lovehate: Auto-accompaniment and the Failures of Simulation

I've been playing piano since I was five and, while there have been short periods when performing music has fallen out of my interests, I have almost always had an appreciation for a completely live performance. Such a performance can include anything from a single instrument and voice all they way up to a full orchestra.

I remember playing as a teenager in the 80s-drenched synth-oriented dance pop that pervaded the charts. I remember even buying into the concept of a synthesizer or two but hated the concept of the dreaded sequencers and samplers that would allow even the most inept players to spout forth with "cool" sounding patterns and loops. I could tolerate the idea of a synthesizer making sounds that were unique to the instrument itself and not trying to generate something else. With the persistent adoption of drum machines and string patches and horn sections and poorly-modelled electric pianos, I retreated further into a state that I considered a bit of musical elitism: a piano sound should come from a piano, a drum sound should come from a drum, and a bass guitar sound should come from a bass guitar.

Don't get me wrong, I understand the attraction of simulation. I have recorded songs where I've used a keyboard to create multiple music tracks, but always, in my head at least, the exercise was just that - an exercise. Call me old-fashioned when it comes to music, but I believe there should be something organic to musical sound. And this from a guy who grew up idolizing Keith Emerson and his endlessly-tweakable envelope filters.

As I grew older, I developed a certain tolerance for auto-accompaniment, but always with a sense of kitsch. The idea of the cheesy home organ with beat generator and portamento was to being smiled at and laughed with instead of laughed at. I am willing to listen to someone satrize a traditionally serious song by giving it the Wurlitzer treatment.

And it was with all this derision that I shook my head in disbelief when I learned of Microsoft's Songsmith software during CES last month. While this product's limitations have been shown to glorious and humorous effect by copying the vocal lines of past hits into its engine and watching the generic "reggae" or "soft rock" accompaniment get triggered, could anyone have really expected anything different... you know what? I was exepecting better.

While I believe the concept abhorrent and completely against all of my sensibilities about music, I fully expect that the technology is not out of reach to mesh anyone's random vocalizing with a very solid sounding accompaniment. I anticipate that no matter how bad someone sings, the software's engine should, on the fly, fix any out of tune notes and quantize the rhythmless until they sound inoffensive. I expect that music AI has advanced far enough that realistic-sounding instruments can be modelled in real time to sound at least as good as many of the mediocre ballads that are in the top ten of most pop music charts.

I expect we're on that threshold and, while it should scare the hell out of me, I've discovered I really don't care because if some out-of-tune arhythmic cellar dweller can one day sell a million copies of a song they produced in their basement, and maybe flip the RIAA and the Big Four the finger while doing so, I'll buy a cake and with wry, smiling dismay blow out the last candle on musical integrity.


lovehate: Living in the Chrome Trench of the Browser War

So for the past two weeks I've been trying an experiment. And while I'm loathe to call anything I do shiny or sparkly, I suppose, in a very metaphorical way, both those words would apply. I've come to the realization that I'm slowly becoming a Google fanboy and, with this in mind, I have been exclusively using the Chrome browser for the past two weeks.

Let me lay a little browser history on you though. When I first started on the net, it was through BBS calls at all hours of the day and night. Such exchanges basically included forum posts back and forth between a small group who has been permitted access. Soon after (when the www became a reality) I moved to the Lynx browser which handled only text and was, at the time, the greatest tool I'd ever seen - I honestly didn't even know what a gopher was before Lynx. Browser reality changed forever with the onslaught of NCSA's Mosaic. Which allowed for graphical browsing for the first time and consolidated many of the existing internet protocols so almost all of them could be viewed in one web application... I can't believe that was only fifteen years ago. Mosaic gave way to Netscape and Netscape Gold, which I was a fond devotee of for at least a couple of years until one day I woke up and found myself an Internet Explorer disciple, unwavering and unflinching for many years.

Sometime last year, I finally made the Mozilla Firefox leap and was glad for having done so. IE was falling quickly falling too far behind the times. The add-ons and plug-ins opened up a new realm of browsing that seemed a natural evolution. But, like those of us that filled our early web pages with animated gifs and flashing text, I realized that, ultimately, the overbearing number of tweaks and add-ons to my Firefox experience was creating a garish experience. The browser was taking a minute to load with all of the plug-ins and the five homepage tabs. While I knew I could strip down the options within Firefox, my fanboy meter was piqued when Chrome was released a few months back.

So while I was still having fun with my two dozen Firefox add-ons, I made a conscious effort to pare down my browsing frills. I had dabbled a bit with Chrome and the speed was definitely impressive. Two weeks ago, I began an experiment that has led me to making Chrome my default browser with no desire to turn back.

The benefits are numerous: speed, integrated search/address bar, speed, more screen real estate for web pages, incognito browsing windows, and probably the most appropriate portal browser you'll be able to get for the ever-expanding Google Labs, Betas, and other Apps. Also, because it's my default browser, my computer now contains nostalgic remembrances of the electronic game Simon for every html icon. 

There are drawbacks as well. When one gets used to the multi-functionality of two dozen plugins like TwitterFox, Digg, weather reports, autoposting to various microblogs, the diversity of options can be infectious. I struggled for a couple of days trying to figure out how I could survive in Chrome without having to go back to Firefox all the time... such an examination, however, yielded serendipitous results in may cases.

I immediately downloaded Tweetdeck after months of convincing myself I didn't really need it with a plugin like TwitterFox. Now Tweetdeck has a permanent home on my screen real estate. I discovered I really didn't miss Digg pop-ups every 5 minutes and that my ability to one-click post to Pownce was... well, poor Pownce - we hardly knew ye. I found the Google Application Shortcuts were a great way to always have my calendar available in an instant and that I could make almost any page into it's own browser app.

All in all, I'm quite satisfied that this Chrome conversion will have some life to it. I'll admit, there still are some bugs to be worked out in terms of some page that just don't seem to want to render smoothly every time, but those are few and far between. I'm hoping that when the onslaught of Chrome add-ons hits over the next few months, I will have the tempered resolve to not go too crazy and only pick what I need.

I don't do product reviews on lovehatethings in the traditional sense. I've maintained that short of a willingness to love or hate something, I will reserve judgment until further review. I don't do stars or thumbs ups or "out of 10s". So when I say I've put Firefox aside for the time being, I don't want to imply I hate it. I still love Firefox. I just love Chrome a little bit more... but I'm fickle - blow me away Flock!


lovehate: The Gates of Seinfeld

The hordes of yea and naysayers hurling their two-bits in about the latest Gates/Seinfeld Microsoft ads have, if nothing else, provided more coverage for the OS giant than almost anything in recent years. And the fact that it may be half good and half bad is at least half better than most of coverage during that time.

It's curious that media critics seem to realize the ads are no different than most other huge companies but... more on that later.

It's the so-called tech experts and bloggers that seem to have the most analysis invested into the most detailed minutae of these spots. On "This Week in Tech" last week, gdgt's Ryan Block performed a deconstruction on the first ad that made the entire spot into an allegory about the "common man's" experience in an Apple Store. On this week's TWiT, John C. Dvorak wondered why the hell Microsoft wasn't "selling" something with such an expensive campaign. Today CNET is reporting that critics are abuzz over the fact that the third installment of the ads will NOT feature Jerry and Bill and, as such, this constitutes a surrender to the bad press and a radical shift in the campaign. Of course further in the article it is revealed that Microsoft actually announced this shift last week and that the dynamic duo would return.

All of this proves one thing: no one is talking about "how bad Vista is" anymore.

Let's get back to how these ads are no different than any other mega-sized company. When was the last time you saw a Nike ad that talked about the new sole design technology or comfortable insoles or crazy grommit technology advancements for the laces. My usual Nike experience is watching someone running in slow-motion while an intended inpsiration passage in read in the background by a famous athlete while a slow string pad crescendos in the background. When was the last time you saw a Coke or Pepsi commercial that talked about the drinks themselves and not just about "wanting to buy the world a Coke" or being "part of the Pepsi Generation". Every McDonald's ad essentially says one thing: "Hey look! We're McDonald's. Try and not be dragged here kicking and screaming by your kids."

Huge brands do not have to sell product, they simply have to sell the brand. The point/counterpoint Apple commercials always have bullet point features that help to explain the great features of Macs because, simply, most people do not have a Mac, most people have not seen a Mac in operation, and most people, if they're going to switch, NEED to be sold on product AND brand but the fact that you will be paying between 30-50% more for an equally-powered system.

A used car lot often has a loudmouth talking a million miles a second trying to explain everything they've got and are selling at lower than everyone else. Commercials from the big automakers show cars whipping around long sweeping mountain curves with techno music pumps up the jam and, if you're lucky, you may get a chromakey blurb or two at the bottom with a logo at the end.

Videogames will often show a bunch of cutscenes strung together with a grandiose synthesized orchestral score. Gatorade will be similar to a Nike commercial with less talking and a lot of orange sweat. How much can you say about potato chips without talking about the thousands of migrant workers that got paid 25% of minimum wage to harvest your Wavy Lay's? How many ads for financial establishments don't include a young or retired couple sitting across from a suit smilling and nodding their heads while words like "easy", "friendly", and "future"?

I'll be the first to admit that these Microsoft ads are clever while not brilliant, and I'm not trying to be an MS Apologist 3.1, but the inner Samuel Beckett in me could not help but revel in the absurdity of the first ad's punchline: "Just wondering, are they ever going to come out with something that will make our computers moist and chewy like cakes so we can just eat them while we are working?" That the agency behind this was brave enough to make it (as every other big company's ads) about nothing, makes me love not the ads themselves, but the mindset that acknowledges the quirky, the bizarre, and the just plain ridiculous still has a place on television. And if anyone spends too much time sitting around WTF'ing their television while these spots are playing, maybe they'll understand when Godot appears.

gates robot

thinglets: Monster Madlib - InterEx, Mozilla, Safari & Chrome

The story as told through the plot of Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster...

In 2008, a Googlygirl with a small California mountain view, possessed by the spirit of a Yahooan, escaped a bubble just as it exploded. As this happens a meteorite falls from the sky containing InterEx, the monster responsible for her planet's destruction. At the same time, Mozilla and Safari emerge from hibernation and not only attack Webia, but each other as well. Chrome, along with her twin priestesses, attempt to convince Mozilla and Safari to stop fighting each other and to team up to fight the InterEx monster. At the same time, the Googlygirl is being hunted by a group of assassins who want to Cuil her so that her enemies can take over her homeland. Then, just when the only living assassin is about to kill the GooglygirlInterEx crushes him by knocking over a pile of boulders on him. Mozilla, Safari, and Chrome finally drive InterEx off. The movie ends with the Googlygirl going back to her home land and Mozilla and Safari watching Chrome swim back to Mountain View


lovehate: Monotasking

There's an old insult that still get thrown at people who are either clumsy or obsessive: you couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time. As the world turns more wired and media streams at us from all angles, I'm starting to wonder if the insult will soon be turned around to say "you can't just walk" anymore. After all, how many people when walking aren't a) en route, b) plugged in (earbuds or otherwise), or c) waiting to pick up their dog's stool sample?

When I sit in front of the computer, I almost always have the TV on. Sometimes the TV is on (muted) while I'm streaming web radio. Last night I caught myself blogging while watching a podcast in the corner of the screen while the TV was muted and I was involved in two games of online poker. I can multitask with the best of them... I don't know that I can monotask anymore.

While going to sleep, I always have a podcast, music, or TV playing in the background. While walkin' down the street I always queue up my "walkin' 'round" playlist on my Nano, and I wish I could say I was just walkin' 'round to walk 'round, but I'm usually going somewhere instead of just walkin'.

It's the reason I can't live with a browser that doesn't have tabs. A hotel I recently stayed at was still running IE6 and I kept wondering why my clickthroughs weren't showing up in my active window. It's the same reason I have at least two dozen add-ons running in Firefox; I must know as much as possible in the smallest amount of screen real estate possible.

I feel lucky that I'm old enough to still sit through a film without restlessly twitching around. I feel sorry for the 16 year old that compulsively texts during films and then feels it's necessary to discuss the conversations with her friends during the part where Bruce Willis takes out a helicopter with a police car!

I am thrilled that, while enjoying a concert, I don't have to be viewing it through a two-inch digital camera or cell phone screen. That I don't need to shuffle through 50 yards of death march-like meandering for overpriced beer in order to enjoy listening to live music.

I suppose that what Windows was all about though, the burgeoning dawn of multitasking. We've moved into an age of snippet efficiency where the majority of us don't only find it tempting to allow our minds to hop, skip and jump from job to job and back again, we will soon be to the point where we can't do anything but.

I remember, through university, sitting down in front of an archaic PC where the concept of doing anything while typing up an essay was just as impossible as it was impractical - after all, it took hours to download even a few songs from an FTP server on a 28.8 or 56.6 modem as long as the three other people in my house didn't get a phone call. There was certainly no way you were going to be listening to streaming web radio... because, quite simply, there wasn't web radio. And if I tried to burn a CD, I'd was better to even move the mouse around for fear of causing a buffer underrun error.

Technology has allowed us to centralize our multitasking, because, let's face it, ask any parent who's been a primary caregiver and they can tell you all about the history of multitasking, but they put a crapload of miles on every day. My PC's sedentary interface allows me to communicate in real time (and by mail), listen to music, watch video, and then turn around to record and produce my own content. I read, critique, mashup, digg, stumbleupon. I can buy and sell anything while negotiating a home mortgage and investing in an RSP at tax time. I can research any topic and aggregate information, catalogue, hyperlink and blog to my heart's content. And I can do this ALL at the same time while sitting in a chair.

So am I doing more or less? From the micro perspective, there's a lot of stuff going on. From the macro perspective, I'm sitting at a computer, occasionally clicking or keying and really embodying what an outsider would call monotasking. I've become the living metaphor for Jamiroquai's "Travelling Without Moving".

I just wish I could fall asleep without aural and visual wallpaper.

Why can't we just enjoy chewing gum for its own sake?

Cell Show