not an exact science

The idea of inheriting ethnicity through DNA is a bit problematic:

  • Biology and culture are different things. Culture is not passed genetically.
  • Genes are randomly inherited in each generation. The more generations back you go, the more random it is.
  • There is no single “French gene” that you might have 36% of. Either you carry a gene or you don’t, and all of this stuff comes down to statistical analysis from data that comes from peoples’ family histories.

So I think of this as mostly “for entertainment purposes only.” That said, here’s what Ancestry.com says about me after the latest statistical update:

It’s a slight tweak from the reading a few years ago, but no big surprises. Looking at the family tree research my mom has done, as far back as is documented right now, it adds up. There’s a very clear “all Scotland all the time” going back to my mother’s father’s mother, but most branches on both sides of my family, if they don’t fade into obscurity in Kentucky or New York, point at England, Ireland, Scotland, and some Germany and Switzerland. It would be really cool to be able to trace DNA to specific relatives on the family tree, but I don’t think things work that way, even if they all had samples.

nobody needs a billion dollars

An excellent twitter thread from author Seanan McGuire.

Quoted in full:

People keep talking about how much stuff a billionaire could buy even after Warren’s wealth tax, as if that were the greatest horror of that number. “Tax the rich and they can still buy islands!” Yes, that’s horrifying. But my friends and I have been calculating the “okay, that’s it, I’m done” number for years. That’s the amount of money in the bank where you can live deliciously without ever touching the principle. 

Everything is done via the interest. Our numbers assume no investments, no money management; just a savings account with a decent interest rate, calculated monthly. 

If you could open a savings account with a 2.05% interest rate and a starting balance of one million dollars right now, today, you would make 20k a year, just for the effort of having all that money. 

At five million dollars in the bank, you’re making 100k a year for doing NOTHING. Almost anywhere in the country, that’s living-off-the-interest time. (SF Bay Area and New York, somewhat excepted.) 

Six million in the bank, you’re making 120k a year for doing nothing. That’s 10k a month to spend on bills and vacations and IDK, new live ponies for Kaitlyn and Hunter. 

But ten million is where we start hitting real money. Because with just ten million–JUST ten million, and remember, we started with BILLIONaires–you’re seeing 200k a year for doing nothing other than NOT funding a mad genetics lab to create dinosaurs for your amusement. 

At fifty million, again with our simple savings account, no investments, you’re making a million dollars a year by not touching your principle. A hundred million is two million dollars a year.

A billion dollars is a thousand millions. 

This is wealth on a scale that has no applications apart from supervillainy. I am GOOD at spending money. Give me a hundred million dollars and I’ll make dinosaurs.

A thousand million dollars? I’ll make frantic noises and hide under the bed. That is money turned monster. 

No one NEEDS a billion dollars. Ten million is enough to live so comfortably that you’re insulated from the world forever. And no one NEEDS that, either. 

If a hundred million dollars is two million a year in interest, then a billion dollars in that rock-bottom account is two hundred million a year. Just for owning money. 

That last bit is off by a factor of 10, but the point still stands. To me, $10 million sounds like a good amount to keep after winning Powerball, after taxes, debts and giving the rest to family, friends, charities and random strangers.

Bill Gates is currently worth $107 billion. Which means his hypothetical 2% interest would earn $2.1 billion a year for doing nothing, not even wise investing. Every year he could turn two paupers into supervillain-level rich people, or 210 completely broke families Powerball-level, never-work-again wealthy, with zero personal sacrifice to his own astronomical fortune.

This makes me think Elizabeth Warren’s 3% wealth tax on billionaires is just barely a start.

the moon is beautiful this morning

It may still be stupidly cold, and I may still have the remnants of a cold, and somebody may have either mistaken the phone charger at my desk for company property or just “perma-borrowed” it… but the sky gave me a gift on my morning commute.

I tried to take a photo. It didn’t save, and it wouldn’t have been very good if it did — sky photos on a phone, taken hurriedly through the windshield during a brief traffic light, are never very good.

So, picture a pinkish-blue streaky sky and an enormous full moon in clear detail, with a hint of a glowing corona, about 30 degrees above the horizon. You’re probably right now picturing something that looks a little too plain, a little too “realistic”. Make it more vibrant and intense and painterly… borderline unbelievable. Stunning. Yeah, that’s better. Now put the back of a garbage truck below it, because as magical as it was, it was still in the real world (and that somehow made it better).

By the time I got to work and had time to set up a better photo, the sky had changed; the moon was neither so clear nor was the “background” sky (the atmosphere in front of it!) quite as nice. All things are ephemeral.

It filled me with such wonder though, like too few things do in a sane, stable-ish adulthood. And now I have the desire to try to express that in music. Next album project, perhaps? It seems like a challenge, but a good one.

Back when I used to play the text-based MMORPG GemStone III (and then IV), I had a character who was devoted to Zelia, the goddess of lunacy. While it wasn’t in the sparse official documentation at the time, some players seemed to tacitly agree that Zelia’s good side, her gift to her followers, was a gleeful, childlike sense of wonder about random things — an openness that is lost to most adults. Years after I’d stopped playing, when one of the lore documents named the six Handmaidens of Zelia (a constellation), one of them was “Myzori, the Most Amazed.” The idea of amazement as a kind of virtue, something to seek out, and a form of devotion stuck with me. (I of course would like the occasional amazement and silly good fun without emotional instability or delusions…)

small bits

Sunday it was a lovely 65°F throughout the evening. Monday at that same time, it was 25 and windy and been snowing most of the day. This morning as I’m about to go to work, it’s

which is just too flipping cold. Autumn is my favorite season, but for the last few years, it’s seemed like it was under attack from both sides. Going from picnic weather to parka weather in one day is just too much.

Anyway. Here’s a thing I did, a quick jam on the Lyra-8 with another layer of distortion, inspired by the computer game I’ve been playing quite a bit of lately:

Noita (Finnish for “witch” or “shaman” apparently) is the sort of game where, if I am bad at it, it’s kind of hard to tell because so much of it comes down to random luck, impossible situations, and occasionally completely unfair events. Yet usually the most ridiculous sudden deaths even after a long, careful campaign are more entertaining than frustrating. You’re a levitating wizard with a couple of basic wands to start with, on a dungeon crawl through increasingly deadly environs. Everything is physically modeled like a “falling sand” game — water flows somewhat realistically, evaporates when heated and condenses again; wood and coal and oil burn at different rates; fire needs oxygen; oil is slippery and floats on water; slime is sticky; sandstone is softer than other rocks. But it also plays like a high-speed magical game of Worms. You find and tinker with more and better (and sometimes ludicrously dangerous) wands and potions as you go: tentacles, arrows, bouncing bolts, chainsaws or flying sawblades (!), lightsabers (!!), freezing, acid balls, lightning, boulder summoning, lakes of lava, Giga Death Crosses, nukes (!!!!!)

Theoretically, there’s a way to “win” the game. I’ve never seen it. I’m lucky to get through the reach the incredibly deadly jungle level with its robotic spiders and fire-flinging flowers, or the Vault with shielded flying drones and acid-spitting floating eyes. Once I reached a place called the Temple of the Art, and got cornered in a pool of acid that was on fire while being pummeled by spells from four different completely unfamiliar monsters.

The game is full of surprises and secrets. Sometimes you do things to “anger the gods” — or a pesky earth-devouring worm does and you get the blame — and they send a flying, shielded skeleton mage to murder you. Sometimes you find mysterious secret tablets or orbs or areas of total darkness or stranger-than-normal alchemy or other weirdness. Once I drank from a “Touch of Midas” potion that turned loose substances (sand, coal, etc.) into gold when I approached; I racked up a lot of wealth but didn’t survive to spend it. Just once, I saw this in the Hiisi Base:

That’s my wizard’s blood there, because there were about five more of these guys on the other side of the screen. Oops.

done

Despite really annoying cold symptoms that have kept me home from work, partially in bed and partially half-dozing in the recliner, I’ve finished mastering the rest of the tracks — and recorded one more short one, because I felt like something with a particular character was called for.

The process mostly got easier as I went. There’s a sort of iterative logic to it that is fairly similar from one track to the next, though specifics vary. Fixing my stereo phase faults took me hours to figure out the first time, but seconds now that I know what generally works. And I was more cautious in setting up my effects on the new track and didn’t create trouble for myself in the first place.

There’s one note I have to check into with fresh ears; other than that I’m just waiting on cover art and need to write up some text. And then on to the next project!

Other than that, I’ve been reading a lot and TRYING to sleep.

I finished Last Dance, a novel about an Earth-to-Mars transport ship, its ornery captain and his rebellion. Pretty good!

I read a couple of short books on mixing and mastering, which were not awful but less helpful than the advice and practical knowledge I’d already gained. Meh.

I also read You Look Like a Thing and I Love You, Janelle Shae’s (of AI Weirdness) humor/non-fiction book on the current and likely future state of AI. She says “the danger of AI is not that it’s smart, but that it’s not smart enough” and that certainly seems true. It feels like there have been amazing breakthroughs in machine learning in the past few years, but they’re all extremely narrow in scope, easily fooled, have no sense of value judgement other than what they’re programmed to seek or avoid, are highly susceptible to bias and extraneous information in training data, tend to have very small memories, it can be difficult to understand why they made their specific decisions, and approximately as smart as a worm. On the other hand, there are some problems they can solve… as long as a human verifies them.

yes, master

I spent much of my weekend mastering four tracks from Vultur Cadens. Just as important as the specific things I learned: I’m more invested in the result, and have the goal of making my own mastering as consistent as possible with that of an experienced professional. It’s a challenge, but I’m very happy with the results I’m getting so far.

Nathan Moody was a guest recently at the Velocity synth gathering in Seattle, and gave a talk on “Mixing Modular Music” — which includes and complements the advice he gave me about my mixes.

Trying not to make this too long and technical, here are the things I’ve learned that I’m applying now:

  • It’s important when using a spectrum analyzer to set the block size high to detect infrasonic content that needs filtering out. Voxengo Span at a block size of 8192, and minimum frequency of 5 Hz, will do the job.
  • Stereo phase correlation matters even if you’re not cutting vinyl. Voxengo Span and Correlometer are easy to read: 0 to +1 is good, anything more than brief dips below 0 is bad. Toneboosters EQ4 is an excellent mid-side EQ that can correct it — after a few hours of struggle I’ve found a set of techniques that not only fixes these issues, but often results in a better sounding stereo field. I don’t necessarily care about “natural” here and I’m not aligning multiple microphones, so what I’m learning for myself doesn’t necessarily apply to every mix.
  • Fixing big resonances. Something that makes some synth sounds harsh and strident (with both the Lyra and with feedback-based synthesis), and leads to listener fatigue, is frequencies that are really loud compared to the rest of the spectrum. Often bringing them down just a little bit makes them sound great — and then subsequent compression and limiting might mean having to shave them again. Again, EQ4 is great for targeting these. For my purposes, finding these manually and fixing them once they’re already recorded is fine.
  • Compression: this can be complex, subtle and subjective. I’m just loosely imitating what Nathan Moody said he did, mostly with Klanghelm MJUC or NI Solid Bus Comp so far, tweaking until I feel like it’s doing something positive. If I were mixing a rock band or making techno or hip-hop there might be more of a system to it. I still feel I have a lot more to learn here.
  • With limiting, I still rely on Toneboosters Barricade and Bitwig’s peak limiter for ease of use, transparency and simplicity. But I have a new favorite preset as a starting point in Presswerk.
  • In terms of other flavor/vibe/etc. I find I really like u-he Uhbik-Q for flavor EQ. For saturation though, I am still very much “try things at random to see what works, if anything.” Another area where I want to learn more — I hope to someday find a favorite secret sauce, and/or recognize what to use without needing as much experimentation every time.
  • Overall I find myself bouncing between Bitwig Studio and Sound Forge Pro 13 for mastering. The former is better for chains of plugins — the effects and the analyzers to monitor them, or EQ that wants tweaking because I tweaked a compressor. The latter has a few handy tools (dynamics statistics, some noise/crackle removal options, and easy fade in/out and crossfading of effects).

busy busy

So many things just happened in the 4 hours or so since getting back from work:

  • Listened to the second round of masters back from Obsidian Sound. Perfect! There was really just a small tweak I requested from the first round (sent to me yesterday morning and answered this morning).
  • Got my Akemie’s Castle set up and started playing with it. More on this later, but I can confirm everything Mylar Melodies said in his video. Especially “what it does not sound is pristine and clean” and “super doomful.”
  • Went through the end of the “Audio Industry for Rainforests” charity auction — and won more than I expected. There was a ton of stuff donated and that meant less competition; there was also a lot less rapid-fire escalation at the very end due to the way the platform works. So I wound up with the Sequential DSM-03 Feedback module, and 3 plugins: DyVision Reverb Remover, DyVision Video Tape Emulator, and Acon Digital DeFilter.
  • Got a notification about a plugin update. Put off downloading it and then later, realized it’s not a plugin that I’m using anymore anyway.
  • Recorded a track with the Akemie’s Castle. Probably not one to be released, but it’s got some fun sounds in it, and could be an intro/outro/segue/something.
  • Also the secondhand auction ended an hour after the main auction. Since I donated stuff to that one, I watched… but the final tally is being delayed a little, so I don’t yet have to go through the license transfer process for 10 items from 3 companies.
  • Got an email from Obsidian about the processing that was done and why. Started looking up some info and interpreting that… oh yeah, I need to finished that process yet.
  • The T-Rackonizer — the last module I had up for sale — just happened to sell on Reverb at this same time. So I got it boxed up and ready to ship.
  • Started writing this post, partly as a way to make sure I’m not forgetting to do something.
  • Somehow in there I also ate dinner, fed the dogs, and supervised their outside time in the season’s first freezing weather because I didn’t want Lady escaping and giving trick-or-treating kids a real Halloween fright. (She’s a sweetheart, but she’s also a solid iron brick of pit bull.)

This — now that I believe there will be no more gear purchases in 2019 — seems as good a time as any to show my total expenditures for the year:

$11

That is the miraculous number I get from totaling all (*) of the gear I bought and sold this year. That includes the Eurorack case, all modules, pedals, and controllers, the Reface CS, and the Lyra-8. It does not include:

  • Some minor accessories and cables.
  • Shipping expenses — in retrospect I do wish I’d tracked this, because it adds up. I offer free shipping when I sell on forums, and often undercharged flat fees on Reverb.
  • New computer — I would have bought it sooner rather than later anyway.
  • Things that aren’t gear — KnobCon expenses, mastering, Distrokid, web hosting, income from album sales.

Things that I tracked separately:

  • Software. The Bitwig license, a Bitwig beginner training course, Sound Forge Pro 13 upgrade, and a handful of minor plugins. These were 3/4 paid for by selling some plugin licenses I am no longer using. The remaining licenses were donated to the secondhand charity auction, where they raised $157.
  • Preordering the SynthTech E520. My justification is, it ships in May 2020 so it goes on the 2020 budget. 😉

Okay, so it’s really more than $11. But my goal for the year wasn’t a $0 budget, it was to track my spending to stay mindful of it.

From this point, on my guiding principle is “the gear I have is excellent, complete and satisfying.” There may be a hard budget limit or a maximum number of transactions or something, but I may just trust the principle instead.

the depths

The other day I went ahead and ordered issue 1 (the only one that exists) of PRINCE-S STARthief. And I’m afraid it’s really not good.

It’s sort of a Star Wars parody that’s got maybe two small chuckles in the whole thing, and a whole lot of attempted humor that falls flat. The villains are the PEP-C Corporation. There’s a scene where a minion designated TK-421 disappoints the boss and is “carbonated,” a fate which later befalls LV-426. If get the references it’s mildly funny, and if you don’t it’s probably slightly less funny.

The protagonist is basically the only character, but is barely a character… smoking, drinking, wisecracking (or trying to) and “look at all this attitude I’m pretending to have” without any of the personality of Spider Jerusalem from Transmetropolitan or any of the Rat Queens. She’s really just a fanservice delivery vehicle, and unsurprisingly, also completely fails to be sexy. There’s a thin sketch of a plot, but she doesn’t really care about it any more than the writer appeared to.

So I’m pretty disappointed by that particular namesake. The bacon in space painting is much more to my liking.

James Rosenquist, Star Thief

I may do this or something like it in 2020:

I don’t want to be absolutely strict about it, though.

I find my current music setup very satisfying, and would like to sit with it a while, and concentrate more on improving my skills. If it comes to something like a more precise pair of headphones, or a piece of mastering software or something, then fine. But 2019 was a year of partially reinventing my setup multiple times over, and I don’t want to do that now.

“No new books allowed” makes me reflexively rebel, but doing some re-reading does sound very nice, particularly series re-reading. I could also see getting into something like the Expanse novels though.

And while I’m not about to stop listening to new music, I do want to take some time to listen to some music with full attention. Not necessarily critically, just mindfully. Obviously I listen to my own recordings closely as part of the process, but that’s different. Before the internet changed everything, and especially before I had the disposable income to buy several CDs a month, I would listen to an album several times, while not doing anything else. Today most of my music listening is at work or in the car, and I miss the full experience.


I’ve already got some valuable feedback from Obsidian Sound — a couple of technical issues that went under my radar, to keep a closer watch on in future recordings. I feel pretty confident that I understand the outline of what will happen in the mastering process, and I’m eager for the details and results.

throw away the key

First order of business is this gem:

I’m not a baseball fan, but these folks have restored some of my faith in humanity. I may sample this and use it for something…


OK, on to other things: the album!

  • The recordings are 100% done. The last one I completed was probably the creepiest of them all, in a good way. The album won’t be out in time for Halloween, but it’s got October in its DNA.
  • I’m almost certainly going to call it Vultur Cadens, a name for the constellation Lyra, for reasons that should be obvious from the previous few weeks of blog posts.
  • My answer for “is there a theme?” has been “not really.” But I look at the track titles and see that they’re pointing at madness, poison, parasites, scavengers. It looks like there was a major subconscious political vibe.
  • My brother, a Ringling-educated artist who’s done some whimsical and occasionally somewhat creepy character paintings, expressed interest in doing the cover art based on a description of the music and the name. I’m eager to see what he comes up with, and happy to finally put the cover art in the hands of an artist instead of a musician…
  • I’ve always mastered my own stuff, for budget reasons and because those are skills I’d like to develop. This time, I’m hoping to have a couple of key tracks mastered by Obsidian Sound, to measure against my own efforts and to learn from a pro who is at home in this genre and with the Lyra-8 specifically. I consider it an investment into the quality of my future work, and kind of a special treat.

assembly

I’ve passed the 1 hour mark for the Lyra album, but I’m going to edit the 12-minute improv I recorded last night and add one more piece, I think.

I’ve found that my UMC1820 audio interface gets hotter than I would like. The front panel hit 99.7°F at one point last night — even with a fan trying to exhaust air from the back of the case — which implies the electronics inside might be above where they should be in the long term. (For a PC CPU, the general rule is the core should be below 40°C (104°F) when idling; I can only guess that’s roughly true for some of the parts in the interface.)

My old interface ran cool, but the new one crams more electronics into a housing half the size. There’s no ventilation in the rack case I’ve got it in, so I guess I’ll be switching to a 3U rack, possibly 4U. First I need to figure out whether to go for 6″ or 9″ deep (depending on how much platform I need for the 3DWaves stand that’s on the way & the laptop stand behind it), and where to arrange the gaps and any fans/blowers etc. (depending on temperature measurements of the top and bottom of the interface after it’s been running in the box for a while).


3 years ago I was making music experimentally with no particular focus, and I acquired my first Eurorack modules to explore “sounds I can’t make with software,” on the theory they were going to provide an extra voice to accompany my MIDI piano-roll sequences and software synths.

Now what I have is an instrument/system attuned to the music I make and the way I like to make it, rather than the other way around. The last waves of changes really brought it together: intentional focus, hardware/software unification, and hands-on expressive performance. I’m not just fascinated by it, as I have been by a lot of synth gear — but genuinely satisfied. I expect to make very few gear changes in 2020, and will be writing that into my goals for the year.

Here’s what I do have planned:

  • I pre-ordered the SynthTech E520. The Resampling Delay sounds pretty fantastic to me (based on E580 demos), with the character that was the one thing I really liked about Mannequins W/ but a full-featured, sane interface. While the Spectral Crusher does have some overlap with software, it’s got a few other tricks; the Peak Hold sounds a lot better than the one from my own FFT experiments and everything can be modulated in real time, whereas my code barely even runs in real time. That should be shipping next May.
  • Akemie’s Castle. I’m gonna get one. I just really like that crusty character of the old FM chips, and the drone/chord potential is strong even without freely tuneable FM operators.
  • Sequential DSM03 Feedback. I’ve got a winning bid on one in the charity auction, but I won’t raise if someone outbids me.
  • Small gaps: probably going to arcade buttons.
  • Possible displacement: I may find that with Castle I don’t also need Donut. Or that Supercell, Mimeophon, E520, and (possibly) DSM03 is overkill. Or that I’d rather have one Rings and the DSM03 than two Rings. Or that with Castle, my power supply can’t keep up with the -12V requirements and something else has to give. I’m not particularly “looking to get rid of” anything here, but acknowledge that it’s possible.

Other than that, I expect to say “that sounds nice but I don’t need it” a lot in 2020.