Monday, March 19, 2012

Elon Musk on 60 Minutes

There was a great segment on 60 Minutes last night on Elon Musk and SpaceX. I share his belief in the importance of humankind becoming a space-faring, multi-planet civilization, but Musk has taken this vision and run with it. Big time. The introduction to the interview says:
In the history of space flight - only four entities have launched a space capsule into orbit and successfully brought it back to the Earth: the United States, Russia, China and Elon Musk.
It's impressive and inspiring to me. I wish I were a 30-something engineer again. I would move back to Los Angeles and get a job with SpaceX!

The text version of the interview is here. The video of the whole show (including commercial breaks) is here (there was also a fascinating story on the neurological condition of face blindness). This appears to be just the SpaceX video segment. I don't know how long CBS keeps these 60 Minutes videos on-line.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Music Animation Machine

This is very cool. This small program will play back any MIDI music file and display any of 14 different animations based on the musical content of the file (things like note values, intervals, part movement, and others). To use the free Music Animation Machine MIDI Player, you have to download, unzip, save, and run it on a PC (the .exe file runs directly - it doesn't require an installation program). Windows includes a default wave-table synthesizer, so it should work on any Windows machine with a sound card (if you have hardware or software synthesizers or other MIDI playback devices, it should also work with those).
Many of the animations look best when playing classical music which tends to have more distinct moving musical lines than most popular music, and it comes with several sample classical pieces. You can find tons of classical (and other) MIDI files all over the internet. Bach is especially visual (and sounds good too). The space bar starts and stops the playback.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Matt Bors Wins Cartooning Award

My favorite editorial cartoonist by far is Matt Bors. So I was happy to learn that Matt has been awarded the 2012 Herblock Prize for editorial cartooning (check out some of his work on that page, or look through his blogged archives). He is fearless and funny. Nobody gets a pass from Matt Bors - not Obama, not God, not even Steve Jobs! Though like me, he does seem to have special feelings for Rick Santorum. Matt really deserves this award. Congratulations!

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Unexpected Facts

London-based HSBC is one of the largest banks in the world, and they advertise a lot in airports. On my recent trip to China, I noticed some of their current advertising posters which feature interesting or surprising facts with the tag line "We find potential in the most unexpected places. Do you?"

One that especially caught my eye was, "Of all the people in the world who have ever lived to be 65, two-thirds are alive today." I guess that makes sense given that during most of human evolution, life was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" (at least according to Thomas Hobbes). Here are a few others I like, found in this article:
  •  0.3% of Saharan solar energy could power Europe.
  • Only 4% of US films are made by women, compared to 25% in Iran.
  • Right now, there are over half a million people traveling the world by air.
  • Over 138 million people work outside their country of birth.
  • There are five times more people learning English in China than there are people in England.
  • The U.S. has more Spanish language newspaper readers than Latin America.
  • Recycling one tin can saves enough energy to power a TV for three hours.
I assume these statements are more or less true, though I don't know the assumptions or calculations involved. I just find them thought provoking.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Love/Hate With Apple

I've got this love/hate thing with Apple (I'll admit it's mostly love).

The hate part: today's new iPad announcement that has finally made me really want one. It's hard to explain why. Better screen, faster processor, better camera? I don't exactly know. But it seems like it's ready and would be really great to have for recording and other things.

The love part? A new GarageBand update (v1.2 for iOS) that addresses my two biggest complaints. There's a "piano roll" note editor for MIDI parts (now if they would only add MIDI export!). And they added "smart strings" that sound really good based on my limited playing with them. There's also a multi-device "jam" feature that works over Wifi that might be cool. Best of all, immediate gratification: I downloaded the free update this evening. It seems to work well on my iPod Touch, but it also contributes to the hate part: now that I've really figured out how to use GarageBand efficiently, I want to use it more for songwriting and making demos, even when I'm home. If only that iPod screen were just a little bit bigger... wait...

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Brand New Tune: "Maybe Not"

I just got back from a business trip in China. Nothing much to report besides a very busy schedule, but since I had some 40 hours of time on airplanes, I managed to work on some songwriting, thanks to music apps on my iPod Touch. The one I'm using most these days is Apple's GarageBand (GB). I wrote about this app last month, but since then, I have really figured out how to use it effectively. The interface design is absolutely brilliant (OK, it's Apple, I know). It really is the ideal interactive sketchpad for creating new music (at least music that is based mainly on keyboards, guitars, drums, and vocals, though you can also record any acoustic or electric instrument you like - unless you're on an airplane). The "smart" instruments are able to generate various instrumental riffs and patterns based on the chords you play. You can also play manually though the tiny keyboard and guitar simulations are tough to use on the iPod Touch's small screen (still resisting buying an iPad). Semi-automatic is also possible (e.g., a palette of chords is presented with buttons that are easier to play than the conventional keyboard but still offer some expression and inversion features).

On the way home yesterday (13 hour flight from Shanghai to Toronto), I wrote a new song and made a rough demo, pretty much complete except for vocals which I did today. This song is called "Maybe Not," and the lyrics are pretty strange. But I mostly like it, and even though the demo has some quite rough edges, I uploaded a version to SoundCloud just now, for comparison with the studio version (TBD later this week I hope). A work in progress and a sample of my songwriting process and what is possible on a mobile device these days (with a powerful app like GarageBand).

At the start I inserted 4 bars of the bare bass riff that inspired the whole song. This was an "autoplay" option that GB offered when I chose upright bass, 3/4 time, 92 bpm, and a G minor to D minor chord change. I just started scatting to this as a loop and the song was born. I used "smart drums" and "smart bass" (automatically following the chords, key, tempo, etc. I defined) and played the electric piano chords manually from the "smart keyboard" chord palette.  I'm thinking the bridge may not work. The transition (to a G major chord) is too abrupt but Roger can help me fix that, or I will rewrite it. The last verse probably should get its own lyrics too (and a proper ending). I will post a studio version when it's done, maybe later this week.

Cool Optical Technology

A couple of years ago I attended a technical talk by Dr. Ren Ng, now the CEO of a company called Lytro. He talked about some aspects of the optical and mathematical methods now incorporated in Lytro's "light field camera." It's a pretty amazing technology now available as a product. Roughly speaking, by capturing additional information about the direction of light entering the camera when the picture is taken, digital images can be focused and zoomed after they are captured. This "Shoot Now, Focus Later" article from NPR explains the basics and includes a couple of interactive examples. Dr. Ng's Stanford Ph.D. thesis (PDF) explains a lot more.