Pretty Good Week

It’s been an interesting week so far–and in a good way.

Roy Moore lost his Senate race in Alabama. Granted, it was much closer than I’d have preferred, but as our illustrious president said, “A win is a win.”

Of course, that’s something Mr. Moore apparently doesn’t understand. He’s convinced that God will make sure the absentee ballots still being counted will give him the victory. Does anyone think he’ll reconsider his belief that God is on his side if he doesn’t win?

For that matter, does anyone think his refusal to concede and the likely forthcoming demand for a recount is anything other than a cynical ploy to keep the election results from being certified until after Congress passes the tax ripoff? Keep in mind that yesterday he identified “an enormous national debt” as one of the greatest problems facing America today–right up there with stopping prayer in school, abortion, and transgender rights. And we all know that going deeper into debt is the only way to get out of debt, right?

Ahem. We’ll see how it all plays out, but right now everyone except Mr. Moore thinks the citizens of Alabama have given America exactly the Christmas present they need.

Moving on.

Patreon has canceled the launch of their new fee structure. The announcement and apology is an interesting read. On one hand, it’s rare to see a company say bluntly, “We messed up.” In an era of weasel-worded apologies*, it’s nice to see one that doesn’t mince words.

* Or, worse yet, monetized apologies such as Equifax’s.

On the other hand, it also notes that “We still have to fix the problems that those changes addressed.” (As a reminder, that’s primarily the problem of handling partial-month pledges when a patron first backs a creator.) So the door remains open for a substantially similar approach. ACA repeal, anyone?

I don’t think Patreon could survive another bungled rollout in the near future, and I’m quite sure they think the same. My gut says that if they move quickly, they’ll come up with a different approach; the longer the re-evaluation lasts, the more the final product will look like the one that just fell flat.

To be fair, they’ve been tracking canceled pledges and have built a simple “restore my pledges” tool and are notifying patrons by email. That’s a smart move, in that it immediately helps creators who were harmed by the departures, and it also brings back some of the cash flow Patreon needs to stay in business.

Moving on again.

We saw Coco Tuesday night. I’m not going to do a full review here, mostly because I’m having trouble being sufficiently objective. The big themes–memory, family, and death–have a lot of resonance for me these days, and I suspect that’s tipping my reaction to be somewhat more positive than it would have been.

But that said, I still think it’s an excellent film. Not flawless, no. It drags a bit in the middle with too much running in circles and too many false leads. There are a couple of overly-convenient plot devices (why is there a camera backstage, for example?). But the opening monologue is beautifully done, the first half of the film does a splendid job of establishing the world and the ground rules without bogging down in explanations, and the ending is spot on.

Bonus points, by the way, for not including a lengthy made-for-the-amusement-park-ride chase scene.

One interesting point: the Spanish version of the film includes its own versions of the songs. Judging by the samples on Amazon, they’re not just redubbed versions of the English songs, but separate performances. I’m tempted to go see the movie in Spanish, just to see how it works for a non-Spanish speaker.

Moving on one more time.

So, all in all, a good week so far. But.

As I was writing the above, the FCC just voted on the repeal of their net neutrality rules. And, as everyone expected, the vote was 3-2 for repeal.

We now turn to the courts and to Congress. I don’t expect the Republicans in Congress to be any more enthusiastic about rejecting Ajit Pai than they were about rejecting Roy Moore. After all, the evidence shows that obstructing a criminal investigation is now standard Republican practice.

But with polls showing that less than 20% of Republicans approve of the repeal–and even fewer Democrats and Independents–voting against whatever legislation comes to the floor in the next few weeks may be a tough nut to swallow.

Especially in light of the events in Alabama Tuesday night.

I Can Fund That Tune In…

It’s been a while since I poked fun at something over at Kickstarter.

I don’t believe I’ve ever seriously looked at their “Music” category. I suspect there’s plenty there to laugh about. Please join me in checking it out.

Let’s see. The first eleven projects are from people seeking funds to produce an album. When I wrote this, one of the eleven had made its funding goal: David Liebe Hart has raised 102% of his target $5,000 to fund his new album about “…the benefits of exercise and eating vegetables…The Pickle Man and Mr. Moose…teleportation, James Quall being on crack,…[and] David’s long-lasting quest to find a girlfriend.” David, just a suggestion on the last, but a little less time in the recording studio might help there.

Seriously, though, kudos to David for setting a realistic goal (the money will be used to finance his co-conspirator’scollaborator’s travel expenses so they can work together) and on the forthcoming disc.

Other projects might hit their goals. Tacoma Narrows, a “former middle-school English teacher and band” are more than three-quarters of the way to the $15,000 they need to record their first folk-rock album. They actually seem to have their act together (sorry), aside from their unfortunate choice of names–do you really want to back a band that will collapse in the face of the first applause-driven breeze that strikes them? Still, it could be worse: they could have named themselves “Bay Bridge East Span”.

Chris Dorman is almost three-quarters of the way to the $15,000 he needs to create “a children’s album to be shared in homes all across the country.”

Not trying to tell you how to run your career, Chris, but you might do better if people bought copies of the album instead of sharing it. Oh, I see you have a plan: releasing the album will allow you to apply “for awards like the Parents Choice Awards, submitting to the Grammys for Best Children’s Album, and reaching out with a focused publicity campaign to parenting and music publications, blogs, and radio all over the country.” So if I understand the plan, you’ll release an album, promote it heavily, and that will automatically result in profit? Apparently, yes. Says Chris, “…no matter how far and wide we can share our project we know that this piece of musical art can live on for generations as our kiddos grow and have kiddos of their own.”

OK, I can totally get behind art for the sake of art. All joking aside, best of luck–and I hope your kiddos love your music as much as you do.

For counterpoint (sorry), consider Landers, “a husband and wife duo with a vision to bring faith back to marriage and family thru music.” They’re about 40% of the way to their $15,000 target. If they make it, they’ll produce and album

With roots that go in so many directions musically, this first project has been an amazing journey as we find our identity. Being raised in, and working in full-time ministry, has majorly influenced to worship-centered passion promulgated in the lyrics of every song in this project. We also believe you will hear our southern heritage in the cadence and structure that “good ole boy” upbringing creates. “Stand” is more than artistic expression of chords and lyrics; it is the bold message of who we want to be and what we believe.

I hope God and Jesus understand what the heck they’re talking about, because I sure don’t. I assume that God understands because they take pains to mention “how clear He has been in the process.” Folks, if God is that deeply involved, have you considered asking him to chip in the remaining $8,700? He can afford it, and the best part is that you won’t need to come up with a backer reward for Him: the album itself is his reward!

Moving on.

Peri Smilow has fully funded her project to create an anthology of her music in printed form. Good to see someone not looking for money for an album. Ms. Smilow has four CDs out already; the sheet music anthology includes all of the songs from the CDs.

Oh, look! Here’s someone else who isn’t looking for funds to produce an album. Lucy Stearns wants you to finance her trip to Italy to study and sing opera. Good luck, Lucy.

Continuing down the list of projects… Album, album, album…vinyl…album… Man, there are a lot of people who want to cut an album.

Here’s one that’s at least worth considering: Paul Sawtelle is a Grammy-winning saxophonist who wants to put together a CD to benefit the Ted Brown Outreach Program. The Program, it seems, provides musical instruments to kids who can’t afford them. A worthy project, IMNSHO. Do your due diligence on Paul and the Ted Brown Outreach Program, and if you’re satisfied they’re legit, toss ’em a couple of bucks.

Here’s another nice one: “Great Job!” is looking to rent a space for live music in Palmerston North. If you support live music in New Zealand–and who doesn’t?–this is the project to back.

I’m surprised, actually. Yes, there are a hell of a lot of projects in Kickstarter’s Music category that demand to be laughed at. Hundreds of people and groups nobody has ever heard of are trying to use other people’s money to produce the CDs that will be their tickets to fame and fortune. But there are far more worthwhile projects than I expected: people who want to help others, people who have an artistic vision to share, and even people who are just looking for a little help in doing something they love.

Good on all y’all–even Landers and Lucy–for following your dreams.

A Vanishing Art?

Hey, remember the LP?

For the benefit of the youngsters, I should explain that this was back in the days when Casey was but a wee sprat. Back then, music was sold on large, flat disks made of vinyl about the size of a medium pizza. The music was recorded on both sides of the disk, so halfway through the album (that’s what we called them), you had to flip it over. The machine to play it, called a “record player”, wasn’t programmable, so the artist (or the artist’s recording label) chose the order of the tracks. That’s right, the artist not only recorded the music, but also built the playlist. Primitive, huh?

(Before the LP album, by the way, there were a variety of formats for recorded music. Most of them were limited to just a few minutes–essentially, one track, or in some cases, one track per side. “LP” stood for “Long Playing”: the very name of the format emphasized that it gave you more music than previous formats.)

A little later, technological improvement brought us the CD. That gave about the same amount of music as an LP, but the physical size of the disc decreased. From the size of a medium pizza, it dropped to that of a personal pizza at a really cheap pizza joint. Better still, you no longer had to flip the disc over halfway through! Best yet, the players were programmable. The artist still established the default playlist, but the listener was able to change it. The technology was fairly primitive: few players would remember the selected order from one session to the next, and even setting it up required a lot of button pushing, but it could be done.

Today, of course, we have streaming services and portable audio players that allow the listener to freely set the playlist, remember it from session to session, and online sellers that sell single tracks: it’s no longer necessary to buy an entire LP or CD with maybe a dozen tracks if you only want a few of them.

Back in the days of the LP, the order of tracks was critically important: the artist not only needed to grab the listener’s attention, but keep it strongly enough to ensure they flipped the disk over and listened to the second side–and don’t forget the need to leave the listener with a good impression so he or she would buy the next album as well. An art arose: the art of ordering the tracks. When the CD came along, everyone thought the art would get easier. Without the need to keep the listener’s attention through the disk flip, you could concentrate on the beginning and end of the album. Turned out it wasn’t that simple. About halfway through the disk, the listener’s attention would start to flag. They would get distracted and go do something else, or worse yet, eject the CD and listen to someone else’s music!

So track order remained as much of an art as ever. Is it still important today? Apparently so. Billboard has some fairly strong evidence that the order of tracks on the CD affects the relative popularity of the tracks on streaming services: essentially, listeners are still getting early exposure to new music via CD, and if they never get to a track on the CD, they’re not going to stream it either.

As I’ve said, track order is an art, not a science, but there are a few rules that are generally accepted:

1. The first track should be the one you consider the second-strongest, but it must be catchy, to immediately engage the listener.

2. The strongest track should be placed last on the first side of an LP, but for a CD it should come somewhat sooner: third or fourth on the disc.

3. The last track must “grab” the listener in some way: upbeat tempo, strongly memorable melody or lyrics, or an emotional peak.

After that, there are more arguments than agreements. Some artists favor a smooth flow from one track to the next (harmonious keys, similar tempos, etc.) while others insist on contrast (“Unless your name is Frank Sinatra, you don’t want three ballads in a row.”) to repeatedly grab the listenere’s attention.

Some artists recommend following a “story arc”, with an early emotional climax, then easing off, before building to a even bigger climax. In contrast, others follow strict rules of based on more-or-less quantifiable characteristics (tempo, key, and mood are most commonly cited.)

So there you go. Any albums you can think of that succeed despite violating the common rules? Any applicability for your personal playlists?

Musical Cats

We’ve spoken about cats’ artistic pursuits before. We’ve also talked about theremins.

Today, those two threads come together.

It’s not a new video, having been posted almost six years ago, and it leaves a few questions unanswered: “Was the second cat seen at the end inspired to take up the theremin too?”, “Did anyone think to get the cat lessons?”, and most importantly, “Why aren’t there any more videos showing the evolution of this cat’s musical prowess?” There is one more video of the same cat, but since it was posted the same day, it doesn’t give us much insight into how the cat developed its skills.

Whoops, correction: there is a later video, posted two years later:

Given how quickly the cat loses interest, I think it’s safe to conclude that the cat’s human didn’t make any effort to keep the cat engaged: no lessons and no regular musical sessions. A shame. The world needs more feline involvement in the musical world.

Andrew Lloyd Webber aside, not much attention has been paid to offering cats opportunities to develop their musical skills. Oh, there are a few in the rap world, and a few more in rock and even in improvisational jazz:

But it’s actually easier to find music by humans for cats than it is to find music by cats.

The less said about the “cat organ” the better, and the various incarnations of the “cat piano” (Android) or iOS) are only slightly less unnerving.

Of course, no discussion of cats and music would be complete without a mention of the famous Keyboard Cat.

Consider him mentioned. Personally, I find him demeaning: the feline equivalent of a white actor performing in blackface. If you disagree, and you need more Keyboard Cat in your life, ThinkGeek has the official Keyboard Cat toy in stock. As I write this, it’s even on sale.

Still, we’ll always have Nora the Piano Cat:

And remember: Dreams Are Real

Thoughts on the Music Industry

Interesting comment on last week’s post about the Internet Archive (thanks!). I thought it was worth talking about in more detail than can be readily accommodated in a comment. Here’s the comment in its entirety so it’s handy for reference:

It's interesting to observe, and think about, what these archive sites- and other music sources like Pandora, Spotify and Youtube- are doing to what used to be called "the music business". It's true that when I want a recent work by some currently interesting artist- Fiona Apple, say, or Anais Mitchell- I will get myself down to one of the few "record stores" still in existence (I favor Amoeba, in Berkeley), but mostly I listen to the stuff I've always listened to, and that stuff I can get anywhere at the click of a device. Take the Dead ("of course"): Grateful Dead Productions continues to put out collections of great tours or specific shows, but, good golly Miss Molly, I can go to an archive site and find countless hours of Dead shows- entire shows, often in several different recordings. I doubt I'll ever buy another CD from what's left of the Dead; why should I? The fact is, the bottom's dropped out of what used to be the music market, and nobody knows what do do, in this brave new world. this is great news for music lovers, but bad news for musicians, trying to make some kind of living with their art. Where's it all going? Stay tuned.

Just to set expectations: IANAPM (I Am Not A Professional Musician). That’s going to give me a somewhat different perspective. It also means I could be totally off-base. I should also note that some of this is paraphrased from my recollections of David Byrne’s “How Music Works”, in which he devotes several chapters to the history of “the music business” and how it’s changing in the current era. A fascinating book; I need to re-read it.

In many ways, the music industry parallels the publishing industry. In a “platonic ideal” relationship, the record label chooses the songwriters and/or musicians that have potential, pays them for the right to publish the music, and then handles production, promotion, and distribution. Similarly, in a “platonic ideal” book publishing relationship, the publisher chooses the authors that have potential, pays them for the right to publish the books, and then handles production, promotion, and distribution. That frees up the artist to concentrate on the creation of the music or book. (A clear example of how little platonic ideals have to do with the real world, but work with me on this.)

Somehow, despite the fact that every study done to date shows that downloads and streaming music sales are trending upward at least as steeply as CD sales are trending downward, the labels’ accounting shows income as dropping off. That being the case, to continue to do what they’ve done in the past, the labels now expect to take a piece of the rest of the income (concert gate, merchandising, etc.) and in some cases they also want a piece of creative control. At the other end of the spectrum, the musician can go it alone, in the same way an author can self-publish, doing all of the promotion, distribution, and bookkeeping: the cost of entry has dropped; you don’t need a thousands of dollars worth or recording studio, CDs can be burned for a few hundred dollars, and MP3s can be distributed for a few cents each. And, of course, there are many ways to divide the responsibilities and sit somewhere in between those extremes.

What it comes down to then is the ability to get noticed – promotion. And in my view, how you think about what you’re doing controls your approach to promotion.

  • If you’re playing music because you love music and want to be a music maker, you don’t need much promotion. Put up a webpage, upload your MP3s and wait for people to stumble over you. Maybe you play some local gigs and put up posters, or maybe you don’t.
  • If you want to sell CDs (or the equivalent), then you need a lot of promotion. You need to get people to find you. In that context, your tours are part of the advertising. Sure, it would be nice if the tour made a profit, but as long as it gets your name out and inclines people to buy your CDs, it doesn’t matter if the tour loses money.
  • If you want to sell an experience – the “live music experience”; the connection between artist and audience – then the CDs are part of the advertising. They’re what draws people to come to the show.

Just to be crystal clear here, I doubt that anyone falls into only one of these categories. But in most cases one will predominate in the mixture, and that will color the approach.

Which brings us (finally) to the archive and streaming sites. I’m going to draw a distinction here. On one hand, you have archives like the IA that focus on live concert recordings. On the other hand, you have streaming sites that focus on single tracks or albums (and I’d include iTunes and the other music stores in this group). And then, on someone else’s hand, you’ve got the pirate sites, which focus on the same things as the streaming sites, but without cash changing hands.

If you’re primarily in the first group, then the sites are largely irrelevant to you. If you play out, you’re probably somewhat in favor of the archive sites because every download from one of them is someone who appreciates what you’re doing. You probably don’t care about the other sites because your music isn’t available from them.

If you’re in the second group, you dislike the streaming sites because they’re selling the same thing you are and you’re probably not getting as big a cut as you would want. You loathe the pirate sites because they’re giving away what you want to sell. And your opinion about the archive sites is going to be somewhere between neutral and dislike. The closer your live shows sound to the CD, the less you’ll appreciate the archive sites. If you make heavy use of pre-recorded “fill-in” tracks to ensure that the concert sounds “just like the record”, you won’t want people downloading the concert because there will be no need to buy the CD. But if your live show is different each night, it’s less of a concern. People can download the show, and it’s all part of the advertising for the “real” version on the CD.

The third group is in favor of all of the online venues. Sure, you would prefer that people buy the CDs or MP3s, but all of the recordings are the advertisements for the “real” version that they’ll get at the concert. (My gut tells me that this category is largely the province of jazz and jam musicians. The more your show varies from night to night and the more you emphasize the feedback between the performers and the audience, the more you’ll fall into this category. Is it any wonder that the Dead outright encouraged people to record their shows and trade the tapes?) That “real” version includes not just the sound, but the sight (and probably the smell) as well.

The key here, IMNSHO, is that any division of labor along that spectrum I mentioned several hundred words ago will work in this universe as long as the label and the artist agree on what it is they’re selling and both get a cut of the revenue from that selling. But in all three cases, there’s a role for the archive sites and the streaming/download sites. The pirates are outside looking in, but then, they’re not only used to that, they glory in it.

Utopian? Probably. Optimistic? Definitely. Totally off base? You tell me.


Are you familiar with the Internet Wayback Machine? It’s a service run by the Internet Archive project with the goal of backing up the entire web, and providing access to multiple generations of those backups. As of this writing, they have a database of over 240 billion web pages going back as far as 1996. I’ve used it many times when a site I’ve bookmarked goes away.

The Wayback Machine is the IA’s best-known service, but it’s actually only a portion of their overall mission, which is to build “a digital library of Internet sites and other cultural artifacts”. It’s a great research source, but it’s also a fabulous way to entertain yourself.

How do you like the idea of access to 1.2 million videos, 1.6 million audio recordings (including more than 100,000 live concert recordings), and 4.5 million books and other textual works? All there, all free, and all legal. Let’s browse around a bit, shall we?

The video collection includes shorts and full-length features, historical and modern. Remember “Manos: The Hands of Fate” from Mystery Science Theater 3000? Want to see the original without Joel and the ‘bots getting in the way? You can! Need a fix of the original Star Wars? The IA doesn’t have that, but it does have an hour-long remake done entirely in Lego stop motion animation. Not quite your speed? How about a treasure trove of Betty Boop? Felix the Cat? Or if TV is more your speed, how about classic shows including “What’s My Line”, “Queen for a Day” (widely regarded as one of the worst game shows ever made – worth watching just of the sheer horror value), and “Ozzie and Harriet”. There’s newer stuff too, especially if your tastes run to news – but I’m trying to focus on cheerful subjects this week, so let’s skip the news.

In my opinion, the Audio Archive has the most entertainment value. I mentioned the Live Music Archive earlier. Almost 6,000 groups are included; sure, you’ve probably never heard of most of them, but there are some well-known names too. Blues Traveler. Maroon5. Smashing Pumpkins. And, of course, the Grateful Dead. Oh, and let’s not forget Vinyl Soup. Wait, you’ve probably only heard of them if you hang out at the Soulshine Pizza Factory in Nashville. Not a bad ProgRock/Folk/Jam band. Worth a listen, certainly. Need some help in finding music to your tastes? Take a look at
Netlabels, a set of “virtual record labels”

Not in a music mood? How about some “Old-Time Radio“? I could run on for pages listing classic shows, but I’ll just throw out a semi-random sampling – all of these shows have dozens of episodes available; some have hundreds: “Dragnet”, “Gunsmoke”, “X Minus 1”, “The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes”, “The Jack Benny Show”, “Bob and Ray”, “Duffy’s Tavern”, “The Spike Jones Show”.

Spike Jones too light-hearted for you? Want to get serious? There’s a collection of Audio Books and Poetry, one of “alternative independent radio news“, and a set of curated collections of interviews, conferences, and podcasts related to computers, science, and technology.

Oh, and speaking of computers, the IA also holds a Software Archive that includes shareware, freeware, game-related previews and promos, and documentation. My favorite part? The DEMU collection of DOS and early Windows games. Remember the days when a whole game would fit on a single floppy disk? Here’s one of my favorites to get you started: The Incredible Machine.

Finally, let’s not forget those books and text works. The core of the archive is the rather ambitious Open Library project which aims to, as they put it in their FAQ, “list every book — whether in-print or out-of-print, available at a bookstore or a library, scanned or typed in as text.” The OL works with WorldCat, (a shared catalog intended primarily for libraries) to provide links to library copies of books, as well as links to online booksellers. Books that are available in electronic format are also linked – many are freely available and may be downloaded or read online, many more can be “borrowed” (downloaded in a time-limited fashion).


I Just Changed My Mind

I’ve been getting excited about the possibilities to be found by combining music and motion detection. I just changed my mind.

I’ve always thought the theremin was a pretty cool idea: a musical instrument that you don’t touch, but control by waving your hands in the air. (For those not in the know, one hand controls the pitch, and the other the volume). I won’t go into detail on the theremin – there’s plenty of information on the web, and a very active musician’s community behind it. And yes, they’re around for purchase if your tastes run in that direction.

There are a few limitation with the concept as implemented in the theremin, though. For one, the timbre (the sound) of the instrument is fixed – if you want a “theremin sound”, it can do that, but the only way to modify the sound is to feed it into external devices. This was an issue Leon Theremin himself sought to resolve; he invented a “theremin cello” that included some capability to modify the instrument’s timbre. (As a side note, Theremin’s non-musical inventions are perhaps even more interesting than his musical ones. The Wikipedia article on him is a great place to start. [As a side note to the side note, consider the accidental discovery of “The Thing” alongside yesterday’s discussion of The Great Phenol Plot as an accidental success of counter-intelligence work.]) The modern synthesizer is a descendent of the theremin: Robert Moog built a number of theremins in high school, and sold theremin kits; he credits the knowledge he gained as directly leading to the creation of the synthesizer that bears his name. But the theremin cello didn’t really catch on the way the theremin did, and a more flexible gesture-controlled instrument remained elusive.

Another limitation of the theremin is that playing it requires very specific, very precise movements. Taken on its own terms, that’s reasonable – certainly most instruments require very precise, specific movements to play. But many people, again including Theremin himself, have been interested in the possibilities of allowing instruments to be controlled in a less finicky fashion. Theremin created the terpsitone, a theremin-like instrument controlled by the movements of a dancer’s body, as well as what Wikipedia describes as “performance locations that could automatically react to dancers’ movements with varied patterns of sound and light.” – which sound to me like early precursors of discos, or at least precursors to modern “sound and light” extravaganzas.

At this point, let’s fast-forward to the present day – or rather, to a day not too far in the past: 4 November 2010. On that date, Microsoft released the Kinect accessory for the Xbox 360 game console. The Kinect is a input device for the Xbox 360 (and later for computers) that allows the user to control the console with full-body gestures. Needless to say, it didn’t take long before musically-inclined hackers saw the potential. (I’m greatly simplifying things here – there have been a large number of efforts to integrate music and motion – see, for instance the MIT Hyperinstrument/Opera of the Future group [parenthetically, the Guitar Hero rhythm games were created by former MIT students who had been part of the Hyperinstrument group]). What was notable about the Kinect was the low price of the hardware; it lowered some of the barriers to entry and meant that experimenters no longer had to build everything from scratch. That hardware standardization led to the creation of a set of open software frameworks for the integration of gesture and music, which let creators and performers concentrate on the performance instead of the software.

The Kinect works well for large movements and groups of performers, but it has come in for some criticism for the amount of lag it introduces between the performer’s movement and the triggering of the desired effect. The gesture-controlled music culture is looking ahead to the imminent release of the Leap Motion Controller, which promises to not only reduce lag, but allow for the use of smaller movements on the scale of a single finger gesture – shades of the theremin! I presume that a combination of the two devices will be the tool of choice in many cases.

While all this has been going on, there’s been a parallel effort in the realm of musical instrument control via cell phones – one example being the Crossfader – Move & Mix app, which uses an iOS device’s accelerometer to do live mixing of two tracks.

It’s in this latter realm that the dark underbelly of the intersection of music and motion is found. Consider the evil genius of Calvin Harris as explained by in order to drive sales of his recent album “18 Months”, Harris released it as an app which will only play if the phone is moving. In other words, if you don’t dance, you don’t listen.

Now, consider today’s concert scene with the mandatory encore, the revving up of the audience with ritualistic phrases such as “Are you ready to rock?”, the use of Autotune and “backing” tracks in live performances to ensure the sound is the same on stage as in the studio, and the rise of the non-apology.

How long will it be before performers begin integrating audience motion sensors into the sound and light systems so that the “full concert experience” is only available to an audience that’s sufficiently “into it”? How long after that will it be before a performer blames a bad review on the audience, saying that in effect it’s their fault the show sucked because they didn’t “help out” enough?

So yes, I’ve changed my mind about the possibilities inherent in the marriage of music and motion detection. With apologies to Emma Goldman, if this particular revolution requires dancing, I’ll be on the other side of the barricades.

On Reincarnation

You may be aware of an old myth that Isaac Newton was born shortly after Galileo died. I’ve seen it stated as “the same day”, “the day after”, or (less aggressively) “the same calendar year”. This close proximity has been used as “evidence” of reincarnation. “Surely,” the argument goes, “there couldn’t be two such towering geniuses working in the same field by coincidence so close together. Obviously Galileo felt his work was of such importance that he had to come back for another life to complete it.”

It’s such a nice idea (though I do have to wonder why that same towering genius didn’t come back in 1727 after Newton died instead of making the world wait another 150 years for Einstein) that it’s a shame it’s based on a false premise: Newton was actually born almost a year later – the confusion derives from the fact that it took England 168 years to adopt the Gregorian calendar. There’s a nice little summary of the calendar issue here. Personally, I think that would actually strengthen the argument, as it doesn’t require us to assume that embryos are soulless until shortly before birth (or maybe that the soul can be evicted and replaced until birth [Hmm. Pardon me a moment while I make a note in my Story Ideas file… OK, I’m back.]), but it does seem to weaken the idea in the minds of people who take the notion seriously. People are strange that way.

But regardless of the specific dates, the idea of a genius coming back to finish work has enough appeal that I thought it might be interesting to look at a few other famous names and see if they too might have had more to do, and so come back for another round.

To keep it half-way reasonable, I’m setting the Galileo/Newton gap as the maximum, and only accepting a “reincarnation” if the successor was born within a year of the predecessor’s death.

Here’s a quickie to start things off:
Sun Yat-sen died 3/12/1925. Seven months later, on 10/13/1925, Margaret Thatcher was born. Maybe we’re onto something here…

Since I’m oriented more towards the arts than the sciences, let’s try a writer and a musician/composer.

Percy Bysshe Shelley died on 7/8/1822. Matthew Arnold (the British poet, not the television reporter) was born five months later on 12/24. He died 4/15/1888, and came back five months later on 9/26 as T.S. Eliot. Sounding reasonable? (I’ll risk derailing this particular thread by noting that Eliot died 1/4/1965 and I was born 6 months later on 7/8 – exactly 143 years after Shelley died. I’ll leave it to others to figure out if there’s some significance to the number 143.)
Johann Sebastian Bach died 7/28/1750. He clearly had more to say and came back a mere two weeks later as Antonio Salieri (who was far more respected than the play “Amadeus” would suggest – but that’s a discussion for another time) on 8/18. Salieri died 5/7/1825. Still with more to say, he came back again as Johann Strauss II (yes, the composer known as “The Waltz King”) on 9/25. Bach’s spirit refused to quit. After dying as Strauss on 6/3/1899, he came back as the Czech composer Pavel Haas on 6/21. With his work tragically cut short by the Holocaust (10/17/1944), he came back again. As Strauss, he had focused on more popular musical forms; as Haas, he had been working with folk and jazz motifs, so clearly a change of style was in order, and thus Bob Marley was born on 2/6/1945. Marley died 5/11/1981 – another career cut short – and six months later on 12/2, the next link in the chain of reincarnation arived in the form of Britney Spears.

Never mind. I think it’s pretty clear that this isn’t going to serve as evidence of reincarnation.

In an effort to avoid a law suit from Ms. Spears (or maybe the Marley Estate), I’ll note that this exercise was totally tongue-in-cheek. There were a few other directions I could have taken the Bach line after Strauss. Note that Hoagy Carmichael was born 11/22/1899, which could have been a fun chain to justify. He even died in 1981, but unfortunately not until three weeks after Britney was born, which would have blocked that link in the chain.

Even sticking with Pavel Haas, I could have gone in other directions. 1945 was a good year for musician/composer births: instead of Bob Marley, I could have gone from Haas to Stephen Stills (1/3), Rod Stewart (1/10), Eric Clapton (3/30), Bjorn Ulvaeus (4/25), Pete Townshend (5/19), Carly Simon (6/25), Debbie Harry (7/1), David Bromberg (9/19), Don McLean (10/2), Keith Emerson (11/2), or Dennis Wilson (12/4). Unfortunately, most of them are still alive, or died too recently for an obvious successor to have arisen – and then there’s that little matter of lawsuits…  I would hope most of them would like to think they could trace themselves back to Bach, but given today’s litigious society, I’d hate to be responsible for Bob Seger (born 5/6/1945) claiming the copyright for “The Well-Tempered Clavier”!


This is the song that never ends /
It just goes on and on my friends /
Some people started singing it, not knowing what it was /
And they'll continue singing it, just because /
This is the song that never ends...

In “Musicophilia”, Oliver Sacks spends a few pages on a discussion of “earworms”, those fragments of music that get stuck in your head and refuse to go away. He speculates that they are a modern phenomenon, the result of being submerged in an ocean of music. His support for this notion appears to be that the term “earworm” only came into use in the 1980s. He traces the concept back to Mark Twain’s 1876 story “Punch, Brothers, Punch”, but apparently doesn’t consider the possibility that Twain was building on an idea that had been around for some time.

Wikipedia points out that Edgar Allan Poe mentions earworms as a common phenomenon in his 1845 story “The Imp of the Perverse” – not a major difference chronologically speaking, but if Poe recognized it as common, it suggests that Sacks is incorrect in his assumption of the cause being ubiquitous music or else in his his assumption that ubiquitous music is a recent phenomenon. The San Francisco Exploratorium notes a related phenomenon in an uncited comment that Mozart’s children would torment him by playing incomplete scales on the piano, forcing him to rush downstairs and finish them (shades of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” – toons can’t leave the “Shave and a Haircut” song incomplete).

Still, even if earworms have only become common enough to draw literary and scientific mention in the past 150 years, that ought to be long enough to answer the most important questions about them: Where do they come from, and how do you get rid of them?

Oddly enough, though, there isn’t a whole lot of serious study of earworms. Beaman and Williams (abstract and full report)seem to have done the most definitive studies; they found that the more important a person considers music to be, the more likely they are to experience earworms and the longer they persist. Perhaps Sacks is onto something; after all, those who don’t think music is important will have less music around them. On the other hand, Kellaris has found that 99% of the population has had an earworm at one time or another, so despising music may not be much protection. Neither is avoiding certain kinds of music. There seems to be a consensus that the songs that make an effective earworm vary from person to person, although simplicity and repetition do seem to promote worminess.

There isn’t a whole lot of useful information about getting rid of an earworm once you have it either. Common suggestions are to sing or play a different song, to complete the song that’s stuck, or to distract yourself with something mentally taxing. None of these seem to help in a reliable fashion. Kellaris doesn’t think highly of any of these methods. Anecdotally, my own experience matches Kellaris’ data: I find that using a different song just tends to get the new song stuck in my head; completing the song works for a brief period, then the earworm comes back; and masking the song by doing something else just puts the earworm on my mental back burner: once I stop doing the other work, the earworm pops back to my attention. That’s also consistent with Beaman and Williams’ findings: they report that attempts to get rid of earworms result in longer duration of the earworm episodes.

In short, we don’t really know where earworms come from and we don’t know how to send them back there either. That being the case, my advice is to glory in them. Sing them at the top of your lungs. If you infect enough other people with your earworm, somebody will help you get rid of it. That they may have to use a baseball bat applied to your head should be a small price to pay.