Monday, July 21, 2008

I Grok HAL

Ok, I’ve been accused of being wordy before, even verbose, occasionally sesquipedalian, but never of grammatolatry, or even verbolatry. Now, before you say, huh?, my friend David turned me on to the A.Word.A.Day email, which sends you some pretty spiffy vocab to contemplate each and every day, for free, without any apparent adjunct and unwanted spam attached thereto – Definitely a worthwhile thing, for my mind.

Anyway, grammatolatry is a very cool word that I am not at all sure I’ll remember well enough to use later, so I thought I'd better do it now. It put me in mind of a very interesting book I read recently, David Stork’s HAL’s Legacy: 2001’s Computer as Dream and Reality. Using the most notorious computer intelligence yet created as his muse, Stork basically dips into the state of the art today and asks how close we are to the 12th of January, 1992, (HALs Birthday for you non technogeeks). And Grammatolatry might be at the root of the problem Stork outlines therein.

The short answer to the big question posed by Stork's book, where are we compared to where Clarke thought we'd be by now, is in essence this: While we’ve actually built computer system with more memory than Sir Arthur thought we'd be able to, we’re not anywhere near having a box that can genuinely channel Douglas Rain; for you non-geeks, he’s the actor who supplied HALs voice. And in fact, some of the biggest names in the field of ai, like Allen Newell and Marvin Minsky, are less optimistic about our chances of ever so doing than they were when the pursuit began in the 1950s.

So what’s the problem? Well, the fact is, computers are great at handling stuff like dialing phones, searching data, or handling web orders for books, but they’re not so hot at stuff that requites broad understanding of th world around them, and let’s face it, understanding language probably tops that list.

Ray Kurzweil, (Yep, the guy who has his name on so many way cool synthesizers in so many way cool bands), is also a student of ai. Whereas once he believed we’d have HAL nailed by the dawn of the 21st Century, he notes that the likely reason we’ve not achieved that goal is a lack of sophisticated computer architecture; in other words, it’s not the capacity of the machine that presents the greatest challenge, it’s whether or not we can build a reasonably effective analog of the human brain’s neural network. Kurzweil points out that even today’s supercomputers do not have anything approaching the capacity of the human brain, which has “about a hundred billion neurons, each of which has an average of a thousand connections to other neurons” (163). Advances in circuit design, such as creating three-dimensional circuits, will increase the capacity of computers, but even more important is achieving breakthroughs in architecture, in the arrangements of circuits.

These are just a couple of vignettes from the book. Stork is the Chief Scientist at the Ricoh California Research Center, and a Visiting Professor of Psychology at Stanford, so he’s what you could call a well informed insider in this field of study. His book stemmed from the formation of a team of the brightest stars in computer research he put together a while back; cutting edge experts in virtually every facet of the pursuit of ai, computer design, and all its most interesting offshoots. After putting this supergroup together, he asked them to speak to where we are now vis a vis Sir Arthur’s vision. There are essays by all these folks therein, many of which are truly fascinating stuff.

And no, you don’t need to be a supergeek to understand it – Lord knows I’m not, and I think I groked it – Bet you will too!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Why Should I Care?

Yep, it’s true; in a major leap of serendipity, it turns out that Oingo Boingo had the appropriate answer to the hue and cry of American business and politics: Why should I care? Let’s look at the stuff they’re shoveling piece by piece, shall we?

1. We’re losing jobs during this economic downturn: Yeah? Well, fact is, you bastards have shown in a myriad of ways that you have no qualms about killing jobs, careers, and lives off with relative abandon in the best of times, so why should we listen to you now? You have used all your powers to get out of paying pensions and retirements, altered employee classifications and hours so that they are not eligible for benefits, and generally found every way possible to fuck the worker in every way possible. And our government has set you up and supported you all along – So why should I care?

2. Wall Street is in a panic and investors are scared to engage: So the fuck what? It has been posited that a seminal cause to the crash of ’29 was the fact that the stock market had little to do with business and industry; Wall Street reflected itself and its owners, and not much else. Does that sound familiar? Does anything they have or do give you real stability? Have you been protected and cared for when they’ve had problems in the past? Who lost all their savings and investments, you or Carl Icahn? Why should I care?

3. American businesses are suffering from our situation: Excuse me? American people are suffering from our situation; you assholes aren’t! CEO’s and billionaires are like Major League Baseball Managers; fired today, resurrected tomorrow in somebody else’s uniform and still making good money. Why should I care?

4. The rest of the world depends on American strength and prosperity: Say what? What are you smokin’? The rest of the world hates our business and political elements with a passion bordering on fanaticism. This administration and our business community has done more damage to America’s reputation and ability to functionally interact in the world than any other in history; these two factions walked hand in hand down the aisle smiling along the way. Why should I care?

All in all, I see this stuff as a necessary and good correction to the intense craziness created and fostered by factions of our society with whom I have nothing in common and not a care in the world for. Housing bubbles, stock rushes, consolidation, failure, yadda, yadda, yadda… These bastards care not a lick for humanity or humankind. Their aim is not our wellbeing, national or international stability, or the fair and just machinations of business and politics: Their aim is to stuff the pockets of themselves and their ilk; nothing more and nothing less. I could not care less what happens to them.

May nature, fate, and the natural course of things grind them all to dust.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Georgian Voices

One night when I was a cop working graveyards, I was cruising around about 3 am, listening to the local college radio station, when out of my speakers came the most astounding music. The song literally made me stop the patrol car and sit there with the hair on the back of my neck standing up. Sung acapella by a male group, the tune was complex, with two lead singers twining amazing lines of melody in a language I didn’t understand, while a full background chorus kept amazing power flowing through the piece. After a while, I realized that the background guys were employing polyphonic beating tones, weaving slight pitch discrepancies into their lines that create amazing power and literally leave your ears ringing. The song was breathtaking, almost religious, incredibly powerful, and seemed to blend elements of both eastern and western music seamlessly.

When the song ended, I learned that this was The Rustavi Choir, from Georgia, (Aka The Republic of Georgia, not the southern state), singing ‘Chakrulo,’ from the disk Georgian Voices. The music was and is amazing. A young Ted Levin, now a Dartmouth Distinguished Professor of the Humanities, was then a young ne’er do well traveler, (By his own admission), cruising in 1974 across Europe, bound for Tbilisi and searching for amazing music. He found the Rustavi Choir there and that lead to the recording of Georgian Voices in 1989.

Almost 20 years later, I still listen to the disc regularly, and especially that song, Chakrulo. These Georgian songs are very old, pre-dating Christianity. The Georgian singing style employs a scale similar to western music, in that it has seven tones, eight if you include the octave. That, however, is where the similarities divide.

As do most traditional tunings, the Georgian system runs with a just perfect fifth. OK, is your head spinning already? Then let’s break it down – Just intonation means that an interval tuned justly has notes that are related by ratios of whole numbers, aka, they’re in the same harmonic series. The Perfect Fifth part of that phrase refers to the interval between a note and the seven semi-tones above it. A perfect fifth is such because of its relatively simple relationship to other musical intervals, and the fact that they are considered consonant, aka, harmonious and stable in musicspeak. Now before you shake that head and say ‘so what?’, let me just point out that musically, a perfect fifth occurs in the root of all western chords, major and minor, and pretty much all of their extensions as well –A very busy thing, musically, that perfect fifth. You might also recognize the sound as a base harmony within Gregorian chant.

OK, back to the differences in the Georgian scale: In between the fifth and the unison in the Georgian system, there are three evenly spaced notes; a major second, (Compressed versus our usual western suspect), a neutral third, and a perfect fourth. While the major second is certainly heard in our scales, (Diatonic and pentatonic for example – And I’m tired of making hyperlinks, by the way, so look ‘em up yourself!), the neutral third is quite rare to our ears. And finally, the perfect fourth is ‘stretched’ compared to our scales.

Thoroughly confused and don’t know nothing about this? Yes, you do! Hum the start of The Bridal Chorus from Lohengren – Hmm hmmm hmm hmmm – That’s a perfect fourth, pal – Oh, and bass guitars and all but one string on plain ol’ guitars are tuned in perfect fourths, too…

Back to the Georgian scale! On the other side of that fifth, between it and the octave, there are two more evenly spaced notes, which yields a major sixth and a minor seventh. What this does is make the interval of thirds the most consonant, (Again, think stable), thing next to the fifth; unusual to us because it was happening in Georgia way before it was in the western music world.

Ya got all that? Good…

Chakrulo is a Table Song, a long-standing element in the tradition of Georgian ritual music that stems from the Kakheti region, in eastern Georgia. Unlike their neighbors in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Kakheti don’t seem inclined to split from the mother country, which is probably good for everyone involved, frankly.

Now, I’ve saved coolest for last: Unbeknownst to me at the time, the Chakrulo sung by the Rustavi Choir is considered a distinctly patriotic version of the song form, and in fact, is included on the sound samples of the famous Golden Records, housed aboard Voyager 1 and 2 and sent spaceward in 1977. Today, somewhere beyond the deep space at the very edge of our solar system, Chakrulo is waiting to be heard; I can’t think of a more appropriate place for it, frankly.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Feel like Raisin' a Little Hell?

Cool show today on Diane Rehm – David Sirota, who wrote The Uprising, discussing what might come in future days…

Now, if you’ve read my rants, you’d probably guess that I would be totally up for such an event, and in fact, I would! In an ideal world, I’d be a moderately conservative Democrat, or perhaps a liberal Republican. Problem for me is, they’re all scoundrels and ne’er do wells and I don’t want much of anything to do with either. I think, frankly, that our society is so completely FUBAR that, as intimated, it almost truly is beyond all repair...

So Sirota’s premise is interesting to me, indeed – And it brooks the question, first and foremost, are we really on the verge of populist revolt, or is this just another wave of faux sentiment bullshit? You make the call!

Sirota has explored the American past sufficiently to draw cautious parallels with current times, and maybe he’s right, overall. On one key consideration, he absolutely hits the nail dead on the head: The average American should have no doubt that Big Picture American Politics has not a thing to do with them and not a care for them. The current state of the nation reflects an insane focus on insane profits for the insanely wealthy, and very little else. American politics is in business for one thing and one thing only; self preservation. Anybody who says otherwise is a liar, part of the problem, or both. And God knows the Shrub’s current administration has done nothing but further those goals and truths.

So, has America had enough? Are the common folk getting riled up enough to actually do something potent and lasting? How the hell would we know if they were? (Don’t forget Big Media’s incestuous ties to Big Business – You do know that they ain't gonna tell you, right?). Don’t know, don’t know, but what interesting questions!

I suppose one could try and indict Sirota’s perspective as narrow because he only really speaks to corporate and political injustice, but in all honesty, what else is out there that threatens our very lives so much?

I think this is an important read for us, y’all – As Naomi Klein so aptly put it; “Sirota is a clear-headed and principled hell-raiser for economic justice. More like him, and we’ll have a real uprising on our hands.”

Right on…

Monday, July 07, 2008

Whoa my gosh – Starbucks is in trouble!!!

Am I crushed? Nope. Saddened? Nope. Bothered, even a tiny smidge? Nah

Wait, let me back up first. I am a coffee snob, and yes, I more or less gained that attribute whilst living in the Great Northwet, Washington State in particular. And yes, we were totally nuts about coffee, although that has abated somewhat today; when it became ultra cool for everyone to be a coffee snob, then the natives quit, because then it wasn’t cool anymore, ya see…

Anyway, during coffee’s Northwest heyday, we had three 24 hour coffee drive through joints in a town of 50,000, and every hardware store and lumber yard had an espresso stand, if they wanted to survive. A good Barista was hard to find and jealously guarded: Stephanie not only saw you coming from 2 blocks away and had your stuff ready when you got there, she was smart, funny, and easy on the eye…

Then came the ‘roiding of Starbucks… When that little shop opened at Pikes Market in the early 80s, it was cool. When they opened their first satellite up on Capitol Hill, and a stone’s throw from my apartment, it was convenient.

When they opened their 6,000+ store, it was oppressive. I’ve had Starbucks in Fort Worth Texas and Salt Lake City, Utah: Neither had good coffee, and at both, the perceived mien for a Barista is over-the-top, hyper-cheerful, AM radio jock morning show horseshit – No, I don’t want a creamy orange gelato mocha frapuccino and how I am is pretty much none of your business, frankly; see, you ain’t earned intimacy yet, and you don’t get it granted to you due to overzealous verbal diarrhea…

At the point that Starbucks became a corporation, all the magic was gone. They were dead meat, they just didn’t know it yet. Ever been to a Red Robin? They also started in Seattle. The first one was at the base of the Montlake cut, right next to the bridge, and it was really quite good; it was and is no Dick’s, mind you, (The truly legendary Seattle burger joint), but it was good. Once it got out of Seattle and was fully corporized, it too was toast.

So am I sad at Starbucks woes? Nope, just wondering what took them so long.

See, I can do all you corporate hotshots a favor, if you’ll lend me an ear for a sec; I can save you a bunch of money and energy and time, if you’ll listen up… You ready?

OK, here it is, in the form of a simple formula to remember:

The depth of demise that anything and anybody will fall to, when you try to multiply their success via incorporation and expansion, will be directly proportional to how great they were and would still be had you left them alone.

Ya got that? Still not sure it's true? How about a quick checklist: Bobby Flay? He’s in an ad as a fucking M & M, for cryin’ out loud! Southwest Airline’s pioneering spirit? Gonzo. Redhook Ale? Urk! J. K. Rowling? 'nuff said Any department store you wanna mention? Please...

Just as the ever increasing waistline of a megalithic entity like G. E. gets worse and worse every year, that burger joint, that coffee shop, that chef, that writer, that store will most certainly go to shit when you try to share it too broadly. Once you’re a corporation, you have no soul, no heart, no cojones, and you never will.

So do us a favor, pencil necks; stick to actuarial and fiduciary, and leave life to us, OK?