music: Crosby not Stills, Nash, and Young

Jeff Beck died, now David Crosby. So I listened to If Only I Could Remember My Name, his solo album. It’s beyond star-studded, Wikipedia: “Guest musicians on the album include Graham Nash, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and members of Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and the Grateful Dead; the ensemble was given the informal moniker of The Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra.” It’s an indulgent meandering set of songs (only five with proper lyrics) but some of the songs have a kind of appeal. The mysterious harmonies are a step beyond the Beach Boys and Beatles. To tell the truth I can’t reliably identify CS&N’s voices; Graham Nash is higher, Stephen Stills rougher?

A couple of the songs like “Tamalpais High” are so reminiscent of CS&N’s “Guinnevere”. I remember buying So Far because I’d heard some of the hits and for its Joni Mitchell cover, I couldn’t believe how great “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” was. I didn’t grasp until now that it’s a compilation album (Wikipedia: “the concoction of a greatest-hits album from two LPs and one non-LP single”); no wonder it’s so great.

David Crosby will probably be remembered as the John the Baptist heralding (and sleeping with) Joni Mitchell, not a bad place to have in history.

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music: Tuesday Heartbreak attempts

One of the pure joys of going through Stevie Wonder’s incredible 6 album run was rediscovering the perfect rainy-day funk of “Tuesday Breakup.”

I was in a store and heard the song, but wait! it’s Macy Gray. It turns out she recorded her own version of the entire Talking Book album on its 40th anniversary in 2012. While listening to it again, YouTube Music Premium Red Gold Google Play also volunteered Michael McDonald’s version off his second volume of Motown covers, Motown Two.

Both Macy and Michael have stronger bass than Stevie’s Moog bass on the original; both more present in the mix and doing more inventive things. (I can’t figure out who’s playing for Macy Gray, sadly there are no details on Wikipedia and Discogs, her web site is taken over, and I can’t get from any archived version of the front page of her web site on the Wayback Machine to an announcement of the album; Michael McDonald has a ridiculous set of players on his album according to Wikipedia, it could be Nathan East or Abraham Laboriel.) But:

  • Stevie Wonder’s drumming is incredible. In the chorus it’s pre-proto-disco hi-hat, but it’s an organic whole with his snare. Macy’s drummer (again, ???) can’t unlearn disco hi-hat. Michael’s drummer (could be the great Vinnie Colaiuta, or Abe Laboriel Jr., or Nicky Shaw) is just tight; mostly closed hi-hat, tight fills.
  • Stevie Wonder has phenomenally expressive keyboards. Macy doesn’t even try and pushes her keyboards down in the mix; Michael goes for more keyboard colors (he has all kinds of guest stars on keyboards), but none of them have the intense variations of volume and wah-wah that Stevie has.
  • Stevie Wonder’s got David Sanborn’s oddly hollow sax (I think this might be Sanborn’s first big break) giving a unique feel, from the unexpected tentative bass sax notes in the intro to the muted wailing in chorus after chorus.

It’s really hard to do a better homage than the original.

And of course, Talking Book has Jeff Beck (24 June 1944 – 10 January 2023)’s lovely, lovely guitar break 😭.

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eco: nuclear and decarbonizing electricity

If every country had followed France after the 1970 oil crisis, the world would be generating a majority of its electricity from low-carbon nuclear, and nuclear plants would have probably got cheaper and quicker to build so replacing the aging plants would be affordable (instead of France’s struggle).

Coulda, shoulda, woulda. It didn’t happen. Instead the world built terawatts of coal plants, then switched to terawatts of “natural” gas plants, and now wind and solar are the majority of new generation everywhere in the world because they’re cheap and quick.

But ardent fans keep pointing out that nuclear is a reliable low-carbon source of electricity!, while wind and solar are reliably intermittent! Someone on CleanTechnica asked me:

I’ll posit a quick question: would it be better to have 2x as expensive electricity by swapping to the proven nuclear tech, or to risk grid unreliability (and a fall back to fossil fuels) by rapid RE adaptation?

Quick question, tricky answer. Yes, I’m willing to pay a lot for 100% low-carbon electricity 100% of the time, but I’m rich. (It’s a shame there isn’t a GoFundMe for nuke supporters to crowd-fund a small reactor for their electricity, so they can put their money where their mouth is.) I already pay more for “100% green” electricity through a city program which contracts for renewable generation equal to total electricity consumption, but customer service unwillingly admitted the kilowatts aren’t guaranteed to be low-carbon on a windless night.

Electricity is always reliable if you’ll pay any price for it

There won’t be grid unreliability for customers who roll the dice and pay the hourly market rate for electricity; they’ll just be faced with very high electricity costs at times. Major industries and people with V2G will reduce their consumption and muddle through, poor people will get hammered. (This already happened in Texas and UK with companies selling market-rate electricity begging customers to change plans before a freeze.)

Handling intermittent renewable generation

It’s the role of regulators to require utilities to be able to provide enough power at all times, but it’s complicated when demand is variable. For now the cheapest approach is to keep existing nuclear plants operating, despite their high cost per kWh, and have enough gas plants sitting around to handle demand when renewables aren’t generating (plus add grid batteries for short demand spikes). In California’s case, the utilities didn’t build enough solar plus storage, and so they struggled to meet peak demands during heat waves. It will be interesting to see if utilities order new gas plants to meet increasing electricity demand for those times when renewables aren’t producing; the optics of it look terrible for the environment, but if the plants are rarely used the utilities could still be reducing overall carbon intensity of their electricity.

The big problem for nuclear is it is poor fit for such occasional provision of reliable electricity; it may heroically step in during a long windless winter stretch, but the rest of the time it’s hopelessly uneconomic per kWh compared to wind and solar. That’s why some nuclear startups hoping to build small modular reactors are pivoting to continuous hydrogen production or other industrial needs for continuous electricity plus heat. It may be a good business decision but it’s a bad sign for their viability as simple electricity providers.

Decreasing emissions now is easy, zero emissions is a problem for the future.

Separate from reliability requirements, I’m all for requiring utilities to provide low-carbon electricity all the time even though it will increase electricity prices. That would certainly boost nuclear’s prospects; but it seems on any phased transition, utilities will continue to install gigawatts of cheap and quick renewables and leave decarbonizing the last ~25% of generation as a future problem to be solved. Maybe by then one of the small molten sodium liquid thorium modular blah blah designs will have proven itself to be quick and cheap. It’s great that NuScale recently got approval for its SMR nuclear plant design(s); we’ll see how its UAMPS test plant in Idaho goes (projected to come online in 2029) and whether its design exercise for a plant in Romania amounts to anything.

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audio: still looking for a replacement speaker

Five years later, I’m still listening to audio through a Chromecast Audio dongle plugged into my aging Jambox!

I could get a soundbar, but they tend to be over 36 inches wide, too long to easily flip from facing my office area to facing the kitchen and dining room. What I should do is get a separate proper pair of high-end nearfield speakers on my office desk, but that’s a custom up-down adjustable motorized desk and it’s already leaning to one side due to all the crap I have on it.

Bluetooth speaker

I think all of these still come with 3.5 mm aux in sockets, though few come with any other kind of wired connection any more. Apparently Bluetooth is much better and doesn’t suffer dropouts; maybe third times a charm. They mostly operate/charge on USB C.

  • CNET recommends Soundcore Anker Motion Boom Plus for $180.
  • Wirecutter recommends Sony SRS-XG300 X-Series for $350 (!) with dopey ambient party lighting. Comes in a nice gray fabric.
  • PC Mag recommends the Astell&Kern Acro BE100, more an interior speaker, nice design for $450, and another vote for the SRS-XG300.
  • B&W Formation Wedge is $1,000 (!) and is Roon ready! No battery, not outdoor, and doesn’t have a 3.5mm adapter, instead has Ethernet or WiFi (and Bluetooth).

Maybe I should accept the hassle of repositioning two speakers, and just go for KEF LSX IIs for $1,400 (and $180 for the desk pad stands!) . They still have USB input, and Ethernet.

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computers: put the screen above a laptop

If you search for “external laptop monitor”, most images show a screen beside the laptop. So you have to look sideways at it, or use a separate keyboard. Some even show a tray raising the laptop to the screen height (so you have to type in mid-air), or show a closed laptop, often with two connected screens, when you paid money for that laptop’s display, keyboard, and touchpad. It’s madness.

Every monitor should come with a stand with enough vertical rise to put an open laptop underneath it! I think none do. Apple solves this by selling a separate $999 Pro Stand… Someone should sell a mini riser for an external monitor that replaces its crummy built-in stand, plus a version that supports two quality speakers either side of the raised monitor.

monitor awkwardly placed to side of laptop
Nice monitor uselessly placed way off to side
Raise laptop up to monitor height, rendering its keyboard and touchpad useless
monitor lifted up on a stand with closedly laptop stupidly slid under it
The monitor’s own stand isn’t tall enough, but why close a valuable laptop?

I’m typing this staring straight at an external monitor that I’ve put on an 11-inch (28 cm) two-shelf box.

My way to raise a computer monitor (now it’s an Acer 1900×1200 monitor)
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music: Havona is a penthouse on the Mount Olympus of bass

Dirty Loops’ Henrik Linder (best Justin Bieber cover evar!), Vulfpeck’s Joe Dart, and YouTuber Charles Berthoud are all bass monsters in a golden age of musicianship. But “Havona” by Weather Report is a different level. In my memory Jaco Pastorius attacks with 16th notes in every DAH-DAAHHHHH refrain, but it’s a magic trick: he can suggest max propulsion even playing legato long notes. And the rest of the band pushes and pulls and drops out to keep the song building and flowing into and around his two bass solos.

It’s not head and shoulders above any other band’s bass showpiece (e.g. Yes’s “On the Silent Wings of Freedom”); Jaco assembled a penthouse on Mount Olympus.

Don’t underestimate Wayne Shorter

Now play it again (Sam) and listen carefully to Wayne Shorter hold back on sax. He’s not merely providing sax flourishes as he does on some Joni Mitchell songs; his contributions are lag bolts drilled deep in the song construction holding it together. His legato lines at 0:43 are perfect, his dah-DAAAAH two-note refrains are perfectly low-volume instead of over-the-top honking, his solo at 2:00 ending in blue notes leaves space for Jaco, his yelps at 3:01 are perfect punctuation, his trills 4:27 and on are perfect, his unison playing with Jaco 4:37 is 😘, and those staccato sax notes 5:38 decelerating the end of the song (after Jaco and Joe Zawinul have 16th-noted their hands to a pulp) are only obvious in hindsight.

It’s a phenomenal contribution to the band’s performance. Without it “Havona” would be an amazing bass performance instead of the greatest jazz fusion instrumental of all time.

Jaco Pastorius, Joni Mitchell, …

Now listen to Jaco Pastorius’ eponymous solo album (full of the best bass solos but not the best song-with-bass), his bass playing on Joni Mitchell’s Hejira, and his off-the-charts/off-the-wall funky interplay on Joni Mitchell’s live “God Must Be a Boogie Man.”

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AIs making images of music!?!! 🤯

Hi music fans.

OpenAI’s Jukebox was generating music waveforms from scratch way back in 2020 (as I wrote). Since then, silence from OpenAI. I suspect half the music in Spotify’s “contemplative acoustic music for yoga/Pilates” and “mid-tempo EDM for hip restaurant” playlists is now computer-generated just to screw fleshy musicians out of their tiny streaming royalties.

Meanwhile AI image generation has gone wild with DALL-E, Craiyon, Imagen, Midjourney, Stable Diffusion (as I wrote, with pictures). So, “merely” train an AI to generate spectrograms of music, then turn those images into audio. And just as image generators can make strange videos that morph from one image to the next, have the AI morph the spectrogram into an image of the next musical motif. Two programmers in their spare time did just that. https://www.riffusion.com/about is a clear, entertaining, and to me sensational introduction. The last music sample, “Fantasy ballad, female voice to teen boy pop star” is crazy. Again, this is a sequence of images dreamed up by a computer that sound like music.

Below is the image https://huggingface.co/spaces/fffiloni/spectrogram-to-music generated (the original Riffusion site is of course overloaded) when I prompted “hard rock electric guitar solo”. You can hear it at https://huggingface.co/spaces/fffiloni/spectrogram-to-music/discussions/28. It’s no Tim Henson , but again this is just a few programmers throwing something together in their off hours. What is creativity? Where does this highway go to? How do I work this? My god, what have we done? (– Talking Heads)

spectrogram image generated by fffiloni's version of Riffusion, from the prompt "hard rock electric guitar solo"
what a “hard rock electric guitar solo” looks like to this AI

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crypto exchanges are a predictable disaster

FTX and 130 related companies (!!) declared bankruptcy, losing billions in customers’ money.

Wait, what?

I thought the whole point of crypto is only you know the password (the key) to the string of numbers (the wallet), for which the blockchain maintains an unbreakable transaction record that “38.1875 shitEcoins are associated with that string of numbers”.

So if FTX goes bust because, well, crypto is barely more than an investment fad, you still have your 38.1875 shitEcoins. Right! Right?

A site (that Facebook warns is controlled by the Russian government!) explains:

Both the upside and downside of private keys are that they endow complete ownership of the wallet to anyone who knows the key. When users store cryptocurrencies on exchanges like FTX, they don’t hold the private keys to those coins, the exchange does. As far as the Blockchain is concerned, those coins do not belong to the customers, they belong to the exchange.

Hence, “not your keys, not your coins.”


The issue has led to the rise of “decentralized” exchanges. Those exchanges, like Bitcoin itself, are run on a decentralized network and allow users to hold their private keys while trading. Bankman-Fried [the acclaimed founder who turned out to be a putz] “often butted heads with proponents of decentralized exchanges, calling on them to be regulated like brokers.”

Oops. Retail crypto investors keeping their coins in an exchange were and are fools. If I put my money in a bank and it lends it out to deadbeats and, worse, sister companies that it owns like FTX did, the bank is subject to regulation and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation insures the first $250,000 of my money.

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music: a chorus of Blackbirds

Did Paul McCartney know he wrote the greatest jazz standard since the golden age of the American songbook? The supremely confident moving bass line, the single note “Blackbird singing in the”, the early “dead of” leap in the melody, the hypnotic up-and-down melody “take these broken wings and”, later the musical explosion “into the light of a dark black night” until the upward chords pull you back into the song… it’s a toolkit of parts that begs for a jazz interpretation. Several artists whom I like recorded it recently.

Hiromi’s is solid. She near-quotes “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” a few times, which is gold. I saw her live recently and it was thrilling to hear her slide into “Blackbird.” In this album recording she starts with a two-note birdsong, and the trills and slurs also suggest birds tweeting. People are awed by her Oscar Peterson-level technique, but it’s her long cadences of chord voicings that do it for me; there’s some all too-brief chord magic starting at 3:37.

Jon Batiste has a strangely expressive intro that moves all over until it hits the groove. He plays a chord for the pedal point and moves the chords around. Then he puts a blue note into “Black BERD fly.” He makes it his own.

Brad Mehldau made a fine “Art of the Trio” recording of “Blackbird” (his trio has several other monster interpretations of modern pop songs), but his solo version is sensational. He slows it down and makes the pedal point inevitable, then moves the trilling melody all over the piano’s upper octaves… like a bird singing. It’s a masterpiece of a masterpiece.

Special bonus: disco lite Blackbird

I would love to ask Paul McCartney what he makes of all the jazz takes on “Blackbird,” while surreptitiously playing Sarah Vaughan’s version in the background. It’s nuts! Sawing wood provides the rhythm to the acoustic guitar intro, then it takes a hard left into a “Blackbird-fly way-ahh” funky disco syncopation, then the strings lead into a sub-Boz Scaggs “fly-ah-ah-ah” bridge with two jazz-funk electric guitar solos. David Paich co-wrote “Lowdown” with Boz Scaggs, and he and his dad Marty Paich produced this Sarah Vaughan album of Beatles covers a year later in 1977.

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software: making it safer to run random programs

I was dubious about Google’s new Fuchsia operating system, but it has some very interesting ideas, including capability-based execution. Programs that can do nothing until you grant them capabilities are so much better – I hate downloading some Windows .EXE game editor or utility that could literally do anything to my computer. But similar functionality is coming to existing operating systems:

  • Sandboxing of random binaries is getting easier, though still way too fiddly.
  • More programs are being written or recompiled to run in a browser, where I’m confident they can’t read and write random files.
  • Flatpak‘s sandboxing of portable Linux application binaries by default is good, and the innovation of programs invoking user-controlled portals implemented by the toolkit that provide well-defined functionality to open or save documents, print, turn on the camera, etc. is great.
  • The WASI WebAssembly System Interface defines a runtime with capability-based security for portable WebAssembly programs. “Write Once Run Anywhere” lives again 😉!

Or write a new operating system

If you’re looking for O.S. innovation besides Fuchsia, Redox OS is a very interesting micro-kernel O.S. written in Rust based around I/O access where every path is a URL in a scheme (e.g. pipe:, initfs:, etc. schemes in its kernel and disk:, file:, ip:, etc. schemes running in userspace). And now there’s Theseus OS also written in Rust, which trusts the security guarantees of Rust code to “execute everything in a single address space and at a single privilege level” 😮. The former is close to being able to run emulators and the latter can now run Wasm/WASI programs, which helps with the problem of few programs that can run on a new O.S. And there’s progress in writing safer Rust stdlib implementations that use capabilities and/or can’t open random files (everything is an openat2() that can only opens files under file descriptors that the environment provides).

There’s lots of good interesting stuff happening at multiple levels. Disclaimer: I only have a weak understanding of all of this.

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