Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Joys of Parenthood (and MIDI)

One of the fun things about being a parent is that, on occasion, your child will become interested in a topic that you yourself love. I've been especially lucky in this respect: my daughter loves spicy food, my son is becoming a talented guitarist, and other things.

But the other day Number One Daughter has decided she's going to build an alternative music instrument controller as a science project. I won't / can't go into any details, but I've been a nut about synthesizers and such since I was 11yo, and I spent a lot of time in graduate school tinkering around with digital electronics, so it is with the utmost restraint that I'm keeping myself from being an obnoxious parent and taking over the project. I'm only providing support, advice, and (of course) $$$ to finance the effort. And, of course, the benefit of my vast experience. But as a dad, the kids both get that all the time. Not that they listen ... but I digress.

And so I placed an order last night and in a few days we'll be discovering the wonderful world of the Arduino. I'm jazzed. Cool stuff like this simply did not exist when I was a kid. I'm soooo excited (and so proud) about this. And I'm hoping that Number One Son will get involved, as well.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Good Speech / Bad Speech

I didn't care much for Obama's "memorial" speech last night. I had originally written something that went into details, but I'm trashing that and just providing a table and some minimal commentary. See how you feel Obama compares to a few other American Presidents:

President Occasion /
Video Link
Word Count /
Transcript Link
Ronald Reagan Challenger Disaster 652 4m10s
George W. Bush Columbia Disaster 375 3m20s
George W. Bush 9 / 11 Attacks 599 4m20s
Bill Clinton Oklahoma City Bombing 916 9m10s
Barack Obama Tucson Shooting 2762 33m30s

(Durations are approximate, based upon youtube videos of the speeches in question. Word counts were done with wc and thus may be slightly off due to punctuation).

Note that Obama's speech used more that 4x the words that Ronald Reagan used when he spoke to the nation about the Challenger disaster. More than 4x the words that George W. Bush used when he addressed the country on 9/11/2001. More than 3x the words (and time) that Bill Clinton used in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing.

In short, Obama seems incapable of using one word when he can use four.

When the President of the United States addresses the nation in the wake of a tragedy is when the President is really working hard for his paycheck. Failure is not an option: his words must be a comfort to those who grieve; they must work to heal those who are wounded; they must reassure the country that despite this awful event, we will not give up; they must promise justice if appropriate. The President's speech must be heroic, memorable, timeless, even poetic, and sombre in the gravity of the event.

Ultimately, the question of whether or not Obama's speech achieved those objectives is a matter of opinion. My opinion is no, it did not.

If you've got the time, I'd seriously urge you to watch the videos of the Reagan and Bush speeches. Reagan and GWB are both in the Top 5 on my List of Least-Favorite Presidents, but I have to give them credit: when their country needed them, they delivered, speech-wise.

(GWB's Columbia speech is surprising -- he uses few words, but the man is obviously affected by the tragedy. I don't think he's good enough of an actor to fake it).

Obama's not likely to start attending Toastmasters to bone up on his speaking skills just because of me. But I really wish he would. I'd like to be proud of the President's statesmanship. I do not know it for a fact but I suspect that GWB got some professional speech-coaching, and while it didn't make him less of a jerk, it seemed like over time his skill at addressing the nation visibly improved.

Maybe the saddest thing about Obama's speaking skills is that he doesn't realize he has a problem.

All: We are the mediocre presidents.
You won't find our faces on dollars or on cents!
There's Taylor, there's Tyler,
There's Fillmore and there's Hayes.
There's William Henry Harrison,
Harrison: I died in thirty days!
All: We... are... the...
Adequate, forgettable,
Occasionally regrettable
Caretaker presidents of the U-S-A!

Monday, January 10, 2011

iPad Music Apps: A Non-Comprehensive Overview

I still love my iPad -- to quote a friend who'd probably just as soon not have me mention her name, "it's the first thing I touch in the morning and the last thing I touch before I fall asleep", and that's as true for me as it is for her.

I have this fondness for "musical toys", and the iPad is probably the best platform for such things that's ever existed. Seriously. I mean, a PC is pretty good, but you add in the touch-screen and the light-weight hands-on aspect of the device, and it's just amazing. In fact, my plan is to use my current 32GB iPad as a dedicated music device when I upgrade to the iPad 2.0 (presumably) sometime later this year. 32GB will hold a lot of samples.

So I've spent a semi-embarrassing amount of money on music apps, and some of them are fun, but to date I've only found one, maybe two, that I'd really consider "musical instruments". There are a lot of "keyboard synthesizers" out there like minisythn PRO ($8.99), Pro Keys ($2.99), and NLogFree (free), and they're fun but just drawing a keyboard on the screen doesn't necessarily make it "musically useful". Thereminator ($2.99) scratched my Theremin itch, and Soundrop (free) is an entertaining and unique toy, almost a game: you draw lines on the screen and little dots drop down and make sounds as they bounce about.

TOPLAPapp (free) and iGendyn (free), both by experimental music pioneer Nick Collins will create some very "unique" sounds, based on some very interesting principles:

TOPLAPapp is ... a virtual machine for sound synthesis. This machine accepts a few valid instructions ... The machine rushes through the instruction set to create output sounds, which are usually of a somewhat noisy character, hopefully interestingly so. The historical antecedents include instruction synthesis as pioneered at the Institute of Sonology in the 1970s, and the live coding movement, of modifying a running program as it acts.

Cool, huh? I've had fun with it but it makes my wife leave the room, usually in a very bad mood. I'm not making this up.

MorphWiz ($9.99) comes close to being a real musical instrument. Jordan Rudess, who's the keyboard player for Dream Theatre, is one of the developers. It's more or less an iPad implementation of the Haken Continuum Fingerboard and it's fun to noodle around with -- but until they add MIDI output and / or the ability to load your own samples, it's sort've limited.

There are many "groove generator" apps out there, and I'm sure some of them are awesome -- but the few I've looked at tend to be a) very complicated and b) very poorly documented, with c) questionable levels of support. I won't single anyone out, but one thing you have to watch for in this space before you spend $9.99 or more is that no matter how spiffy it looks, the app itself may well be the creation of a single individual -- who may run off chasing another brilliant idea instead of releasing a new version with bug fixes.

All that having been said, the one app I've found so far that I consider to be a seriously useful musical tool is Reactable Mobile ($9.99). That's a screenshot of it at the top of this post, and here's the Reactable website with more video, pictures, and other information.

$9.99 is a little steep for an app, but IMHO, Reactable Mobile is worth every penny. It's a "smaller" version of an actual physical table device that costs about $10K:

I think I've actually played with one of these for a few minutes at SIGGRAPH, but the environment was so noisy that it really didn't make an impression on me. Suffice it to say that the concept maps really well onto the iPad, and that it's well documented, fun, easy to use, and full of features -- for instance, it has a built-in HTTP server that allows you to load your own samples. They have a moderately actively user community and a forum where people can share their compositions -- and the app includes a function to automagically upload shared compositions from the 'net. The basic concept is that you have little icons that represent samples, oscillators, filters, and other synthesis objects, and you connect them together on the screen -- it's kind've like a visual programming language for something like SuperCollider, although I'm not sure if that's really a helpful description.

I love it, but it's probably not for everyone. You need to understand a little bit about how a synthesizer works, and the musical results tend to be either "grooves" or "ambient soundscapes". You can interact in real-time with the modules but really the system seems to promote improvisation more than repeatability. Again -- and speaking purely for myself -- I love it.

If you're curious, here are a few snippets I concocted with Reactable, none of which are destined to "make the charts, with a bullet!" But I had fun, and these days, the only reason I make music is to have fun doing it.

Krell 1 (1MB MP3)

Spooky 1 (672KB MP3)

Spooky 2 (602KB MP3)

[if you listened to these, especially the Krell sample, you'll hear one of the outstanding bugs in the system: it has a function that records the generated audio and renders it as a .WAV file, and for some reason it tends to be "noisy". I'm hoping they'll fix that soon. On the plus side, the Reactable developers seem to be interested in providing support for the app versus running off chasing butterflies].


Something I've noticed about my music collection over the past decade or so is how much of it is *cough* composed of movie soundtracks. I don't mean John Williams' theme for Star Wars. But there is a lot of exceptionally good music out there that was written for the movies by some very talented people. It almost seems like an evolved version of the "patronage system" of yore, but the patron is movie studio, not a king. It's interesting to speculate that, centuries from now, musicologists may look back on the movie music of our time as the "serious" music of our era, dismissively relegating The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Aerosmith, etc to the category of "pop music".

And while I guess that a lot of people keep current on the latest music via Pandora or, I seem to pick up on new music from movies and television shows. Like, the other night, Number One Son and I were watching Death Race and about 15 minutes in I'm like "so is it just me, or does this soundtrack kick butt?"

But I digress -- here are some examples. I'm not attempting to be comprehensive (some of these people have scored hundreds of films, I'm not going to list them all here or pretend that I've seen most of them) -- these are just the ones I like and / or own:

James Horner - Braveheart, Titanic, Aliens

Jerry Goldsmith - Alien, The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Danny Elfman - The Simpsons, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Batman, Beetlejuice, Futurama, Edward Scissorhands

John Williams - the Harry Potter movies, television shows Lost In Space, The Time Tunnel, and Land Of The Giants (Williams has been milking the Star Wars franchise for many years, and I am not a fan -- but the man has a serious CV)

Thomas Newman - The Green Mile, American Beauty, The Shawshank Redemption, Meet Joe Black

David Newman - Serenity, Anastasia, Heathers

(The Newman family alone is probably worth a post -- you've got Lionel, Alfred, Thomas, David, and Randy Newman, who, between them, have scored a list of movies that reads like "A Comprehensive List of Every Hollywood Movie You Ever Heard Of").

The above are all "established" names -- and I'm only scratching the surface, there's an entire ecosystem of popular film music composers. And then there are the some names you really don't expect to see on a soundtrack:

Toto - David Lynch's Dune (Brian Eno wrote / performed the "Prophecy Theme")

Daft Punk - TRON: Legacy

Wang Chung - To Live And Die In L.A.

Tangerine Dream - Risky Business, Miracle Mile, Firestarter

Paul Haslinger (ex-Tangerine Dream) - Death Race, Crank, Underworld

Mark Mothersbaugh - Big Love (2006 season)

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross - The Social Network, (upcoming) The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Jed and Joss Whedon - Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog

I could go on.

I have to wonder just how some of these matchups came to be. How did William Friedkin decide "hey, let's get these Wang Chung boys in here". Or when Hugh Hudson was directing Chariots of Fire, did he tell people "yeah, Vangelis Papathanasiou -- you know, the Aphrodite's Child 666 guy"?

Finally -- since I surf the web and watch the occasional short video, and also occasionally request some of the lesser-known titles from Netflix, I've lucked onto some not especially well-known (but still quite talented) composers -- people like Rob Simonsen, Ian Dorsch, and Scott Glasgow. Sometimes their websites will have lovely free downloads of their music.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Experts Agree: Emperor Google is Naked

In case you were wondering, no, you're not alone: a lot of people are becoming unhappy with the amount of "spam" in Google's search results (see this article on Metafilter today). During the holiday gift-buying season (ie, the last couple of months) my wife and I wondered aloud just what was going on: we'd try to find information on, say, bicycles, and Google would give us pages and pages of junk. Was it just us?

Apparently not -- I'll trust that you can click the link and read the Metafilter article and associated links on your own that speculate on details about why this is happening (summary: spammers and "search engine optimizers" are getting too good at gaming Google). I'm not happy that this is happening, but in a small way, it's nice to know that it's not just us.

Some people suggest using alternative search engines like DuckDuckGo or Blekko, and Blekko's "slashtags" seem like an interesting idea.

I've seen complaints that it's hard to break the Google habit because it's become second-nature for many of us to use Google, but I'm noticing that Firefox's searchbar defaults to Google but also allows one to add / manage additional search engines. So maybe I'll add Blekko and see how it goes.

One of the Metafilter commenters ponders that it'd be nice if Google would allow one to permanently remove a given website from search results, and then (on the Google end) analyze that information to push trash results to the bottom, thus leveraging crowdsourcing to beat the spam invasion. Sounds like a good idea (actually, I've had the same idea myself); I wonder how well it would work?

While I'm bitching about spam: I'm getting really tired of ads that try to trick me with fake "download" or "begin" buttons. Case in point, here's what I got this morning when I went to

Note that there are buttons / links for "Start Scan Now", "Test PC Speed", "Start Test", "Begin Test", "Start PC speed test", "Free PC Speed Test", and something that may or may not be a button labeled "". Mea culpa, I know that I'm part of the problem, that my goldfish-like attention span pushes me to attempt to speed-read the page. But I've been seeing this "technique" popping up more and more lately, and it's annoying.