This is a Propaganda tile.

It’s one of about 1,000 different square images that can be tiled edge-to-edge for a seamless effect. They make great desktop wallpaper.

They were created around 2001 by a Linux advocate named Bowie J. Poag. He wanted to prove the point that a Linux desktop could be every bit as visually attractive as a Mac or Windows desktop. In fact, he wrapped the roughly 17 volumes of Propaganda images in a nutty retro-scifi fantasy tale, starring JFK, who’d faked his death in order to promote Linux through the use of stunning imagery.

The Propaganda Tiles, while once relatively common, have now become a kind of urban legend. A subset of them was apparently shipped with Red Hat Linux at some point. It’s unclear if anyone has a definitive full set. I’ve kept my own copy on various flash drives and backup services for years. I found a set on GitHub to compare against. I compared my set against that and there were omissions and duplicates. I found another copy that still had them separated into the 17 (or is it 18?) individual volumes.

What no one seems to have, though, is that satirical JFK story. It apparently got lost while everyone was most interested in preserving the images themselves. I’ve searched all my copies. I’ve searched the multiple sets I found online. I’ve tried digging through the Internet Wayback Machine to find the original Propaganda site – which has been gone for about 15 years.

While the Propaganda tiles make for great wallpaper or other texturing projects, they’ve got one quirk that makes them difficult to use: their names. The swirly blue tile above is All-Good-People-3. There’s also an All-Good-People-2, which looks like this:

If you examine it closely, it’s the same geometric pattern, but with a different color palette. That’s the one naming rule that stayed consistent throughout all the Propaganda volumes. A trailing number indicated a color variation. Some have as many as 8 variations. But they all have nonsensical names. I don’t know how Bowie chose them. I like to think it’s some kind of surrealist non-statement. The only meaning is the one the viewer assigns to it.

The nonsense names are half the fun when browsing the tiles, but when you’re actively trying to choose a couple to use as wallpaper, it can be frustrating. You can’t remember which one was the cool blue one about two dozen clicks ago. Sure, you could expand your file browser into “preview” mode, but we’re still talking about a collection of over a thousand images.

So I’ve got a plan. And a programming project.

I tracked down the code needed to analyze images and identify the most predominant colors. I thought this would be a simple, if time-consuming process. I was wrong. In order to do it efficiently involves some complex math and statistical processing, most of which is covered by the computer-vision branch of artificial intelligence programming. The mathematics are way, way, above my grade, so I found a site that had a ready-to-use, free-to-use library to do the processing. I ran a handful of Propaganda tiles through it and saw that it would give me exactly what I wanted: the dominant colors in an image. along with the ratios.

So my plan is this:

  • Process all the images through the analysis tool, getting the top three (or five?) colors in each image
  • Stuff all this into a database
  • Code up an application that lets a user choose a color from a color-picking dialog (you’ve all seen those)
  • Find the best-matching Propaganda tiles by looking for that color in the database
  • Look for high-contrast or low-contrast tiles by comparing the “distance” between the predominant colors. A high-contrast tile will have a secondary color that’s vastly different than the most-common color. Think blue with yellow. A low-contrast tile will have similar shades of blue as all the predominant colors – not much distance between.
  • Allow the user to flag tiles as favorites.
  • Set their desktop wallpaper directly from the application, if I can.
  • Preserve Bowie J. Poag’s original tone of conquering the world through more attractive Linux wallpaper.

I believe this project will be called Propaganda For Plasma, as I’ll be using the KDE and Plasma frameworks to code the application. (The initial image analysis will be done in bulk beforehand, using Python, which seems to be the language of choice for the computer-vision crowd.)

And I’ll finally be able to do what I’ve wanted to – browse the Propaganda tiles by color. I love abstract backgrounds, but I’m picky about my colors. I’ve been getting through life well enough up to this point, but it’s a good project.

If I can make it all work, I may even stop using my folder of photos of The Clash as wallpaper.

Or not.

But at least I’ll get to spend more time with the Propaganda tiles.

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