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Tim Pritlove ... Blinkenlights Project

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  • Frederick Noronha
    http://www.hindu.com/mp/2006/11/29/stories/2006112901010400.htm Across two ends Computers are the lifeline for German programmer Tim Pritlove and he even uses
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 30, 2006
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      http://www.hindu.com/mp/2006/11/29/stories/2006112901010400.htm
      Across two ends

      Computers are the lifeline for German programmer Tim Pritlove and he
      even uses them to create art on a public scale

      PHOTO: MURALI KUMAR K.

      MACHINES AND MACHINATIONS Tim Pritlove: `Today computers are full of
      malware, bugs and viruses and are open for errors and manipulation'

      For a computer wizard, Tim Pritlove, is pretty fussy about his
      appearance. I suggest that he ditch his woollen jacket because it just
      too hot, but he offers: "I think I look better with the jacket." Not
      many in India will know Pritlove but he is one of Germany's top
      computer programmers and an artist. He was in the city to deliver the
      concluding address at the recent free and open source software
      convention, FOSS.in.

      Pritlove's tryst computers began with Lego, which he calls "lovely and
      deeply logical toy stuff", and led to a "strange affliction towards
      the digital system." With child-like enthusiasm, he adds: "As kids,
      computers have a fascination (for us). I looked at the screen and had
      to just go for it."

      Browse his home page (http://tim.pritlove.org/) and he takes you
      through every computer he went through in his early years. Machines
      that looked like nothing more than oversized typewriters right through
      his first Mac.

      What brought Pritlove to Bangalore was the activist and artist in him.
      He is a member of the world-famous Chaos Computer Club (CCC) and one
      of the architects of the Blinkenlights Project
      (http://www.blinkenlights.de/).

      Blinkenlights Project

      It all began while celebrating 20 years of the CCC in 2001. That's
      when the Blinkenlights Project was born. The CCC was looking for some
      symbolic way to celebrate and chanced upon a building in the heart of
      East Berlin, the massive Haus des Lehrers, from the Sixties standing
      right at Alexanderplatz.

      Pritlove decided to convert the façade of the building into a giant
      interactive computer screen. "We looked at the building and thought we
      could write CCC on it. Then it was totally obvious that the windows of
      the building were a matrix that could be made into an 8x18 pixel
      monochrome screen. The building was empty and the owner wanted to
      renovate it, so the situation was ideal," recalls Pritlove.

      It took five weeks and each window was rigged with a floodlight, all
      controlled by five kilometres of cables, massive relay switches and a
      computer. But the beauty of the project was that it was not to just
      display CCC, it was a public art installation, which anyone could
      access to display their messages. "We wanted a billboard for the
      average guy. There are advertisements all over through which someone
      is trying to push their ideas. We wanted to reclaim the public space."

      Centre of attraction

      For the next six months the building became the centre of attraction
      with people sending their messages and animations through their mobile
      phones. There were love messages or two people could actually dial
      into the computer to play a game of ping-pong on a giant public
      screen. "We were totally overrun by the appreciation. The project
      became a part of the city but we had to take it down. People actually
      thought it was there forever. It was an intense and a warm feeling to
      see it being used and watching the creativity it spawned. A lot of
      cute animations were contributed."

      Also the installation proved to be a focal point for East Berlin,
      which emerged as the creative centre of Berlin after the
      re-unification of the two Germanys. And with Europe being the home of
      public art installations, it did well to showcase German creativity.
      "Art is about doing things without looking at money first. Yes, people
      do think differently but art is much more inspiring than a few common
      products. Art is creating an idea of sharing and good ideas getting
      transmitted," opines Pritlove.

      True to his word, all the planning for the project has been put up
      online so that it can be replicated in other parts of the world and
      program used to control the computer is distributed freely.

      The CCC became famous for its hacks, especially the one where they
      hacked the German Bildschirmtext computer network and succeeded in
      getting a bank in Hamburg to debit the online account with DM134,000
      in favour of the club. The money was returned the next day in front of
      the media.

      Pritlove says that the role of hackers is invaluable in the
      information world. "We see the term hacker in its own meaning, finding
      out how things work and achieving new stuff. Hackers built the
      Internet and the computing infrastructure we have today. Unless you
      know how things work, you will be a slave of the system. Only if you
      have the knowledge you can make the conclusions."

      Though it might be a computer club, the CCC's present campaign is
      against electronic voting, which Pritlove says does away with the two
      basics needed for fair elections — secrecy and freedom. "Paper voting
      ensures that there is no oppression and there is transparency.
      Everyone can count a cross on a paper but not one guy will tell you
      how actually a computer works and whether it is foolproof. Today
      computers are full of malware, bugs and viruses and are open for
      errors and manipulation. I know in India you have logistical issues to
      go for electronic voting; but systems on any scale should reach out to
      people. Internet voting is an even worse idea than voting machines. We
      are aware of what we can and cannot do with computers."

      The buck stops there

      Finally, I point out to him that hackers are today blamed for
      everything bad. Every day we are warned of people about to take over
      computers and stealing private data. So are hackers going to find
      themselves increasingly isolated by the law? "You have all this
      hoo-hah with hackers and bad guys. Hackers were there before any
      network. True, we have lost the media war, but we are very proud of
      this name. It is like being proud to be gay today. Being a nerd is not
      negative nowadays, nerds are proud. Societies need hackers, we are
      valuable."

      This column features those who choose to veer off the beaten track.

      ANAND SANKAR
      --
      FN 9822122436 +91-832-240-9490 (phone calls after 1 pm please)
      FLOSS, geeks, blogs: [http://planet.foss.in/%5d
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