Friday, July 26, 2013

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: Grossman's You

I'm pleased to be a part of the Armchair Squid's go-your-own-way online book club again.  This past month, I read Austin Grossman's recent novel titled "You."  It's a slightly nostalgic look at the growth of the video game industry through the eyes of a fictitious team of programmers who were in it from the early days of home computers.

I ended up not being totally pleased with the book, but there were some good things.  Let me first issue praise where praise is due...
  • I loved the sense of camaraderie and purpose of the core characters, who built up a thriving video game empire from humble beginnings as outcast high school students.  Their early years -- especially their time at an experimental computer camp in the woods of western Massachusetts -- reminded me of the early years of the tight-knit team of "losers" from Stephen King's novel "It."  (And no, I didn't think of that just because it's another novel with a pronoun for a title!)
  • As someone of pretty much the exact age of the protagonists, I recall those early years, too, and I think Grossman captured a lot of its charm quite nicely.  I certainly shared the characters' drive toward their Platonic ideal of the Ultimate Game.  Some blurb on the back cover said something to the effect of "Now I want to go break out my old Commodore 64 and revisit some of those games."  I felt the same way.
But I couldn't ignore the problems.  Much of the book was built on flashbacks, and they were rolled out kind of haphazardly.  Almost as if Grossman was just making it up on the fly, as each new chapter was written.  In the early chapters, the present-day versions of the characters should have known about their past experiences together, but it's almost like they had amnesia until the flashbacks were presented.

The protagonist, Russell, was kind of a bland cipher, and (to me) borderline unlikable as a person.  Instead, I wanted to know more about Simon, the brilliant, unstable innovator who died a few years before the "present day" action of the book -- but who nonetheless drove much of the plot.  I think I've known a few people like Simon in my life, and I was left wondering if Grossman ever really knew or understood someone like this.

Part of me wants to wax philosophic about how modern literature seems uncomfortable with straightforwardly heroic personalities.  Do they see it as more preferable to have a wavering dud like Russell as the point-of-view character, than someone like Simon?  Someone who seemed to be honest, good, and unflinching in his will, even with flaws, even unto his own demise?

I was also unhappy with how the plot got resolved, but I'll leave out spoilers.

Still, the story made me think about a lot of things that I hadn't thought about in a long time, and it made me think about them in new ways.  I'm glad I read it, even if I wanted to throw it across the room when I was done.  :-)

- - -

Oh, one other thing.  Grossman's descriptions of Simon and his best pal Darren (the latter being the taller, smooth-talking pitch man who helped convey shy Simon's visions to the wider world) reminded me of another pair, where one of them does the talking for both... often to excess...

This comparison also got me to thinking of a few similar pairs in popular culture, where there's one who is silent and supposedly "deep," and the other who compensates by being more of an over-the-top goofball...

Can you think of any others?

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Music of the Spheres

In my last post, I talked a bit about a metaphor I found on the Internet that compares musical tonality to a kind of "gravity" exerted by heavenly bodies.  That spurred on even more thinking about the ancient idea of the music of the spheres.  Going back to Plato and Pythagoras, the idea is that the motions of the planets, in their nested crystalline orbs, create a celestial music that we humans cannot hear. There's also some astrology in there, since the heavenly harmonies may at times be in resonance with certain earthly harmonies.  Fans of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice will also recognize these ideas seeping into the Elizabethan Renaissance...
"Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears. Soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patens of bright gold.
There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still choiring to the young-eyed cherubins.
Such harmony is in immortal souls,
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it."
I was thinking a bit more concretely about this, and I looked again at the numerical ratios that define notes and intervals.  Even in my muddy vesture of decay, I thought it would be fun to extend that particular idea to the planets.

In the last post I mentioned the difference between equal-tempered notes and those that you get from just intonation.  Equal temperament is just taking the octave (the distance between any given note and a note with twice as high a frequency) and splitting it up equally into 12 semitones.  Music nerds break up the octave into 1200 "cents," where each 100 cents is one equal-tempered semitone.  These are shown in the image below by the equal-sized blocks of color:

However, the notes that really sound the most harmonious don't fit exactly onto those 100-cent intervalsInstead, they're defined by simple ratios of frequency.  The perfect fifth, for example, is an exact multiple of 3/2 times the frequency of the base note, or tonic.  If you compute the cents of that interval, you get 701.9549560547 or so.  That's pretty close to 700.  Many other harmonious ratios end up being close to even hundreds in cents, and that's what made equal temperament so popular and useful.  The little white lines in the image above show where many of them fall on this scale.  I gave only one example -- see 590 and 610 -- where music theory folks prefer to distinguish between two notes, but an equal-tempered instrument like the piano can only play one "average" note that has to serve for both (600).  You know the old joke... you can tuna piano, but you can't tune a diminished fifth!

Music blogger Gary Garrett has talked about some other bluesy notes that fall even further away from the equal-tempered boundaries...

It was an eye-opener for me to see all of these -- and to learn where in popular music they're used, too.  There are so many possibilities!

But back to the music of the spheres.  I realized that each planet has its own "frequency" (i.e., the rate at which it orbits the Sun), and one could make similar ratios.  I gave it a try, using the Earth's frequency as the "tonic" with which all of the others are compared.  Earth is the natural "home key," of course.  (I guess I could go all Shakespeare again with "Man is the measure of all things.")  :-)  I chose to ignore octaves, since in music it's seen as insignificant, harmonically, to go up or down an octave.  I also picked some interesting asteroids and one famous comet, since they're just as much fellow travelers around the Sun as the big planets.  Here's where their frequency ratios fall, musically...
Notice the big clump of planets right near the Earth at the top.  Far-away Pluto orbits the Sun once every 248 years, but that's close to 256, which would be exactly 8 octaves up from the Earth's orbit once every 1 year.  Mercury orbits once every 0.24 of a year, which is close to a quarter (2 octaves down).  All those near halves, doubles, halves of halves, doubles of doubles, and so on, fall very close to either the unison or the octave.  These were also noticed hundreds of years ago and codified into something called the Titius-Bode Law.  Modern astronomers don't quite know what to do with that "law," since it's not exact, and there seems to be no physical reason for the planets to be sitting at near factors-of-two separation like that.  "Coincidence" may be the best explanation, since the thousands of other extrasolar planets don't seem to follow such a law.

Notice also that Jupiter falls close to a perfect fourth, which is the inverse of a perfect fifth.  When I first computed these things, I used periods instead of frequencies, and Jupiter fell just about smack dab onto the perfect fifth.  (There's a reason for that, since periods are "inverses" to frequencies in just the same way as the musical inverses that I mentioned above.)  I almost posted the period-version of the chart, but the pedant in me knew that it's more honest an analogy to use frequencies like in music.  Anyway, in my last post, I quoted Gary Garrett comparing Jupiter's weak gravitational pull to a chord with a root on the perfect fifth!  More coincidence?

Who knows.  But I do know that these kinds of harmonious comparisons are just the ticket for thinking about the Glass Bead Game.  Hesse knew music was the key, as did Shakespeare...
"The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus.
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music."

Friday, July 12, 2013

Musical Gravity

I'm always on the lookout for interesting Glass Bead Game-ish analogies that link together far-flung ideas.  On the blog of musician Gary Garrett, I just found a doozy!  I've attempted to boil it down to a couple of eye-catching images, which I'll do my best to explain below.

First is the basic 12-semitone "chromatic" scale common to most Western music:

Melodic order
These 12 notes are also 12 intervals between notes, and I talked more in this old post about how human brains may be hard-wired into interpreting various intervals as happy, sad, angry, and so on.  Above, I assigned each note/interval to a color, and one can see how "close" any two of them are to one another by seeing how similar their colors are.

However, it turns out closeness isn't such a simple concept in music.  Melodies (the "foreground" tune) and harmonies (the "background" layers) work with different definitions, as Gary Garrett explained here:
Melodies “like” to move up and down on a linear scale. They want to go to a nearby note when they move — that is, near by in pitch. We hear, and sing, small movements in pitch better than we hear leaps.
Harmonies “like” to go to nearby notes too, but harmonic space is different than linear, melodic space. The 1 and the 5 are harmonic neighbors. In fact, they are as close together as notes can be, harmonically, without being the same note .... But they are far apart melodically — the 5 is almost at the midpoint of the scale.
There's been a long history of people trying to visualize "harmonic closeness" using graphical techniques.  Garrett summarized this history, and explained his own graphical "Lattice" technique, in this post.  Below is my own attempt to visualize his Lattice:

Harmonic order!

Note that the "color neighbors" here are spread out much more than in the melodic scale I showed above.  There's a method to this seeming madness:  the up/down axis follows the well-known circle of fifths, the upper-left/lower-right axis steps down in major thirds, and the lower-left/upper-right axis steps up in minor thirds.  These steps correspond to the natural harmonies that one would see, for example, by taking a stringed instrument and changing the length of the string by "simple" fractions like 3/2, 4/3, and so on.  Also, most chords (major and minor) can be formed by taking little triangular "clusters" of any three notes in this lattice.

I should make clear that my version of the lattice is much simpler than Garrett's in one notable way.  Mine uses the standard Western approximation of equal temperament.  It just shows the notes you can reach with the white and black keys of a piano.  Garrett is a fan of just intonation (which also intrigues me, as a wannabe Pythagorean), so there's much less repetition in his version of the Lattice than in mine.  In my version, say, C sharp is the same note as D flat.  In Garrett's, it's not!  :-)

But, you may ask, where's that Glass Bead Game-ish link between far-away ideas?  It comes in Garrett's recent post about "tonal gravity:"
I believe that the great driving force in tonal music, that creates the drama and story of the music itself (independently of any lyrics), is the longing for home. Home is the tonic. If a song is in the key of A, all the A’s in their various octaves will sound like home. 
It’s as though the tonic creates a sort of gravitational field around itself. It acts a lot like real gravity. The chords and notes move in this gravitational field, like planets and moons around a sun. The gravitational field follows a few basic rules:
  1. Movement away from the center creates tension; movement toward the center gives a sense of resolution.
  2. The closer you are to the center in your journey, the stronger the sensations of tension and resolution are. The field is stronger closer in, just like real gravity.
  3. The closer together two notes are, the more consonant, or harmonious, they will be when sounded together. The farther apart they are, the more dissonant they will be, the more they will clash.
Roots generate local gravitational fields. I think of them as Jupiter to the tonic’s Sun. When the root is on the 5, for example, it shifts the gravity field to the east on the lattice, and the 2 and 7 become harmonious, consonant notes, rather than dissonant ones. The tonic still has great influence, so the entire chord feels unresolved — a 5 chord pulls very strongly toward the 1 chord, a property that is heavily relied upon in Western music.
(Note: his phrase "east on the lattice," in my version, is "up.")

I love this analogy.  It falls right into place with my other thoughts about how tension and release must be core elements of the Glass Bead Game, since they're so universal across many different domains.  Now, what will I actually do with these beautiful ideas?  That, I'm not so sure about...  :-)

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Happy Independence Day!

"What light is to the eyes, what air is to the lungs, what love is to the heart, liberty is to the soul of man."
(any friend of Walt's is a friend o' mine!)

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

A long time ago...

Mind if I tell you a story?  Well, tell you about it, is more like it.  It's not my story, but I love it none the less.  It's not diminished by re-telling.  At the end of this post, I'll give you more specifics about it.  But don't peek ahead!  :-)

This story was first given to the public in the 1970s, the brain child of a fiercely independent creator.  Since then it's lived on and been fleshed out by many other creators -- some say unnecessarily so.

This story is a bright and colorful blend of science fiction, fantasy, and mythology.  (The mythology part is inserted a bit ham-fistedly, but let's just chalk that up to the naive dreams and obsessions of the creator.)  It takes place on multiple worlds.  There are floating cities, alien jungles, and hellish volcanic pits.  There are evil overlords and brave rebellions.

Early on in the first story, we are introduced to two male protagonists.  One is young, idealistic, and dressed in the white of innocence.  His name evokes sunbeams zipping through the bright sky.  The other is older and a bit more cynical and world-weary -- and he yells a bit when he gets angry -- but he's no less a hero than his friend.

The two dudes are advised by an old man with a gray beard and flowing robes.  The old mentor wields a mystical power that fills the universe and can guide one's actions if one listens to its counsel.  This power has a name that rhymes with the phrase "The Horse."

Good cannot exist without evil, and boy is there evil in this world.  The biggest of the bad guys is a tall, imposing figure with a dark, mask-like face.  The mask is connected to what looks like a rounded helmet that is cut off and flat at the bottom.  He is a master of the same mystical power that the gray-bearded man uses, but in the dark one's hands its opposite sense is used to do dark, nasty things.  Have I used the phrase "dark" enough?  Maybe not enough, since the "dark" side is embedded in his very name.

Spoiler alert:  We eventually find out that the dark bad guy is actually the father of one of the two male protagonists.  There's a whole backstory of collaboration and conflict with the gray-bearded mentor, who has been keeping the whole fatherhood thing a secret for years.

There were so many other memorable characters.  The dark bad guy is assisted by an shorter and older, almost skeletal colleague, who is a master of twisted tactics and torture.  The good guys have many companions, too.  Some of them are comic relief, and their indignities are often played for a laugh -- though sometimes they are the victim of what looks like racial discrimination.

As the story progresses, whole planets get destroyed.  Father and son confront one another (more than once).  Ultimately, good wins out over evil, but there is always another fantastic story to tell.

- - - - - - -

You're familiar with this classic tale?  Ah, yes, I'm a fan of Jack Kirby's NEW GODS comics, too...

Click to epic-size...
Lightray, Darkseid, and Highfather

True origin of the Schwartz

You see what I did there, but I should really clarify.  I do earnestly love the original Star Wars trilogy.  George Lucas took bits and pieces from dozens of different sources and melted them all together into something new.  Although I used some careful trickery above to make it sound like Star Wars (1977) came straight from Kirby's New Gods (1971), this particular, um, Source of inspiration doesn't merit much more than a few paragraphs in Michael Kaminski's wonderfully exhaustive tome The Secret History of Star Wars.  If you want to talk about Lucas' major influences and sources, go see the original Flash Gordon serials and Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress.

There's a lot more on my love of Kirby here, and a favorite quote about Star Wars here.