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Chris Harris's Blog

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Current: January 2015

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24 January 15 (permalink)

TRIBUTE

Iain M Banks used to have great fun naming the spacecraft in his novels. General Contact Units, the moon-sized behemoths of the galaxy-spanning civilization known as the Culture are operated by Artificial Intelligences, and they have wonderfully silly names which are, we are told, chosen by the AIs themselves. The State of the Art has the best GCU names: I Thought He Was With You and Funny, It Worked Last Time... are my favourites.

This week SpaceX's Elon Musk (yes, him again) announced the names of the company's next two spaceships, which are currently under construction. And he's taken two classic spaceship names from Banks's work as a tribute to the great man. So I now live in a time when there really are spacecraft called Just Read The Instructions and Of Course I Still Love You.

And I think that is brilliant.

EDGAR FROESE 1944 - 2015

Tangerine Dream announced on their Facebook page yesterday evening that band member Edgar Froese has died. This was sudden and unexpected, and a big shock. After reading the news I had to put Phaedra on, and sat here listening to it play, savouring its ethereal beauty and travelling back in time.

I was a sickly child. I'd spent my early childhood in and out of hospitals. I was the smallest kid in my year, underweight, and even if I hadn't had a serious illness to retard my development, as an August baby I was always playing catch-up. In some areas, I didn't even try. I was the straightest of straight-edge kids. I didn't smoke, or drink, or try any of the other substances that intersected with progressive music back then. Even so, I was aware of what was going on. And I could see that that Tangerine Dream's compositions were ideally suited to being perceived through the filter of altered levels of consciousness. For those of my cohort who aspired to the hippy lifestyle, the band's albums were a pretty reliable signifier. Sitting in the dark, smoking something herbal and listening to Tangerine Dream was part of growing up for a lot of my pals. Even if it wasn't, quite a few of them made an effort to convey the impression that it was.

But I had to reach an appreciation of the music my friends liked by different means. And by the time I hit my teens I was a full-blown synth nerd. I was obsessed with the things. To be confronted with a bunch of musicians who not only used synths but based their entire compositional strategy on the technology, who innovated and pushed musical boundaries to see what these weird musical instruments could do triggered a musical epiphany. I loved the radically different tones and timbres that their music used. I loved the fact that their compositions would meander on for the whole side of an LP. Looking back on their music now I can see how they also primed me for an interest in ambient music.

I can remember listening to the Tangs on Radio 1 back in the 70s - Alan Freeman and John Peel were both fans and got them airplay which really stood out compared to just about anything else the station played. Mysterious Semblance at the Strand of Nightmares is the first Tangerine Dream track I can remember hearing. I can still remember Fluff reading out the song's title afterwards (and it's probably kicking around on a cassette somewhere upstairs). Naturally, it was an Edgar Froese composition.

Despite airplay from a few DJs like Peel and Fluff, the band's reputation was built almost entirely by word of mouth. I suspect that that word of mouth was principally amongst folks like my schoolfriends. The result was that when Phaedra came out in 1974 it sold in ridiculous numbers and went gold in the UK. Your music has to be something pretty out of the ordinary for that sort of thing to happen. You need to have a talent that's more than special - it needs to be unique. And Edgar Froese most definitely fell into that category.

A couple of years ago I collected the Tangerine Dream albums of the 70s and 80s on CD and listened to them again, sans tape dropouts, pops or scratches. I was struck by just how bloody good they are. And, like the music of Steve Hackett, who I've recently come back to, I can now hear how much of an influence the Tangs' music has had on my own musical choices.

Other members came and went; some went on to do great things. Christopher Franke in particular has become a stunning composer and his work on Babylon 5 is, for me, some of the greatest music ever produced for television. But Froese was the only constant member of the band and I can't imagine them continuing without him. If this is the end, then it's a sad moment. But what a wonderful legacy of music he and his fellow musicians leave behind.

WARMER

I replaced the draught excluder on the kitchen door yesterday; there was a noticeable breeze blowing under the door. This morning the house feels warmer, although this may be more to do with the fact that the outside temperature has gone from the -4°C it was this time yesterday to a balmy 2°C. I've said this before, but it still holds true - since I had the conservatory built I've noticed my heating bills have dropped considerably. My energy supplier sends me "how you're doing" emails about power consumption and in this house, which is now 25 years old, I use only slightly more energy than "modern energy efficient homes." Given the amount of computing and musical activities that go on in it, that's pretty good, I reckon.

18 January 15 (permalink)

SLOW DAY

In readiness for FAWM I spent yesterday afternoon updating software on my laptop (yes, I know, I live such a rock and roll lifestyle...) Ableton recently released Live 9 version 9.1.7, but the laptop was still on 9.1.2; I also had quite a few VST plug-ins to install and a whole heap of EZDrummer expansion packs to add. It took quite a while. In fact, it took a lot longer than I was expecting.

The main reason for this was that the laptop is getting on a bit, and it's been running slower and slower as software accumulates on it. Despite me making a number of performance tweaks to Windows while I was at my father's place for the new year it's been taking nearly five minutes to boot up. It's a three-year-old Dell XPS, and while it's not a top of the line model it's a fairly decent spec and it shouldn't really be running that slowly.

Eventually, I decided to run defrag on it. And one big reason for the machine's slowness became apparent almost immediately: the C: drive was 25% fragmented. When Win 7 came out I'd read somewhere that it automatically carries out disk defragmentation in the background, so I assumed that I didn't need to explicitly run the program. I'd naively assumed that in Win 7, defrag was a continuous process, and promptly forgotten about it. In reality, defrag is only an "automatic process" if you schedule it to start at a particular time (and the default, as far as I'm aware, is for it to run at 01:00 on Wednesdays). On a laptop that's switched off most of the time, that had never happened.

Now the laptop has a fairly large hard drive (it's a 1Tb drive), so I realised defrag was going to take some time, but I set it running, and waited. And waited... Watching paint dry would have been riveting by comparison, so I left the laptop to get on with things and played Borderlands: The Pre-sequel instead.

Unlike earlier versions of the program, defrag on Win 7 is an iterative process. It first finds files that have been fragmented (that is, files which are split into sections scattered across your hard disc) and defragments them - it recombines them into a single file as it moves them somewhere else on the disc. It then consolidates files and free space, by rearranging your most frequently use files so that they're located on the parts of the disc that give the fastest access times and giving you a single lump of free disc space rather than a scattering of small gaps right across the platters. These two steps are termed a pass, and when defrag has done this once, it does it again (the program has been improved so that a lot of files that would be marked as "unmovable" under earlier OSs can now be moved, and I suspect - although I can't find out for sure - that this is what happens in subsequent passes.) Aha, I thought. Each pass speeds up a little bit, so eventually it should reach an optimal state and finish running.

Except that four hours later defrag had got to pass fifteen and showed no signs of stopping. Hmmm. I think what was happening was that another program was writing data to the hard disc and messing up defrag's algorithms. I'd stopped everything I could think of that might have been doing this, like BOINC, but I must have missed something. Still, when I closed the program and re-ran it, it reported that the hard drive was 0% fragmented. After getting rid of some programs I've never used (like Dell's wireless file sharing Stage programs) I'd taken more than 90 seconds off the laptop's boot time, so that was a productive afternoon, I reckon.

THERE YOU ARE

NASA's Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter (MRO) has found the Beagle2 lander on the surface of the red planet, eleven years after it failed to transmit on landing. And it looks like it's more or less intact. The consensus is that one of the lander's "petals" failed to deploy after landing, blocking Beagle2's radio antenna and stopping it transmitting anything (including its landing signal, which was composed by the pop group Blur) back to Earth. It's a poignant endnote to the career of Beagle2's creator Professor Colin Pillinger, who died last year.

13 January 15 (permalink)

WHAT MAKES A CHART HIT?

What makes a catchy piece of music so catchy? What is it about that small number of irritatingly ubiquitous songs that seem to be on every radio station all the time that makes them so successful? Gamaliel Percino, Peter Klimek, and Stefan Thurner have done research, crunched the numbers, and come up with a number of surprising answers in a paper published in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS One last month.

They looked at how complicated the music of a particular style is; they found that changes in the instrumentational complexity of a style are related to its number of sales and to the number of artists contributing to that style. And not in a good way: if you want to boost your album sales, it seems the way to do it is to decrease your music's instrumentational complexity. In other words, make your songs simpler. Justin Timberlake's producer Timothy Mosley is cited as an example of how "uniformity in stylistic expressions can satisfy listener demands and produce large sales numbers over an extended period of time." Being predictable brings in the money. "I know where my bread and butter is at," Mosley is quoted as saying.

What does this mean, exactly? Well, it means that big-selling songs tend to be ones that have the same structure (intro - verse - chorus - verse - chorus - bridge etc.), they are played in the same key, they have the same time signature (always 4/4), play at the same tempo, and they have similar lyrical content. In extreme cases what this means is that you can interchange chunks from one song with equivalent bits from another without affecting the progress of the music in any way that a novice would notice. You just get more of the same, homogenised stuff.

More to the point, the reason that those songs you hear on the radio are so successful is, er, because you hear them on the radio. Or, as the paper explains, "In an ‘artificial music market’ it has been shown that success is determined by social influence, i.e. people showed the tendency to prefer music that they perceived was also preferred by many other listeners." This, folks, is why second-rate songs by artists competing in The Voice or The X-Factor hit the top of the charts every Christmas. Those shows are not about talent. They never have been. It's all about exposure. Familiarity translates into affection. People buy the songs that get played to them over and over again and record companies have known this - and attempted to exploit this - for a very long time.

The authors also looked at the variety of instruments used to play the music of a particular style; as a style attracts a growing number of artists, its instrumentational variety usually increases. This makes sense to me, although when I looked at Figure 1 in their paper I must admit that I'd never associated the use of the flageolet with the musical genre of hip-hop before. I've been limiting myself unnecessarily!

The authors also identify something that the cynics amongst us have known for a long time: "A style of low instrumentational complexity requires only a small set of generic and ubiquitous skills, that can be found in a large number of other styles." Remember, it's the low instrumental complexity stuff that gets on the radio and which pays the bills. Pop music is an industry; your average worker isn't going to be a particularly talented musician because the industry doesn't need them to be. My personal tastes run to pieces of music with rich instrumentational complexity; I'm particularly fond of pieces with time signatures that aren't 4/4. I actively seek out pieces that have high instrumentational variety. I'm intrigued by new tones and timbres. It seems that these qualities actively disqualify the sort of music I like from being popular, and they mean that its practitioners are not likely to get the rewards I think they deserve. In other words, being a virtuoso on an instrument is not going to make you a superstar. It's not going to make you rich, either. That's extremely sad, isn't it?

WEATHER EYE

There is talk of snow in the forecast for here over the next twenty four hours. It's been quite a while since we got any snow around here. Right now the sun is shining, although it was raining earlier. The temperature is dropping, too - last night it was in double figures, but right now it's down to 6°C outside. I will be staying indoors this afternoon, I think.

10 January 15 (permalink)

HOW SOON IS NOW?

Yes, I admit it - today's blog title is a pathetic excuse to link to one of the greatest guitar riffs in history, but it's also very relevant to what I'm writing about: the perception of time. I have been fascinated by the way our brains work for decades. For example, have you ever wondered why it is that, when you look at a clock with a moving second hand, it sometimes seems like the first "tick" lasts longer than subsequent ones?

There's an article about how our experience of the passage of time arises in this week's New Scientist magazine, and it contains quite a few thought-provoking bits of information. But first, let's look at that "stopped clock" illusion. It's known as chronostasis.

Chronostasis can be understood if we think of the brain as being like a computer. Like any computer, the brain has a limit on the amount of information it can process every second. If we're already looking at something, all the brain has to process are the deltas - the things that change from moment to moment. But when we move our heads or shift our gaze to look at something new, the brain is flooded with new information. The brain has to work to understand all of the information being provided. The whole scene has to be interpreted from scratch and the extra processing required is what we perceive as time slowing down. When we go from looking at a text book to looking at the clock on the wall, the brain takes time to catch up with its interpretation of stimuli and this results in the first "tick" of the hand seeming to take longer than usual.

If we continuously had to process all of our sensory input, we'd cease to function. We can't deal with that much data. The brain's coping strategy is a simple one: in everyday life it throws away - ignores - a lot of the sensory input we receive. This results in a number of well-documented phenomena such as selective attention. A great test of just how selective our attention can be was developed by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris: without writing anything down, watch Simons's original video of students dribbling basketballs and count the number of times a basketball is passed from one student to another.

Go ahead. I'll wait.

Did you count the number of times?

Most people come up with the right figure for the number of times the basketballs are passed from one person to another. I've been in a room of several hundred people who were shown that video, and three quarters of them agreed on the number of passes counted.

The interesting point was that less than one per cent of them noticed anything other than the students dribbling and passing basketballs. What am I talking about? If you don't know, go and watch the video again. The video demonstrates the outrageous levels to which our brains will go in ignoring stimuli that are quite literally right in front of our noses.

In a life-threatening situation, our brains have evolved a survival trait where the throwing away of information temporarily stops. In events like a fall or an accident, anything might be important to our survival, so our brains retain the sensory impression of it. This demands more information processing than usual, and the result is that our perception of time slows down. This is the explanation for stories of how "everything happened in slow motion" that you hear from survivors of car crashes or explosions.

The New Scientist article goes in to more detail about how our brains distinguish between individual events, which is effectively how we determine the passage of time. You may be surprised to learn that our brains aren't even consistent in how we do this from one sense to another; we can distinguish between two sounds that occur just 2 milliseconds apart (humans have a kick-ass auditory system) but when we look at something, visual events have to be tens of milliseconds apart before we notice that they occurred at separate times. The really fascinating thing is that visual events have to be at least 50 milliseconds apart before we can tell which order they occurred in. And, intriguingly, the brain will attempt to reconcile these different processing abilities when it makes sense of what we're perceiving. It will, in fact, fudge things to get rid of discrepancies. Virgine van Wassenhove and her team showed that when regular auditory and visual stimuli (flashes and beeps) are out of sync by up to 200 milliseconds, the brain will change the way it responds in order to synchronise the two events. Her experimental subjects reported that the flashes and beeps being played at them eventually synchronised. In reality, they didn't; the visual and audio events were still occurring a fifth of a second apart. The subjects' brains were changing their perception of incoming data so that it made more sense with respect to the brain's model of how things really are.

In other words, what you think your senses are telling you is happening isn't necessarily what is really going on. You literally cannot trust what you see happening right in front of your eyes. And this, it seems, is why we will happily watch movies where the dialogue has been dubbed. It doesn't matter that the way in which characters' lips are moving doesn't match what we're hearing them say - our brains compensate for this to the point where, five minutes in to the film, we're no longer consciously aware that it's even happening.

But the real kicker of the article is when it discusses the subjective moment that we perceive as "now". You might think that "now" is just an instant of time, but experimentally things aren't so clear cut. In fact, "now" can have a duration that's as long as two and a half seconds. Our brains are always playing catch-up with the stimuli they receive. This is why movie directors rarely make cuts faster than three seconds. Weirdly, if people are presented with movie clips in which segments of less than 2.5 seconds are jumbled up randomly, they could still make sense of what was going on as though the jumbling up hadn't occurred.

At the next hierarchical level of perception, recognising the progression of time - noticing that one "now" has passed and another has taken its place - seems to take our brains as long as thirty seconds. But it appears that practising mindfulness or meditation has benefits in developing both attention and working memory capacity. Researchers have a neurological explanation of why meditation techniques can enable us to slow down the passage of one moment to the next and make "now" last longer. "Living in the now" is actually a real, achievable thing.

But best of all, it means Morrissey finally has an answer to his question. It's "about three seconds."

4 January 15 (permalink)

BACK HOME

I've been in Norfolk for the last few days, staying with Dad and getting to see my sister's new house. I drove over on New Year's Eve and there was almost no traffic on the roads at all - it was lovely. But these days I don't tend to stay there for long. Those of you who have met Dad, or who read what I wrote about last year's stay will not be surprised to hear that he hasn't changed at all - he loudly declared "They ought to be shot" whilst watching one news item a couple of days ago - so I tended to find myself something to do in one of the other rooms. I spent one morning bringing his laptop up to date, but I suspect he won't use it much; maybe it's because he's in his eighties and not as sharp as he used to be, but mainly I think it's because he's just not interested.

Other than that, I had a pleasant time. It's become a bit of a tradition to go for a New Year walk across the fields with my sister and her dogs, and this year our way was lit by an almost-full Moon.

Winter Moon

I did a fair bit of reading while I was there, downloading a number of items for the Kindle. I still haven't paid more than my arbitrarily imposed limit of £3 for anything, though. One thing I did finally get round to doing was setting up an account on Goodreads. Given the amount of books I read it seems like a good way of keeping track of things.

I arrived home at about 11:30 last night after a drive back that was almost as quiet as New Year's Eve. The tally for the journey was two rabbits, one muntjac deer, a barn owl, and a bright Quadrantid meteor.

BODY OF WORK

It's a new year, which means that I not only have a new blog and a new blog banner, there's also another row of entries in the blog archive. I'm quite impressed with the size of the archive now, as I've been writing this blog since June 2003. It's become a useful way for me to keep track of things, and as it's on the web it's easy to search for particular items (top tip - by adding "site:headfirst.www.idnet.com" to the end of a Google search I can limit the results that Google returns so I only see stuff from my website.)

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