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Picons Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

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Archive-name: picons-faq
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Last-modified: 2005/11/27

See reader questions & answers on this topic! - Help others by sharing your knowledge
                       Picons Frequently Asked Questions

   Steve Kinzler <>
   27 Nov 2005
   An    HTML    version    of    this    document    is   available   at

    1. What are picons?
    2. Where can I get the picons databases and how are they licensed?
    3. What is the structure of the picons databases?
    4. What are the constraints on individual picons?
    5. How are picons looked up in the databases?
    6. What software and services are available that use picons?
    7. What software is available to help create picons?
    8. How can I submit picons to the databases?
    9. Is there a mailing list about picons?
   10. Who has contributed to picons?

1. What are picons?

   "picons"  is  short  for  "personal icons". They're small, constrained
   images  used to represent users and domains on the net, organized into
   databases so that the appropriate image for a given e-mail address can
   be  found.  Besides  users and domains, there are picons databases for
   Usenet  newsgroups  and  weather  forecasts.  The picons are in either
   monochrome XBM format or color XPM and GIF formats.

   These databases have been compiled in hopes of helping make cyberspace
   a  more  personable  place.  With  them,  software and services can be
   developed  to  identify  persons  on the net by face (or, at least, by
   institution  logo)  instead  of  by a cryptic e-mail address. Although
   this software is still more potential than actual, much already exists
   (see 6.). The picons databases themselves, of course, are only a first
   step toward this goal.

   The  picons databases have been built from the submissions of hundreds
   of  contributors  across  the  net,  and,  as such, their accuracy and
   appropriateness  has  not been extensively verified. Contributions and
   corrections are welcome and encouraged (see 8.).

   The picons databases that currently are available are:

     * domains, logos for Internet domains
     * misc, picons for common accounts and miscellany
     * news, icons for Usenet newsgroups
     * unknown, default picons for very high-level Internet domains
     * usenix, face images of Usenix conference attendees
     * users, picons for individual accounts (often face images)
     * weather, icons for displaying weather forecasts

   The  picons  databases  have  previously  been  referred to as "faces"
   collections  or  databases,  because they were originally compiled for
   use  with  the  "faces" software. Since they're now used for more than
   this  and include more than actual face images, they're referred to as
   the  picons databases to make the distinction and to avoid overloading
   the term "faces".

2. Where can I get the picons databases and how are they licensed?

   The  picons  databases  are available via WWW in the Picons Archive at
   <URL:>  or  via  FTP in   This  archive  also  includes
   sources for picons application scripts and icon utilities and a set of
   demo  window  dumps of some picons applications. An interactive random
   picons  sampler  and  a  picons  database  search  facility  are  also
   available via WWW here.

   The   databases   are   also   mirrored   in  the  UUNET  archives  in,    where   they're
   available via FTP or UUCP.

   The  databases  are  updated in these archives each day they change so
   the  most  current  version  is  always  available.  Since many of the
   databases  are  constantly  growing, you may want to update your local
   copy of them periodically.

   The  databases  are also available as packages for Debian GNU/Linux at,   though  these
   are updated much less frequently.

   Most  of  the  databases have a license that places some conditions on
   their use and distribution. Generally, this is just to ensure that the
   volunteer efforts put into the databases are recognized and protected.
   Otherwise,  they're  essentially  freely  usable,  but see the LICENSE
   section  of  the README file in the top directory of each database for

3. What is the structure of the picons databases?

   Each database is structured as a directory tree. Each directory deeper
   into  a  database  more specifically references a picon. The databases
   for  users  and  domains are organized by reversed Internet domainname
   components  followed  by  the  username.  For example, my XPM picon is
   located  in the "users" database under my most general e-mail address,, in the file

   The  picon  files  themselves  are  always named face.xbm, face.xpm or
   face.gif.  If a face.xpm file exists, then an equivalent face.gif file
   will also exist, and vice versa. If the picon applies to the domain as
   a  whole  and  no  user in particular, the username "unknown" is used.
   These  picons  are  typically in the "domains" or "unknown" databases,
   for example

   If  the  picon  applies  to  a  specific  user  in any domain (usually
   standard system accounts), the domain "MISC" is used. These picons are
   typically in the "misc" or "unknown" databases, for example

   Note that, with the exception of the special MISC domain, all parts of
   the path are in lower-case.

   The  "news"  database is organized by Usenet newsgroup name components
   with   an   "unknown"   username.  For  example,  the  XPM  picon  for is in

4. What are the constraints on individual picons?

   Each  final  directory  in  a  database  may  contain one or both of a
   face.xbm  file and a face.xpm/face.gif file set. Picons in all formats
   are  constrained  to  be 48 by 48 pixels in size. (An exception is the
   weather  database  which has picons 64 by 64 pixels). Furthermore, XPM
   picons  are in the version 3 format of XPM and must use only colors in
   one  of  two  limited  subsets  of  common  colors.  This  restriction
   minimizes  the  competition  for  colormap  space  for  many users and
   usually  allows  applications  displaying  picons  to  do  so with the
   standard colormap. GIF picons are equivalent to their XPM counterparts
   with  the  XPM  "none"  color converted to "grey75" (rgb:BF/BF/BF) and
   marked as transparent.

   The  first  color  set  is that used in the AIcons collection, version
   1.6.  See <URL:> for more
   about  the  history and rationale of this color set. The colors in the
   set are (by hexadecimal RGB triplets and X11 color names)
    00 00 00 black              EE 82 EE violet
    2F 4F 4F dark slate grey    FF 00 FF magenta
    70 80 90 slate grey         A0 20 F0 purple
    BE BE BE grey               00 FF FF cyan
    DC DC DC gainsboro          A0 52 2D sienna
    FF FF FF white              CD 85 3F peru
    00 00 80 navy               FF A5 00 orange
    00 00 FF blue               FF D7 00 gold
    1E 90 FF dodger blue        FF FF 00 yellow
    87 CE EB sky blue           D2 B4 8C tan
    E6 E6 FA lavender           F5 DE B3 wheat
    2E 8B 57 sea green          FF FA CD lemon chiffon
    32 CD 32 lime green         B2 22 22 firebrick
    00 FF 00 green              FF 00 00 red
    98 FB 98 pale green         FF 63 47 tomato

     [Colors Image]

   The second color set is a greyscale set for use with photographic-type
   icons  when  the  first  color  set  isn't satisfactory. Its colors by
   hexadecimal RGB triplets and X11 color names are
    00 00 00 black              87 87 87 grey53
    12 12 12 grey7              99 99 99 grey60
    21 21 21 grey13             AB AB AB grey67
    33 33 33 grey20             BA BA BA grey73
    45 45 45 grey27             CC CC CC grey80
    54 54 54 grey33             DE DE DE grey87
    66 66 66 grey40             ED ED ED grey93
    78 78 78 grey47             FF FF FF white

     [Greys Image]

   The  transparent  or "none" color can be used with both color sets. In
   fact, its use is encouraged as the background color.

5. How are picons looked up in the databases?

   With  most applications, databases are searched sequentially according
   to  an  order  specified by a search path. The definition of this path
   will  vary  from application to application depending on the nature of
   the application and the databases available and desired.

   The  recommended  order  of the picons databases for a search path for
   Internet e-mail addresses is:

    1. your personal database, if any
    2. your local site database, if any
    3. users
    4. usenix
    5. misc (MISC default picons)
    6. domains
    7. unknown ("smoking spy" catch-all default picons)

   Any  of  these  databases are optional, of course, and may be excluded
   for  efficiency  or  because of lack of usefulness. As special purpose
   databases,  the  news  and weather databases are usually used alone or
   with just personal and local additions.

   Each  database  is searched for a matching picon from most specific to
   least  specific. The search typically stops with the first match. Each
   database is searched entirely before continuing with the next one. For
   example,  a  lookup  for  the  picon  for would
   proceed  with this sequence of checks occuring within each database in
   the  search  path.  The  picon  used  would  be  in the first of these
   directories containing a suitable one:

    1. edu/indiana/cs/kinzler
    2. edu/indiana/kinzler
    3. edu/kinzler
    4. MISC/kinzler
    5. edu/indiana/cs/unknown
    6. edu/indiana/unknown
    7. edu/unknown
    8. MISC/unknown

6. What software and services are available that use picons?

   There's  a  number  of  programs  available that use picons to monitor
   incoming  e-mail or represent an e-mail message. Applications are also
   available  to  monitor  print queues, unread news, system mail queues,
   weather forecasts, given addresses and newsgroups, and so on.

   All  such software can be found in the Faces Archive available via WWW
   at  <URL:> or via FTP in

   The   Faces  Archive  is  also  mirrored  in  the  UUNET  archives  in,  where  they're available
   via FTP or UUCP.

   The Picons Search engine at
   <URL:> searches the picons
   databases  for  requested picon sets and displays the found picons. As
   such,  it  can  serve as an icon lookup service for Internet users and
   domains and Usenet newsgroups.

   The Picons Card Game at
   <URL:>  lets you play
   a  card  game  in JavaScript with any number of players, any number of
   cards,  and  any set of Web images, including many pre-defined subsets
   of picons to randomly select from. It's a fun and challenging game for
   all ages.

   The Picons Sonification page at
   <URL:>   uses   the
   vOICe  Java  applet  to  compute  and play auditory representations of
   images,  including  GIF  picons,  intended  as a step towards a vision
   substitution device for the blind.

   The WWW-Finger Gateway with Faces at
   <URL:>      displays     picon
   sequences for the users and hosts it fingers.

   Anthony's Icon Library (AIcons) at
   <URL:>  includes  some  picons
   among  its various icon sections, which are organized for programming,
   application  and  Web usage. In particular, the library highlights the
   country flag domain picons and the Olympic event logo picons.

   The   Indiana  University  Computer  Science  Personnel  Directory  at
   <URL:> uses picons of users
   in indices of its personnel information pages.

   The Gmane mailing list archive at <URL:> displays
   picons with the messages displayed on its website.

7. What software is available to help create picons?

   There's  a cornucopia of software available on all computing platforms
   for  creating  and  manipulating  images  which  can be useful towards
   creating  picons.  Images  can be created by hand or scanned in with a
   scanner.  Also,  one can scrounge around existing image collections or
   browse  the World-Wide Web for images that can be converted and scaled
   to a picon.

   The MailFaces documentation at
   provides   advice  on  creating  picons  under  Windows  95  and  OS/2
   environments.  If  you can put your image on the Web, then you can use
   the PIconCreate service at
   ate> to process and submit it as a picon.

   Below  are  some  software packages I commonly use for creating picons
   under    a    Unix/X11    environment.    The    Iconolog    site   at
   references many icon tools for other environments.

          A library needed by most other software with XPM support.
          A  very  broad  suite  of image filters and tools, particularly
          useful for format conversions.
   picons bits,
          Special supplements to NetPBM, xbmbrowser and GIMP for picons.
          Great  for viewing and managing picons databases and working on
          sets of picons.
   AIcons support environment,
          This  greatly extends xbmbrowser and other software listed here
          as picons support tools.
   bitmap, X11 archives
          A  standard  X11  tool  for editting XBM bitmaps; the X11R5 and
          later versions are recommended.
          An X11 tool for editting XPM pixmaps.
          A  powerful  image  processing  and  conversion tool; shareware
          versions 3 and later support XPM.
   xpaint, <URL:>
          A paint program for X11.
          Handy tools for grabbing an image from your display.
   xfontsel, X11 archives
          A  standard  X11  tool  for displaying a text string in various
   xmag, X11 archives
          A standard X11 tool for magnifying a portion of your display.

8. How can I submit picons to the databases?

   If you use the PIconCreate service at
   ate> to process your Web image into a picon, then you can submit it to
   the  databases with the service, too. Otherwise, you can use e-mail or
   FTP  to  submit  your picons. Large sets of picons can be packaged and
   uploaded  via  FTP  to
   with   prior   arrangement   with  <>.  For
   individual  picons  or small sets of picons, it's preferable to submit
   them (or their URLs) via e-mail.

   To  submit  a new or revised picon to a database, mail its XBM, XPM or
   ASCII  PNM  (ASCII  PBM,  ASCII PGM or ASCII PPM) file to one of these


   as appropriate. Alternately, you may mail in, alone in the body of the
   message, a URL referencing the image file.

   In  any  case, the subject line should contain only the e-mail address
   (in    user@dom.ain    format)   the   users   picon   is   for   (eg,
   ""),  the  domain  address or hierarchy the domains
   picon  is  for  (eg,  "" or ""), or the newsgroup or
   newsgroup  hierarchy  the  news picon is for (eg, "" or
   "comp"). Please submit each picon in a separate mailing.

   For  picons contributed to the users database, the domain specified in
   the  subject should be the most general at which the given username is
   uniquely  applicable,  even  if such a domain isn't valid as a mailing
   address. For example, if "kinzler" is the same user in every subdomain
   of    "",    his    picon    would    be    submitted    as
   "" even if that's not a valid mailing address.

   The  body  of  mailed  files should contain only the picon, preferably
   already within the standard picons constraints (see 4.) and preferably
   as  an  XBM,  XPM  or  ASCII PNM picon unpackaged in plain text. A GIF
   version  of  a picon need not be mailed in if its corresponding XPM or
   ASCII PNM version is submitted. But, if you do mail in a GIF, or other
   non-ASCII  format  image,  you'll  need to package it somehow for mail
   transfer.  You  may  mail  in  images  (or URLs for images) with other
   sizes,  formats  and  color  sets,  but  they  may  not  be able to be
   successfully processed and added to the databases.

   See  7. for pointers to software and advice to aid in creating picons.
   Any extra comments about the submitted picons can be mailed separately

   After  being  processed,  submissions  are deleted from the FTP picons
   incoming directory. They will then appear in the distributed databases
   within the next 24 hours.

9. Is there a mailing list about picons?

   A  mailing  list is available for announcements and discussion related
   to  the  faces  and  xfaces  software and the picons databases. See 6.
   about  accessing  the Faces Archives for these, as well as archives of
   the mailing list.

   Mail sent to is mailed to everyone on the mailing
   list.   Mail   with  your  requests  to
   subscribe to or unsubsribe from the mailing list.

10. Who has contributed to picons?

   Steve  Kinzler  <>  is  the  creator and primary
   developer  of  the  picons  databases, application scripts, and online
   services.  He began around 1990 after installing faces and finding its
   potential  limited  by  the lack of a substantial collection of domain
   icons.  He's  created  or  adapted  a  good  share  of  the picons and
   reviewed, installed and tweaked most all the rest.

   Daniel     Glazman    <>,    Iain    Sinclair
   <>, Dirk Craeynest
   <>,  Dougal Scott <>,
   Yuval Kfir <>, Johan Fredriksson <>
   and   Juhapekka   Tolvanen   <>  have  contributed  a
   substantial  number  of  picons themselves and some of the picons have
   been adapted from Jeff Poskanzer's <> bitmap collection.
   Rich  Burridge  <> compiled early versions
   of  a  combined users and misc database. Hundreds of others around the
   net have contributed some number of picons to the databases. Under the
   Usenix   FaceSaver   project,   Dave   Yost,  Lou  Katz,  Barb  Dijker
   <>  and  David C Lawrence <>
   have  compiled  and  made available thousands of face images of Usenix
   conference  attendees  which  form  the  basis  for  the usenix picons

   John   Thomas   <>   developed   and   supports  the
   PIconCreate service for the processing and submission of Web images as
   picons. Hakan Ardo <> prepares Debian package versions
   of  the  picons  databases. Daniel V Klein <> included
   the  Picons and Faces Archives on the 1997 Usenix Technical Conference

   These  fine  folks  are  acknowledged  for their development work with
   applications which use picons: Rich Burridge
   <>       (faces),       Chris      Liebman
   <>  (xfaces),  John  Thomas  <>
   (MailFaces),     Brian    Redman    (MailGlance),    Daniel    Glazman
   <>  (MEUF),  Brent  Welch <> and
   John     LoVerso     <>     (exmh),     Ido    Hardonag
   <>       (Chameleon),       Marc       VanHeyningen
   <>   (WWW-Finger  Gateway  with  Faces),  James
   Ashton     <>     (compface),     Rob    Kooper
   <>  (libfaces), Simon Richter <>
   (xfacedb),   and   Axel   Belinfante   <>
   (ircfaces).  faces,  the  software  which  started  it all, was itself
   inspired  by  seminal  work  by  Rob Pike <> and Dave
   Presotto  <>  with their vismon program for Bell
   Labs Version 8 Unix described in Face the Nation ( *).

   And  these  folks  are  acknowledged for developing software which has
   been  especially  important  in  the creation of the picons databases:
   Davor   Matic  (bitmap),  Lionel  Mallet  (pixmap),  Anthony  Thyssens
   <>  and Ashley Roll <> (AIcons &
   xbmbrowser),  and  Jeff  Poskanzer  <>  and  the  NetPBM
   developers (PBMPlus/NetPBM).

   Plus others I'm sure I've neglected to mention.






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