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noreply@blogger.com (Mitchell Whitelaw)

At CODE2012 I presented a paper on "programmable matter" and the proto-computational work of Ralf Baecker and Martin Howse - part of a long-running project on digital materiality. My sources included interviews with the artists, which I will be publishing here. Ralf Baecker's 2009 The Conversation is a complex physical network, woven from solenoids - electro-mechanical "bits" or binary switches. It was one of the works that started me thinking about this notion of the proto-computational - where artists seem to be stripping digital computing down to its raw materials, only to rebuild it as something weirder. Irrational Computing (2012) - which crafts a "computer" more like a modular synth made from crystals and wires - takes this approach further. Here Baecker begins by responding to this notion of proto-computing.

MW: In your work, especially Irrational Computing, we seem to see some of the primal, material elements of digital computing. But this "proto" computing is also quite unfamiliar - it is chaotic, complex and emergent, we can't control or "program" it, and it is hard to identify familiar elements such as memory vs processor. So it seems that your work is not only deconstructing computing - revealing its components - but also reconstructing it in a strange new form. Would you agree?

RB: It took me a long time to adopt the term "proto-computing". I don't mean proto in a historical or chronological sense; it is more about its state of development. I imagine a device that refers to the raw material dimension of our everyday digital machinery. Something that suddenly appears due to the interaction of matter. What I had in mind was for instance the natural nuclear fission reactor in Oklo, Gabon that was discovered in 1972. A conglomerate of minerals in a rock formation formed the conditions for a functioning nuclear reactor, all by chance. 

Computation is a cultural and not a natural phenomenon; it includes several hundred years of knowledge and cultural technics, these days all compressed into a microscopic form (the CPU). In the 18th century the mechanical tradition of automata and symbolic/mathematical thinking merged into the first calculating and astronomical devices. Also the combinatoric/hermeneutic tradition (e.g. Athanasius Kircher and Ramon Llull) is very influential to me. These automatons/concepts were philosophical and epistemological. They were dialogic devices that let us think further, much against our current utilitarian use of technology. Generative utopia.


Schematic of Irrational Computing courtesy of the artist - click for PDF

MW: Your work stages a fusion of sound, light and material. In Irrational Computing for example we both see and hear the activity of the crystals in the SiC module. Similarly in The Conversation, the solenoids act as both mechanical / symbolic components and sound generators. So there is a strong sense of the unity of the audible and the visual - their shared material origins. (This is unlike conventional audiovisual media for example where the relation between sound and image is highly constructed). It seems that there is a sense of a kind of material continuum or spectrum here, binding electricity, light, sound, and matter together?

RB: My first contact with art or media art came through net art, software art and generative art. I was totally fascinated by it. I started programming generative systems for installations and audiovisual performances. I like a lot of the early screen based computer graphics/animation stuff. The pure reduction to wireframes, simple geometric shapes. I had the feeling that in this case concept and representation almost touch each other. But I got lost working with universial machines (Turing machines). With Rechnender Raum I started to do some kind of subjective reappropriation of the digital. So I started to build my very own non-universal devices. Rechnender Raum could also be read as a kinetic interpretation of a cellular automaton algorithm. Even if the Turing machine is a theoretical machine it feels very plastic to me. It a metaphorical machine that shows the conceptual relation of space and time. Computers are basically transposers between space and time, even without seeing the actual outcome of a simulation. I like to expose the hidden structures. They are more appealing to me than the image on the screen.

MW: There is a theme of complex but insular networks in your work. In The Conversation this is very clear - a network of internal relationships, seeking a dynamic equilibrium. Similarly in Irrational Computing, modules like the phase locked loop have this insular complexity. Can you discuss this a little bit? This tendency reminds me of notions of self-referentiality, for example in the writing of Hofstadter, where recursion and self-reference are both logical paradoxes (as in Godel's theorem) and key attributes of consciousness. Your introverted networks have a strong generative character - where complex dynamics emerge from a tightly constrained set of elements and relationships.

RB: Sure, I'm fascinated by this kind of emergent processes, and how they appear on different scales. But I find it always difficult to use the attribute consciousness. I think these kind of chaotic attractors have a beauty on their own. Regardless how closed these systems look, they are always influenced by its environment. The perfect example for me is the flame of a candle. A very dynamic complex process communicating with its environment, that generates the dynamics.

MW: You describe The Conversation as "pataphysical", and mention the "mystic" and "magic" aspects of Irrational Computing. Can you say some more about this a aspect of your work? Is there a sort of romantic or poetic idea here, about what is beyond the rational, or is this about a more systematic alternative to how we understand the world?

RB: Yes, it refers to an other kind of thinking. A thinking that is anti "cause and reaction". A thinking of hidden relations, connections and uncertainty. I like Claude Lévi-Strauss' term "The Savage Mind".

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Dextro-list

In an perpetuating series of beautiful and abstract stills, animations, films and applied graphics, Dextro – an original internet artist – has been using the most basic of visual tropes even the earliest web-ready computer could offer; generative algorithms, boid-like figurations and specific pixel display. And with them he has created some of the most extraordinary images that are analogous of so many things in the real world, like waves and light and sand dunes and other poetic commonalities and it’s ongoing! If you haven’t come across this work before, though you’re likely to have seen his imitators, then now is the time to let the almost meditative cumulative artworks remind you of how freaky-cool technology was/is/will be.

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hacker-dojo

Suddenly programming is sexy. Codecademy is drawing hundreds of thousands to its online programming tutorials. “Those jumping on board say they are preparing for a future in which the Internet is the foundation for entertainment, education and nearly everything else … ensuring that they are not left in the dark ages,” says a recent New York Times piece.

The NYT’s Randall Stross went on to write about how “many professors of computer science say college graduates in every major should understand software fundamentals.” At parties these days, people are more impressed when I say I write apps than when I say I’ve had a few novels published. How weird is that?

Is this the long-fabled Triumph of the Geek? If so, it should seem unreservedly great to those of us who started programming when we were ten and haven’t much stopped since. So why does this sudden surge of enthusiasm make me feel so uneasy?

Partly, I suppose, because something like this happened once before, and it didn’t end well. Remember how hackers were hot in the late ’90s, and would-be dot-commers flooded computer-science classes everywhere? Demand for programmers back then was so high — sound familiar? — that companies hired hordes of freshly minted coders whose ability did not match their ambition. Half of every team I worked in back then was composed of people who couldn’t be trusted with anything beyond basic programming grunt work, if that. It’s no coincidence that the best technical team I ever worked with was in 2002, right after the dot-bust weeded out all of the chaff.

But mostly, I think, I’m uneasy because it seems like the wrong people are taking up coding, for the wrong reasons.

It’s disconcerting that everyone quoted in the articles above say they want to be “literate” or “fluent”, to “understand” or to teach “computational thinking.” Nobody says they want to do something. But coding is a means, not an end. Learning how to program for its own sake is like learning French purely on the off chance that you one day find yourself in Paris. People who do that generally become people who think they know some French, only to discover, once in France, that they can’t actually communicate worth a damn. Shouldn’t people who want to take up programming have some kind of project in mind first? A purpose, however vague?

That first cited piece above begins with “Parlez-vous Python?”, a cutesy bit that’s also a pet peeve. Non-coders tend to think of different programming languages as, well, different languages. I’ve long maintained that while programming itself — “computational thinking”, as the professor put it — is indeed very like a language, “programming languages” are mere dialects; some crude and terse, some expressive and eloquent, but all broadly used to convey the same concepts in much the same way.

Like other languages, though, or like music, it’s best learned by the young. I am skeptical of the notion that many people who start learning to code in their 30s or even 20s will ever really grok the fundamental abstract notions of software architecture and design.

Stross quotes Michael Littman of Rutgers: “Computational thinking should have been covered in middle school, and it isn’t, so we in the C.S. department must offer the equivalent of a remedial course.” Similarly, the Guardian recently ran an excellent series of articles on why all children should be taught how to code. (One interesting if depressing side note there: the older the students, the more likely it is that girls will be peer-pressured out of the technical arena.)

That I can get behind. Codecademy and the White House teaming up to target a youthful audience? Awesome. So let’s focus on how we teach programming to the next generation. But tackling a few online tutorials in your 20s or later when you have no existing basis in the field, and/or learning a few remedial dumbed-down concepts in college? I fear that for the vast majority of people, that’s going to be much too little, far too late.

Of course there will always be exceptions. Joseph Conrad didn’t speak a word of English until his 20s, and he became one of the language’s great stylists. But most of us need to learn other languages when we’re young. I’m sorry to say that I think the same is true for programming.

Image credit: Jeff Keyzer, Flickr.

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Orome1 writes "After creating the 'Decaptcha' software to solve audio CAPTCHAs, Standford University's researchers modified it and turned it against text and, quite recently, video CAPTCHAs with considerable success. Video CAPTCHAs have been touted by their developer, NuCaptcha, as the best and most secure method of spotting bots trying to pass themselves off as human users. Unfortunately for the company, researchers have managed to prove that over 90 percent of the company's video CAPTCHAs can be decoded by using their Decaptcha software in conjunction with optical flow algorithms created by researchers in the computer vision field of study."


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With great power comes great learning curves – or maybe not. Csound for Live, just announced this weekend and shipping on Tuesday, brings one of the great sound design tools into the Ableton Live environment. You can use it without any actual knowledge of Csound, without a single line of code — or, for those with the skills, it could transform how you use Csound.

For anyone who thinks music creation software has to be disposable, you’ve never seen Csound. With a lineage going literally to the dawn of digital synthesis and Max Mathews, Csound has managed to stay compatible without being dated, host to a continuous stream of composition and sonic imagination that has kept it at the bleeding edge of what computers can do with audio.

Csound for Live does two things. First, it makes Csound run in real-time in ways that are more performative and, well, “live” than ever before, inside the Live environment. Second, its release marks a kind of “greatest hits” of Csound, pulling some of the platform’s best creators into building new and updated work that’s more usable.

If you’re not a Csound user, you just dial up their work and see what your music can do. If you are, of course, you can go deeper. And if you’re somewhere in between, you can dabble first before modifying, hacking, or making your own code. And that means for everybody, you get:

  • Spectral processors
  • Phase vocoders
  • Granular processors
  • Physical models
  • Classic instruments

More description:

It looks great. It works great. It sounds… beyond great.

CsoundForLive is a collection of over 120 real time audio-plugins that brings the complexity and sound quality of Csound to the fingertips of ANY Ableton Live user – without ANY prior Csound knowledge.

Capitalizing on the design power of Max For Live, what once took pages of text in Csound can now be accomplished in a few clicks of your mouse.

Move a slider on your APC40 and deconstruct your audio through professional quality granular synthesis…

Touch a square of your Launchpad and warp pitch and time with real time FFT processing…

Press letters on your keyboard and create sonically intricate melodies through wave terrain synthesis…

And Dr. Richard Boulanger, unofficial Jedi Master of the Csound movement, instigator of this project, and Berklee School of Music sound and music wizard, posts a bit more:

With my former student, and now partner, Colman O’Reilly, I have been working around the clock for months to collect, adapt, create, wrap, and simplify a huge collection of Csound instruments and make them all work simultaneously and interchangeably in Ableton Live. In this guise, I am able to “hot-swap” the most complex Csound instruments in and out of an arrangement or composition – on the fly. This is something Csound could never do (and still can’t!), but CsoundForLive can, and it makes a huge difference in the playability and the usability of Csound.

Two weeks ago, I played a solo concert in Hanover Germany, at the first International Csound Conference. There, all of my compositions, from 20 years ago to 20 minutes ago, were performed in real-time using CsoundForLive. Tonight, at the Cycling ’74 Expo in Brooklyn, NY, I will be demonstrating the program; and next week, I will be releasing this huge collection (on Tuesday, October 17th, at 12:01am).

A huge part of the complete collection is FREE, and I hope it will make the creative difference in your (and your student’s) lives that it is making in mine. This is a serious game changer for Csound. Check it out. Dr. B.

If you’re at Expo ’74, do say hello to Dr. B for us (and I think you’ll get some nice surprises with this project).

I’ve got a copy in for testing, so stay tuned. And I’ll be doing some follow-ups with Dr. Boulanger and company.

The only bad news here, of course, is that both a supported version of Ableton Live and Max for Live are required to be able to run Csound in this way. In fact, sounds like we have a nice four-horse race going. Max 6 overhauls how multiple patches work (on top of Max for Live), SuperCollider has its own possibilities for multiple real-time patch loading, someone suggested in comments using pd~ inside Pd to manage multiple Pd creations (something fairly new even to most experienced Pd users), and now we have Csound in Live.

But overall, Csound for Live looks like a no-brainer for Max for Live owners, no question, and an exciting taste of the ongoing convergence of cutting-edge creative sound and code with live music making for everybody. As I hinted at in the Max 6 post, I think it’s suddenly a Renaissance for all these platforms.

http://www.csoundforlive.com/

Silly geeky footnote: With pd~ for Max, I know it’s possible to run Pd for Max. And via another external, Pd can also run Csound. So we could theoretically run Csound in Pd in Max in Live. But let’s not get carried away.

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Take computers, mathematics, and the Java Sound API, add in some Java code, and you've got a recipe for creating some uniquely fascinating music. IBM Staff Software Engineer Paul Reiners demonstrates how to implement some basic concepts of algorithmic music composition in the Java language. He presents code examples and resulting MIDI files generated by the Automatous Monk program, which uses the open source jMusic framework to compose music based on mathematical structures called cellular automata.

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What makes music software popular? Simple recording, DJ, and remix apps unsurprisingly do well. But perhaps as a testament to the importance of individual music expression, some stranger entries do, too. And those less-typical software creations can give you new ways of exploring music creation and performance. Just take Nodal.

GarageBand sits comfortably at the top of the sellers list on Apple’s App Store. But, at least briefly, a generative composition tool has rocketed to second place. Nodal 1.7, available for both Mac and Windows, is unlike most music production tools. In place of linear track arrangement, clusters of graphical nodes represent musical structure, awaiting real-time experimentation. In a network you create, “virtual players” produce patterns by traversing a geometric map defining pitch, rhythm, and sequence.

Nodal and tools like it have always been able to create musical machines from simple elements, letting the user define an arrangement and then set it in motion. But Nodal 1.7 is a major release in that it allows MIDI control, so that you can actually “play” the structure and not just sit back and let it roll.

This isn’t just for ambient music lovers, either – sync features mean you can use Nodal just as easily in rhythmic pieces or even dance music.

Developer Peter Mcilwain tells CDM:

We think new features make [Nodal 1.7] a serious composing tool. Firstly, it can be synced to other applications. Next, individual networks can be triggered (like clips in Ableton) from MIDI notes. The velocity levels in these networks can be scaled according to the velocity of the triggering note. Also, the edges or connections between nodes can now contain MIDI controller curves. This is all demonstrated in [the YouTube clip at top].

The triggering aspect means that you can perform with a generative system in a very intuitive way. Also, I have been working on a piece for a flute ensemble in which I create a triggering score in Logic. This information is then sent to Nodal. Nodal then sends back MIDI which is rendered and recorded in Logic. I’m finding this a fascinating and natural way to work.

Nodal has slipped a bit since Peter first contacted me, but seeing this among the top Mac App Store apps to me is tremendously satisfying. Peter tells us they’re not giving up their day jobs, but it’s nice just to get to support great software.

Nodal: Generative Music Software

I’d love to hear more about Nodal here, especially if you’re making interesting stuff with it. Of course, to discuss with other Nodal users, your best bet is the Nodal discussion group:

Support | Nodal Google Group

The development team – Jon McCormack, Alan Dorin, Aidan Lane, Jon McCormack and Peter McIlwain of Monash University’s Centre for Electronic Media Art in Australia – have published technical papers, too:

Nodal R&D / Technical Papers

Nodal fans / users … or other folks doing development … we’d love to hear from you.

For more generative goodness, see also:

Intermorphic and Noatikl / Mixtilk, a cross-platform system that also includes mobile tools for iOS, from the same team that collaborated with Brian Eno and worked on the landmark SSEYO Koan system.

Hans Kuder’s Tiction uses graphical nodes as does Nodal, and, built in Processing, works on any OS (including Linux). Unfortunately, I’m not sure what happens to Hans or the tool; if anyone knows, let us know.

There are probably others I’m forgetting as the coffee settles in, so chime in in comments.

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Fractal Lab

You’ll need a fast computer and a WebGL-compatible browser like Google Chrome or Firefox 4 beta to explore the exotic worlds of Fractal Lab, but the incredible visuals are worth it.

Related posts:

  1. DeviantART Muro
  2. Concept Ships Blog
  3. PatternTap.com

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Algorithms are Thoughts, Chainsaws are Tools from Stephen Ramsay on Vimeo.

In an extended video that begins with Radio City’s Rockettes and kettle drum players, Stephen Ramsay explains a litany of technology’s most elusive topics, in terms anyone could understand — no, really. I dare you to ask anyone to watch a few clips of this video, regardless of whether they’re regular readers of this site. Secrets such as why the programming language Lisp inspires religious devotion, or how someone in their right mind would ever consider programming onstage as a form of musical performance, represent the sort of geekery that would seem to be the domain of an elite. But in the dry deadpan of this Professor of English, those mysteries actually begin to dissolve.

I love the title: “Algorithms are Thoughts, Chainsaws are Tools.”

I doubt very seriously that live coding is the right performance medium for all computer musicians. (I expect I’ve occasionally made people wince with a couple of lines of code in a workshop example; I shudder to think of scripting in front of an audience. I’d probably be less disastrous at stand-up comedy.) But Ramsay reveals what live coding music is. It’s compositional improvisation, and code simply lays bare the workings of the compositional mind as that process unfolds. Not everyone will understand the precise meaning of what they see, but there’s an intuitive intimacy to the odd sight of watching someone type code. It’s honest; there’s no curtain between you and the wizard.

That should be a revelation about other computer music performance instruments, even the MPC. They, too, bring in elements that are as compositional as they are about performance (though the MPC has the unique power to be both at the same time). And sometimes, it’s seeing the naked skeleton of that process that allows audiences back into the performance.

The live-coding composer in question is Andrew Sorensen, who has live-coded an orchestra and does, indeed, also use samplers in the tradition of Akai. Whether you do it in front of an audience or not, you can try his gorgeous Impromptu music language, among other tools.

If you’re messing with code at all, even just to make an occasional bleep in Csound or picture in Processing, it’s worth watching Stephen’s videos. In fact, if you compose at all, it might be worth watching. (See also his reflections on writing, programming, and algorithm.) After all, even someone strumming out a tune on an acoustic guitar and scratching the results on paper is using some sorts of algorithms.

This video has been out for a few months, but I sometimes wonder how we got into the business with blogs of posting stories with expiration dates in the hours. It’s like buying milk in Manhattan.

Thanks to Philip Age for the tip.

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