Thursday, December 25, 2014

Yes, But Is It Art?

I've been thinking about all the fooling around I've been doing with the Brushstroke app, Band-in-a-Box, Siri for dictating my journal, and various other technologies that augment my mental and creative powers. What's that all about? It's definitely fun, but is it art?
I should say at the outset that this is not an emotional question for me, but more of an intellectual exercise. I definitely do not lie awake at night worrying about whether my songs, blog posts, photographs, fake paintings made from photographs, or whatever constitute “art” or not. Whether anyone in the world would consider me an “artist,” even myself, is not a concern to me, though the fact that I post some of my work online suggests that I do seek some sort of audience. But mainly I enjoy using my mind to create things. In some philosophies, that is probably the essence of art. In other philosophies, perhaps this is merely navel-gazing until it reaches a certain level of quality, acceptance, or audience. I really don't know or especially care. 

But apart from semantics, what is going on when you create something with “intelligent” tools such as the Brushstroke app for painting and Band-in-a-Box (BIAB) for songwriting and recording? Apart from things like singing, dancing, and spoken poetry, every art involves some level of technology. Brushes, paint, musical instruments, paper, pens, tape recorders, and many other tools allow us to create works of art that extend beyond our own bodies and voices.

But with software and “machine intelligence,” the tools seem to be taking over more of the creative part of creativity. They are certainly reducing the level of mechanical skill required to achieve something that is “pleasing,” if not necessarily professional or artistic or original. I have never been a painter, but when I closely examine the simulated brushwork in some of the paintings created by the Brushstroke app, I'm amazed by its intricacy and by the variety of techniques that are implied. It clearly would take a lot of study, practice, experimentation, and work to achieve such things with real paint. The professional musicians who create RealTracks for BIAB play at a level that is far beyond my skill on any instrument. The software cleverly allows me to apply their skilled performances to new songs they have never heard. And the results are often surprisingly good, at least to me.

When writing was developed thousands of years ago, there were people who worried that this “cheat” would cause people to become lazy, and their minds to decline, because they would no longer need to memorize culture-defining epic poems and such. Spoken word is still an important art form (drama, radio, etc.). But writing is of course an art in itself, and we know how important it has been for the development of civilization. And while I will readily admit to laziness and declining memory, I still manage to get a few things done.

Tools are just tools, no matter how fancy they may be, or how much of the creativity they may seem to contain. Creating songs or visual works such as photographs, drawings, videos, or even paintings, is partly about skill and technique, but even more about choices and feelings. Different tools require you to make different choices, and sometimes really different kinds of choices. Even if you do not make the brushstrokes or play the horn parts yourself, you need to choose the the subject and the overall design of the work, as well as which of many possible techniques or performances to use.

Smart tools allow people with an interest in creativity to create something that is artful even if it is not necessarily art. And as happened with photography, movies, television, and sound recording, these new technologies will probably lead to new art forms that we can't even imagine now. I'm thinking that humans or transhumans will continue to create something like art, and that there will be virtuosos and average people and dabblers and everything else, forever and ever, amen.

These and many other Brushstroke experiments are in a Flickr album, most with both the before and after photos:
Brushstroke App Examples

This is a video slide show of Brushstroke photos from our Australia vacation in 2006, with music:
Australia Memories 2006

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Great Book: Kindred Beings

I recently read Dr. Sheri Speede's wonderful book Kindred Beings (subtitled "What Seventy-Three Chimpanzees Taught Me About Life, Love, and Connection"). What an amazing book! What an amazing woman! It is no exaggeration to say that this book clearly shows that chimpanzees are people too, just a different kind of people. They are close to humans in much more than DNA. The picture above shows a group of chimps grieving and paying their respects to their dead friend Dorothy at the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center, which Sheri Speede founded in Cameroon. While I understand that poor humans in Africa have difficult lives and that some may rely upon “bush meat” to have protein in their diets, it is horrible, bordering on genocide and cannibalism, that these chimp/people are losing even more of their home habitats, are often abused and hunted for food, and are being driven to extinction. There are an estimated 150,000 chimpanzees remaining in Africa. The population has declined by half since 1960.

Nature is not especially kind or fair. It is often quite cruel. To a good approximation, every species watches out only for itself, through the actions of individuals who struggle to eat, to reproduce, to survive. Millions of species have become extinct and more become extinct every year. This was happening long before humans became the dominant species on this planet, with the power to transform habitats en masse, but we have certainly accelerated the process in recent years. Many humans have an interest in life beyond the earth. Is there life elsewhere in the universe? Perhaps even intelligent life? These are great questions, and I am quite interested in this subject myself. But look -- there is highly intelligent life here, and not just we humans. We have especially close cousins in the chimpanzees and other social apes. I wish we could find a way to co-exist with them.

This is just such a moving book. Here is the next to last paragraph:
Chimpanzees engage life fully, in the moment. They wear their emotions for all to see, or hear. Even an adult chimpanzee might cry like a baby if he is being rejected, or throw loud and dramatic tantrums over a perceived injustice. A few minutes later, with the proper recognition or comfort, he can be the picture of contentment. The quality of their friendships and family relationships to a large extent determines the quality of their lives. Watching the social vignettes of chimpanzees through the years has taught me to recognize my own pretenses. We are such similar apes. But they bring a primal pureness and immediacy to their expressions of intimacy, which I have come to cherish in my friendships with them. From knowing chimpanzees I have learned to live more honestly and vulnerably.
For more information about efforts to save chimpanzees in Africa, read this great book, or check out the IDA Africa (In Defense of Animals) website.

I have recently started to keep a journal using an app called Day One that runs on the iPhone. I adapted the above post from an entry in that journal. While I know I have no obligation to write this blog with any particular frequency, I sometimes feel bad that I don't do so more often, especially now that my apparent need to write for myself is being met by journaling. I've been writing this blog since 2005, and I hope that some of what I have written is useful or interesting for others. There are a lot of words here! It is still interesting to me to look back at some of what I have written here, even if I don't write here as much these days. I will probably write more blog posts from time to time, but with no particular goal for frequency.  In a cliche that I'm not supposed to use: it is what it is.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Macca & Me

An odd thought occurred to me yesterday: is Paul McCartney happier than I am? So I was thinking about this, starting with a few comparisons.

Some obvious differences include age (he's around 11 years older), plus he is British, famous, very wealthy (net worth ~$1.2 billion), and a fabulously successful musician, composer, and entertainer. I am none of these things. For all his success, Paul has suffered some tragedies in his life, starting with the death of his mother (Mary) when he was just 14. He lost his wife and soulmate Linda to cancer and his musical brother John Lennon to murder. I have experienced divorce (Paul has as well), but luckily no untimely deaths so far of anyone close to me other than my father (sadly he was only 62, but I was around 35 and was not severely affected).

What do we have in common? Musical sensibility perhaps, with strong value placed on creativity. Although Paul is clearly more talented, prolific, and successful in every aspect of music, we are both singer-songwriters with eclectic tastes. For me music is only a hobby, and I have experienced little recognition beyond family and friends (which is not to be sneezed at!). But it seems we have each experienced the joy of creating something from nothing, writing songs and turning them into complex recordings, and performing live for dozens (me) or millions (Paul) of people.

Unlike Paul, I continue to work a "real job" and to pay somewhat careful attention to money. I'm confident I will be ok when it's time for retirement, but I do have to prepare for and manage that, while I'm guessing Paul has few concerns in this area, should he ever choose to retire. I suppose he still has money worries of some sort. The rich reportedly always do. Multiple homes, employees, tax problems, frivolous lawsuits, not owning all the rights to some of your biggest songs, etc.

But what about happiness? How can I know if Paul is happy? Hell, I'm not even sure if I'm happy! But I think I'm mostly happy. Satisfied anyway. I'm reasonably healthy, have a good marriage, great kids (and a lovely granddaughter), some friends, a reasonably satisfying job, a decent home, and time and money enough to pursue music and other hobbies and occasional non-business travel. Though far from rich, we're financially OK. So happy enough I guess. Most days.

What about Paul? He certainly seems happy, but of course he's been a professional celebrity for over 50 years, so who knows? Seeming happy is part of what celebrities do, whether they are genuinely happy or not. From what I have read, he shared a great life with Linda and suffered when he lost her. But he bounced back musically (Run Devil Run was released in late 1999, a year and a half after Linda died) and was in a relationship not long after. Unfortunately Heather Mills turned out not to be his new soulmate, and there was a divorce that cost him some probably unnoticeable millions of pounds and likely some pain and suffering. Now he seems to be happy with his lovely current wife Nancy Shevell. And at 71, he continues to create new music and to actively participate in the world music scene. I'm sure that must give him some satisfaction.

So I don't know. I'm guessing that Sir Paul (another small difference, knighthood) and I are both reasonably happy people. He's probably happy with his fame and fortune and I'm happy if I can see my granddaughter and write and record a new song every once in a while. Even if only 12 people ever hear it.

In the picture above, the one of me is from 1973 (left, age 20). Paul seems to have his Sgt. Pepper mustache, so I am guessing 1967 (age 25). 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Origin, Required – Meaning, Optional

Discussions about the meaning of life or the reason for our existence both intrigue and infuriate me. This blessedly short NPR article is the latest thing I have read on this:

To me, we don't even need to be "relevant." Everything about this discussion was invented by humans, even the very ideas of meaning and relevance!

Science is the most effective system we have for making sense of the universe. As best science can determine so far, life started somehow, some 3.5 billion years ago, and evolution took it from there. This long process has produced many results, one of which is us, a form of life with powerful curiosity, able to examine its own mechanisms and origins and to define things like intelligence, purpose, love, and even "importance" that some of us who are not still fully occupied with survival may try to connect. There are plausible evolutionary explanations for the tendency to impose upon or find structure in things we observe, to seek connections and cause/effect chains. Our ancestors who were good at these things were more successful in finding food, avoiding predators, and reproducing than their less intelligent colleagues. And for all but the last 10,000 years or so, basic survival was all those skills were needed for (ok, there was art and some other things before that, but practically speaking, not much to show for that in the long period when the hand ax and the campfire were the peak technologies).

In my view, that is the end of the basic story. Our large brains evolved in response to survival challenges, but unlike the lion's sharp teeth or the cheetah's speed, our special evolutionary advantages were problem solving and flexibility, and these could be applied in many ways beyond hunting and gathering. A few breakthroughs in technology and culture launched us into civilization. A long and variable story in itself of course, but we could just as easily have spent another 100,000 years with the same basic stone hand ax. There was nothing pre-ordained about where we ended up and when. But here we are, a bunch of nearly hairless primates who like to dabble in philosophy and the occasional genocide or species eradication. Some more hairless than others, of course.

I understand how people can be dissatisfied with "somehow life started," but in spite of the overall success of science, it may not be able to answer every question we can ask. Maybe not now, maybe not ever for some questions. I don't think that means it's a failure, or that the unanswered questions must be "explained" supernaturally. It can just be, sorry, we don't know that yet. Put some funding into education and maybe someone will figure it out someday.

What drives me crazy are some of the comments (though these NPR comments are pretty good by internet discussion thread standards). Things like, there must be a reason for our being here, for our being able to think about existence. There must be a plan for us. We are conscious, so the universe must be conscious. Maybe the universe IS our consciousness, or someone's consciousness, like some god's consciousness. The watchmaker argument? Maybe there was nothing before us. Maybe the universe IS our thoughts. And all other such malarkey.

Maybe there is life elsewhere, even intelligent life. I'd like to think so, but even if they have existed far longer than we have, it's quite likely that there was no life whatsoever for the first 5 or 8 or more billion years of the universe. Big, expanding, unobserved, just doing its thing for no reason or lack of reason. Nothing to do with us or consciousness or meaning, except maybe in the fortuitous setting of physical constants that allow for stable nuclei, chemical bonds, etc. But even that is basically a circular argument. Who knows how many parallel or cyclic universes exist or existed with completely different and non-life-friendly physics? Maybe zillions. Maybe just this universe. A hole in one on the first try is certainly possible.

So basically, it is what it is! The universe didn't have to exist, but it does. No special reason for any of it, in my opinion. The same for us lucky humans. Lucky to exist, lucky to have a universe where physics and math work if we should ever be curious about that. And we also invented the idea of lucky, along with every other word and concept. But we didn't invent the universe. We just sprung up in it. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

90% Not Human

I am reading a little Kindle book, Honor Thy Symbionts by Jeff Leach. The subtitle is "a collection of short essays about health, life and the co-evolution of humans and our microbes." On the title page it also says, "two organisms that combine and live together for mutual benefit are called symbiont." Good to know!

I've read other things about the human microbiome, but these essays are very clear, eye-opening, and even a little bit scary. It's like, everything you know is wrong, starting with "bacteria are bad" - okay, bacteria can be bad, but bacteria are also primary contributors to the vast ecosystem of human and nonhuman cells that make up our bodies. With modern food, antibiotics, and hygiene, it seems we have declared all-out war on these non-human parts of our bodies ignoring the fact that they have co-evolved with our human parts over hundreds of thousands of years or longer.

Reading these essays, I feel that in a few years people will look back on our recent "modern" medicine the way we look at 18th century doctors who used leeches and other methods to drain blood from sick people. It must've made sense to them at the time. But it was based on a complete misunderstanding of the way the human body works. Modern doctors are certainly better educated and have achieved better results, but their methods are based on a very incomplete understanding of our bodies as ecosystems.

Of course there have been great benefits from antibiotics and other modern medical technologies. It's a testament to the power and resilience of evolution that we manage to be as healthy as many of us are, despite the side effects of these brute force techniques. It's like clearcutting a rain forest to wipe out a few troublesome termites. Or to grow some more corn. Oh yeah, we do that too.

I haven't finished reading this yet, and I'm not sure if I'm going to change my diet or opinions on things like GMO's. Too soon to tell. But things sure are a lot more complicated than I thought.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Orbiter 2014 (Beta)

While I'm still quite interested in all sorts of "space stuff," it's been a very long time since I did anything with the Orbiter space flight simulator. When I first discovered Orbiter in 2005, I was pretty excited. I was always interested in space, in flight simulators, and in physics, and Orbiter combined all those interests into one very cool piece of (free!) software. As part of the process of teaching myself how to use Orbiter, I wrote a tutorial manual called Go Play In Space, and I did a substantial update for the 2006 version of Orbiter. In late 2010, I started to work on an update for the 2010 version, but I got sidetracked by other interests and priorities, and never finished that project.

Last week I noticed a YouTube video by David Courtney called called "Orbiter 2014 Beta - A Quick Look" (David has recorded a large number of excellent tutorial videos on Orbiter 2010).  Wow, it's alive! Orbiter creator Martin Schweiger has released an early beta of a new version that includes 3D terrain (with high-res data so far for most of Earth as well as Mars and the Moon), along with various improvements in the physics engine and user interface. I read some of the discussions at the Orbiter Forum and decided to at least check it out.

The terrain for the new version must be downloaded and installed separately from the Orbiter beta itself (there are instructions and also a beta installation video by David Courtney). I installed the high-res terrain tiles for the US west coast, since I'm familiar with the Los Angeles area, which has some interesting mountain and valley terrain. I flew the default Deltaglider around for a while, and the general impression is similar to Microsoft Flight Simulator, though it's not quite as detailed.

You might question why 3D terrain is even necessary in a space flight simulator, since most of the time you are too far from any planet's surface for this to make any difference. I guess it comes down to realism, and "because you can." I have spent a lot of time with the wonderful AMSO add-on for Orbiter, simulating Apollo missions in great detail, and it is certainly cool to land in the great lunar terrain that is supplied with that add-on (check out this AMSO Apollo 17 video, complete with real mission audio - skip to 9:00 or so to see the mountainous terrain up close).

I'm happy to see Orbiter development continuing, and I hope to do something with the 2014 version. Updating Go Play In Space is a lot of work (it's a 181 page book), but it really needs a 2010-2014 update, so maybe that will happen, time and energy permitting!

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Crab Communicado

I've read a number of alien contact stories over the years, and I just finished one that I thought was well-written and especially inventive in terms of alien behavior and culture, A Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias. It takes place in an unspecified not-too-distant future, after interstellar travel (involving something called "gimelspace") has been developed and contact made with at least one other high-technology species, the Sholen. They and the "Terrans" have established some agreements regarding non-interference with other alien worlds. Humans in a small research station are exploring the under-ice ocean of a Europa-like moon orbiting a gas giant in another star system (not the home system of either the Terrans or the Sholen).

Beneath this dark ocean, many forms of life have evolved, all based on energy and chemicals coming from thermal vents, similar to those found in parts of the Earth's deep-ocean seabed. But in addition to simple worm-like and fish-like creatures,  the thermal vents of Ilmatar also support a crab-like intelligent species who navigate and communicate with sound (no light, so vision has not evolved here), and who seem to possess social structures and simple technology, including a form of agriculture. In compliance with the non-contact treaty, the humans have studied the Ilmatarans from afar, but some of the researchers want to get much closer, and this leads to a tragic incident that provokes conflict with the Sholen.

I won't give away more of the story, which is told in alternating points of view of human, Ilmataran, and Sholen characters. The Ilmatarans have a very old culture (millions of years), and although their technology is quite limited (no deep-water electronics!), they have language (including a writing system based on knots tied in fibers), agriculture (cultivating various plant-like species in settlements built around active thermal vents), the ability to build various structures, and a social and legal system. Landowners have apprentices and servants, and markets exist to make use of surpluses and division of labor. There is an education system of sorts (though child welfare is in a sorry state, with many of the very young apt to be eaten by adults or other young), and there is even a tradition of science, mostly focused on the study of life forms and thermal vent systems.

The Ilmataran scientists are very curious, though they cannot imagine that there are other intelligent life forms in the universe, or indeed that there is a "universe" beyond the thick ice layer above them (which they assume extends to infinity). There ultimately is contact and communication among the three species, and quite a bit of conflict and action. Although there are aspects that require substantial suspension of disbelief (e.g., gimelspace is barely mentioned, but it must provide a path through spacetime that allows faster-than-light travel), it's a well-constructed hard-SF world with no annoying "magic" stuff -- a very engaging and satisfying first novel.

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!).