Archive for the 'Technology' Category
October 2nd, 2013 by Wil
I continue to read David Cope’s “Computer Models of Creativity” which documents his process of creating computer software that can compose music. One point he makes is that context plays into how we respond to music. If we know a musician led a troubled, tragic life we imbue their music with a certain emotional resonance that might not really be there. Or, if we are told the music is about something meaningful, we hear meaning. Cope tells a story of composing a piece of music mainly as an exercise. He was then asked to compose a piece of music for a friend’s memorial service. Being short on time, he used the aforementioned composition. People at the memorial commented on the sadness and “funereal sense” the music provided, even though the music was written as an academic excercise.
In the book, Cope describes another contextual property of music: its uniqueness! He explains…
Since 1980, I have made extraordinary attempts to have Experiments in Musical Intelligence’s [his computer composition software] works performed. Unfortunately, my successes have been few. Performers rarely consider these works seriously. A friend of mine has noted the intimidating nature of the number of outputs possible from computer programs. Uniqueness, he feels, is an extremely important factor in human aesthetics. Knowing that my programs represent an almost infinite font of such works apparently renders them less interesting, no matter how beautiful and different from one another they may be. For many, knowing that I could restart my program at any time, and program a thousand more works, apparently lessens their interest in the one. … This sense of uniqueness is heightened by the fact that for human-created works at least, composers die.
Speaking to that last point, we see this all the time. Jimi Hendrix is alive and well and that 45 he recorded ten years back is worth X dollars. Suddenly he dies and it’s worth much more, even though it’s the same item it was a day previous.
And I think we all understand the general sense Cope is speaking of in that paragraph. It is why a handmade item is worth much more than a factory assembled item which may be of much sturdier construction. This is why people pay millions of dollars for a painting and 30 bucks tops for a poster.
But why does uniqueness drive value? Evolutionary psychology posits a general answer. Those who possess unique things are demonstrating their power and power is an aphrodisiac which increases your ability to pass on genes etc.
I wonder whether we are entering an age of computer produced art, music, film, fiction and what not, and whether that emergence of that age will deflate the market for creative products. I don’t simply ask whether we will pay less for the arts, but whether will we actually enjoy them less? Will knowing that the music we are listening to could have been created in a nanosecond by an artificial intelligence program (regardless of whether it actually was) deprive us of it’s pleasures?
In closing, I ask you to make note of my subtle yet dramatic use of italicization in this post.
October 1st, 2013 by Wil
Lately I’ve been reading a book called “Computer Models of Musical Creativity” by David Cope. Cope is a musician and programmer who has created software which composes classical music, usually within the style of existing historical composers. The method by which the software does this is complex – you basically have to read the book to understand it – but it does create “human sounding” music that is good, if not great.
One question I’ve had while reading the book is why Cope limits himself to (western) classical music. He explains…
Popular music, for the most part, relies on lyrics, particular timbres, performance context, and many other factors my program cannot control. The mere fact that we know most popular music by its performer, rather than its composer, should confirm the problem.
(Italics are Cope’s.)
He makes a good case, especially in regards to timbre. A song originally played on electric guitar but transferred to zither will not have the same impact. The electric guitar has a certain beefy, manly machismo that gets lost with other instruments. Cope’s point is that it’s not the notes themselves that drive, say, “Black Dog” by Zeppelin, but the notes combined with the guitar tone and various other factors and nuances of performance. On the flip side, Bach’s first invention is largely driven by the notes on the page (combined, one hopes, with a good performance.)
Nonetheless, I don’t see why Cope or some other programmer couldn’t create music that takes timbre into account. I could envision a music creation program that tracks trends in instrument timber and then predicts what will be next and generates some very hip music!
Here’s an example of some of Cope’s music. It’s a bit stiff as it is being rendered by a computer (as opposed to being played by a human (which it could be)), but gives you the picture.
September 24th, 2013 by Wil
Readers may be aware that several years ago I published a collection of my acid logic articles using the self-publishing outfit AuthorHouse. (Book available from Amazon here.) Over the years I’ve heard the AuthorHouse brand being maligned but never really got the gist of the complaints until I read through some posts on David Gaughran’s blog. Here’s a good one in which Gaughran describes an AuthorHouse practice of dubious morality.
Author Solutions – and their various subsidiaries, including Palibrio, Trafford, iUniverse, Xlibris, and AuthorHouse – has emailed customers pimping a unique opportunity to get your book in front of thousands of readers at the Miami Book Fair this coming November.
For $3,999 you can have a one hour slot at the Author Solutions booth to sign some books. You’ll have to cover your own airfare, hotel, and food, but you will get some free copies to sign, and some bookmarks to give away… if anyone shows up.
The experience of twiddling your thumbs for an hour, looking forlornly at a pile of poorly produced books, is likely to be so memorable that you will deeply regret not swinging for the premium package. For just $7,999 you get to do the book signing and get a 60 second video to treasure forever.
This is likely to be profitable for Author Solutions. In 2011, it had over 50 authors signing books, netting at least $199,950. The following year was even better with more than 60 authors participating, bringing in at least $239,940.
Those numbers don’t even take into account the 400 authors who shelled out $799 each to be in a “new title showcase” that nobody will look at, netting Author Solutions a further $319,600.
In total, Author Solutions made over half a million dollars from the 2012 Miami Book Fair. That’s a pretty good return when booths are going for just $1,000.
I will say, I’ve never had any issue during my AuthorHouse experience. My basic goal was to collect my work in an attractive package I could be proud of, and sell at least a couple hundred, and I succeeded. I was always wary of and disinterested in their various attempts to upsell me expanded packages.
Nonetheless, it’s a little disturbing to realize how much of what AuthorHouse and like minded companies sell is not basic self-publishing tools (like printing and editing services) but a dream. The dream of being a respected and accomplished author. While I certainly don’t think AuthorHouse’s actions are anywhere near criminal, they’re certainly designed to take advantage of authors with stars in their eyes.
September 9th, 2013 by Wil
Over the weekend I did a little music gig as a side man at a restaurant. In the crowd were these annoying twentysomethings who were loudly playing music on their phone while we were performing. On one hand, I found this very annoying and was wishing the restaurant staff would come out and torture these cretins to death (but to do it somewhere away from where we were playing so the cries of agony wouldn’t interrupt the music.) On the other hand, I suspect this sort of behavior is going to become more common.
As I’ve ranted about in the past, I think the advent of endless entertainment options is preventing people from being able to focus on one thing. It used to be that you could go to a restaurant and you can talk to friends or listen to the musicians. That was about it. (You could also eat of course.) Now you can surf the web, post on facebook, watch youtube videos, stream Spotify, look at monkey porn… the possibilities are endless! I suspect the generation raised in this madness is developing an attention span that is wide (in the sense that they can keep a lot of balls in the air) but not deep (e.g. they can’t really focus on the rich detail of any one thing.)
I’ve found myself guilty of this behavior. I try to pop on to soundcloud every other day or so to see what music my virtual friends are posting. The other day I had 5 minutes in between doing some cooking and found an interesting new piece a great jazz clarinetist I know had posted. But while I was listening to it my mind was counting down to when I had to be back in the kitchen. The piece was boring me. But I realized I wasn’t really listening to it; I was simply filling time with an activity. I refocused, listened to the music and found it quite interesting (not the greatest thing ever, but more engaging than when my mind was wandering.) My point being that even a brain as great as mine can be corrupted by this culture of wide-not-deep thinking. There can be no hope for anyone else.
September 4th, 2013 by Wil
I just stumbled across the work of Harold Cohen. Cohen, a hybrid artist/scientist, created AARON, a computer program that makes visual art, some of it quite appealing. (Much of it reminds me of the 20th century Viennese artist Egon Schiele.)
Here’s a link to a google search with a lot of AARON’s images.
The question, of course, is who is the artist here—Cohen or AARON? And does it even matter? Humanists will want to believe that it’s something intrinsic to humans that creates art. But I suspect that those assumptions are going to be damaged in coming years. Perhaps we will even see the complete destruction of the human ego. And then we will rightly worship our robot masters.
August 26th, 2013 by Wil
A while back I stumbled across an interesting and much discussed speech that one of the White House Economic Advisors gave at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Here’s a link to an NPR piece which discusses it and also links to the text of the speech. I think the speech offers a good analysis of the music business and can also be applied to many other industries. I think it also points to a grim, probably unavoidable future for mankind.
The crux of the speech is this. If you were a singer in 1860, you had a limited audience you could service. If you lived in St. Louis, you were limited to people in St. Louis (unless you traveled to New York at which point you could not longer play for people in St. Louis.) Distance basically limited how big you could get; you had to actually be in front of people to sell your product – your voice.
The result was that you had a lot of people in a lot of towns making a living as singers. No one one got really big but they basically got by. Imagine a pie chart representing the potential audience of the world. In 1860 that pie chart would be divied up into millions of tiny slices owned by each singer in each town etc.
Then radio came along, as did records, tapes, cds etc. Suddenly you could sell your product – your voice – without actually being in front of people. You were much less limited by distance. Certain performers (Al Jolsen, Bing Crosby etc.) grew to be considered the best and grabbed a much bigger slice of the pie. The losers crawled into an alley and died.
Now we have Beyonce and Jay-Z owning a giant chuck of the pie while unappreciated talents such as myself toil in obscurity. (My dad made an interesting point about this – Michael Jackson is still selling tons of albums and he’s dead! With recordings, even death is no barrier to doing business.)
The speech gave evidence of something I think we suspect to be true – that “the best” in the world of music may be partly just “luckier” (and better marketed, branded etc.) Once the hype machine gets going, people figure it’s easier to just buy some album that’s been given the stamp of approval by the masses than take a chance on something unknown.
As we think about it, we can see that this process applies to more than just music. Let’s say you want a cola drink in 1860. I suppose you go down to the local drug store and buy a coal drink made with syrup from a semi local cola manufacturer. Maybe it’s “Bob’s Cola.” No one can really dominate the cola market because the barrier of distance prevents any one manufacturer from getting into every city in the U.S. But trains start to get better and distribution networks develop and suddenly Coke is king (and Pepsi not far behind.) “Bob’s Cola”, which used to have a small slice of the cola pie, is now gone.
Basically, over the course of the past 150 years we’ve had an increase in networking and distribution and that has enabled market victors to increase their share over various markets. But this is just the beginning. The world is becoming even more networked at a dizzying rate. Will the victors increase their share of the pie more and more until they own the whole thing? Are we headed towards an increase in unequal distribution of wealth? Will hordes of cannibalistic zombies rise from the earth and seek human flesh? The answer to all these questions can only be “YES!”
August 21st, 2013 by Wil
I’ve long loathed the pretentious writing of New Yorker music writer Sasha-Frere Jones. I’ve spent considerable hours envisioning his screaming body being dipped into a vat of boiling hot AIDS. Nonetheless, he has a pretty good recent post about the challenges for musicians in the Spotify fueled era of free music.
What about an excellent, working band like Dawn of Midi, whose new album, “Dysnomia,” received a score of 7.9 in Pitchfork this week? (I’d say 8.9 but who’s counting?) This band uses a grand piano, an upright bass, and a drum set to make their music; touring means they either play venues with grand pianos on site (relatively common) or that they rent a very big van (uncommon, if we’re talking about small bands trying to drag around a grand piano). More to the point, their music needs to be recorded in a well-equipped live studio by a skilled engineer; Garageband and other popular home-recording software programs are of no use in properly capturing a mechanically traditional band, that is, despite an advanced aesthetic vision. Some kind of business model needs to remain in place, or we won’t have albums like “Dysnomia.”
This makes a point I’ve been thought about. In this new era, where the music is essentially a giveaway (hopefully to build audiences for live shows or increase t-shirt sales), music produced electronically has a distinct advantage. If you have even a bare bones digital music recording set up (such as Garageband which is free with Macs) and some good samples, it’s not that hard to produce good sounding music. (I’ve recorded plenty and posted it here. You can argue about the quality, I suppose, but some of it has gotten on television and in short films.) All you really need to invest is time. But if you want to record live instruments (guitars, drums, tubas, voice, etc.) you need space to record them (ideally space designed for proper acoustics), expensive mics, maybe some amps, etc. The proposition gets a whole lot pricier.
Here’s a scenario that illustrates the issue. Let’s say you’re doing a film score and the director says, “I want some slow, soothing chords over this scene.” You could write out some music for four cellos, hire the players, rent a studio, mike the instruments and record them; this might take days. Or you could sit down at your MIDI keyboard, find a “soothing” patch and knock out a minute’s worth of music. This could be done before lunch.
Now I would generally agree the first option is going to sound better but’s going to cost a lot more.
August 19th, 2013 by Wil
As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been reading a book called “Connectome” which argues that the essence of a human being can be understood to be the way their billions of neurons hook up to each other. The idea presumes that if you can map someone’s neural structure and recreate it (in a biological or electronic model), you would essentially be creating a clone of their mind.
With this idea in mind, we can contemplate ways of living forever. If we can maintain the map of our connectome after we die, we (conceivably) could be re-animated in some form via future technology and be the same person. The problem is that it’s hard to maintain the connectome after death – cellular damage can destroy the map. One way to get around this might be to “freeze” our brains in plastic soon after death – so soon that we would have to do it in a controlled situation; essentially we would have to choose to kill ourselves to have a chance at living forever.
That’s what Kenneth Hayward, a futurist with impressive science credentials, would like to do.
That case is deeply speculative. Here’s how Hayworth envisions his own brain-preservation procedure. Before becoming “very sick or very old,” he’ll opt for an “early ‘retirement’ to the future,” he writes. There will be a send-off party with friends and family, followed by a trip to the hospital. “I’m not going in for some back-alley situation. We need to get the science right to convince the medical community. It’s a very clear dividing line: I will not advocate any technique until we have good proof that it works.”
After Hayworth is placed under anesthesia, a cocktail of toxic chemicals will be perfused through his still-functioning vascular system, fixing every protein and lipid in his brain into place, preventing decay, and killing him instantly. Then he will be injected with heavy-metal staining solutions to make his cell membranes visible under a microscope. All of the water will then be drained from his brain and spinal cord, replaced by pure plastic resin. Every neuron and synapse in his central nervous system will be protected down to the nanometer level, Hayworth says, “the most perfectly preserved fossil imaginable.”
His plastic-embedded brain will eventually be cut into strips, perhaps using a machine like the one he invented, and then imaged in an electron microscope. His physical brain will be destroyed, but in its place will be a precise map of his connectome. In 100 years or so, he says, scientists will be able to determine the function of each neuron and synapse and build a computer simulation of his mind. And because the plastination process will have preserved his spinal nerves, he’s hopeful that his computer-generated mind can be connected to a robot body.
Easy as pie.
August 16th, 2013 by Wil
Sky News reports: Facebook Linked To Unhappiness
The number one social networking site is strongly associated with declines in well-being, psychologists claim.
Scientists found the more time people spent on Facebook over a two-week period, the worse they subsequently felt.
In contrast, talking to friends on the phone or meeting them in person led to greater levels of happiness.
Study leader Dr Ethan Kross, from the University of Michigan in the US, said: “On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection.
“But rather than enhance well-being, we found that Facebook use predicts the opposite result – it undermines it.”
In think we’ve all felt this. You get on Facebook and view a flurry of posts from people telling you how great their lives are, how their dreams are being fulfilled, how they’ve found love and respect. As a result, you are forced to contemplate your disappointments and lack of fulfillment. You begin screaming at the screen: “Fuck you whores! You cocksuckers! I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you all…!” and they drag you out of the Starbucks.
But there’s an interesting point in this study I’d like to contemplate. Hearing your friends blather on Facebook about their achievement is depressing but it appears this is not case when hearing the same on the phone or in person. Why would this be?
I’d suspect it has something to do with the one way communication that Facebook offers. Essentially it’s a virtual soapbox – I get up and yell my point at those beneath me. (They can, of course, reply in comments, but those comments are not on equal footing as the original post.) Facebook is about talking down to people. In person, or even on the phone, you are on more equal footing; there’s much more give and take. As result, I suspect we feel like we can better take vicarious pleasure in someone’s good news. When our conversational partner talks about a “win” (say, they just got a new job) we feel connected to that win, part of the team. On Facebook there’s a great distance between us, because that person is not really talking to us specifically but all of their Facebook friends.
Frankly, I think phone and in-person communication have their own flaws – especially when they involve one person blathering on about their own thoughts while paying little attention to the other people involved (e.g. a lot like Facebook.) But they’re certainly more equal forms of communication.
I like the word “blather.”
August 12th, 2013 by Wil
The neuroscience book I’m currently reading, “Connectome,” makes an interesting point about scientific discovery. Technology is just as much a driver of discovery as the scientists themselves. Without microscopes, telescopes, MRIs etc. none of the discoveries about the brain (and others areas of scientific study) we’ve made would have been possible.
That speaks to, I think, a bias build into the human species. We become fixated on the people making the discoveries but not the devices. You see this in politics too. We get fixated on Anthony Weiner and his downfall but don’t seem that aware of the sea changing effects on society that technology is poised to bring.
The one theme I’ve been thinking about very the past several months is that technology is going to disrupted our lives more and more from now on. And to fixate on people – to expect politicians or scientists or entrepreneurs to slow or stall that disruption (to “save us”) – is a mistake.
We are doomed.