Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Blog Lang Syne

We're having an especially laid-back New Year's Eve this year. Chinese takeout (not original, I know). No parties. The Google doodle is about as wild as it gets around here tonight (just now I was listening to a cool new U2 song, "Ordinary Love," and it really seemed like the dancing digits were keeping time to the music - I've only had one glass of wine so far, so I don't think that's it). We don't even have a TV on. I don't watch much TV anyway, and the New Year's Eve TV festivities just don't seem the same without Dick Clark (I was never actually a fan of Dick or really of any of those time-filler shows). Maybe we will turn it on near midnight and watch the ball drop - old habits die hard.

I've been spending my year-end week off from work mostly on music and reading, plus a few small house projects. I've written a couple of new songs, nothing I'm too excited about, and I made a little progress on organizing the many song fragments from the year - mainly identifying promising things to work on for a new album project in 2014. In my typical fashion, the new songs "jumped the queue" - they were things I just started, not based on any of the promising fragments I want to finish. This is the way I am with books and other people's music too. There are always dozens of books in my meaning-to-read queue (mostly Kindle books sitting on one or more mobile devices). Do I read them? Sometimes, but more often I learn about some new book from Amazon or NPR or (new) Scribd and boom, there it is on my iPad, and I'm starting to read it.

The same with other people's music. Surely 31,516 songs must be enough variety. But somehow I'm listening to a brand-new temporary favorite that Amazon had for $3.99 the other day, lousy with sylvianbriar by Of Montreal (who are actually Of Georgia). The lyrics are semi-structured nonsense but the music is cool and it just sounds better and better, especially on the monitor speakers in my recording rig ("Sirens of Toxic Spirit" really reminds me of the Kinks). I also really enjoyed a new (3 songs a week for free) download from Freegal, a modern violin concerto by composer Nicholas Maw, played by violinist Joshua Bell. I learned about this through a Kindle book I peruse now and then, 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die by Tom Moon. Forced serendipity.

Adding to my mostly happy overwhelm-ment are recording and songwriting tools on the PC and iPad. Synths galore! I just got the greatest Mellotron emulation ever on the iPad! Upgraded to Sonar X3! Upgraded to Band-in-a-Box 2014! Aside from being a software marketer's dream when it comes to upgrades and cheap apps, I find that all of these new tools have new songs hidden in them. But they also have learning curves in them. Fortunately I enjoy tinkering with this stuff, the technology as well as the musicality. While I still love software manuals, there are just so many great tutorial videos on the web from which I now learn most of the new technology.

So as 2013 fades away, I feel lucky to have a great family, pretty good health, a job and a home, and an over-abundance of most of the things I enjoy, except for time. So happy new year to all.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Scribd: Getting Even Cloudier

I've noticed that more and more of my "media experiences" are streaming from the internet. With the help of Apple TV or the wifi connection in our Blu-Ray player, we rent movies from iTunes or Amazon Instant Video. Although I have local mp3 copies of most of my music, I do most of my music listening from two cloud sources, Amazon Cloud or Apple's iCloud. Sometimes for variety or laziness I will stream music from Pandora or iTunes Radio. I even stream pictures of my granddaughter from my daughter's iPhone (Apple's shared photostream).

Now I've started "streaming books." For several years, I've been doing most of my reading with Kindle e-books, buying several a month from Amazon. This is convenient but somewhat wasteful, since I read most books only once, and Kindle books cannot be shared or sold. Books are very small files compared to video or music, and they usually download in seconds. This also means that books could easily be "streamed," i.e., read directly over the web, once someone comes up with a business model to support this.

Now someone has, a company called Scribd ("the world's digital library") that's been around for years as a document sharing site, mainly for free documents (I have long had my Orbiter tutorial book Go Play In Space on Scribd for free PDF download). I haven't really looked at Scribd for a long time, but it's clear that they have been busy, and they have expanded into "non-free" books. Their latest thing is a subscription service which gives you online reading access to many commercial e-books for a flat rate of $8.99 a month. It's currently limited to only a few publishers, and mainly "back catalog" books, with relatively few current best sellers, similar in that respect to Netflix for movies.They currently offer over 100,000 titles, and they are working to add publishers, so I'm sure this number will increase over time.

They have a 30 day free trial, so I'm trying it. I'm pretty sure I will continue, because I have already found at least 10 books that I have previously considered buying on Kindle, as well as a dozen more that are new finds. My idea is that rather than buying 2-4 books a month on Kindle (for maybe $20+ a month), I'll probably read a couple of Scribd books and buy maybe 1-2 Kindle books if they aren't available on Scribd. It doesn't bother me that I won't "own" those books (I'm guessing I don't technically own my Kindle books either, only a license to download and read them whenever I want). I'm OK with the "paid borrowing" model, and Scribd allows you to download up to 10 books onto mobile devices for offline reading. The Scribd app for iOS works really well on iPhone and iPad, similar in most respects to the Kindle app. Since $8.99 is less than the typical cost for a single Kindle book, Scribd will be a good deal even if it only keeps me from buying one Kindle book a month. This makes me wonder how long it will be before Amazon or Google buys Scribd (maybe they will wait a couple of months and see how the subscription service does).

So I like this. Now if I could only eliminate my real book bottleneck - the fact that I can still only read one book at a time, and that there are still only 24 hours in a day. Severely limited mental bandwidth! As soon as they invent a multi-threaded brain, I'm ready to upgrade.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Year in Rear View

In 2013, I continued tilting at windmills. The ones above happen to be in Austria, just east of Vienna, driving back from an October customer visit in the eastern Czech Republic. We passed through Brno, which I realized today was the location of the monastery where Gregor Mendel performed his important and eventually famous early experiments in genetics, carefully recording the results of his experimental breeding of pea plants. On that same business trip, I also spent a day in Sofia, Bulgaria, on my first visit to that country. I'm still traveling quite a lot on business, though usually to the same places I have visited many times before, such as Japan, France, and Germany. Bulgaria made me wonder how many countries I have visited since I first started international travel in 1981 (there was also a 1977 family cruise that took me briefly to some Caribbean islands and to Caracas, Venezuela). A rather meager 32 countries (see below* for the list, if you care). And still only 40 US states. What a slacker I am!

I'm not actually tilting at windmills, of course. I guess I just mean that I have not entirely given up on trying to do things that are important to me, mainly creating music. One of the best things I've done in recent years was to throw myself a rock-and-roll birthday party back in June. It was cool to play a bunch of my own songs as well as a number of classic rockers with a rock band for a room full of family and friends. I also continue to collect and listen to large amounts of other people's music, old and new. I love discovering new sounds. And I still work regularly on writing new music. The most recent song that I completed and demoed was a jazz ballad called Love is All You Need.

Alas I have largely given up on flying airplanes, though one never knows what might happen as long as I am theoretically able to pass a flight medical exam. I would still go on a space flight if I ever got the chance, though I'm not planning on spending a lot of money on this, which leads me to doubt how serious a goal this may be. I still tilt away at a couple of foreign languages (French and Japanese). I also strive to read perhaps a book a week, though I have given up on a one-time goal of reading the "Great Books of the Western World." I realized a while back that I don't have much patience with any prose that was written much before 1900. That makes most of the Great Books a real stretch for me.

Of course there is more to life than music, books, and travel - there are also Apple i-devices! And apps! And more importantly, a wonderful family. I'm quite lucky in that regard, and I am especially enjoying watching my granddaughter Stella grow up. She's already 14 months old!

If I could wish for anything it would be for the gift of completing songs. I constantly generate many new musical ideas and a fair number of lyrical ideas, but I probably start 20 songs for every one that I finish.I've decided to devote as much time as I can during the last week of the year (when the company is closed) at gathering up the most promising song fragments of 2013 and turning at least some of them into completed songs and demos. I must have 40 or more promising fragments sitting in various apps and files on my iPad, iPhone, and PC. I'm sure there are enough for a new album in 2014.

I also didn't see the Northern Lights in 2013. 

* Countries and territories I have visited, in approximately chronological order: USA (40 states), Canada, Mexico, St. Vincent (British Virgin Islands), Martinique (French department), Curacao (Dutch dependent), Venezuela, United Kingdom (England, Wales, Scotland), Japan, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, Netherlands, Italy (including Vatican City), China (including Hong Kong), Israel, Taiwan, South Korea, Luxembourg, Czech Republic, Ireland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Australia, India, Monaco, Spain, Russia, Slovakia, Bulgaria.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Shaman: Inside the Paleolithic Mind

There were some amazing artists in France 30,000 years ago or so, judging by the incredible paintings discovered in 1994 on the rock walls of the famous Chauvet Caves. Culturally speaking, 30,000 years is a long time, but in biological evolutionary terms, it's a mere blink of the eye. The people who painted in those caves were genetically and probably mentally just like you and me. What would those ancient artists and their relatives and friends have been like? I suppose no one knows for sure, but thanks to "science fiction" author Kim Stanley Robinson, I feel like I have a few insights into what they and their environments may have been like. I even looked over the shoulder of one of them as he created the panel above, deciding what to draw, and how to depict the animals' motions and even emotional states. Until all the torches went out...

I just finished KSR's latest book, Shaman, and as with most of his books, I'm impressed by the many threads of human life that he manages to collect and connect in one book. I think of Robinson as more of an anthropological fiction writer than a typical SF writer. Whether he is writing about humans on Mars, Mercury, Europa, in Renaissance Italy, or in prehistoric France, the humanity of humans seems to be the main event. Of course this includes their intelligence and resourcefulness as well their emotions and every other aspect of personality. And lest we forget, their environment - whether it is Mars or Washington, DC, or prehistoric France, humans are affected by their environment and by technology, science, politics, and other things. When you're a world-builder like KSR, you want to build detailed and believable worlds, and he definitely is among the best in that department.

Although it is packed with amazing and real-feeling detail (no doubt the fruits of extensive research), Shaman is first and foremost a good story, the coming of age story of a boy named Loon, destined to be the next shaman of his tribe. At twelve years old, he is left in the wild with only his wits on a two-week "wander" that will establish him as an adult in his pack, and ideally teach him many things about himself. This is an exciting start to the book. Not all of it is as fast paced as this, though there are some chapters late in the book that are real page turners. There is also a lot of gritty detail when it comes to sex, hunting, food preparation, death, and many other aspects of daily life. Getting to know this world is essential to understand the people and their motivations, which are every bit as complex as those of people today. 

I won't give away more, except to say that I read somewhere that it was meant by the author to take place in the area of Chauvet Cave in France. It seems clear that to some extent, KSR "reverse engineered" aspects of the story and characters from the Chauvet Cave paintings. I would suggest that if you read the book, that you have available a website (like this one) or book showing the paintings. In certain passages, you can follow along in great detail as the characters view or create sections of those walls. I plan to see Werner Herzog's film "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" as soon as I can to see and learn more about the Chauvet art. Shaman has really brought those ancient artists and their works to life for me.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Why My Blog May Look Different

Just in case you are reading on a mobile device and something looks different...

A friend pointed out that my space shuttle (etc.) blog background image makes the text difficult to read on mobile devices. It may depend somewhat on the device and browser (e.g., Facebook vs. Safari on iPhone), but it's different from the full-screen browser behavior, and I don't know why.

So for now I have switched to a non-customized "Simple" blog template for mobile browsers.This is pretty much all white except for the text and pictures, so readability seems good. I will check into this when I have more time later this month. Maybe it's time for an iOS 7-like simplification of my blog's graphical look. Or something.