eBooks

For the last week I’ve had no phone line, no internet except that which comes over the ‘smart phone’. Holy Shit how do people ‘consume’ through that tenuous porthole? Here’s me holding the phone up in the air trying to catch a reasonable WiFi signal, just so I can maybe see 5 words at a time from a ‘mobile’ news site – which is bowdlerised to the hell to show only ‘popular’ news items. No wonder so many dumb-ass millennials if that’s their online experience.

Anyway – it’s relevant to the topic at hand – what is ‘a book’ in this year 2015? What will ‘a book’ be in 2025? This really should be of interest to budding media designers, who spend too much time creating content and not enough worrying about publishing it. I’m starting a course on this topic because it makes no sense to keep teaching people how to animate for film and TV. That’s like teaching how to hoist sails on a long ship. Good luck on the high seas matey. I am no expert in electronic publishing, but then again I got the gig teaching ‘film studies’ 7 years ago from being a musician, and no complaints.

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There will be paper books, they will be expensive collectables, like vinyl. Never mind that foppery. There will tablets, watches and perhaps eReaders, although the most recent Kindles seem to announce death of the purpose designed reader. You would hope that the book would not just be a flow of endless text pulled from a word processor, and would in some way respond to the potential of the device with sound and animation.

In 2011 the ePub3 format finally took on fixed text and multimedia. But in 2015 most eReaders still do not properly reproduce this format.

Obviously Apple got sick of that shit and Embraced, Expanded and Extinguished it into iBooks. You can’t blame them for getting tired of waiting, in fact you have to admire their snappy Hugo Boss uniforms. But at some point the iPad will no longer be the Fuhrer, and iBooks will be a dead end. ePub, like HTML5, is a mongrel, but it’s the mongrel we have to adopt.

A group of Nazi troops and students gather seized papers and books to burn, in the Opernplatz, Berlin.   (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Nazis and university students. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Most of Apple’s shenanigans have to do with punching Adobe in the face enough times to try kill it, but you can’t kill that which does not live. Example – having been punched for Flash, Adobe built a tool called Edge Animate that creates Javascript animations. People build these into iBooks. Apple updates iBooks with a kill switch for Edge. Adobe updates Edge with a cloaking device. I am mainly on Adobe’s side because at least they are building a tool, whereas Apple is breaking it. Flash may have been too hard on the first iPads, but that’s turned into an ancestral dispute.

My students need to publish visually dense books that represent artistic folios, and that means InDesign. It will make ePub3 as well as PDF, which is a strong format for print publication and archives, but a little too heavy for portable devices. You can also get a HTML5 website out of it, which might equally be a book in 2025.

Under the hood the ePub is an XHTML file, the format that lead to the great HTML rebellion (in which the W3c tried to move the community over to clean and tidy XHTML only to have outsiders instead propose the messy and forgiving HTML5 spec.). Sadly that means they preserve a religious schism that has since healed, and makes hand scripting difficult. An eBook also uses Scalable Vector Graphics, while HTML5 avoids this heavy computation. All up it’s the kind of file zoo that existed all over digital media back in the good old days.

Of course there are many more things that you can do on a pad that have artistic merit. If they want to dip into objective C then it’s their private hell. Some students might want to make ‘apps’, which run on watches. Bless them, I do not know how you can convey important things on a watch.

Will we make 2025 books? Will they be good books? Can we start a dialogue between engineer and artist?

Virus TI: sold by weight.

Long have I wanted to know the answer to this ageless question:
why are Access Virus synthesisers so fucking expensive?

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I found that the answer is really quite simple – they weigh a shit load. Like Ensoniq keyboard levels of Jesus help me lift this thing off me. The Japanese are always striving to run everything on batteries and little shoulder bags. No, the Germans will bolt an extra plate of metal on their wares; think of how the Blofeld is basically a folded sheet of metal filled with a VSTi – this is at least two sheets – twice better.

But there is a difference between Waldorf and Access. Here, twiddle this knob. Hey, that’s pretty nice, hmmmm, could give that a twiddle for a while, feels kinda silky. The Virus has the same kind of svelte as an old Hewlett Packard calculator, or Apple computers before they were ‘Designed in California’. Classy. Other synthesisers cut corners in interesting ways, here they just cut holes out of your savings – the machine cuts nothing.

But I did not pay the full price. Hardly fleacore price but about half the going rate for second hand. First of all the latest TI2 is just a faster TI. If you’re slow like me, just get the TI and save the large price differential. Wait for some sucker to upgrade. Pounce.

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Appalling Installing.

So then, to make it work. Access are proud of something called Total Integration, where the rack appears to your computer as a VSTi. I really don’t know why you would spend more on doing this than own all the VST’s in Native Instruments Komplete. But too bad, you have to have it, so first step was download the latest software from the website. This was a total pain in the crack; slow, hampered by a stupid password system that doesn’t work on Firefox, but anyway. They spend an awfully long time warning you about where to plug your USB cable. Get this wrong and you are in deep shit, they say, and so I chose a port directly on my computer.

Install, reboot, the software sees the Virus and installs new firmware on it. Then when I start up Cubase, there’s a VSTi called Virus TI. Cool. It spends the next half hour spooling patches back over the USB and now finally I can hear this thing…

… except I can’t. Nothing works. The cursor won’t even move. Sound card driver completely borked. I won’t go through the next hours of tedium, except to say, yes, get the USB port wrong and suffer. Once I played solitaire with my cables and won, we’re up and running.

Yes, but what does it sound like?

If you use MIDI (which can go over the USB cable) you get sound out the back of the box. Use the Total Integration and it comes up the USB pipe. It’s an interesting way to compare clean feed with the effects of running through a mixing desk. Maybe it’s psychological but the clean feed is pretty damn quiet and underwhelming. Crank it through the desk and it gets some balls. Pity then you can’t just use the editor without the TI thing.

Now when people say that VST instruments never sound like hardware, they mean (in part) software lacks the slight distortion of the circuitry which excite upper harmonics. This is actually noise and technically unwanted, but like tape hiss it brings the impression of air above the signal. Recent virtual analogues have a bit of this built in (the AIRAs for example). Now so far I am judging on presets (as all this wiring has stopped much creative flow) but to my ears the Virus just doesn’t have that buzz. It sounds like a VSTi. Clean, solid, hearty and rounded off.

Compare this to a Novation Ultranova – which let’s face it ‘borrows’ much from the Virus. The Nova is harsher, more pushy, even though it occupies the same genre. The Blofeld is just plain rude in comparison. The KORG Radius, which was born around the same period as the old Virus, it’s more buzzy and scratchy. Really it’s like the old Monty Python joke about ‘tinny’ and ‘woody’ words. The Virus is ‘woody’.

Start making your own patches and you find that the presets are overcooked. Dial it back and some character emerges. The architecture is the good old “2 oscillators through filters”. The filters are OK, but not exactly brimming with character, the resonance is (so far) not very organic, just a sub MOOG screech. I can’t get a Juno style flow out of it at all.

Oscillators can be one of four main types – standard waveforms including some Prophet VS style digital waves, a hypersaw, a wavetable, or a couple of variations on the wavetables that perform frequency distortions. The wavetables are good, they have a nice PPG 8-bit grunge to them that the Virus so desperately needs. The frequency distortions are interesting but mostly come down to aliased pitch shifting that works sometimes and not others. Here again there’s an effect I noticed with the filters – whenever you start to approach a violent or nasty sound the volume dips. Screech the resonance or fuck with a high frequency shift and the sound moves away from you. I haven’t quite got the theory yet but seems like it is rolling off bad frequencies to avoid aliasing. Hmmmm.

Preliminary impression is that it’s a bit of a Rolls Royce. Nice woody edges, comfortable, smooth ride. Kawai 100F it ain’t. In the coming weeks I’m going to see if I can’t get it sounding a bit more upset about something.

Praise for ‘Walkies’

There is a kind of computer game where the player travels a world, first person, and takes in the sights. There’s a back story, often a mystery that needs exploring, and some mild struggle to navigate it. Mild struggle – the few antagonists, if any, are easily avoided and very rarely would you expect any shooting.

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Gamers hate this. The genre is derided as ‘walking simulators’, a reference to the endless simulator games that pour out of Germany and Eastern Europe – ‘forklift simulator’, ‘garbage truck simulator’ – strange dull games for obsessives. Terrible reviews, few stars. Of course gamers themselves are getting some terrible reviews at the moment for their own lack of empathy and insight, so it’s tempting to ignore their protests. But they do have a point. As games, these titles suck. Perhaps that’s a good thing.

Consider Roger Ebert’s denunciation: Computer Games Can Never Be Art. It’s a good read, although his opponent is a bit lightweight. In there he points out the need for a game to have struggle and scoring. He’s on very firm ground here, he agrees with the pantheon of game theorists. You can’t have a game unless there’s a win. You can’t have a win without a battle – and so on.

I would like to turn this whole thing around. We can allow Ebert’s claim that it can’t be art if it’s a game. Therefore, it should not be a game. It can do everything that a game would do, but winning and scoring are not the primary purpose. And voilà – we have a strength, not a weakness.

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“no one should have illusions about uncovering a complex gameplay experience … how am I meant to feel like I’ve just come through an arduous quest if nothing ever made me really think or work hard?” – Game informer on Journey.

As moving pictures became movies, and talking films became talkies, these mobile tales need a similar name – I prefer walkies.

This doesn’t automatically create art. Dear Esther is an example of a disappointing walkie. Ether One is a better walkie, but let down by a desire to be a game – the game aspect is way too hard perhaps as an over compensation. Now I am ‘playing’ (can that word still work?) MIND: Path to Thalamus, which is not a missing Skinny Puppy album but a rather good Spanish walkie featuring a storm chaser – a man that loves tornadoes, but has caused death by his enthusiasm. He is on a pilgrimage to atone for this sin.

Things that I get from this title:

It is visually and musically involving. I see and hear things that bring me excitement and pleasure. I am given time to admire these things. Unlike a film.

I am driven to explore, to see more. I have to admit I don’t play games very long if I’m constantly beaten. Nothing new to see means I lose interest. Gamers will talk about how many hours of play you get and complain these titles only give a few hours at most. Sure, if you ignore everything except winning. Stand still for a while. Then wonder what happens next.

There are ‘rails’ that pace the narrative. Most games have guides that deliver the player from level to level: Pac Man, Bioshock, Amnesia. Few are ‘sandboxes’ with no paths, notably Grand Theft Auto. Rails are the most extreme guide, as they exist inside the level, and Dear Esther has rail-itus. Ether One and Thalamus, not so much. A good walkie probably should not have rails, but this is something that authors are obviously trying to figure out. Yume Nikki is a sandbox.

There’s a strong story arc. You are pretty sure you know what’s going on, but you have to check it out. Or sometimes you have no idea and need to get to the end. Either way the payoff is the third act. You are satisfied by hearing the story to the end.

Some struggle against the world is required. It’s not just walking. But if you pause for thought, the answer comes to you. The world demands your attention and understanding.

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“Horrible game. Boring story, just walking around, not scary at all. Great graphics, but that is not the important part. I hoped that i was near the end when i played this game, so i runned through everything that is ‘scary'” – Metacritic on A Machine For Pigs

A walkie is a subset of adventure, but you can have adventures that aren’t walkies. Bioshock is an action adventure – you can’t die, and a plot is revealed over the duration of the game. But I never got to admire the scenery for very long without drowning. Myst was the first walkie but perhaps erred to the unreasonable puzzles that mar adventures (and it had a maze which is instant fail).

Walkie is a helpful word because it takes a negative and spins it around to a call to action. Let’s drop the ‘game’ word. If people want to say these aren’t games then, yes they’re  right, and furthermore that’s an advantage. I would have loved Stalker to be a walkie, I really don’t want to have to kill and be killed just to see the zone. The film is great. Why can’t we have something that works like the film on a computer screen?

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“Too much shooting and dying, not enough mysterious plot line” – Me.

Why must art students learn coding?

I’m not opposed to it. I’m actively organising it for my particular barrel of monkeys. But the opinion seems to be much stronger than the reasoning and I would be glad to hear a well formed argument as to why Mary has to put down the paintbrush and start to type…

… what? That’s the other thing. This expert wants Processing. That one is all for Max. Is Max coding? There’s Python and Objective C and snapping blocks together Scratch style. Sometimes I hear that such and such is only scripting which isn’t coding and well that just won’t do!

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Look, when I was a teen I bought one of the very first home computers (the Trash 80) and sat down and learned how to code. I exhibited my nasty machine code hacking of a C64 in public way back in the early 80’s and have tried very hard to keep up with developments since. So I’m not swayed by platitudes like ‘coding is just like sketching and artists need to sketch ideas’. Excuse me, it’s nothing like sketching and anyone who says that should write their own paint software from scratch as punishment (I did that once, it sucked).

I am grateful for any considered opinion from people who have actually coded. Please no philosophers. Why is coding something that art/design students should learn?

Also: http://workfunc.com/differences-between-programmers-and-coders/

Turn depression into anger.

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Depressed.

I spent most of today working on 1985. It felt stupid, because it is totally stupid – whatever achievements took place today were all derivative. Yeah sure I have a lot of vinyl reissues that need fixing up and mastering and packaging and then once they come out a whole bunch of people will say how happy they are that they can have something that has already popped out the other side of any risk. Have some money!

Of course that’s normal. Most successful artists do the same thing over and over again. Replicate the first work that got them notice. The same installation idea they had 20 years ago dragging its arse from gallery to gallery. How the hell do they ever reconcile this with their creative spirit? I’m not waving my finger here, I’m asking O great artists, tell me how you avoid feeling that dead, useless, depressing choke of stale air and limp will?

Money! And Applause! and invitations to the Red Queen’s ball! All the shit you don’t get when you’re trying to make real progress. I managed to play it right when getting the HH game up at Adelaide. Play old music, get new game. That was like burning wet leaves but hey, it was a solid attempt.

And-one-must-acknowledge-one’s-legacy-and-ensure-it-is-preserved-as-part-of-the-official-history.

(There are journalists at the virtual door! They want to talk about 1985. Do I still have my 1985 studio set up? Maybe I could dig up some dead band members to join in the chat?)

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L-R: Deering, Knuckey, Racic, Jones, Bradbury, Ellard.

At my work we’re getting all fussed up about creative coding and giant dome shaped TVs – on one side that’s all just Pyramids for Pharaohs, but on the other side there’s still a lot to do in that realm to make an audience cry or smile. Not that I would ever be allowed to besmirch any of that tasty kit – unless of course it was something I did in 1985.

Got to clear my head. Get all this memento mori out the door and then get back to something risky. As far as the world is concerned that’ll be a return to failure but it is a sure thing that when no one cares you are forced to care enough for the whole world.

It’s in the game realm. That’s where the action is. I don’t know how and I don’t know where exactly, but that’s where the transgressions take place.

Kraftbrew

So Roland just announced some Eurorack modules. It’s like you’re at some craft brew joint which only sells Belgian konkbrau mixed with rose petals, and they just added Tooheys Old on Tap. If you’re a fastidious drinker of $20 thimbles, you’re not going to switch to Tooheys. If like me you drink from thirst, you’re already not even looking at the thimbles, but a schooner of Old might do the trick.

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Now let’s translate that. The chance of me buying Eurorack has been zero, nada, nuh uh. I am barely convinced by hardware, and in the main I want something that has a single personality I can explore, not a cloud of ideas that give me a headache. I don’t want to lose myself in possibilities, I want to get the sound in my head, and its the limitation of hardware that is attractive, the focus it provides over software.

So when Roland says here’s a set of things that have an identity, it’s the identity that appeals, and the set that I might look at, in a road case that exactly fits. I don’t think that’s uncommon – the oohs and ahs are about a known system becoming affordable. For people like me, it’s unlikely that I’ll start then mixing and switching, otherwise I’d already be at the inevitable bit where I have my Doepfers selling on eBay in the hope of something nicer.

If you sell Eurorack, I don’t think Roland will do you any harm. I don’t think it will do anything much at all. The audience is going to be people that buy Fantoms (and by the way my Fantom patches kick god-damn ass) and might need a woobly noise on one song in their pub set.

I’m also aware that when you put all the Roland modules in a row you’ve managed to create something less interesting than a MOOG Voyager rack or a MS20m for more money. The only reason you’d ever do it is a bad case of I-always-wanted-one-of-them. I always did want one of them, but I can wait for the inevitable second hand disposals.

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Have a good look at an old Korg Ms2000. For the price of a single Eurorack module this old fella will give you a 16 step analogue style sequencer driving four voices of two oscillators through a pretty fine filter and some sensible patching.

And for all else there’s:

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Oompa Loopma Riot – Release!

First read this.

In the years 1979 to 1983, Terse Tapes was a cassette label. It ‘released’ a few bands that continued onward, it made a few compilations, which are currently the subject of reissues and books.

Mysterious Kitchens was made in 1980.

This gives the impression that there was a ‘period’ when this happened, and that time is now safely past. I hate that ‘safely past’. It reminds me of museums and stuffed animals. So the best way to stop that idea is another compilation!

No, it won’t be on cassette. That’s just the medium, where this is about the idea. Back then it would be word of mouth, people who vaguely knew each other, a chaotic range of styles – and lots of stupid band names. Which is exactly what this is about.

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It’s here to prove that 2015 is just as good a time as 1981 to have this kind of malarkey. Even better, because it can now easily be distributed at no cost to the listener and minimal cost to the maker. Sevcom has earned over 32 thousand free downloads on Bandcamp. By selling some things we can make others free.

More than that – it’s possible to update and refresh problems that might occur with misspellings and wrong information. Something that was very challenging back when it was photocopies and tapes.

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Version 1.1 is now up at https://severedheads.bandcamp.com/

Kurt Vonnegut explained the death of education long ago.

Back in 1952, Kurt Vonnegut wrote a novel called Player Piano. Back some time in the 70’s I read a copy. Now I get to live it.

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If it weren’t for the people, the god-damn people’ said Finnerty, ‘always getting tangled up in the machinery. If it weren’t for them, the world would be an engineer’s paradise.

I like lecturing. It’s by far the best thing about being a lecturer. I like to get at least one laugh out of the hall, to get them doing some odd thing like clenching and unclenching their fists to experience tension and release in plot design. It’s an effective and personal way to reach 100 people or more and get them switched on about the important learning points. The last few weeks I’ve delivered lectures for my main video class. Next week, it ‘flips’. I’ve been sampled.

In the novel, Vonnegut explains how every skill can be measured and transcribed. A pianist is captured onto a piano roll, the woodworker can be replaced by a robot arm that repeats their motions over and over again. When I first started teaching art we would show how to do things. Now that has been moved over to online courses. That means I talk about the whys and then they go online to see the hows. Actually because I insist on teaching how to do things I am required to work more face to face hours. That is, one hour of why equals three of how, and I either re-write my courses or take the extra load.

Next week, the whys will be in a 20 minute long recording. Not perfect, certainly plenty more for myself and the designers to sort out – but eventually the robo-Tom (or a more attractive replacement) will be available 24-7 to lecture to as many students as the university wants, and at a discount. The staff are only there to assess the results.

I met the person in charge of this. He manages a growing, opulent concern, flush with funds – at a time where other parts of the university are being scaled back. It’s clear to me that at some point I will jump over to what Vonnegut calls the ‘north of the river’ where the managers and engineers live, and I’m already well on the way. But it’s worrying me, because whenever I see somebody pleased with their disruption, I foresee the disruption that will come to them in turn, and meanwhile everything I have ever loved gets turned into sludge. Managers and Deans and Chancellors can be sampled and automated too.

The foreman had pointed out his best man – what was his name? – and, joking with the puzzled machinist, the three bright young men had hooked up the recording apparatus to the lathe controls. Hertz! That had been the machinist’s name – Rudy Hertz, an old-timer, who had been about ready to retire. Paul remembered the name now, and remembered the deference the old man had shown the bright young men.

And here, now, this little loop in the box before Paul, here was Rudy as Rudy had been to his machine that afternoon – Rudy, the turner-on of power, the setter of speeds, the controller of the cutting tool. This was the essence of Rudy as far as his machine was concerned, as far as the economy was concerned, as far as the war effort had been concerned. The tape was the essence distilled from the small, polite man with the big hands and black fingernails…

I have a computing problem, and I am stupid

I have the results of a survey. There are five questions, the replies are numbers between 1 and 7. So one response might be 11111, another 77777 and another 23361.

I need to find the closest response to an arbitrary number. So if I supply 44444, that might be 44445 or 41444. It might be 61777 for that matter.

Because I have to implement this in MaxMSP, I need to understand the process rather than an actual code snippet. MaxMSP can call up Javascript, but otherwise it’s done with ‘cables and boxes’ and is very slow.

I thank you for any suggestions.