Testing What, Exactly?

Artificial intelligence is an area of research that fascinates a lot of people. I’m not entirely sure why. It seems to me that promoting human intelligence would be a far more useful activity. But I digress.

In dissecting the article on David Cope (see previous blog entry), I made a passing reference to the Turing test. That got me curious. The Turing Test is supposed, by some people at least, to address the question, “Can machines think?” The way the Turing Test works is this: You’re having a conversation with an entity, and you don’t know whether the entity is human, or whether it’s a computer. The “conversation” is held by typing words into a computer, and reading the entity’s responses on the machine.

The thesis of the test is that if you can’t tell whether the entity with whom you’re conversing is human or a computer, the entity is exhibiting intelligence. It has passed the test. Several serious criticisms have been made of the Turing Test. (If you’re interested, read the Wikipedia article. That’s what I did.) Basically, it has been blown out of the water. It isn’t even worth discussing, except that people keep bringing it up because it’s simple and obvious and seems, at first glance, to be a meaningful benchmark.

I claim that I could beat the Turing Test with any software program ever devised. In less than 30 seconds, I could tell whether I was dealing with a human or with a machine. I would type the following message: “Hey, I just won 2.6 million dollars in the lottery!!! I’d like to share the wealth. I’ll write you a check for $10,000 today, but only if you’ll meet me for lunch. Where would you like to go for lunch?”

My suspicion is that if I typed that text, the experimenter would stop the test. They would say, “Hey, that’s not fair. You can’t test the entity by inviting it to leave the testing environment. You’re supposed to restrict your conversation to X, Y, and Z, and only typing is allowed.” In other words, you’re not allowed to interact with the other entity as if it were a real human being.

That’s another reason, one that has apparently been missed by other critics, why the Turing Test is a fraud. An artificial set of conditions is set up, and the test can produce results (supposedly, reliable ones) only within the artificial parameters of the test.

This is a bit like testing whether humans have depth perception by forcing them to view test objects out of one eye at a time.

It’s also a dandy example of reductionist thinking. Scientific research has thrived on reductionism for hundreds of years, but we now seem to be reaching a point where reductionism no longer works. The simple questions, the ones that can be answered using simple artificial tests (Galileo rolling balls down an inclined ramp, for instance) have all been answered. What we’re now grappling with are questions so complex that they can only be answered by looking at the test subject in its native environment. To move forward, we need to look at all of the factors that may be coming into play.

The design of the scientific test itself is always one of the factors. It can’t be left out of the analysis.

This is why things like testing new drugs before releasing them have become so difficult. To test a drug, you have to give it to human subjects and then observe what happens. But once a chemical enters the human body, it can affect any of the thousands of metabolic processes that are taking place in the body. And the effects may not show up for months, or years. One possible outcome: Thalidomide babies. Not only that, but the drug can interact with any other drug that the person is taking, and also with any chemical that the person comes into contact with in their environment.

Scientists have gotten pretty good at predicting some of these effects and interactions, but of course they make many mistakes. It’s not their fault. The problem is not inept scientists; the problem is that reductionist scientific testing methods just don’t answer complex real-world questions very reliably.

Holistic thinking got a sort of bad rap in the Seventies, because a lot of hippies were trying to apply it in simplistic ways. But I think we need to go back there and have another look.

One of the huge problems today in what passes for political discourse in the United States is that simple solutions are proposed (mainly by right-wing knuckle-draggers) for complex problems. This is reductionist thinking in full flower. But that’s a topic for another time.

I wonder if kids today are being taught in high school how to think about complex problems. I hope they are, because they’re going to have a bunch of them.


Coping Mechanisms

Can a computer program ever compose music that’s as good as what a first-rate human composer can devise? I claim that the answer is “no.” And I’m going to prove it.

I started thinking about this question after reading a new piece about David Cope, the retired UC Santa Cruz professor who has devoted his life to developing software that composes music. Cope has gotten a fair amount of press over the years — quite a lot, really, considering the marginal quality of the music his programs have produced. He has also garnered a fair amount of criticism. Since I’m one of the critics, I felt not only curiosity about what he’s up to now, but a sense of obligation. I don’t want to be unfair to the guy, after all. Maybe my view 20 years ago was too harsh.

The new article (you can read it online at http://www.miller-mccune.com/culture-society/triumph-of-the-cyborg-composer-8507/) was written by Ryan Blitstein. Blitstein’s bio identifies him as a journalist, but does not mention any musical training or musical credentials, a fact that might alert us to potential weaknesses in his presentation. In what follows, I’ll weave back and forth between Cope’s own work as I understand it and the claims made for it by Blitstein. Cope’s own web pages are at http://artsites.ucsc.edu/faculty/cope/index.html.

In a nutshell, Cope has written several programs over the years that analyze musical materials fed into them (melody lines, chord progressions, rhythms, polyphonic textures, voice leading, and so on) and then produce new music that conforms to or arises out of the analysis. In his early work, for instance, he input hundreds of four-part chorales by Bach. After processing this data, the software was able to synthesize entirely new four-part chorales that were more or less in the style of Bach.

Not having studied exactly how the program goes about its analysis, I’m not qualified to judge how good it is at doing that. Nonetheless, as an academic exercise that may prove useful to musicologists, it’s a remarkable achievement of software design. This may be Cope’s real contribution to the universe of discourse.

The claim is repeatedly made, perhaps by Cope or perhaps by those around him (I don’t have any direct quotes from him on this subject) that listeners who are not aware that the music was composed by a computer can’t tell. They believe, or assume, that it was composed by a human being. Or so we’re told.

It may be true. But we may want to remind ourselves that until recently most people believed the Earth was flat. Human judgment is notoriously prone to error. In any case, I’m not aware of any double-blind studies in which listeners Read more

Always Insist on Live Music

Now that I’ve started composing and recording again in my computer, I’m wondering anew what to do with the music once it’s finished. I can put mp3’s up on my website, and I do, but of course nobody ever visits my website. If they do, they don’t send me emails thanking me for the music. Posting your music on a website is like dropping a stone down a well.

Also this month, I’m playing in two community orchestras. This is fun, not only because I get to hear some great music from the inside, but because there are concerts. People come, and listen, and applaud! My part in the affair isn’t very creative — I’m basically just showing up and playing the dots on the page. But I do enjoy getting out and playing in front of an audience. It makes the process much more meaningful.

I’d love to be able to do some sort of gigging or concertizing with my new computer music, but I just don’t see a way to manage it. The question that always stops me dead is this: When people go to a performance where I’m playing my computer compositions, what will they see? An old guy hunched over a laptop, pressing the start button and then doing nothing for five or six minutes while the music plays?

It’s hard to imagine that that would have much appeal.

It’s an interesting sociological and psychological question why people go to hear live music. There are several components. They go in order to have a shared communal experience with other audience members — but more centrally, they hope or expect to be dazzled by digital dexterity. One of the most important components, in a live performance, is that the performer appears to be doing something difficult, something that leaves the audience saying, “Wow!” That’s why we look down our noses at singers who lip-sync along with recordings. They’re not really doing it. They’re faking it.

There are other factors: A folk singer with an acoustic guitar doesn’t need to amaze us with fancy fretwork, and doesn’t even need to sing in tune (remember early Bob Dylan?), if the songs are delivered with passion, and if we can perhaps identify somehow with the performer. If the singer is sexually attractive, that helps too. As Bob Dylan proved, sex appeal isn’t essential. But if people are going to sit and stare at you for an hour, it gives you an edge if you’re the sort of person they can enjoy staring at for an hour.

As a computer soloist, I would have none of these factors working in my favor. The music might actually be quite sophisticated; a single piece might require endless hours of painstaking work. But the work isn’t visible. It would appear to the audience that I was sitting there doing essentially nothing. Nor would I be conveying, through my body language, any sort of passion. And my sex appeal … well, I didn’t have much when I was 21, and now I’m 61. You do the math.

I’ve thought about trying to put together some sort of ensemble. A trio, let’s say, in which I run the computer while two other people are doing something or other that involves wiggling their fingers and making pleasant noises. Unfortunately, starting any sort of band is incredibly difficult. More important, perhaps, it would change the nature of the music. The computer tracks would now be backing tracks. They would be the accompaniment for the real musicians, the guys wiggling their fingers. And that’s kind of not the point. The point is to let the computer synthesizers be heard as instrumental voices in their own right. I don’t much want to make the computer tracks subservient to a more traditional form of music-making. I don’t want my composing and arranging to be constrained by the need to put together, let’s say, 32 bars of backup for the guitar solo.

After the guitar solo, would the computer get a 32-bar solo while the guitarist sits out? I’m trying to picture that, and what I’m seeing is that psychologically, the audience would be looking at the guitarist and waiting for him to come in again with his next part. The computer, being an invisible, incorporeal musician, would be unable to take center stage.

A lot of guys DJ with Ableton Live. I’ve thought about that, but there are problems. First, I have no interest in playing in dance clubs — and that’s probably a blessing for all concerned. Nobody wants a 60-year-old DJ, okay? Even more central, though, Live is a looping program. Performing with it is all about triggering a new loop every four bars. But my music is not based on loops. In point of fact, I hate loops.

If I were a church-goer, I’m sure I could sneak a nice meditation piece into the service now and again. That would mean writing less interesting music, but maybe I could deal with it. What’s standing in my way is I have no use whatever for organized religion. Sitting through a church service of any kind gives me the creeping willies. Even thinking about it gives me the creeping willies.

I’ve also thought about doing some kind of multimedia performance, mainly with a projector putting up big images for people to gaze at. This would work in a psychological sense, I think, because the old guy hunched over the laptop would no longer be the visual focus. (I saw Robert Rich do this once, and I think it worked pretty well, though he did play some flute, which would be cheating, wouldn’t it?) But designing a multimedia show is a lot of work — work that would take me away from composing and recording music, since I’m not a multimedia artist. I’d have to invest quite a lot of money in equipment. And the need to work in a darkened room would eliminate most of the venues where I might otherwise be able to perform. Outdoor street fairs, for instance.

Yeah, I love the idea of sharing my creative work by playing it for an audience now and then. It’s a great idea. I’m open to suggestions on how to manage it. Right now I’m not seeing any sparks.

Tone Poem

Yesterday I downloaded the new presets and data for Camel Audio Alchemy. Then I spent some time checking out the sounds. What a shockingly great synthesizer!

Also on my hard drive are u-he Zebra 2.5 and ACE, Spectrasonics Omnisphere, FXpansion Synth Squad, and a suite of Native Instruments synths — Reaktor 5, FM8, Massive, and Battery 3. All of these are absolutely awesome.

Zebra is my personal favorite synthesizer. I just about can’t imagine anything better … though Urs Heckmann (u-he) is working on a secret project that I can’t talk about yet.

The universe of computer-based music-making is so grand, words fail me. And words very seldom fail me.

Simple Pleasures

A couple of months ago, I told an editor at Electronic Musician that I’d write a Master Class feature on Steinberg Cubase 5. Since then, my world has changed slightly.

For weeks I’ve been going back and forth (mostly forth, since they’re no longer getting back to me) with the Yamaha/Steinberg team about a persistent problem with the drivers for their mLAN audio interface. It just plain doesn’t work properly in my Windows 7 machine. There are audio dropouts. They have made various suggestions (up to and including, “You need to buy a PCI Express Firewire card,” which cost me $75 and didn’t fix the problem). But at this point, they seem to have given up.

My enthusiasm at the idea of supporting Steinberg by writing a magazine article about their software has, accordingly, waned. But there’s more to it than that.

For most of my life, like most adults, I’ve been doing various things that I didn’t actually want to do. Like get up in the morning and drive down to the office. Like most of us, I’ve put up with assorted indignities over the years, ranging from the trivial to the infuriating. As I glide gently toward the day when I’ll be able to start collecting Social Security, I find that I’m just not very interested in doing that sort of thing any more. What I want to do is spend all day, every day, doing things that are enjoyable. Things that are fun, or pleasant, or mentally stimulating.

Gritting my teeth and writing about Cubase is not one of those things. If I needed the money, to be sure, I’d go ahead and write the article. But I’m doing okay. I might run out of money when I’m 80 years old, depending on how the economy goes, but if that happens, the fact that I failed to earn an extra $500 twenty years earlier is not going to loom large in my list of regrets.

Rather than write about the tools with which people can make music, I find it more gratifying to actually make music.

Years ago, I heard a great line that I’ve never forgotten. A woman named Bea said (in a charming Southern accent), “I’m just about not willin’ to have a bad day anymore. I don’t get an infinite number of them.” That’s the essence of the thing: If I spend a day doing something that I dislike, I don’t get that day back at the end of my life. There are no do-overs.

When I can see that there’s a real need for a project to be undertaken and completed, the fact that it isn’t pleasant is not necessarily decisive. If I felt that Cubase users who read Electronic Musician were genuinely in need of my assorted quasi-random tips, I’d go ahead and write the piece. But that’s not the case. Cubase comes with a hefty owner’s manual, not to mention the instructional videos on the installation DVD. Plus, if you own Cubase, you can post messages in the user forum and get answers. Only a small minority of EM readers own Cubase, and perhaps a slightly larger minority of Cubase owners read EM. So an article, even if it were needed, wouldn’t actually be an efficient way to reach the people who needed it.

I’ve often been guilty of being irascible, grumpy, or whiny about music products that didn’t work the way I wished they would. I know of at least one head of marketing at a major manufacturer who doesn’t want me reviewing his products, because I make him nervous. And he’s not at Roland; I’ve given up reviewing Roland hardware on my own initiative, because it always disappoints me.

And yet, over the years, I have continued to write about this stuff. Why? Because I needed the money. I put up with a seemingly endless string of frustrations and annoyances because that was what I did for a living, and I tried where possible to write about the products in a positive, supportive way — not hiding the negative facts, but suppressing my personal feelings.

I’m not sure I want to do that anymore. There’s something soothing about being free to own my feelings rather than having to suppress them. I think it’s called integrity. It may seem odd to say that I’m showing integrity by flaking out on a magazine assignment that I said I’d do, but in this case I think I’m on solid ground.

A friend suggested, “Write the article the way you want to write it, and send it in.” But I definitely have too much integrity to do that. It wouldn’t be professional, and also it would be a waste of time, because they couldn’t publish it.

Integrity has been in rather short supply in the music magazine industry for a very long time. This is not to insult the editors I’ve worked with over the years, who are without exception great people. They do the very best they can under circumstances that are seldom ideal and often rather trying. The loss of integrity (and yes, I could give you examples, but I won’t) has been, in every case, the result of intense, unremitting pressure from the business side of whatever publishing company we’re discussing (not just Penton Media).

The editors’ job is not, I’m sorry to say, to serve the needs of the readers. Their personal mission is, in almost every case, to do exactly that, but in this mission they get no support from management. In serving the needs of the readers, the editors are on their own. The mandate of management is to pump up profit by bringing in advertising dollars. The editors’ job, viewed from the perspective of management, is to make sure the advertisers feel appreciated and supported by the magazine. One former editor for whom I worked liked to use the phrase, “We need to give [company X] some love.”

I don’t actually know whether EM is proposing to publish a Master Class on Cubase in order to show Steinberg that their product line is being actively supported by the magazine. The proposition may never have been stated explicitly by management. But that’s the underlying reality. Sure, an article of that sort might help a few musicians a bit, but that’s not why it’s on the production schedule.

The question, “What articles would be most helpful to the most musicians?” is indeed discussed in editorial meetings, but it’s always framed in narrow ways. For instance, “We haven’t written anything about Pro Tools for a while. Do we know any Pro Tools experts who can give us really great power user tips?” The question that is not likely to be asked is, “Does it serve any real purpose for us to publish a Power User Tips article about Pro Tools?”

Trust me on this; I’ve asked exactly that kind of question in editorial staff meetings, in the years when I was on the staff of Keyboard. Such questions land with a dull thud. Nobody wants to discuss them, because what would be the point? The nature of the magazine has already been mapped out. It will have Power User Tips features on popular software — end of discussion.

The next time I write about music technology (or possibly a non-technology-related music topic), I’m going to find a topic for which I feel there’s a genuine need, and I’m going to write with integrity. If I can’t do that, I’ll just kick back and play music. Life is too short to do anything else.

It’s Not Just

Here’s a puzzle. With a modest investment in a computer and software, it’s quite easy to make music in which our familiar 12-note equal-tempered scale is replaced with alternate tunings of one sort and another. Alternate tunings are a rich resource for musical expression. And yet, I’m hard-pressed to find anyone (other than Robert Rich) who is composing and recording music that uses alternate tunings.

My own interest is in just intonation (JI for short). This is a system of tunings in which the frequency ratios between notes are based on whole numbers. Twelve-note equal temperament (12ET, as it’s called) is based on an irrational number — the 12th root of 2. All of the intervals in 12ET produce harsh-sounding “beats” when two notes are sounded together. In just intonation, the intervals are pure, so the sound can be stable and restful, yet also oddly exotic.

This morning I went looking for JI music on the Web. Eventually I spotted a couple of YouTube videos. The first one was appallingly awful. The second had at least the merit that the fellow was playing a fast-moving melody on a 16-key home-built instrument, but the composition and the sound quality were woefully deficient.

The websites that have information on JI obviously haven’t been updated since the early days of the Web. They’re primitive graphically and full of broken links. And almost nobody is posting any actual music. Bill Alves has a few pieces on his site, but I couldn’t listen to them, because the Quicktime music player is still broken in Windows 7. I get a black bar rather than a playback widget.

And Bill’s is a name I remember from the ’80s, as are most of the other names I ran into. David Doty suspended publication of his JI newsletter in 2006, and nobody has picked up the torch. Wendy Carlos did some beautiful pieces in alternate tunings on Beauty in the Beast, but her website shows no new recordings in recent years.

The lack of interest in JI and other tuning systems arises, I think, from four basic facts.

First, 12ET is pretty good. It has a well-developed system of harmony theory, so you don’t have to roll your own. Expressive harmonic resources, up to and including the further reaches of jazz harmony, are at your fingertips.

Second, existing instruments are happy to play in 12ET. You have to sort of coax them to do anything else. It’s extra work — and why go to all that trouble when a tuning system is readily available that’s both expressive and easier for your listeners to understand?

Third, other musicians won’t get it. You’re unlikely to find a group to play with, because they won’t want to mess about setting up your tunings. They’ll all be happily playing in 12ET, which they understand very well indeed.

Fourth, the modern world is jam-packed with fun stuff to do! There are dozens of neat ways to make music with your computer without ever tapping the world of alternate tunings.

Those factors certainly sway me. On paper, I’m very interested in JI and would like to see it flourish. It fascinates me. But the three new computer-based pieces I’m working on right now are all in 12ET. It’s easy to use, and I understand the harmony theory. If I were writing in JI, I’d have to make up the harmony theory as I went along.

I’m tempted to do exactly that. But who would care or even notice if I did? Probably nobody.

The Great Boomer Shortage

Sunday morning at 24 Hour Fitness, and 35 or 40 people are working out. It’s the usual assortment of types — guys with major tattoos, guys for whom weight-lifting is probably an intellectual achievement, couples in sweats who park their kids in the child care room, guys whose bearing suggests they’re probably on parole after a few years in lockdown, skinny Latino teenagers slouching around, cute girls wearing iPods, whatever.

While marching along on the treadmill, and again while moving chunks of iron further away from the floor (temporarily) using handy systems of cables, gears, and levers, I’m looking around the room. And it strikes me that everybody there is at least 20 years younger than me. There may be a few over-40s, but not a single head of gray hair is to be seen.

So where are my peers? Is everybody else in such great shape that they don’t need to exercise? No, that doesn’t seem a very satisfactory explanation.

I’m not a jock, for Pete’s sake — I’m an intellectual. I don’t even know who played in the Superbowl, and I’m baffled that anybody would care. So why is it that, among the thousands of steadily maturing Baby Boomers in this town, I’m the only one who cares enough about health and fitness to get out on a Sunday morning and get a little vigorous exercise?

Sure, some of them are coming in in the afternoon, after I’ve gone. Or Monday morning or whatever. I’m not saying nobody ever works out. What I’m saying is that the demographic in the gym is seriously skewed away from my generation. Statistically speaking, if this is a valid sample (and it is — today wasn’t an anomaly), most people in the 55-and-over age group are not getting nearly enough exercise.

Considering the known benefits of regular exercise, this is a little weird. That’s all I’m saying.

Or … no, maybe there’s another thing. As much as I enjoy watching the cute 20-year-old girls work out, I wouldn’t mind feeling, once in a while, that I was doing an activity in the company of my peer group. It’s a little lonely, if you want to know the truth.

Immortality in Cyberspace

Every musician knows the names Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. (Non-musicians may be a little hazy about Haydn.) But Muzio Clementi is largely forgotten today.

I’ve been reading Performance Practices in Classic Piano Music by Sandra Rosenblum. How I came by this book is a story for another time; the point is, Rosenblum puts Clementi on the same plane with Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. This got me curious, so I went looking around online for Clementi piano sonatas. He apparently wrote about a hundred of them, but it appears that most are completely out of print. There’s a Dover reprint edition containing ten, and for all I know those ten may be the best of the lot, but still, it’s a shame that the rest have vanished into oblivion.

Ah, but on the Internet nothing ever dies! With a little googling around, I managed to find a website (the IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library) that has a big bunch of Clementi sonatas. Some of them are scans of hundred-year-old editions, which means they’re smudgy and a bit marked up with pencil here and there. Also, these old volumes will have been edited in ways that undoubtedly showed less respect for original performance practice than today’s performers would demand. But the music is there, and that’s the important thing.

I don’t have all of the sonatas, I’m sure — but I now have more than enough to keep me happy. Considering my extremely modest level of proficiency as an amateur pianist, it would take me years to learn the 35 or 40 that I’ve downloaded. I may, in the end, learn one or two, but it’s nice to have a variety to choose from.

Rather than print them out for sight-reading, I think I’ll flatten the music rack on the piano and set the Mac laptop on it. Maybe I should have a friend come over and take photos of that. It would be a cute high-tech visual.

After downloading the sonatas, I noticed links to a couple of scanned Clementi caprices. Normally, you’d expect a caprice to be a light-hearted little piece, hardly worth the 1’s and 0’s it would take to download it. But I took a look anyway, and I’m glad I did. The caprices are basically sonatas under another name — but far more interesting, one of them has a movement in 5/4 time. This was written at least 50 years before Tchaikovsky tried 5/4 in the Pathetique. According to wikipedia, an early Baroque composer named Giovanni Valentini wrote in asymmetrical meters, including 5/4, but I’ve never seen any other music from the Baroque or Classical period in 5/4. What a find!

Chess Is Not What You Think

The coming of the computer has surely caused interest in chess to shrivel. First, computer games are faster-paced and more fun! Second, an ordinary Mac or PC plays better chess than you do, so what’s the point?

But that’s the standard European/American version of chess. There are many, many other ways to play chess. Some of them are historical or cultural. Both Chinese and Japanese chess are still actively played, for instance. But also, there’s an active underground community of folks on the Internet who delight in imagining new ways to play chess. Some of them hang out on the Chess Variant Pages.

When I was in high school, I tried to come up with a version of chess that could be played by three people. I didn’t end up with a very playable game, but I did go so far as to make a board of hexagons by painting a sheet of plywood; I was serious about it. So I guess I’m one of those people.

I suspect that people who invent chess variants have the same obscure impulse that I had (and still have): They wonder, “What would happen if we changed the rules?”

Ten years ago, I invented a few variants and posted them on my website. (Memo to self: Edit those pages so they have the new look of the site.) But I haven’t pursued my interest much since then. I think what discouraged me, aside from the fact that I’m a lousy chess player, was the fact that most of the newly designed versions of chess will never, ever be played by anybody. The creation itself seems to be the point.

In practical terms, what that means is that the vision of the game designer is entirely divorced from practical considerations. Games that are far too mind-bendingly complex for the human brain to grasp the tactics, games that are so large that players would get bored and stop long before the game ended, games whose rules contain subtle or obvious flaws — you’ll find all of these and more on the Chess Variant Pages.

The most interesting variants, it seems to me, are the ones that are playable. The familiar rules of chess are changed just slightly, so players can concentrate on playing the game, not on remembering the intricacies of the rules. Cylindrical chess, for instance. A standard board and pieces are used, but the left and right edges of the board “wrap around” (conceptually, not actually). Pieces can travel off the left edge and re-enter the board from the right edge, or vice-versa.

In a variant like this, all of the standard chess openings have to be cast aside. They just don’t work. And that’s part of the point: To become a strong player of standard chess, you need to memorize hundreds of openings. With a variant like cylindrical chess, you have to think about strategy and tactics from the very first move, because there isn’t a book of openings.

In case you’re curious — a three-person version of chess doesn’t work well for two reasons.

First, as a game of chess moves forward, the two players trade pieces by capturing and recapturing. Gaining an advantage during a trade (such as losing two pawns while capturing your opponent’s bishop, or trading a bishop for a rook) is an essential part of the game. But in a three-way game, when two players exchange pieces, the third player gains a huge advantage. So there’s a profound disincentive to capturing anything other than a completely unprotected piece.

Second, two of the players can gang up on the third. They can form an alliance. This alliance is not something that happens on the board; it’s a social event. It’s annoying, it’s not fair, and there’s not a darn thing the third player can do about it. If player A threatens your rook while player B threatens your queen, you have only one move with which to respond to the two threats. You’re bound to lose something.

Two-player variants, however, can be quite interesting. Let me tell you about the new three-dimensional variant I’m contemplating….

Do the Twist

Today I’m in pain, and it’s because yesterday I was having so much fun playing music. No, playing the piano doesn’t hurt. Neither does playing the cello (though I’ve been having a little problem with one finger, thanks for asking). What’s painful is using my computer music workstation.

Doing this type of work involves four separate components — the QWERTY keyboard and mouse (which we’ll count as one component, since they sit side by side), the computer screen, a pair of large stereo speakers (again, one component), and a five-octave music keyboard. The difficulty is, it doesn’t seem to be possible to get all four of those components into an ergonomically healthy physical arrangement.

The computer screen and QWERTY/mouse are in a good arrangement, considered by themselves. The table is the right height, as is the screen. But the music keyboard is off to the right, at a right angle to the computer table. In order to work with a music program, I find myself sitting in a twisted way, with my left hand near the mouse (yes, I’m left-handed) and my right on the music keyboard. This twists my right shoulder back at a fairly sharp angle. And while I’m editing on-screen, which I do a lot, I’m hearing the left speaker channel, essentially in mono, with my right ear.

I can roll backward and turn so that I’m facing the music keyboard and have the speakers directly in front of me in a good listening position, but then I can’t see the computer screen without twisting my head to the left, and I can’t reach the mouse at all.

I’ve seen charming (and expensive) pieces of studio furniture that are intended to address this type of problem. I used to have one in my office at Keyboard, in fact. This design puts the QWERTY keyboard and mouse on a little pull-out tray under the music keyboard, and the computer screen behind the music keyboard, between the speakers.

Swell idea, but in my experience it never quite worked. The pull-out tray is so low your knees bump into it, while the music keyboard is perched so high that it’s not at a good playing height. Plus, if the tray is pulled out (which it needs to be in order for you to use the QWERTY keyboard or mouse), the music keyboard is too far away to reach comfortably. And if your eyes aren’t good (mine aren’t), the computer screen will be so far away that you’ll constantly be leaning forward to see it.

Playing music should be comfortable. You want to be concentrating on the music, not constantly rubbing your shoulder. This is another one of those darn conundrums. I have no answers, I’m just grumbling.