New Red State Soundsystem single – “Entropy”

The new Red State Soundsystem single, “Entropy”, was inspired by Neil Gaiman and Mike Carey’s take on the character of Lucifer in DC’s Vertigo comics line (specifically Gaiman’s Sandman and Carey’s Lucifer). It’s also a bit of an experimental track.

The vocal treatments were achieved by tripling the lead vocal, pitch-shifting it, and doing some other various weirdness to everything. It was inspired by the way Scorsese treated Satan’s voice in The Last Temptation Of Christ. (Which was probably just an Eventide Harmonizer.) All vocals, needless to say, are mine. I was also attempting to do something a bit more straight-up “rock” than the usual RSS tracks, though it of course still ended up being weird.

I’m not sure about this track — I like it a lot, but I don’t know if RSS fans will. But I figure it’s my job to try new things. Some of them stick, some don’t.

The b-side is an acoustic version of “Berlin Floor Show” with some additional lyrics (not mine).

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Corollary thoughts on auditory AR/ambient stuff

  • Many years ago I read about a dude who’d converted Unix server logs into a real-time auditory environment — specifically, a rain forest. Server load controlled the level of the rain, CGI calls were bird chirps, potential malicious attacks were the cough of a jaguar, etc. Sadly, I can’t find any info on this anymore. Anybody know anything?
  • A simpler, easy-to-implement application: you assign musical DNA traits to individual aspects of your collected data stream, and your Pandora/Last.fm/MOG/whatever retrieves music accordingly. For example: whenever I receive new mail, play “excited” music. Or whenever I sell an item on Etsy, play Iggy Pop’s “Success”. It’s not matching music to your mood, it’s matching it to your information landscape.
  • Once I turn on Stikki’s “local only” feature, I’m thinking of seeding the world with microcompositions — music only available when the user is in a specific location. Like “Soundtrack to the corner of Maryland and Harmon”.
  • Somebody ought to pay me to think about this stuff. Everybody email Joi and tell him to hire me at the Media Lab. ;-)

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Augmented (non-visual) reality

Been thinking a lot about augmented reality recently, for fairly obvious reasons. The other night I was talking to Yiying Lu at the first LaunchUp Las Vegas about AR and the possibilities inherent in it, and it got me thinking.

I’ve always had a big interest in ambient information interfaces and what is apparently called “calm technology“. Ambient information is really the idea that much of the information we’re required to monitor/process in our daily lives doesn’t actually require our complete attention all the time; that our interface to it can be passive, subliminal, rather than active and engaged.

For example, several years ago a company called Ambient Devices debuted a product called Ambient Orb that was basically a frosted globe with multicolored LEDs in it. This device connected up to your various data streams and changed color based on their status. For example, you could set the Orb to glow red if you had unread email, or change color based upon the performance of your stocks. The idea was that you wouldn’t have to sit and actively engage with your data; you could reduce it to a simple, nearly-binary yes/no or color-based alert system.

The Orb never really did much for me, because it used a weird non-standard wireless network to return data and it seemed pretty locked in to the use cases that Ambient had created for it; I have no need to constantly (or really ever) monitor stock data in real-time, for example. But it was an interesting idea in theory, and one which has never really gone away.

The most obvious example of a passive info display is a traditional clock face, with hour, minute and second hands. Most people on Earth can simply glance at a clock and instantly recognize what time it is — maybe not down to the precise second, but close enough for government work, as the old saying goes. Clocks are both ambient and precise interfaces, of course; if you look at the clock for more than a second you can determine the precise time — by “drilling down” past the “macro” interface (i.e. the general geometric configuration of the clock hands) and focusing on the “micro” interface (the second hand and the numbers).

A more modern example, in my opinion, are the icon “badges” that appear in Apple’s iOS (and, to a lesser extent, in Dock icons in their main MacOS X). The badge overlaid on the Mail icon, for example, shows you how many unread emails you have. But it also functions as a simple binary indicator: if it’s there, you have unread mail. Again, you drill down by focusing on the number inside the icon, which is the actual number of unread emails.

This is all very fine and dandy, but I started thinking about one of the basic underlying assumptions in both ambient information and in augmented reality: namely, that the primary interface ought to be visual.

In our everyday lives, at least for the non-deaf, sound is our most often-used tool for passively gathering information about the state of our environment. We listen to the world as much as we look at it. And my own experience suggests that my own brain is better at setting audio to a lower cognitive priority than vision, while still paying continuous partial attention to it.

I suspect this is true of most humans: this is why it is illegal (at least in America) to put a video player in front of the driver in a motor vehicle, but car radios have been with us since around 1930. You can listen to This American Life and simultaneously perform the complex mental gymnastics required to drive a car without killing yourself or anybody else…but very, very few of us could watch TAL’s companion TV series on an LCD screen above our dashboard and make it more than a mile or two without ending up in a ditch. I’m sure there’s a well-documented neurological reason for this, but I’m gonna just skip the Googling here and say with confidence: humans are better at passively monitoring audio than vision.

Musician/artist/producer Brian Eno discovered this in 1975, when he was laid up in bed after being hit by a car. As he explains it in the liner notes to Discreet Music, the album that essentially launched the “ambient” music genre:

In January this year I had an accident. I was not seriously hurt, but I was confined to bed in a stiff and static position. My friend Judy Nylon visited me and brought me a record of 18th century harp music. After she had gone, and with some considerable difficulty, I put on the record. Having laid down, I realized that the amplifier was set at an extremely low level, and that one channel of the stereo had failed completely. Since I hadn’t the energy to get up and improve matters, the record played on almost inaudibly. This presented what was for me a new way of hearing music – as part of the ambience of the environment just as the colour of the light and the sound of the rain were parts of that ambience. It is for this reason that I suggest listening to the piece at comparatively low levels, even to the extent that it frequently falls below the threshold of audibility.

This gave Eno the impetus to create “make a piece that could be listened to and yet could be ignored… perhaps in the spirit of Satie who wanted to make music that could ‘mingle with the sound of the knives and forks at dinner.'”

And yet, despite the obvious advantage of auditory interfaces, most ambient information interfaces are still visual displays, like the Ambient Orb. (One notable exception is in-car GPS, which usually uses some sort of celebrity voice to give you ambiguous directions.) And, so far as I am aware, the bulk of  augmented reality tools — which, by overlaying data onto our real environment, are a sort of cousin of ambient displays — use audio sparingly, if at all.

In these use cases, audio simply makes more sense in these contexts. For another thing, playing and even manipulating audio in real time is far less power and CPU intensive than rendering graphics in real time, which is why the iPhone can serve as a perfectly serviceable guitar stomp box.

Imagine, for example, a simple navigation system for a mobile device that directed you towards your destination via the simple means of adjusting the balance and volume of the music playing via your audio player. The sound is “centered” when you’re facing your destination directly; turn right and the music grows louder in your left ear and vice versa. The closer you are to your destination, the louder the music plays. Such a system would require no engagement at all by the user; the mobile device could remain safe in the user’s pocket for the duration of their journey. It’s an incredibly intuitive and simple interface to a fairly complex computational system.

(Of course, such an interface would be rather annoying on its face for someone who was simply trying to listen to their tunes, but it gives an example of one modality for such a tool.)

Talking to Yiying, I was reminded of an old idea of mine: an entirely musical social network based on generative music created via musical “DNA”. Think about how music discovery apps like Pandora work: each song is weighed against a set of criteria, such as “slow/fast” “exciting/mournful”, etc. Each track’s particular set of traits serves as its musical “chromosomes” so to speak.

So imagine that you sign up for this network and feed it your Pandora or Last.fm playlists. It analyzes your music and creates a new music for you: a sort of personalized, endlessly generated, changing score: your theme music.

Your theme music plays over your mobile device as you navigate through the world — ambient music, as easily ignored as paid attention to. Now, imagine you walk by someone else using this notional network — someone else with their own theme music.

As you pass them, some magic wireless technology (Bluetooth, near field communications or something powered by unobtanium) triggers off. It randomly merges your musical DNA with theirs, and your theme music is subtly altered by your encounter with them, and vice versa, incorporating elements of their musical genes.

This wouldn’t be limited to people, either. Buildings, landmarks, communities, even the time of day — your theme could be endlessly modified by the very landscape you walk through. Over time, your music would become a product of your encounters, your experiences, your movements. (Of course, this is true anyway of anybody’s music collection, in a metaphorical sense. But in this case it would be literal.) You could “follow” people based upon the grooviness of their personal soundtrack.

This is one — admittedly slightly silly — example of an auditory augmented reality. But there are more practical and practicable variations on this as well. I’d love to see more people think about and embrace the potential of auditory ambient/AR systems as they become more widely-used and prevalent in the UI/UX community.

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Ten Years On

I’m going to write about something I’ve never really written about before.

I had just moved back to Las Vegas, to my parents’ house, after a disastrous stint in Seattle. I had ended up homeless up there as a result of a lot of bad craziness, most of it mine. I’d ended up sitting in a place called Café Minnie on Broadway in Capitol Hill, eating a bowl of soup the kind night manager had given me for free, and I’d decided that if I could just get out of this I’d never end up in this situation again.

(And I didn’t. Mostly.)

I’d only been back for a few days. I’d been sleeping on an old futon mattress on the floor of my parents’ storage room, and I’d been having fitful, frightened dreams. But if I dreamed the night of September 10th, 2001, I do not remember it. I only remember waking up early the next morning to my mother, banging loudly on my door.

I had a headache, I remember that; the banging pulled me out of sleep disoriented and confused in the dark; I hadn’t been back long enough to entirely realize where I was. My mom opened the door.

“Someone flew a plane into the World Trade Center. We’re under attack.”

“What?” I mumbled. It was hard to process what she said. “Come watch the news,” she said, and vanished from the door. I shook my head. Someone what? How was that an attack? I thought she meant somebody’d flown a small plane into the ground at the WTC, something like that.

I walked out of my room into the living room, where my parents had CNN on. My dad was home from work that morning for some reason, and I sat down and looked at the footage — a pillar of smoke rising from the side of the tower.

“What do you mean, under attack?” I asked her. “It’s just a plane crash.”

“They’re saying it was deliberate,” she said. My mom looked really frightened. But I still wasn’t fully awake, didn’t fully comprehend what I was seeing–

And then I watched as the second plane hit the second tower.

It was the first and only time in my life that shock took the strength from my legs. I fell against the wall and slid down it. In that moment, I knew — I knew — that things had changed.

I had the strongest and strangest sensation I’ve ever felt in my life: that I’d fallen asleep in one universe and woken up in a parallel reality, one where people flew planes into buildings. I kept thinking I was going to wake up — again, a cliche of fiction that I’d never actually experienced, and never have since. This wasn’t real. This wasn’t real. It wasn’t real when I saw people jumping from the buildings, something that will haunt me until the day I die. That choice: the fire or the drop? The Pentagon. The collapse of the buildings, all those people running down the street to escape that great cloud of dust and ash, their screams so loud it made the microphones on the TV cameras clip and distort. It wasn’t real.

Do you remember that day? Were you still in school, then? Were you already an adult? You remember where you were. Sure you do. Everybody remembers where they were on September 11th, 2001, the way people of my generation remember where they were on January 28th, 1985, the way my mother’s generation remembers where they were when John and Robert Kennedy were shot, Martin Luther King, John Lennon. You don’t forget because these are the days when the world changed, or at least our understanding of how it worked.

If you remember that day, you remember that most Americans had no idea what was going on. We didn’t know if this was the beginning of a larger coordinated attack. The people on the news — most of whom, I remember, were in tears at this point — said that nobody knew what the next target was. The Pentagon had been hit, but there was talk of Los Angeles, the Sears Tower…the Stratosphere in Las Vegas.

At the time, I was writing for the Las Vegas Mercury, an alt-weekly which has since gone extinct. I didn’t have a car and I didn’t have a cell phone, but I knew I had to find out what was going on. So I borrowed my mother’s cell and hopped on a bus to the Strip.

I got off at the corner of Sahara and Las Vegas Boulevard, in the shadow of the Stratosphere. I expected to see panic, cops, maybe military vehicles in the street. Instead, I saw a regular day in Vegas: tourists walking up and down with their Yards O’ Beer as if nothing had happened. It made no sense to me at all — didn’t these people know what had happened?

I crossed the street and headed for the Stratosphere, expecting it to be blocked off. It wasn’t. What the fuck? The news kept saying Vegas was a target, and the Stratosphere was easily the highest profile target in the city. But the doors were open, taxis were pulling up, people were milling in and out.

It didn’t occur to me until later that most of these people — out and about on vacation, playing slots in casinos where even the outside light was carefully filtered, much less news about the outside world — probably really didn’t know yet what had happened.

But I did, and so I did something which I like to think of as being reasonably brave and which was probably simple, base stupidity on my part: I walked into the Stratosphere.

It may have seemed business as usual from the outside, but on the inside there were FBI SWAT types in paramilitary uniforms cordoning off the entrance to the tower itself. (If you’re not familiar; the Stratosphere Hotel/Casino lies directly underneath the Stratosphere tower itself. It’s as if you built the Seattle Space Needle on top of a Hilton.) It was scary to see guys with M-16s in a casino. And yet, astoundingly, most of the people at the machines weren’t even looking at them. They were still playing their slots. There were a few gawkers, but not many. I think most people were afraid to lose their seat, or didn’t want to cash out their credit on the machines.

I wasn’t wearing a press badge. I was probably in jeans and a t-shirt; I looked like any other tourist. And so I didn’t stand out to the two men engaged in intense conversation near me — one in a suit, one in paramilitary gear. I don’t know for sure, but my guess is that the guy in the suit was a Stratosphere floor manager and the guy in the jumpsuit was some kind of supervising FBI officer.

It’s been ten years since I surreptitiously listened to that conversation, and I didn’t record it; but the gist was that Mr. FBI was telling Mr. Stratosphere that he needed to get all of these people out of here, like right now, and Mr. Stratosphere was explaining that he couldn’t do it. People wouldn’t get up and leave their credits on their slot machines and their chips on the table. After this exchange, the two of them drifted away, and I watched the other guys in jumpsuits going up the stairs to the tower elevators with their guns drawn. They were clearly on edge.

I honestly believed — and, in retrospect, had every right to believe — that at any moment a plane might go into that tower or a bomb might go off, bringing the entire 1150 foot thing down onto the Strip below. I don’t think I was ever quite so terrified in my life. But fuck it, right? I had to know.

But nothing happened. No bombs went off, no planes came crashing in. After a while I wandered off down the Strip to try and get a sense of what was going on.

As I walked, I went up to random tourists and told them what had happened — that the World Trade Center had been destroyed by hijacked planes, that there was a strong possibility the country was under attack by an unknown enemy.

Most of them didn’t give a shit. I remember one couple said “Well, that’s terrible, but we’re here to have fun.” People didn’t know and didn’t care even when they found out. It surprised me back then; it wouldn’t surprise me now.

The only tourists I saw who seemed to really get what was happening was an old Scottish couple who had actually been watching CNN in their room. They told me that they were stuck in Vegas, as all the flights had been grounded. Of course, as I learned later, they weren’t the only ones; thousands of people were stuck in Vegas for several days, most of them past the end of their hotel reservations, and the hotels had no choice but to give them free rooms.

I walked the whole length of the Strip that day, and watched the news coverage into the night. The next day, September 12th, I went to Cafe Roma and sat with my friends watching more news on a small portable TV. That night I went to my friend Heather’s apartment and stood on the balcony with my friends and saw something I’d never seen before and, in all likelihood, will never see again: an American sky without a single airplane in it. The world was silent that night.

Ten years, man. Ten years in this other world, this other timeline. I still feel like there’s a world where 9/11 never happened, just on the other side of reality’s thin canvas; a world where Bush never won a second term, where the vicious excesses of the Noughties never happened. Or maybe they would have happened in a different way. Maybe they were inevitable. But the hopeful part of me thinks not; hopes that the bad craziness, the greed and paranoia of the last decade, was a reaction to the horror that properly kicked it off.

I still remember how it felt to stand in that casino surrounded by the flashing lights and chirping of the slot machines and be aware, in every cell of my body, that I might be standing in an execution chamber. It sounds dramatic in retrospect, but it didn’t feel dramatic at the time. If nothing else seemed real that day, that feeling of death rushing at me like a freight train felt real enough.

And maybe I wasn’t so wrong, at that.

Five of the nineteen hijackers were in Vegas before the attacks; in point of fact, they used Cyberzone, the cybercafe above my hangout Cafe Roma, as their base of communications. I know I must’ve sat next to them in Roma or Cyberzone, maybe said hi to them in passing. My friends certainly did; in the week after the attacks, the FBI swarmed Roma and took accounts from several people.

Ironically, at the time, most of my friends used Cyberzone to play multi-player games of Counterstrike; when you walked in there, amidst the digitized sounds of machine gun fire, you’d hear a voice announce whenever a round had ended: The terrorists have won. The terrorists have won.

I am convinced and have been since that day that their presence in Vegas wasn’t random or coincidental. And based on what I saw in the Stratosphere that day, I’ve always thought there was a fair-to-middling chance that the Feds found something up in that tower, and kept it quiet. Vegas relies on tourism, after all…and if tourists thought that jihadis were putting bombs in the casinos, this town would die a quick and excruciating death.

I don’t know. I don’t have any proof. And it doesn’t matter, ten years down the road, I guess. Trying to sort out the truth and the lies of 9/11 is a Herculean process that will engage historians for a hundred years. I don’t care about any of it, anymore.

When I think of 9/11 now, I think of the people jumping. That’s what I remember. Because I can’t imagine making that choice. No, that’s not true, that’s not why I’m haunted; I’m haunted because I can imagine making it. And now, at 33, I can imagine it a lot better than I could at 23. I know more about death now. If 9/11 happened today, when I am a married man, when I have seen people die in front of me with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have gone into that casino. I would be too afraid.

And I’m lying, a bit here: the other memory I have of 9/11, the better memory, is of the days afterward, when we all seemed to pull together. I remember that feeling that, for once, we were all in this together, every American. It didn’t last — and as history has shown, it wasn’t really true even at the time — but it felt true. It felt real. It was hope in a dark moment, and it was important.

This week people are going to be waving the flag and the signs that say NEVER FORGET; as if we who lived through that day need those signs, as if we would or could forget it. We all live in the shadows of the Twin Towers now. Every time another American soldier falls in Iraq or Afghanistan, every time a bitter young man whose family died in our occupation slips into his first jihadi meeting, every time another one of our core freedoms is eroded in the name of some notional security, we are in that shadow, and I wonder how long it will be before we can ever get free.

And so, ten years on, the memory of 9/11 I choose to cling to is the memory of that togetherness. In the end, when foolish wars and dollar diplomacy fail, it is that and nothing else which may ultimately save us from the dark.

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