Thursday, January 31, 2013

Consideration of Works Past: Yes

(Picture is from Roger Dean's fine website and is tiny and only for fair use. I hope he doesn't mind. If you want to see Roger Dean's work, go here.)

Back in the seventies I was obsessed by this band.

I don't mean in an unhealthy way like I was stalking Jon Anderson or laying in wait for Chris Squire or hiding in Steve Howe's bathroom. I mean I was obsessed with their music.

Let me set the stage.

We moved from California to Alabama in 1964. The closest approaches of the sixties to my life was the faint wisps of WLS Chicago coming through after midnight or abortive material on the Ed Sullivan Show. The radio's big claim to fame was Tom Jones.

I learned how to play orchestral bass. When one of my friends needed a bass player for a garage band I volunteered, without knowing anything about what I was getting into. I got an electric bass and he loaned me some records: Spirit. Jefferson Airplane. Guess Who. The Who. Things like that.

I'd been playing piano since I was four. Not well, mind you. But continuously. And I was deep into Baroque music and Broadway show tunes. Playing in the band was an enormous amount of fun. But at the time for me it was only fun in the band. Outside of the band I'd listen to some of the music but mostly I went back to Bach, Scarlatti and West Side Story.

The band didn't last long. I heard the music when I went visited friends but didn't much listen to it otherwise. In 1969 we moved to Seattle. There I was introduced to more material by another friend of mine who was in a band. But I was still more into Bach than Beatles. Though I began to listen to a lot of Franz Liszt. This turned out to have a bearing on things.

I started at the University of Missouri in 1970. A lot of things happened in the first year involving sex and... well, other things being done in the American colleges in 1970. I'd started playing classical guitar-- couldn't take my piano to college and the pianos in the dorm were pretty poor.

In 1971 the Yes album Fragile hit. I went nuts.

I even liked Anderson's consumptive, yet compelling, vocals. His lyrics weren't Blake or anything but who listens to rock music for the lyrics?

First off, the naked precision of the album just floored me. At this point in the Yes history Rick Wakeman (keyboard) and Steve Howe (lead guitar) had joined the band line up. Wakeman had studied music at the Royal College of Music. Howe had pursued classical guitar for some time though I can't find any indication he had any formal training. This had a strong influence on the band. Fragile is, essentially, a series of tone poems that I thought were inspired by the Liszt tone poems. (I have no idea if this is actually true though there's a good analysis of Yes music here and there's mention of Liszt in the footnotes.)

The second thing about Fragile was that this was music that was intended to be listened to. Not danced to. Not driven to. Not as a back up to a show. In the fine tradition of classical concert music, you had to pay attention. It had something to say musically. You don't have to know German to pick up on the exultation on the Ode to Joy section of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. It's celebration is obvious. But Beethoven understood the underpinnings of what he was doing. He knew he was communicating something profound to his audience. Music of this sort requires the mind to engage not just the glands. I'm not saying anything against raw sensual music. There's not a thing wrong with Chuck Berry's Johnny B. Goode. But this was a different sort of music requiring a different sort of understanding.

I've been reading Nate Silver's book The Signal and the Noise (highly recommended!) He makes an interesting distinction between accuracy and precision. To use a shooting analogy, accuracy is hitting where you aim and precision is grouping the shots together. To stretch this idea to music, accuracy is how close you get to the artistic target of the work and precision is the craftsmanship of the work. Up to Fragile, Yes had been accurate but not precise. By bringing Howe and Wakeman to the band to shore up Anderson and Squire's artistic vision they achieved both accuracy and precision for what I think is the first time.

I followed Yes religiously for years. Close to the Edge looked like a concerto crossed with a suite to me. I anticipated them attempting a symphony-- which I'm convinced is the intention behind Tales of Topographic Oceans and a portion of Relayer. The biggest shortcoming of the music was that it was limited by only having five performers. There's power in an orchestra. I tried my hand at transcribing TOTO for orchestra but gave up. I didn't have the skill or talent. But it turns out that has been done now in the Symphonic Albums-- though I would have done it differently.

Finding Yes opened up other similarly interesting attempts at something similar. For example Deep Purple's Concerto for Group and Orchestra. The Who's Tommy-- I know it came out before but it was Yes that made me revisit it. Most of these attempt fell short of their goal either in accuracy or precision. But I found I loved the attempt even if they didn't quite succeed. It was an introduction to me regarding how much more one could learn from a failure than a success.

Something about the Tormato album bothered me. I think I had become too enamored in the classical influence on their music and when they branched out I just wasn't able to follow. This was  1978. I went to Clarion SF Workshop, got my Master's.  I entered the workforce. Disco seemed to dominate the music scene: a place I would not go willingly. Disco was followed by Reagan and Punk Rock. I crawled into my musical bunker of Bach, Beethoven and Liszt and left the pop music world behind.

Fast forward thirty years.

I've spoken here about my obsession with Hatsune Miku and J-Pop music: Hatsune Miku and the Magic Turing Test, Hacking Music 1 and Hacking Music 2. Given how this more modern music seems to connect back to Yes and other progressive rock bands of the seventies, it shouldn't come as a surprise that I'd revisit Yes.

I feel like Gandalf talking to Bilbo: You haven't aged a day.

The material before Fragile is dated somewhat. I mean it's not like the Moody Blues which, in my opinion, have become unlistenable. But the early techniques and approaches are crude. Squire and Anderson were working beyond their abilities. They needed Howe and Wakeman to give them the tools they needed.

Tormato and Going for the One now sound better than they did when I listened to them years ago. Drama has similarly improved but I still think it's strained. It sounds as if they were running out of steam. The recordings haven't changed so it must be me. Possibly I'm less rigid than I was back then. Less ideological in my apprehension of music. Less obsessed-- or obsessed with other things. I'll talk about obsessions another time.

Since I quit listening after Drama the subsequent albums, 90125, Big Generator, Union, Talk, The Ladder, Magnification and Fly From Here are new to me. I can't say I understand them yet. 90125 and Big Generator seem more like progressive pop albums rather than progressive rock albums. They still have much of the same accuracy and precision of the earlier work but the target isn't something I'm all that interested in. I mean it's good pop music. But isn't there enough good pop music in the world?

I'm still working on the remainder.

But this is a consideration of works past and that runs from Yes to Drama.

And I have to say it's better than it ever was.

Additional Links:
A history of progressive rock
A complete review of everything Yes ever did
The Complete Yes Discography

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Tuesday Fun Grab Bag

A bunch of things came across my desk today.

First, Emily Graslie who works at the Philip L. Wright Zoological Museum on the University of Montana campus has started a new blog/vlog called "The Brain Scoop." It is a tremendous amount of fun. The tumblr account is here. The youtube channel is here.

Second, Hank Green has something called SciShow. It is also a vlog/blog about science. Very fun. Very cool. The tumblr account is here. The youtube channel is here.

The Oatmeal has finally made good on its promise to reward the $35K donation to the Tesla Museum last year. It's for a Best Western that is transforming itself into the coolest Dino Hotel in the world. See here.

Finally, the picture above.

I follow a lot of web comics. This means I follow the musings, gruntings, brilliant insights and low in-jokes of a lot of artists. One particularly interesting fellow is Yellow Peril's Jamie Noguchi. Not only is Noguchi a top notch artist and story teller he evangelizes other similarly brilliant artists. One of which is Kelvin Okafor. Jamie talks about him here.

I pulled the above picture from the video Noguchi embedded in his discussion of Okafor's work.

Here's the spit take: that's a drawing. It is not a photograph. It is a graphite pencil drawing. The video shows how Okafor made it.

Go look at the video. Look at Okafor's site.

People are awesome.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Evolution, Competition, Cooperation and Government

(Picture from here.)

One of the persistent memes that came out of the November election is "You didn't build that". I'm not going to go into how the meme is a lie how it is represented. (American Crossroads edited his statement and actually lied in the news. See here and here. But that is neither here nor there.)

Under the meme there is an exposed mind set. Let's call it the Rugged Individual. The RI is the person that goes out there and does things: fights wars, builds companies, flies airplanes, protects the family, etc. These are not inherently bad things-- not even wars. Certainly not companies, airplanes or protections. The image of the RI is that he does things without help. Implicitly, he does things in competition with other (Rugged) individuals. This is related to one of the tenets of evolution: organisms compete with each other (both within and between species) for resources and reproductive opportunities.

If this sounds a little like capitalist rhetoric it's because it is capitalist rhetoric. Adam Smith was well known in Darwin's time and Darwin made good use of him. Matt Ridley has a nice article in The Spectator here. I'm going to quote a chunk of it:
"Locke and Newton begat Hume and Voltaire who begat Hutcheson and Smith who begat Malthus and Ricardo who begat Darwin and Wallace. Before Darwin, the supreme example of an undesigned system was Adam Smith’s economy, spontaneously self-ordered through the actions of individuals, rather than ordained by a monarch or a parliament. Where Darwin defenestrated God, Smith had defenestrated government."
So let us return to the Rugged Individual meme. I'm going to dwell on the fallacies of this meme for a bit because they reflect difficulties in thought about evolution.

The RI competes with the environment and other RI for resources, reproduction and (probably) bragging rights. This is competition part of the evolutionary equation and it applies to hawks and human beings. Natural Selection operates by differential competition. That is, competition where one can "win" against (reproduce more than) the other.

But we have invisibly restricted the terms of debate. We have said the RI competes within the realm of Natural Selection. That is right and true and without argument. But we have not said that Natural Selection must compete by way of individual competition. This is the trap of the "You didn't build that" meme. The implied statement beneath the meme is that denying the purity of individual competition and triumph denies the fact of individual competition and triumph. That by saying that an individual needed help along the way to achieve a goal somehow denies or trivializes the success of the individual that achieved the goal.

There are two other underlying components to the meme: 1) that it is possible for a human being to achieve a goal solely by his own efforts and 2) that the act of helping (which I will tag as "cooperation") is somehow less important or (in some case) detrimental to success.

First, it only marginally possible for a human being to do anything without cooperation from society at large. Even the old Mountain Men had to get their gun barrels from somewhere. And for those hardy individuals who made their own guns they still had to get the barrel blanks.

Let's face it: the idea of the completely independent human being is a complete myth and has no basis whatsoever in fact. Humans from birth must be reared and will die without help. We are not like cod larvae that are born independent from the egg and make their way forward on toughness and numbers.

Second, human cooperation is absolutely the thing we do best. It is the most important thing we do. It's what we evolved to do. And it is what we do better than any other species on the planet.

(I've spoken about cooperation before. See here.)

Consider other forms of cooperation in the animal kingdom such as ants. Ants and bees make a deal. The individual workers decide they will allow reproductive rights to solely be the province of the queen and in return they protect that central source of reproduction. Mole rats do something similar. Bacteria cooperate by creating a protected environment in which they can flourish. All of them do this as a trade off between individual versus colony roles. In the case of ants and bees, the workers are physiologically distinct from the queen and males. The same is true for the mole rats though in this case each individual may well have the unexpressed ability to take on queen or male breeder roles but those roles are suppressed by the queen-- a different mechanism to achieve the same roles.

Now consider human being cooperation. For one thing, a nation of 300 million people regularly delegate power to a smaller group. That group itself is responsible to the people that elected it and must cooperate with each other or (in theory) be mustered out. Now, add in that these organisms are intelligent and any one of them has the innate capacity to step into the delegated leadership roles. Add in that each human can and does change roles at a drop of a hat, from leadership to servant, from cooperative to competitive.

The miracle of the elephant dancing isn't how well it dances but that it dances at all.
Humans, therefore, operate in a continuing dance between being competitive and cooperative, recognizing cues and opportunities to change instantly from one to another and sometimes even playing both at the same time.

Our ability to do this is written deep within us and may well be our heritage as complex organisms. Birds, bees and bacteria do the same dance (See here.) though to my mind without our human flair.  But they also compete. In geese, the males compete with each other for the favor of the female and once the bond between mates is established they cooperate beautifully with one another. That level of pair cooperation also resides in the heart of the flock. The flock also acts as a cooperative organism.

It is absolutely certain that as long as we've been genus Homo we've been cooperating.

Which brings us to government.

My Republican and Libertarian friends seem to vacillate between whether government is a necessary or unnecessary evil. Both of them agree that as a Big Government Liberal I'm missing the point.

I view government as those institutions that organize cooperative endeavors. This can include corporations, churches, federal/state/local government, armies, etc. Government in all its forms is a compromise between human competition and human cooperation.

Consider Garret Hardin's famous article, The Tragedy of the Commons here. Hardin is referring back to the practice of a group's using a common acreage for herding-- the "Commons" of the title. It was to the advantage to the group for everyone to use the Commons judiciously to avoid overgrazing. But it was to the advantage of a given individual to circumvent the common use to get more grazing for his livestock. This was pitting individual human gain (the RI above) against group gain. Each individual was, in fact, competing against all others in production and sale of livestock. Yet each individual was also cooperating with all others in the preservation of the common resource. The institution representing the group, be it village or church or just a bunch of families living near each other, failed or succeeded based on how this common good was balanced with individual good.

We can recast the Commons into what I would call infrastructure. While the Commons as an idea is probably as old as agriculture that's not very old in terms of the evolutionary history of human beings. What would be infrastructure to nomadic peoples? Territory, possibly. Or access to unrelated mates for outcrossing from the group. Precious commodities such as flint or wild rice or specific plants. The institution in these circumstances might be as little (or as much) as authority and custom.

I'm sure you can see where I'm going with this. It's not a big step to go from a cooperative institution to a government. One can see the road from tribal customs to agricultural authority to kingships and bureaucracies to representative democracy. These are just different ways of managing infrastructure.

And you probably wouldn't be surprised by how broad I would consider infrastructure: any common resource that needs to be protected from individual exploitation to the detriment of the common good. The SEC protects one aspect of the common resource of the free market. The FDA protects the common resource of trustworthy medical care. Oversight of the common resource of medical care makes good public health sense-- bacteria know no class boundaries.

Hence, government is the natural outgrowth of our twin aspects of cooperation and competition. It preserves and protects the infrastructure in which the competitive nature of human beings can flourish.

For my own part, I think of myself as a Teddy Roosevelt Republican: government has to be big enough to manage the infrastructure that is its charge. We have a big country; it's requires the efforts of big government.

The real problem as we go forward is how to manage scale. The 21st Century problem is how to manage problems that are only addressable by large institutions without having those same institutions broken by their very size.

But that's another post.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Interesting things on a Friday

A couple of interesting things today.

First, here is a good article describing how unbelievably bad the tar sands oil is that's being developed in Canada. Write Obama that we neither need nor want the Keystone XL pipeline.

Second, here is a good video of Darth Vader in love.

Always trying to balance the love with the hate.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Two Terrific Animations

Here is Shugo Tokumaru "Katachi," some of the most outstanding paper animation I've ever seen.
And here is We Cut Corners ("A Pirate's Life") from the Polish directing duo Kijek and Adamski, hand drawn on paper.

People are awesome.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Private Enterprise and Space Travel

(Picture from here.)

I'm at Arisia this weekend and my first panel is "The Man Who Sold the Moon: Private Enterprise and Space Travel."

To reprise the Heinlein story, Delos Harriman is a successful businessman who is obsessed with going to the Moon. He's already made his millions in obscure or high risk technologies. He attacks going to the Moon the same way and is ultimately successful in that he manages to get spacecraft to the Moon.

The story has been an icon for those who feel private enterprise should pursue space travel and not government and this panel is to revisit that idea in light of recent private space travel efforts, notably Elon Musk's SpaceX. Inevitably, libertarian ideals are brought into play and, eventually, somebody will say government should get out of the space business and leave it to business. That will get it done right.


First, let's look at the story. Harriman uses every con in the book to get to the Moon. About every other scheme is pretty much fraudulent. If he weren't pursuing such a laudable goal (in the SF community how could space travel be anything but?) he'd be operating about the same level of honesty as Enron.

Musk, on the other hand, is a sound and fairly honest businessman. However, they do have a common ground between them. Harriman views getting to the Moon as a personal quest and according to all accounts I've read so does Elon Musk. In both men, this personal goal above and beyond business is their fundamental motivation. It happens that the tool they use to bring this about is business. Were they born in another time they might have used the church or the monarchy. Those mechanisms are not useful here but business is. You can argue that SpaceX is a triumph of moral ambition using capitalist tools but patronage is not free enterprise. It just uses it.

In addition, SpaceX is a direct beneficiary of public largesse. The initial funding of SpaceX is interesting. About half of the 1 B$ comes from NASA. The remainder comes from private entities, one of which (about 10%) is Elon Musk's personal money. Like Harriman, he cajoled other people to join the cause. However, I would argue it would have been absolutely impossible to get SpaceX off the ground without both NASA's initial money and promise of business. The clients of all space systems companies are 1) civilian government, 2) military government and 3) private satellite individuals. Of the three the last is a much smaller piece of the pie. This could change in the future but that's the way it is now.

I am not belittling Musk's efforts in any way. SpaceX is a magnificent achievement and it is largely due to the work of one man: Musk. I am trying to put it in honest perspective.

And it is appropriate to look at SpaceX. They are addressing the single biggest cost item in general space travel: earth launch. (James Webb Telescope not withstanding.)  Getting a big payload off the ground into orbit is a huge physical problem. That said, so far SpaceX (and the other players like Orbital Science and ATK) are just trying for low earth orbit. It is better than space tourism (which doesn't get us anywhere) but it is still low hanging fruit. Space travel starts at low earth orbit.

SpaceX is trying for more with the Falcon Heavy. That should be able to get a 12K Kg payload into transfer orbit. The Saturn V had a capacity of 41 K Kg to the Moon. The Falcon Heave is a little more than one quarter the Saturn V. That doesn't mean SpaceX is out of the game. But it does mean that we're not going to the Moon on a Falcon Heavy. A better way might be to use the FH to get materials into orbit and assemble a lunar shuttle.

There are some companies that are looking at bigger things: Planetary Resources is discussing mining asteroids. They're talking about using robots. They don't say on their site what they're intending to use as a launch vehicle. I expect they'll send up what they need as high as they can and go on from there. I expect the Falcon Heave might be used to get them up to transfer orbit and they'll use their own technology after that.

Golden Spike is advertising itself as developing a commercial cislunar highway, a commercial transport system to and from the Moon for two people, 750 M$ each. They plan on using existing launch facilities and rockets and only plan to build a lunar lander and specialized space suits. Their planned clients are, according to wikipedia, they "expect to sign up as many as 15 to 20 countries or foreign space agencies as well as companies and individuals who want to explore the Moon for science or adventure." We'll see. Certainly, if they can manage it at that cost they'll get some ridership.

I consider space travel as infrastructure just like roads, bridges, the SEC and the NIH. Publicly planned and privately carried out. The government plans for a bridge but private contractors build it. Science and engineering that is required for the infrastructure but not profitable for industry to create is the province of the government. This is why SpaceX is a good thing. It's also why the Apollo program was a good thing-- in the sixties no one but the government wanted to do it or could afford it. That said, it wasn't the government that built the Saturn V; it was Boeing, North American Aviation, Douglas Aircraft Company, IBM and their sub-contractors.

I've spoken about getting back to the Moon at length (see here.) I'm tired of one shots to places. Exploration is fine and I love it. Science is fine and I love it. But we need a space traveling culture. A space based industry. And we're not going to get that as long as we have to crawl out of the earth gravity well every time we turn around. Until that happy day we carve a hole in Vesta and use it to move around, the next best place to work is the Moon.

But putting a real live colony anywhere is expensive. Really expensive. Imagine populating the Moon with a thousand people at .75B$ apiece: 3/4 trillion dollars. Exxon is the most profitable company in the world (see here.) at 41 B$. They could manage to send 55 people. If the largest revenue producing company in the world, Wal-Mart (See here.) put all of its $348B$ into sending people to the moon and spent nothing on stores or employees they could send 464 people.

 Try making that fly at the next board meeting.

Clearly, we'd have to get that price down. If we were able to cut that by 90% to 75M$/person. That's still 75B$ for your population. Doable in two years by Exxon. That's a possibility. But who would want to send a thousand people to the moon? Not Exxon or Wal-Mart. SpaceX? They don't have the money.

But what's 75B$ to China? About .01% GDP. United States? .005% GDP.

I have high hopes that commercial space travel will get us back to the Moon. But I suspect though it might be a SpaceX rocket that lifts us off the ground and Planetary Resources robots that do the work, it will be government funding that pays for it. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Dead Sushi

I read a lot of web comics. One is Yellow Peril by Jamie Noguchi who also has other eclectic tastes. One of which is bad cinema which must be exemplified by the new film, Dead Sushi by Noboru Iguchi. Evil murderous sushi. What's not to love?