Archive for October, 2008

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So Loud In Here: A fugue for 9 voices

After Aaron and I conscientiously recorded about twenty minutes of audio each last week (on the street, over pedestrians’ shoulders, in the library, and in the bathroom, naturally), we decided that though hearing the sounds abstracted from the actions that produced them was interesting, the sounds themselves weren’t really the stuff of narrative but were too generic to be the stuff of high-concept audio art. And after the introductory sound editing class, we decided to scrap the clips entirely. Our goal was to focus on creating (aural but also conceptual) complexity from simple sounds.

We were brainstorming on the floor when we were overwhelmed by the noise around us. Everywhere, people talking, laughing, coughing, tinkering, snickering, yelling, chewing, yawning… I thought it might be fun to use the idea of a fugue (one theme, several voices transposing, altering, and/or answering that theme) as a structure for our piece. We toyed with recording a single sentence in multiple languages but settled on a single sentence eventually spoken by nine people.

We started using a Blue Snowball mic, but it produced so much noise that we switched to the more cumbersome shotgun mic and M-Audio combination. In fifteen minutes, we’d collected our clips. Editing them took, uh, significantly longer. We used Audacity to process and chop up the raw clips and then dropped them into Garage Band. Other than a couple of volume swells, a left-to-right pan, and several strategic echoes, what you hear are the unaltered and distinctive voices of ITP, where if you’re looking for quiet, you’re literally fugued!

PComp midterm in the key of C: Keeping Track of the Spin

For our midterm, Patrick Grizzard, Ted Hayes, and I built a data auralizer.

We started discussing ideas around wind chimes and (with the help of significant caffeine) eventually ended up at SpinTone: an array of ten 70 mm 6W computer fans, each attached to a news outlet and mounted over a Smart Water bottle that resonates with a conch-like sound whenever its corresponding fan turns on.

It should be noted here that for some reason (probably the frequencies involved), none of the microphones we used to record the SpinTone were able to pick up the sound of the bottles over the noise of the fans. You can almost hear them in this video:

By varying the size and the amount of water in the bottle attached to each fan, we created internally consonant but mutually dissonant sounds for the liberal and conservative media outlets. So you get a nice harmonic interval if the Huffington Post and the New York Times are talking about something, but nasty noise when Fox New joins the conversational fray.

When a user inputs one or various search terms, a program we wrote in Processing uses the Yahoo! search API to query each of the sites and return the total number of search results. Our goal was to have some cutoff point that would determine whether an individual fan turned on or stayed off, but because the extent of each news source’s online archive varied tremendously, so did our totals. For instance, a search for a common term such as “France” in the New York Times tended to return between 100,000 and several million results, while the same term returned a fraction of the results from theWall Street Journal–not because France was being discussed disproportionately more in the New York Times but because the Times‘s online archive is much more extensive. We hacked together a somewhat arbitrary set of scaling factors; a more robust version would delimit searches by date range, something we were unable to do through the Yahoo! API.

There is a ten-second delay as the program gets results from each of the sites. Once the results are in, Processing interprets them and sends them serially to an Arduino running this code. The fans attached to outlets which return a number of search results above the cutoff turn on.

This is very nice, but it’s also fun to play the fans like an instrument (a news organ?) using the computer keyboard:

The nice thing about SpinTone is that it is pretty much infinitely extensible: it’s incredibly easy to change the sites each fan is linked to and because it relies on Yahoo! search rather than XML feeds, if a site’s online, SpinTone can play its results. Some possible mods:

  • I’m Your Biggest Fan: Rather than being linked to a particular site, each fan is linked to a particular celebrity across gossip sites. For when you have to know if Paris or Nicole is hotter right now.
  • Baseball Blowout: Each fan represents a particular game and one glance is enough to tell you who’s up.
  • Election 2008: The fans keep track of election data as it comes in from various sources. Know who’s calling what when without switching channels!

Some other related videos:

Initial Proof of Concept (can’t hear the bottle):

Ted’s initial fan test:

All wired up:

The final wiring with a detailed explanation:

With LED’s (and good bottle sound):

McLuhan: Stop-motion intellectual

Several caveats before I skewer Marshall and his media:

  1. I am in a bad mood and thus predisposed to be unpleasant to ambiguous and dead intellectuals;
  2. I have only read the first two chapters (roughly one tenth) of Understanding Media and can only assume that some of the more contentious questions and normative statements these posed are more fully explored in later chapters. After reading Lewis Lapham’s introduction to the book, however, I fear this assumption may be more charitable than is merited;
  3. Isn’t it amazing how Lewis Lapham can relate any topic to the sorry state of contemporary public affairs with nothing more than alliteration and disparaging pop culture references? But like all magazine writers, he dates quickly. That Lapham would write about Clinton’s personal foibles in an introduction to a book–especially one about the mass media and one that is obviously going to be read for some time to come–is either an ironic comment on media saturation and our short memories too clever to hit the mark or an arrogantly willful disregard (and unintentional demonstration) of McLuhan’s principal premise: the medium, in Lapham’s case the ephemeral magazine, is the message. By turning a book introduction into a political editorial, Lapham unsuccessfully tries to transplant a message from a magazine into a book, and by its shocking irrelevance reveals just how tied the messenger is to his medium.

Anyway, enough vitriol for the hapless emcee, I have a whole bottle left for the main act!

First, can I just say that while I sometimes appreciate what I’m calling the stop-motion approach to argument (include a couple of key frames and the reader will fill in all the movement between them)–a form of which Foucault is a master–it’s not all that effective when the key frames are so far apart they can accommodate entire (and entirely absent) chains of reasoning in the spaces between them.

I’m speaking of chapter 2 and its questionable “hot” and “cool” media taxonomy. As best as I can tell (please refer to caveat 2), the temperature of media has to do with the demands it makes on its users/receptors. Thus the phone is cool because when you talk on the phone you have to fill in and interpret a lot of missing information and the movies are hot because you just sit there and all your senses are bombarded. Cooling begets participation while heating engenders terror and then numbness. If this is the case, then why is TV cool? Does pushing buttons on a remote really constitute user participation? And what heuristic or hermeneutic purpose does the distinction serve? And what of the oh-so-clever reference to the “cool” war between the USSR and the US? And jazz? He’s mixing metaphors like they’re paint. Too many and you end up with brown. Inescapable brown. Humph.

Humph also to the normative dicta he sprinkles flatulently throughout. Print created individualism? It caused religious wars? I think not. I hate technological determinism. Technology makes certain things possible but it does not make them inevitable. From what I understand (again, caveat 2), this seems to me like the greatest hole in all this message medium mishmash: where is human agency? Are the media truly independent from their masters, from those who create them? If they are extensions of human senses, then aren’t they also subject to the same control? McLuhan writes as if the consequences of new media are inescapable, as if all audiences are by their very nature captive to some disembodied and authorless message. Not so. I don’t watch TV. My life is affected by television I’m sure, including in lots of ways of which I’m not even aware, but I do not think in a “televisive” way. I rely much more on the internet as a general medium, but if I feel it’s interfering with my thinking, I turn it off, for months at a time. I am not an unthinking unblinking receptor.

But I guess one might argue as he does, at least given the tenor of political discourse in this country (and his book, come to think of it), that message is an effect rather than a meaning. Maybe that’s why he relies on Shakespeare and versified anagrams as evidence for his contentions in the first chapter. Because if media act on our senses rather than our reason (another distinction I shake my finger at), then it only makes sense that our eyes would be so delighted by the poetry’s novel indentation and our ears so entranced by its meter and rhyme that we would somehow overlook that a couplet from Troilus and Cressida does not constitute a viable premise for elaborate media theories. (Please see caveat 1.)

Maybe that’s just because I’m arguing from a standpoint of traditional, “literary” western rationality, which like a paragraph is “uniform, continuous, and sequential.” There’s no arguing that despite what I consider a kind of intellectual sloppiness, McLuhan’s ideas gained a mainstream recognition totally out of proportion to their academic nature. It’s possible that he emerged from the Marabar Caves and out the other end of Finnegan’s Wake with a new understanding of reality, one shaped by modes of communication that had left many people feeling lost and over-extended, a master of the catchy but meaningless sound bite (the medium is the message, the content of all media is other media) that leaves you scratching your head wondering where the medium ends and what the message is but feeling clever for trying.

Ong wryly notes that the only way to be heard once a new mode of communication becomes prevalent is to use that mode. Maybe that’s what McLuhan is trying to do, reworking the written word into a kind of textual billboard analog. And maybe it’s just that like Lapham, I consider my particular point in history the only reasonable point and forget that just as oral man was replaced by literate man, so too will a literate man like me be replaced by an electronic man shaped not by books and carefully wrought thoughts but by M&M-like bits of information on YouTube and Facebook and Twitter. Maybe the rising darkness that I perceive in an educational system that increasingly privileges the piecemeal over the complete, “useful” knowledge over causality is simply my own anachronistic shadow.

Electronic media erase the lag in communication, says McLuhan, eliminating the space between call and response and delivering us into an everpresent now devoid of the pensive pauses and other non-verbal punctuations of face-to-face conversation. Modes of communication definitely shape the messages they convey, but their primary function is still to exchange information. In the absence of that information can we really say that they are the message?

I’m your biggest fan

As I am working with real fans for my PComp midterm, I thought it only fitting to extend the theme virtually into ICM. My idea is to take a picture and turn it into little colored bubbles that can then be blown around by a fan with a position determined by the mouse position and a variable speed (controlled by a real-world potentiometer). The fan speed and direction will determine the image bubbles’ movement. In addition, I hope to give them a slightly chaotic and organic “return to normal” motion.

This is a prototype of the fan (click to speed it up and slow it down).

My next task is to figure out the bubble physics. I’ll start with a single bubble and then I’ll make it a class. Then I have to figure out how to get an image to turn into an array of bubbles. [Update: Done! (Jitter added for effect)] Miles to go before I sleep!

PComp Lab 6: Ongoing serial

This lab was straightforward and the concepts not all that difficult, at least after having gone through them in class first. After trying both methods for serially communicating, I definitely find the punctuation method the most intuitive, though I can see the advantages of call and response and will probably rely on it rather than punctuation when I mock up our midterm project software this week.

There’s not much to document other than actually having done the lab. I used a potentiometer and a photo sensor as my analog inputs and a two-state switch instead of a button (I left my buttons at home). Here is my wiring:

Here is an artistic shot of my wiring (which I’m definitely starting to actually understand now):

Here is the screen showing all the values I got when using the punctuation method:

And here are all the values that the handshake method yielded:

PComp Lab 5: Serial communicator

Though simple, this lab was my favorite so far. Finally I’m beginning to see how we take input from the real world and make it do fun digital things. It gave me lots of ideas, principal among them this: what if you wired a handheld fan in such a way that when someone held it next to a screen leaves/dots/pinwheels on the screen responded accordingly? You could sense distance and direction. I really want to try that. Anyway, it was a great joy to finally arrange a liaison between Arduino and oh so coy Processing.

I set up the lab looking only at the schematic (I’m trying to get better at reading diagrams), which wasn’t particularly challenging given the simplicity of this particular wiring. I did manage to wire my potentiometer so that the readings increased when it was turned counterclockwise and decreased when it was turned clockwise. Switching the power and ground connections fixed that.



I got the expected gobbledygook on the serial monitor.


And then I wrote up the graphing app in Processing, which outputted the following when I turned the potentiometer knob back and forth:


But that didn’t look so interesting, so by altering the Ardiuno code to


I got a more colorful graph:

I tried a photo sensor:

And a force sensor

The force sensor’s range seemed too narrow, so I mapped its maximum and minimum values to 255 and 0

analogValue = map(analogValue, 0, 50, 0, 255);

and got a much noisier graph:

To do: I’m going to get the values to display as numbers every so often on the graph and I’d really like to rewrite the code so that the screen scrolls rather than the graph (possibly by storing each value in an array and then shifting all the values over each time a new value is read, at least that’s what I’m thinking now). Also, I really should have tried to get a video screenshot of the graph moving rather than the various stills.


I had a lot of trouble with this particular assignment. There were no constraints. I do not do well without constraints. And because my travel schedule kept me from having a partner, I spent a whole week agonizing over possible responses. How about something minimalistic–telling a story using just one black dot? Or combining photos and drawings in an interesting way? Or how about playing with the dimensionality of the frame, layering things over and under? And that’s just formatting. What idea do I want to convey? Or more importantly, which of the ideas that I want to convey lends itself best to being expressed in a series of images? Or what if I randomly assemble some images, will people still find a narrative path through them as Scott McCloud contends? Or how about combining all of these ideas? Photoshop has unlimited layers…

For PComp, we read a piece about the bandwidth of the brain that talked about how editing (and I would argue by extension communication) becomes exponentially more complex (and richer) when you move from the one-dimensionality of written language to the two-dimensionality of audio to the three-dimensionality of video. Working on this comic really drove that home. While I was able to describe my concept in a couple of sentences once I’d sketched it out, it took me much longer to arrange it into a visual narrative.

To do so, I used Photoshop to edit a picture I took of the restroom signs at ITP into the comic’s various frames and then composed them in Illustrator, mostly because I hate clunky Photoshop almost as much as I love fleet and nimble Illustrator. And also because it’s much easier to move things around and play with text.

It was fun to play around with symbols and devise ways of arranging images to convey innuendo without descending into vulgarity. But I think I’ll stick with words as my principal medium, they’re not resolution dependent. Will I ever get away from bathrooms in my academic work, you might ask. It appears the answer is resoundingly no. Nonetheless, I’m pretty happy with how the comic turned out; it’s low-brow in content and fine in form, like a really good burger. There’s one panel that perhaps doesn’t read quite right, but there’s always a piece of gristle even in the choicest ground chuck.

Stop, in the name of motion—back to the drawing board.

John and I got together on Friday with ambitious plans to animate the LED board in the ITP hallway, to create an M&M opus, to tell the story of evolution in fried eggs and bacon. When the reality of what any of those undertakings entailed dawned on us, we returned to the drawing board. Which we realized was literally a fabulous medium for stop motion. John had the idea of creating an imaginary physics using sticks and balls, and together, we worked it up into a quick storyboard that we honored more in the breach. We set up a couple of clip lights on one side of a wall-mounted whiteboard (to minimize shadows) and used a tripod and my Nikon SLR set to no flash and manual focus to take around 500 photos we then assembled into a movie in Final Cut.

My biggest learning from the exercise was that when it comes to interpreting information, the mind will do a lot of work to make it make sense on its own, so you don’t have to overspecify. As the afternoon progressed, we moved more between pictures and worried less about absolute consistency. By the end, we were experimenting with the inherent whiteboardness of our medium (we came up with the idea of the exploding knob when we noticed the little bits of marker ink that stuck the board when we erased using our fingers), testing the limits of stop motion. The final sequence viewed frame by frame was incomprehensible, but played through sequentially really read as an actual physical tying and untying.

There are several things I might do differently the next time I start a stop motion project. One is to carefully mark out the frame and record the exact position of the tripod and the camera’s zoom to ensure a consistent framing throughout. The other, paradoxically, is to worry less about exactitude. When a line’s endpoints wobbled or a shadow moved slightly in our animation, rather than detracting from the overall effect I think it added a nice texture/three-dimensionality that makes the animation come to life. I suspect it might have otherwise seemed very clinical. I’d also really like to try this technique in an environment where we’re not in control, ie outdoors.

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