Wednesday, February 29, 2012

New John Mayer Music

I really like John Mayer's songwriting, guitar playing, and most of his recordings. He's written a number of songs I wish I wrote. He's got a new album in the works called "Born & Raised," set for release on May 22, and the first single is a gentle, confessional-sounding ballad called "Shadow Days" (streaming from his blog post). It didn't really do much for me on first listen until about two-thirds through when there's an instrumental bridge with a nice George Harrison-like slide guitar lead. It's a decent song but I wouldn't say it's one of his best, though some of his recent tunes have taken a few listens to really grow on me.

I have to admit that the songs from his first three albums still work better for me. He really blows me away on many of these recordings, and I have spent a lot of time listening to, analyzing, and learning some of these songs. One of my favorites is 83 (video), a nostalgic look back at the innocence of childhood. Simple and moving.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

American Taliban?

As if the aptly named politician Rick Santorum were not already sufficiently stomach-turning (and he was), his recent comments about not believing in the separation of church and state combined with his toxic views on the rights of women have really pushed him beyond outrageous for me. What sort of country would Santorum like to lead if by some horrible fluke he were actually elected president?

I have a pretty good idea from a couple of amazing "science fiction" books I read and reviewed here in 2006. Octavia Butler's dystopian novels Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents present a near future America where white ultra-right-wing religious politicians have created a Christian version of Taliban society. It comes complete with Bible-sanctioned suppression of women and even slavery.

Despite the dark circumstances, these books are really wonderful, uplifting, life-affirming, and even spiritual in nature. But the starting point in 2027 is scarily plausible. As I wrote in 2006:
My biggest impression of this pair of books is that the environment within which the story takes place rings all too true. It struck me as the future “facts on the ground” of an America that continued to ignore “inconvenient truths” of global warming, poverty, inequality, and abuse of power until it was too late, and then gave even more power to religious fundamentalists, who blamed the problems of society on the victims, and on superstitious ideas along the lines of “these problems are God’s punishment for the wicked ways of people who are not enough like us – good, God-fearing, white, conservative Christians.”

Monday, February 20, 2012

Streaming My Google Music

Sometime last year, Google announced their Google Music (Beta) program and I asked to be a beta user. It was something of a pain to set up, because at the time, Google had not worked out deals with record labels to allow them to distribute central copies of MP3 files based on some evidence that you already own that music (Apple is doing something like this with their iCloud service). This meant that I had to upload all the music I wanted to have out there, and it took some effort and several days to do this (their music uploader application has since improved so this would be easier now). But I ended up with 19,767 songs on Google's server (it's free for up to 20,000 songs).

This is nice, but in practice it was not very useful because all these songs are also on my PC (on an external drive that I travel with), so it's easier to play them in iTunes if I'm using the PC. I didn't worry about because I thought that Apple's then-coming iCloud music service would solve all my problems since I'm an iPod and iTunes user anyway. But when that service launched, it wasn't as good, easy, or cheap to use as I had assumed (long story).

Cut to the chase, Bruce: I just discovered that there are several Google Music "client apps" for the iPhone and iPod Touch that allow me to access, search, and stream music from my online Google Music collection. I installed a free one called Melodies and it worked well on both wifi and on 3G on my wife's iPhone. So I spent 99 cents to upgrade to the "pro" version, mainly to get the shuffle feature.

This is really great, because even though I carry 4000+ songs on each of my two iPods, there are times when I want to hear something obscure that I haven't bothered to copy to the iPods (where I need to save room for recording and other apps). Here's a more detailed review of the Melodies app.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Obliviosity (New Song!)

I recently discovered a cool guitar chord I never knew before, Gmaj13. Sort of jazzy and major seventh-ish (major seven chords are a major favorite of mine). This song was the almost immediate result.  That often happens with a new chord, instrument, synth sound, music app, etc. - new sounds suggest new songs. It's a good thing.

As for "obliviosity," it probably should be "obliviousness" but that doesn't sound as good. Am I really that oblivious? Well, one person's obliviosity is another person's ability to focus on a task. So I don't know.


You said, you were gonna be leaving  
But you wouldn’t say where to
I tried a little bit of reason
A little bit of “what the hell is going on with you?”

OK, so I’m a little bit clueless
It’s like I’m looking at the world through soda straws
But what I might lack in smoothness
I try to cover up with other flaws

Obliviosity is my forté
You could even say it’s my specialité
Obliviosity is very very me
If you can figure out how I can get a clue
Could you help me out?
And let me know too?

I know I drive you crazy
But I don’t mean to hurt you
I’d give the moon and stars to you
If I only knew where they were…

Words & music by Bruce Irving (c) 2012

Monday, February 13, 2012

Wow! Scale of the Universe 2 (Interactive Flash)

Yes, there are a lot of things that are "the coolest thing ever," but this is definitely in the running for that illustrious and ever-changing title. "The Scale of the Universe 2" is an interactive Flash activity with a slider that goes from a scale of 10**(-35) meters (ten to the minus thirty-fifth power, very small) to 10**27 meters (bigger than the known universe).

This "interactivity" was created by Cary Huang. It's similar to the famous "powers of ten" movie except you can control it in both scale and speed (about 13 seconds to go from smallest to largest at maximum scroll rate) and you can click on objects to learn more about them. It comes complete with spacy background music. Awesome! Thanks to Matt Bors for posting this on Facebook.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Garageband App Rocks!

You can have too much of a good thing, and I may be approaching that point with music making apps on the iPod Touch. I've got a bunch, some of which have already given birth to songs (or at least fragments of songs), which is their main purpose for me. I wasn't even going to try Apple's Garageband 1.1 app because I already have at least two recording studio apps that are working well for me. But for $4.99, I said what the heck. It's a huge app (over 500 MB), but that's why I bought a new 64 GB iPod Touch a few weeks ago.

And wow, is it amazing! Although it "only" has 8 tracks and lacks some of the features of Music Studio 2.0 and Multitrack DAW, it's really the ideal sketch-pad for developing song ideas. The biggest things for me are the "smart" instruments that can automatically generate drum, bass, guitar, and keyboard parts with many variations, based on the chord progression I play. Smart drum parts are based on a grid with loud/quiet and simple/complex axes, where you can drag various parts of the virtual drum kit. I set the tempo and then move these elements around until I get a drum part that sounds interesting. Then I choose a key and play around with the pre-defined chords for that key in the smart guitar, keyboard, or bass screens until a song idea appears (you can also define your own chords). I'll record a minute or two of these parts, then "scat sing" into the audio microphone - this will suggest melodies, rhythms, and sometimes words. Then I may switch to real guitar to work out the song structure. Et cetera.

The "smart" parts are all MIDI tracks, playing back with sampled instruments that sound pretty realistic even on the guitar parts. This means the file sizes are pretty small until you start adding audio tracks. One thing that is lacking is a "piano roll" view for editing the individual notes of the MIDI tracks (and there is also no MIDI export or copy/paste). But that's OK, since I don't expect any of these GB tracks to be parts of final recordings. If I do get anything that is so brilliant it needs to be used, I can figure out how to export that track as audio (or something).

Garageband for iOS has many more features. Here's a more detailed review of the 1.1 (iPhone) version. And here's an even more detailed review of the original iPad (1.0) app. While it would be nice to have more screen real estate to work with (i.e., an iPad), Apple has done a great job of adapting the user interface to the small iPhone/iPod Touch screen, and it's really quite easy to use, as well as supremely portable.

Optics for Mars

JPL's new rover "Curiosity" is en route to Mars, set to arrive in August 2012. A recent NASA press release describes an interesting aspect of the optical sensors carried on board the rover. A special test chart is installed to allow for calibration of camera systems for resolution and color. The chart includes a 1909 Lincoln penny (hey, it's Lincoln's birthday today!) as a familiar size and detail reference, more for public engagement than for any specific science or engineering need.If you zoom in on the above image, you can see that the black & white test chart resolution samples are labeled in cycles per millimeter, the typical unit used by optical engineers to define image quality. A "cycle" is a pair of black and white lines (cycling from white or bright to black), so 2.0 cycles/mm means that two black/white pairs will fit into a millimeter of width (so each bar will be 0.25 mm wide). Higher cycles/mm correspond to finer detail in the image (smaller pixels in a digital image). This chart will be used to calibrate the instrument called MAHLI (Mars Hand Lens Imager) that will provide close-up images of mineral and soil samples.

Happy Darwin Day!

February 12, 1809 was a pretty good day for humanity. Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were both born on that day, Lincoln in Kentucky, Darwin in Shrewsbury, England. I'm a big fan of both of these guys. In the U.S., Lincoln's birthday is now celebrated along with Washington's birthday on President's Day (or maybe not). While it may not be widely celebrated in the United States (where only 39% of people "believe in" evolution, more than in Turkey), today is Darwin Day, "an international celebration of science and humanity." So happy birthday, Charlie Darwin. I'm going to wear my "gradual change" t-shirt in your honor (picture above).

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Le Voyage Dans La Lune (1902!)

Today's Amazon MP3 Daily Deal is a new album by the French band Air for $3.99. Normally I'm not a big fan of Air's electronic/pop music, but this is an interesting special case. They composed a new soundtrack for the 1902 silent movie "Le Voyage Dans La Lune" which has recently been restored to its hand-colored original state (the video is included with the MP3 download). This 15 minute film is said to be the very first "science fiction" movie. Loosely based on Jules Verne, it depicts a trip to the Moon in a hollow artillery shell fired by a huge cannon.

The trip is fast and the shell hits the Man in the Moon right in the eye (so much for the science!). The band of intrepid French explorers soon encounters angry Moon natives and of course fighting ensues. They retreat to their capsule, which has been conveniently placed on a cliff with a rope attached to the nose, which one of the men uses to pull the spacecraft over the edge (I had always wondered about the return plan with an artillery shell spacecraft and no known cannons on the Moon). It quickly falls to Earth for an Apollo-like water landing, whence the explorers are rescued and hailed as heroes.

Considering this was made a year before the Wright Brothers flew, it's really pretty impressive despite a few liberties taken with the physics. For the price of a latte and 15 minutes, it's an amusing piece of space pre-history. And the music is OK.