Sites: | GlobalSpec Electronics | CR4 | Electronics360
Login | Register
The Engineer's Place for News and Discussion®

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.

Wait...What'd I Just Say?

Posted March 27, 2014 12:00 AM by Hannes

Several months ago, an acquaintance decided to try out a speech recognition software program to cure writer's block. He found it to be quite "intelligent" for a $50 piece of software - the calibration process was copious but effective, and the program supposedly "learns" based on corrected mistakes in order to eliminate future mistakes before they occur. By his account, the program was difficult to adjust to and absolutely mangled European names, but on the whole he was happy with it.

Speech recognition programs fall within the realm of natural language processing (NLP), which combines computer science, linguistics, and artificial intelligence principles with an eye toward reliable interaction between computers and natural human language. Like other AI fields, NLP has made great progress but still leaves a lot to be desired. Language is heavily rule-based but is also capable of great ambiguity, which of course leads to difficulties even in human-to-human communication. Throughout history, lexicographers and great thinkers alike have developed ambiguous example sentences to demonstrate the subtlety and craftiness which makes human language unique and baffling.

Ambiguity often depends on punctuation, as witnessed by recent memes demonstrating the importance of commas using the statements "Let's eat, grandma!" and "Let's eat grandma!" One of the earliest examples of this type of lexical ambiguity dates to 1327. Shortly after the murder of Edward II of England in that year, one of the king's prison officers received a note which read "Edwardum occidere nolite timere bonum est." This statement could mean one of two very different things depending on how it's punctuated. Place a semicolon after nolite and it means "Do not kill Edward; it is good to be afraid of doing this", while a semicolon after timere renders it "Do not be afraid to kill Edward; doing so is good." The meaning of this note has been widely discussed for centuries.

Homonyms - words which share identical spelling and (usually) pronunciation but have different meanings - also contribute significantly to ambiguity. This phrase was crafted by William Rapaport, a professor at the University of Buffalo, in 1972:

"Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo."

Through the use of homonyms, Rapaport designed this grammatical sentence to appear nonsensical. The sentence relies on three different forms of the word "buffalo": as a proper noun (the city in New York), a noun (the large ungulates also known as "bison"), and a verb ("to bully"). By interpreting these usages we can translate the sentence as "Buffalo bison [that other] Buffalo bison bully, [themselves] bully Buffalo bison."

The most common thread behind miscommunication is syntactic ambiguity, or the simple fact that identical sentences and words may carry different contextual meanings. A famous example which plays on the words "fly" and "like" is the sentence pair "Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana."

Other instances include:

"We saw her duck."

"Flying planes can be dangerous."

"He saw that gas can explode."

Logical statements can be made even more confusing by combining multiple ambiguities. For example, the statement "The old man the boats" appears to be nonsensical because of the common qualified noun "old man." By playing into our immediate assumption that "old" qualifies "man," this sentence leads us to believe that it's gibberish, but by rereading it and considering "old" as a noun and "man" as a verb we find that it's grammatical. This sentence in particular serves as a kind of verbal optical illusion: by blocking out "the boats" we see the noun "old man," but considering the whole sentence we interpret something completely different.

NLP will probably follow the same old AI destiny: it can make inanimate objects appear intelligent, but they still won't understand meaning or context. (Even Siri's legendary snarkiness is just programming, after all.) And, as this post hopefully shows, even human-to-human speech can be impossibly confusing based on misinterpretation of meaning and context. Besides, eschewing ambiguity would also result in the loss of scores of classic jokes; ask Groucho about that one.

Image credits: Information Insights | Speculative Grammarian

8 comments; last comment on 04/02/2014
View/add comments

Musical Engineers and Scientists: The Russian Five

Posted February 25, 2014 12:00 AM by Hannes
Pathfinder Tags: borodin cui russian music

As the eyes of the world shift from Russia and Sochi following the 2014 Winter Olympics, it might be neat to focus on a sorely neglected topic here in the West: Russian music. Most mentions of Russian composers are buried in music textbooks and stand out due to their unpronounceable names and tales of extreme poverty and alcoholism (sounds a bit like your first frat party, doesn't it?). But the influence of many Russians - including The Five, a circle of late-19th-century musicians who helped define Russian nationalism - is still evident today. This group is particularly interesting in that the backgrounds of all five men contain significant ties to science, mathematics, and engineering.

The Five: Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov

Alexander Borodin is a prime example. He attended the Medical-Surgical Academy in St. Petersburg and followed his education with several years of advanced study in chemistry. In 1862, he received a professorship in chemistry at the Academy and spent his days lecturing, conducting research, and as a practicing physician. His research, including nucleophilic displacement and other reactions of aldehydes, was influential. He independently discovered the Aldol reaction in 1872 and is listed as a co-creator. The Soviet Union went so far as to promote the 1939 Hunsdiecker reaction as the "Borodin reaction," claiming their long-deceased denizen did more significant work toward the discovery than the Hunsdieckers did.

Borodin's aldol reaction and bust.

Borodin treated music as more of a serious hobby, but some of his works are still performed today. His Slavic opera Prince Igor and the similarly exotic In the Steppes of Central Asia are regarded as cornerstones of Russian nationalist music. The popular 1953 song "Stranger in Paradise" was adapted from a Borodin melody heard in Prince Igor.

Cesar Cui, another of The Five, was born in present-day Lithuania to French and Russian parents. He attended the Military Engineering-Technical University in St. Petersburg for secondary and advanced studies and devoted his professional life to the study of fortifications after graduating in 1857. Cui became an expert on the subject: he published numerous books and papers on military architecture and served as fortifications adviser to the Imperial family. After a frontline assignment in the Russo-Turkish War, he secured a professorship in 1880 and became a general in 1906. Cui's music is less-performed than that of other members of The Five, and he is best remembered as an influential music critic, producing nearly 800 articles over the course of his lifetime.

Other members of The Five had similar backgrounds, but ultimately attempted music as a profession, with varying degrees of success:

-Modest Mussorgsky attended Cadet School to facilitate a military career but wound up working most of his life as a civil servant in various offices. He's best known for his highly original pieces Pictures at an Exhibition and St. John's Eve on Bald Mountain (usually known as Night on Bald Mountain). Mussorgsky's professional and musical careers were both cut short by severe alcoholism, which ultimately killed him in 1881 at the age of 42. His final portrait painted days before his death, shown here, is often cited as a classic depiction of the ravages of alcoholism.

-Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov studied mathematics and navigational sciences in St. Petersburg before ultimately joining the Russian navy. He was soon composing full-time, however, and became one of the most important Russian composers in history. His works, including Scheherazade, musical treatises, and "corrected" versions of Mussorgsky's pieces, are frequently encountered today. (The closing number from Disney's Fantasia, in fact, is a hacked up version of Rimsky-Korsakov's edition of Mussorgsky's Bald Mountain.)

-Mily Balakirev, often thought of as the leader of The Five, studied mathematics at university but immediately focused on music upon graduating. He made his (meager) living as a piano and composition teacher and burned out relatively early, breaking with The Five and suffering several nervous breakdowns with periods of acute depression.

It's difficult to determine whether The Five's common roots in math and science were due to their shared musicality or simply the state of Russian education at the time. Interestingly, their works don't show a particularly mathematical flavor as do those of contemporary pieces by Brahms, for example. It's since been proven that there's a concrete link between musicality and performance in math and science, so maybe the music came first?

Image credits: Naxos | John Wiley and Sons | Lafayette College

4 comments; last comment on 02/27/2014
View/add comments

Redesigning the Acoustic Guitar

Posted January 23, 2014 12:00 AM by cheme_wordsmithy

As a musician, I am foremost a singer. I love to play my vocal chords. Unfortunately, it's not always easy and fun to make music without an instrument behind the singing. Enter the guitar, one of the few instruments that allows the freedom to sing and play at the same time. My first came into my hands about 9 years ago, and I haven't looked back since.

The acoustic guitar is one of the most versatile instruments ever made, as evidenced by the use and evolution of guitar-like instruments through the centuries. It is also (in my opinion) one of the most beautiful sounding and beautifully made. The earliest "guitarish" stringed instruments called tanburs date back to Ancient Egypt, 3500-4000 years ago. Designs changed as time passed and ideas were passed through different cultures; most, like the European lute, were small bodied with less than five strings. It wasn't until the mid 19th century that the modern six string acoustic guitar began to take shape, with Antonion Torres' invention of the classical guitar. The larger body size and modified proportions improved the guitar's volume and tone; over 160 years later, this design remains largely the same.

Dan Bouillez's new guitar design is an attempt to change that. His guitar is shaped and sized like a regular guitar, with one major difference - the soundboard.

The soundboard on a guitar is the top face of wood where most of the sound generation occurs. When a note on a guitar is played, the vibration from the string is channeled through the bridge to the soundboard, which then also vibrates and causes the tone to resonate into the body and project (typically) out the soundhole in the center. Most acoustic guitars have a fixed soundboard attached around its perimeter to the side pieces.

The Bouillez guitar is different. It boasts a "floating" soundboard that is not connected to the guitar sides at all, but instead is connected to the rest of the guitar only at the bridge. The soundboard is pressed against the neck block and tail block inside the body, and is supported by the "downward and tensile force of the strings". In addition, the soundboard uses a goatskin material, and its thickness is 1/10 of that of a normal guitar board. The Bouillez design allows the soundboard more freedom to vibrate, supposedly creating clearer tones, improved response, and better tone.

I applaud Dan Bouillez for engineering a unique alternative to today's all-too-familiar guitar construction. But how does it sound? After listening to this video of Jesse Solomon playing the Bouillez, I think the sound has the slight flavor of a banjo, fast response and clear tones but a bit metallic and mechanical. Music is in the ears of the listener, of course, and to be sure the music would be better with a higher quality recording. But take a listen and tell me what you think.


Bouillez Acoustic Guitar -

Bouillez Acoustics

Guitar images from,, and

5 comments; last comment on 01/24/2014
View/add comments

Montefiore Prescribes Eno

Posted May 03, 2013 10:00 AM by Hannes

Brian Eno has worn many hats over the course of his 64-year life: glam rocker, experimental composer, influential producer (for no less than David Bowie, Talking Heads, Devo, U2, and Coldplay), artist, writer, and political activist. As of late, the English musician has brought his unique talents to the completely different arena of healthcare.

The Independent recently reported that Eno had installed two "ambient sound installations" - for the purpose of creating a serene environment for patrons - at the newly-renovated Montefiore Hospital in Hove, East Sussex, England. One of the installations is generative - created to constantly evolve and never repeat using complex algorithms - while the other is a predetermined soundtrack album accompanied by ambient lighting and art. (The image at right shows Eno with one the art installations at Montefiore.) Public music installations are not unfamiliar to Eno: his well-known 1978 album Ambient 1: Music for Airports was devised to calm nervous fliers in airport terminals.

As an electronic music pioneer, Eno was instrumental in the conception and development of both ambient and "discreet" (a term of his own invention) music. Ambient music is defined as that which focuses more on sonic textures than the more traditional cornerstones of rhythm and melody. Most of Eno's ambient music is very slow and sprawling, with gradual musical changes. (Eno himself has confessed that he typically plays and records his ambient pieces at a normal pace, then slows down the tape.) Discreet music is a type of ambient music - based on the eccentric "furniture music" derived by early-20th century French impressionists - designed not to be explicitly heard but to blend in with an environment and its surroundings and be perceived like a piece of furniture. This probably explains why the hospital was so eager to contract with Eno to enhance their "three-dimensional, all-embracing means of treating patients" - the idea is for the patient or visitor to be comforted and soothed without explicit awareness of what is comforting them.

Just as Eno is no stranger to ambient music, the medical profession is well-acquainted with the benefits of music therapy. Decades of research has shown that music improves patients afflicted with mood disorders, schizophrenia, aftereffects of stroke, Alzheimer's, dementia, and heart disease, as well as children with developmental disabilities. If Eno's ambient installations prove successful at Montefiore, I would hope other medical centers follow their lead and proactively work to comfort those likely to be experiencing stress or trauma.

(Image credit: Long Now Foundation)

Add a comment

How Loud is Too Loud?

Posted April 19, 2013 8:46 AM by Hannes
Pathfinder Tags: nihl noise-induced hearing loss

Most would agree that the technological development of music players during the past twenty years has been astounding. From the bulky portable cassette players of my childhood through portable CD players, MiniDisc players, and increasingly-smaller digital media players, portable music has become ubiquitous in most international communities. It's perhaps not surprising that noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is also on the rise and is becoming an increasingly prevalent concern for both the medical and musical communities.

The National Institute on Deafness defines NIHL as damage to the inner ear from overexposure to harmful environmental noise. This overexposure can take two forms. Acoustic trauma is defined as a one-time overexposure that causes permanent damage due to high-intensity sounds like gunfire, a single loud drum hit, or firecrackers. Gradually developing NIHL, on the other hand, is caused by repeated exposure to dangerously loud sounds. This type tends to develop as a result of combined sound intensity and time of exposure to loud sounds. (I supposed the guy in this well-documented case would place himself between these two extremes.) OSHA states that exposure to 85 dB of noise for eight hours a day has the potential to cause permanent hearing loss.

Most organizations recommend specific techniques to curb NIHL, namely to first avoid exposure to excessively loud sounds as often as possible (and let's face it, this is more difficult than it sounds). Many industrial workers - including those working in manufacturing, agriculture, transportation, and around aircraft - have little choice but to be exposed. While ear protection standards is well-established in these industries, most individuals planning to attend loud concerts or nightclubs skip ear protection due to embarrassment, lack of comfort, and reduced sound quality.

The NIHL discussion becomes a little more interesting - and controversial - when applying it to musicians. It may come as no surprise that many (if not most) rock musicians suffer from resultant hearing loss, but orchestral musicians and conductors are now considered susceptible as well. Hearing researchers have avoided making broad generalizations because of the lack of conclusive research, but many believe that musicians' exposure to sound levels on par with harmful industrial noise renders much of the research on occupational noise applicable to the art music world. The fact that orchestral musicians depend on hearing themselves clearly to make a living, and therefore are unable to use earplugs or other protective devices, adds an interesting wrinkle to the debate.

Despite the lack of conclusive research, NIHL among professional musicians and conductors has steadily increased in recent years. This awareness affected me on a personal level: during my time playing in college bands and orchestras, a longtime conductor was diagnosed with NIHL after years of rehearsing large, noisy ensembles in rooms that were too small and acoustically poor. Our school responded by installing temporary anechoic panels in the same rehearsal spaces as a short-term solution, before eventually renovating all rehearsal spaces to be acoustically safe under high decibel levels. Several organizations have been founded to raise awareness of NIHL and its effect on musicians as well as youth, including Don't Lose the Music and Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers (HEAR).

Noise-induced hearing loss is perfectly avoidable, but even for those already afflicted the prognosis is good thanks to improving hearing aid technology. Thanks to awareness and forward thinking, advocacy groups are causing us to think twice about constantly slipping on headphones or burning out our car speakers with excessive noise.

(Images via cheezburger | eBay)

21 comments; last comment on 05/12/2013
View/add comments

Musical Engineers: Laurens Hammond

Posted March 27, 2013 12:00 AM by Hannes

The neural links between music, math, and technology have long been studied and established, and a number of great inventors or engineers have had side interests in the arts. This post will delve into the life of Laurens Hammond, inventor of one of the most widely-heard electromechanical instruments of the 20th century.

Laurens Hammond (usually referred to as "Larry") was a tinkerer from a young age, and this interest led him to pursue a mechanical engineering degree at Cornell University. After graduating in 1916, he worked for several Detroit-area automobile manufacturers, although he continued to invent on the side. In 1919 he invented a silent spring-driven clock, and in 1922 developed a 3-D motion picture projection system called the Teleview. Only one feature film was made for this system, and although it was a great critical success the economics of refitting theaters with new projection systems ended the Teleview's run.

While working on the Teleview, Hammond perfected his skill at designing and building increasingly small synchronous motors. In the late 1920s he used this skill to design an electric clock in which the motor was synchronized with the current frequency of the power grid, resulting in great precision so long as the current's frequency remained constant. Hammond patented his clock and formed the Hammond Clock Company, which eventually produced dozens of models and employed 700 people. Due to the Great Depression and problems with patent royalties, the company ran into financial problems in the mid-1930s. Hammond scrambled to invent a lucrative solution: he developed an electric bridge table that sold well enough to pay off outstanding debts, but this proved to be a short-lived solution.

Hammond had long toyed with the idea that his synchronous motors could be put to musical use. While developing the synchronous clock, he had stumbled upon the fact that if a gear is rotated within a magnetic field, it will theoretically produce a musical tone if connected to a speaker. (This was a sort of precursor to the concept of a guitar pickup.) If Hammond synchronized these "tone wheels" with the frequency of the power current, the instrument would perpetually stay in tune. Hammond gutted a used piano, worked with Hammond Clock's treasurer - who was a church organist - to develop suitable tones, and in 1933 completed his first "Hammond organ." The instrument contained 91 tone wheels, each of which was connected to nine switches. These switches activated different harmonics of each tone wheel fundamental, effectively producing nine different tones for each wheel. Using additive synthesis of different waveforms produced by the tone wheels, the instrument was capable of hundreds of different tones and musical colors. Hammond added drawbars, based on a church organ's register system, so that the performer could precisely select and alter the organ's range and sound on the fly.

Hammond patented the instrument in 1935, and it was an immediate success. Churches jumped on the Hammond organ because it was cheaper, lighter, and easier to maintain than traditional pipe organs, and could replicate many of the latter's complex layered sounds. The instrument eventually made its way into jazz and rock, is featured on various landmark recordings of the 60s and 70s and was revived in the 90s and 21st century. Although Hammond developed his own corresponding speaker system, most Hammond players took to the Leslie speaker, which was built with a rotating horn to enable a swirling Doppler effect sound.

Hammond organs were eventually redesigned with transistor circuitry, but most players still gravitate to the antique tone wheel models. Interestingly, many design flaws that Laurens Hammond tried and failed to correct - such as a percussive key click and unintended crosstalk interference between rotating and stationary tone wheels - are now highly valued by studio musicians and collectors as integral parts of the instrument's sound.

Laurens Hammond was an eccentric fellow who never expected or enjoyed the fame his invention brought him. He was intimately involved in the Hammond Organ Company into his later life and also forayed into economics, publishing an 80-page pamphlet about mathematically eliminating unemployment; this publication understandably did not catch on. Hammond died in 1975 with over 100 patents to his name. I find it interesting that, whenever I appreciate the sound of a Hammond organ, I can thank Larry's bankrupt clock company and ingenious mind for its invention.

(Images via NNDB & AcesandEights)

2 comments; last comment on 03/28/2013
View/add comments

Previous in Blog: Burnin’ Down the House: Historical Stage Lighting  
Show all Blog Entries in this Blog