Discreet Disco

Here are two embedded videos.

They are identical.

I’ve posted them so you can play them both – simultaneously.

Have a play around with these identical videos. Experiment.

No rules, but some things to try: use the pause/play button to synchronise the videos as close as possible. To bring them closer, just delay the video that’s ahead by a quick pause and unpause. It helps if you’re aware of the difference in visuals and clock. You should get some nice “flanging” sound effects. Then if you stagger the videos again it will make various kinds of galloping rhythm.

I discovered this recently, marvelling at the looping melodies when I opened a video twice, by accident.

It’s easy to do in an age of multiple windows. Inside your computer should be a sound card capable of mixing inputs, like a DJ mixer or the mixing desk at the back of a gig. If you’re not viewing this on a computer it might be worth a try anyway. If it fails, try opening the video in a dedicated window, twice.

It reminded me of a similar thing with vinyl turntables. Years ago, I had two 12″ copies of a tune which I tried to beat juggle to repeat and extend passages – a technique popularised by Grandmaster Flash and other hip-hop pioneers. I was at home and I wanted to see how difficult it was. After 20 minutes I gave up this line of experimentation and took to playing the records simultaneously instead.

The “flange” noises are better with vinyl, not only because of sound fidelity but because the noises are more varied. With the videos the streams are locked. On vinyl, it’s possible to introduce slight variations in the playback which make rather splendid flanging and phasing sounds with proper whooshing and everything. You can also adjust the playback speed with the pitch control – to affect the effects, as it were. I guess this would also work on other DJ set-ups such as CDJs, Serato or Ableton Live.

(Pausing and unpausing the video should be instinctive to a DJ who’s accustomed to ordinary beatmatching – it’s similar to a pitch bend downwards, which you would achieve on vinyl by slowing the rotation of a turntable.)

For the spotters, it’s worth noting that this tune is part of a lineage of remixing and revision. The Source’s original version of You Got The Love came out in 1986. Then in 1989 the remixer John Truelove used Candi Staton’s vocal (essentially the acapella version of it) to create an early example of a musical mash-up. The result is a club anthem with a longevity far in excess of the mash-ups which came later. This took some ingenuity, awareness of musical key and a bit of cheek. The track he picked for the instrumental backing was Jamie Principle and Frankie Knuckes’ Your Love with the now familiar melody and bassline. The bassline of Your Love is, in turn, reappropriated from a fragment of an italo disco track, Feels Good by Electra. According to Discogs this came out in 1982. Confusingly, we also learn from Discogs that John Truelove eventually started using The Source name himself (don’t ask me how that works).

Incidentally here’s another version of Your Love, the one that started the dual play trick off for me. This tune’s nice because the twinkly melody at the beginning lasts for a while. Muso-boffins like Steve Reich and Brian Eno would approve!

I’m sure there are other tunes that would sound interesting with this treatment.  There may even be examples of pairs of tunes which are suitable for live mixing and mashing up. It would help if they were identical speeds (down to the precise beats-per-minute count). On that note proper remixing will have to wait. But I’m working on something along these lines…

Peace and Love, the Ringo way

Is it me or is this possibly the worst PR ever?

This clip has been broadcast today by TV and covered by loads of media – and counting.

It’s a great example of how NOT to communicate.

Whatever you think of Ringo Starr as a musician, he has worked hard over a span of five decades to build a following of dedicated fans. The breadth of his fanbase is the envy of many musicians, particularly emerging bands.

And in a succinct 44-second video clip he declares his intention to toss a great deal of that away. Well, throwing away mailed correspondance from your fans is tantamount to the same thing. Massive blunder.

This is not just about music. For “fans” substitute, if you prefer, “customers”. Except that someone who takes the trouble to write is more like a super-customer or super-fan: enthusing about you, recommending you to others, blogging about you, announcing your news for you on forums…

Through my work with musicians I have observed this kind of fan at close range. Granted, they are a little more earnest than the rest. They hang around after the gig. They might need a bit more maintenance than the average person. But they are great people to have around. You can’t afford to ignore them, let alone cut them off. Whether you’re on a small level or a big level, they are offering to help you with whatever you are trying to achieve.

This is not about privacy issues either. Ringo Starr’s website boldly announces his new album. He is an active artist, still touring. Therefore he is actively making invitations for people to embrace him as a person and get into his music. People will respond to those invitations, he CANNOT switch that off. (If he wanted to be left alone to spend some time with the family, garden or somesuch he always has the option of doing a Rick Astley and disappearing completely for several years.)

This recent speech by wine blogger Gary Vaynerchuk explores these ideas in a social media context. It’s a kind of semi-ridiculous motivational thing about building brands using social media. He does a lot of shouting… you need to answer your emails, respond, care about your users, through as many media as possible – that sort of thing. While entertaining, it’s pretty obvious stuff! Fulfilling these obligations can be time consuming. Vaynerchuk takes an extreme approach by personally responding to every message.

As a byproduct of his own success, Ringo has a bigger, more cumbersome issue with postal overload. How about hiring someone for a day a fortnight? Give them a custom rubber stamp of a Ringo-face and a stack of envelopes. Or a stack of signed postcards? While you’re at it, why not bung in a flyer mentioning the new Ringo album and tourdates?

Aside from straightforward courtesy, it’s good for business.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Heniaith

The last year has been a bit of a language learning adventure for me. I was preparing a massive post but it’s rapidly expanding into several posts.

So I want to blog about the Welsh language, for these reasons:

  1. I love it
  2. I’m learning it
  3. To offer my perspectives
  4. Recording my thoughts for a year’s time

As I’ve just started this blog, there are no posts from my first year – of doing the wlpan course, as it’s known. The learning system is based on an Israeli method for intensive teaching of Hebrew, which is also the source of the word wlpan. Other than the fact that Hebrew is also an old language, there aren’t many other parallels.

Until last year, my language learning experience was confined mainly to school and was in some ways typical for somebody born in the UK. Many people have lingering memories of frustration with languages at school and a quick straw poll of my friends echoes this. While it’s generally acknowledged that other languages can at least be useful, we can be inclined to think learning remains an academic pursuit for the dedicated. It’s formal and it involves drudgery.

Obviously there are exceptions where people have learned languages to fluency, in the school system. But they’re gifted or at least different to the rest of us – right?

Years before wlpan, I did get some experience of Welsh. I was subjected to Welsh language classes during the first three years of high school, for maybe two hours per week. Being a kid with very little life experience, I was a very reluctant learner. It didn’t interest me and I didn’t pay much attention as I never thought I’d use it.

Actually, I hated the feeling of being coerced into learning it.

The Welsh GCSE exam wasn’t compulsory until the following school year, to my relief. I would just sit it out, daydream and then move on.

Another memory was an invitation to a school trip to a residential centre in Llangranog, west Wales – for karting and exciting outdoor pursuits, plus some Welsh learning. Although some of my classmates went, I can clearly remember not taking up the invitation and staying at home for the weekend. It smelled of indoctrination and the fun stuff was quite clearly there to draw kids to the language classes. You know, to sweeten the pill.

I’d been living in Cardiff suburbs since the age of nine-and-a-half. I’d seen Welsh on road signs but otherwise assumed it to be dead, outdated, parochial, sentimental. Even if I were to visit north Wales or maybe Llangranog, there would be no monolingual Welsh speakers – they can all speak English can’t they? (These are comments which would irk me if I heard them now!)

In hindsight these were good opportunities. It was a teenage reaction in some ways. At the age of 13 nobody had really showed me any benefits to learning Welsh. I wanted to learn sciences and seemingly forward-looking subjects. Towards the end of year three of high school, I was obliged to take one modern European language at GCSE level. So I dropped Welsh for good (it seemed) and continued with French. Now unfortunately, a decade later, my knowledge of French has been remotely filed away in the cobwebs of my mind, buried by pop trivia and funny facts.

Things have definitely changed. I’m sitting in my living room in Cardiff, where there are visible signs of someone with a rampaging curiosity for all things Welsh. On my table:

  1. Y Cymro, various issues (newspaper)
  2. Golwg, Barn and Cambria (magazines)
  3. Siarc Marw and Y Selar (music/culture fanzines)
  4. Welsh Roots and Branches (extremely useful guide to words, for learners)
  5. Y Dinasydd and Tafod Elai (paperau bro, meaning ultra-regional papers listing community events, newborn babies, church and school news etc.)
  6. Welsh to English dictionary
  7. Cymdeithas Yr Iaith magazine (and other bits picked up from the National Eisteddfod, a giant cultural jamboree perfectly timed to arrive, almost at my doorstep, in August)
  8. A History of Wales by John Davies (very detailed book)
  9. Neighbours From Hell by Mike Parker (awful title, good book especially chapter on Welsh language misconceptions)
  10. Tu Chwith literary mag is not here but would be if I could track it down
  11. Print outs of essays, speeches and documents found online

An example of the latter is the rather ace transcript of English and Welsh by JRR Tolkien. He talks about his particular fondness for Welsh in some detail. You’re dealing with a guy who devours languages before breakfast, as well as inventing his own.

Back to the table of paperwork (which my friend Anwen jokingly calls the Bwrdd Yr Iaith), some of the periodicals like the papurau bro are not always immediately relevant to me, but I’m going for total immersion here! It’s helping with the language learning and plugging gaps in my political and historical awareness.

So what happened in the intervening years? If I could summarise, I would say that I was drawn to Welsh rather than being pushed into it.

Not long after I thought I’d parted ways with Welsh, it came back on the radar. It would have been when Super Furry Animals emerged on Creation records. They had a few Welsh language tracks on b-sides and then their Out Spaced compilation came out when I was doing my A-levels. I would have discovered that through BBC Radio 1 on the John Peel show. Later of course I heard about the Mwng album (possibly through the Session in Wales as it was then) and I knew that was a big achievement. I also remember hearing Patio Song by Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci on Mark and Lard’s breakfast radio show when it came out, a bilingual song.

I can clearly remember a couple of situations where I overheard people speaking Welsh when I reached Cardiff University. It seemed quite exotic to actually hear it being used by real people, despite my school experience. It might sound ridiculous but it made me feel slightly uncomfortable and some internal dialogue was necessary to calm myself down. University is a great time for having your preconceptions remoulded.

In my first year of university I also got myself a Clwb Ifor Bach membership card which allowed me admission to their diverse and excellent venue on the condition I was either a Welsh speaker or had made a commitment to learn the language. Neither was the case. Incidentally, it’s very common for members’ clubs to have specific membership criteria. Clwb Ifor Bach were relaxing this policy anyway and it was revoked not long after.

Over the years I then met people who happened to speak Welsh. Knowledge of the language never seemed a prerequisite to polite conversation (aIthough I can’t say with certainty what everyone really thought of me). Of those who became my friends, I never felt any kind of pressure from them to learn Welsh.

But gradually I felt some kind of higher plane of mutual understanding was possible. It felt a little impertinent, maybe, to converse with them in English. These were people who’d write their shopping lists, get their schooling, sing, pray and do whatever else people do – in Welsh.

It’s like going to Japan and opting merely to shake hands with people. When in Japan, it’s probably better to bow – if you can.

For me, working with Welsh musicians was another little pull in the direction of the language. I was promoting sublime tunes of Welsh origin, sometimes with lyrics in Welsh. A couple of these musicians offered some gentle encouragement when I mooted the idea. I also noticed my younger brother making good progress with the language.

In September 2007 I started attending daily classes – which involved getting there for 8AM. And paying perfectly good money.

This isn’t a dig at compulsory education. I should also say that teachers do a great job. As if to labour the point, some of my friends are teachers. Education was good to me and I did pretty well in the subjects I cared about. But there are certain subjects in which it’s very difficult to instil enthuasiasm in a pupil. Languages in general are one. (For some, mathematics is another.)

How should languages be taught in school? Without any formal training in education as a discipline, I can’t answer. I’m only an expert in the literal sense of “one who has experience”. Maybe I just wasn’t ready. Or maybe it was the timing.

I might have to revisit this one. But now if you’ll excuse me, I have some homework to do.

Trainspotting and the Cognitive Surplus

Here’s a video showing giant dominoes assembled from smaller dominoes. It’s pretty satisfying to watch them topple. This must have taken TIME.

There are probably thousands of videos like this. If you prefer, you can have Japanese people making mechanical versions of Super Mario. Or maybe BristleBots.

All around the web people are doing fun stuff, posting it up and inspiring others. But if you are anything like them, you may have occasionally been told that you have “too much time on your hands”. This comment is reserved for those who cultivate a special interest in something. Maybe something a little unusual or esoteric.

So you painstakingly assemble giant dominoes from smaller dominoes, do you?

Or maybe you re-enact historical battles?

Or collect stuff?

Or you know your way down a list of real ales or northern soul tunes? (Those two usually go together.)

In the United Kingdom (N55:56:58 W3:9:37) we used to be very suspicious of anoraks. By that I mean, not the coats themselves but the people – usually blokes – who wear them. If you don’t follow UK slang, anorak is almost synonymous with the word geek or nerd. They have a fixation or obsessive interest in something. (The way it usually differs from the archetypal geek is that the pursuit of an anorak doesn’t necessarily have a creative aspect.)

Back in school days, I remember showing a teacher a sprite animation engine I had programmed in C. I mentioned how it was the basis of a new computer game I was writing in my free time. I expected maybe a discussion of how I could improve or develop the idea. To my surprise, this IT teacher responded by calling me a “sad git”.

If you’re out there, Ms Hatcher, feel free to drop me a line as I’d love to show you all the fun and cool stuff I’ve been doing since then, in spite of your discouragement. Ha! No hard feelings.

What’s the implication of the original comment – berating enthusiasts for having “too much time on their hands”? I believe it’s the fact they’re nonconformists. They don’t subscribe to the work ethic that dictates you must be immediately useful all of the time. The subtext? If you’re not focusing purely on the tasks set for you, you’re not being “productive” and must be wasting your energy. Well, a counter-revolution to this poisonous idea is forming. Read Quitting The Paint Factory or almost anything from The Idler.

I can’t always explain geek or anorak behaviour. Like the appeal of jotting down endless lists of train numbers on a Saturday afternoon. But I do know that those people get a lot of joy out of it. They might retort by asking about the appeal of sitting passively in an armchair at home alone – watching, say, the TV show Friends.

These days of course, there’s a rising geek quotient in the media too. (Anyone care to plot this on a graph?) It’s what Stephen Hawking, Quentin Tarantino, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates have in common. I’m aware the latter and Microsoft (MSFT) get criticism from uber-geeks for their company’s products and dominance – but that just adds to the geek credentials for both parties. Those uber-geeks have more in common with Bill Gates than they’d care to admit. Such bitching and quarrelling is expected in any sidelined or alternative group of people. Besides, the real disdain is reserved for Steve Ballmer, on the basis that he’s a pure ruthless businessman. Importantly for them, he’s not known for writing even a single line of computer code. What a fraud eh!

The author and speaker Clay Shirky talks about society having time on its hands but he prefers to call it a cognitive surplus.

(With a surname like that, he should write for The Idler.)

Here’s an insightful speech Shirky did at some geek expo earlier this year. He defines the cognitive surplus and talks about the benefits of consuming, producing and sharing – as well as the phenomena of “lolcats” and “grown men sitting in their basement pretending to be elves”. There’s a transcript but check out the video:

The cognitive surplus has made me see our Sleeveface exploits in a new way. Not only did technology and social networking help it to spread, but people have the urge to take part because of new habits of recreation and participation. Look out for the book!

Passivity is, literally, lame. So, make sure you write your own definition of cool. Develop your interests and keep on having fun.

The Freaky Future of TinEye

In a dizzying round-up, Reportr alerts us to 10 tech trends, the 11th presumably being to drop letter ‘e’s now that single-word domains are in short supply (cf. Flickr, Dopplr, Tumblr…)

The thing that caught my attention was the mention of visual search. I’ve been playing with a new search engine, TinEye, for a couple of months. It claims to be the first on the web – it’s probably the best example so far.

You submit an image to TinEye and it returns similar images from all around the web, based on pattern matching.

Their page of cool TinEye searches is a good introduction.

This is a nothing shy of a REVELATION. It’s funny how tech journalists remain all cool when they see something like that. Well I’m going to point out it’s AMAZING. Inevitable maybe. Given there is so much information on the web, there do remain undiscovered and undeveloped ways in which we can retrieve it. Visual search is a known problem – it just required somebody to sniff out the winning search index algorithm, for accuracy and speed.

In the life of the web, we have become accustomed to fairly good text-based search. The search box has become a second brain for many. We live in a post-search world. (At least, those of us who live in countries with easy access to the web do.)

How does Google find the stuff we want? At the moment a particular page or file has a URL. It may have other metadata such as a filename and keyword tags or alt tags. And unless you’re talking about a video or image, it could be a document with some kind of text body. It also has the pages from around the web which link to it. Those are the only clues, unless I’m forgetting any.

It’s pretty easy for computers to do pattern matching on text. Good search algorithms that work on text databases have been known for decades. But it’s the indexing of the whole web that’s always the big challenge. When you do a Google search, you’re not really searching the web itself, you’re searching Google’s indexes.

What is so amazing about TinEye is they are introducing another clue into the search – the content of the image – and found a quick enough way to index it.

Before I get too excited about TinEye, right now you can hope for hit-and-miss results at best, particularly as the pool of indexed images is relatively low. Since some early announcements of the service this has increased and they recently widened this pool to 901 million images, some of which might be yours.

It remains at the beta test stage, but it’s already quite useful. Some photographers and other visual artists have already been able to track down where their images have been used.

Visual search is still in its infancy and we can expect other players to possibly rival TinEye. There’s a shopping service called like.com mentioned in the Reportr trends piece, but I can’t seem to get past the nauseous feeling of entering a glitzy shopping mall the minute I arrive. It does pose another question for me.

What about the commercial outcomes of visual search? How will companies try to seek traffic from visual search? Will there be attempts at search engine optimisation? Will we see images being priced and ads being sold like Google AdWords? (GOOG)

TinEye doesn’t do human face recognition yet. Could it be just a matter of time, processing power and a dash of ingenuity? Let’s imagine a world where it is possible and it becomes a commonplace thing for use and abuse. Permit me to do some wild speculation.

What about finding doppelgangers and lost relatives? Missing people? It’s possible that a missing person could be an incidental feature of a photograph that somebody posts online.

Could it be used for casting films or theatre, when a new Kubrick absolutely has to find an actor with distinctive facial features?

What about looking for a partner? In a world already filled with all manner of weirdness, would someone try to seek a replacement partner who looks like their ex?

How could police use and potentially misuse this technology? Could they find missing suspects? Match fingerprints?

The future of TinEye and visual search could be like having eyes everywhere… It’s very promising and possibly a bit unsettling.

England’s Dreaming

I was reading about the history of these islands last week. It set off a whole chain of thoughts, memories and some unexpected laughs.

I’m particularly enjoying this page.
http://cym.englishriviera.co.uk
Open the link “Listen using ReadSpeaker” in a new window and marvel at the cut glass computer voice making a total hash of the Welsh. Repeat for the other languages. I like the Japanese one, it sounds like a shortwave numbers station.

When I was around 7-years old, I went with my family for a holiday in Torquay on the south-west coast of England. That town and the region surrounding are known as the English Riviera.

Back in Victorian times, the original riviera – the French Riviera – had established itself as an affordable holiday destination, albeit for the rich.

Budget holidaymakers who couldn’t make it to France were a large market. So tour operators on England’s south coast responded with a rebranding exercise and the concept of the English Riviera was born. Giving the tour operators the benefit of the doubt, we could view it as an early example of what marketeers now call positioning.

Among my fond memories I remember the sight of scrawny “palm” trees withering miserably along the sea front. Palm trees don’t grow well in England, but the French Riviera had them so the English gave it a go. They eventually found a breed of New Zealand tree that looked a lot like palm trees, for that hint of class and exoticism for which Devon is (not really) known.

I had a good time in Torquay. But when I visited, the riviera label was already looking outmoded – and that was the 1980s. Now, in this era of low cost airlines, the English Riviera is a tired name, and today’s average 7-year old child will understand this. It surprises me that they persist in using this “me-too” brand rather than promoting the actual distinctives of the place. Why remain in a category in which you can only hope to be number two – or worse?

In music it’s like a tribute band inspired purely by a band that is still alive. What’s the point?

If you’re curious why I returned to the Riviera last week, if only mentally, I’d been searching for the word “Lloegr” on Google (GOOG).

In modern day Welsh, the words for England and English are totally different to each other. Lloegr means the area we now call England and Saesneg refers to its main language. Anyway, this distinction is pretty neat in my opinion. Consider the ramifications!

(Yes, we’re back on the double-Ls, at least for now.)

Lloegr is a very old word with origins in the Brythonic language which was spoken in many parts of what’s now known as Britain.

It’s believed England (as we now know it) was already called Lloegr, or something very similar, before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons. And definitely before the Norman Conquest. But that’s another story and, you might say, another victory for the French – thankfully not compounded by any embarrassments involving branding or trees.

Dolgellau

Recently I heard Jeremy Vine on BBC Radio 2 refer to the town of Dolgellau in Wales (N52:44:24 W3:53:24). He pronounced it as “Dolga-l-ow” and made the last syllable rhyme with “cow”.

Why-oh-why can’t a broadcast professional do a little research before guessing this pronunciation? A little goes a long way.

(I couldn’t resist writing “why-oh-why” back there, it’s obligatory if you’re passing comment about the BBC. If it’s a positive comment about the BBC – and there are many conceivable ones – then you should finish by emphatically saying “thank you BBC”.)

There is such a thing as a Pronunciation Unit at the BBC for internal use. And a BBC styleguide which is quite a fun read.

There’s also a webpage of audio pronunciations which might be handy, courtesy of… the BBC.

To pronounce Dol-gell-au correctly, the last syllable rhymes with “eye” and the combination “ll” signifies a voiceless fricative sound. Put your tongue as if you’d make an “l” sound then blow air instead.

This sound is not unique to Welsh. Several other languages feature the sound. If you can already speak Navaho, Greenlandic or Zulu – or a combination of them – you’ll have no problem with it.

Thanks for reading my new blog. If you ever try to correct anything so picky as my pronunciation, I’ll fight you.