Category Archives: punditry

The Profile

A cute and frivolous quote by a famous deep thinker.
The elevator pitch on the making of a meaningful life.
A complaint about the advent of a dating online.
An aphorism on how it’s all cool and we’ll all be ok.
A cute anecdote about my kids.
A red flag.
A self-effacing “confession.”
A revealing almost tender romantic gesture that borders on a break with reality.
A show-stopper.
The obligatory reassurance.
A whiff of something sexual that would easily qualify as creepy in almost any setting (including possibly here.)
A roundabout hint at (my) irresistible awesomeness.
Trigger.
A quote from friends about me.
A passive aggressive fend off to rejection.
A jovial invitation to engage.
A warning to the benighted.

AOTK: The Webcomic

I’ve always had a passion for cartoons, for telling little stories, for sharing pithy ideas  but I don’t have the discipline for writing long form and I’m don’t have the budget, means or resources (and, again discipline) for making films or games. I’ve got way too much emotional baggage to dive back into music.

For some reason (clearly not because I know how to draw) a webcomic feels like the right medium and the time seems right too.

Enjoy!

The Revenge of “3 Lines”

I was incredibly lucky to have a father who had been in the first wave of professional computer programmers in the 1950′s. This would afford me huge opportunities to leverage his experience both with the craft of programming as well as project management. Opportunities I wasted no time in squandering by ignoring him completely and often doing the exact opposite of what he advised.

At my very first job interview (which by the way, I showed up for in my wedding suit — in the middle of my honeymoon) I estimated the time for the project being described as “no more than 3 or 4 weeks.” The interviewees were shocked and asked “How is it that every other candidate put their estimates in terms of months?” I just shrugged in that “What can I say?” way and got the job.

A month later I had barely made a dent. My father’s reaction was to the point: “Estimate the time, then triple it.” Whatever. Clearly irrelevant. (Nine months later the project was still not 100% done.)

By 1991, even after years of my own programming career behind me and several shipping products to my name, I was still so green and insecure that I massively (over) compensated for both when at a project scheduling meeting I predicted that a proposed feature would be “3 lines of code.” The laughter was genuine and universal and only got louder when they realized I was serious. From that moment on, my nickname became “3 Lines” and it was never uttered without at least a smirk. Meanwhile, I actually went back to my office expecting to prove them all wrong.

At the end of last year I decided it was time to learn iOS programming in earnest and I’ve been getting some nice contracting work that’s put me squarely back into flow.

The biggest resistance I’m facing as a contractor is that my work estimates are too far out for several prospective clients. People are genuinely freaked when I quote job estimates taking, you guessed it, 3 times longer than they were anticipating.

iphone_app_share-saveWhat is somewhat ironic when programming with iOS tools (as opposed to low-level C/C++ riddled with inline Assembler that was normal in 1991) you can actually accomplish quite a lot with 3 lines of code. It literally took me longer to setup the sharing graphic in a menu than it did to integrate the actual sharing feature into the code. This is particularly dramatic when combined with the advent of  FOSS resources. My son has a couple of apps in the Apple App Store and every single time I asked him how he implemented some feature or another he replied with a link to GitHub. Several times this year I had allocated days (even a week!) for coding that was done in less than 20 minutes.

So then: What the fuck is taking so long old man??

In a word: robustness.

Personally, I don’t want to write apps that only work most of the time. In the world of sever-based apps (a.k.a. The Cloud) the information most important to the user is not on the same device as your code. The goal of the app, in fact the highest priority has to be to never let the user see bad data. The only way to prevent that is old fashioned but hardly antiquated: lots of squeaky clean, multi-threaded, asynchronous, worst-case scenario code. It may only take 3 lines of code to present the data once it arrives, but that’s never been where the functionality lives in client-server computing. To change a piece of data means a round trip and a round trip is about 12 ways things can go wrong.

(My dad’s software is still talking to Voyager 1. Now that’s a round trip!)

Also: anybody remember “testing”? I know I’m dating myself but there used to be this group of people wedged between developers and users called “testers” or “Quality Assurance.” Young people may be surprised how often this latter term was used without irony. Maybe writing the code is a lot simpler with iOS tools, but the testing combinatorics on a sometimes-connected, sometimes-interrupted-by-a-phone-call, sometimes-sideways device is through the roof compared to a desktop terminal. That stuff may not be in your budget but it’s in my estimate.

In the meantime, I have no doubt you can find someone green, perhaps hungry and a little insecure with something to prove, maybe even wearing their wedding suit/gown during the interview to tell you they can post your app to the store 3 times faster than the old man.  In fact, did I mention I have a son who writes apps….?

 

Hammer, Meet Nail

I find it fascinating that people’s reaction to the news of NSA data mining is exactly as if a modern-day J. Edgar Hoover was caught red-handed in their basement with headphones on listening in on their private conversations. But that’s not what is happening here, not at all. That’s just an analogy and a broken one at that.

The majority of people I meet and commentary I read seem to be lacking a fundamental understanding of networking in general and the Internet specifically. It appears to me that our society bases its opinions by mapping the Internet into some familiar pre-21st century technology: the printing press, television, Xerox machine, telephone, etc. This, ten years after our telephones stopped being telephones.

I will now explain in precise detail what the Internet and networking is: are you ready? Here it comes:

Connectivity.

That’s it. Everything tied to everything else. The Internet can do a lot of things, but connectivity is what it is. Yes, you can buy a mop from Amazon, you can send a picture to grandma, you can read an article from the New York Times but only after you severely restrict its natural tendency toward massive connectivity. Those restrictions do not mean the Internet is a store, a letter or a newspaper.

A piece of paper is a concrete thing that is unattached to anything else. Daniel Ellsberg took 1000 pieces of paper, stood at a Xerox machine and made one copy of each page and delivered that stack of papers to the New York Times who then typeset the contents of those copies and made many 1000s more copies. We had to do all that because paper is paper and would not naturally replicate itself.

Meanwhile, in the 21st century, a piece of email is sent from the State Department on C Street in Washington, D.C. The contents of that email passes by 1000s of network nodes on its way to an American embassy on the northern coast of Africa. The packet of data with the contents of the email wends it way past connected nodes that are pro-actively deciding to ignore or pass along the email’s content except for one lowly node, sitting in the basement in the embassy which decides to pay attention. Oh, also, Private First Class Bradley Manning connects a node to that trail that is also paying attention. He points Julian Assange at his node who then points all of our nodes at it, as they naturally would — without the explicit instruction to ignore the contents.

A 20th century telephone is a device that translates sound to electrical impulses on a wire that you hook up to another telephone which translated the impulses back to sound. If Hoover wants to listen in, he crawls under your house and pro-actively redirects those impulses on just the right copper wire to his headphone (called that because it’s just the earpiece part of a phone strapped to your head.)

Your phone is nothing like that. Not any more. Not even close. Your “phone” is a network node that restricts the natively massive scaled connectivity of the network to a one-to-one connection so it can imitate the functionality for which we used to use a telephone.

It took a lot of logistical wheel turning and grinding to get the Pentagon Papers and Hoover wire taps to happen. Edward Snowden, Assange, Manning? The whole thing is there every time their laptop comes out of sleep mode. (Ironically enough Manning was found out through chat logs.)

To wit: the NSA did not “collect” any data. They just looked at it. The data was already there. They just looked at what nodes connected to what other nodes.

I got schooled on big scale networking at Microsoft by a tiny crew of visionaries working on Internet Explorer in the mid 1990′s but even once I personally “got it” it continued to be a brutal cultural battle within a company that spawned from software distributed on floppy disks for decidedly non-connected PCs. See Stutz’s “Flippant Farewell” from 2003 where he warns the “Internet wave [was a] phenomenon that Microsoft co-opted without ever really internalizing into product wisdom.”

The battle continued with my work at Creative Commons during the 2000′s as we bumped heads with the entertainment industry, especially record companies (it’s right there: “record” company, or if you prefer “label”) with their draconian, willful denial of the new networking realities. Try evangelizing BitCoin to a loan shark.

The battle between what the ‘Net is versus a broken-analogy-retro-device some aging boomer wishes it to be, was the fuel, if not the cause, of Aaron Swartz’s suicide.

Swartz represented a generation coming up that isn’t burdened by 20th century analogies. They natively know the difference between a piece of paper and a network packet. They rightfully don’t see the difference between a “phone call” and a Tweet and are therefore bemused when my generation assume otherwise. It’s not an accident that Swartz was mentored by the founder of Creative Commons or that Snowden has an EFF sticker on his laptop. These kids were taught that freedom is important and it makes perfect sense to them when Assange’s WikiLeaks manifesto encourages them to “discover technological changes that embolden us with ways to act in which our forebears could not.” Hint: he is talking about connectivity.

This is not to suggest a specific policy in regards to privacy or policing terrorists. What I am suggesting is that we will never come up with a workable policy or law as long we don’t understand the fundamental nature of what we are dealing with.

I have several Eastern European relatives who, even though they have lived in the US for over 50 years, are dumbfounded and confused by concepts like “freedom of speech” and “innocent before guilty.” They were raised in a time and place that molded their thinking to assume that if you spoke out, you got shot down (or strung up — or both.) They are completely confused when neo-Nazis are given a permit to march in our streets, leave alone the idea that, hey, sometimes guilty people whose rights were violated go free to help ensure that innocent people don’t get locked up. My relatives whinge on and cling to what they consider “law and order.”

Someday, maybe sooner than later, perhaps our time now and our place here will seem as dangerously wrong as my relatives seem to me now. For example in the old world to “share” meant firing up printing presses or a tape recorder but the ‘Net is a sharing machine; if you want it do something else (like imitate a telephone or pay-for-play television) you have to severely restrict its natural tendency. That is why to a young person, the idea of comparing a song on a peer-to-peer network to being rendered (“copied”) onto a magnetic cassette tape is nonsensical, because, you see, it is. More substantially, it is also why people like Assange, Swartz and now, Snowden talk of “freedoms” in a way that sounds a little foreign to us.

It would not surprise me if after all of us old fogey Boomers are finally gone, they look back at us in wonder as we clung to our antiquated version of “privacy” pitting it against a completely broken concept of “security,” all the while forgoing the basics of ‘Net freedoms inherent in connectivity.

NoMo MeFi FoMe

June is the 12 year anniversary of when I created an account on metafiler (MeFi), a far-reaching influential and popular community site that collects links from the around the web. I’ve never found a better axiom that describes how I feel about the site than Jason Kottke’s entire profile text: “I hate Metafilter. I love Metafilter..”

Now comes the reflections of a MeFi troll who was excommunicated from the site 10 years ago. Fair warning: the link to his interview is laden with inside references, far too many to expound on here. The salient points of the story are of a troubled young person looking for validation from adults by acting out in public who was reigned in by being booted off the island. The interview reveals a wiser adult, with some perspective, recognizing the idea of consequences and other grown-up stuff.

Towards the end of the interview comes a particularly interesting exchange:

How do you feel about this experience in retrospect?

I would say I’m lucky. The internet has gotten a lot better at forming places for people to not grow up. People like me are so common that they’ve formed their own communities. Which is unfortunate because what I really needed was to grow up a bit — ongoing process of course.

But I am lucky to have not had people who liked me for who I was when I was truly awful.

MeFi, then as now, is not the place for random, unintelligible ramblings. Unfortunately, then as now, it does tolerate a high level of aggressive alpha-dominant behavior that you have to be willing to tolerate in order to have a conversation. If you are not prepared to discuss any topic with a “what the fuck were you thinking when you said that?” tone then MeFi will drive you batty.

Twelve years ago I was coming from a different place than today. Angrier, unhappy and acting out in ways I am embarrassed about looking back. MeFi, then as now, is a place where angry, insecure alpha people, smart and informed as they may be, are super popular and encouraged. In fact, the tone is so prevalent that willful hostility in their discussion style is regularly rationalized out of existence.

In the case of the young troll, MeFi served as a lesson in reformation. Unfortunately, in my case, MeFi is an enabler of behavior in me that I now see as awful – mean-spirited, purposely disrespectful, borne of a child’s insecurity.

In poker, the hardest hand to fold is the middling one because it’s promising but very risky; in relationships the hardest one to break-off is when you have a lot (but not enough) compatibility; in communities, the hardest one to walk away from is the one where you’ve learned invaluable lessons along the way, but ultimately stunts your personal growth.

So long MeFi.

Whither Cartoon?

Something has happened over the course of my life to an artform that used to specialize in, you know, fun. On one hand big network cartoon shows aimed at kids have been scrubbed politically correct and while those targeting an older audience are still in the business of challenging polite society, they rely on snarky snideness as their stock and trade. Sure, Bugs and Daffy were snarky and snide but only during respites between manic slappy schtick. In today’s version I’ve been asked to consider condiments as a main course in the name of being edgy. Consider that for the millions of people they entertained, Wiley E. Coyote and Roadrunner never made a sound past me-meep!!!. (Emphasis theirs.)

I remember a time before “Photoshop” was a verb and CGI stood for Corrugated Galvanized Iron (OK, I don’t remember that, but I remember the time.) In that era, surrealist exaggeration and a world unbound by the laws of physics was the purview of cartooning (and, er, *cough* acid trips *cough*.)

In one of my research projects at Disney (one of several that went nowhere) I was looking at ways to heighten the level of emotional impact of gaming, which itself relies heavily on animation. The core findings of this research is a topic of another discussion but as I reminisced about what made cartoons so enjoyable to me as a kid I came to blame another chief culprit: 3D animation.

One of the key ingredients of a fun, whacky, frenetic cartoon is exactly that physics busting exaggeration. The pinnacle of this can be found in the form of Tex Avery’s [wikipedia] work, especially in the early 50′s at MGM. Some of the key drawing techniques he used was stretching, blurrng and, er, dismemberment.

It turns out, all of these are “hard” using 3D animation tools. I put hard in quotes because we all know that 3D art is driven by computers and it’s not as if a computer would find it any more “difficult” to do these three things than produce the CGI behind Life of Pi  — if it were told to do so by the geeks. The problem is that there were a series of tiny, evolutionary steps along the short but concentrated history of 3D animation tools that individually are rational enough, but taken as a whole, would require undoing millions of hours of work and even more lines of code.

It has taken three decades since the first days of John Lassiter and crew’s work on bumblebees and desk lamps to settle on a system of describing animated versions of real world objects by using meshes of tiny triangles connected together to form each shape in the scene. This mechanism has been hardened (often out of the necessity to maximize computing resources) to depend on three key properties: 1) that the mesh keep its shape by not independently moving or resizing the triangles, 2) that they stay connected by sharing edges between adjacent triangles,  and 3) that coloring the mesh (a.k.a. “texturing”) happens on the surface of each triangle and therefore not beyond the bounds of the mesh.

Behind the scenes, 3D artists may create the body parts of a virtual dog in the their tools separately, but they will combine them into one mesh, never to be torn asunder again, before delivery to the texturing team  who don’t even have the means to draw outside the boundaries of the mesh. The actual animation is authored by creating pivoting virtual guides that are mapped to various points of the mesh so that different components of the dog can move and rotate in relation to the pivot. In the parlance of the software tools: bones are connected via joints to form a skeleton which is then skinned onto the mesh in a process called rigging. In most 3D animations, the mesh never changes shape, when the paw lifts and tail wags it’s just large sections of the tiny triangles are changing position relative to adjacent triangles.

All three of these hardened attributes run 100% counter to what Avery and Chuck Jones depended on in almost every frame of their cartoons for emotional impact.

But that’s not how all this started. Lassiter was an animator at Disney, an artist, who approached the whole thing from a classic animator’s point of view. (In case you need reminding, he was fired from his job at Disney for being too enthusiastic and distracted by the prospect of computer aided animation. That short sightedness cost Disney a little bit when they ended up buying into Lasseter’s Pixar 7 years later for $7.2 billion.) From his very first 1:50 experimental short funded by George Lucas, the ‘bumblebee’ link above, he insisted that the software allow him to stretch, blur and leave holes.

Consider the iconic Luxo Jr., the ‘desk lamp’ link above, where sure, the desk lamps are rigid forms that never change shape but the ball is squishy, you can bounce on it and it eventually (spoiler:) deflates.

What’s even more crazy is that 3D authoring tools in the wild all have rigging features that default to cartoony-stretching of the mesh when you move the bones around. This Maya tutorial, uploaded by a high school kid, shows how easy it is to rig a mesh of a cat which stretches with Tom (or was it Jerry?) elasticity. Without having any other context, I was a little heartbroken when one of the top comments on the video was “is there a way so you can lock the mesh so it doesn’t stretch?”

Using the Open Source tool Blender (which is a glorious kind of mayhem itself), I followed a tutorial to create a sphere rigged for stretching. Then in a few minutes, I created a short, cute animation of it trying to get airborne (the rigging would be hidden from a final version).

The information about the rigging in this case can be shared using a widely used format call OpenCollada and a few playback environments will “animate” the mesh, meaning it will move parts of the mesh in relation to the joints, but hardly any playback tool will stretch the mesh in the way illustrated above. So my example ends up looking like a spherical marble, never changing shape and therefore losing all expressiveness.

One of the fancier features of rigging software is where you apply kinematics to a skeleton that prevents “un-natural” positions. This used to the point of cartooning. Animators, especially those in gaming, have been going in the opposite direction of old school cartoonists: desperately seeking “photo-realism” coupled with imitating real world physics. I can’t help thinking this is a particularly geeky, non-artful, enterprise since it actually puts in practice the years of schooling in math and science that would be denied by almost any other programming job. (The vast majority of programming jobs are “configuration” oriented, like sorting airline prices by lowest fare and embedding up-sell widgets into iPhone games, as opposed to the more glamorous “science-y” work of calculating virtual spatter patterns.)

And of course you can technically “draw outside the lines” of a mesh – a “fur” texture would be a common example, where hair like fibers seem to extend past the mesh. But the fact is, in order to do true free-style 3D Tex Avery style drawing, including with dismemberment and blurring you will be fighting the tools at every step.

It’s really too bad because it’s not hard to imagine how much more fun could be added to gaming that relies so heavily on exactly these tools.

 

 

Living in A Post-9-11 World

Somewhere around 1975, toward the end of my fractured and ridiculous life in high school, I took the PSAT. As a result of my score, I received an invitation to attend California State University at Northridge in the fall of 1976. There’s no way to make this sound impressive because every single person I ever knew got the same letter. However there was one big difference between me getting this letter and everybody else. We all got the invitation while still attending high school which means the California Regents reasonably expected the recipient to graduate high school in June of that year. Turns out in assuming so, the Regents made an ass out of them and me. Technically, despite appearances otherwise, I never quite made it through that particular hoop.

Here is the “ridiculous” part: after a brazenly harebrained scheme that resulted in getting me expelled from an Israeli yeshiva with good cause (namely: ’cause I was an atheist) I returned to Los Angeles and eagerly marched up the many steps of Fairfax High to re-register and get on with joke that was my high school career.

Here is the “fractured” part: the problem was we were five weeks deep into the fall semester of my senior year and I was told there was no way I would graduate on time. I was more than ready to walk away from the whole thing. My brother was also expelled in his day and GED’d out, my mom never finished high school so there was familial precedence. But my father the rocket scientist at NASA/JPL with a PHD in law didn’t take four years of Latin and name me “Victor” so I could, good God, not finish high school. So despite being incredibly pissed about the money spent on getting me to and unceremoniously back from Israel they opened the purse strings again and found that the floundering, cash starved Rambam Torah Institute on Pico Blvd. would graciously grant me “time served” as long as the checked cleared.

Here is the “despite appearances” part: I don’t remember attending a lot of classes that last semester and a half but somehow my good friend Jeff “Fifth Beatle” Feld and I ended up as the entertainment part of a graduation ceremony which took place on the bima at Beth Jacob Congregation of Beverly Hills. Together, he with his Dennis Wilson mop top and me with my massive bobbing Jewfro, strapped a pair of dime store acoustic guitars over our gowns and plowed through several songs I had written about “Alice in Wonderland.” Perhaps this was our (hot) hippie English teacher’s idea of a joke or irony but in my mind then, as it is now, it was all too self-consciously surreal. Jeff, always on the lookout for these kind of things, assured me afterwards “No, it was great! I hear the girls were pulling out their pubic hairs!” and he held up his thumb and forefinger pinched together as if to offer me one right there. (We were 17. We would never, ever talk that way today.)

The rolled up paper with the ribbon around it that I received that day, that I waved to my parents with my Chuck Taylors poking out from my robe, that I’m pretty sure my dad, to his dying day, believed was, finally, my high school diploma was anything but. It was a summons to go to the school office because, among other issues, I had overdue library books. None of the issues, books or otherwise were ever reconciled. Even with the CSUN letter in hand, I had no plans whatsoever to go to college so really, who gave a rat’s ass. I framed and hung the summons on my bedroom wall.

I know things were never resolved because just last year I had signed an offer letter from The Walt Disney Company (yet another fractured and ridiculous adventure!) and as part of the hiring process they contracted a firm from New York to do a deep background check on me. This was my first experience in hiring into a Big Company since 1994. I have since learned that in a Post-911 New World Order new hires need to be vetted by proving to be exactly who they claim to be. The vetters specifically wanted proof beyond my birth certificate and original Social Security Card (from 1961) and they figured my high school records would give them what they needed. A fact-checker for whom I have nothing but compassion and love called me from the background-check firm to ask me for my high school diploma and records. I told her I didn’t think that was going to happen.

Rambam had succumbed to financial failure less than two years after I “graduated” and even if they still existed, I explained, I never actually bothered to get all the credits and line things up therefore I could not prove I finished. Not surprisingly, the software they used to track such things did not have a way to record this particular scenario. More ominously, I was told over and over again, in several conversations, that the law (Patriot Act maybe?) prevented TWDC from hiring me without this level of verification. I was very apologetic to the confounded fact-checker but they were just going to have prove that I am not an Islamo-Fascist-trained-in-Pakistan-with-the-Taliban person some other way. In the end it took months and several postponed start dates  to get some kind of waiver, the specifics of which I never knew. (For interested parties: I didn’t keep my copy but the 1976 yearbook for Rambam is available at Amazon for $85. There are many groovy pictures of Jeff and me with our dime store guitars strapped on. I’m now thinking I should have pointed Disney fact-checkers at that.)

I want to be clear that I loath the hyperbolic, ignorant comparisons that are so common (neither GWB nor Obama are  “just like Hitler”) but the crippling level of bureaucracy, both government and corporate, mixed with the especially spurious rationale of “security” reminded me more than a little of my mom’s first hand descriptions of life under Stalin as well as my reading of Orwell.

By the late summer of 1976 I had not applied to any colleges. I think my parents (as misguided as they were about the facts) were just grateful that I had graduated high school with what was left of their sanity. Yet, everybody I talked to (including my drop-out brother!) had said some version of “you might as well try it.” I did some research and found that because of its proximity to Hollywood and because it is right in the middle of the Valley where many professional Hollywood types live, CSUN had a world-class performing arts department. Especially hot was their music program.

I showed up at the admissions office on the first day of school with my letter but, uh, of course, there were glitches. These have been enumerated above. As I stood there at the counter I noticed a hand-written sign above the copier machine seeking people to work in the office. I asked if the position was still available. The woman said yes and, even though I wasn’t a student, I started as an office go-fer right away. For the life of me I can’t remember what my actual job description included but I remember that it took about two days for me to figure out the color coded filing system. Once cracked I could find any record on any student I wanted. I looked up several records of my friends from Fairfax and found their high school transcripts and admission papers. I found one that belonged to a family acquaintance who was two years older than me. The file had a very nasty letter in it from a CSUN professor. This can’t be good I though and removed the letter from his wups-not-so-permanent record.

When I was convinced I had the system wired I admitted myself to the school as a music major. (You’ve got to admit: that’s some pre-911 bad ass shit right there!) As a result, I got an audition to the music department – which I promptly failed because they didn’t care that I could play “Devotion” on my Strat and I hadn’t picked up a cello in five years. I didn’t last two full semesters as a not-accepted music major before my girlfriend got me a job at ABC records. The rest is pot.

Timbre is the New Harmony

It’s always dangerous to predict future musical trends. That includes my personal direction. But I will say the funk piece(s) in the Penny Rusha suite was a kind of historical exorcism. It was a way of starting my climb out of a three year hiatus with the familiar. You could say, in the context of the fourstones mold of ’70′s porno soundtrack feel: it had to be done.

Meanwhile, for the more noisy, ambient sensibility I’m tracking a sometime collaborator and buddy ztutz. A few years ago I got to see him create sounds in Ableton – he mainly used Operator and other FX, would preview them in headphones and then “release” it into the mix, tweaking the thing along the way. But here’s thing: forget the process, the sounds were amazing.

I used several drones of his I found in my library for the Penny Rusha suite. A 5.3 MB FLAC stem from the Out of Step Ableton project that demonstrates this is here.  His sounds/drones/tones were so incredibly musical, they told a story, like what you expect from a great melody but they were really just one pitch or mash of pitches. That plus the modern clip automation power of Ableton led me to a thought experiment that asks: is timbre the new harmony?

The idea goes something like: between be-bop and 12-tone classical, we have reached the highest form of innovation using the Western scale that will ever be. You can’t stack the chords any higher or permute them to any more voicings. With be-bop you can’t play the notes any faster and when you slow them down, you just find the same bunch of melody fragments we’d had the 50 years before and you thus find that like chords, we’ve run out of melodic permutations of the 11 notes in the scale.

That’s leads to some awesomely clanky music ala Varese, the thoughtful silences of Cage, the maximally exploitive minimalist passion of Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker (and thus Rock ‘n’ Roll), the poetic monotonic chants of Kingston Rub-a-dub (and thus Rap) and the soundscapes of the likes of Riech and, tada, Eno.

While there is a large degree of all-Boomer-all-the-time marketing forces keeping us stuck in Beatle-mania cum Motown (thus American Idol), the late night talk shows are never at a loss to book a two-guitar, bass, drum and vocal ensemble because all the movements I mentioned above were all dead-end fadish variations of the same notes and chords we’ve been pounding on since before Hayden.

All except for the last, the soundscaping. In recent decades it occurs to me that, thanks to the rise of  NI, Reason and Ableton, there have been several sub-genres of electronic music that are primarily based on timbre (see: Dub-Step.)

Just to be clear, I actually like Lady Gaga and I’m totally digging Frank Ocean and several other new-ish people. What I’m suggesting is that if you chart the musical innovation from 1940-1970 and then compare it to 1980-2010, I think you have to conclude that creative uses of classical and blues based idioms, which is basically everything based on the Western scale, ran aground after that first period.

Electronic music that finds its emotional connection in tweaking timbre seems like very, very furtive ground to me. And I think the current crop of timbre based genres are just at the beginning of what’s possible. They are the equivalent of being handed the world’s biggest painter’s palette and using it to draw a middling gray line down the center of the canvas. All the tools mentioned above begin with the same symmetrical canned  waveforms: sine, sawtooth, triangle, square. But they all also include waveform editors! Dragging the mouse around allows you start building your sound from all numerically possible variations. This, as opposed to being locked into 11 stops along the otherwise infinite frequency range between a pitch and it’s octave double above it.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while. Right before I set aside all original music output three years ago I secured the domain name “timbregroove.org/com.” At the time I was thinking about a music creation tools that totally focuses on timbre and what that would look like, as opposed to DAWs based on virtualizing pianos and tape recorders.

If timbre is the new harmony, then innovation and newly found emotional impact will continue to flow from exploring the infinite variations of possibilities and the default scopes will be views onto the FFT window not a guitar tuner.

In the news: I’ve started posting the stems to the Penny Rusha projects over here.

Pennyrusha Music

It seems many feed readers did not properly embed the Soundcloud playlist set so here are some relevant links for the Pennyrusha Suite (rough mixes):

@Soundcloud

ZIP of FLACs (213 MB)

ZIP of MP3 (32 MB)

Meanwhile in the Corn Crib…

Anybody who last knew me in September of 2009 might be very surprised to see what’s happened in my life over the last three years. For starters: slings. Also: arrows.

Corn crib shack on the Pennyroyal Arms estate.

At the end of 2009 a calcified rock the size of a marble with protruding glass-sharp shards of crystallized oxalate scraped the insides of my left kidney which gave me a threshold of pain I now know for a fact I can not withstand. I know this because I passed out from it on two occasions. The constant scraping produced a mixture of body fluids that turned my urine to the color and consistency of, well, blood. This condition continued for six solid weeks after it was discovered in Spain. American medical institutions needed those six weeks to fret over indemnity before handling a Spanish “internal catheter.”  The device in question was a stent inserted and lodged into my urethra in order to prevent the stone from leaving my kidney — a life threatening scenario. The questions regarding the legal implications of touching a Spanish stent on American soil were finally ameliorated when it came to light that my Visa card could hold a $10,000 charge upon admission to the hospital where the surgery to cut me open and remove the stone (and stent) would take place. At some point, well after the fact, it occurred to me that the entire Spanish end of the affair was completely free both in terms of paperwork and cost. Four days in a first class, first-world hospital, scads of tests, including MRIs, x-rays, blood and urine cultures and the procedure to install the stent: all free.  Yes, clearly, the better decision would have been to remove the stone while still in Spain but for some reason I thought it would make more sense to have the major surgery “back home.” So after four days of being diagnosed and initial treatments, I flew to the States only to find the American medical profession is totally out of control. To give myself a bit of a break: of all the twisted rationales for all the stupid brain-dead life decisions I’ve made the last 53 years, puking and passing out from pain while peeing sticky globs of blood seems like a reasonable excuse for not thinking straight. More to the point, the six weeks of waiting for the American medical industry to do its (presumptive) job of healing a person in writhing agony took its toll and it was several months after that before I could check a few things off the Things I Will Never Take for Granted List which was now topped with: see through my pee, walk a brisk mile and do a sit-up without wincing.

A few months later my father, my hero and mentor, was dead. At the risk of laying on the melodrama too thick: my family is still in emotional tatters. For all his rocket-scientist-with-a-law-degree immaculately laid out plans for after his death, right down to the font on his gravestone, his legacy did not include his broad, wise shoulders. Two years later his survivors still lean in for them, falling through the empty space, knocking heads instead.

Through all the changes and choices and consequences, which also happened to include divorce with its requisite change in financial status, (dream) job change and moving twice (Hawaii -> Seattle -> Brooklyn), the last three years has rendered my life unrecognizable to anyone who lost touch with me.

Did I mention I stopped making music? In fact, for the first year of this period I didn’t want to listen to music. To my ears, all music, ever created fell into one of two categories: earnest and whoring. It was all so annoying that it was a no-brainer to extract all forms of music from my day-to-day. It was blessed relief.

Amongst the steps back into the fray were a few bracingly corny guitar arrangements of standards and Beatles songs, the aural equivalent of an out-of-season worn through appliance like an electric blanket on the most humid day of the year, or an air conditioner a week before Christmas that you might find at a Fort Greene stoop sale, but not a hint of the shiny online-electronica career I had started in the late 1990′s.

This summer I had an amazing opportunity to get my DAW out of storage and set it up in a finished shack, a former corn crib, in the middle of a pasture in rural Massachusetts on a farm dominated by a 19th century boarding house called the Pennyroyal Arms. I was out of excuses.

I had nothing at all in mind when I opened the laptop and fired up Ableton for the first time in almost three years and I don’t claim the result is anything Earth shattering or even important. Come to think of it, much of it is very, very trivial indeed. But I think, or rather I hope, that careful listening (assuming it deserves it) reveals and reflects something about the the last three years.

In some ways, much of it is exactly where I left off in 2009 (in fact, some of it is eerily similar to stuff I was posting in 10 years before that !!) but I’m thinking it’s a reboot of sorts. Below is the snapshot of the rough mixes after six weeks of knob twiddling and plectrum scraping before packing up the DAW a few days ago.

Now: does anyone know of a rehearsal/studio space where I can crank it as loud as a deserted 400 acre farm in the middle of nowhere? In Brooklyn?