Everything in MODeration

Saturday, May 2, 2009

I believe the best song I ever wrote was called "test03.s3m" and featured a guitar, a snare drum and a cymbal. I don't have it any more, and that's probably a good thing because I was embarrassed about enough things in 1994 to have shared my 2-minute magnum opus of repetitive "mmm-tiss" with the world.

If I had, it'd have been through Trax in Space.

Trax in Space was an online community of musicians which boomed from 1997 to its collapse in 2001.

It was relaunched in 07 as something of a sharing service for musicians to showcase themselves and their bands, similar to the original myspace or (if you prefer to keep your retinas intact), Jamendo. It goes without saying perhaps, that I prefer the original, so I'd like to talk about the first Trax in Space, which requires one of my patented "Tangents that are larger than the actual points".

MP3s, WMAs, AAC. These are commonplace now. Modern computers have more than enough horsepower (note: not actual horses) to uncompress music files on the fly. So do iPod nanos. Back in the mid-90s, things were very different.

While CDs are a compressed format, like all digital audio, they're much less compressed than a modern MP3. This meant that to decode the signal, all you needed was a low-powered Digital-to-Analog Converter, or DAC. This piece of equipment eventually became cheap enough to be included as commodity hardware in all PCs, as well as those terrible "Soby" brand portable CD players you see for $15 at Wallgreens. For a while that was good enough. CDs could hold 640MB of uncompressed audio data, which was good, cause our hard drives were about that size or smaller. Any attempt to put music on our computers would have left us with no space left.

The compressed MP3 format (the first "popular" music compression format, not the first full-stop) was a few years off, which was sort of good, given that our 486s would struggle to decode an MP3 even at a humongous clock speed of 133Mhz. Hardware decompression on our soundcards didn't exist yet either. But the idea of storing music on our computers was tempting. MP3s are compressed at a ratio of 1/10 the original CD data's size, meaning that a full CDs worth of music could fit in 64MB, much more palatable. But again, how could we play it without stuttering like a 13-year-old boy meeting Xena: Warrior Princess?

We didn't.

Originally, the solution to this problem was the production of digital audio directly from a sound card or PC speaker. This worked on the same principle - but was generally a lot poorer - as the synthesizers found in music production. Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode would be acapella groups if not for their trusty synths. On-board synthesizers were controlled programatically for the most part, meaning that the average person wasn't going to be able to produce more than a tone or two at best. MIDI gave those of us (i.e. not me) with MIDI equipment a way to compose that was workable, but the output of MIDI at the time (and nowadays too, though how it's used has changes some) sounded no better and often much worse than FM synthesis. Here's a sample. Dunno about you, but it really just makes me want to listen to the real song, like hearing a muzak version of Master of Puppets or something while waiting at a doctor's office.

So along came tracking, a method which did away with sound card synthesis in order to make use of recorded samples of real instruments.

It works like this: You'd record a brief recording of you playing your dulcimer at middle C. The software of your choice would convert that clip, often much less than a second, to a sample. Then, you could track the dulcimer, telling the software when to play that clip and by how much to alter the pitch. It was this pitch altering that allowed the sample to be used for all notes, and was really quite impressive technology for the time. I experimented with sampling in 1994 or so, following my introduction to Nine Inch Nails, a band which had originally been in the Kraftwerk school of music, doing all their music on a synth and tracker just like the one I had. Sorta.

Tracking files (generally, MODs) were significantly larger than MIDI, because they required samples, but were significantly smaller than MP3s, and though my personal experiments were massive failures, the available music was astounding both in variety and quality (and the variety OF quality). It all had a vaguely synthetic quality to it, but less so than MIDI, and no vocals, but for fans of electronica, those are good things.

Enter Trax in Space. Started in 1992, it was a good place to go to get music by a ton of authors, most of which could fit on a floppy disk. That was important, because the internet in 1994 was not readily available, and all music downloading had to be done at the local library and brought home.

Trax in Space was a pleasure to browse, despite being hamstrung by web technology at the time simply because the feeling of immense joy you got from getting free music. And the cool thing was, it was all deconstructable - a .mod file could be opened by your choice of tracker, the samples could be inspected, modified, and this made remixing a breeze - there was no DRM, no proprietary lockdown, this was the way the files worked.

A friend of a friend had some work on TiS, and I thought it was magnificent, so much so that I still have it on my iPod to this day, converted to .mp3 of course. I even started a project to rework the samples in my favorite song Black of Day, which he recorded in the wrong key, and so poorly that the levels top out constantly. It's a testament to his skill that the song, done by a 16-year-old in his room, still sounds awesome.

I'm not as enthusiastic about TiS now. The world has changed too fast, technology too much to limit myself to simple electronica. I don't have the desire anymore to spend hours and hours writing my own mediocre songs, and services like the aforementioned Jamendo are terrific for discovering new work. That and the site is Trax in Space in name only, at least when compared to the memories I have.

The Wayback Machine at Archive.org has preserved some of the original Trax in Space, though not "my" time there. Fortunately, the files were small, and therefore portable, and so are archived separately through the good graces of roncli.com. If you're a fan of electronica, a student of computer audio, or just plain curious, I'd entreat you to check it out.

Eldritch: I love these little pieces of internet ephemera. It's easy to see everything in the past with rose-colored nostalgia, but it seems like in the earlier days of the internet, these kinds of creative communities sprung up with surprising regularity. I'm no luddite, but I can't help but muse that perhaps the rapidly-expanding sphere of what is technologically possible is advancing faster than people can learn to take advantage of. It certainly seems that way with computer-generated imagery for feature films. We can pretty much create (or recreate) anything you can imagine, given enough money and time. But so far, computer-generated footage still lacks the careful construction that early film directors had to painstakingly learn, like not shooting across the line, or three-point lighting, or varying camera angles by at least 15 degrees between shots, to avoid confusing accidental match cuts. (film nerd!)

Now, don't get me wrong, the exponential growth in computer power is giving us a lot in return. We're rapidly approaching a point where all of human media will be reproducible and accessible in a networked form. Just wait until you can download every book, movie, and song written in the last 50 years in a single torrent, in just a few hours (why not minutes? this is a hypothetical future, after all). But seeing how creative people can be when working under specific constraints, you can't help but think that the constraints themselves help foster creativity. And we come right back to film theory. Shrug.

Pseudonym: I think it's really a matter of technology advancing at some rate x, where human beings are pretty much the same as they've been. It wasn't technology that allowed artists in the 17th century to use the concept of perspective, where those in the 12th century were basically all Picassos. It's easy to look back and think "oh we're much smarter today than we were even 100 years ago." We're not. (Check out the comments on youtube, if you don't believe me.)

I'm not saying that technology is BETTER than humans, just that it's advancing at a completely different rate. We can get great graphics in our movies, but the tools required to make them have gotten better at the same rate - what once took a month still takes a month, but it looks a lot better. We've sort of hit a wall in the sense that we're limited in technological terms because we can only move so fast physically.

2112, Rush's Prog-Rock Sci-Fi Opera

Friday, May 1, 2009
When I was a high schooler, I took a summer class from a wild-eyed, and equally wild-haired guy on the topic of dystopian literature in science fiction. (Nerd. Guilty as charged.) The class was great, and introduced me to tons of interesting authors and ideas, but in retrospect, I think the whole thing was a big excuse for the teacher to spend a class session listening to and discussing Rush's rock opera 2112.

Now, pop music is no stranger to sci-fi tinged rock productions. From Styx's legendary Mr. Roboto to David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust, there's often been a rock and roll nod towards sci-fi sensibilities. But 2112 is an entirely different beast. Clocking in at just over twenty minutes long, 2112 can barely be described as a song. 2112 begins with a lengthy instrumental overture, segues into a fast-paced hard-rock anthem in the Priests section, and continues through seven distinct sections, telling a story of subjugation and persecution in a far-future dystopia.

Written by Rush drummer and lyricist Neal Peart, 2112 is an extended riff on Ayn Rand's Anthem (the liner notes include a tribute to the genius of Ayn Rand), telling the story of a idealistic dreamer who tries to bring music to a harsh, authoritarian world, only to be persecuted for his discovery.

Quite apart from the Rand-esque philosophy (ugh), the experience of sitting in class with a bunch of like-minded teens, listening to 2112 and discussing its significance has always stuck with me as a turning point. High school can be a tough slog, particularly for those socially underdeveloped or counterculture folks for whom the high-school years aren't the high-water mark of their lives. (In Rush's charming but slightly pretentious lyricmaking, "nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone.") Experiences like this helped remind me what was on the other side of the horizon.

If you got a spare twenty minutes, listen to 2112. It's worth a listen, even if you aren't trying to survive high-school as a sci-fi enthusiast.

2112 - Rush

Pseudonym: Allow me to add a couple more interesting examples swirling around this genre. There are several King Crimson albums that fit this bill, perhaps most appropriately, but the definition of Progressive Rock is vague enough to encompass several other albums of note.

It could be argued, for example, that Pink Floyd's The Wall fits this bill, with its imagery of a bleaky dystopia, though not necessarily set in the future. The Rolling Stones' "me too" follow-up to Sgt. Pepper, called Their Satanic Majesties Request has a sci-fi theme, and is also darker (and worse, popularly) than the cheery, upbeat Pepper. And released in 1998, Marilyn Manson's Mechanical Animals, something of a tribute to Ziggy Stardust, achieves the sci-fi bent with at least as much alacrity as David Bowie's album, hitting another chord among teenage outcasts as it combines nerdy progrock with gothcore.

My own personal experience mirroring your own did not happen until freshman year of college where I was taking my figure-drawing class. The instructor seemed to only own two albums, which she played back-to-back over each of the 3 2-hour classes we had per week. Though at first it was easy to get tired of the music, the repetition allowed me to appreciate each album quite a lot (more appreciation than I had for figure-drawing, anyway), and I later purchased both albums: Built to Spill's Keep it Like a Secret, and In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, by Neutral Milk Hotel, an album steeped in its own conceptual imagery of the protagonist's identification and obsession with Anne Frank.

And shut up. You were King of the Nerds, back in high school- not nerdier than the rest of us, but given a grudging respect by the other factions at school as our sort of unnofficial, somehow respectable spokesperson.

Ist est nicht ein Wonderlic?

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Test-taking is a bad way to measure if people are bad, but especially this bad test.

The Wonderlic Test is a 50-question test to be completed in a time of 12 minutes which is given to prospective candidates as a sort of occupational IQ test. The questions themselves span verbal, spatial and mathematical skills and increase in difficulty as the test progresses.

The scoring system is based entirely on how many correct answers you give, not how difficult the questions are, so doing them in order is advisable, and skipping over any that give you even the slightest pause increases your chances of finding one suitable for you. If you finish with this method before the 12 minutes are up, you can go back to the ones you've skipped.

A score of 21 correct answers is supposed to represent the average, and therefore an IQ of 100, but each position the test is used for is subject to a different baseline. For example, while a security guard might fall within his peers with a score of 17, a chemist can be expected to rope in a much more respectable 31 for herself.

The most notable and intriguing aspect of the Wonderlic Test is that is given as part of the NFL's drafting process. More...As a disclaimer, I know nothing about football, but evidently the scores required to be acceptable are, perhaps understandably, lower than average, which raises the question of why the test is administered in the first place. Examples: An Offensive Tackle is the brains of the operation, statistically hitting a 26 on the test. More in line with the Everyman, the Tight End typically scores a 22. No doubt harassed for this within the football community (though not by nerdy bloggers), the bar is set at 16 for a Halfback.

Keep in mind that a score of 10 is considered literate, though how they'd read any of the questions, all of which have some written aspect, I don't know. Now, the above scores for football players are potentially what you might expect, but here at Weaselsnake, we like to challenge our preconceived notions. Pat McInally, a graduate of Harvard University who punted and was a Wide Reciever (avg score: 17) for the Cincinnati Bengals, received a confirmed perfect score. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Quarterback (avg score: 24) for the Buffalo Bills and later the St. Louis Rams (and who, in a terrible case of research-related perspective, is younger than I am) was rumored to have gotten a perfect score on the Wonderlic, but he asserts he failed to fill in at least one question, and therefore could not have done so. Don't worry, Ryan. You get a perfect score for modesty.

Reducing someone's intelligence to a numerical value is intrinsically facile. Human beings have a capacity for understanding that exceeds the bounds any intelligence test has. Even using the test scores as a metric for choosing between two equally qualified candidates fails to take into account the personality and other unknowable factors that comprise a person. They could just be a really lousy test-taker. I've seen brilliant people - titans of understanding - bomb tests that were leagues beneath them for panicking during the test. Some people perform better under pressure than others. 12 minutes isn't much for 50 questions - that's 1 question every 15 seconds, doable for easy questions, not so much for the toughies at the end. The argument that you want someone who performs better under pressure could be made, but not without examining the differences in how the competing candidates perform under normal circumstances.

In addition, the Wonderlic gives no venue for discussion or potential problems with the questions themselves. An awkwardly-worded question could have several correct answers - leaving the candidate to choose which she thinks the test is going for. Once you've done that, the game is over - a tester is no longer thinking about the correct answers to questions as written but how to outmaneuver the test.

Consider this question: Which of the following months have the closest number of hours of daylight and nighttime as September? A) January B) March C)May D)November?" The wording allows two possible interpretations of the question. The answer could be November, as it has the closest number of daylight hours as September has daylight hours. The answer could be May, as it has the closest number of daylight hours as September has nighttime hours. However, on the test, there's only one correct answer. (In case you're wondering, the test wanted "May".)

Test-taking is by its very nature simply a model for getting at how a person thinks, or how much a person knows. It's a necessary evil in schools, in order to measure progression and comprehension (though not necessarily aptitude), but is also often used to judge the competence of a teacher, the sufficiency of a school's resources and the performance of a principal. And here's where I'd take umbrage. Scored tests - tests which have correct answers - are not a fair means of simplifying a candidate for a job. The stakes are too high for the candidate for it to be entrusted to a 12-minute task done alone, and the potential for abuse of using the test as a cover for hiring discrimination too great. A candidate doesn't get her answers back, has no idea what she scored, and can therefore be denied for any reason based on her test (The legality of this is dubious at best, but the point is sound; the test puts the candidate in an unfair position.)

Many companies give tests of another nature, those which focus not on answers but on reasoning - how the person arrived at their answer, or how long it took them to be confident their answer was correct. It's common in the tech industry, which uses brain teasers as a way to gauge your problem-solving skills and capacity to think outside the box.

A famous one involves a closed door and three light switches on the wall beside it. You are asked to determine which switch lights the lamp in the room beyond the door, and given some arbitrary limitation, like being able to open the door only once (and then close it immediately afterwards). The questioner being there allows for necessary information to be given upon asking ("Will the door stay open?" "Can I go in the room?"), and so is helpful to the test-taker, but is moreso valuable for the questioner who gets a chance to see how the wheels are spinning. Does the person draw a diagram, does she do mental arithmetic, what sorts of questions does she ask?

This way isn't perfect either, but at least you can determine who is cocky, who likes a challenge, and who might stride confidently over the line of "thinking outside the box", landing in "potential mental patient" territory ("Rip the switches from the wall and follow the wires!".) It might tell you who you might like to work with, based on how creative or flippant their answers are. It might tell you who is not afraid of admitting defeat, and who will doggedly attempt to figure it out.

What it won't tell you, though, is who can catch a 40-yard pass.


Tuesday, April 28, 2009
In 1999, in the tiny theatre that housed One Reel, Seattle's annual short film festival (on the grounds of the Bumbershoot festival), the house lights darkened, and I watched what is probably the finest short film ever made. More clocked in at a mere 6 minutes. But the sad, uplifting, depressing, and utterly transcendent experience has stuck with me for years.

Mark Osborne's film about a nameless clayman toiling in obscurity in a dusty, colorless world was, and is, certainly a towering achievement in the field of stop-motion animation. It was a the first short film shot in the IMAX format, and it won dozens of awards at film festivals and received rave reviews, including an Academy Award Nomination.

But that probably would have been about the the end of More's happy existence, were it not for iFilm. Osborne decided to upload his short film to the burgeoning web-video medium, and More immediately became a fan favorite all over again. It was the site's most popular film, and is listed in the Top Ten of IMDB's list of best short films, to this day.

Wordless, the film is set to New Order's instrumental waltz Elegia, written in honor of the late Ian Curtis, lead singer of Joy Division. The song's haunting melodies match perfectly with the film's relentlessly affecting visuals.

You can watch the film online at the creator's web site, or elsewhere (I've embedded the YouTube version at the end of the post), but the film is also available on a special edition DVD, with commentary tracks, making-of documentaries and additional short films.

You might think all this attention for a 6-minute animated film is a bit much. Watch the film. You'll see.

Pseudonym: Watched it last night. Wow. It sort of reminded me of a few things that deserve blog posts all their own, but yeah, it was terrific. The notion of claymation has gone from being completely novel, to one of the only ways to animate something, to being completely novel again. Even films like Flushed Away - which are in CG - attempt to emulate the claymation style of animation since it has such a cozy fond feeling for people. As the current generation ages and remember no time without CG, it will become, I fear, obsolete, a relic of the past like a Nickelodeon today.

I should probably have discussed the film, but I'll leave that to you.

Peggle: The Quickening

Monday, April 27, 2009

This is not a game you can be good at. You can suck, but you'd have to try.

I guess that's the whole point of "casual" games, giving the people who play them the perception that they're not sucky at videogames by taking out nearly all requirements for human interaction.

This game relies more on luck than anything even approaching skill. Even the special moves the computer allows, designed to "maximize" your score, fare no better than me randomly shooting somewhere near an orange peg.

Levels aren't randomly generated, but the colors of the pegs ARE random, so even if you master one iteration of it, when you fail, and replay the level you basically have to start from scratch. Imagine playing Sonic the Hedgehog with all the platforms still in the right place, but the badniks have been randomly changed all over the level. Except in Sonic, you could just slow down and complete the level. In Peggle, you simply have to keep playing until luck decides you can progress. Whoo.

This is a game so devoid of the need for a player that it's available to play inside World of Warcraft, a game itself which is farmed out to masses South Koreans because people can't be bothered to even play it, and which requires all the skill of "click here to attack" during the most exciting parts of the game.

Perhaps Yahtzee said it best: [Peggle] is a game for old people and stupids.

So why can't I stop playing it?? I can only imagine it's like that episode of the Monkees where everyone who watches the TV broadcast is immediately hypnotized. There must be something in the game that makes you want to play it, but where normal games satisfy this urge with boobies, this game is more devious, somehow tapping into your optical receptors directly and short-circuiting your brain.

Eldritch: Okay, coming in to this late, but I was mulling it over, and I think that Peggle (and all the PopCap games) have some relevance for our recent discussion of open-source gaming. Here you have some really quite frivolous games, but the one thing that they have in spades is good design and nice interfaces. I mean, the Peggle menus are positively lickable. And that sort of thing goes a really long way towards making the games feel like more of a complete project (and by contrast, makes so many open-source games feel like a chore). I can't help but be impressed by the production values on even these very forgettable games.

The Colorado Kid (is awful)

(This review has spoilers. So stop reading if you don't want the ending of The Colorado Kid spoiled. Wait. No, go ahead and read. This book was terrible.)

Stephen King is a household name. From his dozens and dozens of New York Times-bestselling novels to the innumerable movie adaptions of his work (Children of the Corn 7. I'm not kidding. And a eighth in production, plus a sci-fi channel remake), the Stephen King brand is probably the most well-recognized literary property out there. So it's always interesting to see King lend his attention to more obscure projects.

Like Hard Case Crime, an imprint of paperback hardboiled crime novels. Including a mix of brand-new and classic 40s and 50s pulp crime stories, Hard Case Crime seemed like an interesting project. The star-power of King lending a novel to the imprint was an instant publicity-builder: a world-wide bestselling author trying his hand at a small publisher, in a genre outside of his traditional focus.

But wait: can King actually write a hardboiled detective novel?

The Colorado Kid answers that question: no. This is the worst excuse for a mystery you could possibly imagine. The premise is fantastic: a 22-year-old small-town newspaper intern digs into a 25-year old crime. A man is found dead on a Maine beach, with no identification. Turns out, he was from Colorado. But he'd been seen scant hours before, all the way across the country. He barely had time to charter a plane, drive at top speed to the beach and die before being discovered. So what happened?

Spoiler: You never find out! King spends an entire novel mulling over the case, like a slackjawed Maine yokel with a mouth full of tobacco, before figuratively shrugging his shoulders and saying "I guess we'll never know."

As means of explanation (or apology), King includes an afterword, essentially explaining that mysteries aren't really about solutions, they're about the investigation.

Well, Mr. King, that's a load of horseshit. Mystery novels are all about the solution. The concept of a mystery novel is a suspenseful build-up to the reveal. The investigation is just a way to delay the single most important part of a mystery story: the solution.

Don't read this book. Please. It's really, really terrible.

Eldritch: At some point I'm going to write a positive book review. Really, honestly. But there are some books that demand to be held to account.

Pseudonym: I had always wondered where Stephen King (and Tom Clancy) find the time to write 15 1200-page books a year. Though I haven't read a King book since... The Tommyknockers? (which was also pretty terrible), I see his work on store shelves all the time and think, "is this new, or just a reprint of an old one I hadn't heard of?" Nope. All New. How does he do it??

Now I know.

Weaselsnake. Saving you $5.99 one spoiler at a time.