Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

Random Rambling & Questionable Commentary

Needed: Big Blue Box

Posted by midiguru on July 10, 2014

I really ought to go back to writing science fiction. In science fiction you get to make stuff up. The trouble with writing about the real world is, you pretty much have to get it right. Or at least, I feel compelled to do so.

I like reading mystery novels, so it would be natural to think about writing one. (I don’t actually like reading science fiction. With a few exceptions in the fantasy genre, SF annoys the shit out of me.) But modern police work is complex, not least for reasons of advanced technology. If I were to try writing a mystery set today, nailing down the details of law enforcement and digital surveillance would be a lot of work, and not very gratifying work. Besides which, crime itself has sort of fallen victim to technology. How can the murderer concoct an alibi when there are video cameras at every stop light and GPS tracking cell phones?

At first blush, then, writing historical mysteries seems like a terrific idea. No fingerprints to worry about, no DNA, no wiretapping. But while the research is a lot more fun than talking to modern cops would be, the need to get the details right is still driving me crazy.

This story, see — it starts in a town in Wisconsin in 1871. Possibly a town called Two Rivers. The truth is, any town in Wisconsin would do. I picked that one by throwing darts (metaphorical darts) at a map.

The difficulty is, I know zilch about Two Rivers, Wisconsin. The bulk of my story is set in Chicago, and finding good research material on Chicago in the post-Civil War period is not difficult. Research on Two Rivers, though? Good luck with that.

I figured, there had to be lumber mills in that area in those days, so let’s use a lumber mill as a dramatic setting. But tonight, while searching the Web in vain for information on the Wisconsin criminal court system in the 1870s, I learned that the lumber mills in Two Rivers went belly up in 1857, owing principally (according to this particular source) to the fact that the nearby forest had been logged out.

The big industry in Two Rivers in the 1870s was a factory that made chairs. It was apparently one of the biggest chair manufacturers in the world.

Chairs — not a gripping backdrop for the opening of a mystery novel.

History is an endless, echoing cavern. Try as I might, I’ll never know enough. What I need is a big blue box — a police call box, one that’s a lot bigger on the inside than on the outside. Short of being there and seeing what there is to see, how can you really think you know anything about history?

Posted in fiction, writing | Leave a Comment »

A Taste of History

Posted by midiguru on July 8, 2014

History is not as far away as we tend to think. Once in a while it rises up and gives you a little extra ripple of pleasure.

Right now I’m doing some research for a possible rewrite of a novel I wrote five years ago. The novel is set in Chicago, in 1885. I enjoy doing research, and I’m also somewhat obsessive about wanting to get the details right. If you want to know about the development of the bicycle or the telephone, let me know. Both were new in 1885. The phonograph existed too, but it wasn’t in common use.

The details of daily life are endless. What kind of paper money did people have and use in 1885? That’s a good question. Since my story involves a robbery, I need to know. I couldn’t find any good answers online, and my local public library was mostly a bust, so I availed myself of the inter-library loan system. This is a great system, as long as you’re careful not to lose books. (The fine is $100.)

Today I got an email notification that the books I requested had arrived, so I drove down to the library and picked up a copy of a book called United States Notes, which was sent down at my request from the University of Nevada. The paper is a bit yellowing, the language somewhat archaic, and as it turns out, there’s nothing in the book that’s very helpful. But here’s the fun part:

Flipping to the front, I found that the book was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1884. This is not a Dover reprint — it’s the original damn book. It has been sitting on a library shelf in Nevada since a year before the events in my story.

My grandfather, Frank Aikin, was 20 years old in 1885. But that’s an abstract fact, and anyway, I never knew him. This book is concrete. It’s sitting right here on my end table. History.

Posted in fiction, writing | Leave a Comment »

What’s in a Name?

Posted by midiguru on July 7, 2014

Five years ago I wrote a historical mystery novel. My agent didn’t think it was marketable, and in retrospect he was right. There were problems.

Ever since, I’ve been mulling over ways to fix it. Last month I figured out what needs to be done, so now I’m ready to attempt a rewrite.

The difficulty I’m wrestling with today is what name to give my detective. All the good names are taken. I think of one that might work. I google it. There’s already an actor named that, or a historical figure from the same period, or a novelist.

In the original version, his name was John Gordon. I like the dark vowels. What I don’t like is “Gordon.” It’s customary to call an adult male character by his last name — and “Gordon” is ambiguous. It could be a first name. And not a very strong or dignified first name — a bit wimpy, in fact. Gordon this, Gordon that. Not good.

It occurred to me that his ancestors might have come from Wales. Morgan is a good Welsh name, but there’s already a John Morgan. There’s a John Corwin. There’s a John North. There’s a John Moore. There’s a John Flint.

Pfui.

Posted in fiction, writing | Leave a Comment »

Sad for the Pad

Posted by midiguru on June 20, 2014

Some of the new music software for the iPad is amazing. So why am I feeling grouchy and irritable? Thanks for asking.

After spending a week or two poking around at various apps, using an Alesis iO Dock II as a docking station, I’ve concluded that the iPad simply isn’t a viable device for music-making. It’s a pig wearing lipstick.

First problem: The screen is simply too darn small. I’m used to making music on a full-size desktop screen. I had two screens side by side until last year, when the auxiliary screen crapped out. Music software is complicated stuff. Having acres of screen real estate isn’t just a luxury, it’s a necessity. Cubasis attempts to wedge something like the full functionality of Cubase into that little screen, and since I use Cubase, I can compare the experience of the two. The iPad does not fare well in the comparison.

Second problem: Compared to the mouse pointer, a fingertip is fat. In addition, when you move your hand over the screen to drop a fingertip on a control, you’re blocking your own view. Put these two factors together, mix in the complexity of the software interface, which has lots of little teensy buttons because it needs to do lots of things, and it becomes far too easy to miss whatever you’re trying to tap.

The fact that the interface is multi-touch isn’t really much of a benefit. Yeah, you can play whole chords on a displayed keyboard, but so what? I can play whole chords on my Axiom 61 MIDI keyboard. Two-handed chords covering four octaves, and with (gasp!) velocity response. If the keys on an iPad display are wide enough for you to land on the intended key in a reliable manner, you’ve got about one octave of keys visible, total. One octave? This is supposed to be a giant leap forward in user interface design?

Third problem: The docking station itself. It’s got the right I/O, no complaint there. But the iPad has to lie almost flat on the table. You can’t prop the iO Dock up vertically or get it anywhere near eye level — no, you have to hunch over it. Also, the iPad I bought last fall happens to be the Air model. It’s a little smaller than the full-sized unit that the iO Dock is designed for, so it kind of wibbles around. Oh, and Korg Gadget seems to want to run in portrait mode, while the iO Dock seems to assume your software will be in landscape mode. Dumb design decisions on both sides.

Fourth problem: AudioBus is not even close to being as usable as VST. One synth can be played through one effect. Meanhwhile, the transport controls for the receiving app are delegated to a little tiny block along one edge. No, AudioBus is pretty much a joke.

Fifth problem: File backup. Why would anybody try to do serious musical production on a device where you can’t drag-copy your work over to an external hard drive for backup at the end of every work session? The iPad doesn’t even have a way to display your stored files. You have to jump through hoops to make a backup. This is not a professional device, it’s a toy.

I’ve found some very clever apps, and some of the fresh ideas in the user interface department are worth contemplating. But the damn thing is just too small, and using it is too awkward. As a digital camera it’s pretty nice. As a platform for music-making, nah. Don’t mess with it. Get a real computer.

Posted in music, technology | Leave a Comment »

Indemnification Blues

Posted by midiguru on June 12, 2014

I fuckin’ hate lawyers. Twice this week, I have looked at legal documents that include blanket indemnification clauses. One was a contract presented to freelance writers by one of the magazines for which I’m a semi-regular contributor. The other was a form I might want to fill out and sign, requesting exhibitor space at the local public library.

The contract for freelance writers I don’t propose to comment on at this time. Negotiations are ongoing. Instead, let’s look at the library’s “Display/Exhibit Space Request.”

This document includes the following charming clause: “I agree to indemnify, defend and hold harmless, the City of Livermore, its officers, employees, appointive boards and the Livermore Public Library from and against any and all loss, liability, claims, lawsuits, damage or injury of any kind, including, without limitation, claims for monetary loss, intellectual property infringement, property damage, equitable relief, personal injury, or wrongful death, arising out of or in any way connected to the display or exhibit.”

Lawyers are not, by and large, concerned with what is fair, equitable, or just. They are concerned solely and entirely with protecting their clients from legal exposure or liability. That’s what this clause is about. We can be fairly certain it was drafted by someone in the city attorney’s office. I think we can safely conclude that whoever drafted it does not give a flying crap about the local citizens who might want to use the library’s wonderful exhibit space. The attorneys who drafted and signed off on this sentence care only about protecting the city from any sort of financial risk. That’s their job.

The key phrases are “any and all,” “without limitation,” and “in any way connected.” Only a suicidal moron would sign a document containing this kind of language. If you’ve ever exhibited at the library under this policy, then either you haven’t thought it through, or you secretly like the idea that you might end up homeless, or possibly both.

Oh, but what could possibly go wrong? Let’s see if we can think of an example.

Some of the paintings I’m interested in exhibiting (my father’s work) are large. They would be hanging from the wall. So let’s suppose a painting comes loose from its hook, topples outward, and a corner hits a three-year-old child in the eye, causing irreparable damage to the child’s eye. Let’s further suppose that the reason the painting comes loose is due to either a structural defect in the library’s art hanging system, or to the fact that a previous visitor had pulled on the painting to try to get it loose, in an act of vandalism.

I would be liable. I would have to write a huge check to cover both the child’s medical bills and possibly an award for emotional damages, even though I did nothing to contribute to the accident. What’s more, the legal document doesn’t include any language that would require a finding in court that I was at fault. No — the city attorney could offer the child and its family an out-of-court settlement, and I would still have to write the check. That’s what the word “claims” means. If there’s a claim, I have to pay.

Do I feel like fighting city hall? Not this week, thanks. The library’s visitors are the losers in this situation: They will never get to see an exhibit of my father’s work. Vita brevis, ars in dumpstero, as the Romans might have put it.

Posted in politics, society & culture | 2 Comments »

Oh, Henry…

Posted by midiguru on June 9, 2014

I haven’t had any personal contact with Henry (no last name will be revealed here) since 1972, but he showed up on Facebook last year, so he has been seeing my posts there.

Henry was apparently dealt a body blow by a link I posted this morning to a column in Salon. The column deconstructs a column written by conservative pundit George Will, which appeared in the Washington Post. It turns out Henry knows old George — perhaps not entirely surprising, as one of Henry’s chums at Cornell was Francis Fukuyama.

Rather than defend George Will’s opinion piece, which is frankly an indefensible piece of tripe, Henry decided to jump out of the lifeboat and walk across the water by himself. We’ll miss your smiling face, Henry, but I have to say, your reaction is typical of conservatives. Conservatives seem, from my experience on Facebook and elsewhere, to have real difficulty with rational argument. If you point out the flaws in their reasoning, they tend to change the subject, resort to ad hominem attacks, or wrap themselves in a mantle of righteousness and stomp off in a huff.

George Will went out of his way to belittle the idea that rape is a problem on college campuses. He went so far as to suggest that colleges “make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges.” He refers to the “supposed campus epidemic of rape.” Supposed by whom? By delusional liberals, one must assume.

To be sure, the line about victimhood can be read as a more general comment. He may have meant to suggest that the entire liberal movement cultivates and elevates victims. But given the context of this particular column, it’s clear that he feels that a woman who was raped and comes forward to talk to the authorities about it is being “conferred privileges” by the liberals in the academic community.

What sort of privileges these might be, Will does not tell us. One can only hope that he’s raped, and preferably this week, so that he can experience these privileges for himself. Maybe then he’ll be so kind as to share the details with us in a column in the Washington Post.

Will goes out of his way to provide one anecdote about non-consensual sex in college, a story about a young woman who used exceptionally bad judgment: After her boyfriend fell asleep on her bed, she got into her pajamas and crawled in beside him. When he woke up and initiated sex, she protested. He desisted but then started in again. According to the anecdote, she was too tired to climb out of bed, so she let him do what he wanted.

Because this is the only anecdote about an incident that Will provides, the conclusion is inescapable: He’s inviting his readers to consider all sexual assaults on campus as being this trivial or ambiguous. He has nothing whatever to tell us about the emotional ordeal of actual rape victims, either during the rape or afterward when they report it to college authorities and are demeaned, belittled, or ignored.

One might be forgiven for concluding from his sharing of this anecdote that Will doesn’t think there are any actual rapes on college campuses — but he does admit in passing that, according to one statistic about one university, as many as 2.9 percent of college women may have been raped during their four years as undergraduates. He even admits that that number is “too high,” but when it comes to compassion for the victims or suggestions about how the problem might be addressed, he is entirely silent. A better interpretation, then, is that he knows women are being raped — he just doesn’t care.

In my initial Facebook post, I characterized his opinion this way: “Rich white men should be able to put their dick wherever they like, at any time, without fear of being criticized for it. Shut up, bitches!” Based on a careful reading of his column, I see no reason to revise that.

Will’s observations on this topic are (ostensibly, at least) by way of illustrating what he sees as a larger systemic problem. “Academia’s progressivism,” he informs us, “has rendered it intellectually defenseless now that progressivism’s achievement, the regulatory state, has decided it is academia’s turn to be broken to government’s saddle.” We’re being invited to pity the poor colleges, who are being subjected to onerous and unneeded government regulation due to their own embrace of progressivism.

There’s a reason why colleges and universities are hotbeds of progressive politics: It’s because most college professors, and most of their students, understand that conservatism is intellectually bankrupt and morally repugnant. Will’s own column is a shining illustration of why it’s morally repugnant. Here we have a leading conservative who objects when the government tries to protect young women from being raped. Why? Because the government shouldn’t try to protect women from being raped. That’s what he’s telling us.

I’m perfectly willing to admit that government regulation is sometimes heavy-handed and misguided. There are also plenty of examples of the opposite: places where we need a lot more government regulation than we have now. But by focusing on this particular example of government regulation, George will gives us a stunning example of just how vicious and insensitive the conservative movement has become.

I guess I’ll always wonder what Henry would have said about that.

Posted in politics | 2 Comments »

Simply Smashing

Posted by midiguru on June 7, 2014

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was one of the leading thinkers at the beginning of the scientific revolution. Bacon recommended forcing nature to give up its secrets; the Latin term he used was natura vexata (nature vexed).

This technique is immensely useful, of course. But it’s not always the right approach. If you want to know what’s going on in the chemistry of a living cell, for instance, you can squish or burst the cell, thereby killing it, and isolate the various chemical compounds that you find. Having done this, you have a pretty good idea what the cell is made of. What you won’t know is how those compounds operate within the cell while it’s alive.

The interior of a cell is an immensely complicated place. Millions of chemical interactions are taking place every second. While any given molecular interaction may be random — either those two molecules bump into one another, or they don’t — the process as a whole is regulated in an ongoing manner that is both subtle and multifaceted. The process, and its regulation, is what we call life.

Most of what we know about subatomic physics is as a result of applying the techniques of natura vexata. We fire particles at one another at incredibly high speeds, causing them to smash into one another. We’ve learned a lot about subatomic particles in this way. But here’s today’s random thought: Might we be entirely missing how these particles behave in more ordinary circumstances?

The conventional scientific view is, more or less, “Well, they’re inert. They’re just dumb particles. They have no complex features.” But at one time the interior of a living cell was thought of in pretty much that same way, wasn’t it? Microscopes that could inspect the detailed inner structure of cells hadn’t yet been developed. As far as scientists could determine, the cell was just full of goo.

It’s a bit hard to see how the ordinary, unvexed behavior of subatomic particles could be investigated. They’re just too small. When I read about cell biology, though, I find it hard to escape the feeling that something is going on in this broth of molecular activity that we don’t yet understand.

At one time protein molecules were thought of as being rigid structures, a bit like Tinkertoy models assembled out of sticks and little spheres. Atoms were thought of as rather like little tiny billiard balls, bouncing off of one another according to strict mathematical rules. Today we know that’s not a good description of protein molecules. Protein molecules are wiggly. They’re constantly changing shape.

Of course, those shape changes must be entirely random, right? Molecules are just collections of tiny billiard balls, after all, tugging on and bouncing off of one another according to rigid mathematical laws. The idea that the molecules themselves might have an awareness of their surroundings, that they might respond in variable ways as a result of factors that we haven’t yet discovered … that would be just spiritualist nonsense.

I’m not a fan of spiritualist nonsense. I’m not trying to reintroduce the elan vital. But it does seem to me, as a layman, that the level of complexity within a living cell might be due not only to a few billion years of evolution but also to complexities in the behavior of protons, neutrons, and electrons that we haven’t yet discovered, or even imagined.

Posted in random musings | Leave a Comment »

Too Many Synthesizers

Posted by midiguru on June 6, 2014

I’m perpetually looking for opportunities to write about synthesizers and related technologies. Not just because I love playing with new toys (though that’s part of it). I also like letting other people know what’s worth checking out. Maybe along the way I can give a manufacturer or two a tiny nudge in a good direction, or improve a deserving company’s sales figures ever so slightly.

Trouble is, the outlets for product reviews are pretty jammed up. Today I was talking to a magazine editor (not the editor of Keyboard or Electronic Musician) about product reviews, and he made it clear that his publication has the same problems they do. The advertisers pretty much demand coverage for their latest offerings. Meanwhile, the page count has shrunk drastically over the past decade or two.

Just in the software realm, I’d guess there are at least five times as many new music programs today as there were 15 years ago. The magazines have maybe half as much page space as they had then.

Musicians are the losers in this equation. We’re forced to base our buying decisions on three-sentence “reviews” in the online retailers’ pages, reviews written by who knows who, with who knows what agenda or level of ignorance. Yes, a video tutorial on a product can help a lot … if you can find a good one. Even so, there’s a glut of product and a shortage of solid information about it all.

Tonight I’ve been looking at Oscilab, a very forward-looking iPad app from 2Beat. I don’t even feel like pitching a review to Keyboard or EM, because neither of them has responded to my last few pitches. Not because the editors are rude (though they’re certainly overworked). The core problem is that the magazine itself doesn’t have the bandwidth.

A few years ago, Nick Batsdorf started a magazine called Virtual Instruments. Great idea, but it folded after a couple of years. I’m guessing, not enough ad dollars were coming in. The magazine was clearly needed, but the economy wouldn’t support it.

Okay, I got that off my chest. Now I can go back to playing with Oscilab.

Posted in music, technology, writing | Leave a Comment »

Mad for the Pad

Posted by midiguru on June 6, 2014

I’m pretty familiar with a wide range of music software, especially in Windows, but a lot of it is cross-platform, so the Mac scene is not too different. In the past two years, though, there has been a total explosion of music apps for the iPad.

I bought an iPad last fall, but honestly I haven’t done a whole lot with it. Now that I’m starting work on the revised edition of my synth programming book, I obviously need to learn what’s going on in the iPad world.

It’s jaw-dropping.

The basics of sound design are much the same, of course. Any number of apps give you ADSRs and LFOs. What’s new, and needs to be covered in the book, are the fresh ideas in user interfaces and performance control. Plus system-level concepts such as Audiobus and Core MIDI, of course.

iPad developers are forced to deal with a small screen, so they have to be clever about the UI. At the same time, the multi-touch interface opens up new ways to play (or just play with) the sounds.

The installed user base is huge. As a result, the pricing structure is very different from that for desktop/laptop software. Many of your customers won’t be that familiar with traditional methods of synthesis and music production, so you can present them with something quite simple, and they’ll like it.

Not all of these apps will be around next year. The scene is a bit Wild West at the moment; it hasn’t stabilized yet. This makes it tough for a book author, who has to try to write in a way that will still be at least marginally relevant five years down the road.

The good news is, I like playing with new toys. Alesis is shipping me an iO Dock II, so I’ll be able to send MIDI into the iPad and get 24-bit audio out in a convenient way.

Slide the food under the door.

Posted in music, technology | Leave a Comment »

Power Tools Update

Posted by midiguru on May 22, 2014

Good news, and you’re reading it here first: Hal Leonard has agreed to do a new edition of Power Tools for Synthesizer Programming. The book is now ten years old, and continues to sell (though not in large quantities). A lot has happened in music technology during the past decade, so it’s time for an update.

Or rather, a floor-to-ceiling rewrite. The basics haven’t changed: An ADSR is still an ADSR, and the durability of that concept is almost frightening. But enormous progress has been made in granular synthesis and additive synthesis. Software tools like Reason are light-years beyond where they were ten years ago. The iPad has emerged as a viable music tool, though of course the form factor makes it a wee bit awkward for serious work. Arpeggiators and step sequencers were barely mentioned in the first edition, but they’ve become an important production tool. Percussion software is big. And on the hardware side, there’s a resurgence of interest in modular analog instruments. Oh, yeah, there’s a lot of territory to be covered.

The new edition won’t come with a bind-in CD. Downloads are now the preferred delivery medium for bonus content. But that’s good news too. I’ll be able to do a few videos, even. And the new edition will have a beefed-up page count.

I don’t know yet what the release date will be, but look for it in October or November.

Posted in music, technology | Leave a Comment »

 
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