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Notes & Lines

Notes & Lines discusses the intersection of math, science, and technology with performing and visual arts. Topics include bizarre instruments, technically-minded musicians, and cross-pollination of science and art.

David Bowie: Technophile

Posted January 13, 2016 2:58 PM by HUSH

The musical world lost an icon on January 10. David Robert Jones, a.k.a. David Bowie, passed away from liver cancer, two days after his 69th birthday coincided with the release of his 25th studio album.

Needless to say, artists from all over will mourn his passing, as so many already have. Yet David Bowie also helped shape our technologies in both overt and subtle ways.

Let's begin with his early career. After almost 10 years of seeking fame as the lead singer of fledgling London blues and rock bands in the 1960s, Bowie began to promote himself as a solo artist. He found some initial success, and in 1969 published Space Oddity, a five-minute-long track that he wrote after watching Stanley Kubrick's 1968 sci-fi film, 2001: a Space Odyssey. The film wasn't an immediate success, but nonetheless influenced many from the first space generation, among them Bowie.

Of course you've heard the song before, but here is the obligatory link to the original music video on YouTube. Thus began the narrative of Major Tom, an allegorical (and semi-autobiographical) astronaut coping with being human in a completely foreign environment. Originally the album's producer didn't want Bowie to record the track, as he believed Bowie was trying to cash-in on the hype around Apollo 11. Even if true, Bowie created a song that will forever be associated with space. It was used by the BBC as background music when BBC broadcast the Apollo 11 moon landing. Later it would be the first song performed in space, when Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield strummed the tune aboard the ISS. Space exploration continued to be influential to Bowie. In 1971 he released Life on Mars. He played an alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth. As Ziggy Stardust, he released Starman. His son Duncan is a science fiction director. The list goes on.

Yet Bowie earned his stripes as a true technologist with his love of computers and the internet. He encouraged fans to cut fan videos for his 1994 single Jump by including software in the package. In 1997 he cybercast one of his concerts, even if most internet speeds meant most people couldn't watch. In 1998, Bowie was the first artist to use the web to distribute his work when he offered the single Telling Lies for download from his official website, accompanied by an online chat session. Two years later, Bowie would start his own internet service provider, BowieNet. For $20 a month, U.S. and U.K. residents would get online access, an mailing address, a homepage that they could build and customize, as well as exclusive media and chats with Bowie and other artists. In a 2000 interview with FACT Magazine, Bowie described his vision for an internet where the artist is "demystified" to the audience by platforms on the internet-akin to modern social media. BowieNet lived until 2012 and most of its content was lost by its shutter.

As an entertainer, Bowie was extravagant and garish. He challenged preconceptions and wasn't afraid to take risks. It turns out these attributes also help entrepreneurs in the tech industry.

God speed, Major Tom.

6 comments; last comment on 01/14/2016
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It's the End of English As We Know It, and I Feel Fyeen

Posted December 22, 2015 12:00 AM by Jonathan Fuller

As a native Western New Yorker, I'm more than familiar with the stereotypes associated with that often-ridiculed region. There's Wide Right and No Goal. New York State's fattiest food and the omnipresent obsession with chicken wings. Rust Belt economies and two feet of snow in October. I've heard 'em all.

Those unfortunate enough to visit most areas of Buffalo will likely notice its other defining feature: the Great Lakes dialect, or Inland North English. This accent is common to cities like Buffalo, Rochester, Cleveland, Chicago, and Detroit; most Americans are familiar with it through SNL's exaggerated "Bill Swerski" sketches. But linguists believe that the Inland North accent is less a punchline and more an innovative breeding ground for a fundamental shift in how American English is spoken.

The dialect's defining feature, and one that's immediately noticeable, is the raising, tensing, and lengthening (sometimes referred to as "flattening") of the short a. This effect makes words like cat and that sound like kyet and thyet. The dialect has lots of other defining features, too, like the "working-class" reduction of th- to t- or d- (hence, "da Bears" and "da Cubs"), using "pop" for soda, and saying "teeter-totter" to refer to a seesaw. But a group of linguists led by William Labov have taken an interest in the Great Lakes vowels and now believe that their flattened qualities have started a major shift in American pronunciation.

As late as fifty years ago, Great Lakes pronunciation was the broadcast standard for General American English, but it's been radically diverging. Phonetic changes have a tendency to create a sort of domino effect as they spread, so as people in the Great Lakes cities begin to speak with tensed a sounds, their other vowel pronunciations shift as well due to the simple lack of possible vowel sounds. This is why those in Toledo and Buffalo commute to their jabs, not jobs, and in many cities but is starting to sound like bought and bet like but. Linguists refer to this "Northern Cities vowel shift" as a chain shift, proving that in linguistics, as in many other disciplines, changes don't occur in a vacuum: every phonetic change elicits a corresponding reaction. In the case of the Northern Cities shift, the final link in the chain would be the shift from bit to bet, although it appears this one hasn't yet taken effect.

Researchers are making a big deal over this phenomenon because major vowel shifts are few and far between in the history of the English language. The last major change, sometimes known as the Great Vowel Shift, occurred between 1350 and 1700 and involved the evolution of our currently known long vowels. This shift also bridged the divide between Middle English and our modern language, so it's kind of a big deal. What's more, English short vowels have remained relatively stable since Anglo-Saxon times; if the Northern Cities shift continues to spread and topple other vowel sounds, it could be the biggest change to English in 1000 years.

Sometimes speaking to a blue-blooded Chicagoan or Detroiter is the best way to realize the radical nature of the shift. Asking them to identify the "busses with the antennas on top," for example, you'd hear bosses with the antennas on tap and could easily misunderstand the meaning. I never noticed the accent until I moved 250 miles away, and according to Labov this is standard procedure: almost all Great Lakes speakers insist they speak General American English. Now if you'll excuse me, my kyet is filthy...I should problem give him a byeth.

Image credit: Krista / CC BY 2.0

12 comments; last comment on 12/23/2015
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The Noise, Noise, Noise, Noise, NOISE...

Posted December 15, 2015 12:00 AM by Jonathan Fuller
Pathfinder Tags: intonarumori noise music russolo

Inventors and other persons of genius have long had a reputation for being a bit eccentric. The "mad scientist" stereotype brings to mind the fictional Henry Jekyll, Julius Kelp, and Emmett Brown, as well as real-life eccentrics such as Einstein, Edison, and Tesla. And for all these well-known social outliers, it's likely that hundreds of their peers were completely derided as raving madmen for sharing ideas that bucked contemporary paradigms.

The history of music has seen its share of eccentrics as well. While the music of Stravinsky and other outliers is now commonly accepted by public ears, the short-lived musical career of early-20th-century painter and amateur musician Luigi Russolo is remembered as one of the most radical of all time.

Russolo was a key figure in the avant-garde Futurist artistic movement, which emphasized industrialization, speed, and the triumph of technology over nature. Futurism arose in Italy and exerted an influence on that country's art and architecture; it also spread to Russian literature and art as well. One gets a pretty good idea of Futurism by looking at even a few Futurist paintings: they're splashy, colorful, and seem to be moving fast despite being static on the canvas.

Russolo and the handful of other Futurist composers felt that traditional music as they knew it had run its course, and the newly industrialized world was craving a, well, more industrialized form of music. In 1913 he wrote a manifesto entitled The Art of Noises, in which he posited that 20th-century musicians "find far more enjoyment in the combination of the noises of trams, backfiring motors, carriages, and bawling crowds than in rehearsing [Beethoven]." In the same text he proposed re-classifying musical sounds into six different categories:

*Group 1: rumbles, roars, explosions, crashes, splashes, booms

*Group 2: whistles, hisses, and snorts

*Group 3: whispers, murmurs, mumbles, grumbles, gurgles

*Group 4: screeches, creaks, rumbles, buzzes, crackles, scrapes

*Group 5: percussive noises on metal, wood, etc.

*Group 6: voices of animals and men, including shouts, screams, groans, howls, etc.

Realizing that contemporary "normal" instruments were incapable of producing such sounds, Russolo invented a group of instruments he called intonarumori, Italian for "noise makers." These were relatively simple boxes containing a crank- or electric-motor-driven wheel that vibrated a string made of catgut or metal. Many models were equipped with a lever that tautened or loosened the string, changing the "pitch" of the noise. Despite the fact that each box also had a metal speaker or some other type of resonator, the intonarumori were relatively quiet acoustic instruments.

Russolo built 27 varieties of intonarumori and classified them according to his six groups above, also devising his own graphical music notation for his invention. Between 1914 and 1922 he organized a number of "orchestral" concerts featuring his instruments, most of which ended in riots. A few grainy recordings of his original "intonarumori orchestras" exist, and for lack of a better description the sounds he invoked are a bit creepy and disarming.

Russolo's vision of noise music was roundly dismissed by the established music scene, and most of the original intonarumori were either misplaced or destroyed during the 1940 bombing of Paris. Futurist music more or less began and ended with Russolo, and the entire Futurist movement had died out by the end of World War II. Russolo's non-traditional views on noise influenced other composers, however. The Swiss composer Arthur Honegger, for example, cited Russolo as an influence on his relatively well-known 1923 orchestral work Pacific 231, which uses traditional instruments to simulate the sounds of a steam locomotive. And while most of Russolo's original instruments are lost, some modern avant-garde musical groups have reconstructed the intonarumori using original design sketches and occasionally perform Russolo's music.

Apart from these niches, though, Russolo and his "futuristic" music--however strange and un-musical--remain forgotten by modern music lovers.

Image credits: Iliadz/CC BY-SA 2.0 | Pelodia/public domain

8 comments; last comment on 12/16/2015
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Engineering the Guitar Capo: 200 Designs for One Purpose

Posted December 01, 2015 1:01 PM by Jonathan Fuller
Pathfinder Tags: capo guitar

A few weeks ago I bought my first guitar--which I need for a new part-time music gig-- in about 15 years. As I removed its packaging I thought about how simple most musical instruments are-for example, the guitar and most other stringed instruments are just a set of tensioned cords suspended between a nut and bridge. Stopping them with your fingers shortens the string's vibrating portion and changes the pitch, and the instrument's body naturally amplifies the vibrations caused by plucking or bowing.

My gig involves a lot of strumming and singing (folksy stuff), so I had to order a capo along with my guitar. Most seasoned guitarists are familiar with these little devices: they're used to raise the pitch of the entire guitar to play in many different keys using the same basic chord shapes. My capo's packaging spouted on and on about how it's "precision engineered" and meticulously designed, so I got to wondering about its history and design.

In a technical sense a capo is really an artificial nut (the little white notched thing close to the headstock) that's clamped to different points on the neck to change the vibrating length of all the strings at once. Because the capo can't be placed any farther up than the guitar's actual nut, it can only raise, not lower, the pitch from standard tuning. Capos are most frequently used in folk and folk-influenced music, and might have become popular in these styles because folk musicians were keen on the idea of using familiar chords in more difficult keys that better suited their voices.

All designs since the first capo came about in the mid-1700s involve some type of thin bar that depresses the strings at a preselected place and remains there by clamping onto the guitar's neck. The first device was a simple brass clip that relied on its own tension to grip the neck, but this quickly fell out of favor because the clip back scratched the heck of the neck itself. A few different late-18th century designs that maintained tension with a screw in conjunction with a piece of wood (cejilla-style) or metal (yoke-style) solved this problem.

Three of the many capo designs (left to right): Ashborn's 1850 patent | Dunlop trigger | Planet Waves ratchet

Capo engineering really took off after the first capo patent was issued in the US in 1850, and dozens of designs have emerged since. Most of these relied on a spring or some type of screw until the development of the now-common trigger capo in 1979. This one uses a strong integral spring along with a simple clamp design (supposedly inspired by a typical clothespin) that facilitates quick one-handed changes to its position. The trigger model and a 1978 Shubb design--which uses a screw to custom-adjust the clamp to the instrument's neck width--seem to be the most popular modern devices.

A few strange capos also cropped up in the '80s. The Third Hand "partial capo" from 1980 consists of six individual "fingers" that can clamp any combination of strings, rather than all of them at once. And the ratchet capo, patented in 1989, works like a cable tie for the guitar's neck, with a lever-release for quickly changing the position.

For an instrument that's barely changed over the course of 300 years, who knew its little $15 accessory could be so complicated?

(And for those who crave more capo design info, Sterner's Capo Museum has info and images for 243 different capo types.)

Image credits: Creative Tools / CC BY 2.0 | Sterner

4 comments; last comment on 12/06/2015
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Creative AI: Can Computers Create?

Posted July 28, 2015 9:01 AM by Jonathan Fuller

Artificially intelligent systems are capable of many human-like behaviors. At least on a surface-level, they can think, learn, speak, read, and simulate emotions. The convergence of human and machine behavior has led to the well-worn ideas of the Singularity and possible machine superintelligence.

Those uncomfortable sharing their headspace with a machine purport that computers will likely never be capable of one of our most human traits: creativity. Creativity seems random, messy, and subjective, three attributes not easily grasped by computers. Creative AI research, while interesting and promising, has provided more questions than answers; namely, "What is creativity, and who's capable of it?"

Creativity is "the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, [and] interpretations," according to Random House Dictionary. Given that computers essentially analyze fairly standard rules, patterns, and relationships, a truly creative one seems unlikely. Creative works are often described as "novel" and somehow valuable or useful; without direct human input, this is a monumental challenge for AI.

These hurdles haven't stopped researchers from trying, though. Lior Shamir, a computer science professor at Lawrence Technological University, developed algorithms that identified similarities between works of Jackson Pollock and Van Gogh and correctly ordered all thirteen Beatles LPs chronologically based on audio and visual samples. Because computers aren't adept at handling discrete pixel and frequency data, Shamir converted each visual or audio sample into thousands of numerical values that were fed into a pattern recognition system. Shamir's music understanding programs are based on an earlier project that analyzed 15,000 whale songs to identify that whales communicate using different dialects depending on their geographical origins.

While analyzing creative works might seem much simpler than actually producing them, automated painting and composing software programs have been used for decades. AARON, a program created by Harold Cohen in the mid-'70s, is hand-coded to produce artworks (like the one below) in a specific style. Even Cohen is quick to point out that AARON isn't creative, though: it simply follows procedures outlined by its programmer, who is the true artist. Returning to the definition of creativity, AARON follows the rules rather than transcending them. More complex painting robots are becoming common, although these still seem to be merely going through the motions.

If true artistic creativity seems outside the reach of AI, what about the experimental kind? Assuming Pasteur's assertion that "in the experimental fields, chance favors the prepared mind," a data-loaded processor would be much more likely to stumble upon a scientific breakthrough than a messy human brain.

AI research seems peculiarly unconcerned with the philosophy of the work, with practical solutions trumping abstract ideas: an application that works will naturally form the basis for an abstract theory. Many in the field point to aviation as a good example: it took building a working flying machine to answer the century-long debate asking "Can we, and should we, fly?"

So is there a useful application for creative AI? Music recommendation engines used by iTunes and streaming music services would certainly benefit from creativity breakthroughs. Although in a subjective sense, I wouldn't find an hour of identical-sounding music very appealing.

Image credits: The Academic Minute | Stanford University

22 comments; last comment on 07/31/2015
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Your Kitchen Table Is Now A Musical Instrument

Posted June 25, 2015 4:26 PM by Jonathan Fuller
Pathfinder Tags: electronic music tonetree

Pocket-sized instruments have always appealed to musicians. Pulling out a harmonica, xaphoon, or ocarina and playing on the go seems like the pinnacle of convenience for the musically minded. But imagine the ability to transform any surface you come across into a musical instrument, using only your smartphone and a small device named after a tree.

Last year, four RPI students formed startup ToneTree and began work on such a device, which they've dubbed Birch. Birch consists of a very-high-frame-rate infrared camera that allows users to draw a sonic interface on a table or other flat surface. It's technologically similar to an infrared QWERTY keyboard, albeit with a much faster camera for real-time sound production.

ToneTree co-founder and CEO Brian Cook, who's pursuing an MFA in Integrated Electronic Arts, has been using his interest in music and technology to come up with innovative instruments since his undergrad days. At the University of Hartford he wrote a piece for the commemoration of a new building and invented a wired mallet device with integrated sensors and switches as well as remote cameras to enable performers to "play" the new building. Cook and his three ToneTree compatriots started work on the Birch prototype after he realized that doing away with the wires and creating a free-form instrument would heighten the experience.

The new instrument allows users to draw shapes on a flat surface and program them to correspond with waveforms like notes or percussive sounds. (Check out this demo.) This free-form interface makes Birch's expressive possibilities almost endless. The team has also talked about developing mats printed with a piano keyboard or guitar fretboard in the future.

The group has made rapid advances on Birch since undertaking the prototype in November 2014. They've just recently achieved data processing fast enough to eliminate most of the lag between finger movement and sound production and are still experimenting with faster optics. Birch renders a user's table or wall touch-sensitive, like a piano, by tracking finger velocity and producing tones that are proportionately forceful or gentle. The backend is powered by a combination of OpenCV for computer vision, MIDI for the musical portion, and Qt for the user interface.

The Birch is a patent-pending design and will be sold commercially in the coming year. Cook and software designer Ronald Sardarian discussed expanding research to a future device that would enable users to transform any flat surface into a touchscreen using a simple mobile device. It might be a useful addition to other promising augmented reality (AR) technologies such as Microsoft's HoloLens.

Classroom application of Birch seems like a natural progression, and the inventors are already partnering with local school STEAM (STEM+the arts) programs. Thinking back to my own school days, I imagine that most would rather play with this neat new technology than study the recorder. And if its future AR applications allow tapping walls rather than waving my hands in the air, well, sign me up for that too.

Image credit: Quickmeme

5 comments; last comment on 06/30/2015
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