Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Senses: Two Genera of Living Earworms

As we've already seen we can close our eyes but we can't shut off our ears. We can't escape the sonic landscape around us. It used to be the sound of the natural world that surrounded humans. From birds and insects to the wind in the trees and flowing water. Many of us still find a brook or the pounding waves incredibly calming.

Then it became the sounds of the town and city. We live and work surrounded by noise. Many people don't find the city as calming as the country. We can't stop the noise, instead we hide it when we can. Thus was created Muzak.

Between Muzak and radio we ended up surrounded by music. Songs blare at us endlessly. Which leads to the phenomena of the ohrwurm.

Ohrwurm is a German word that translates to earworm. If you've ever had a tune stuck in your head you've had an earworm. It turns out a lot of research has been done on earworms though the tendency now is to call them involuntary musical imagery or INMI. Science removes some of the absurd creativity of language in its quest for clarity and understanding. Now it's time to use the structure of science to put it back again.

I'm shamelessly borrowing from biology. The individual songs that get stuck in your head are species of earworm. Family groupings of earworms are the genera. (plural of genus of course).

I wish to continue this dissertation by describing two genera of earworms. Not examples of individual songs but of the family groups of the type of sounds that keep ending up stuck in our heads.

First... the horrible overuse of auto-tune. Like all infestations of foreign species released into an environment it started with the best of intentions. Being able to change a singer's voice was revolutionary. Creative even. The story of how Cher scored a major hit thanks to auto-tune has been told several times. Believe was a huge hit.

What started as the introduction of a foreign species soon became a runaway infestation. And that link is two years old. It's only gotten worse. What ever happened to good singing? Now you don't even have to be able to hold a note as the computer will do it for you. I don't think we'll get away from it soon since country music singers, a genre not known for the necessity to hit each note exactly, are using the tool while performing.

Second... the drum beat that will never die. Once a group of species adapts to an environment there's almost no getting rid of them. Once something catches on we may be stuck with it for a long time.

In 1969 The Winstons put out a single for Color Him Father which won a grammy in 1970. The b-side of the single was an instrumental called Amen Brother. In the middle of the song is a six second long drum break.

We'll never know who first took that six second strand of musical DNA and incorporated it into their own composition. Tthat six seconds has ended up in more songs and more genres than you can imagine. That bit of musical DNA is now with us forever.

The result? Sit back and listen to Nate Harrison describe the history of the Amen Break in Can I Get An Amen? Not only is there some interesting history into a familiar sound but interesting concerns about copyright and ownership and creativity.

Both auto-tune'd music and the Amen Break are like the famous Wilhelm scream. Once you know what they sound like you'll hear it everywhere.

Whether you want to or not.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Senses: I Love the Smell of History in the Morning

The middle ages. A thousand years of European history after antiquity. A period of superstition and ignorance. Just thinking of the period brings vivid images to mind.

If I try and picture that time in European history I think of bad weather and dirt and grime. Of people struggling to survive. Of western culture having fallen from the heights of the ancients to the grim reality of those dark centuries. Dark homes filled with smoke. People living short, nasty, and brutish lives while working towards their eternal reward.

So what was it really like back then? Was it dirty? Did people just smell bad or were there alternatives?

Luckily for us Jenne Heise's collection of information and writings is still online. Simply entitled Jenne Heise / Jadwiga Zajaczkowa the site is a collection of herbal lore, medieval recipes, and historic research that seems to be untouched since 2005.

The internet has a tendency to make it easy for parts of the web to vanish. Sites vanish without a trace. Web pages are replaced or updated leaving no sign of what came before. But once in a while an old web page sticks around. Forgotten? Left behind? Who knows. For now this resource is still available and what a resource it is. You'll find:
This isn't dry history. The past brought alive by showing us the seemingly mundane details of daily life. This is how people lived. History comes to life. Being brought to life is apt because the site is written primarily for members of the Society for Creative Anachronism.

Solid scholarship joined with enthusiasm and energy makes Jenne Heise's site a treasure.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Successful Southern Insurgency?

The Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s was a "reform movements in the United States aimed at outlawing racial discrimination against African Americans and restoring Suffrage in Southern states". We look back at it as an inevitable change in American history. When skillfully coordinated use of non-violent protests and various types of civil disobedience altered the political and cultural landscape of America.

That's one way to look at it. There is another way. Was Martin Luther King Jr. the most visible leader of a homegrown insurgency in the United States?

Historian Mark Grimsley has taken that rather unique perspective on the American Civil Rights Movement. He asks that you think of the movement as an insurgency. Why the Civil Rights Movement Was an Insurgency makes the case. His makes a great deal of sense even if the idea doesn't feel right at first. There are good reasons to think about it that way.

He also gave a talk on this idea as part of the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center's Perspectives in Military History Lecture Series. Scroll down about half the page to view or download the talk.

Mark is a boisterous speaker. He gets all wound up about his subject. He makes many great points throughout the talk. That the movement's success wasn't inevitable. That the movement wasn't a single coordinated effort. And that the movement had it's share of outright failures along the way. The questions at the end bring up good points as well so don't stop watching too early.

In the spirit of the web he even gives over an entire blog entry on his site to a letter that challenges this view of the civil rights movement and worries that: "As I see it, to suggest that legal, first amendment redress of one's government is a form of insurgency is playing with fire,...". My own take on the letter is that protests that are 'legal first amendment redresses' do not make up an insurgency. Protests, violent or not, that break laws and force authorities to respond can be an insurgency. I think the writer swings the pendulum too far.

More importantly I think it's necessary to at least consider the idea that the Civil Rights Movement was an insurgency. Does an insurgency have to be violent? Or can it just incite violence from law enforcement? This is only the beginning of the questions that come to mind. I'm not sure it's comfortable to know that movements in our own countries that aim to change the political landscape can be insurgencies. After all insurgencies don't happen here. They happen over there. Right?

Historically not all insurgencies succeed. Even the most noble, worthy, and just causes don't have to achieve their goals. The Civil Rights Movement did achieve some of its goals when President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It covered desegregation but did not fully cover giving Southern blacks the right to vote. Martin Luther King Jr. wanted Johnson to do more. Johnson pushed back saying that there was enough change for now and voting rights would have to wait. The movement continued its campaign.

After Selma and 'Bloody Sunday' President Johnson sent a draft Voting Rights Bill to Congress. It became the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Implementing and enforcing the laws and registering voters, would take time. Changing economic and social inequality would take much longer. The debate on if, or when, the true equality was achieved is still ongoing. However in terms of changing the political landscape, which is the political goal of an insurgency, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was the "culminating point of victory".

The laws changed. Racial discrimination was no longer legal. Suffrage was in place.

The United States was formed in a revolution. It survived a civil war. It also may have had an internal insurgency that managed to successfully alter the fabric of American life. Altered for the better but altered nonetheless.

I must admit even the thought makes me think of history, in America and here in Canada, in a new light.

There is question that Mark Grimsley raises only in passing in the talk but addresses in more detail in the article. What would have happened if the political changes didn't get signed into law before the Black Power movement started?

The public explosion of the Black Power movement (the Watts riots) started days after the Voting Rights Act was signed. If this had occurred any earlier, if the nation's televisions had images of rioting violent blacks and not non-violent protesters being beaten and arrested by overzealous southern police departments, would the Voting Rights Act have become law? Would the rest of America have much stomach for granting voting rights? Could the very existence of groups like the Black Panthers have prevented or delayed the changes to the law? What would America have been like if suffrage hadn't been extended in 1965?

He points out that:
The Black Power movement generated a new pride among blacks, in their history, their culture, and themselves. It was in that respect indispensable. But it effectively ended all prospect of a renewal of the insurgency that might have added economic justice to legal and political rights.
History isn't inevitable. In this case the insurgency (if it was an insurgency) worked. There had never been any guarantees though. Isn't that why it was called a struggle?

I'm not sure if Mark Grimsley is the type of historian who plays the game of what-if. Some historians don't like to stray to far from what happened. Regardless of his own views he ends the article by allowing someone else to play what-if and describe what the alternative might have been:
It is fortunate for many reasons that the insurgency succeeded, and fortunate that its emphasis on nonviolent resistance won the battle for the Southern population. It not only mobilized black Southerners but also succeeded in the key task of detaching from die-hard segregationists the Southern white moderates unwilling to pay the price of a continued system of apartheid. Had that not occurred, said a former King aide, "the South today would look like Beirut looks today."

Friday, March 26, 2010

Magnificent Obsessions: An Insular World

Not every post will be related to the current topic though I plan to have more than half the posts be on topic. Off topic posts aren't as focussed. They'll cover whatever subjects and parts of the longer web strike me as interesting.
Magnificent Obsessions are those parts of the web that took a long time to put together. Where a person or group puts untold effort and time into building their site. Part of you will wonder why. Another part of you will be in awe of the dedication and energy. Magnificent Obsessions are a fascinating part of the longer web. 
I recently stumbled across the existence of a hobby I'd never heard of before. A short while later I was reading about the way in which radiation can alter antiques to try and raise their value. Follow along and you may look at the utility poles in your neighbourhood with new appreciation.

I've heard about collecting stamps. I've heard about bird watching. But I hadn't heard of collecting electrical insulators. I hadn't suspected that people searched for old insulators and bought and sold them. Did you know there is a National Insulator Association? Or that this July in Boxborough Massachusetts there will be the 41st annual show and convention?

Neither did I. 

Turns out that a little investigation into this hobby can lead to all sorts of other discoveries. It makes one think about the invisible pieces of technology that are all around us. Those items that need to be in place to make everything work. We tend to think of electricity as a given. It's always there isn't it? We take the power grid for granted. We certainly don't think about the individual parts that make up the grid.

It wasn't always this way of course. There was a time when the nights where lit by candle or fire. When hot water was boiled on the stove and the only horsepower available needed to be fed.
By the way.... what must it have been like to live in a big city when there where no cars and only horses? How much manure did London or New York generate? Here are some numbers and some background (pdf).
Back to electricity. To electrify a city or a region there needs to be generating stations, transmission lines, and wiring into each building. Electricity isn't like water where it's kept in a tank or a resevoir. All the electrical outlets in your home are directly connected to the power grid and then directly to the generating stations. You aren't using electricity generated yesterday. If the power plant stops or a wire is cut the power stops instantly. That's why the electrical safety devices in our homes are called circuit breakers - they just break the connection between the wires in your house and the rest of the grid.

The power grid is nothing but long wire and myriad other wires that connect our outlets to the generators. (Okay... yes... I'll admit that's a major oversimplification). Wires carrying electricity need to be kept away from the ground and away from anything which can cause a short circuit. Insulators safely hold the wires so they don't short out. Insulators allow the largest transmission lines to be strung over metal towers.

Whether the insulators are made of glass or ceramic (click on 1st Floor to see some photos - ah yes... the good old days of frames on websites) there is an active group of collectors buying, selling, searching, researching, and displaying their collections online. There are histories, lists and even a magazine for collectors called Crown Jewels of the Wire.

The Insulator Index at oldinsulators.com is a good jumping off point to many other sites if you want to explore the hobby.

These links are not just to other collectors or reference sites. I ended up surfing to a explanation of how glass is coloured. A few clicks on glass bottle collecting sites later and I stumbled across the controversy about "irradiated" fruit jars. I knew people would go to great lengths in order to 'improve' the value of their antiques but I never suspected irradiation. I wonder if the experts on the Antiques Road Show will start carrying geiger counters.

So next time you walk down the street give the utility poles in your neighbourhood a glance. Those industrial insulators that keep us electrified may one day be valued collectibles of early 21st century industrial technology. Who knew?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Senses: The New Colours of Summer?

Something is wrong with the look of new Hollywood movies. I don't think I can blame my eyes. I may need stronger glasses but I can still see pretty clearly. Action films started to look different. Now it seems the problem is spreading.

Do you have a collection of older movies on VHS? Maybe some old DVDs of movies before they were re-mastered and re-released? If you get the chance go and watch some of them. From blockbuster action movies through to romantic comedies have a blast watching some old movies. In particular look at the colours. At the skin tones and the differences between indoor and outdoor scenes.

Notice that skin can look greyish indoors and pale in the light? How the wash of colour from the sky reflects on to all the objects in a scene? There were methods to change the look of a film after it was shot but much of the work was done in situ. Film faithfully captured the light.

The year 2000 was the beginning of a revolution in film making. The Coen Brothers were the the first with O Brother, Where Art Thou?. It was filmed in Mississippi at a time of year when the leaves and grass were green. Which was a problem. In certain parts of the movie The Coen Brothers wanted to give the film a dusty sepia-tinted feel. Instead of waiting for a drought or another season they turned instead to the power of computers.

The entire movie was scanned into a computer and digitally colour corrected. Green grass was made to look like it had suffered a prolonged dry spell. Whole scenes weren't just tinted but adjusted. Instead the colour of the movie was tweaked. The look of the entire film was altered and changed to fit the Coen Brothers' vision.

Digital colour correction had been done in Hollywood before but never to an entire film. Computer hardware and software had reached a point where it was practical to change the look of a complete movie. Since then the technology has become less expensive and the tools more pervasive.

The result? The modern blockbuster movie's distinct look. The problem? Well let me turn you over to Todd Miro's rant Teal and Orange - Hollywood, Please Stop the Madness.

Now don't get distracted by the fact that Hollywood made a movie called Hot Tub Time Machine. I'm sure it's bound to be a classic along the lines of Back to the Future or Peggy Sue Got Married.

The issue isn't so much that colours can be changed. It's that the tool isn't being used to add artistic value but to push the pallet in one direction all the time. As soon as you see the new colour problem in film you'll end up seeing it everywhere. It's not a problem only on Michael Bay's blockbusters.

Todd points to filmmaker Stu Maschwitz to see how this is done. Stu has a wonderful post about Memory Colors that shows how colour correcting can enhance a shot and points out the power of certain colours in certain situations. These memory colours help the audience establish a sense of place. The example still taken of a scene set in New York shows how this can work effectively. He's collected a few examples of colour correction where you can compare before and after.

The real fun happens when Stu demonstrates the techniques involved in colour correcting. The video at the top of Got Me a Side Job is a product demo Stu created as a new Creative Director for Red Giant Software's Magic Bullet line.

Yes... I'm pointing you towards an extended product demo. No... I don't want you to go out and by software to alter your videos. No... I'm not affiliated with Red Giant or anyone else in this post.

Look, the long web isn't just essays and fiction. It's writing and video and presentations and brochures and demos and much more. The long web isn't just what amateurs create on their own time even if that's a big part of it. It can be corporate, governmental, or homegrown. It can be created for love and it can be created for money. The Longer Web is about exploring larger pieces of the web regardless of origin.

As product demos go this one has the advantage of being pointed, funny, and over the top. This isn't about how to subtly change a video. This is about how you can recreate the look of blockbusters. Get past the intro and in no time you'll see what's happening on the desks of movie colourists as we speak. Even if you don't watch the whole thing you'll quickly get a flavour of what's possible.

Brace yourselves. Movie screens will only become more orange and teal. If something is good enough for the blockbusters and easy to do as well... then... orange and teal may be around for a while. The two programs used in the demo cost $600 and other similar products are in the same price range. It won't just be Hollywood. Now everyone is able to make any video clip's colours look like a moving commercial for Florida Oranges or a sports franchise.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Senses: Listening and Language

It wouldn't be wrong to call this site a celebration of language. Most of what will be linked to will be lots of words. Some will be spoken but most will be written down. (Is "written down" anachronistic in the era of word processors, online editors, and bytes?).

Language however is hard to define and understand. We talk about language using language. For most of us the languages we use are inherently limited by our ability to say and listen to words. Sign language is the notable exception. The rule tends to be that languages are based on the sounds we can make and listen to.

Olivier Burckhardt has posted his two part essay originally written for Quadrant magazine. Spirals to Unravel a Mystery starts with the issue of how to understand language but quickly shifts to the connection between language and sound.

He takes us through science and literature. Covering technical details of the ear and also sharing our cultural understanding of sound and language. Whether reminding us that hearing is not a choice - "after all we can close the lids of our eyes but cannot do so with our ears" or pointing out that "as one Hindu mystic pointed out to a French cardinal, even for the God of the Western Bible to have said 'Let there be Light', implies there must have been sound before light" there are many moments that will make you stop and think.

Once you're in the thick of Spirals it is a wonderful read. How often do Dante, Werner Heisenberg and Joseph Heller get quoted in the same essay? There are interesting facts sprinkled throughout. Did you know that "with an average of 0.000024 watts generated by human speech, it would take two and a half million people to keep a 60watt light bulb burning"?

Spirals shares the unique property of the best essays. You end up knowing more about language, speech, and hearing and understanding. You end up with new insights. You will have a new appreciation for the subject. And you are left with more questions and topics for discussion. Questions you didn't know could be asked before you read Spirals. Topics you didn't realize where worth contemplating before Spirals revealed them.

What more could you ask for?

Welcome to The Longer Web

On every blog there is the fateful plunge called "the first post". It's time for me to take The Longer Web out of limbo and make it public. Welcome to my first post.

The Longer Web (TLW to save needless typing) is my attempt to share the parts of the net that are longer and require time to read and digest. For all the impossibly short blurbs on the web there is much that proves that people still think and consider. This is the place where I can share links to what I started to call "the longer web".

Now before you say it out loud... let me beat you to the punch. Yes... I know it's ironic to have a blog of relatively short posts with links to well written longer works. On the other hand do you want to read a novel length post before you speed off to a piece by someone much more eloquent than myself? I thought not.

On occasion I'll have a lot to say and there will be lengthier posts. And yes... that's a threat as well as a promise.

Back to the matter at hand. Why embrace the longer web? Why create TLW?

The summary is the Longer Web Manifesto but that isn't the whole story. The other part is that I'm constantly surprised by people.

It turns out that if you scratch the surface most people are deeper and more thoughtful than we tend to think. We like to think we're the smartest and everyone else is shallow by comparison. The reality is different. Your plumber probably knows more about Indian cooking than his Italian background would lead you to believe. Your dentist not only collects movie memorabilia but he's written thousands of words on the subject as he contributes to various movie websites. It's impossible to guess what a particular person is passionate about at first glance.

Literacy isn't dead. The ability to express ideas is not a lost art. Look online for a while and you'll find ample evidence of that. So let's celebrate being substantive.

Plus deep discussions are linked to increased happiness. Research has shown that "the present findings demonstrate that the happy life is social rather than solitary, and conversationally deep rather than superficial.". Want to know more? Just read the actual research paper "Eavesdropping on Happiness: Well-Being Is Related to Having Less Small Talk and More Substantive Conversations". Go on give it a read. It's not much over 1,000 words.

Is it bad the first links on TLW are to reasonably short articles?

Welcome to TLW. I hope to share choice pieces of the longer web. Just before I go here's what's coming up next.

I've decided that just posting seemingly random links isn't as interesting as being a bit more focused. So I'll be picking a topic and sharing what I've found. Some topics will last a few posts. Others will keep us busy for a while. To start... let's look at how we understand and comprehend the world around us. Let's look at our senses.