music: tracing samples and beats

I knew the Beastie Boy’s Paul’s Boutique is the apotheosis of sampling; now https://www.whosampled.com/Beastie-Boys/B-Boy-Bouillabaisse/samples/ lays out all 26 samples. You can also explore J Dilla’s dense samples on the site. It still feels strange to me that artists hear a sound they like and just put it in their record, instead of the Beatles learning the Bo Diddley beat; but hey if Lil Nas X can make $14M off YoungKio’s $30 beat built from an experimental Nine Inch Nails track and everyone gets credited (a good writeup), more power to them.

You can buy someone’s “Bill Evans Jazz beat” off Beatstars for only $29.95! It’s not terrible.

I would love a more general “What are the origins of this sound or lick?” musicology site. Song elements sound familiar but rarely can I put my finger on the source.

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music: a return for Spinal Tap!

zOMG there will be a sequel to This is Spinal Tap. After 38 years, it can only be even sadder than the band’s first tour film; the original was another product of 1984, the high point of Western civilization.

This is Spinal Tap goes to 12 if you have seen the rockumentaries it parodies. I’m embarrassed and proud to say I sat through Yes’s Yessongs (so many guitars, the fiberglass pods on-stage in one of which Derek Smalls gets stuck), Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same (the threatening manager, the Lovecraftian nonsense), Emerson, Lake & Palmer on Tour 1973 (general tour vibes, traveling America), the Who’s The Kids are Alright (loony drummers), and The Band’s The Last Waltz (over-precious treatment of flawed rock stars). Apparently it also riffs on The Harder they Come; I wonder if there other rockumentaries influencing it that I’ve missed. I wish someone would package it on Blu-Ray together with its inspirations.

I’m not obsessive like some and never listened to Spinal Tap’s albums, but the movie and its concept form a classic, better than, say, Austin Powers. Just the band name is clever; it’s not “Spinal Tap,” it’s SpΔ±n̈al Tap, with a dotless letter i and a metal umlaut over the n; brilliantly meaningless typography. The band and their songs are all beloved by actual rock musicians; today I learned from Wikipedia that at a rock benefit Spinal Tap was joined by “every bass player in the known universe” for a performance of “Big Bottom.” Everyone wants to play with rock gods, even when they’re a parody act.

Derek Smalls: We’re very lucky in the band in that we have two visionaries, David and Nigel, they’re like poets, like Shelley and Byron. They’re two distinct types of visionaries, it’s like fire and ice, basically. I feel my role in the band is to be somewhere in the middle of that, kind of like lukewarm water.

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cars: Mercedes EQS is another big blob EV

2022 Mercedes-AMG EQS front 3/4 view
Still looks like an aftermarket Honda Civic grille, yo!

First Mercedes EQS spotted! I joined in online making fun of its front clip that looks like a Honda Civic, but in the flesh it’s quite nice. Like the Lucid Air (I haven’t seen one of those yet), it’s a big smooth blob for the wealthy ($148,550 for this AMG version 😳) that don’t want Tesla’s classic Model S sports sedan with way more performance for less money.

2022 Mercedes-AMG EQS side view
It’s BIG

I also saw two Rivian R1T big-little trucks, with its cute –0—–0– front. The πŸ”‹πŸš— rEVolution accelerates, but sadly it’s mostly a $45,000 and way up affair.

An underwhelming electric history

Mercedes-Benz SLS E-Cell

In 2011 Mercedes announced the SLS E-Cell, an exciting electric sports car. “E-Cell” was a confusing counterpart to its fantasy of an “F-Cell” fuel cell car. Wikipedia says fewer than 100 were sold, meanwhile Tesla built and sold 2,400 Roadsters.

In 2015 some Mercedes B-Class Electric Drive (87 miles range, not much compared to the Tesla Model S) cars came to California, even though Mercedes didn’t sell the regular B-Class in the USA. There were two in my neighborhood. I think only 4,000 were sold worldwide.

Mercedes EQC

Around 2019 Mercedes converted the GLC to make the EQC, but with fines in Europe for not meeting CO2 targets it never made it to the USA. I think only 700 were sold in 2019.

All this weak effort after Mercedes invested in Tesla in 2009. Its executives surely got to learn about what was coming in the Model S, which has been outperforming its grâßer engines ever since Tesla put a second motor in the 85D.

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art: market is flash stuff on the wall

For $0 I’m glad I went, but https://artmarketsf.com/ was overwhelming to the point of underwhelming. Some nice Wayne Thiebaud prints, someone painting Diebenkorn “Ocean Park”-like landscapes side-on, …? All blur together. (And no Deborah Butterfield horse sculpture from Gallery Paule Anglim to long for desperately 🐎.)

The main trend: a painting on the wall isn’t enough, it’s got to be trompe-l’Ε“il, or have video, or light up, or be made of feathers or scrunched/rolled-up paper, or wrap around the frame, plus the same lenticular schtick from when I went pre-Covid (it’s a nun, move your head, no she’s naked!, wow so meaningful πŸ˜•).

This video frame inside lenticular sums it up.

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web: LiveJournal was taken over by Russians !?!!

I tried to login to eBay for the first time in years, without success; it didn’t recognize my username or e-mail. https://monitor.firefox.com/ doesn’t think I was part of an eBay password breach, but it did report I was a victim of the May 26, 2020 LiveJournal breach. (You should go to Firefox Monitor!) So I logged in to LiveJournal for the first time in years to reset my password, only to find a home page full of Russian articles (even when viewing the lang=EN site). After password reset I had to agree to new User Agreement, with the disclaimer “The English version is a translation and is provided solely for the convenience of reading the Agreement. In the event of any inconsistency between the Russian version and its translation, the Russian version of the Agreement shall prevail.” πŸ˜•

How did I miss LJ getting taken over by Russians? “LiveJournal became so popular in Russia that at the end of 2007, Russian-based media company SUP bought it from Six Apart. The news was followed by a wave of outrage. SUP’s CEO was Alexander Mamut, a Russian banker with alleged ties to the Kremlin.” 😠

Anyway, I made only my second LiveJournal post ever: “Putin is an autocratic brutal thug. Slava Ukraini!” I’m deliberately not linking, LJ doesn’t deserve the clicks. πŸ‡ΊπŸ‡¦ If I get mysteriously sick or disappear, you know why.

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music: the B-52’s loss

I forgot how great the B-52’s briefly were and what an excellent album Cosmic Thing is. Beyond the smash “Love Shack” (produced by Don Was) with Cindy Wilson’s immortal “Tin roof, rusted!” are several more great songs, including the eco-optimistic “Topaz” with Nile Rodgers playing 🎸😍 as well as producing, “Roam” with more sensational vocals (Kate Pierson’s “Oh girRRl dancing down those dirty and dusSsty trails”🎀), and this near-perfect pop song:

In the YouTube comments fans mention how it brings then to tears, apparently without knowing that the band wrote it in remembrance of guitarist Ricky Wilson (read the lovely “About” note on the Genius lyrics site), whose death from AIDS after Bouncing Off the Satellites forced the group into a three-year hiatus 😒. It shows how music can communicate a mood beyond and below words. The words themselves are simple and direct, but the shifting tenses – “I was good, We’re gonna find something, We’ll dance in the garden, Let’s go” – replace mere nostalgic reverie with present sentiment.

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art: artists respecting artists

Here’s the cover of Paul McCartney’s 2013 album New:

cover of Paul McCartney's "New" album, an arrangement of fluorescent tubes suggesting 'N E W'.

I saw it and immediately knew the cover’s designers were riffing on Dan Flavin‘s neon fluorescent tube sculptures. Dan Flavin was “an American minimalist artist famous for creating sculptural objects and installations from commercially available fluorescent light fixtures.” He doesn’t own the idea of arranging neon tubes, and this is suggesting ‘N E W’ typography, and so has a different intent than Flavin’s austere minimalism. So Paul McCartney and the people who worked on the cover (“Logo and cover concept by Rebecca and Mike. Consultancy and design by YES. Cover image by Ben Ib“) don’t owe Dan Flavin anything.

Yet in the liner notes:

Cover: Inspired by Dan Flavin, with special thanks to Stephen Flavin.

It’s just basic respect. Let people know who directly inspired you, don’t pretend a thunderbolt of creativity struck you out of nowhere.

(The cover is actually not a photograph of a physical installation, instead Ben Ib rendered it; a Beatles blog has more details. Knowing that takes away the physicality of it; it does seem suspiciously over-saturated, whereas Dan Flavin sculptures suggest a more ghostly presence.)

Speaking of ghosts… Here’s the cover of Elvis Costello and The Roots’ album Wise Up Ghost, also from 2013:

cover of "Wise Up Ghost", very clean design of text on white background

The spread type and layout (by creative director Nicole Frantz and art director Coco Shinomiya) reminded me of some mid-20th Century graphics style, but I wasn’t sure what it is. In the liner notes:

The cover design of Wise Up Ghost is inspired by the design of the City Lights Pocket Poets Series, which was conceived by poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti. In particular, we are making an homage to the cover of Howl & Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg (Pocket Poets Series Number Four), published by Ferlinghetti in 1956. We’re grateful to City Lights for giving us the permission to use their design, and we encourage you to investigate the Pocket Poets Series, and the rest of the excellent catalog on offer from City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, 261 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94133. www.citylights.com

Pure class.

Maybe these artists could afford do the right thing because they have the lawyers and financial heft to make an offer that the artist’s representative couldn’t refuse, so there was little risk of getting their artistic vision shot down. But I prefer to think they made contact, asked how the artist wanted to be credited, and worked it out.

Of course it helps to have physical media in which you can read the liner notes. If you bought the digital album or just stream it, you would never see the credit in the liner notes and would never learn whence the inspiration arose.

#respectArtists !

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TV: let shows run no longer than they need

We started watching Katla, an intriguing Icelandic show about mysterious goings-on near a volcano. But it’s ponderous SLUDGE. A few momentous things happen in a tiny community, but the damn people never meet up to review what’s happening and tell each other what they know, because then the series would be over in 4 hours tops. Instead it’s an 8 episode sloooow walk where little happens in each episode. Why? Why are moving pictures today either a 2-3 hour movie or 8+ episodes that form a 5-7 hour slog? We gave up on “Katla”; I cheated and read a summary to find out what happens, which admits episode 3 “grinds the pacing to a complete halt.”

The director’s cut on the DVD was briefly the apex of a certain kind of moving picture story-telling. Freed from the need to whittle the experience down to allow several screenings a day in a movie theater, the movie could run as long as it needed to. Some were self-indulgent, but often the storytelling could breathe over 160, 200, 240 minutes. Now it seems every show has to be a series of 8 or 10 episodes usually of about 45 minutes. Why not 2, 3, 5, 6 or 7? Why pad story arcs with fluff, and abandon tight editing of episodes to fit into this 360+ minute slog? The only exception that comes to mind is “Black Mirror”, with series of 3, 3, 1 (the Christmas special), 6, 6, 1 (the crazy interactive Bandersnatch episode), and 3 episodes.

At least “Katla” has slightly varying episode lengths of 42 to 47 minutes, but they would be even better as 20 to 50 minutes. There’s no reason each episode of a streaming show has to be the same length. Make the best episode you can, and let it end whenever.

Pre-history

British TV used to allow TV shows to go on as long as they needed to. There were 6-show series and TV shows that were only 40 minutes long. If you look at the superlative “Prime Suspect,” each series was usually 3Β½ hours but season 4 was 5 hours. American TV was always yoked to the 30-minute or 60-minute timeslot (though recent shows are actually only 19 minutes long, the rest is commercials) and typically a massive undigestible 20+ episode season. Briefly mini-series like “Roots” broke the mold, and now I think some reality shows have short runs.

Edits as remixes

Another approach would be to allow and encourage radically different edits. I want to experience the ideas about AI in “Westworld” and “Person of Interest,” but I have little interest in the former’s ultra-violence and the latter’s predictable martial arts fights and boring police corruption plotlines. I’m not alone, so why not offer multiple edits of each streaming series?

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art: fantastic video art hidden in movie

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is a reasonably good biopic with Benedict Cumberbatch doing his reliably impressive legible acting. You don’t see someone acting, you read his interior state.

Near the end there’s an amazing video sequence of lines that blur in and out of geometric shapes and recognizable cats. I took some photos of it:

animated GIF I made from 10 photos I took of Steve Pavlovsky's analog art in The Amazing Life of Louis Wain
photos of some of the frames of Steve Pavlovsky’s analog art in The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

It’s by Steve Pavlovsky, on Instagram as LiquidLightLab . He describes:

helping create a visionary, trip-like sequence and video feedback / glitch textures to be used throughout the film

He’s credited as Analog Video Artist on the film. I didn’t realize the “feedback / glitch textures” were analog video, I thought they were more CGI. An article about its computer graphics highlights some of the mixing.

Interactive linked credits NOW!

It was ridiculously hard to find out who made this sequence. The credits for movies just go on and on; is this great work credited under VFX, special effects, art direction, or something else? Ever since DVDs, I have wanted interactive credits in which you can click on any name and the movie will jump to the best scene of that actor, or the scene with the best work by that person, be it set design, computer animation, costume, makeup, sound effect, or in this case the amazing video sequence. Amazon Prime Video’s excellent X-ray feature tells you who’s in a scene and often the music playing, but it’s no solution for the endless useless non-interactive credits.

Geek notes: making that animation

Because TV’s don’t have a [Print Screen] button, I stood in front of the TV and took pictures of the movie. Elsewhere I wrote up the gory details of cropping and straightening the TV screen in 10 photos, then turning them into the animated GIF above.

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software: straightening and animating photos of a TV screen in GIMP

TVs today are computers with a display. Any computer can take a screenshot of its display, there’s even a [PrtSc] key on most PC keyboards to “Print Screen”. My LG TV can take a screenshot of its own screen and has a USB port, but you can’t transfer the screenshots out, probably because of Hollywood copyright BS. So I have to take phone photos of its screen.

Recently I took a bunch of these to capture the feel of the fantastic analog video sequence that Steve Pavlovsky created for The Electrical Life of Louis Wain movie for another blog post.

De-warping photos

photo of a TV screen
“computer: zoom in on TV screen”

It should be simple: select the four corners of the TV screen in the photo and say “This plane in 3D space should be a 2D rectangle facing the viewer; Make It So” The free and generally excellent GIMP image editor has a dozen tools to transform an image including Tools > Image Transform > 3D Transform that sounds like it could work that way, but I couldn’t figure it out. Here’s the closest I found. I’m using the Flatpak of the development version of GIMP 3.0, which is pretty stable and getting close to release!

Theory

  1. Select the TV screen as a polygon, delete everything else in the image.
  2. Use a “Corrective (Backward)” Projection transform, settings its four corners to the corners of the remaining selection.
animated GIF of two screenshots showing the GIMP Perspective image transform in operation
the GIMP Perspective image transform in action

Steps

  1. Open the image
  2. In the Layers dialog (press Ctrl+L), right-click the image’s layer and choose Add Alpha Channel. Otherwise, when you clear (delete) part of the picture, it fills with the current background color.
  3. From the toolbox, choose the Free Select Tool (F) and click the four corners of the TV screen to start a polygonal selection, then click the starting point to close it and get the “marching ants” selection perimeter.
  4. You want to delete everything but the TV screen, so Select > Invert (Ctrl+I) and press Del to clear the selection to the checkerboard. Then Select > Invert (Ctrl+I) again to return the selection to the TV screen.
  5. To square up the TV… I didn’t try every transform tool let alone plug-ins, but Tools > Image Transform > Perspective came close.
  6. Choosing this should make a rectangle with diamonds at its corners appear. “All” you have to do is drag these four corners to the corners of the TV screen which are the corners of both the image and the current selection, but you have to get the options right. In the Perspective tool’s options (Windows > Dockable Dialogs > Tool Options if you don’t see them):
    1. Transform layer is OK, the selection is the entire layer
    2. Direction must be Corrective (backwards), otherwise you’ll be squishing down the picture even more
    3. leave Interpolation as default Cubic
    4. Clipping I left the default Crop to result
    5. I checked Show image preview and set Image opacity to 50% to give a hint of what was going on,
    6. I set Guides to Rule of thirds to show a few lines
    7. I don’t know about the other options.
  7. Now click and drag the three diamond handles that need to move to touch the corresponding corner of the TV screen/the remaining selection. I couldn’t figure out how to make the diamond handle snap to the corner of the selection; maybe I should have turned the selection into a path because snapping to nodes in a path seems to work.
  8. Click Transform in the floating coordinates window (or press Shift+Enter) to, as Super Mario Galaxy has it, TRANSFOOOOOOOORM.
  9. The transformed pixels are left as GIMP’s ^%$#@! “Floating Selection”. Every time I use the GIMP I have to search “How do I get rid of GIMP’s ^%$#@! Floating selection”; I wound up right-clicking on it in Layers and choosing Anchor Layer

This all seemed to work! It ought to correct for camera distortion (bulging sides) and 3D shortening, but it’s close enough. I left the image selection options to anti-alias and feather edges, which probably doesn’t make sense when trying to make a hard-edged animation of the image on the TV screen.

Animating the TV images

Theory

I lucked out, DuckDuckGo found a good tutorial for this. The trick is File > Open as Layers… which opens each image in a separate layer. (The bottom-most layer will be the first frame of the animation.) Then use Filters > Animation > Optimise (for GIF), Filters > Animation > Playback, then File > Export As… GIF and set animation parameters.

Steps

Only using GIMP once a month, I never learn a good workflow for batch operations on multiple images/layers. To speed up the straightening before the animation, in Layers dialog I selected every layer and chose Add Alpha Channel. Then I made a course polygonal Free Select as described above to roughly cut out the TV screens, since I moved slightly between each photo. I probably should have adjusted the layer’s opacity so I could see all layers at once. Then I hid all layers, selected and made visible each layer in turn, deleted more of that layer’s image to leave just the TV screen, and did the Perspective transformation.

After all this, we have a bunch of images at different places on the canvas. (I blame the smartphone operator for swaying like a drunken martial arts master between each photo). There’s an Image > Align Visible Layers… command, but that didn’t put all the layers in the same spot, probably because I forgot to invert a selection or complete the “crop” to the TV screen on one layer. So:

  1. In the Layers dialog make all layers visible and select them all, then Image > Crop to Content. You should have a small canvas tightly enclosing a messy stack of TV pictures.
  2. Now choose Image > Align Visible Layers…. and… nothing happens, because each layer is bigger than its contents. I forgot to choose Layer > Crop to Content on each layer. And you can’t select all layers at once and do this. So select and make visible each layer in turn, choose Layer > Crop to Content, and now try Image > Align Visible Layers. You want the Horizontal and Vertical styles to be Collect (otherwise nothing happens!?), and align to top left.
  3. The images are all nicely on top of each other, but they’re all slightly different sizes. Arggh. By selecting all in the Layers dialog, setting their Opacity temporarily to 50%, then making visible different ones in turn, I found one TV screen image was much taller than the others. So I selected it alone, and used Tools > Transform Tools > Scale to drag its bottom and right edges to make it closer in size to the others.

After all that, I was finally ready to see the animation, with Filters > Animation > Playback… It still wobbled around, but close enough. So Image > Scale Image… to 1280 wide (twice this blog’s column width), then Filters > Animation > Optimize (for GIF).

Then File > Export As… louis_wain_pavlovsky_animation.gif, check As animation, set the animation speed, click [Export], and… it doesn’t work, no file is created. I ended up reopening the multi-layer image in the current GIMP version 2.10 and exporting from that (and it worked!) Then I couldn’t reproduce the bug. It turns out export as animated GIF fails in this 3.0 pre-release if you have multiple layers selected; I filed a bug.

The Export GIF dialog lets you set the “Delay between frames where unspecified”, but I couldn’t remember if I had specified this delay or not; anyway, the animation was way too fast. So I used the free command-line tool ImageMagick to slow down the animation to 40/100ths of a second between frames: convert -delay 40x100 too_fast.gif a_bit_slower.gif

animated GIF I made from 10 photos I took of Steve Pavlovsky's analog art in The Amazing Life of Louis Wain
my bad capture of Steve Pavlovsky’s analog art in The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

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