Sunday, December 30, 2012

Consideration of Works Past: East of Eden

It's odd to me John Steinbeck doesn't come up in conversation too much anymore.

When books do come up there's usually a breakdown something like this: mostly contemporary with the genre interest of the speaker showing up broadly, some books to reference the contemporary books, a few 19th century canon references such as Twain, Dickens or Kipling., the foreign book of the moment and that's about it. Sometimes there's reference to Hemingway or Lawrence or some such-- usually if a movie has been recently released. For that matter, the movies almost always dominate the conversation.

If Steinbeck does come up, one of three books are mentioned: The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men and Cannery Row. Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath fight for first place depending on the movie release schedule. The Grapes of Wrath has been read by most people who went to high school before 1990. Cannery Row comes in a distant third.

(If you liked Cannery Row, run, do not walk, to read the delightful sequel, Sweet Thursday. Don't bother with the Nick Nolte movie. It will only make you sad.)

People seem easy with Hemingway or Lawrence or Dickens or even Twain. But when Steinbeck is mentioned people look away or mumble something to show they heard but to make sure they're not understood.

And yes, I'm trying to write like Steinbeck.

Hemingway, Faulkner and the other American writers of the first half of the 20th century were kept alive in part because they were taught in high school. I don't think that's going on so much now. Shakespeare is being taught, of course. My son has not and apparently will not be taught these authors. Leave that for college, perhaps. Contemporary writers are being used in their place. I think this is a loss.

Back in the late sixties and seventies I went on a Steinbeck jag. For me this is not unusual. I get fired up by a writer and want to read everything they've ever written. (There's a post coming on the use, care and feeding of obsessions. But that day is not this day.) I read East of Eden (1952) during this period and was blown away by it. I heard music described to me once as equal parts surprise and inevitability. East of Eden shows the same can be true for a good novel.

Steinbeck used the Cain and Abel story as a model for the novel. He does this from the very first and has his characters follow the rough pattern throughout their lives. Given that the story is ubiquitous you'd think that the novel would be boring. After all, you know the end. Cain will slay Abel in some way. There is going to be a fight over the father.

Somehow this doesn't seem to matter when you're reading it. It is like the novel fulfills the original story. Rounds it out. Gives it depth and meaning.

Okay, okay. A synopsis.

Adam and Charles Trask are born half-brothers to the same father. They work out their conflict through the first half of the novel and I won't talk about that too much. If you want the full synopsis go to the wikipedia entry I listed earlier. While the goal is never in doubt the road there is twisty and I don't want to spoil it.

Regardless, it climaxes with the introduction of Cathy, a psychopath of the first order. She is found broken and bleeding on their front door. Adam doesn't see her pathology in her but to Charles it is perfectly clear. Adam falls in love with her and takes her to California to start a new life with him. She'd leave him in a moment but she's pregnant and still recovering and can't get clear just yet. After the birth and after she's strong enough, she leaves Adam with two twin boys and disappears. The boys are ultimately named Aron and Caleb. And then they play out the Cain and Abel story.

But there's a lot more to this book. Steinbeck was born in the Salinas area, descended from the Hamilton family through his mother. The story involves the Trasks and Hamiltons together-- so much so I'm not terribly sure where truth ends and fiction starts. Olive Hamilton is a character in the book. Olive Hamilton Steinbeck was John Steinbeck's mother.

East of Eden has every Steinbeck virtue and every Steinbeck flaw. The narrative is crisp and evokes the very soil and grass of all of the locations, from the Indian Wars to the Connecticut hills and finally the Salinas Valley. You can feel the clods underfoot and feel the sun on your face. The characters are lively and quick. Steinbeck had the gift of non-judgmental writing. He can write of prostitutes, criminals, violence, indolence, evil and good without making the reader terribly clear if the author thinks any of this is actually bad or good. I like that about him. He lays things out. If the reader comes to the conclusion that, say, prostitution is evil (or good) thing it's an uncomfortable discovery as there's not much in the novel to support it. Steinbeck serenely slips past judgment in the spinning of the story.

On the other hand there are times the characters think out loud to one another and at such points they all sound alike and they all sound like the same sort of discussion that happens in the narrative. This can be tedious. I like that characters work out ethical and moral dilemmas in conversation. But they don't all have to work it out in exactly the same way.

One of the things that you can love or hate about Steinbeck is that he truly loves his characters. Steinbeck is the God we wish we had. He likes us with all our foibles. We make him laugh when we dance and sing. And when he drops tribulation down on us like the Looney Tunes Ton'O'Bricks, he at least feels apologetic about it.

This sort of character affection shows up a lot in the American writing of the thirties and forties. You find it in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943.) The Human Comedy by William Saroyan (also 1943.) The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck (1932.) Our Town, Thornton Wilder (1938.) Their Eyes were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston (1937.) And, of course, anything written by John Steinbeck.

I found myself a little depressed reading the book at this stage of my life. I would have liked to have read it for the first time now instead of re-reading for the nth time. I know the story so well my mind tends to run over the good parts quickly and snag on the flaws. It's still a wonderful book but, I think, a little less wonderful now than when I first read it forty years ago.

Even so, it's still a very, very good book and a repository of craft worthy of discovery.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Dinosaurs: Stranger Than You Think

(Picture from here.)

I was going to put up a post on the biological necessity of government and how it was a compromise between the twin human drives of competition and cooperation. How boring is that? Instead, something better came across my desk. What could be more exciting than dinosaurs?

A few necessary ideas that lay the groundwork.

First: all existing vertebrate classes are supposed to follow a size rule: a lot of little guys, less middle guys and not very many big ones. This is true for birds, amphibians, reptiles, etc.

Second: In terms of biomass, mammals rule the roost regarding large animals. "Large" being defined as greater than a few hundred grams. There are a few big bugs but starting about the size of a shrew and going on to whales mammals are the dominant terrestrial animals. Not to say that birds, amphibians and reptiles aren't important. But we live in something called the Age of Mammals for a reason. In the water it's a different story.

Third: There's a tendency for animals to reside in a given trophic class and ecological niche. Like the pirate code, it's more of a suggestion, really, and it's far more true for terrestrial life than aquatic life. But rats tend to compete against things that are rat like. Cod compete with things that are cod like. It's not often that rats compete with cod.

Fourth: For mammals (remember we're in the Age of Mammals) and birds competition is usually between adults. Both rear their young and toss them out of the nest when they are approaching adulthood. Competition is between adults or adult equivalent, not between young. This isn't as hard and fast outside of mammals and birds. The young of cod and frogs occupy a different ecological niche than adult cod and frogs. Competition is between different species.

As you might have guessed, new data suggests that for dinosaurs It Ain't Necessarily So.

David Hone and associates at Queen Mary University have just published a paper that details aggregate sizes of adult vertebrates. (Here is the paper. Here and here are good discussions of it.) It turns out that the size distribution I described above does not hold with dinosaurs. All other classes of vertebrates skew towards few large species and many small species. Dinosaurs skew in the opposite direction: many large species, few small ones.

The article is very good and readable and I suggest you go read it in its entirety. It's not a simple statistical correlation. Theropods have a somewhat different skew than the other two groups of dinosaurs. Reptiles have a bump in the middle occupied by the crocodilians. The figure at the left is from the article. It's pretty unmistakable. Upper left is the Dinosauria. Look at all of the others. All skewed to the left except dinosaurs which are skewed to the right.

There are a lot of implications here and possible explanations of odd bits of dinosaur data. Let's explore some of these and then see how this new data fits.

One issue is how many dinosaurs there actually were. Peter Dodson and Steve Wang have a nice paper about this problem. There are, of course, all sorts of problems with any sort of diversity estimation such as bias in the fossil record, estimating the diversity at any one time versus the whole 150 million years, etc. The maximum number of genera looks to range from less than fifty to close to 250 over the duration of the dinosaurs. (From figure 2 in the article.)  Compare that to the 1,229 genera of modern mammals. In addition, it's estimated that the number of species/genus in dinosaurs is about 1.2 with the vast majority of genera represented by a single species. Modern mammals have about 4 species/genus. It's clear that dinosaurs were less diverse than mammals.

Another problem is predator/prey ratios. This has been discussed in the context of whether or not dinosaurs are warm blooded or not for a long time. (See here.) Cold blooded predators have a predator/prey ratio of about 1:4. Because they're not keeping a warm body temperature they don't need to eat so much and so there can be more of them. Think crocodiles. Mammals historically have a p/p ratio of about 1:30 and modern mammals a ratio of 1/100 or even less. Dinosaurs have a ratio of 1/14. Better than crocodiles but not as good as mammals.

And, finally, there's the problem of why dinosaurs died out at the end of the Cretaceous and mammals lived.

Let's describe the scene Hone's paper suggests.

We know that a lot of large dinosaurs started out small and got bigger. The Titanosaurs might have been the largest animal to ever walk the earth but they started out about the size of a basketball or smaller. They grew fast but this was years fast, not weeks fast. So for a long time they were bumbling around in the brush just growing.

This means that they were in a different trophic level and niche than the adults. Mammals have a lot of rat equivalents eaten by cat equivalents, deer equivalents eaten by leopard equivalents. Rats are only competing with other rat equivalents. They never compete with deer. Our mammalian strategy precludes this. We're defined by the fact we nurture our young until they're ready to go out on their own. At which point the compete effectively as adults. Deer against antelope against zebra. Not zebra competing against muskrats.

This means in the case of dinosaurs that the niches we ordinarily think of as being occupied by other species can be, in fact, occupied by the juvenile of species.

We see this in any species where the young and adults are extremely different in size. The aforementioned cod, for instance. It's not surprising that larval forms can compete against other larval forms before they compete with different adult species. But on land the situation is quite different-- mostly. We do see it in crocodiles where the adult form is many many times larger than the young. Young crocodiles compete with each other and not with adults. There is some rearing in crocodiles. They protect an egg nest. A female will come in blazing if it hears a baby crocodile of distress. But it's marginal and only protects the very small. It doesn't take long for baby crocs to get big enough to compete with the adults and at that point we have a different picture. And this is not the Age of Crocodiles.

This might be a reason that the species diversity of the dinosaurs were so low compared to mammals. The ecological niches we now see occupied by many different species were occupied by the young of just a few species.

More evidence for this came from another paper that came out a year ago by Werner and Griebeler discusses how the reproductive biology of dinosaurs might drive them towards larger size. Dinosaurs had much larger litter sizes than comparable sized mammals. They show a mathematical model how this might drive the species to a larger size.

Predator/prey ratios might also come into account since they are typically calculated in terms of species-- a bias we have from our mammalian studies. It looks like dinosaurs followed a different tack. Dinosaur predators might have had a much larger prey diet of immature dinosaurs-- both their own and other species.

Finally, though their large size made them able to muddle through several previous extinctions (referring to the Werner paper mentioned above), their limited diversity made them vulnerable as a class to a very large extinction event like a meteor strike. Mammals had a lot of different species to choose from so species that were more suited to the new post-meteor world had a better shot. In addition, rearing to an adult organism meant that the young were protected by their parents beyond the point where dinosaur parents would have left them to forage. It meant not only the dinosaurs as organisms were vulnerable, the whole dinosaur ecology was vulnerable.

I love papers like this for a few reasons. For one, the way it turns our thinking on its head. We are mammals. We tend to think that the world before us was mammalian. It was not. Dinosaurs were not mammals. They didn't think like mammals. They didn't have an ecology like mammals. They didn't rear like mammals. For another it shows how science self corrects. We had an idea about dinosaurs. This paper confronts that idea. Now scientists will discuss it, poke holes in it and eventually it will be fit into the crazy quilt that is our understanding of the world.

And, finally, it shows how the world is so much more interesting and incredible than anything we could make up.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Hacking Music: Minutiae

(Picture from here.)

A couple of people have asked why I'm so excited by what is happening in Japanese music. After all, I'm talking about changes in rhythm, use of technique-- small changes not big ones. After all, if one song is combining 3/4 and 4/4 time what difference does it make? It's a slight change in rhythm.

Good question.

We Americans like to think of revolutions as big, noisy things full of vim and vigor, sound and fury. Maybe that's an American thing since our own private little revolution took place in a war.

But the causes of revolutions are often small, unsung and unnoticed things. The PC revolution didn't start with the Apple or the IBM PC. The Altair 8800 was released in 1975. We think of the PC as the beginning of the end for large monolithic computers-- at least Apple's famous superbowl ad would have us think so. But the end of the big machines was written in the sand by the minicomputers developed in the sixties. More probably the revolution really started in 1959 with the development of the integrated circuit. That technology enabled everything else. The ubiquity of the computer could not have been predicted by the first IC-- though there was some rumblings in the SF community. But who listens to those kooks?

Similarly, while we can look back and see the roots of Baroque music in the tail end of the Renaissance the people at the time had no idea Baroque music was coming. While we can see elements of Bach in Mozart and Mozart in Beethoven, Bach could not have predicted Mozart nor Mozart, Beethoven.

It is very clear we're on the brink of interesting musical times-- have been for some time. The technology has completely exploded. Creation of music is at hand for both the amateur and professional musician-- blurring the boundary. Distribution of music is as easy as making a youtube video.

So I look for tiny clues. More polyphony. Crowdsourcing creativity. Unusual blending of rhythms. Use of enabling technology.

I'm looking for the wave front.

I might be disappointed. I don't mind. I've been there before. I can take it.

But it's always a heck of a ride.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Sort of an interview

Stephen Mazur, assistant editor of F&SF, asked me if I would consent to an "interview." This consists of some questions he sent me regarding Breathe, a story recently published there. I answered them and sent them back and he posted it.

Here's the link.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Consideration of Works Past: Shoot at the Moon

I discovered Shoot at the Moon in the late sixties. At the time I liked it all right. It had some fairly blatent female aggressive sex in it and being a young lad I think that was much of its attraction.

SATM was written by William F. Temple, a lesser British SF luminary, largely forgotten.

A quick plot: Franz Brunel is a small man with a small man's resentment of a larger world. He's a space pilot which he loves. But the invention of new atomic rockets threatens to make his expertise obsolete. He is drafted into an expedition to the moon run by an eccentric politician. The expedition will be automatic except for the take off from earth and the landing on the moon-- hence the need for Brunel.

The crew is an amazingly dysfunctional band of misfits:

  • Franz: no winner himself.
  • Marley: the eccentric overbearing minister. 
  • Thompson: a passenger that appears to have no purpose whatsoever except to snipe at people
  • Pettigue: a geologist who has been on several expeditions and has the nasty trick of being the ony survivor
  • Lou: a brilliant biochemist that suffers from multiple personality disorder. Also, daughter of Marley
The book suffers from a terrible lack of focus. Is it an adventure? Is it a murder mystery? Is it a story of automation versus the worker? Redemption of a dream of adventure? Rite of passage for a man to overcome his cowardice? It tries to be all of these things and, of course, fails in them.

Brunel meets Lou as part of the process of setting up the expedition. She's slovenly, spoiled and unpleasant. When he sees her five months later she's shed the weight, worked her flab into muscle and brought her brain back on line, all because she's fallen in love with Brunel. A good chunk of the novel is the love dance between Brunel and Lou. That's the best part.

They get to the moon and discover gold-- turns out this is an obsession of Marley's. But that's not too terrible. Then people start dying and it turns into a murder mystery. The resolution of that is actually fairly good except for all the other issues that seem to have to come along with it.

There's a certain Ship of Fools aspect to the novel that I like. What can I say? I enjoy dysfunctional relationships. But the book stretches incredulity in just too many ways. One example is Thompson who, literally, has no technical role on the ship. Marley is there because it is his expedition. Pettigue is a geologist. Lou is a biochemist and Brunel is the pilot. Thompson is just there to be Lou's ex-husband and give data on her. As soon as that is accomplished, he's fodder.

SATM has a distinct resemblance to Algys Budrys' Rogue Moon. RM has a collection of misfits pursuing a strange and perhaps unobtainable goal. SATM has a collection of misfits pursuing a strange and perhaps unobtainable goal. The difference is, of course, Rogue Moon is a work of brilliance and SATM, sadly, is not. In RM the misfits, quirks and idiosyncrasies is the way Budrys is critiquing the society of 1960. SATM does no such critique. 

I don't know if Temple read RM but I suspect he did. It's a little unfortunate that SATM was published in 1967. If he had managed to publish this in 1959 and there were no connection to RM it would have been seen as a bit more original.

But not a lot.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Things of Interest

Couple of very interesting articles came across my desk today. Here they are:

How an All Star Team capped the BP Oil Well
Crystals Made of Time

The Armageddon Letters

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis: the closest the world ever came to full nuclear war.

Armageddon Letters is a site describing it with letters and videos.

Be Castro is a video based on those letters and videos.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Google takes one more step toward evil

I received an email from Google today:

"Starting today, we're no longer accepting new sign-ups for the free version of Google Apps (the version you're currently using). Because you're already a customer, this change has no impact on your service, and you can continue to use Google Apps for free."
Note that Gmail is a Google app as listed on the business site.

But I'm grandfathered in because I'm an existing user. That's supposed to make me feel comfy and warm, I suppose.

Of course I can upgrade to business apps any time for $60/year. ($5/month! It's a bargain!)

What can I surmise from this? One or more of the following:

  1. The Google model of doing things for free and basing them on advertising revenue is failing.
  2. The acquisitions Google has made haven't been paying off.
  3. Someone has to pay for the billion dollars Google has invested in clean energy.
  4. Google+ is not working.
If I had to bet it would be on number 1. I have to admit I don't even see the Google ads on sites unless they actually obscure what I'm looking at. Which, of course, makes we wonder on the actual value of ads at all. I don't see them on sites. I fast forward them on TV. I skip them as soon as possible on Youtube. 

I use Google sites, Google blogger and GMail. If I were pressed against the wall I might consider paying the $60/year for it but it would be with great reluctance and considerable searching to make sure it's the right fit. 

As it is I just use Google because it's free. Not because it's good.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Hacking Music Part 2

(Picture from here.)

In Part 1 I talked about hacking music back in the Baroque Period and did a quick leap forward into the sixties.

I'm very interested in new musical idioms and forms. It has to be clear that I tend to view music in the narrow lens of my own musical upbringing. This makes me a bit blind to some distinctions that others might find earth shakingly important and excited by what some might thing trivial changes.

I had great hopes in the 80s when rap started showing up. I even made a passing reference to it in a story of mine called Boulder Country. I view punk, rap, hip-hop, dub, etc., as musical venues that sacrifice complexity to pursue a specific goal. Sort of like how Mondrian was interested in the play of light and shadow and went from painting trees to painting horizontal and vertical lines. It's a perfectly acceptable artistic approach. Still, if you sacrifice everything for rhythm and lyrics then you need to make double damned sure that rhythm and those lyrics are terrific. By now I was expecting the Iliad or the Odyssey or Ulysses. It's never wrong to hope, I suppose.


Instead I'm going to talk about Hatsune Miku, J-Pop and musical changes I think are interesting. I'm not going to be talking about the lyrics-- it's the music that interests me. Besides, I think the lyrics... suffer in translation.

I've spoken about Hatsune Miku before. (See here.) I like the sound envelope of her voice but it can be considered an acquired taste.

I've been following her, or at least, the music that she sings, for about two years now. Seeing the Miku concerts are interesting but I've decided the real interesting thing about her is that she is enabling technology. Miku is a singing machine-- the same sort of machine as the Synesthesia piano synthesizer. Or any other means by which those of us with Stupid Fingers and the itch to play or compose music can circumvent our handicap. She is enabling technology. She is an organizing principle around which music can be made to crystallize.

One of the implications of this is when you hear Hatsune sing you're hearing the sum of every choice a composer made. Every jot and tittle, warble, breath, speed of attack and fade was the artistic decision of a human being. The same is true for any Synthesia piano value. In fact, some vocaloid songs are essentially untouched by any human performs. Here is Happy Synthesizer as a somewhat repetitive example.

When I first heard the concert footage of the Hatsune ensemble I was more impressed by the performers than the animation. I mean the animation was fun (see here.) but that band was tight. They have to be tight. They're essentially playing against a recording. If they miss a beat or a note it doesn't matter. Hatsune's not going to be able to cover them. She's going to be singing her note right on time. (See here.)

This has a knock on effect of forcing the supporting musicians to plan their music just as precisely as what the vocaloid is doing. This gives a precision to the performance. There is no winging it or jams in a Hatsune song. For better or worse, this is how it is.

Hatsune is, therefore, a tool. Most of its use has been in the cultural and musical context of J-Pop, Japanese pop music with which I'm only passingly familiar. Most of the music I've been hearing originated in Nico Nico Douga-- the Japanese equivalent of Youtube. But I can't read Japanese. What I do is have a little agent troll Youtube for vocaloid music-- most of which are posted from Nico Nico Douga. I go over that and decide what is interesting. From this I get music that was written for a vocaloid, popular J-Pop (usually) songs covered by amateurs using a vocaloid and vocaloid songs covered by actual performing human beings. So when I use the word "Hatsune" in a musical context I'm really talking about a whole swath of music much of which may or may not directly involve the Hatsune Miku vocaloid. I'm trying to get at something bigger.

From this I'm going to comment on a musical movement. Right. That's like saying listening to a couple of albums by the Stones and Beatles enables me to speak authoritatively about sixties rock music.

But knowledge has never stopped my opinions before so let's continue.

There's a polyphonic aspect to this music that reminds me of Baroque music. I mean we're not talking Bach here but there's something going on.

Polyphony has been around since the Renaissance and it's been a component of pop and rock music for a long time. That's one of the things that eventually attracted me. Anytime you hear a counter tune in the back, that's polyphony: harmonic but independent melody lines.  One of the features of the Baroque period is the transformation of polyphonic music to contrapuntal music, a distinction I can hear but am unable to describe.

We have polyphonic pop music but it sounds, to me, like it's largely in harness to the melody line. That makes it weaker. The polyphonic aspect I've been hearing in the Hatsune music is stronger, more independent. For example, here is Owl City's Good Time, as standard a pop song as there ever was. There's polyphony here but it's completely subservient into harmony and there are only two voices. Here's what I think is a comparable pop song, Futarboshi.

I'm not saying that one pop song is better than the other. I have my own opinion on that but it's irrelevant. I'm saying in Good Time the polyphony is subservient to the emotion and kinetics of the singer. In Futarboshi the vocal line and other lines are more independent. The voice is just one more instrument of the ensemble. Owl City is centering the attention on the vocals. Futarboshi is more of an ensemble piece. Not that American pop music isn't capable of sophistication. Here's Owl City's Fireflies, a much more interesting song.

I chose two light pop songs just to show the difference in approach. But there are things going on more deeply.

The first song I heard that really got me excited was Ai kotoba. Go here and listen. Here is a slower piano version. Listen to the intro baseline and later in the chorus. Sound familiar? Now listen to Pachebel's Canon here. This is the same chord pattern. That's what started me digging.

Ai kotoba was written by DECO*27 about which I could find absolutely nothing. (His version is here.) This wasn't the first time I ran into a blank wall regarding these composers. Are they creating an identity and hiding their biography? Is it a language wall so that I'm asking the wrong questions? I don't know. I am convinced that the connection between Ai kotoba and classical forms is no accident. Over the last couple of years I've been pursuing this material I keep finding very accomplished musicians. Musicians that appear classically trained. I don't know if more Japanese study music than contemporary Americans but I am finding a lot of sophisticated musicians there.

Americans used to do the same. Back in the fifties and sixties many children had piano lessons. It wasn't all that unusual. We've lost that.

Time Machine (Listen here.) starts in E-flat major and then appears to change to the key of B-major in the middle. Turns out, B-major is the parallel key to E-flat minor. A parallel key is when two keys have the same notes but different starting point. If you play out B-major starting out on B it sounds like a major key. If you play the same notes but start on E-flat it sounds like a minor key. Minor keys tend to sound mournful and sad. Major keys tend to sound more upbeat. But not always. What's interesting in Time Machine is the drop from major to minor and playing the minor as if it were major.

Time Machine was written by 40mp. He married Chano, a singer. That's about all I was able to find out.

There's another Miku piece called Stellar (Listen here.) Starting around 17 seconds there's a strange staggered heartbeat rhythm.

Dub. -space- Dub. -space- -space- Dub. -space- Dub. Dub.

Hear it? Notice that it doesn't quite fall on the beat? The rest of it is just a sweet little pop song. With an odd sort of static in the background that turns out to be a complex rhythm that barely registers to the level of consciousness. It's like a pop-jazz. Add in to that the fact that by the nature of using a vocaloid everything must be planned. That means in a competent song (such as this one) that "misstep" was planned. The off beat is intentional. And I couldn't find out who wrote this little piece.

This gets even more interesting in a vocaloid song called Leucocoryne. (Listen here.) I was driving home listening to this trying to figure out the rhythm. There's an obvious surface rhythm: 3/4 time. Waltz time. Oom pah pah. Okay, fine. But that didn't explain a sort of odd under rhythm, a single beat followed by a space followed by a triplet:
Dub -space- fiddlebit
"Fiddlebit" is my shorthand for the triplet. This does not fit with the 3/4 time. But this song is making it work. Leucocoryne appears to be written by someone named Ryuryu. Another individual about whom I can find little.

Then I ran into the song 1/6 or "Out of Gravity". (Listen here.) Here is a bit of the beginning:

Note the three note repeating pattern. This is called an arpeggio. It's a chord that is played sequentially rather than all at once. This chord is a triad-- three notes. However, this is a four beat song. So the arpeggio is stamping out a three beat at the same time the song is using a four beat. That's what gives the odd hopping rhythm to the song.

Now this is sophisticated. I saw some of this in Bela Bartok's Mikrocosmos but not many other places. Curiously, I found a similar bit in Alonso Mudarra's Fantasia X. (Listen here, towards the end.)

1/6 is quite a fun little pop song written by someone named "Bookariodo P (noa)" of "Vocaloid-P" depending on where you look. He writes these songs. That's about it.

So what am I seeing?

If this is hacking music, none of it at the level of the Baroque period. Not even close. At best, these are hints and foretellings. Scents in the wind. Distant murmurings. Am I just noticing a blend of cultural material that only seems new to me because I haven't witnessed it before? Am I just seeing a phase delay of old material suddenly exposed because of inter country barriers? These are five minute songs, not symphonies.

With the possible exception of Isao Tomito's usage of Miku in a recent concert (See here.) I have seen no larger work. Tommy came out in 1969. Could anyone have expected it from The Who when the formed in 1964? The Hatsune Miku software was released five years ago and J-Pop has been around longer than that and I'm not seeing any works more ambitions than the five minute song. Am I projecting? Maybe I'm so desperate for complexity and novelty I'm making this stuff up. After all, how many times can I listen to Beethoven's Ninth? Bach's Art of the Fugue?

On yet another hand, maybe I'm blind to an important cultural context. In Japan there are few barriers between different sorts of artistic expression. Fine Rock is attached to Anime, television shows and video games. There appears to be no sense these might be lesser venues. Music that is written for a video game is just as good as that written for any other public consumption. Good stories and art are not precluded from being represented in comics. (Manga.) Some of the songs I've been seeing had their first life in video games or cartoon shows. Some of the songs have science fiction themes-- no one would take an SF song seriously in the USA. That would make many paying venues for competent musicians.

Or maybe I'm getting excited about the Japanese equivalent of Gilligan's Island.

The electric guitar was invented in 1931. Yet we didn't see serious work using it until the 1950s. Longer work written especially for the electric guitar it had to wait for the late 60s and 70s. By that measure, Tommy was written nearly forty years after the invention of the instrument that made it possible. Perhaps we're just in the equivalent of the 50s regarding vocaloid technology-- or for that matter synthetic music software of any stripe. It's early days. Should I be more patient?

I have no idea.

But I'm excited about what I'm hearing the same way I was excited back in the seventies when I pulled out Tales of Topographic Oceans and put it on the stereo and heard in it echoes of Mahler.

Additional fun bits people might like:
  • Error: Interesting song where the melody is played and repeated against a shifting scale.
  • Spinal Fluid Explosion Girl: One fast song that goes in odd directions. It's Jazz! It's Rock! It's hip hop! It's avant garde! Who knows?
  • Misemono: Rhythm doesn't quite match the song. Yet it works.
  • Counter Clockwise: Another Ryuryu song. This is just pretty. Reminds me a little of Emerson Lake and Palmer's Father Christmas.
  • Sekiranun Graffiti: Fun dance tune that for some reason reminds me of Radar Love.
  • Odds and Ends: I counted five different themes last time I heard it. There may be six.
  • Girls Dead Monster: Go to Youtube and put in Girls Dead Monster. It's a fictional band from a cartoon show. But the band then was actually organized and went on tour. It kicks ass.
  • Supercell: a band and composer (Ryo) who made Hatsune Miku central to their work. Odds and Ends is a Supercell song. Curiously, their most recent album Today is a Beautiful Day uses a human singer. Go to Youtube and listen.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

One reason life is carbon based

S. E. Gould has one explanation. Carbon can make double bonds easily when other atoms find it difficult. See here.

Friday, December 7, 2012

All we are is dust in the wind

This is a picture derived from the climate supercomputer at Goddard. (See here.) The light blue is sea salt captured by hurricanes. The white is sulfur dioxide from volcanoes and other sources. The red is dust. The green is smoke.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Life Hacks

Lost the cork screw? Don't panic. Here's how to manage. Plus other hacks.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Hacking Music Part 1

(Picture from here.)

My Dad had a theory. He thought that if you raised a child listening to classical music the child would grow up to be musical. So he played a lot of music when I was growing up. When I was old enough he gave this tiny record player and a stack of 78 rpm records of classical music. I don't remember any of this but when I was in high school I found the stack of records. They were worn completely smooth.

When I was four he started me on piano lessons and I've been playing some sort of music ever since. Guitar. Banjo. Piano. Mandolin. Lute. However, like Fry in Futurama, I'm cursed with Stupid Fingers. I'm lucky to master a belt buckle. Think of me as a determined, gifted amateur-- minus the gifted part.

I got deeply into Baroque music.

What's exciting about Baroque music is that they were creating modern forms. Concerto? First created as the concertato and honed to perfection before Mozart ever came on the scene. Symphony? Derived from the sinfonia that originated in the late Renaissance (almost the Baroque) which transformed into the sonata from which the near-symphony later concertos sprang. (Think the Brandenburg Concertos by Johann Bach.)

My point is these guys were creating the very structure of modern compositions. They were creating form. They were hacking music. Bach even wrote Canon 1 and 2 in his Musical Offering that could be played forward, backwards or played forwards and backwards at the same time. (Listen here.) Tell me these guys couldn't have worked for Anonymous.

I found this tremendously exciting.

There's a deep divide between "serious" music and "popular" music. It's a curious thing. It wasn't there at the end or the Renaissance-- common people listened to the same music as the aristocracy. Now it's likely true that the aristocracy had more influence on the music than the common people. Musicians and composers are like bank robbers. They go where the money is. Much of Bach's work is expressed in churches-- a mixed venue. Mozart managed both extremes. The Magic Flute was in a popular theater but Don Giovanni was in a more serious local. There is a lovely story about Mahler's Ninth Symphony. The Ninth begins very softly but has an abrupt loud point later. (Listen here.) Apparently a woman was sitting in the audience with her groceries on her lap and was so startled she spilled her groceries over the aisle. The story may be apocryphal but the idea that a woman is in the audience with her groceries suggests that the divide between elite and common was still narrow even then.

Modern classical music took a sharp turn at the beginning of the twentieth century. It veered into a sort of abstract cacophony in an attempt to delve into the heart of what made music music. This was going on elsewhere as well with such examples as Mondrian's abstract work and poets such as T. S. Eliot. While these works were fascinating in the environment of artist commenting on art they required a level of understanding that was difficult for non-artists. One can appreciate an aria in both Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute without a problem. But a poem requiring the audience to have a working knowledge of Greek has a more narrow appeal.

Ragtime, Tin Pan Alley and Jazz were right there to step into the niche and modern popular music was born.

But a curious thing happened after World War II. Popular music got simpler. Less varied. Musically unsophisticated. Ragtime was never simple. Jazz was complex-- Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue is worthy of Claude Debussy. Someone to Watch Over Me plays some very interesting dissonant games. One arrangement I have plays a chord for which I have no name. (See left.) Nothing trivial about that.

Yet a lot of music the fifties and sixties was incredibly simple. Repetitive. And it sold very well. Now, it did seem to have a lot of emotion in it. Trivial emotion but strong and lots of it. (Think Ain't Nothing But A Hound Dog.) Jazz fell from grace. Ragtime was forgotten. The most complex popular music around was in show tunes. (Think Rogers and Hammerstein's Cinderella.) Rock and Roll was powerful but simple.

When the sixties came along. I was steeped in Baroque music, Beethoven symphonies and show tunes. Popular music didn't interest me even though there were some interesting ground swells. Then, again, I never heard them. I was living in the south and the edgiest music available was Tom Jones and Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head. I did manage to listen to the wispy sounds of WLS Chicago on those rare ionospheric nights it could reach us. Little hints of something going on out there.

When I did get into popular music it was the attraction to those bands that were themselves hacking music: The Who's Tommy. Deep Purple's Concerto for Group and Orchestra. The continuing Yes attempt to rebuild rock idioms using classical forms: Close to the Edge as concerto. Tales of Topographic Oceans as symphony. Many of these attempts were failures-- but then I suspect there were a number of Baroque failures. We don't know them because only the good get recorded. But they were still hacking music.

At some point in the seventies that seemed to degrade into disco on the one hand and punk on the other. So I lost interest.

At this point in the conversation my son Ben would say, "Dad: you're talking about music. When are you going to bring up Hatsune Miku?"

That would be Part 2.

Interesting Bits to Listen To:
Tales of Topographic Oceans
The Magic Flute
Mahler's Ninth Symphony
Rhapsody in Blue
Don Giovanni
The Who: Tommy
Deep Purple: Concerto for Group and Orchestra