Self Portrait

As part of my sabbatical project, I  have been continuing to contemplate ways to visualize privacy. My De-identificaiton quilt featured digitally-printed photos de-identified by their extreme magnification and by splicing them together with other fabric. Another approach to visual de-identification is pixelation. To pixelate an image, we superimpose a grid on the image and replace each cell with a color representing the average of all the pixels in that grid cell. Although pixelation has been shown to be highly vulnerable to automated re-identification, it is a widely used method of obscuring images to make them more difficult for humans to recognize.

I have long been intrigued by the Salvador Dali paintings, Lincoln in Dalivision (1977) and Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea which at Twenty Meters Becomes the Portrait of Abraham Lincoln (Homage to Rothko) (1976), which in turn were inspired by Leon Harmon’s grey photomoasic of Abraham Lincoln (1973).

Recently, Ray J released the single “I Hit it First” with a pixelated photo on the album cover. The photo was quickly recognized as a 2010 photo of bikini-clad Kim Kardashian.

Original portrait

While working on my Big Bright Pixels quilt, people kept asking me whether there was a hidden picture or message. There wasn’t. But that did get me thinking about doing a pixel quilt with a hidden image. But what image should I pixelate? I had recently used a pixelated face in the logo I designed for the Privacy Engineering masters program, and a face seemed a natural choice given that faces are commonly pixelated to protect privacy in news photos. (Other body parts are also frequently pixelated, and I love the censorship towel, but I digress.) I settled on pixelating a face, and briefly considered using a face of a famous person before deciding to use my own face. I selected a blue-haired portrait, photographed by Chuck Cranor.

Pixelated portrait

Pixelated portrait

Pixelation can be done trivially with a computer using standard image processing software packages or by rolling your own. I started working on my pixelated quilt before I started programing in Processing, so I used Photoshop to pixelate a headshot of myself. The initial pixelation was nice, but I wanted something more colorful and also higher contrast so that the differences between colors would show up better when printed on fabric (digital printing on fabric tends to dull colors). I experimented with adjusting the contrast, brightness, and color settings in Photoshop until I came up with a brighter and more colorful pixelated image. This was the image I sent to Spoonflower for digital printing.

Pixelated portrait with high contrast and color manipulation

Pixelated portrait with high contrast and color manipulation

By the time the fabric arrived I had gotten busy with other quilts, and I was also a little disappointed in how the printed fabric looked, so I left the fabric sitting out on my table in the STUDIO for a while. I decided that the dulled digital print needed some more punch, so periodically I cut a fabric square to match a pixel in the fabric and pinned it in place. I cut some of these squares from translucent polyester organza, adding some vibrancy and shimmer to the pixels over which I layered them. I cut other squares from lace, commercial batiks, and printed fabrics that were more intense versions of the hues in the digital print. I ended up covering about 20% of the pixels with other fabric.

Back of quilt top with vertical lines sewed

Back of quilt top with vertical lines sewed

After a few months of staring at the pixels I finally decided to sew the quilt together. I used a shortcut technique to sew the quilt together without actually cutting apart the squares in the digital print. I folded the fabric along one of the vertical lines, catching the pinned squares in the fold, and stitched along the line with a quarter-inch seam allowance. I repeated this approach to sew all the vertical lines and pressed all the seam allowances to the side. Then I folded the fabric along one of the horizontal lines and repeated this process. The end result was a pieced quilt top that appeared to have been pieced out of 130 2.25″ squares (2.75″ with seam allowances). Theoretically this approach should have resulted in precisely pieced seams; however, some of the lines are actually slightly off and the rows and columns did not come out quite as square as I had hoped they would.

Pieced quilt top

Pieced quilt top

I layered the quilt top over batting and backing and used a spiral free-motion machine quilting pattern to quilt the whole thing free hand. I did the quilting in several sessions as I had time, doodling spirals until my hands got tired. I used several different thread colors to roughly match the color of the thread with the pixels I was quilting. I decided not to bind this quilt, and instead made an envelope and quilted all the way to the edge. There is a little bit of stippled hand quilting done with perl cotton surrounding my signature in the lower right corner.

So now the quilt is done and I’m pretty happy with this self portrait. Most people who have seen it do not recognize it as a self portrait, which is ok, and sort of the point. On the other hand, Golan said the blue and purple hair was a dead give away for him. I had not actually started out with the intention to make a self portrait, but ultimately I think the piece works better for me as a self portrait than any more accurate likeness would.


Self Portrait, machine pieced and quilted 23×30.75″


Sabbatical ramblings

It’s been a while since I’ve posted an update, and I’ve got a bunch of random things to say… so forgive me as I ramble.

I’m working on a quilt that is bigger than I am now, so no, it is not done yet. It’s been in the works for about a month now, and maybe I will tell you more about it in my next post.

I’ve been distracted by some not-so-sabbatical-conducive activities, like start a new masters program to train privacy engineers. Really that is not the sort of activity one should do on sabbatical. But in order to have a new program start next fall, the program had to get approved and we needed to start recruiting now. Besides work on the curriculum and lining up faculty, there was some political wrangling to do. Now all we need is students. Tell your friends to apply.

I’m trying my best to stay out of my office when it is not Wednesday. Unfortunately, that’s not always possible. But my students are helpfully chastising me whenever they see me in my office on a day other than Wednesday.

The STUDIO organized a bus trip to the World Maker Faire in NYC at the end of September. That seemed like a good sabbatical activity, but the thought of an overnight trip (the bus was leaving Pittsburgh at midnight) with a bus full of students was not appealing. Yes, I did a red-eye to Barcelona earlier this year, and a few hours later put on a suit and spoke in front of an audience. But I flew business class. I may be too old to sleep on a bus and end up remotely coherent the next day. So I decided to spring for a plane ticket, two actually… I brought my 11-year-old son with me too. Getting to the airport in the morning turned out to be an unexpected challenge (who knew that busses stop running 2 hours before the Great Race starts?), but after that we had a great day. Maker Faire is full of cool stuff as far as the eye can see. I was on the lookout for LEDs suitable for sewing into quilts, and I did get some good ideas. Shane was enthralled by all the 3-D printers. We watched battery-powered go-carts race in the rain (the rain ponchos I had stuffed in Shane’s backpack came in handy!), and enjoyed a display of dozens of mentos-laces soda bottles spraying their contents high into the air.

I’ve had my big screen movie debut in the feature-length documentary CODE 2600. In October we hosted the Pittsburgh premier at CMU and I moderated a panel discussion with the filmmaker. I actually have a very small part, but the rest of the movie is good, and I’ve got my own IMDb page now.

I ran my second 5k race, Run Shadyside. I’m really not a runner. I don’t run fast. A nine-year-old neighbor ran faster than I did. I don’t run when it is hot. I don’t run when it is cold. But I ran the whole way, and I finished. I even “trained” for a few weeks beforehand. It is cold now. I probably will not run again until Spring.

Eight weeks into my hair dye experiment, most of the blue had faded, leaving me with streaks of greenish grey hair, with a few bright turquoise streaks peaking out. It is a mystery to me why some strands stayed blue while the rest faded. They do, after all, reside on the same head. I wasn’t thrilled with the faded look, so I headed back to my hair dresser for another round of blue. This time there was no need to bleach my hair so she went straight for the dye, and left it in a really long time in hopes that it might last longer this time around. This resulted in turning the bleached hair a very dark indigo blue and the surrounding brown hair a dark navy, almost black. In low light, my hair looks black, but in the sun there are nice indigo highlights. Now almost two weeks into the second round of blue, it is still very dark.

A really good sabbatical activity at the end of October was chaperoning a fourth-grade field trip on RiverQuest. Normally I don’t have time to spend the day on a field trip, but I’m on sabbatical, so why not? It was a beautiful day on the water, the fall leaves were gorgeous, and the trip was really interesting. I took a lot of photos. The kids learned a lot about the health of the three rivers. They collected water samples and ran various test on the water, collected mud samples and looked for macro invertebrates, and collected plankton samples and tried to ID various plankton and microorganism. It was really a fun day!

Another project, nine years in the making, is a new kitchen for our house. I never liked the kitchen from the time we bought the house. But it took a while to figure out what I wanted instead. After much planning, construction has begun. We have now survived 10 days without a kitchen. There’s a lot you can do with a microwave and a toaster oven, but cooking without a sink is kind of a pain. The contents of our kitchen, pantry, and mudroom have been spread throughout the house.  Our old kitchen has been stripped down to its bare studs. Our contractor was somewhat surprised by how the walls are being held up. A beam expert will advise next week….

People often travel a lot on their sabbaticals, but since this is a staybatical, I’m trying to keep travel to a minimum. I actually made it through most of September and October without leaving Pittsburgh. But at the end of October I headed to Williamstown, MA to give two invited lectures at Williams College. I enjoyed my visit, and got back before Frankestorm arrived. Going to Williams was also a good excuse not to go to Uruguay for a privacy conference.



Blue hair and work Wednesday

me with blue hairThis was the first official week of my sabbatical, after the summer-long soft launch. I celebrated by getting my hair dyed blue. Not all over blue, just blue highlights in front. Not shocking, you-can’t-miss-it sky blue. Rather, deep cobalt, almost indigo, make-you-look-twice-because-you’re-not-sure blue. There are a few streaks of turquoise mixed in too… I think that’s how the dye stuck to my grey hairs. The blue gets more obvious in the sunlight and when I flip it back. If I have to go somewhere where suits are required, I won’t look too terribly out of place.

I’ve gotten some interesting reactions. Some of my colleagues were confused by it. “What’s that all about?” “That’s not permanent is it?” Some people see me and exclaim, “Your hair is blue!” But for the most part, the blue hair is getting rave reviews. I’m pretty happy with how it came out, except for the fact that I have to keep wiping blue smudges off my forehead.

Some of my friends, who know I have enough purple apparel to clothe the Northwestern University marching band, have asked, why blue? Why not purple? In short, this was  a decision delegated to my  hairdresser. I have learned that I have neither the time nor the skill to coax my hair into doing anything remotely similar to what I want it to do. But my hairdresser has succeeded in getting my hair to do what she wants it to do. As long as she gives me instructions for maintaining my hair that require no more than three-minutes a day to execute, I can keep my hair looking more or less (ok, usually less) the way she wants it to look. And she wants it to be blue. We had a conversation that went roughly like this:

Me: I’m doing a sabbatical this year at the art school.

Hairdresser: Wonderful! You need an artsy hairdo. We will dye your hair blue.

I didn’t even ask her what shade of blue before she began applying bleach and wrapping my hair in little foil packets to remove the natural color, as apparently blue dye doesn’t do much for brown hair. Within the hour I had white-blond highlights. She then applied dark blue gloop to the highlighted hair, wrapped it back up in foil packets, and the next time I saw my hair it was blue.

Of course, if you have blue hair, you have to document it. Who knows, I may never have blue hair again, depending on how annoying the blue forehead smudges get. So I setup for a photo shoot in my son’s bathroom (it has blue walls and good natural light through the window, and the mirror is an added bonus) so I could capture my blue self-portrait. There’s not much room to setup a tripod in a bathroom, but I got it wedged in managed to shoot a decent self portrait.

So, with hair dyed blue, I spent the week enjoying the energy of a campus filled with students once again, content in the knowledge that I would not be teaching any classes to these students this year. I sat outside and watched them play frisbee. When a soccer ball came my way, I kicked it back. And I sat it the STUIO tying French knots on the quilt I was trying to finish this week for a competition deadline (I made the deadline, more on the quilt in my next post). But unlike the past 8 years, I did not spend the last week in August scrambling to finish a syllabus, polish off lecture slides, and get ready for a busy semester.

My sabbatical is actually a 75% sabbatical. I did promise to spend 25% of my time doing research and advising my students. And so, I have designated Wednesday as work day in my office (or in meetings). Ok, the reality is that I cannot get all my work done in one day per week, and I cannot force all meetings I need to attend to schedule themselves on Wednesdays. Indeed I spent a good chunk of Monday in meetings, and arrived on campus at 8:30 am on Friday to get a quick meeting out of the way before heading to the STUDIO. But I did manage to spend most of Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday quilting this week. And on Wednesday I had 13 meetings. In fact, I have 11 standing meetings with my students and research groups scheduled every Wednesday for the rest of the semester. (Except for next week when I’ve cancelled them all so I can go to a conference on Wednesday.)  Oh, and I’m co-directing a new masters program in privacy engineering (more on that later too).

My kids started their schools this week too. Only two days so far. Once we determined that  our school bus stop was not actually located at the corner indicated in the letter from the school district, everything has gone smoothly.