Sunday, April 13, 2014

My Mozart-Mac 80's Mashup

In the pre-web days of the 1980's and early 1990's, I went through a couple of serial obsessions (hobbies, I guess) that I once attempted to merge. I was reminded of this today when I discovered a cool Spotify playlist, "Mozart - Complete Chronological Catalogue."

I bought an early Mac a few months after Apple announced it, around March 1984. It was expensive - the Mac (128 KB RAM!), external floppy drive (no hard drive!), and dot-matrix printer cost about $3500, and a few months later I spent another $900 to upgrade to a "Fat Mac" with a whopping 512K of RAM (yes, KB, not MB)! That $4400 would be about $10,000 in 2014 dollars, but I loved that goofy little computer. I was a complete Mac fanatic until 1994 when I bought my first PC, for work-related reasons, and I haven't had a Mac since (though I have drunk deeply of Saint Jobs' i-device Kool-Aid).

In 1987, Apple came out with a program called HyperCard that allowed Mac users to create "stacks" of hyperlinked "cards" that could contain text, data, and images, with a scripting language that would let you turn these stacks into interactive graphical databases and other sorts of programs (here's an interesting look back at HyperCard from 2012). These were very much like web sites, except that all the data and images had to reside on the Mac itself (around the same time, there started to be hard drives and local networks for Macs, but it was still basically a single-user, single-computer program).

I loved HyperCard, and was always looking around for things to do with it (in the mid 90's, I would use the much more powerful HyperCard 2.0 to create a working prototype for a graphical user interface for a software project at my company, but that's another story). Around the same time (fall 1984 actually), the movie Amadeus was released, but I didn't actually see it until sometime in 1985, oddly enough in Japan. I had long been aware of Mozart's music, but I didn't become a big fan until I saw Amadeus and bought the soundtrack album.

I started reading about Mozart, and buying and listening to more of his music. When I later looked up the meaning of the "K numbers" (K.201, etc.) and realized that there were some 626 Köchel-cataloged works by Mozart, I got an idea for a HyperCard project (I'm guessing this was in 1988-89, so I had already been collecting Mozart CD's for a few years). I could use it to build a linked and illustrated database of all of Mozart's works. I didn't realize at first how big a project this might be, in part because there are really more than 626 individual pieces of music, and in part because in those pre-web days, all of the information I would need was in books, and I would need to enter it all by hand. I'm not sure what I intended to do about graphics beyond the limited clip-art of the day (and I never got far enough to worry about copyright).

I must have worked on this for several months, and I had the structure and logic pretty well worked out, for perhaps 100 pieces or so (probably the ones I had on CD). But researching and creating the "content" for hundreds of additional Mozart works was an overwhelming task, pretty much like writing a book. Around the same time, the brief era of CD-ROM "multimedia" software was starting, with titles such as "Multimedia Mozart: The Dissonance Quartet" (actually that was on the Mac in 1991, and I didn't have it until I got an early Windows PC with CD-ROM in 1994). Although multimedia was becoming a big deal, I realized that creating a full Mozart catalog as a HyperCard stack was too big a project for me, and I never finished it.

Now of course we have the web, with all the information you could want on Mozart and everything in the world at our fingertips. Zillions of people have created databases, websites, blogs, music streaming sites, YouTube, Facebook, and all the rest of the time-sucking internet. Today I was updating some of my Spotify playlists with favorite classical music, and I decided to look around at what others may have done for Mozart. That's when I discovered the complete Mozart playlist. Its author "Ulysses" (perhaps not an individual, since there's a Spotify app called "Ulysses' Classical") also has "complete works" playlists for Debussy, Wagner, Brahms, and others. Pretty freaking amazing. Of course these playlists only include one version of each work, but Spotify contains any number of alternate performances you can quickly find if those are not to your liking (I immediate checked out Symphony No. 25, K.183, and I don't especially like the Bruno Walter version the list maker chose - though I'm sure it's a classic, I remain a Neville Marriner man on that piece).

While 25 years ago I dreamed of having an interactive database of information to read about Mozart's works, now you can find any sort of information on the web, and find and stream any of Mozart's music (and millions of others') in seconds. The Ulysses playlist for Mozart's works has 2,805 "songs" (works, movements, and sections of works), with a play time of 127 hours, 17 minutes. I will have to block out some time. So far I am up to K.12.

UPDATE: After I wrote this, I clicked around a bit more and discovered that there is a modern programming environment inspired by and quite similar to HyperCard. It's called LiveCode and with the help of a KickStarter campaign (the videos give you a good idea of what it can do), it was recently turned into an open source project, with the goal of greatly expanding the community of users and developers. The software is now free (with certain restrictions) for non-commercial use. I downloaded and played briefly with a "hello world" test project, and it is amazingly similar to the HyperCard I remember, except that it supports multiple platforms (Mac, Windows, Linux, and even app creation for mobile devices running iOS or Android). If I had time for another infinite time sink in my life, I would totally be playing with this. I probably will anyway! If I wanted use it to develop an iOS app, I would have a slight problem in that the Apple tools for porting and testing iOS code only runs on Macs (not Windows). Good thing I don't have any app ideas! Oh, wait...

Monday, April 07, 2014

Salieri and Me

One of the things that has always annoyed me about myself is my lack of fluency in most of the things I do. By fluency, I mean the seemingly effortless way that many Europeans switch among 3-5 languages (while I struggle to follow a simple conversation in French or Japanese), or the way Paul Simon writes a song, or Eric Clapton plays guitar.  Back when I was still flying, I spent some time (in 2011!) with an instructor working on a tail-wheel rating that I never quite finished. Although I managed to do things safely, I was frustrated that I could never come close to the smoothness and consistency with which my instructor handled the airplane.

Closer to my professional life, I discovered in college that my brain’s “math engine” didn’t work very well beyond matrix algebra and calculus. I was the only science or engineering major I knew whose verbal SAT scores were higher than the math scores. I always felt that my “real” science major friends could “think in math,” while I somehow had to emulate the math in my verbal brain, a trick that didn’t work very well for abstract subjects like quantum mechanics. When I did software development early in my career, it was similar. Basic algorithm development, coding, and debugging were all OK – but despite my physics and optics background, I just could not get my head around complex optical analysis algorithms (or invent new ones, as I was expected to do). Is this why I eventually ended up in marketing and sales (albeit for some highly technical software products for optical science and engineering)?

While this is only a partial list, right away you might spot a problem: too many interests. If you dabble in a lot of different things, how can you expect to be an expert in any of them? That is a good point, but my interests are my interests, and I have trouble just dropping something I love (though I have pretty much done this with flying, a demanding hobby where dabbling is dangerous). Other conclusions might follow. Things that seem effortless seldom really are. You have probably heard about the 10,000 hour rule. I’m not sure it’s exactly a rule, but the idea is that you need to do something for 10,000 hours or more before you can expect to be really fluent or expert in it. My most recent flight instructor probably has 10,000 hours of flight time (I have about 125). Paul Simon has probably written 1000 or more songs – I have written maybe 200. I almost never practice playing the guitar (when I try, I usually end up writing a song fragment instead – or if I’m lucky, maybe a complete song). Although I can still recall chord progressions and lyrics for songs I learned in my teens or twenties, I can hardly remember new songs I learned or practiced a couple of months ago (including my own songs!).  Fortunately I am quite good at making and playing from lyric/chord sheets!

I love Mozart’s music, and I’m a big fan of the movie Amadeus, even though it is only loosely based on Mozart’s life, with many aspects exaggerated for dramatic effect. One of these is Salieri’s extreme jealousy of  Mozart’s musical talent, even to the point of working to sabotage Mozart’s career. The evidence suggests otherwise, but it makes for a good story, and for some good lines for Salieri. In the movie and in real life, Salieri did very well as the court composer for Emperor Joseph II. But in the movie, he compares his own musical gifts to those of Mozart, and comes up short: “All I wanted was to sing to God. He gave me that longing... and then made me mute. Why? Tell me that. If He didn't want me to praise him with music, why implant the desire? Like a lust in my body! And then deny me the talent?”

Forget Mozart, I can hardly compare myself musically to Salieri, a professional who wrote more than 40 popular operas and who enjoyed status, fame and fortune until his death in 1825 at the ripe (for the time) old age of 75.  But I sometimes share his frustration in seeing what is possible in a Mozart, Paul Simon, or Eric Clapton, even though I have not begun to put in the time or effort (not to mention the prerequisite talent) to create or achieve at such a sublime level. There’s a character in The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving (no relation) who says, “You've got to get obsessed and stay obsessed.”  I don’t think I have really done even that – if I had, surely I would be working on songwriting, Japanese, higher math, guitar, something, every single day. But many days I just go to work, or if I’m home, I hang out, I read a book, watch a movie, or play around with apps on my iPad. And check Facebook five or six times. Or 10. Of course I do have the serial obsession thing going on – when I do lock onto a well-defined project (like getting my pilot’s license or recording an album), I manage to focus on that pretty tenaciously for weeks or months at a time (which is not always a good thing).

But aside from English (speaking, reading, and maybe writing), I have achieved fluency in one important skill: rationalization! After beating myself up (rather gently) for a few paragraphs, I can turn around and think things like “lifelong learning is fun” or “creativity is its own reward” (as argued in this lovely letter from Kurt Vonnegut), and congratulate myself for at least trying to speak foreign languages, create music, understand general relativity, or fly airplanes (despite my relatively poor sense of direction and lousy parallel parking skills).

Finally, I cannot end this blog post without acknowledging that to a high level of approximation, I’m whining here. Anyone who has had a chance to write, play, and record music with amazing friends and musicians, learn to fly with dedicated and talented flight instructors, and travel enough to have found French and Japanese worth studying – shouldn’t be complaining!  But hey, it's a blog.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Wish I Could Fly Like This

I'm not sure I would want this for my job, as much as I love flying and as exciting as it certainly seems to be. But I would love to do it once. I know from my slow-speed and not-very-recent Cessna piloting experience that any flying requires tremendous focus and attention to detail. But when you're doing it 50 to 250 feet above the ground, at 400+ miles per hour, you can't lose focus for a second.

That makes this video especially impressive, especially in HD on a large screen. It is apparently from a motion simulator ride at the Science Museum in London. The Eurofighter Typhoon is the RAF's current front-line fighter and an amazing machine. This is a first-person point of view video taken from the back seat of one of these airplanes on a high-speed, low-level flight through the mountains of northern Wales. I love the pilot's calm British accent as he calls out things like "there's 8 G." Very cool indeed. Sometimes I really miss flying, even though I've never done anything approaching this, except in flight sims on a PC, which is certainly fun but not exactly the same thing.

There are tons of first-person flight videos on-line. Another one I like is this one, taken from the back seat of a US Navy Blue Angels F/A-18 Hornet during an airshow performance. The videographer's excitement is frequently audible.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Rocking the COSMOS

I've now watched the first three episodes of the new TV series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, and I have to say I'm really impressed. I'm a great fan of Carl Sagan and the original Cosmos series from 1980. Although I greatly admire Neil deGrasse Tyson, I was concerned that the commercial influence of Fox might result in something... let's say less than the original series. But apart from the commercials (which DVR and a few minutes of delay can handle nicely), I think the new show is just great all around.

Of course you would expect fantastic visuals in 2014, and the CGI effects are definitely first-rate. I also like the simple animation style used for historical segments. I think Tyson is actually a better host and narrator than Sagan - he comes across as confident and authoritative, yet approachable and down to earth, and he's clearly comfortable on camera. But what really impresses me is the writing, especially the way that it humanizes science and scientists. Scientists are not perfect people, and science is not just a bunch of complicated facts and figures. Scientists are human beings who have retained and cultivated the curiosity of children. Science is an often messy process that builds on its past successes but is not afraid to discard what was accepted in the past in favor of new ideas that better fit the facts. It is based on evidence.

In tonight's episode, I really liked the way they portrayed Newton as a flawed and even petty person who happened to be a genius - except when he wasn't, as in his lifelong pursuit of alchemy and Biblical numerology. We are indeed fortunate that Edmund Halley (no slouch in the brains and energy departments himself) was able to recognize Newton's genius, and to encourage and advocate for him (even to the point of publishing the first edition of Newton's groundbreaking Principia at his own expense). Halley's use of Newton's new mechanics to correctly predict the return of the comet that bears his name was a great ending, handled in a nicely emotional and dramatic way. I also liked Neil's comment, "if you're watching this in 2061, you'll certainly know that Mr. Halley's comet is back again."

Along the way, Neil explained a bit about gravity, planetary motion, and comets, with some excellent visualizations. I think it's important that they get the science right, but that they also make it a great story with characters you can care about. They might not cover as many topics as some science fans might like, but I think they have a better chance of engaging younger viewers who might not care all that much about "science stuff" (yet!).

I'm really looking forward to the rest of the series, and to the release of a Blu-Ray edition with lots of cool extras before too long. I hope that young people do find it engaging, and that some of them will be inspired to study and pursue science, as many young scientists around today were inspired by Sagan's original Cosmos in 1980.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

A Universe of Music

I continue to be obsessed with Spotify. I thought I was familiar with a lot of music, but Spotify shows me every day that I have barely scratched the surface of the world of music that I could really love. How did I miss The Jam? The Smiths? Paul Butterfield? Dozens of great albums by artists I do know? Oh well - nothing to be done about it but to explore and listen. 

I've been using playlists to help expand my horizons - some of them found, most of them built myself (which is very easy to do). Some examples:
  • 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die - This is based is based on Tom Moon's excellent book. I found one playlist (821 selected songs from most works in the list) and I started my own (complete albums, but only about 1200 songs so far).
  • Rolling Stone Magazine's 500 Greatest Albums - I found this playlist with 6300 songs. 
  • Everybody's Dummy - This is one of my favorite album review blogs, with a lot of classic rock that I enjoy, as well as a lot of cool discoveries, so I made a playlist of his highly rated albums "4.5+ on Everybody's Dummy."
  • Voyager Golden Record - Inspired by the great new Cosmos series on Fox, I just started a playlist of sounds and music from the Voyager Interstellar Record, a gold data disc that is attached to each of the two Voyager spacecraft that have just recently crossed the solar system's outer boundary. I also bought the Kindle version of Murmurs of Earth, a book written by Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan, and others about the creation of the Voyager Interstellar Record (the disc also includes a large number of images).

Cosmic Inflation! And Physicists on Facebook!

I could probably just "reblog" this post from Astropixie (thanks Amanda!), but I guess I'll write a few words myself...

Cosmic inflation! Physics was in the news recently when new measurements appeared to confirm theoretical predictions about some expected properties of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) and how this relates to events that took place not long after the Big Bang. It's complicated but this wonderful comic by Jon Kaufman, one of the Ph.D. students who worked on the project, explains it pretty well. If you read the footnote on the comic, you'll learn that one of Jon's tasks on the project was to hang out for months at the South Pole, recharging the liquid Helium in the telescope that was used for the measurements (sometimes the South Pole just isn't cold enough!).

How cool is it that they can measure the polarization of the CMB? And how cool is it that there is something called PHD Comics

So of course this result will need to be confirmed by additional independent measurements, but physicists and astronomers seem to be pretty psyched about it. They're even discussing it on Facebook. What a world! What a universe!

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Bulk Rate Planets in the COSMOS

From the March page of my 2014 Year in Space Calendar:
Kepler's light sensor is so sensitive it can detect a drop of 0.01% of a star's brightness - equal to a fruit fly passing in front of a car's headlight.
Go optics! Go detector engineering! Go zillions of software systems that allowed Kepler to steadily stare at its tiny patch of sky for months on end, looking for those tiny drops in brightness that might indicate a planet passing in front of its star. It worked great, and last week NASA announced that thanks to some advances in the algorithms used to process all that sensor data, more than 700 planet candidates had been determined with high confidence to be actual exoplanets, orbiting stars in solar systems that are light years from our Solar System. 715 new worlds, orbiting 305 different stars. Pretty amazing stuff. NASA also released a brief video explaining how these new planets were confirmed. According to the cool Exoplanet app on my iPad, there are now 1,767 confirmed exoplanets.

Speaking of amazing science stuff, I'm really psyched to watch the new TV series COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey, a 13-part series debuting on March 9 on FOX, National Geographic, and many TV networks around the world. It is hosted by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who as I have occasionally mentioned, is one of my personal heroes for his work in science education. He's a worthy successor to another favorite scientist and author, the great Carl Sagan. Sagan's original COSMOS TV series and book are still great, but 1980 was a long time ago in terms of space exploration and astronomy, so I am really looking forward to this "major rewrite" of that show. Sagan's widow, Ann Druyan, herself a tireless promoter of science education, is one of the people behind the new series. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014


Spotify is my latest serial obsession. I'm surprised I hadn't checked it out before now, but I guess I felt I had enough music and enough ways to explore new music already. Then a few weeks ago, my daughter sent me a Spotify playlist she thought I would like ("Upbeat Indie & Synthpop"), so I opened a free account, and I was pleasantly surprised. Unlike Pandora, Spotify lets you play just about any song or album anytime (at least on desktop PC/Mac apps and recently on tablets - smartphone apps still have some limitations). If you start playing Yes, you can keep listening to Yes if you like, not to a mix of artists similar to Yes (unless you want to do a radio-like thing). I soon found myself digging for long-lost albums, and pretty much everything is there. I was able to listen to "Tales of Topographic Oceans," a rather overblown 1973 Yes album I had not heard in maybe 30 years (some nice sounds, but that's about the right frequency for that album). I streamed from my iPad to my Apple TV so I could hear it on the living room stereo. Pretty sweet!

Like Pandora, the basic free account has commercials, and at first they didn't seem too frequent or obnoxious. But once I started to spend a lot more time making playlists and listening, I decided it would be nice to not have commercials, so about a week in, I signed up for a Premium account for $10 a month. This also has the nice benefit that you can download a large number of playlists for offline listening (something like 3,300 songs). This is nice for listening in airplanes and cars or wherever wifi isn't available (though it streams quite well in 3G or 4G on an iPhone 5).

So now I'm in spending hours discovering new and old music and building and listening to playlists (my own and others'). Apart from all the cool new music, it blows my mind how many albums and artists from my core interest areas I have missed. For example, Aimee Mann's "Bachelor No. 2" (2000) has been a favorite album for many years. Why did I never check out her previous album, "I'm With Stupid" (1995). It's amazing! And how did I miss so much cool music by Ry Cooder? Neil Young's live acoustic albums? David Lindley's "El Rayo-X?" I am also checking artists I have always wondered about, like Moby, Frank Zappa, the Kinks, the Smiths, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, and even David Bowie and Luther Vandross. Plus many long-lost albums and artists that I had on vinyl in the 60's through the 80's - Poco, Stephen Stills solo albums, Seals & Crofts, John Mayall, Joe Cocker, Leon Russell, and many more.

It's pretty much all out there (some 20 million songs). What is not out there? Well, the Beatles (of course I've got all their stuff). Bob Seger, AC/DC, Tool.  Pete Townshend's solo albums (I guess Pete is not happy with streaming services - all the Who albums are there, though). Led Zep was added recently (as were all three Bruce Irving albums!). There's more than I can really handle. I have one playlist called "Ultimate Deluxe Extras Albums" which is filled with boxed sets, deluxe versions, alternate takes, etc. You want "Bridge Over Troubled Water - Demo Take 6?" Got it! Some 1,300 tracks and counting. I have a wonderful old (~1996) book called the MusicHound Essential Album Guide that has helped me to identify some 5-star albums I have missed over the years. Most are on Spotify, though a few of the older ones are missing (for major artists, the older albums can often be found collected in box sets and other repackaged formats).

Is Spotify sustainable? Is it good for artists? I'm not sure, but it exists now, and as with every new entertainment technology, artists and the industry will have to learn to adjust. I heard that it doesn't pay very well (I read one quote from an artist who said he made $16 for a million streaming plays - I think this was Roger Waters of Pink Floyd), but it pays better than pirated music. I like to support artists and musicians (I'm a "recording artist" myself, though fortunately I'm not relying on the tiny income from my music sales), and I have bought tons of music over the years. One reason I decided to try it is that I found myself spending hundreds of dollars a year on mp3 albums, many of which I would listen to once (or maybe not even hear all the tracks, especially if I bought several new albums in close succession).

I still plan to try to buy some CD's or mp3 albums from artists I find myself listening to a lot, though with so much music to choose from, it's hard to see how I will listen "a lot" to anything. For now, it really doesn't seem to be a problem that I don't "own" the music on Spotify. I can pick what I want to hear, when I want to hear it, with no ads, and even take selected playlists offline on my laptop, iPhone, or iPad. I really like Spotify and I hope it continues and that it benefits artists as well as listeners.

Someday I do hope to return to blogging about space, science, and education. But as the profile says, whatever the obsession of the moment happens to be...

Friday, January 17, 2014

I Like Graham Nash - His Book, Not So Much

I just finished Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life by Graham Nash, whose high harmonies were the secret sauce in the amazing vocals of Crosby, Stills & Nash (& sometimes Young). I loved CSN/CSNY and their various solo/duo projects back in the 70's, when I was an aspiring singer/songwriter myself. Nash's songs had an appealing simplicity and his harmony choices really made the CSN vocal sound. He's pictured above circa 1969 with then-girlfriend Joni Mitchell. It didn't last, but at least they both got songs out of the deal, e.g., Graham's "Our House," and Joni's much better song, "Willy" (which was his nickname), though "Our House" was a much bigger hit.

There was much in this book that I already knew, but much that I wanted to hear about from Nash's perspective. While I enjoyed some parts of the book, Nash definitely needed an editor to make his prose more readable and the compulsive name-dropping and bragging less obnoxious. He did what he did and he knows who he knows - he's a talented guy and a celebrity, and he's entitled to be proud of his achievements and to share the details as he wishes. But others far more accomplished than Graham Nash have written autobiographies without sounding quite so pompous, shallow, and repetitive. Even Sting managed to pull this off. I read the first half and struggled to skim the rest. I'll grant that Graham Nash is a talented songwriter and singer, and I'll take his word on his skills in the visual and fine arts - but as a writer of prose... he should have had a ghost writer (or if he DID have one, he should have fired him or her!).