George Cochrane

Like a Creative Octopus, with a Few Fewer Arms

Very Old Slang

I’ve just spent at least an hour flipping through this fabulous old book (offered for free by The Slang Dictionary - Etymological, Historical, and Anecdotal (London, 1913) touches on the patois employed by various classes of ruffians, outlaws, and untouchables in British history. It bears such useful, forgotten terms as:

Gullynuff: The waste coagulated dust, crumbs, and hair which accumulates imperceptibly in the pockets of schoolboys.

Rhinoceral: Rich, wealthy, abounding in RHINO. At first sound it would seem as though it meant a man abounding in rhinoceroses.

Horse Chaunter: A dealer who takes worthless horses to country fairs and disposes of them by artifice. He is generally an unprincipled fellow, and will put in a glass eye, fill a beast with shot, plug him with ginger, or in fact do anything so that he sells to advantage. See COPER.

If you find this sort of thing as fascinating as I do, I apologize in advance for the consumption of your evening.

Make Noise Maths as Stepped LFO/Sequencer

For all you Eurorack modular buffs, a fun patch using a Make Noise Maths module.

This video shows the following patch:

  • Maths Channel 4 (called "Channel 2" in the video) set up as fast square-ish LFO (Lin curve, mid Rise, zero Fall, full negative negative output)
  • Chan 1 patched to Oscillator CV in and Filter cutoff
  • Chan 4 patched to Chan 1 Both and Filter cutoff
  • Osc-to-filter-to-out

This patch creates a strange-behaving stepped LFO sequence. Sequence length can be varied with Ch 1 Rise/Fall controls. Sequence speed can be varied with Ch4 Rise control.

The upshot of this is that while the up-up-down-down sequence loops, the lower notes in the sequence slowly move up and down, while the higher notes in the sequence follow the same motion, but about 90 degrees out of phase. This creates a disconcerting shepard tones-ish effect.

Maths is fun.

Working Off-Medium as a Visit to Other Selves

I come from a family of artists. I don't mean an "artsy" family— I mean, my dad, my mom, and both siblings were artists. Very talented artists. For years, I filled sketchbooks with ill-executed doodles. I drew musclebound action heroes with giant guns, and 80's-futuristic sports cars drawn in 3/4 view, which my lack of knowledge of perspective turned into formless, shiny blobs.

All my life, until I turned 14, I thought I'd been handed the inopportune end of the family talent stick. At 14, I picked up my first musical instrument— a Hohner PJ bass guitar. I'd found my first calling, and I've been at it ever since. Look at the smile on this kid:

The fact that I found something creative to be good at didn't totally quell the sting I felt from my profound lack of visual art skills. I remain resolute in my commitment to eventually developing the latent visual arts genius that is my birthright. OK, not really, but DO often wonder how my life would be different if I'd started spitting out visceral, kaleidoscopic canvases, instead of albums.

When I was 18, and had already been a musician for a few solid years, I was following my dad around the local art supply store as he picked up supplies. A set of brightly-colored watercolor crayons caught my eye, and penniless though that I was, I managed to get a set, along with a watercolor sketchbook with a black, crinkly cover. I got these new tools home, sat down with a little dish of water, and started mucking around.

I laid down some dark lines of crayon and began pushing the color around the page with wet fingers. I really took to the feeling. I was left with some sort of psychedelic octopus-like blob. I loved the little traces of color I could see, where faint amounts of paint had lingered on my fingers as I moved them across the thick, toothy paper. I wanted to accentuate them.

I took an india ink pen and began to draw outlines around the colorful forms. The generous, even lines seemed to make something more tangible out of these semi-random smooshings. I was very much in love with this process. I repeated it regularly over the course of a week, filling up the sketchbook. Then, all of a sudden my super-compressed teen attention span tripped closed, I put the crayons and the nice black watercolor book in the closet and forgot about them. I lost them in the bustle when I moved away from home, and I remember feeling a little pang of missed opportunity.

Since then, every 5-7 years, I find myself walking through an art supply store, and I buy another set of Caran D'Ache crayons and another watercolor book. I knock out a few ephemeral abstracts, and then my super-compressed adult attention span slams shut, I shelve the tools, and I tend to move soon after, and again lose the tools in the hustle and bustle of a quick city move.

Recently, I felt drawn to doing this again. My first sketch looked like this:

Now, I hold no pretense that this is good art, or even art at all, but there is something about the process of taking these tools and doing this thing seems to scratch some sort of periodic itch for me. I tend to think that what this action satisfies is a need to explore my mind from alternative angles in times of stress and transition. When I'm facing flux and not feeling so tough, what I want is proof that there's more to me than what I perceive— that I have an ally in myself that exists below the surface of the person that I walk around as every day.

When I buy this little art kit and I smoosh the colors around, I'm doing something wholly disconnected from my normal processes, and something with a reverently uncomfortable history for me. There is no screen, there are no notes, and no words, only tenuously held alien tools, and instinctual movements. I feel a tie form, fleetingly, between all the mileposts of my life as I do this, nonverbally and without thought. I smoosh and outline, smoosh and outline, and I'm always surprised with the outcome, like a bowl of tea leaves I can almost read.

The iPad and the Chuckles Thereof

OK, let's get this straight. For most hardcore Apple fans who also happen to be computer geeks, artists, musicians, or anyone looking for something other than a pretty frame through which to view other people's content, the iPad seems like somewhat of a wet blanket. Or, at least it should.

No Wacom-like pen support. No support for "real" OS X apps. No real ports. No flash. There's just this cavern-like, resonating paucity of expandability, connectivity, or, to be frank, utility. If you wanted this thing, you already bought a Chumby, or a really cheap Netbook, or, hey, an iPhone— with which you can do nifty things like make calls and take pictures!

...and then there's the name. People all over the internet are tripping over themselves for the chance to deride it. HOW DARE APPLE NAME THEIR MESSIANIC NEW PORTABLE MEDIA FAUCET AFTER A FEMININE HYGIENE PRODUCT?!?!?!11INTERROBANG

This misstep has been called "disastrous", "disrespectful", and "a major marketing faux-pas" by media outlets that are supposed to be credible. To be honest, it took me a full six hours after I saw the announcement and got done laughing (to keep from crying) over the specs, to realize the correlation to those handy absorbent lady napkins. By the time I connected those dots, the matter was practically done being a trending topic.

Am I the only one that sees this as shatteringly juvenile? I mean, is the word "pad" so inexorably linked to menstrual health that *everyone's* mind raced to that connection before, say, these examples?

"They named the new tablet after a debilitating vascular condition! My god, that's a major marketing faux-pas!"

GC in Cool Tools, Professing Love for Kiwi Knives

Kevin Kelly's outstanding gadget blog Cool Tools has published another of my reviews! SCORE! I love those guys. As I got more serious about cooking, I splurged and bought myself a very nice Kai Shun santoku  - like the Tosagata Hocho, previously reviewed on Cool Tools. I used its preternaturally sharp edge with joyous dispatch for about 6 months, until I woefully cut some citrus with it and left it dirty overnight, eroding that wonderful edge. I've never been able to get that magic edge back, even with pro sharpening.

On a visit to a local Asian market, I found a series of Thai-made Kiwi brand knives. In the store, they were nearly free: The large tapered chef's knife (model #21) that soon stole my heart cost around $4, and the paring knife was $1.50.

These knives are very sharp and schuss through veggies and meats like it's nothing. Don't go hacking at bones with the thinner models, but Kiwi also makes quite usable cleavers (for around $8). The miraculous part is, the knives hold an incredible edge for months with proper use of your steel, and they take a new edge with aplomb after a few strokes on a stone.

I have owned knives by Wusthof, Kyocera, Calphalon, and Ikea (shudder) and the Kiwis are the most consistently sharp, most durable, and have the most effective shapes. I've bought or suggested them for all of my foodie friends, and people can't get over how wonderful they are. They don't look like much, but they're well-balanced, very sharp. It doesn't hurt that I could have picked up a full set for less than my crappy block-o-food-manglers cost 10 years ago.

As far as longevity goes, I've had my main chef's knife for about four years, have steeled it every time I used it and given it a few good hones on my Spyderco Sharpmaker. It's still wicked sharp, and while I haven't babied it, it looks none the worse for wear. I used my paring knife to whack the lid off a persnickety glued-shut can of Lyle's Golden Syrup, and in my zeal, the tip bent over almost double. I thought, Oh no! but then I bent it back in place with a pair of pliers, and it's basically good as new.

They're definitely the Jeep Wranglers of the kitchen. I suggest buying them locally if you live in an area with Asian markets; if not, they can be picked up online at generally higher prices.

Kiwi Knives $2– $15

Available from The Wok Shop

Wow... Just Wow. (Dirty Projectors Live Singing)

This is some of the most impressive singing I've heard lately. This song illustrates well how music technology has such an odd, parabolic effect on the way we make music. When I first heard this clip, I was certain that the voices were samples being played by a sampler plug-in, triggered by a keyboardist or sequencer. The influence of vocal sampling is clear in the clipped, overlapping way the singers phrase their notes in this song. When I realized that they were really executing those lines right there in the room, I was flattened (and I went and bought a bunch of Dirty Projectors stuff).

Sampling has done wonders to the way we as humans expect to hear voices. From the staccato, repeating fugues of early-90s club music to the dreamlike, parroting robo-choruses evoked by folks like Scott Herren, vocals have become just another textural element to be twisted, bent and spray-painted to our needs. When artists see what digital technology has done to our expectations, then take that same feel and sound and replicate it with actual strings, membranes, vocal cords, and wind, it can really throw us for a loop. Remember the first time you ever saw The Roots nail the perfect choppy SP-1200 hip-hop beat without a single sample in the mix? I sure do!

I love stuff like this.

(Thanks for the video, @questlove!)

Adventures In Spooky Sprites

(Whoops, some sort of compression artifacts messed up Skelly.  Will fix.)

I'm working on some animation sprites for a one-week game dev contest called PyWeek. It's my first time drawing pixel art, my first time animating it, and wow, this is fun.

After a search for the optimal pixel art tool, I found GraphicsGale, one of those tools you know was created by a user, for users exactly like them. It's simple, it addresses animation really well, and the tools are geared specifically for dealing with individual pixels. I used the free version, and found it a (somewhat anachronistic) joy to use.

I'm also doing music and sound effects for the game, all done in Ableton Live. Here's the suitably evil climax loop:


These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

These are a few of the things I use the most. They represent the current optimum, each one sitting (perhaps uneasily) on top of a metaphorical stack of tools much like it, having bested the previous iteration through some feat of function, form, feel, or all three. Here goes: #1 - Topre Realforce keyboard This 'board feels so, so, damn nice to type on. Each key's press-force is graded to fit the relative strength of the finger that will hit it, so touch typing on it is like typing on a nicely tactile cloud. It's super-solid, stays put on the table, and is missing the vexing numeric keypad, so you can move your pointing device, and the central alphanumeric area of the keyboard, closer to the center of your workspace. This pays surprising dividends in comfort, especially if you type all day, like I do. The satisfying clack-clack-clack of its keys makes me look for excuses (like writing) to type. *Notice* This thing is stupidly expensive, so I bought mine used and cheap. There are others like it, such as the Filco Tenkeyless, that are far less egregiously priced.

#2 - Logitech Marble Mouse trackball I've written about this puppy before, but I've got to give it further props. All other mousing devices feel so clunky and horrible to me now, that I've been forced to buy one for home, work, and studio. At $15-17, you might find you can afford to do so, too. Smooth mousing, ergo hand placement, little maintenance. Lovely.

#3 - Belkin Flip KVM switch (this is just the remote, of course) The Flip is one of the cheapest and most basic KVM (keyboard/video/mouse) switchers around. It, like all KVMs, allows you to use one keyboard, mouse, and monitor to control more than one machine, switchable on the fly. Particularly nice is its ability to auto-route audio from each computer to your speakers or headphones as you switch. Also, it's got a natty little remote button, freeing you from having to assign a keystroke to switch machines- nice when using software that grabs most of the keyboard.  The remote is also rather satisfying to smash with a frustrated fist when a box crashes.

#4 - Laken Classic Bottle Simply put, it's a really, really solid aluminum water bottle with a BPA-free, thick coating inside and an opening large enough for ice. It never adds a taste to water, it takes a beating, and I love the textured finish of this model. It's like a Sigg on juice.

#5 - Composition Book I've touched on these before, too, but they still rule. Like a poor man's (very poor man's) Moleskine, only larger, a good Composition Book is a fine place to jot ideas, keep your tasks on task, and, especially, take notes at meetings. Screw a laptop. Relish in the eye contact. Each one I fill becomes a nice, encapsulated document of a bracketed period of my work- and they'll certainly burn longer than a Moleskine if you fall on hard times.

#6 - Adolfo Dominguez sling bag It's doubtful you'll find this particular bag. It was a lucky find in a Barcelona boutique last year. It goes virtually everywhere with me. It sits on my back while I bike to work, carrying lunch, a book, and everything else- work badge, pens, a comp book, a snack, phone charger, pepper spray (my neighborhood can get a little hectic), earbuds, the Laken bottle, BART tickets, keys to my studio, and so on. It also fits a MacBook just so. Say what you will about man-purses, messenger bags, and such. I don't know how the hell I'd get along without one. Modern life demands too much crap not to employ a little help.

Not called out:

Sanford Onyx pen - Great ink, smooth writing, and a solid, sure line. For some reason, I appreciate that they're made in Japan. Textured Clear Glass Marble (fished out of a Ramune drink bottle) - Something nice to roll around the desk.

The Littlest Gadget Review: CountyComm Cable Keyring

The awesome folks at Kevin Kelly's Cool Tools blog have published another of my gadget reviews. It may not look like much, but this keyring FINALLY solves one of life's most vexing problems- How to carry a bunch of keys comfortably and without screwing up the lines of your high-zoot jeans. CT's editor slimmed my review down somewhat to fit it in with another keyring review.  Here's my original version, with a little more personal context and filigree. A&P Mechanic's Cable Key Ring

I ride a bike, drive a car, live in an apartment complex, and work in two offices, so I carry a ton of keys. I've tried standard metal key rings in a few sizes and mini-carabiners of various types, and they all have problems. Some are too big, some are too heavy, some are hard to add and subtract items from, and all of them are rigid. This rigidity means that all those keys end up sticking out like a swiss army knife, creating an unsightly, uncomfortable bulge in the pants pocket.

This key ring, made of strong stainless steel cable with a screw ferrule closure, solves all of these issues. It's very light, the screw-apart nature makes adding new keys a snap, and the give in the cable allows each key to flex in place a bit when under tension, finally winning the battle of the (pocket) bulge. That flexibility also makes it easier to get out of a tight or overfull pocket- just hook your finger on the wire, pull, and out it comes. The fact that it's both handsome and "nearly free" doesn't hurt, either.

I've always had a pipe dream to create the perfect lay-flat solution for key-laden obsessives like me. Now I'm happy to lay that dream to rest.

Available here (so long as you grab another couple of inexpensive things to make the shipping a good deal.

Future Visions From the Past: Francisco Infante-Arana

I just got clued in to this amazing Russian/Spanish photographer/sculptor, Francisco Infante-Arana (Thanks, Will!).

His work was done in the 1970s and early 80s, before the age of crystal-clear computer editing and vector art, and so was accomplished in satisfyingly physical ways. A lot of it reminds me of the mirror-obsessed designers that created all of those early CGI animations.

Designer 1: We can finally do ray-tracing! Light can bounce off of things! Designer 2: Sh*t, we have to make everything as shiny as possible, then. Designer 1: But of course!

I love the futuristic sheen and hard-angled shapes he created with little but a masterful hand on the camera and (very) judiciously placed mirrors and ropes. Francisco, if you're around, I certainly can't afford you, but I sure wish you could do an album cover for me.

Digging: The Importance of Creative Throughput

If you asked a group of people who know me what my average week was like, they'd probably list:

40+ hours at the writing job 25+ hours at the recording studio Up to 20 hours on other creative projects A couple of nights of going out An afternoon or two in the sun (or rain) Lots of cooking

This schedule doesn't afford me the kind of hit-the-bars-every-night-with-friends luxuries that I sometimes wish I had time for. It makes spontaneity in things such as travel, concerts, and even dinner a challenge, both because there is often something scheduled in the way, or simply due to the overarching feeling that there must be something scheduled in the way, and if it's not on the schedule, I must have forgotten.

What it does afford me is a LOT of creative throughput. Most days from 9:30am to midnight or later, I'm working on *something*. Some days the work is really engaging, some days it can be boring and pedestrian, but it keeps the habit of always pushing out ideas, always thinking and creating and shaping, in motion.

I've previously mentioned Anne Lamont's Bird By Bird, a book on writing and creating in general that I've found inspiring lately. There's a section in there that talks about the cruciality of writing "Shi**y first drafts". Everyone's scared to put pen to paper, because what if it sucks? Well, she poses that it has to. If you write 6 pages of trash but find a glimmer of something you love in a paragraph on page 4, then you've got things started. You've got the seed of something good, and you wouldn't have created it if you hadn't given yourself the chance to start up the ol' motor and get creating. The crappy stuff that acted as a ramp to the good? Toss it without guilt. It was a tool, and nobody ever had to see it.

Creativity seems to be seen as some intangible thing that some people have, and others don't. Genetic, finite, something that is born, not made. I've had many friends tell me "I'm not creative like that", and been compelled to shoot sparks out of my nose and drone in monotone "DOES NOT COMPUTE". The difference between you, the "not-creative" and people who seem to always have something new springing forth from them? They do their thing. It might be painful, especially at first. It might be frustrating. You might throw out the first 20 things you make, hate them, hate yourself, and curse the day anybody encouraged you to try.

But at least you're starting. Part of my creative life is really structured (the writing job). There are defined tasks and requirements, deadlines and peer reviews. This, as it turns out, is a big boon. My productivity has gained in leaps and bounds, and my tendency to surround ideas in wreaths of ungainly decoration has been tempered, somewhat. Conversely, in my music life, while I keep a weekly schedule and often have tasks to complete, there are few guidelines for what, exactly, I need to be creating.

My best music happens when I don't think- when caution is thrown to the wind and the whirlwind starts and I feel like I wake up at the end with a song. When one of those songs is good, it can feel like some kind of benevolent spirit showed up in the studio and threw some real art onto my flash drive. Of course, when there's little control exercised on process (and that's the point), the chaff to wheat ratio can be higher, especially when outside influences (lack of sleep, long hours at work, stress) kick in.

For a long while, I was very protective of my creative outputs. Each one, from an album down to a sketch, felt sacrosanct. When time or focus wasn't available to finish one, or ten, or a hundred unpolished ideas, I began to feel like a deadbeat dad. How DARE I loose these new things on the world without so much as the courtesy to give them all of their limbs, and never call, on top of that? The weight of work left behind began to really get oppressive.

Reading Bird By Bird, just that page or two, has given me a new outlook on that chaff. I still love many of these little failed jalopies, but I no longer linger with them or allow their bulk to get in the way of more throughput. They were tools, and some of them are a fun listen now and then, but diamonds they aren't.

So, we must persevere, onward and upward, hand in hand with the fittest ideas- and a tip of the hat to the brave but lesser ones that were selected out of the pool. Regular creative throughput tips the scales in your advantage, keeps the bearings smooth, and quells fear, letting you, once again, surprise yourself. Breathe.

Because Cycling's Just Too Cerebral: The K2 Easy Roller Bike

"Ah, what could be better than biking on a nice spring day?  The wind in your hair, the fresh air filling your lungs after hours spent inside, the thrumming of your system as you push yourself ever forward, one smooth motion...  Wait.  What's this little lever?  You mean to tell me I HAVE TO SHIFT THE GEARS MYSELF, WHEN I GO UP A HILL?! F*** THAT NOISE!"

This is just the sort of reaction that Shimano, the makers of the K2 Easy Roller bike's electronic shifting system, AKA "Coasting", is trying to prevent. It's kind of a clever concept, on paper, anyhow. The front wheel's hub contains a dynamo, generating electricity that's sent to a little CPU that determines the optimal gear ratio for the current speed, which then causes a little actuator to shift an otherwise pretty normal 3-speed internal-gear rear hub. The bike stops with a coaster brake, just like your old BMX. Pedal backward, and you stop (slowly).

The part that rankles me about this isn't that people should buck up and ride a single-speed bike or do their own damn shifting (which goes without saying), but that the shifting-for-dummies is being done with electronics. That hub dynamo in front will cause considerable drag, slowing you down.   Energy isn't free!   Worse, electronic shifting systems are notoriously susceptible to damage by water, shock, and wear and tear. What happens when the little capacitor/battery that holds the charge dies in a few years?  What if somebody steals one of the (proprietary) wheels?

If you took the Coasting system off this bike and added a standard 3-speed thumb shifter, you'd likely shave off a tidy 5 pounds, extend the bike's MTBF by at least 10 years, and if anything ever breaks, you could fix it easily with the most basic of tools and parts, instead of pitching the whole bike into the nearest skip.

Manufacturers who go for this stuff say they're trying to attract people who won't ride bikes because it's too "hard" or "complex".  For this, I applaud them, even if it is totally profit-driven.  However, focus group data aside, the things that have kept the people I know off their bikes most were: The bike's too damn heavy, the seat's not set high enough (thus, they get no pedal power), and It doesn't handle nimbly enough for the city (slow frame geometry, bad brakes).  These problems are easy to avoid, and one of them can be fixed in 10 seconds with a wrench (GET THOSE SADDLES TO HIPBONE LEVEL, KIDS!)

In leiu of gadgetized, overwrought, non-upgradeable, scarcely-repairable disasters like the Easy Roller, manufacturers should be marketing simple, lightweight bikes with easy gearing and real, capable brakes (not weak coasters).  Ship them with a page of info on how to fit the bike to the rider and a few allen wrenches so people can set them up correctly, and we're off to the races!  That's the sort of bike a casual cyclist could ride until they die, with minimal headache and good performance.

I ride a bike much like the one I've described above almost every day, even though I have a far more capable racing bike at home.  It's easy, fun, and there's nothing complex enough about it to fail.

The Spoils of the Modern Scavenger

My office is doing a grand purge of all electronic and useless. Carts all over the building are being loaded up with all manner of broken, outdated, unloved or forgotten equipment. In a week or two, they'll all disappear. Right now, they're a constant source of entertainment and free, nasty old gadgets. Every time I pass by the local cart, people can be found ogling the piles of old CRTs, rooting through boxes of ancient keyboards (from which I've already pulled a couple of interesting specimens), and considering whether or not to avail themselves of the wealth of blown speakers, SCSI drives, miles of dusty cable, and briefcase-sized Powerbooks from 1990. Today, as I went to fill my teacup, I spied a nice-looking pair of AKG headphones amongst the flotsam.

I went and tried them out, expecting the worst. Sure enough, the right side speaker wasn't working. Before I knew it, I was prying off the little gold metal coin-like cover and wrestling with tiny screws that seemed to be made out of something more resembling balsa wood than steel. Finally, I coaxed the earcup open, and saw the issue- a broken wire. Score.

A quick trip to a nearby soldering station later, and the phones were back at 100%. I sat there feeling pleased with myself for a few minutes, really getting into the sound and comfort of these trash-picked beauties. Eventually, I started feeling guilty for snagging a $100 pair of headphones for the cost of two minutes' tinkering and a speck of solder, so I stuck this up back by the cart.

I'd have made a lousy vulture.

Logitech Marble Mouse Review in Cool Tools

The good people over at Kevin Kelly's  Cool Tools site have published another of my gadget reviews. This, as you might know from the last CT-related post, know, made me jump around my office like a die-hard NKOTB fan upon hearing Donny's got a new solo record on the way... 

Logitech Marble Mouse

While I've always spent a lot of time computing, the precise, all-day cursor movements of professional writing and designing (a recent switch) got me vexed with my previous mouse's lack of control and an aching wrist. After borrowing a friend's $70 trackball and enjoying the fingertip control and comfort, I set out to get tracking at the lowest possible cost and highest possible comfort. I settled on the Logitech Marble Mouse.

Shaped like a low, oval hill, this $20 mouse is a nice inverse of the natural curve of a hand. The trackball sits naturally under the index and middle fingers and moves very smoothly. The sizeable left and right buttons are situated directly under your thumb and ring finger, while the two smaller buttons above them can be designated for a variety of functions like scrolling and zoom. The symmetry also makes it ambidextrous, which is great for any left/right-handed families that share a home computer.

I did try a few thumb-operated trackballs, but a slight weirdness in my right thumb joint causes some discomfort when I move it a lot. Every time I put my hand on the Marble Mouse, I'm able to keep it totally relaxed. The mouse is large enough for comfort, but still relatively small enough to take on the road. The build quality is solid, and it's easy to clean. Best of all, my wrist no longer smarts after a long day's editing.

Bonus: the heavy, low-friction ball makes a nice desk toy when you need a break.

Article w/comment thread here.

Top 10 Reasons "Top X" Lists Are Killing Web Media

10. Priority isn't prioritized.

Sanity tells us that a priority-based list should lead from the least important item, to the most important.  A Top 10 list of the reasons why you left your boyfriend wouldn't terminate in "He wouldn't stop leaving the toilet seat up!".  It would, more likely, end with "He slept with my sister and bragged about it on LJ." Many Top lists shirk this duty entirely, with funnier or higher-impact things listed early on and a clinker to finish.

9.  They're constructed to drive traffic, not to serve the reader.

Ever been annoyed that a piece containing 10 tiny blurbs and a bad photo is split across 5 pages, especially when you're mobile?  The offending site inflicted that on you intentionally, because the more pages you visit, the better their traffic and ad stats look.  I tend to think a little extra revenue is not worth raking a user over the coals.  For the kind of sites that live and die by list posts, there's no question that it is.

8.  Many topics don't fit well into a predetermined number of buckets. Even a list that focuses on a narrow topic forces a writer to squeeze or stretch what may really be 100 important points (or 3) into an even 10, 5, or 50, to fit the format.  Worthwhile details can be conspicuously absent, and others stretched so thinly (across 4 list items) they become translucent. 7.  They create a crappy work environment for freelance web writers.

When a writer approaches a big site looking for work, they're often handed an assignment and told to come back with X number of words by Friday.  Because list posts are such a sensation, so easy to break up into chunks, and so fast to write and edit, some sites ask for them in preference to anything else.  This backs a writer into a corner, and offers them a choice.  Write this list and get paid, or turn down valuable work.  So much for pith.

6.  Depth is, by virtue of the medium, impossible.

With just a few sentences to spare on each facet of the topic, only the lowest-hanging fruit can find their way into the list.  What might be a really funny (or insightful) article can become lightweight and disposable when skeletonized to fit the format.

5.  They generally suck.

Even at the brisk pace most people read list posts, the lack of care that goes into the lesser ones is obvious. The writing is derivative, slapdash, and uninteresting.  Why should even a good writer put their back into creating such fluff?  The quickly-read bite-size nature of these lists stops most readers from caring too much, as long as a subdued chuckle or briefly raised eyebrow is induced. ...and lo, the ouroboros of mediocrity snacks.

4.  They displace quality content.

The Digg-bait nature of list posts means that even banal and boring lists often hit the front page, which, in turn, means that there's less room and mindshare to go around for things of more substance. 5.  They distract good writers from doing their best work.

When artfully crafted treatises, essays and articles are swept under the social bookmarking rug by Top X lists, many skilled self-motivated bloggers face their own choice:  Either give in to the disease or die by its hand.  They, in turn, must become part of the problem, taking time and page space away from what they're really good at, and diluting their voice.

2.  They're an across-the-board cop-out.

Composing a bunch of little anecdotes on a subject is usually far easier than actually having something to say about it.  The format makes lazy writing more digestible, in that the content is broken into bites and the copy is short.  Thus, in the end, lists reduce the commitment level of both writer and reader, and are, IMHO, a cop-out.

1.  They help give online content a bad name.

If you opened your morning paper today, and every other article was a Top 10 list, you'd probably stop reading that paper.  Same goes for your favorite magazine.  Sure, print media is in a lot of trouble, but it still holds a level of respect and implied integrity that online equivalents seldom can touch.

When lists clog content aggregator's top spots, they become the top-level representatives of what is available online.  Many people don't have the time or inclination to dig deeper (no pun intended) than the front page of their favorite Digg/Reddit-style site, or past the first page of Google results.  The more popular that flotsam and jetsam like lists become, the more they float to the surface, trivializing the whole neighborhood. That's no good for anyone.


I've got to throw a disclaimer here that this post's sights aren't trained on people who make good use of the format, or on writers/bloggers in general.  This is a phenomenon that's been thrust on all of us, and I mean no disrespect.  Hell, I read list posts, too. I just find the good ones to be few and far between.

Paper and Productivity

All throughout my life, there has been an implied expectation that technology would eventually render paper obsolete.  Paper chokes the world's landfills.  Paper mills are dirty, old-world consumers of forests.  Paper is inherently transient, disposable, flammable, and difficult to store, index, and search through.

Think of the sparkling promise of the Paperless Office.  No truckloads of tree products schussing through corporations like so many laxatives.  Minimalist spaces, informed only by a sleek, all-knowing screen.  E-book readers, online encyclopedias, web media, and e-mail have put several nails in paper's proverbial- and not for no reason, right?

However...  The other day, I was at a meeting, and found myself the only person with a composition book instead of a laptop.  My eyes were, largely, looking at the people in the room, with breaks here and there to jot things down.  My compatriots all sat, with eyes like iridescent marbles, three-quarters of their focus on the glowing displays in front of them, with only a detached involvement in the conversation.  This behavior is not uncommon.

Apart from the absence of distraction a simple tablet of paper affords me, it also offers an easy, automatic kind of information management.  While those with laptops saved and closed their documents, went back to their offices and changed gears entirely, I had an open comp book, with the details of the meeting, sitting on my desk.

I have an unwritten contract with my comp books.  If I write something in them, it tends to be topical.  Daily to-dos, edits for documents, info from meetings, ideas, thoughts.  My agreement to myself is to keep the content of the moment on one page, and to keep the book open to that page until I've done the to-dos, processed the info, expounded on the ideas, milled through the thoughts, etc.  Once that's done, I turn to the next page and start again.

If that page were a text document instead, it would sit, tucked away in a docs folder or swirling in the mire of my constantly-packed desktop.  The very fact that it no longer exists tangibly until I decide to open it has to be kept in my mind's buffer. Don't forget that doc, it's got important details on it... Don't forget it... Be sure to look at it when you have time or it's going to get buried...

I have what I consider to be pretty tremendous focus, but it has but one track, and the sanctity of that track must be defended to the death, lest I paralyze myself by scattering it.  The act of keeping that doc in the buffer, that pea under 12 mattresses, can wreak havoc.  So instead it sits, inscribed in my never-advanced-past-4th-grade chicken scratch, on a pad of paper that is always on my desk, telling me, "Hey, when you've got time, just glance over here and take care of what I've got for ya.  No rush."

Sure, some folks may do a variation of this by having huge monitors, or perhaps several, with all kinds of data sprawled across them for easy review.  That's fine, until you have to reboot, and thus, remember what you had open.  Or if, even worse, you're not diligent with the save button and you lose some ephemeral-but-vital thought to a crash.  To me, a few comp books are the cheapest big, daylight-readable, eye-friendly portable monitors I can think of.  You can have one for each stream of thought you deal with on the daily, one for every project, one for the daytime, one for night, whatever you want.  They are your buffers.  Use them as you will.

There are other pluses for me in all this.  For one, digital data is, by its very nature, ubiquitous.  Your work comes home with you as naturally as the mud on your Chucks.  For today's workaholic culture, that means there's no end to the chances you have to ruin a perfectly good weeknight, knocking out those last... few... i-dottings... and... t-crossings. Why not?  Hell, it's there and it beats petting the cat, right?  WRONG.  The cat needs petting, and you need a BREAK.  With the minutiae of your work sitting inexorably, physically at work, intentionally inaccessible, you've earned yourself a reprieve. 

Probably the biggest upside to this for me is this: I have a finely-honed ability to distract myself- To close that important doc and file it away "for later".  I often won't see it again until I chance upon it weeks later, practically shaking with self-annoyance, when it no longer applies, tasks left undone and ideas damp and dormant.  With this paper buffer system, the data is there, in front of my face.  All I have to do is agree not to turn the page until the page has been processed.

Works for me.

New Year, New Preamp

This is just a teaser as the unit hasn't arrived yet, but I finally unloaded a bunch of old gear, and now have a DAV Electronics Broadhurst Gardens No. 1 mic preamp* on order. Built in England, by one of the designers that built consoles and electronics for Decca Record's studio, it is, apparently, the dog's bollocks. My main preamp at the studio is a Chandler Limited dual vintage Neve unit. It sounds great, but it can be too colored and aggressive-sounding, especially on delicate things like vocals, or when recording a lot of stacked elements with it. I've been searching for something that still sounds sweet and adds life to a signal, but with a clearer frequency response and less grit. I think I may have found it.

A couple of details: The BG1 allows the summing of both mic signals into one output, which is cool. It also has metering, which none of my other boxes have, and a variable high-pass filter per channel. Plus, it looks like you could probably bludgeon a giraffe into submission with it, (if the situation were life-and-death) and then turn around and use it to record a nice clear tympani track.

Thank GOD for the (comparatively) weak UKP!

Edit: I've taken delivery of this marvelous little device, and put it through its paces.  Initially, I approached it much like I did my beloved Neve.  Sending big crunchy signals through it, jacking the gain, etc.  I wasn't pleased with the results- metallic, non-euphonic, unfriendly.

When I finally thought to treat it like the classical music recording device it was designed to be, and baby it a little, I got stellar results.  Silky vocals, shining acoustic guitars, and even meaty drums, so long as I took care not to push the box where it wasn't meant to go.  I love this thing.

*To non-audio nerd readers, a microphone preamp is a device that boosts a mic's signal to the point where it is loud enough to record correctly. It sounds like a pretty unimportant thing, but mic signals are very quiet, often needing to be made thousands of times stronger to be recorded. Because of the delicacy of doing that massive amplification, mic pres are one of the biggest factors in getting good sound.

The Korg NanoKEY. Little. White. Different.

Recently, I got a review published in Cool Tools, one of the first gadget blogs I ever got addicted to. As small a thing as that is, it made me pretty darned giddy. I've been reading Cool Tools for at least 5 years. From the site: Korg nanoKEY

A USB-connected MIDI controller, Korg's nanoKEY looks much like a mutated computer keyboard. It weighs less than a pound and takes up less room in one's bag than a paperback book. At first blush, it seems impossibly thin and a bit cheaply made, but after a few minutes, I found it to be playable just like any other keyboard. It has a trio of buttons that approximate a full-sized keyboard's pitch and modulation wheels (albeit in a binary fashion, no nuance available). There are also buttons that shift the keyboard's range up or down several octaves, and a special CC mode that makes each key output a MIDI continuous controller value when struck (instead of a MIDI note) which is handy when trying to get a hold of the dozens of little buttons that festoon modern music software. There are several behavioral options under the hood, too, and the included editor makes tweaking things simple.

So far, I've taken the keyboard with me on several trips and countless public transit rides. It has allowed me to take down ideas -- direct to my laptop -- that I never would have chronicled otherwise. It's also just plain fun.

I've been making music on computers since the early 90s, and the march of miniaturization and affordability in computer music gear has never ceased to astound me. The equivalent of a setup that once cost thousands of dollars to assemble and occupied an entire second bedroom now runs on a laptop which comes with me everywhere. But one of the main things that remained a challenge to small-ify was the MIDI keyboard. M-Audio's Oxygen 8 led the charge, being small enough to throw into a large backpack with one's laptop, but it was still rather heavy and chunky. In time, various other keyboards were created that slimmed things down even further, but the form factor remained that of something you needed to create space for in one's bag, and lugging one around all day was not a fun prospect.

Finally, the nanoKEY seems to have gotten it all right. Now I can always have a keyboard with me, wherever I go, with little weight or space penalty. Lovely.

Around $50 US at at Amazon.

Renoise is the Finest Sort of Nostalgia

I first got into electronic music via the demoscene. Demos (mind-blowing CGI animations, often accompanied by cutting-edge dance music) were (and are) created by people all over the world and were easy to find online. The maniacs that supplied the soundtracks typically used an old computer music format called MOD, which paired playback of short samples with simple sequencing capabilities. In a scene where people prided themselves on creating vanishingly tiny files, mods saved vital space compared to using full-length audio clips.

My first electronic group was founded out of a love for this new music we were hearing in demos. We definitely had to try making some of our own, so we grabbed Fast Tracker II, a program for Windows. It let us record audio, chop it up, apply some rudimentary effects, and create songs to our heart's content. It was also free, in the era where a computer-based MIDI sequencer, a decent hardware sampler and all the stuff needed to complete the setup cost thousands. The hitch? Instead of nice little blocks on a piano roll and curvy envelopes, all of the note and controller data was edited (and often entered) in HEX code. For most, this made mod tracking too arcane to mess with. For us, it made tracking just arcane enough to make us feel really, really 1337 when something tricky was pulled off.

In any case, imagine my surprise and delight when a friend told me about Renoise, a new tracker program with all of today's bells and whistles- VST and AU plugin and VI support, extensive effects, a clearer editing interface, etc. I downloaded the demo. They'd retained all the key commands I remembered from Fast Tracker II. Everything worked as expected, except there were beautiful new things, like POLYPHONY!

Anyway, I haven't paid for the full version yet (around $70 US), so I can't share the track I'm working on with you, but suffice to say, when the holiday season is over, I will be adding this app to my stable, no question about it. It has superb timing, good sound quality, and an interface that, for all of its modern niceties, still bristles the hair on the back of my neck like that 4th Red Bull during a Starcraft tourney did. Rock it.

P.S. I've been using my little Korg NanoKey for a little while now, and I absolutely, truly, deeply love it. I now am able to pack a MIDI keyboard with me every time I carry a laptop, with less space commitment than a paperback. Beautiful.

Creative Finality Vs. Infinite Choice

It goes without saying that today's music production technology, advancing as it has from the days of tape and consoles through to the formidable Audio/MIDI workstations many of us sit in front of (for increasingly worrisome chunks of our lives), presents a very different creative paradigm to us than was on offer to musicians in the past.

When I began working in audio, much equipment was expensive, fickle, and limited.  Not limited by the standards of the day- these tools were already worlds cheaper and more powerful in many ways than those of the previous generation- but compared to 2008, they were primitive.  They were a means to an end- these blunt instruments helped me make my ideas tangible.  I learned their ways, I bent them to my needs, and got the job done.

They did have their inspirational moments.  The rush of ones' first arpeggiator, the promising smell of a new keyboard, a really game-changing new signal processor, another 4 tracks to work with- these all came with their own motivational magic.  However, a lot of times they yeilded a "Right on!  I can finally do that thing I've been wanting to do" breakthrough, rather than a push past the idea in one's minds' eye.

Fast forward to today.  Virtually every DAW system comes with near-petabytes of loops, pre-sequenced drums, preset effects and virtual instruments of every stripe- more sounds than the entire pro audio department of your local music store could have mustered in 1999.  A relatively small amount of money will get you anything else you need, and I won't even get into what loose morals and a Bittorrent client are capable of.

So, in the face of this embarrassment of sonic riches, many people sit and trawl through sounds for hours, searching for that magic bullet to inspire them.  It's a bit like sitting down to write the Great American Novel, but first flipping through the entire Library of Congress. Even if someone steps to the plate with a well-formed idea, they'll often spend hours in the thrall of their endless options instead of mentally "writing" each part to fit an instrument they know well. That spark has a short expiration date, and nothing snuffs it like hours of technical bureaucracy.

To combat this, I use two studios.  One's in a commercial space, and one's in my 2nd bedroom.  They are set up very differently.  The bigger place is awash in gear- processors, mics, keyboards, guitars, drums, turntables. It all centers on a Pro Tools HD DAW system, and *shock horror*, a lot of my MIDI work is done on an old, beige Akai sequencer, for the sake of speed and keeping edititis to a minimum. Most of what I create there starts with something physical. Even MIDI sequences are recorded and manipulated as audio as soon as possible.  I've lived with this equipment for years, so I know how to get the best from it.  When I go to that studio with a head full of ideas, something switches on.  I bend the gear to my needs, and get the job done.

My home studio's much smaller, and is based on Ableton Live and a raft of MIDI controllers. There, I use all the tech I can get.  Live's an incredibly fluid writing tool.  It draws things out of me I didn't know I had, and sound-warping and variation over time is so simple that I sometimes wonder who's running things- me, or the computer!  With its ease of sound design and wealth of available content, limits are few. When I work there, it often feels like playing a video game- lots of intricate technical stuff happening, hunting down the "best sounds", diving deep into editing.  When I'm in flow, hours start to disappear and cool parts stack like firewood.  Then, once I snap out of my trance, I have a song, somehow.

...but when it comes time to finish that song, I often take it back to the big studio and get the job done with a modicum of distraction. My editing and mixing skills are fastest in PT, and it sounds best, too.  Even without those pluses, the big studio feels like a workshop full of hand tools, rather than a blossoming mind-melding experience.  That gives me the power to say "That's it, that part is how I want it, and the tweaking ends here." Sometimes a hammer beats a CNC machine.

However, for the lack of either, the other would suffer.  Keeping a couple of separate ways of working available can be a huge boon- and you don't need two studios to do so, of course- just a willingness to shift gears and juggle file formats.