Arbor, the Text Adventure

In December of 2011, Matt woke up with instructions to join a particular IRC channel. I’d written a Python-based IRC bot (the palindromic Tobybot), which sat in this channel. Tobybot emulated the style of an old-school text adventure game, set in a burned-out, monster-riddled version of our hometown, Ann Arbor.

The game’s text described him waking up and retrieving a “green key” and a “red key” from hiding places in our house. In reality, these were a silver key on a green ribbon – concealed in the medicine cabinet – and a copper plate with a key sketched on it, stuck to the fridge. He was then guided downtown, past our usual hangout spots (now beset with monstrous dangers), and to our hackerspace and favorite coffee shop, where he was to prompt certain people for a red box and a green box.

Each key had a magnet attached to it, such that when the keys were pressed against the boxes, they would undo makeshift magnetic latches that I’d (hastily and shoddily) constructed. There was no other way to open the boxes without destroying them. Wish I’d had more time to develop the latch-boxes; they were my favorite part of the riddle. Anyway, the boxes contained his gifts.


Quest #2: Welcome to Startup City

The next year (2012), we had recently moved to San Francisco. I hid a birthday cupcake in a kitchen cupboard, along with my iPod, which drew him in by playing the Turret Wife Serenade from Portal 2 on loop – given Portal’s strong connection with cake. :)

Stuck to the iPod was a QR code, linking to an image of a gift I’d ordered, which hadn’t yet arrived. In order to turn off the music, he had to flip over the player and awaken it. This revealed a written note directing him to go to the mailroom of our office building. At the time, we both worked at a startup in 1 Market.

The mailroom held a package with his name on it, inside which was a “med kit” gift with a barcode on it, which had the date (12/6) written on, the “6″ circled dramatically. The barcode was our company’s phone number, whose phone tree I managed, and pressing 6 (a hidden option) played the Doctor Who theme. This hint pointed to his TARDIS-shaped mug, which should have contained the final present – except it didn’t fit… So instead, I left a note there indicating the box the mug came in, which contained the gift (a video game).


There are a few others I’ve planned since, but never really executed; and in San Francisco, there are more than a few societies doing similar things all the time. Feels like I moved to the right place… Some are secret, and others have public faces, though they are somewhat or completely gone these days: SFZero, the Jejune Institute – which ended before I came to SF, although it lives on in a few current organizations, including the live-and-kicking Elsewhere Philatelic Society, and events such as Journey to the End of the Night. (Of course, those are just starting points ;) )


Ann Arbor itself used to host an annual pirate-themed photo scavenger hunt for Halloween. Good times! :)



P1010621 cover

…By the way, the ESP8266 is essentially a teeny-tiny, wireless server. I heard about it from this guy at the Phoenix stop on our “Hack to the Future” hackathon tour. It was hosted at Local Motors, where I got to ride in a Rally Fighter and go off a ramp in Nick’s mutant pickup truck!! Rad!

Where’s the hacks?

Just noticed my last two posts are both about food. Nothing wrong with that. :)

However, since I’ve spent much of this year artist-in-residencing at Instructables and building stuff for Pinoccio and Hackster, my personal projects aren’t really being documented, at least not here. But you can find some fun things on my Instructables and Hackster profiles:

Besides that, the past few months have included talks at Hackeriet hackspace in Oslo, the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, and SF’s Sensored meetup… all about neuro-hardware-hacking! Just one more this year, at CCC in Hamburg (I bought piñatas for this!), and then I’m wrapping up a couple of projects that I’m really excited to share. But they must wait. :)


Listserve Lava Cupcakes


Let me tell you about The Listserve! 24,000 people have signed up for a mailing list. Every day, one is chosen to send out an email to the entire list. (By those odds, in 66.6 years you could get a chance. In reality, people sometimes miss the notifications or don’t write something in 48 hours, so they are replaced.)

They come in all languages, themes, and moods. This post was inspired by one of my recent favorites: yesterday’s How to buy people’s love, which included some cheeky commentary and a recipe for the most amazing-sounding cupcakes.

And, oh, they are. They are.

But first, in no particular order, here are a few of my favorite emails past:

Okay! So cupcakes, though.

The recipe is here, and here are my notes:

  • I used Baker’s brand chocolate: 1 bar of unsweetened and 3/4 bar of semi-sweet. (200g roughly equals 1 3/4 bars Baker’s chocolate; 1 3/4 sticks of butter; and 1 cup of sugar.)
  • Melting the chocolate and butter took 3 rounds of 30 seconds in the microwave, separated by bouts of stirring.
  • I preheated the oven for ages (including while mixing everything), then put the pan on the top rack and baked for 20 minutes. MOFO’ING PERFECT.




Look at these.






Okay, I was supposed to be a productive hacker today… time to run away. Make the lava cupcakes and have a fantastic day :)

soundtrack for this post:

“Eat Me” Marshmallows & Snapdragon: Fiery Treats Inspired by Alice

alexglow books

Autumn is upon us!!!

We don’t get much of one in San Francisco, but I’ll be going to New York for a couple of weeks this month with Pinoccio, and I am SO EXCITED. Even here, it’s been a tad chilly, just for Halloween. Amazing.

These two treats are perfect for Halloween, New Year’s, and everything in between. They’re dramatically pyro-friendly. And they’re both inspired by Lewis Carroll’s masterworks, which seem extra-popular this year.

Eat Me Marshmallows

I’d been trying to come up with a non-alcoholic “Drink Me” cocktail for CODAME’s Halloween party. Too late, I realized that all my prep work was for a hot drink, and the event would be fairly warm, so I was scrambling for an alternative. Then Jono’s friend Leo mentioned a soft drink with a toasted marshmallow on top, and Sam posted about having hot chocolate with a single giant marshmallow melted in. So I picked up some ginger ale and brown sugar on the way to to the event, and tried to make something happen with that or the cider. Turns out, soggy marshmallows in cold drinks are basically no fun.


I’d also brought my butane torch to coax a toasty flavor out of the marshmallows. I ended up using most of the bag on these ad-hoc treats:

  1. Stick a fork in a marshmallow (skewer would be better)
  2. Toast it all over with the torch (picture by Bruno!)
  3. Dip it in cider
  4. Roll it in brown sugar and ground cloves (about 1/2 teaspoon cloves to several tablespoons of sugar)
  5. Toast the whole thing again, until the sugar melts, bubbles, and re-hardens
  6. Let cool ten seconds, push the mallow off the fork with a pair of chopsticks, and offer it to the recipient.

They’re not technically the right kind of sweet, but Eat Me Marshmallows will make you bigger!


 ’90s hacker approved.

Jono came up with a quick alternative: dip a fresh mallow in Jim Beam and toast it. You get some nice blue flame, then the surface of the marshmallow bubbles wetly for a bit, and then it settles down and toasts evenly! I think we just discovered the secret to “perfect” toasting… though I like ‘em both ways.

I’d been trying for a “Drink Me” mocktail because I was dressed up as Automated Alice, after a character by Jeff Noon (who also wrote my favorite book, VURT). I’d gotten hold of an amazing turquoise-blue dress, whose former owner urged me to be Alice for Halloween… but for an art+tech event, I wanted to put a cyborg twist on it (dyeing my mohawk to match the dress, with a silver “brain conduit” protruding from my neck). We had a 3d model made by ModBod!

Pic by Jono

As for the drink, at least we had plenty of cider and cherry juice. :) Here’s the original “Drink Me” description, from my childhood copy:

alexglow drink-me

However, this bottle was not marked “poison,” so Alice ventured to taste it, and finding it very nice (it had, in fact, a sort of mixed flavor of cherry tart, custard, pineapple, roast turkey, toffy, and hot buttered toast), she very soon finished it off.

“What a curious feeling!” said Alice. “I must be shutting up like a telescope.”

Alice in Wonderland, Illustrated Junior Edition, p.8

I’ve been playing around with cherry juice, cider, cloves, butterscotch flavoring, and maybe salted caramel ice cream on the side. So far, it’s much too sweet. I may add hibiscus to counter that, and it adds such a pretty ruby color. Maybe some cardamom. More Christmas pudding spices. Banana flavoring? And brandy or butterscotch schnapps if a warm kick is desired.


I didn’t invent this, but I do try to spread it! We’ve played this game at parties in Ann Arbor, at Noisebridge, and for Christmas at the Convent last year.

alexglow snapdragon-2

Snapdragon (or flapdragon) is the name of a pastime that delighted Victorian children during the Christmas season. A shallow bowl was filled with brandy, raisins were tossed in, and the brandy set on fire. Players tried to snatch raisins from the flickering blue flames and pop them, still blazing, into their mouths. The burning raisins also were called snapdragons. – The Annotated Alice, p.223

Here are a few key recommendations:

  1. Use a wide, shallow vessel that is NOT MADE OF METAL! We used a pot once. We burned ourselves; it was stupid. A shallow pie tin works all right, but it isn’t heavy enough to be stable.
  2. Warm the brandy first, so that it catches fire better. You can do this in the microwave.
  3. Obviously, set it up on a stable surface, so that four or five people can easily reach in and won’t tip it over.

Recommended Editions

The two copies of Alice shown above are very beautiful. The Illustrated Junior Library edition was a present from Aunt Lori and Uncle Frank, when I was a little girl of six, still living in England.

alexglow dedication

It’s really very beautiful, and captures the weirdness and wonder well. You can see another peek at it behind my Jabberwocky playing card.

The other one, The Annotated Alice, I received in high school, I think – maybe as a book prize at school? I don’t actually remember. But it’s also marvelous! It contains all kinds of fascinating details and side stories, bits of history and so on, for the more grown-up reader.

I also have to mention Peter Yearsley’s Librivox recording of Alice in Wonderland. He has a wonderful, almost drowsy reading style that makes you feel like you’re being lulled to sleep, but he also dramatizes the characters with great personality. (I’ve just found out that he also did The King in Yellow! Will have to give that a listen.)

A couple of side notes: that VURT book gave me an occasional username, “Curious Yellow”, and it seems that yellow is often linked with insanity or weird, curious things. And of course, Alice’s key phrase is “curiouser and curiouser…” So they sort of feed into each other: creativity, curiosity, that color, and those two strange book-worlds. Part of why I wear gold polish :)

Also: Planning to go see Then She Fell in New York, and I guess I’ll have to bring the dress. :) I’ve heard only good things, and lots of them… so if you’re in the area, go see it!

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