18 notes per second, with a grin

What is the greatest guitar album ever recorded?1 Surfing with the Alien? Performing this week … Live at Ronnie Scott’s? The Return of the Hellecasters? Something by Danny Gatton, or Roy Buchanan?

How about The Lightning Fingers of Roy Clark? Clark may have had the persona of a hayseed clown, but he could play guitar. Here’s a sample:

It’s not as easy as it looks. If you have any interest in guitar music, you need Roy Clark in your library.

Clark died yesterday at the age of 85. Wonderduck has more.

Odds and ends

VCV Rack

Back in ancient times, synthesizers such as those played by W.W. Carlos and Keith Emerson were assembled from various single-purpose modules, linked together by a multitude of short cables. To change the sound, the musician rearranged the cables and fiddled with the controls on the modules. It was laborious, but with perseverance you could make something like Switched-on Bach or Tarkus. Eventually these modular monsters were replaced by compact synths with fixed architectures, which were easier to program and to transport. Later ones added polyphony and memory for patches, so the musician could play chords and recreate sounds instantly.

Although many of the later synths were immensely useful and desirable, none ever sounded quite like their forebears. Emerson’s modular Moog in particular was legendary. During the past 20 years or so, there’s been increasing interest in modular systems. Notably, the Doepfer “Eurorack” format has become prevalent in certain parts of the electronic music world. A musician can buy whatever modules he wants from a variety of manufacturers and combine them as he pleases. Unfortunately, purchasing modules gets expensive.

However, if you have a reasonably powerful computer, you can run the VCV Rack, a virtual Eurorack. The basic rack, including all you need to make funny noises, is free, and there are many more modules you can download to play with once you get the hang of it, most of which are also free. It’s available here.

I spent several recent lunch hours fiddling with the VCV Rack, and a couple of things quickly became apparent. First, it’s not easy to get an interesting sound out of it. The early synthesists had to work hard to make their music sound good.

Second, videos are the worst way to teach anything. There’s very little text documentation for the rack, so I sat through a number of videos explaining the basics. Good grief, they’re such a waste of time. In principle, videos should be perfect for this job — you can see the connections being made and hear the sounds that result. In practice, you get a guy rambling for half an hour trying to explain something that could have easily been summarized in three minutes. Advice to anyone making an instructional video: before you plug in your microphone, make a detailed written outline of what you want to cover. Better yet, write out what you want to say and skip the video entirely.

*****

Charles G. Hill brings tidings from Japan of a man who “married” a holographic representation of the vocal synthesizer “Hatsune Miku.” Hill linked to a video featuring Miku’s voice which is apparently extremely popular but which doesn’t show what the software is capable of. Here are a couple that better illustrate how a pathetic dweeb could become fixated on the computer-generated image of an anime-style girl: Miku in concert; Miku on a desktop.

Vocal synthesizers, of which Vocaloids are the most successful, occasionally come in handy for those of us with lousy voices. I’ve made use of Miku myself. Others include Plogue’s Alter/Ego and Chipspeech, and Wolfgang Palm’s Phonem.

*****

Francis W. Porretto wonders if anyone remembers Vaughn Meader and David Frye now that their targets are gone. The First Family was before my time, but I do remember hearing one particular skit by Frye frequently at the left end of the FM dial.

*****

It’s been scientifically established that nearly any pop song can be improved by remaking it as a polka or surf tune. In a similar vein, J Greely recently wished that the cast of Dr. Who had turned a recent episode into a Bollywood musical. I haven’t seen that episode so I can’t say for certain, but I expect that would indeed have been an improvement. I suspect, in fact, that most television shows would benefit from being transformed into Bollywood musicals. (Just wondering: are there any Bollywood musical production numbers featuring surf guitar?)

*****

This is terribly unfair, I know, but Cardinal DiNardo in the picture above looks very much like how I visualize Wormtongue when I read The Lord of the Rings.1

Checkmate, stalemate, forfeit

Tomorrow, for the first time in 46 years, an American, Fabiano Caruana, will challenge the world chess champion for the title. The last time this happened, it was major news. This time, though, apparently no one much cares. I searched the online edition of the Wichita newspaper today to see if there has been any mention of Caruana. This is what I found:

These don’t seem to have much to do with chess.

Out of curiosity, I did a search for “chess.” Here are the first few results:

So the Wichita Eagle squanders thousands of column inches every year on tedious ball games and incredible quantities of tripe, drivel and sanctimonious BS, but it can’t be bothered to spare a few inches for chess unless there’s a political angle to exploit.

You can follow the games live here for $20. There will also be coverage here.

Nobel note

John Walker:

Oliver Heaviside never won a Nobel Price, although he was nominated for the physics prize in 1912. He shouldn’t have felt too bad, though, as other nominees passed over for the prize that year included Hendrik Lorentz, Ernst Mach, Max Planck, and Albert Einstein. (The winner that year was Gustaf Dalén, “for his invention of automatic regulators for use in conjunction with gas accumulators for illuminating lighthouses and buoys”—oh well.)

Memo

To people who run websites:

  • If you have Flash anywhere on your site, please get rid of it. If your online catalog requires Flash, I won’t look at it.
  • If I need to disable my ad blocker to see your site, I won’t bother visiting it.
  • If you’re discussing music, podcasts make sense. Otherwise, I have neither the patience nor the time for them. (No, I don’t “multitask.” If I listen to a podcast while working on something else, I will both miss much of the podcast and do a poorer job on the task at hand.1)
  • Similarly, unless you’re discussing a dramatic presentation, video reviews and the like are also wastes of time.

(Boo)

A bit of music to set the mood. You can all sing along.

*****

It’s that time of year when I recommend that everyone watch Mononoke, unless I forget. So, if you want to view something appropriate to October 31 done with intelligence and artistry, watch an arc or two of Kenji Nakamura’s first and best anime. It’s not necessary to watch the stories in order. My personal favorites are Bakeneko (“Goblin Cat”) and Nue (“Japanese Chimera”), episodes 10-12 and 8-9, though all of the tales of the simple medicine seller are worth your time.

A couple of other possibilities:

Madoka Magica — Not for casual viewing. If you try to marathon this in one evening, you’ll be an emotional wreck at the end. You do need to start at the beginning.

Hozuki no Reitetsu — Something a little lighter, set in the Japanese version of Hell. The first episode introduces the main characters, but after that you can skip around. My favorites include the fourth episode, which introduces the demure rabbit Miss Mustard, and the eighth, which examines J-pop and modern art.

And there’s always Natsume Yujin-cho.

I have no particular taste for horror and creepy stuff. Although there’s plenty, most I’ve seen bores me. The shows mentioned above caught my attention for reasons other than mere “chills.”

Toys

Here’s an interactive celestial panorama, courtesy of NASA and ESO. You can see both visible light and gamma ray views of the skies. Check out the gamma ray constellations, which are rather different from their traditional conterparts.

If you’d like to annoy nearby people with funny noises, you can play WebSID, an online emulation of the SID chip in old Commodore computers. It works with your’s computer’s qwerty keyboard.

Green and red

I found a pleasant surprise this morning. A Stapelia flavopurpurea that I started from seed about 18 months ago is blooming. The photo above is much larger than life-size; the actual size of the flower is about an inch across. Click to see it even larger. Technical note: the picture was composed from a stack of 51 separate images assembled in Helicon Focus.

S. flavopurpurea is an atypical stapeliad in that the flowers don’t smell like something’s dead. It’s said to have a scent like beeswax, but I haven’t been able to detect any fragrance at all. Although Stapelias and their kin often look like cacti, they are not related. They are currently part of the Apocynaceae, which includes oleanders and vinca and the milkweeds.1 Stapeliad flowers are as complicated as they look; you have to go to the Orchidaceae to find more complex flowers.

There are more S. flavopurpurea pictures here.

*****

Trees in Wichita have finally begun to turn color. I grabbed a few snapshots on my way to and from work today. There are more here.

The unbearable whiteness of whatever

So drinking milk is a sign of evil? Someone forgot to tell Takako Minekawa. Here, have a nice glass of “Milk Rock.”

(Oddly, there’s no milk and few white things in the video. Perhaps the very white video for her earlier Kraftwerk-does-J-pop “Fantastic Cat” would be more disturbing to the pathologically woke.)

Living among books

Joseph Epstein on The Bookish Life:

Willa Cather, a writer I have come to admire as the greatest twentieth-century American novelist, chose not to allow any of her novels put into what she called “school editions,” lest young students, having to read her under the duress of school assignments, never return to her books when they were truly ready for them. She was no dope, Miss Cather.

Twenty or so years ago there was a vogue for speed-reading. (“I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes,” Woody Allen quipped. “It involves Russia.”) But why, one wonders, would you wish to speed up an activity that gives pleasure? Speed-reading? I’d as soon take a course in speed-eating or speed-lovemaking. Yet the notion of speed generally hovers over the act of reading. “A real page-turner,” people say of certain novels or biographies. I prefer to read books that are page-stoppers, that cause me to stop and contemplate a striking idea, an elegant phrase, an admirably constructed sentence.1

In the risky generalization department, slow readers tend to be better readers—more careful, more critical, more thoughtful. I myself rarely read more than twenty-five or thirty pages of a serious book in a single sitting. Reading a novel by Thomas Mann, a short story by Chekhov, a historical work by ­Theodor Mommsen, essays by Max Beerbohm, why would I wish to rush through them? Savoring them seems more sensible. After all, you never know when you will pass this way again.

“The art of not reading is a very important one,” Schopenhauer wrote.

It consists in not taking an interest in whatever may be engaging the attention of the general public at any particular time. When some political or ecclesiastical pamphlet, or novel, or poem is making a great commotion, you should remember that he who writes for fools always finds a large public. A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short.

Getting closer

Epidendrum porpax

I get tired of lugging a heavy tripod around when I want to take close-up pictures, but it’s a necessity with a heavy macro lens and long exposures. Yesterday I tried a different system on my trip to the botanical garden. Instead of the 100mm macro, I used a small, light and sharp 18-55mm zoom that is capable of near-macro work, and I added a diffuser to a hotshoe flash. It worked pretty well, as the above picture demonstrates. There are more pictures using the system here. I think it should be adequate for most pictures at the orchid show at Botanica November 3-4.

Flash plus diffuser works also with a true macro, as illustrated below. However, the lens I have is heavy, and it’s hard to hold the camera steady enough to keep the focus where I want it. A monopod would help, but that starts to get cumbersome.

For stacked focus (which is how I would ordinarily take pictures of small, intricate things) and extreme close-ups a tripod is indispensible, of course, but such stunt photography is generally not feasible outside of a studio.

This knight is four inches tall.

Miscellaneous quotes, decline and fall edition

Fillyjonk:

… something I read in this week’s The Week that is one of the sadder things I’ve heard recently: apparently animal behaviorists have found some dogs are “depressed” because of a lack of eye contact – because their owners spend so much time staring at their smartphones….

The Z Man:

The classical period featured a celebration of human beauty. The artists strove to capture the ideal of man in those beautiful statues we still have today. The medieval period had the celebration of God and his love for man. Walk into an old cathedral and you immediately feel the essence of that relationship. Of course, our canon is packed with poetry exploring the beauty of life, all of which was composed in a prior age, by men who are strangers to us now.

Walk into a modern building today and you know what it is like to be in the chute at a slaughter house.

William Torrey Harris, U.S. Commissioner of Education 1889-1906:

Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual.

and

The great purpose of school can be realized better in dark, airless, ugly places … It is to master the physical self, to transcend the beauty of nature. School should develop the power to withdraw from the external world.

*****

Continue reading “Miscellaneous quotes, decline and fall edition”

Remembering Steven

Last Sunday marked the second year since Steven Den Beste’s last post. The internet has not been the same since he’s been gone. I miss checking Chizumatic first thing when I crank up the computer in the morning. He was by far the most indefatigable commenter here, and seeing his avatar when I review old posts is a bittersweet pleasure.

I’d occasionally read USS Clueless, but it was his commentary on Serial Experiments Lain (summarized here) that made it clear he was someone I could take seriously. He remains the most reliable guide to Japanese animation that I’ve found; if you’re interested in the period from Dirty Pair to Girls und Panzer, his reviews are a good place to start.

The sylph with the hairy chest

A pas de deux from the 1935 ballet Светлый ручей (The Bright Stream), with music by Shostakovich, libretto by Adrian Piotrovsky and choreography by Fedor Lopukhov, re-choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky for the ballet’s 2004 revival. There’s a story behind the ballet, and not one with a happy ending: “A work meant to be light, entertaining, and uplifting had proved the downfall of its creators.”