The ABQ Correspondent
Last Two Issues
In this Information Age, people are getting pretty good at putting a zillion trivial fragments of data together into a pattern that reveals something of interest. As a recent fascinating example, a team at Boston University has developed a method for reconstructing images from the light any object produces or reflects onto whatever is around it. They’re “taking pictures around corners.” Excellent explanation and illustration in in the Guardian, which is based on a paywalled article in Nature; see the . Sure, you can use a mirror to see the reflected image of something that is not in your line of sight, and really, that’s what the folks are doing…but they’re not using what we think of as a mirror; they are using any surface that is in line of sight of the hidden object. Remarkably, they start with a picture taken with an ordinary smartphone camera, recording blurred light and shadow. They analyze that with a computer, not the supercomputer you’d expect, but a “mid-range laptop” that produces results in less than a minute. One supposes that with more computer muscle, results could be available virtually in real time. The concept is not startling, but its realization is. This recalls an idea that was the basis of a plot in a radio show maybe seventy-five years ago. Somebody was able to recreate Lincoln’s voice giving the Gettysburg address, by reading the audio recorded in wet paint that was in listening distance of Abe during the speech. The notion was gripping to naïve young radio fans. Well…in recent years, somebody has reported hearing sound recorded in wet plaster being spread on a wall by a workman thousands of years ago. (Can’t find the reference at the moment.) The reproducible sound may have been the scraping noise of a trowel, but there was wistful hope that bits of speech came through as well. It’s easy enough to imagine recording a momentary audible effect, much harder to figure out how sound might be recorded over seconds or more. Still, people are doing remarkable work in making something out almost nothing.
The definitions of “music” offered by different definers are somewhat varied, but they seem to cluster around the idea that music is organized sound (think Edgar Varese), produced by people using most any means at all. The purpose of the sound may be to produce pleasure or may be ritual, may be repeatable or spontaneous…but the point seems to be that it’s intentional. We have found musical instruments that may go back as far as 165,000 years, stones that appear to be shaped, even tuned, apparently for the purpose of producing organized, predictable sound when thumped on appropriately. While there’s a deal of argument about those “instruments,” there’s a whole lot less quarrel about artifacts that are obviously flutes…tubes with finger holes that people can actually use to make fluting sounds. Some of these, dating from ~40,000 to ~65,000 years ago, are fairly simple, made from hollow bones of birds, while others are painstakingly carved from solid stuff like mammoth tusks. The placement of the finger holes is surprisingly consistent, suggesting that some patterns of sound seemed good to people in general, and others not, so conventions developed. (There’s also a drumhead of elephant hide maybe 35,000 years old.) Clearly, folks have been making instruments for a long time. The frustrating thing is that we don’t know what the organized sound people made with them sounded like. Music only a few thousand years old is still pretty much a mystery. Did the trumpets found in King Tut’s tomb just play fanfares? What did musicians play for the ancient Trojans on their lyres…ragtime?
Luckily, we’re learning more. A chap named Armand D’Angour at Oxford has not only collected and deciphered a whole lot of information about ancient Greek Music, telling us how music was performed and used in the Homerian Era, about 8th Century BC, but he’s working with musicians who pretty convincingly play and sing the music of the time. The instruments are replicas, created from excellent models…and they aren’t just piping soulfully, but belting out some vigorous stuff. Greece wasn’t the whole world, and there must be all sorts of great stuff to listen to from other traditions and times that will be turning up. Keep listening.
Just one stream of consciousness:
Hearing some of Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment on KHFM (not much of an opera fan, but that’s fun) recalled an occasion in 1952 when a friend said he couldn’t join us that evening because “I have to go to the City with my family to hear Lee Lee screech out The Daughter of the Regiment.”
“Lee Lee” was Lily Pons, a charismatic high soprano then married to Andre Kostelanetz, a conductor with a popular orchestra that focused on light classics. During WWII, Pons and Kostelanetz had toured the world to entertain U.S. troops.
A friend of mine who was in the USO happened to be stationed in India during that tour. In Calcutta, rude things had been said about certain officers during my friend’s ventriloquist act, and despite his protest that he hadn’t done it, the puppet had, he went to the brig. Melvin Douglas, a friend from radio days, then holding significant military rank, sprung him from the pokey to run an AFRS radio station near Agra. He struck up an acquaintance with one of the caretakers of the Taj Mahal, being shown secret passages, and other inner curiosities of the place. When Lily and Andre came through, she jumped up on the Mumtaz Mahal’s tomb to pose fetchingly for publicity shots, causing some stir. My friend said it was an interesting sight, and the thuggee were already testing their strangling scarves by the time she was hustled away.
In the mid-fifties, another friend was delivering telegrams for Western Union in San Francisco (it helped that he drove a BMW Isetta that could weave scarily through traffic and park on sidewalks), and one day he delivered a telegram to Lily Pons at the Fairmont Hotel. She started to give him a tip, but he asked her to sing for him instead. She did.
In recent years, a chap named Andre Rieu has toured the world and appeared on PBS occasionally with his orchestra, playing light classics. A striking thing about those performances is that everybody involved, instrumentalists, dancers, singers, smiles broadly and intensely at every opportunity. Rieu has been described as sort of a cross between Andre Kostelanetz and Lawrence Welk, whose troupe members were required (by contract, it is rumored) to smile continuously, no matter how much it hurt.
Odd how one thought leads to another, and downright astonishing that almost every reference can be checked immediately online.
ITEM FROM THE PAST
This item from 2006, a mere 13 years ago, is
brought to mind by a couple of current reports
involving Amazon and Netflix.
A supermarket patron (presumably somebody in the movie biz) in the LA area recently was wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “Keep movie production in the USA!” My, how times have changed. Back in the fifties, when the movie studio empires detected signs of weakness, there was a great hue and cry about this very issue of “runaway production.” In those days, “running away” meant leaving Los Angeles...going to some foreign place like San Diego or Chicago, not just for pickup shots to establish locations, but to shoot whole movies, bootlegging production away from the facilities and costs of Hollywood. Failure to support the Hollywood Establishment was considered sleazy and treacherous. The Establishment lost. Most deals for production and distribution may be done in Hollywood (well, lots of movies are sold to distributors at festivals like Cannes), but production is as likely to be in Vancouver, Toronto, Prague, Albuquerque, Wellington, or Sofia as in Hollywood. Rapidly changing technology is a factor in this; if you don’t have to get film to a big lab every night, so you can see what you actually did the day before, you’re not tied to that lab’s location. The ringing slogan on the man’s shirt seems a trifle plaintive.
The need for a lab to produce dailies or, more
quaintly “rushes” was a big issue, and the need
was greatly reduced by improved transportation;
you could get the day’s raw footage to a Hollywood
lab from almost anywhere by the 4:00 am cutoff
time to have a print by 10:00 am, and get that
print back to the production site by mid-afternoon,
where the director could look at it. These days
everything is recorded digitally, as well as on film,
(if it’s on film at all) so you can see a shot seconds
after making it.
Apart from that though, Hollywood used uniquely
to be where props and costumes and cameras and
lighting gear and actors were available for rent in
quantity. Those things are more widespread now.
Again, transportation affects it, and when you can
record his-res images virtually in the dark, you
don’t need tons of lighting equipment.
Big facilities are still handy, and they are to be
found in lots of places. In Albuquerque (where
Breaking Bad and other notable things have been
shot) somebody got carried away, and built some
nice big stages, which have been plodding along
quietly for a few years, not doing as much business
as they’d have liked. Now Netflix has bought those
stages, and encouraged by substantial state tax
breaks, has promised to bring a billion dollars
worth of production to town in the next few years.
That has stirred a lot of local optimism.
Amazon, on the other hand, has just walked away
from the deal to set up a huge operation in New
York City after a big negative reaction from
Amazon/Google/Facebook/etc…haters. They have
numerous invitations from other places (apparently
Jeff Bezos has a personal connection with ABQ),
but the hassle is noteworthy.
It’s becoming slightly more complicated for big
runaway production and business to find places to
run away to.
OUT, DAMNED SPOT!
In these days of magical Photoshopping, we take it for granted that any photograph may have been altered by skilled operators to remove facial blemishes, add shrubbery to an image of somebody’s front yard while repairing bare spots in the lawn, insert an incriminating image of someone who shouldn’t be present, and so on. While we’re now accustomed to movies featuring computer–synthesized characters that act in real or synthesized surroundings, it still seems daunting to modify a single feature...say a skin blemish…on one performer through many minutes, thousands of individual images, in an extended motion picture or video. In fact, film producers, uglified to suit the purposes of the interviewer. Brave new world, and all that.and others in the early 1900s had by hand, frame by frame. Talk about labor-intensive! Apparently, retouching in films and videos is now commonplace, and the curse of labor intensity is lifted by computer cleverness. When you , you’ll see interesting, but no longer surprising Photoshopping techniques at the beginning, but toward the end, you’ll see the astonishing ability of the system to make the specified changes automatically in successive frames as the character moves. The system tracks the places to be modified, so the artisan need not work on every frame. Wow. Further wow; the computers run fast enough, and the software is efficient enough so retouching can be performed in real time. An actress being interviewed may be smoothed and beautified even as she speaks. Conversely, one supposes, a politician being interviewed by a hostile newsperson may be
If you are charmed by the work of the extraordinarily prolific Méliès, you can see a of his films…all imaginative variations on the same basic “magic of movies” gag…some quite elaborate, all new to the audiences of the era. You’ll see new techniques creep in as he worked, things like dissolves between scenes. It takes stamina to look at more than a few minutes of this, but it was important new technology and art in the making a hundred and some years ago.
MIT Technology Review commented recently on the U.S. Military’s wish to build “common sense” into intelligent systems, so they don’t make silly mistakes like failing to realize that a handbook titled To Serve Man used by newly arrived alien visitors is a cookbook (long-ago Twilight Zone story, I think). Similarly, Microsoft wants to teach Bing not to steer people to sites promoting racism and other disapproved views (can’t find the source). In September 2018, the IBM Developer Blog ran a reassuring piece explaining that their AI Fairness 360 program is a tool that will help us “attack bias from all angles,” preventing smart systems from learning offensive behavior. Umm…to some of us who have been following machine intelligence since the early sixties, this seems a trifle optimistic.
As long ago as 1973, Marvin Minsky, a leader in the field, was quoted by the media arguing that while machine intelligence was all very well, and must be pursued, it was fraught with unknown dangers, and the work should be pursued only by approved people in laboratories under tight control by authorities. Well, yeah, but recall that 1973 was in the stone age before microcomputers, when you needed a huge, expensive system in a big lab to do a fraction of what a Raspberry Pi can do today without anybody’s noticing. The very essence of machine intelligence is that it lets systems learn from experience, change their own references and modify their behavior to accomplish probably desirable things in ways their designers didn’t specify, and probably can’t figure out. While the IBM folks have done an enormous amount of work distinguishing good stuff from bad stuff, and providing tools to detect automatically which is which, it may be difficult for them to keep up with reality. The Correspo has suspected for a long time that whether we like it or not (we don’t much) smart machines will learn about life in the gutter, just like the rest of us. We may hope to counter the influence of bad company on impressionable young systems by setting good examples and stating forthrightly what’s proper and what’s not. The Inquisition tried that for a few hundred years without widespread success. Still, as Mr. Pope pointed out, hope springs eternal.
Recently, a guy whittling a bear out of a piece of 2”x 4” explained that his method was just to “cut away whatever didn’t look like a bear.” It’s a good line, entertaining the first time you hear it, and chances are that you have heard it. A researcher reports finding essentially the same concept (substitute Michelangelo’s David, an elephant, the Venus de Milo or most anything else for the bear) in modern publications from 1858, 1877, 1883, 1888, 1894, 1903, 1909, 1963 and 1974. We can assume that the gag was current in Sumer, Atlantis, and whatever came before them. One imagines a little green man whittling something out of a piece of scrap on the long trip in from Alpha Centauri being asked how he does that so well, and saying ‘I just cut away whatever doesn’t look like…”
A designer named Beer Holthuis has experimentally made a 3D printer that makes objects not of plastic or metal, but of papier-mâché. The objects have a sort of rough charm (this is not really high-resolution work), but they’re colorful, practical, and cheap. It’s fairly easy to mash paper, mix it with some Elmer’s or something, and produce enough material to make a zillion objects. It’s familiar material, useful for many things, and it can be amazingly strong; people used to make light racing shells of the stuff, and paddle them in streams. Gotta be something important in this.
The Correspo has repeatedly reported hopefully on progress with lighter-than-air craft (and hybrids thereof). New reports keep coming in. The latest says that Hybrid Air Vehicles in the UK has received authorization from aviation authorities to proceed with full production of their
302-foot-long Airlander 10 cross between a dirigible and an airplane. This is a real achievement, especially considering that in 2017, after its sixth successful flight. the big bag collapsed, essentially destroying itself, causing embarrassment, but no injury, and a colossal insurance claim. No worries, the thing was just sitting there, not preparing for a flight when the wind tore it loose from its mooring mast, and an automatic safety system triggered immediate deflation. (Why does this recall watching Goodyear trying unsuccessfully to land its blimp on a windy day at Gate 37 in SFO in 1956?) Anyhow, the Authorities have agreed that all is well, and the fellows are pressing on with their project. Oh, good; the Airlander 10 looks wonderful.
ITEM FROM THE PAST
This item from 1985 is brought to mind by recent
interesting progress along the same lines.
Alvin Toffler pointed out in a recent speech that small bakeries now offer aromatic fresh bread and other delights in supermarkets. As Toffler observes, the individual bakery is the very antithesis of the mass-production-mass-marketing big chain store. The basis of the miracle? Microprocessors in the equipment, smart machines, help workers who are not master bakers to produce good products reliably and inexpensively. Computers have not traditionally called golden crusts to mind, but print out six buns, please.
, was a futurist
who spoke and consulted all over the world, coining
such familiar phrases as information overload and
global village. His books, notably Future Shock (1970)
and The Third Wave (1980) have been hugely influential.
He died only in 2016, and it’s startling after some
decades of seeing him quoted and discussed everywhere
to view him now as an historical figure from times gone by.
In the mid-80s The observation that the microcomputer
had enabled the Big Box Grocery Store to become a local
producer of fresh, appealing bakery goods was really
striking, putting technology in a wholly different context.
At CES in Vegas in early 2019,
of Walla Walla Washington demonstrated an entertaining
mechanism that can sit in a 10’ x 5’ space in the bakery
section of a supermarket, and produce ten loaves an hour
of fresh, good-smelling bread of several varieties with
minimal human assistance. One may stare, mesmerized,
at the whole process, then carry away a bagged loaf,
sliced or not, of the fresh stuff. Wilkinson notes that a
significant percentage of bread on the store shelves
remains after its sell-by date, creating great waste. Baking
only to meet daily demand, the BreadBot greatly reduces
the waste. Of course, the need for trucks to deliver easily
squashed bread loaves to stores all over town from a
central bread factory is reduced, and the system has
Toffler might be pleased.
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