Time to get this blog rolling again

2010 got off to a good start, then I was hit by some unexpected family losses followed by some annoying family weirdness. Between that and a larger than usual assortment of extra-curricular activities, my blog got derailed. It’s time to fix that.

For those who haven’t kept up with my twitter feed or photo stream, here’s the short version of what you missed the last few months: 1) The DPRG is working on starting a Dallas Hackerspace. We’ve decided to call it a Makerspace because Dallas people seem to be easily spooked by the word “hacker”. 2) I’m still playing with vintage cameras and have more in the queue to try out. 3) Still playing with my DSLR too. Got some recent photos into an exhibit Germany. My photos of the Traveling Man Sculpture made into the May/June issue of Robot magazine 4) Still working on the Noise Boundary robotic music project. We did a demo for a class at UNT and I got the opportunity to chat with Pay Metheny about the topic 5) DPRG did some major stuff at All-Con this year and also at Tech-Fest and the FIRST LEGO League regional championship. 6) Lots of other fun stuff, events, people, and places. More to come.

Merry Christmas

Another Christmas has come and gone. On Christmas Eve Susan cooked a pot roast in the traditional style I grew up with. The meat came from a small order we placed with Dominion Farms, a local organic farming operation. All their animals are fed natural diets, no hormones or antibiotics. The meat was really tasty, so we’ll probably get more from them in the future. My brother Randy joined us for dinner and we played several games of Scrabble afterwards while eating Apple Pie.

Susan and I spent Christmas morning at home opening a few presents for each other and then we drove up to McKinney to spend the rest of the day with family and friends. There was more opening of presents, large quantities of food, and lots of catching up on family news. We played a couple of games include Mexican Train dominoes and something new called Catch Phrase that our niece and nephew talked us into.

I spent some time helping my nephew rip audio tracks from a CD to use as ringtones on a his new phone. I’d forgotten how difficult it can be on Windows boxes to do simple things like converting from one audio file format to another. His phone needed MMA or MP3 audio but Windows would only rip CDs in WMA format. I Googled for downloadable sound utilities but could only find crappy shareware and freeware stuff that mostly didn’t work. Then it occurred to me to see if any free software audio tools had been ported to Windows. I was pleasantly surprised to find Audacity for Windows. It’s really amazing how much better most free software apps are compared to your average Windows programs these days! Audacity really saved the day for us. We were able to edit the track down to size, convert it to MP3 and get it onto his phone’s SD card. And all in time to grab a piece of home made fudge before it vanished.

Jaap van Zweden at the DSO

On Saturday, Susan and I attended our first Dallas Symphony performance since Jaap van Zweden took over as Music Director. His conducting style is very different from Andrew Litton. Litton always seemed to be conducting a few notes ahead of the orchestra – he waved the baton and a second later you’d hear the orchestra hit the note. Jaap van Zweden, on the other hand, gives the appearance of conducting in real time. The orchestra hits notes at exactly the same time that his baton makes the move. I’m sure there’s a technical name for that difference but I have no ideas what it is.

Jaap van Zweden did seem to be squeezing a little something extra out of the musicians during their performance of Mahler’s 5th Symphony. The conductor wore a black Dr. Evil outfit and tends to be very animated as he conducts. More than anything, he seemed to be using his baton as a magic wand and looked like an evil wizard madly casting spells.

Pianist Emanuel Ax performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25. We last saw Ax perform John Adams’ Century Rolls. While I prefer Adams to Mozart, it was still an enjoyable performance.

Free Software and Free Music

It seems hardly a day goes by lately without reading about some new attack on the performance or sharing of music by the music industry itself. The RIAA is doing a pretty good job of destroying the legacy music industry all by itself. Their latest attempts to shut down Internet radio stations through punative licensing fees got me wondering about the state of free music. I know it’s out there and a little searching even turned up some directories and lists of public domain and freely licensed music. But surprisingly I didn’t immediately spot any Internet radio stations or even regular podcasts where I could listen to new free music. Are there any? I also didn’t see much in the way blogs or news sites devoted to the topic.

Maybe this is a case where the free software community could educate our musician friends about the benefits of using licenses that protect their listener’s freedom to share and perform the music. I know quite a few musicians in local bands but, as far as I know, most of them rely on the traditional music industry and their legacy music distribution techniques.

Maybe some musicians or listeners in the free music community can point me to some good starting places to learn more about state of things and find the latest news?

Kronos Quartet Brings Sun Rings to Dallas

Kronos Quartet played at McFarlin Auditorium in Dallas last week. I managed to get some pretty good seats for the performance and took Susan along. We’d previously seen Kronos play live in Austin with the Philip Glass ensemble a few years ago. This time they were accompanied by the Women’s Chorus of Dallas and the Turtle Creek Chorale. They performed a 2002 piece called Sun Rings which was composed for them by Terry Riley. The work included a visual component designed by Willie Williams. The piece was commissioned by an unusual patron – NASA.

I had no idea NASA had an art program. Apparently their goal is to create works of art that will inspire future genreations of engineers and scientists. In this case, Terry Riley composed the music around sounds recorded by the plasma wave sensors on Voyager, Cassini, and other NASA space probes. Scientist Don Gurnett who has been working with plasma wave sensors for over 40 years, selected his favorite sounds and provided them to Riley.

The work combined the live music of the string quartet and vocals with a synthetic soundtrack composed by Riley from the the plasma wave sounds. On top of this, each performer had a control stalk with a proximity sensor at the tip attached to their music stand. By waving their hand over it, they could trigger additional plasma wave samples randomly from preselected batches that matched the movement of the piece. This causes each performance to have a unique sound while still retaining a conventional musical structure.

During the performance, there are also background visuals that alternate between color washes and a series of graphics based on the Voyager probe’s golden record operating instructions which explain to aliens how to decode and play the record carried on the probe. The instructions start with a diagram illustrating the states of a hydrogen atom, and proceed from there to the construction of a record player, reproducing the sound, decoding the embedded video waveforms, and reconstructing the video images. (no doubt an achievement that would land some lucky alien a story in their equivalent of Make magazine). The performers are also surrounded by a large number of light tipped rods which vary in color and intensity during the performance, at times giving the impression that the performers are floating in the void of space and at other times are reminiscent of candles.

We both enjoyed the music and found the performance as a whole more than interesting enough to fill the hour and half length. As an added bonus, the member of Kronos hung around for a little Q and A event after the show. Surprisingly only about a dozen members of the audience stayed to ask questions and listen to stories.

Recursive blogging

I have in front of me an Emily Bezar CD called Angel’s Abacus. How I came to have this CD is a twisted story of recursive dreams, blogging, and synchronicity.

Six years ago on a summer evening, I wrote in my blog about a recursive dream I’d had. That’s a dream in which you dream that you fall asleep and are having a dream. My dream had three levels of recursion. I dreamed that I was having a dream in which I was having a dream. It made for a nice, geeky joke in my blog about mental stack overflows.

Earlier this month, independent recording artist Emily Bezar had a recursive dream and wrote about it in her myspace blog. Curious about whether anyone else had written about recursive dreams, she googled for “recursive dream” and found my blog entry. She quoted my blog in her blog (which I’m now mentioning in my blog, possibly proving that dream recursion eventually leads to blog recursion).

A few hours after Emily’s blog post, I happened to do a search on my name at Technorati, prompted by the chance discovery that there’s a baseball player who shares my rather unusual name. What I found was not a reference to baseball but Emily’s dream post. I left a comment on her blog and, perhaps impressed by my Kibo-like omnipresence when my name was mentioned, she visited my myspace page where my rather eccentric musical tastes are revealed. This prompted an email exchange regarding the improbability of two people who listen to both DEVO and John Adams, both PIL and Kronos Quartet, running into each because of the chance discovery that we’ve both had recursive dreams.

Meanwhile, I checked out her website, listening to a few MP3s of her compositions. I ordered the Angel’s Abacus CD, which showed up in the mail a few days later, unexpectedly autographed. Wow. Why doesn’t Mark Mothersbaugh ever send me autographed DEVO CDs?

She creates unusual and interesting music that’s been compared to Kate Bush. It’s an understandable comparison but Emily’s music defies such a simple classification. It’s not Jazz, not classical, not rock, not minimalism, not – well, you get the idea. It’s the sort of music you can’t find in brick-and-mortar record stores because they don’t have a pre-printed plastic divider to delineate its nature.

Emily has a musical background as diverse as my musical tastes; from classical piano at Oberlin Conservatory to Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. Anyway, check it out. Promote Indie music. Buy one of her CDs.

Perhaps the most suprising thing I’ve learned from all this is that someone might actually read my blog once in a while.