Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 in music

Discovered the joys of VNV Nation this year. A group that nails a particular science fiction vibe for me, in just the right way. That, and their optimistic sound made for a nice change of pace amidst all the economic gloom.

Charlotte Gainsbourg brought a more complex sound to the year.

San Francisco based Thao Ngyuen supplied an amazing intensity and an interesting pop song complexity

The same song performed on a rainy Paris back street at night. Seriously, the 90s left me with an incurable weakness for acoustical versions of my favorite songs. I'm not proud of this.

Sometimes the reverse holds true, though. Portland based electronica band Yacht remixing Portland based Mirah's acoustical "Make it Hot" was a lot of fun.

The Heavy's "How You Like Me" met my electric funk needs for the year, and I totally didn't discover this song through beating Borderlands 2. #Lies!

John Murphey's "Adagio in D Minor" from the sound track of the science fiction film Sunshine got top billing on my Genre Writing playlist. This was thanks to Knate Myers' now famous compilation of nighttime footage of the Earth, as seen from the International Space Station in low orbit. This was also my favorite video of the year -- almost a religious experience, and I still haven't gotten bored with watching it.

This year's playlist on Rdio

Also, I went through a mullet rock period this year. Not that I'd ever admit that on the internet where it'll haunt me forever.

Some good friends have been watching the long-running urban fantasy series Supernatural, which features a lot of choice southern rock. That was enough to push me over the edge, apparently. Call it a need to rock out without restraint. Call it an acoustic monument to having survived childhood in 1980s Nevada, but sometime you just have to capture that sensation of headbanging behind the wheel of a 79 Trans Am, and it has to be done with in music.

Enter at your own risk. You may gaze into the mullet, but the mullet also gazes back into you.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Science fiction on the internet: The year in short films

About two years back, a friend recommended a four minute film set in near future Russia about a mysterious gift, a sleek-looking robot, a violent theft, and the subsequent pursuit through Moscow. The film had polished, kinetic execution, and an apparent high production value. In other words, it looked good and played out well.

The Gift from BLR_VFX on Vimeo.

Browsing around, I started coming across other, similarly impressive pieces, like the heavily stylized Codehunters.

There were also a number of interesting concept trailers for films that have been written, but not made.

Keloid Trailer - A Short Film by BLR from BLR_VFX on Vimeo.

While 2012 ended up being a terrible year as far as political partisanship and infighting here in the US, it was a good year online for short clips in science fiction.

Tempo is a fun, thirteen minute piece, with striking similarities to the iconic puzzle game, Portal. Only in this setting, the high-tech device central to the plot manipulates kinetic energy, rather than space. And as with Portal, the device is put to creative and clever improvised uses.

Archetype is a solid piece about the internal virtual realities that advanced software entities exist in, and a combat platform with memories and a personality that it shouldn't possess. The film does have several cliched moments, but there's also a nice twist, and I thought it was worth the seven minutes.

Payload is an eighteen minute Australian short that plays out in a corrupt future of grinding poverty at the foot of a beanstalk-style space elevator. While the film drags in the middle, it features some great acting and a good finish. It's also definitely on the grim side of the genre.

Payload from Stu Willis on Vimeo.

Luke and Ridley Scott's Loom was originally shot as a technology demonstrator project for a 3D laser projection system. The 20 minute short is deliberately evocative of Ridley's 1982 masterpiece, Blade Runner. It drops viewers into a particularly bad day for a gene engineer technician working in a synthetic flesh factory, and who has secretly grown a woman in his apartment. A melancholy film with art house sensibilities, it's probably not for everyone, but at the same time it delivers a nice emotional punch if you like cinema with a measured and unhurried pace.

Coming soon: The music post

I'm working on the annual Year in Music post...which apparently is a popular feature of this blog. Or at least it's popular if Blogger's analytics can be believed. Last year's post and a place holder article for it beat out everything else in terms of page visits this month (December), for three out of four weeks.

I'm good with that, if a little surprised.

While I'm on the topic of music, I've taken time out during school terms to indulge in some futurism and update my ideas about what the coming decades might look like. As part of this project, I've been thinking about how I listen to music, and how much that's changed since 1996 -- both in terms of software, hardware, and circumstance. Why '96? Because that was the year I left Nevada, enlisted in the Army, and then went off to Korea.

That was most definitely a change in my audio life. Suddenly I wasn't spending an hour or more in a car each day, motoring from place to place and listening to tracks. In fact, for the first few weeks of regular Army life after OSUT scout training, I didn't listen to any music at all. There simply wasn't time or a private space for it in the workdays. Thankfully, that lack was easily remedied with some new hardware and a few conscious choices. A skip-resistant CD Walkman purchased at the camp store brought my selection of music into the gym for the first time. Additionally -- also for the first time -- I started making time to listen to my favorite songs while doing nothing else. A-half hour or forty minutes of lying in my bunk in the evening, headphones on, eyes closed, and with the sound of Sheryl Crow's voice or the Red Hot Chili Peppers carrying me along through my year in the Land of the Morning Calm. Under the bridge, if it makes you happy, every day is a winding road, and on and on.

It was amazing how much more there was to hear in each track when there was nothing but music to focus on. All sorts of small deviations in the chorus, clever pauses, and subtle shifts that just aren't as noticeable, or that you otherwise stop being aware of if you've heard a song more than three or four times.

The change in hardware and circumstance probably wasn't as significant as the later arrival of MP3 players and the ability to buy tracks selectively, rather than whole albums. Still, it was a big one, and it's had a lasting impact.

I've also been doing a lot of thinking recently about music as a neurologic activity, and how near future biotechnology might alter it. My current novel involves a crew of biotech smugglers and an engineered drug called Aulos -- named after the double flute of the Classical muse of music.

Aulos facilitates enhanced feedback between the brain's audio cortices and the emotion-mediating structures of limbic system. This heightens the naturally occurring emotional responses to music by an order of magnitude. The drug is also designed to create signal bleedover into the feedback loops of the motor function cortices, so that both rhythm and any melody are physically felt in the body. Lastly, the drug generates intense nostalgia flashbacks with songs that a user has listened to in years past, by increasing the firing potential of synapses in the pathways of the autobiographical memory system.

While Aulos isn't physically addictive, it's difficult to quit. Once you've had it, listening to music without the drug is a pale and passionless experience. Then there are the issues that crop up with a bad batch. In the case of the smugglers, it's the delivery of an Aulos production run that leaves its victims unable to distinguish words from melody, and robs them of the ability to hear meaning in spoken language.

My favorite book about music and how it interacts with the brain's many systems is neurologist Oliver Sachs' accessible and fun to read Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. A collection of interesting case histories, it's well worth the time if your interested in the hows of how we experience music, and the bizarre things that can go wrong when the underlying wetware systems fail to function as they're meant to.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Portland by night

Revisiting some of the first shots I took after moving to the city, with a better camera.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The software automation of intelligence functions

Army considers Palantir to boost intelligence architecture | Defense Tech:

'via Blog this'

Apparently Palantir's Intelligence software, built to distribute data and information in an intelligence community environment, has grown popular enough with soldiers that the Army is considering incorporating into its existing infrastructure. Which is an interesting concession on the part of the Army, because at present Intelligence is not compatible with the service's Distributed Common Ground System. It sounds like Palantir's system is easier for soldiers to use when it comes to displaying and working with large quantities of raw data like IED locations and social graphs of suspected insurgent networks. More details can be found at DefenseTech.Org and on the Palantir website.

The incorporation of the Army's intelligence architecture into combat units through software systems like the Distributed Ground System and Intelligence is a significant milestone in the overall evolution of military systems. One that will hopefully break some long-standing organizational stovepipes and distribution choke points within the services' internal information flows. As I blurbed in an article a few weeks back (down toward the bottom), the ground-level fusion of traditional intelligence functions with special operations units inside the Joint Special Operation Command in Iraq and Afghanistan was a major revolution in military affairs. Or at least the vanguard of one. Either way, it's a merging that vastly enhanced the effectiveness of JSOC's units, and -- I think -- finally lead to the full realization of the potential agility of special operations forces.

For years, lack of actionable intelligence was a major hindrance to use of those forces. The high risk nature of special operations -- small teams often cut off from quick backup -- made both commanders and politicians reluctant to employ them when current intelligence was hard to come by. However, the ability of units to quickly gather, analyze, and  distribute fresh data, rather than having a separate, slower moving organization for tactical intelligence functions, has helped reduce the problem of staleness and actionability. It often results in one mission generating a quick chain of follow ups as new data is rapidly exploited, without much of the old friction or jurisdictional boundaries that use to slow the process.

For me, the closest precedence to this development is the sheer capability that combined arms mechanized warfare brought to ground units during the 20th century. The combination of armor, infantry, and indirect fire elements into smaller and smaller units -- going from separate regiments to combined battalions, and even companies and platoons in some cases -- gave units an agility, speed, and flexibility that steamrolled opponents who failed to adapt.

It wasn't just the speed that trucks and tracked vehicle brought to the game. The ability of tanks and infantry to work closely with one another in practiced cooperation created units that could shift fluidly from one terrain type to the next. Armor dominated in open country, while infantry handled pockets of dense terrain like woods, natural choke points, or villages, to prevent opponents from getting off shots at the vulnerable flanks of tracked vehicles. In the dense terrain of forests and cities, infantry became the arm of decision, while tanks shifted to providing heavy fire support against emplaced positions and obstacles like bunkers and barricades, and controlled open spaces such as roads, clearings, and city squares. In both built up areas and in the open, armor and infantry together benefited from having organic mortars and integral brigade or division artillery assets that allowed them to quickly strike targets shielded by horizontal cover.

Now a ground-level integration of intelligence and combat arms functions similar to that seen in the special operations community is being carried out in the conventional Army with the incorporation of software that facilitates quick lateral and vertical sharing of information. I suspect that this change is both an adoption of techniques developed by JSOC, as well as a refinement of earlier data-sharing experiments carried out in the test bed Force 21 units, and in the medium-weight Stryker brigades that saw combat over the past decade. Whatever the source, it will be interesting to watch the effects of this melding play out in the real world.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Cold War Dystopia in the Age of Information

BBC News - North Korea: On the net in world's most secretive nation:

'via Blog this'

The BBC has a fascinating article up that paints a bleak picture of life in North Korea with the coming of internet access and cell phones. It's something along the lines of what the Soviet Union might have looked like if that country and Stalin had survived into the Information Age. The article discusses roving internal security units that track down citizens who use non-state sanctioned cellphones (often smuggled in from China), as well as a mandatory operating system that spies on users. Imagine Windows or your Mac OS reporting your online activities to security services with the power to sentence you and your family to several years in a detention camp, should your behavior behind the keyboard call into question your political reliability. Another mandated feature is a script on all North Korean web pages that increases the size of the Supreme Leader's name, whenever it appears.

Red Star OS -- Your operating system is watching you, comrade 

North Korea fascinates me for a variety of reasons. The Democratic People's Republic is something very close to the realization of George Orwell's nightmarish vision in 1984, complete with its own Double Speak and state bureaus that employ prolonged torture and brainwashing techniques to reprogram 'deviant' citizens. I'm also interested in it because so much of the world seems to be intent on ignoring its existence. For over thirty years the its government has run a gulag network comparable to Soviet or Nazi forced labor camps, yet there are still so many individuals and groups, mostly on the left, who are hellbent not on denying the camps' existence, but on putting them out of mind entirely. Which is a real shame, because here in the US it was the left in form of presidents like Truman and a liberal dominated House and Senate that responded to the North's Soviet-backed invasion of the south, and who were determined to block the forcible export of the Soviet Union's totalitarian ideology by embarking on a policy of Containment.

Other reasons are personal in nature. I spent the first of my four years in the Army at a small cavalry camp ten kilometers (six miles) from the Intra-Korean border and the Demilitarized Zone, during the tail end of the great famine, in which somewhere between a-half million and three million North Koreans starved to death -- largely because their government was too proud to accept offers of outside assistance. It was a time when many in the North were so desperate to flee from relentless hunger that they made several hundred defection attempts across the heavily mined DMZ, and it was a period when the North Korean Army hunted its own citizens as they sought to escape.

Naturally enough this is something that influences my writing, or at least it's had an impact on what I find it important to write about. More on that next week...

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Downtown Portland

The kind of stuff you see while on your way to a coffee shop to do some writing....

Friday, December 07, 2012

The shifting software of music

"As you are no doubt aware, there have been changes in how people listen to and procure music, during the past dozen years," the blogger said in the Queen's English.

OK, so, that's something of an understatement. If you're tech savvy enough to read this blog, chances are you've been stealing or buying music off the web for years now. The coming of online music was a once-in-a-lifetime event that shifted the foundation of all things song beneath the house of industry that it had built.

It's a change that's altered the way I hear music.

The ability to buy only the tracks that I like off an album means I'm far more engaged with music than ever before. My interest no longer waxes and wanes like it once did while listening. Now I've got forty eight hours worth of my favorite and only my favorite songs to listen to on a single playlist, which can keep me immersed in an inner landscape of sound and emotion for several hours at a time. The ability to shuffle randomly through such a huge volume of tracks, or through twenty-song playlists, also means that I no longer get desensitized to new favorite songs the way that I used to. It's much more fun to slot a newcomer into a list of similar tracks, rather than listen to it by itself over and over to the point where all emotion has been leached out of the melody, rhythm, and any well turned lyrics.

The change in procurement mediums has also made me even more social with my music. I say "more", because, yeah, back in the day I not only made mix tapes, but occasionally inflicted them on friends unfortunate enough to find themselves within arms length. So the jump to YouTube and the ability to direct friends to my channel there was a natural one to make. Of course YouTube no longer is what it once was. The commercials have come, so the pure experience of music fused with imagery has been shattered.

Which is as it should be. YouTube is parasitic. Nearly all theft, and little payback for the artists whose works appear there. Which makes me glad to see the rise of cheap, paid music services like Rdio, Spotify, and Pandora, where sharing uninterrupted music or playlists is an organic feature. That, and the ability to see what other friends are listening is now the primary means by which I discover new songs to listen to and buy. Yeah, I still occasionally crawl the reaches of the internet, looking at recommendations by well-listened individuals whose tastes have proven to overlap mine, but seeing what friends are listening to each day online is a heavy new body in my musical solar system--one which has perturbed the orbits of all other sources.

If my childhood self, who read a lot of science fiction back in the 80s, could see all of this--the hardware, the software, the social networks--he'd be by himself with ecstatic glee. As far as music goes, the future has proved to be pretty damn awesome.

Monday, December 03, 2012

An adaptive book manufacturer

A cool article about a print company that has restored itself to profitability by making a series of buisness practice and technology adaptions since 2008. It's a bright spot in an industry that is caught up in a lot of turmoil at the moment.

Book manufacturer Thomson-Shore is adapting and rebounding | Michigan Business | Detroit Free Press |

'via Blog this'

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Drone makes first carrier-style catapult takeoff

Footage from of an X-47 drone making a carrier-style launch at a test facility.

It continues to astound me that the Navy is at the forefront of development work on unmanned air-to-air combat systems, while the Air Force remains nowhere to be seen. While there aren't any drone aces in anyone's immediate future, it's only a matter of time until these aircraft outperform human pilots -- not only in loiter time, but in the grueling, high-g realm of turn-and-burn that is air combat maneuvering.