Haunted hands and foraging swarmbots

Paul Raven @ 24-06-2011

Couple of freaky videos to set you up for the weekend, both courtesy of New Scientist. First up, PossessedHand is a device whose inventors hope will help musicians (and, one assumes, other folk who do fiddly stuff with their hands) get their muscle memory up to scratch more quickly:

And secondly, here’s a gang of super-simple “Kilobots” that display cooperative swarm behaviour as the result of very simple programming:

Apologies for the last few days being a bit content-thin; lots of balls in the air at the moment, and I’m doing my best not to drop any. Have a good weekend! 🙂


Plan Of The City: NYC architecture relocates itself to Mars, throws party

Paul Raven @ 03-06-2011

I get a fair few emails in the Futurismic mailbox saying “hey, I did this thing, maybe you’d check it out and blog about it?” Roughly 80% of them are either poorly disguised corporate pitches or stuff that’s just not very good, but every now and again I get something like this: Plan Of The City is an animation by regular reader Joshua Frankel, and it’s really rather wonderful. So consider this your Friday afternoon brain-break; take thirteen minutes to watch the architecture of New York fly itself to Mars, accompanied by some rather moving music. Go.

You can find out more about Plan Of The City and Joshua’s other works; give the guy a bit of attention, why not? Thanks for getting in touch, Mister Frankel. 🙂

Dethroning the conductor

Paul Raven @ 13-01-2011

As unsurprising as it might be to see an essay by a Christian theologian advocating submission to authority as one of the highest ideals of our political lives [via BigThink], I’m not in the mood to let it pass without comment. I think what really bugs me is the largely unquestioned elevation of hierarchy to sacred principle:

Austin gives the example of an orchestra. If I want to be free to play the violin in a well-performed Beethoven symphony, then I must submit myself to the authority of a conductor, for without the conductor the other musicians cannot be brought into coordination with my playing.

Submission to authority for the sake of freedom is not, as Simon recognized, a function of human sin but instead finitude. It’s not the case that an orchestra can just play if everybody is selfless and cooperative. Someone needs to guide the whole so that each player can concentrate on his or her part. Nobody can both play the violin and at the same time and conduct the orchestra.

The logic there is sound enough, but it’s built on the assumption that everyone wants to play through the precisely denoted structure of that Beethoven symphony, and the implication that anything else would be a cacophony of unpalatable noise, or at the very least inherently inferior to Beethoven.

Well, look: I spent three hours last night jamming with a handful of other musicians. We don’t play from sheet music; the band doesn’t “belong” to anyone; there is no conductor or leader. We take the simple rules of harmony and melody, and we start playing; music emerges. Sometimes it takes a little while to find a groove; sometimes there are bum notes, fumbled phrases, rhythmic slips. But sometimes we come up with stuff that transcends our individual abilities – little passages which, when we’ve finished playing, we discuss with a mixture of surprise and awe. There was no planning, no leadership, but we still created something amazing. Part of that comes from the selflessness that our theologian friend above claims is insufficient, but another part comes from the selfishness of occasionally feeling that one knows what the moment demands, and the willingness to step out of the groove and extend it upwards, outwards, inwards, wherever.

The orchestral analogy’s appeal to a theologian is pretty obvious: the orchestra first has to recieve the text of the piece, a rule-set handed down to them by a distant authority figure whom they can only hope to partially channel and glorify; the text then has to be interpreted by the conductor, who plays no part in the creation of the symphony beyond grafting a personal vision and interpretation to the text. The musician’s place is to play what he is told, just as the communicant’s place is to accept, without question, the interpretation of God’s word as filtered through his priest.

This obviously works for many people, but not for all. The music I made with friends last night wasn’t perfect, wasn’t planned, but it was all the more glorious for that, because we made it without constraints. We accepted our individual failings at the same time that we accepted our individual achievements. We participated in an act of creation on equal terms, and were brought closer together as people in the process. (I imagine any other musician would agree that playing in a band lets you get to know people in an intellectually more intimate manner than other forms of friendship, and I’m sure the same goes for other acts of collaborative creation.)

So, keeping that in mind, back to our theologian:

That’s why nobody actually wants “participatory democracy,” a non-hierarchical fantasy that progressive political theorists often champion. It would be oppressive in the extreme if all of us were vested with exactly the same responsibility for the common good. As Herbert McCabe observed: “Society is not the product of individual people. On the contrary, individual people are the product of society.”


The expansion of political responsibility beyond a certain point would absorb our private lives, a result that entails the opposite of what most people intend when they endorse political liberty. Like the violinist who can’t concentrate on his part and conduct at the same time, finite human beings don’t have enough energy to attend to the ordinary duties of life and bring about world revolution.

Did you get that? You don’t really want freedom. Indeed, hierarchy is necessary, because without it we couldn’t enjoy the luxury of our lack of control over it. The shepherd graciously allows the sheep to revel in the pleasure of sheepdom; the price of never being eaten by wolves is to be kept safe until the shepherd has need of a meal. And let’s just repeat a phrase to be sure it sinks in:

It would be oppressive in the extreme if all of us were vested with exactly the same responsibility for the common good.

I cannot read that sentence and parse it in any way that makes logical sense to me, except as an indicator of a mindset that destroys lives and ruins the world the we live upon. “Daddy knows best.”

Regular readers can probably see the sociopolitical direction in which I’m driving, so I’ll stop before I belabour it too badly… but not before pointing out that when an orchestra finishes playing, it is the conductor who takes the bow, and takes the glory that the musicians have laboured for.

My rejoinder to another rejoinder to Doctorow’s rejoinder

Paul Raven @ 19-11-2010

Serendipity striketh again, in the form of Helliene Lindvall’s response to Cory Doctorow’s response to her earlier piece  attacking advocates of free-content business models for creatives. The Guardian may be missing a trick, here; this could become some sort of central-court ideology-tennis match. Give ’em a slot each on alternating days, and see how long it runs!

(My money’s on it going the distance; I think the questions around artist business models are currently unanswerable because of the economic flux we’re surfing on. Which is why the debate is important; better to design and build a wall against the coming flood than to wait until the water arrives and provides you with precise design parameters.)

Hell, better yet: set up a video recorder, let ’em do a face-to-face debate, then put it out there for the people to see… right after a lengthy argument about whether to paywall it, natch. (I think there’s a certain subtle irony to Lindvall’s piece appearing in the staunchly free-to-air online version of The Guardian… )

Aaaaanyway, it’s a more reasonable piece than Lindvall’s first, despite a few scare quotes and caricatures (“media gurus”! – is it wrong that I conjure an image of a sadhu with a cellphone when I read that phrase?):

One argument against my stance was that there’s no point in trying to prevent copying, as it’s so easy to do – and is only getting easier. It is so easy to violate the artist’s choice, why bother respecting the rules that protect that choice? However, there are many things that are easy to do, yet are not legally or morally right – for instance, posting anonymous threats saying you’d like to kill someone.

I’m not sure exactly what the rhetorical classification of that riposte is, but I think it’s a little bit reductio ad Hitlerum; comparing the copying of digital media to sending death threats is not exactly proportional in ethical terms. An attention-grabbing way to begin, though, I’ll grant you.

Just because an illegal act is easier to commit on the web, in the comfort of an anonymous mob, than in the physical world where there is a greater likelihood of apprehension doesn’t mean that our laws and ethics should somehow be suspended.

The ease of duplication is little to do with the anonymity of the web, it’s a function of the infinitely reproducible and lossless nature of digital media. Thumb-drive  sneakernet party, anyone? Exactly the same problem arose from the proliferation of cassette tapes, albeit a slower and more lossy version thereof… and the music industry defeated that problem very neatly with the compact disc. Laws and ethics shouldn’t be suspended, no; nor should the need for businesses to innovate if they wish to stay profitable.

Producing a record – as opposed to writing most books – tends to be a team effort involving a producer (sometimes several of them) and songwriters who are not part of the act, studio engineers and a whole host of people who don’t earn money from merchandise and touring – people who no one would pay to make personal appearances.

I’m sure there’s a lot of editors, agents, proofreaders, copyeditors, cover artists, layout geeks and beta readers who’ll be astonished to realise that their contribution to the production of a novel is effectively negligible. But then they’re mostly busy trying to figure out how to make their careers survive the transition to digital, so perhaps we can forgive them that oversight.

Many songwriters and producers I know have been excited about getting their songs recorded, only to see it given away as a free digital download by the artist or label. Though it may help promote the artist it does nothing to promote these writers and producers, as downloads don’t display any credits.

Surely that oversight is the fault of the label’s implementation of the free give-away, rather than the free give-away itself? The producer or writer chose to sign the contract that allowed the label to do it, right? Caveat creator; if you choose to go to bed with the money-men, you must live with the consequences. Likewise, if you make your own choices about whether to give your stuff away, you must sleep in the bed you made for yourself. Take responsibility for your own career, or don’t; simple choice, really.

Another argument used by proponents of the “free” business model is that record labels have mistreated artists for decades and so deserve to go out of business – so to them I guess two wrongs make a right.

Not sure I see where that second wrong is, here; in fact, it strikes me that the collapse of the record labels is a consequence of their own failure to act. No one is actively threatening the record label business model, it’s simply failing to adapt to a changing environment. Evolve or die. I’ll certainly cop to feeling a certain amount of schadenfreude over the demise of the big labels, but that’s probably because I’ve listened to sermons in the Church of Albini. Your karma just ran over your dogma; it’s not two wrongs making a right, it’s cause and effect. Lose public trust, lose your business.

I signed my first publishing deal almost 10 years ago with BMG, who ended up being bought by Universal. Sure, I’ve had my issues with them through the years. Yet I don’t regret signing with them as they provided me, an unproven songwriter, with the means to write music full time (I’m sure authors can relate) and develop my craft.

“I got a great deal out of my signing, therefore all signings are fair.” I refer the honourable lady once again to the Church of Albini. Perhaps his numbers there represent an equally rare but opposite polar extreme… but having spent most of my adult life around working and/or aspiring musicians, I rather suspect it isn’t.

They’ve even agreed to give the songs that haven’t yet been covered back to me – despite not having to, contractually.

Very rare, if I’m not mistaken, and a comparatively recent development; music history is littered with lawsuits by bands and songsmiths great and small who fought – often unsuccessfully – for the ownership of their own material (paging Jello Biafra). But bravo, BMG; perhaps this will become a blanket policy for all artists you sign, and all the artists you’ve signed before?

… others would argue that the principle of CC licensing is simply to give creative works away for free in what Lessig calls the “hybrid economy”. Giving away the works benefits the owners of the distribution platform, such as Flickr, YouTube or Google, not the individual creators licensing their works under Creative Commons.

And selling the works of musicians benefits the shareholders of the record companies – so where’s the difference? No one is forced to license their material as CC; no one is forced to use any particular platform to store and share their work… and there’s the difference. There’s a lot less choice once you’ve signed your contract with Sony BMG, I’m guessing. They get to make all those decisions on your behalf… and I’m sure they’ll have your best interests foremost in their minds as they do so.

And there are other issues. For instance: what constitutes “non-commercial”? Selling YouTube for $1.65bn? Selling Flickr for $35m?

“Web-based media sharing platforms in profit-making shock horror probe!” I’m pretty sure HMV and Tower Records and Amazon were always pretty interested in making a profit, too… but again, the artist didn’t get a choice about where their material ended up being sold (and, subsequently, who ended up getting a cut of the sales price). It’s a bit weird to argue for art as a commercial endeavour and then criticise proponents of a different model for using commercialised distribution channels… how shameful of them to compromise with the capitalist world around them in a way that lets their work be seen on their own terms! Hypocrites!

I believe a successful future for content creators consists of a combination of solutions, one of them being unlimited ISP music subscriptions bundled in with their broadband access deals.

I have some sympathy with this idea, as it happens, but it has all sorts of potential loopholes through which record labels can get themselves back to steady-income business-as-usual; I believe this is a process commonly referred to as “protectionism”. And hey, wait a minute – some of those ISPs are big profit-making businesses! So they’re exploitative middlemen in exactly the same way as YouTube and Flickr, are they not?

I believe it’s detrimental to suggest that creators should be defeatist and not participate in this evolution – that what they’ve created has no value so they may as well give it away.

While there’s a lot of ways to interpret Doctorow’s stance, suggesting that he’s telling creators to “not participate in [the] evolution” of the markets in which they wish to place their work is not one that I can reach with any logical train of thought; quite the opposite, in fact.

Indeed, I’d have thought that saying “leave it to the labels, the ISPs and the government to fix” was much closer to that doctrine… but hey, I give my work away on the internet, so I doubtless got brainwashed long ago. *shrug*

Y’all enjoy that new Girl Talk mash-up album, won’t you?

Idoru: manufactured pop music approaches apogee

Paul Raven @ 25-10-2010

The more Bill Gibson claims modestly not to be a prophet, the more the world comes to resemble the ones in which his novels are set. Completely synthesized 3D holographic pop singer, anyone? [via MonkeyFilter]

Her hair is blue, she dresses like Sailor Moon, and she’ll only appear in concerts via a 3D ‘hologram’. Oh, and did I forget to mention that she’s completely fictional? Created by Crypton Future Media, Hatsune Miku is a virtual singing avatar that you can purchase for your PC and program to play any song you create.


Watching Miku sing live is pretty amazing. The 3D ‘hologram’ isn’t that impressive, it looks to be a modern version of the pepper’s ghost illusion we’ve seen before, but the crowd reaction is intense. I’ve been to concerts where the band’s fan base was considerably less enthusiastic. How must it feel to be a musician and see this virtual character getting way more love than you? Hatsune Miku and her ‘friends’ may only have played a few tours, but there’s little doubt that these guys are rock stars:

Well, you can colour me cynical, but given the levels of utterly obvious artifice on display in most of the popular meatpuppet pop acts, I’m not really surprised that the crowds go wild for idorus; there’s a strong element of suspension of disbelief involved with music fandom (one which extends just as deeply into forms and genres that are considered by their fans to be the polar opposite of pop), and unabashed artificiality is just another fact of modern life, especially to younger audiences.

Guardians of hollow notions of artistic authenticity (and curmudgeonly critics like myself) can at least take heart from the fact that idorus will face many of the same piracy problems and business model issues as flesh-and-blood acts, at least once the novelty quotient expires… though they’re probably less likely to get tired and jaded about their careers, to discover free jazz or to overdose on prescription painkillers.

That said, given how much of our engagement with musicians (and other artists) is connected to the narrative mythology that surrounds them – in many cases more than with their actual music, or so I’d argue – the arrival of the first by-design tortured/iconoclastic/bi-polar/just-plain-f*cked-up idoru can’t be too far away.

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