computers: William Gibson and brain interfaces

Slashdot breathlessly summarizes a rather weak project combining virtual reality headset and a brainwave reading device with the editorial. Consumer level brain computer interfaces are still primitive these days, but it doesn’t seem too far off that we’ll have virtual reality similar to what William Gibson envisioned in his novels.

But Gibson never really envisioned what the experiments are developing. He imagined all kinds of VR  (cyberspace, simstim, holoporn), and he wrote about all kinds of brain control of things in the real world. But he never envisioned mind control in Virtual Reality itself. You jacked in to cyberspace, a consensual hallucination of a graphic representation of data (which never took off, there’s no “representation” of the net at all when you jump from Slashdot to YouTube), but Gibson explicitly had his hackers typing commands while jacked in: “distant fingers caressing the deck”, “whip moves on those keyboards faster than you could follow”, etc.

Gibson’s Neuromancer follow-up Count Zero is stuffed with profoundly prescient ideas like fully-immersive telepresence and one of the first descriptions of hanging out with people’s avatars in cyberspace, but the closest he comes to a “brain-computer interface” is slotting in a piece of microsoft behind your ear which gives you the knowledge to fly a real plane in physical reality. Similarly, in Spads & Fokkers (his short story with Michael Swanwick) players use a brain interface to control a holographic plane in a videogame: “He fitted the Batang behind his ear after coating the inductor surface with paste, jacked its fiberoptic ribbon into the programmer, … when it was done, a sky-blue Spad darted restlessly through the air a few inches from his face. It almost glowed, it was so real. It had the strange inner life that fanatically detailed museum-grade models often have, but it took all of his concentration to keep it in existence. If his attention wavered at all, it lost focus, fuzzing into a pathetic blur.”

In another comment on the story undefinedreference says You could play a video game or work in a virtual environment while your body is essentially at the gym. Gibson foresaw that too, but “The street finds its own uses for things,” and so Rikki in Burning Chrome is “working three-hour shifts in an approximation of REM sleep, while her body and a bundle of conditioned reflexes took care of business. The customers never got to complain that she was faking it, because those were real orgasms. But she felt them, if she felt them at all, as faint silver flares somewhere out on the edge of sleep.”

Gibson’s ideas are masterful poetic riffs on the future, but they aren’t its operating manual.

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music: not paying for ANYTHING

Google Executive: “You Cannot Devalue Music. It’s Impossible” blathers away about  a pyramid of music fans paying more money towards the top and the industry’s solemn duty to encourage fans to migrate higher. Commenter “WhoCares?” nails the money quote, and I pound the point home:

WhoCares?

Blahblahblahblahblah.

It’s all just crafty rhetoric out of his mouth. Who cares?

Here’s the most telling part of his little self-indulgent pontification : “None of this is new. What’s new is that the casual fans no longer have to buy if they don’t want to.”

EXACTLY. Just stop there, Price. You don’t have to say anything else. That’s all that needs to be said.

Bottom line: Musicians should and must be allowed to say “If you don’t pay, you don’t get to listen.”

That’s what IP is there for. If you break it, you screw artists. Plain and simple.

skierpage

Exactly. There’s always been a free tier of music, where you asked the record store to play a song, or ask a friend to make a copy, or listen to random songs on the radio. Now the legitimate free tier is vast with lots of bands offering free downloads, the Internet Archive offering thousands of live shows for free, etc. It’s a golden age!

But consumers don’t want “Rosemary Krust”s free performances, they want popular professionally-made songs by known artists. They’re all out there cheaper than they’ve ever been, high-quality and DRM-free, on Amazon/Google Play/iTunes; it’s a golden age! But instead consumers search for “<song name> free download” or “watch” entire albums on YouTube, through the magic of technology they get something for nothing, and only Google gets $$$$. It’s disingenuous to call it “don’t care to pay” when you enable and profit from flattening the pyramid into a pancake where everyone but a few die-hard music fans finds whatever they want in the “don’t HAVE to pay” tier, *regardless of the wishes of the artists!*

So ultimately he’s a hypocritical disgusting prick.

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art: the greatest walks away from her canvas

Jhane Barnes leaves menswear

End of an era

This is like Morris Louis, Agnes Martin, or Piet Mondrian putting away their brushes. (And Jhane Barnes is way better at geometric abstraction than every capital ‘A’ artist who’s practiced it.) Jhane Barnes’ blog post is frank and clear, in part she writes:

I can’t maintain the quality I’ve always offered unless I price myself out of the market. In addition, I put long hours into fashion, but too many of those hours go into non-design work, so the intrinsic rewards I’ve always gotten from designing are also diminished.

I can’t afford a Deborah Butterfield sculpture or a Rothko painting, but I and many others have curated a small collection of beautiful things from the best artist in her field. For $200 you can wear a work of art and make yourself and those around you happy. In a world of 7 billion people you would think she could make a go of it.

She’s been designing menswear for decades and showed no sign of slowing down. Check out her current menswear collection; the shirts look good, then you roll over a shirt like Crashpad or Cypher and marvel at the details in close-up.

Looks good

Looks good

it contains multitudes

it contains multitudes



It’s a simple trick that perfectly fits the scale of a human body in relation to other people, and she’s executed it thousands of times at at a consistently high level that is staggering. In the flesh touching the fabric is an added sensory dimension; the design comes from a computer, but it’s a 3-D construction of strands of fiber. Her design work for panels and signage and carpets is pleasing but doesn’t have that multi-resolution feel of revealing more as you get close enough to touch another person, and loses the innovations in weaving she made in partnership with Japanese mills.

What’s depressing is there’s nothing coming out of men’s fashion houses that is remotely on the same level as her work. Check out the ridiculously boring stuff that a big name like Giorgio Armani is selling for more money. Everyone I have ever met wearing a Jhane Barnes shirt loves it, yet far more people get up every day and put on expensive unimaginative designer clothing that is not in any sense a work of art.

I wrote on her Facebook page

Oh nooes! I have 42 of your shirts and some other menswear including a 1984 blouson that started it all. I feel bad that I stopped buying when my cupboard filled up. Your mastery of expression within the constraints of fabric fitted to the male torso is unrivaled, beyond that you are simply one of the greatest geometric abstraction artists of all time. Thanks for 30 years of daily beauty in my life and the world, and best wishes.

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audio: music reproduction in reverse

TheScraper mused in response to Gizmodo’s post about reconstituting an early recording:

I sometimes wonder if current audio recording techniques will ever improve. When we think we’ve hit a brick wall, something else comes around. I remember when I first saw a film on DVD, I was engulfed by a feeling of amazement, thinking that it was the best thing ever; then BluRay came around…

Sadly music reproduction hasn’t just hit a brick wall, it is actively getting worse. But “it” means several things:

  • Recording techniques are unquestionably going downhill. The “breathy singer recorded in her bedroom” music in TV commercials, and Katy Perry 130 digital tracks overlaid on a laptop are both in a different universe from quality recordings made by professionals armed with dozens of microphones and a deep understanding of getting the best sound out of musicians in a custom-built studio room. There’s a reason people sample Led Zep drum breaks.
  • Producing techniques are a disaster. The ridiculous compression introduced by the loudness war wastes the dynamic range of CDs, and producers consciously aim for lowest-common denominator earbuds in noisy environments. (Although Motown was perfecting their recordings for crappy transistor radios, and many of their recordings come staggeringly alive on a good stereo.) Go to Amazon and read reviews from fans sobbing that the 20th anniversary edition of their favorite recording sounds like crap because the re-release producer couldn’t help tweaking the sound mix.
  • Recording formats are fine. Hardly anyone can reliably distinguish high-bit rate 320kBs MP3s from CD. Higher bit-depth and bit-rate recordings are available: a trickle of DVD-Audio and SACD disks continue to be released and you can buy higher-rate digital downloads online at places like www.hdtracks.com. In my opinion the reason to go for vinyl or hi-def digital recording is not that CD or 320kBs MP3 is a bad format, but because the mixes for vinyl and hi-def are less likely to have the life compressed out of them in the %$#@! loudness wars (hear the proof here).

Audiophiles are simultaneously seeking better reproduction of treasured vinyl and the ultimate playback of high-res digital files. But most music recorded nowadays is not recorded or produced in a way to make it worth bothering. If you like any music from the 50s through 80s then try to hear it on a top-notch stereo in a good room, it can be a thrill.

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music: Steve Howe phenomenal guitar work

Yes were boxed in around Tales from Topographic Oceans, repeatedly moving back and forth between pastoral – martial! on long compositions, as you can still hear on the sprawling “Gates of Delirum” on side 1 of their follow-up Relayer. But side 2 they went nuts, veering off into crazy rhythmic shifts on “Sound Chaser” and straight folk meets symphonic overload on “To Be Over.” Maybe it was Patrick Moraz joining, maybe it was the water, but it’s the most eclectic and satisfying side they ever made. You can get both songs, over 18 minutes of music, for only $2 (yet self-entitled whiners still complain about evil music companies to justify piracy).

Throughout Steve Howe is a tireless whirlwind of guitar. Check out just the 90 second from 2:54–4:26:

A beautiful lick, that slide guitar, gorgeous pealing pedal steel lines, a rip-the-strings off flamenco-ish solo, his trademark clattering wail (and some immaculate bass counterpoint from Chris Squire), then he collapses down the neck in a deft jazzy sequence. He owes much to Jeff Beck and Hendrix is beyond all, but Steve Howe is undeniably one of the greatest, and more dextrous in more styles than anyone else. PUT Yes IN THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME!

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buying a new bicycle

After years of service, my Univega bike gave out. The gel seat (long since turned to solid foam) is disintegrating, the wheels can’t be trued any more, the crank grinds in the bottom bracket, the brakes squeal more than they bite.

I need basically the same thing: a decent bike to pedal the streets and hills to work and around the city. It’s tiring to look around on dropped handlebars and I wear regular shoes so I don’t want a road bike; I don’t need heavy mountain bike features like disc brakes, suspension, and knobbly tires; and I want something more efficient than an upright cruiser

For this market, everyone sells “urban” or “hybrid” bikes with oversized aluminum frames, flat handlebars, and decent components for $500-$900. Cannondale Quick, Giant Escape,  Marin Fairfax, Scott Metrix, Specialized Sirrus, Trek 7.x, etc. They all use almost identical Shimano components: Tektro brakes, Acera and Avila gears, etc. I quickly settled on a carbon front fork for a smoother ride, then it was just test rides trying to figure out what was most comfortable and solid. But so much depends on the way the shop adjusted the seat to me and how well they set up the bike. When I commented after test rides some places said “We can adjust those spongy brakes/rattling gears” — set the bike up perfectly before I try it!

2013 specialized Sirrus Elite bicycleI bought a Specialized Sirrus Elite. I added a rear rack and transferred the bell and toe clips from my old bike. The fancier Sirrus Comp with endo bars had fewer gears, and I never tried the full carbon fiber Sirrus Limited at twice the price.

I got tired of test rides before I got to the GT Tachyon and Raleigh Cadent. My one unexpected find was the Novara Express, REI’s in-house brand, which had significantly better components for only $849. Its molded grips have a weird bulge that hurt my hands! I could have swapped out components, but I’m not that kind of bicycle tweaker. The one that got away was the Giant Escape 0, it seemed ideal based on riding the comfortable smooth Escape 1, but no store had one in stock in my size.

Bicycling to work and the shops is great, you should do it and skip the cost and hassle of parking! Away from main roads are quieter streets where you can pedal safer.

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software: TurboTax lameness

After a long break I bought TurboTax to do taxes. Intuit has had 20+ years to get this software right. Let’s see how they’re doing.

Re-enter contact info

I have to enter my name, address, and phone number to register TurboTax. Then TurboTax makes me re-enter this stuff when filling out “Personal Info.” Why not assume the first return I create is for myself?

A browser text field remembers all previous entries so that you get field memory for free… but this sadly isn’t a browser.

Importing confusion

I began by assuming I have to request an extension. But part-way into filling out the form for an extension, it starts asking me (note the ^%$#@! program won’t let me copy and paste text into this blog post, unlike a browser) “Enter Your 2012 Federal Tax Payments”. I’m running Quicken 2011 Deluxe, the info is already in that program. I had to abandon filling out this form to Import from Quicken. TurboTax knows where Quicken is on-disk, it should detect it during installation and offer to import before getting started.

The import from Quicken includes dividend and interest income that Quicken downloaded from from my financial institutions. Some of the dividend information is from an IRA. The IRA money should not be taxed, yet in TurboTax it shows up as dividend income. Why doesn’t the ^%$#@! import from Quicken ask about the tax status of the account? I named it “Rollover IRA“, that should be a clue to say “We imported this information, but let’s see whether it really applies”? So much for trying to save me money.

The left download doesn’t know what the right download did

Meanwhile TurboTax can also contact my financial institution to download tax information. I let it do so and it grabs my 1099 information, very nice. But now I have two sources for the same financial data, “Name of account” from Quicken and “Name of Financial Institution” from TurboTax. Mindblowingly, Quicken and TurboTax have no way to tell each other “this is the same information, don’t count it twice”, even though the same company wrote both download modules! The TurboTax summary screen doesn’t indicate which info came from which import, nor does My Tax Data (it only shows “Import”, but not what kind). There’s no way on the summary screen to say “These two sources of information overlap, guide me what I should do”

Every time I deal with this imported information I click [Edit] to see the details, then when I decide I don’t need it, I need to go Back and [Delete] it. But unlike a browser, this ^%$#@! software does not have a reliable Back button.  I have to click buttons at random to resume my Easy Interview and then click Next and Done a lot to skip ahead to the place I was just at. A browser is a better way to navigate.

It turns out that deleting the import didn’t actually get rid of the information. I had to go into File > Remove Imported Data and choose the Quicken items that conflicted with the Financial Institution import items. and remove them. But this left a bunch of “Untitled” transactions in “Investment Sales Summary”, which I then had to [Delete] by hand.

TurboTax questions don’t match Quicken categories

Quicken has a category for tax refund. But stupidly, it isn’t separated into State Tax refund (1099G) and federal tax refund. So TurboTax gets the combined info for both. And stupidly, TurboTax doesn’t let you drill into the individual payments that it imported from its own sibling product. They should be in a supporting statement where I can copy and paste lines, instead there’s just a summary total from Quicken Deluxe. There are many other places where Quicken’s categories don’t match TurboTax’s questions: medical expenses, property taxes, etc. In every case I have to modify the info from Quicken, add it up again, and then worry if the numbers appear somewhere else in TurboTax. TurboTax can handle individual transactions, e.g. for charitable deductions it creates separate information for each payment in category Charity from Quicken.

Miscellaneous

Whenever I enter a number in Quicken there’s an instant calculator available. In TurboTax there’s no such thing.

To be fair, TurboTax calculated my tax, upgraded butter-smooth to Premier, and is pretty well cross-linked between interview, summaries, and forms. But I expect perfect integration with Quicken 2011 Deluxe, and I didn’t get it.

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music: “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll”

This documentary about Chuck Berry‘s 60th-birthday musical performance and tribute was surprisingly enjoyable, considering that I only ever want to hear four straight-up rock ‘n’ roll songs in a row. His songs all tend to chug along the same way, but his willingness to dismantle his own songs with economical scratchy stabbing solos is impressive; Keith Richards is far better and yet less compelling. A bunch of other famous musicians play in the concert, but the stand-out is his modest piano player Johnnie Johnson. More than the concert, I love his relaxed rehearsal takes on standards like “A Cottage for Sale” and the movie ends with him playing some wistful pedal steel, alone.

Chuck Berry precisely talks about his life, his music, and his money, yet he’s a cipher. He knows where he came from.

They say “That’s a Chuck Berry song because it’s Ba-du-ba-dada [scat-sings a Roll Over Beethoven riff].” Well, the first time I heard in that was in one of Carl Hogan’s riffs in Louis Jordan’s band. We have T-Bone Walker, I love T-Bone Walker’s slurs and his blueses; so put a little Carl Hogan, a little T-Bone Walker and a little Charlie Christian, the guitarist in Tommy Dorsey’s band, together, look what a span of people that you will please. And that’s what I did in Johnny B. Goode, Roll Over Beethoven — And making it simple is another important fact, I think, that resulted in a lot of the artists understanding, and being able to play, my music. If you can call it my music, but there’s nothing new under the sun.

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music: Shutter falls, all in 3D, foreign movie, Peg!

I enjoy and admire Steely Dan’s Aja, but I don’t quite love it to pieces like Gaucho. Then an afternoon watching drummers on YouTube (Jo Jo Mayer’s stickwork, Buddy Rich’s impossible drum solo) took me to Bernard Purdie and two revelatory videos about the side 2 opener “Peg.”

First off Donald Fagen walks through the chord changes to “Peg.”  Sadly I don’t fully understand musical theory, but hearing the chords compressed from the full studio group onto a single piano makes you hear them anew.

At 6:00–6:23 there’s a phenomenal bridge from 4ths to blues to a “bebop turnaround.” It’s fifty years of 20th century musical development restated in twenty seconds. Gershwin and Ellington could not do better. In the second part of the video Fagen and his interviewer Warren Bernhardt play through and it’s lovely.

Then you can geek out on the making of the album track, from the Classic Albums series on DVD. Rick Marotta’s hi-hat, Chuck Rainey sneaking in slap bass, the insane time and money it took to bring in “three or four, five players, six or seven, eight [guitar] players” before Jay Graydon nailed it, and Michael McDonald (Doobie Brothers frontman and surely one of the best harmony vocalists in the world) triple-tracking those close background harmonies. After hearing the song for an hour straight, his unearthly background vocals are locked into my head, just beyond comprehension of how they add to the song.

The discussion of making the other songs is great too, especially “Deacon Blues.” Dean Parks plays a beautiful hidden acoustic part at 4:36, there’s a subtle F.A.O. Schwartz department-store synth part at 6:30 to perfect the horn line, the swooping complex harmony vocals at 8:38

Dean Parks sums it up best. “It was like a two-step process. One was to get to perfection and then the other is to get beyond it, and to loosen it up a little bit.” Most bands forget that first part :-). Steely Dan are not godlike, it’s not rocket science, it’s just a huge amount of work by masters. (And Roger Nichols who was a rocket scientist.)

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a retrospective as Grand Theft Auto V nears

The approach of Grand Theft Auto V makes me reflect on the series.

  • Highest and purest style: GTA: Vice City
  • Ridiculously gargantuan sandbox: GTA: San Andreas[*]
  • Best damn radio patter: GTA: Liberty City Stories (Dan Houser and Lazlow’s finest moments)
  • Craziest car stunts and most engrossing side missions: GTA: Vice City Stories (Infernus and Empire building).

I bought a PS3 and a new TV and stood in line at midnight to buy GTA IV, but it wasn’t that great. Rockstar upped the detail so you could feel Nico’s gritty lifestyle, but they dropped dozens and dozens of features from San Andreas.[*] The story is sweeping and well-told, but a dreary bummer. With “The Ballad of Gay Tony” Rockstar did a solid job of coming up with a story and characters that work better in the constricted game world, but once the story wraps it’s a realistic but dull place to be, far short of GTA:SA. No triathlons, paramedics, fire missions,.. meanwhile there’s an entire Coney Island funfair that doesn’t work.

  • But GTA IV has the best radio ads. El Chamuco Roboto! Dan Houser and Lazlow are brilliant writers and parodists.

On the basis of that arc, it looks bad for GTA V. Developing the 3-D assets for the level of detail demanded by the latest consoles seemed to exhaust their creativity and fun. Maybe a less ambitious cartoon like Saints Row is the way to go (I liked SR2, I haven’t played Saints Row The Third). But then, a non-GTA game restored my faith in Rockstar:

  • Best storyline, characters, cut scenes: Red Dead Redemption by a mile.

[*] 70+ features in this list, not to mention that San Andreas comprised most of California + Las Vegas. The change in the light and haze in the different areas is phenomenal.

“Masculine in the front, feminine in ze back.”
“Music is life and we snort it until we O.D., again und again”
“At least in the 80s they could play their instruments and there were two ambiguously gay men beating a synthesizer who were up for a go”
– Reni Wassulmaier, transsexual film director turned DJ on Flashback FM in GTA:LCS

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