I’ve lately seen a lot of convincing cases made to go meat-free. First there was The Game Changers which I watched on Netflix back in November. It did come across as fairly heavy pro-vegan propaganda, but then I thought about the old adage “follow the money”, and figured that if anyone was going to be pushing a dodgy agenda then surely the meat industry is prime suspect here. So maybe what it is, is that we’ve been hammered by pro-meat propaganda for decades and The Game Changers is a fair and timely pushback.
Anyway, it’s worth a watch, and presents some pretty convincing arguments, endorsed by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lewis Hamilton among others. If I had any critique I would say it is largely anecdotal. These are high profile case studies. But evidently at least some top athletes are succeeding without any animal products in their diets. So on balance it makes a good case for veganism.
Personally while I do occasionally enjoy a burger or a steak it’s now only roughly once every six months. Health and nutrition arguments aside, surely – given the terrible environmental cost of cattle farming – we can at least cut down and start to see beef as more like a delicacy rather than something that has to be on every plate. Obviously there’s also the amount of milk we consume to to take into account. I’ve been using almond and hazelnut milk (the latter of which is great in tea!) recently but then there was that story about bees so as usual nothing is simple.
People argue at great length about nutrition and organic and so on and in my view a lot of what gets claimed is bullshit, in part because it’s hard to prove or disprove what actually happens inside your digestive system and beyond. I find Snopes good for fact-checking this kind of stuff. It seems to me that the human body is impressively versatile at dealing with whatever you chuck down your throat. But of course over the long term a healthy diet is going to be better for you than an unhealthy one. Surely the odd bad thing now and then isn’t a disaster unless perhaps you’re a high performance athlete. Everything in moderation.
Anyway, burgers aside I don’t think I’ll be giving up chicken or fish anytime soon but we do have a lot of vegetarian meals during the week and options are getting better. Quorn mince seems as good if not nicer than meat for making meals like chili con carne (technically chili sin carne I suppose).
Today this (apparently not sponsored) video by Mark Rober (remember the glitter bomb guy?) popped into my feed and I have to say those Beyond Meat burgers look very tasty. And I’ve just been informed on Facebook that they are available in Tesco. So I’m going to pick some up later and give them a try.
No I’m not going to start doing a weekly post (although I like the idea), and yes I’ve missed the first six weeks anyway but I felt like posting something random and can’t think of a better blog post title right now.
Yes, blog post. I don’t accept that a blog post can be referred to simply as ‘a blog’, especially given that a blog is a container for many blog posts. This is one hill I am prepared to die on if indeed blogs themselves don’t die first.
I’m currently listening to Microhumans by Ali Wade, for about the seventh time since I bought a copy on Bandcamp the other day. You can find ithere and also embedded here:
I first came across Ali Wade when Tom and I saw a live show at Cafe OTO in Dalston (that’s in London).
Side note: Having just Googled that event to find the link, I’m now coming to terms with the fact that that was apparently back in twenty fifteen! My guess had been 2017. Where the hell does time go? Well, apparently we can only regard *imaginary* time as a direction like the other three dimensions, so maybe this explains it.
Anyway as you will have seen if you visited that link, Anthony Child (AKA Surgeon, whom I originally discovered via his track Magnese in Jeff Mills’ Live at the Liquid Room mix, back in 1996, and subsequently went to see DJ many times back when I lived near Birmingham, and generally is someone I hold in high regard) was doing, that night, a live improvised performance with a Buchla Easel, alongside Ali Wade who provided generative projections on a large screen. The whole thing was totally amazing, and the night was only dampened by the following two facts:
That at the end of the show I felt compelled to get up and go and slightly-drunkenly shake Anthony’s hand, and tell him how great he was only to realise mid-sentence it wasn’t the end of a techno night in 1998, and what was I doing? And that he most likely just wanted to be left alone to pack up his kit and get home, so I started to apologise then ended it awkwardly.
That I then had to get a £70-odd cab to Stansted in order to be at a meeting at 8am the following morning in an airport meeting room having slept for about 4 hours in a Travelodge. A meeting that culminated in an ultimately failed business venture that ate up much of the intervening time between now and then and, perhaps, provides a more plausible explanation than the imaginary time thing.
Anyway, following that night I have been following Ali on Twitter since and this is how I heard about his new album. Also Tony posted that Cafe OTO set to his SoundCloud here. If you don’t like that sort of thing then then there’s probably no convincing you otherwise. It is kind of niche.
Anyway. So, yes, Microhumans has got me thinking about my own endeavours to find a creative voice that I am happy with.
To provide some context, I’ve been dabbling (well no, that undersells it) but anyway I have been dabbling with making my own music for a few years now. Well… I actually started back in 1995 using a Roland keyboard hooked up to an Atari ST in the music dept at school but it has not been a sustained effort for all of those 25 years. It is something I have dipped back into over the years but I’m doing a lot more recently.
Why? Because I have this constant need to create something, and music is something I am still as obsessed with as when I was a teenager.
When the web came along the thing I was excited to create was web stuff, and it still is (that’s my career) but it has tended towards the technical side of things for me. In the early days of the web a web designer did everything: designed and built it. In all honesty there’s wasn’t much good design a lot of the time – things went straight into build. Java applet water ripple effect, marquee text, job done. Often ugly, if quaintly naïve.
But then I got inspired by people like (the late) Hillman Curtis and The Designers Republic™. I love the elegant simplicity of amazing design, and how it makes you feel. So design was what inspired me. I got a lot better. I learned about typography and book layout principles and the value of white space and grids and pace and consistency and so on. I got a job in London in a proper web design studio (that became a digital ad agency) and learned a shitload. I designed stuff for high profile names and brands. I got promoted and briefed junior designers, and critiqued their work. I became a Creative Lead at an award-winning agency.
But I was never in my mind as good as those (as I saw them) proper designers. The ones who didn’t come from a coding background, but instead had done graphic design courses or cool-sounding typography courses in Italy. The ones who used Macs long before OS X came out, when I was still playing Quake II on my self-built gaming PC.
Of course I was good at my job because they wanted ‘a me’, i.e. someone who could bridge the technical-creative gap well and make stuff that was slick to use, performed really well and looked great too. Yes, the Flash era.
Privately, while I was very happy with the work I was putting out (some really great sites), I never felt comfortable being the guy doing original concepts, designing the logo, coming up with the visual identity and so on. I could do it but my attempts usually felt too mathematical and safe. I’m happy drawing isometrically… using a ruler but never freehand.
I like logic and a grid, but sometimes you need to just be free. I suppose this restriction lends itself to certain types of design but not to all.
At the heart of it all I think that I think in a technical way. I’m good with tech. I don’t generally find computers difficult. It all just seems very logical. I have the patience and thoroughness to trace a complicated problem back to its source and solve it. Other people, I note, often have a hard time figuring out how to connect to the WiFi, or whatever, but they are probably better people in other more important ways.
So I play to my strengths and I have been in well-paid jobs building complicated things for high profile companies and organisations. And it pays the bills. And it’s satisfying. And I’m good at it. But behind all of this is still the desire to create. And ideally create something not so commercial and disposable, but instead for creativity’s sake. That’s not really changed since making my first homepage on my Freeserve webspace. The Freeserve account that came on a CD-ROM from Dixons.
Despite being outwardly technical (and being labelled, sometimes to my quiet dismay, as a tech guy) I do not find technology in and of itself very interesting. It’s a set of tools. If it’s not working I will try fix it because broken tools are at best annoying. But I really want technology to be this invisible backstage presence, not the focus of anything.
So I come back to this conundrum of what I can do in my life to create something expressive and of worth. I have concluded that while I’m adept enough at design to do decent web design work I’m never going to be a graphic artist. And that no longer excites me like it did (although I still love other people’s work).
Then for a while in the mid 2000’s it was photography that I was going to do. Until I met a professional photographer and was, ironically, put off doing it professionally. Rachael is of course brilliant and was always inspirational, but seeing the realities of what it involved day to day changed my mind about choosing that career path.
I need a thing. So it’s still music, then.
Over the past few years I’ve amassed a collection of hardware music gear that helps (to my ears) create a more organic sound than what I was getting using just a computer. I want noise and imperfection due to crackly guitar pedals and overdriven mixer channels, rather than by consciously adding them with some plugin (though I have nothing at all against anyone who does that stuff well with software).
What I’ve been doing since building this new setup is, with hindsight, learning how to use – and getting over the initial novelty of working with – the equipment. I’ve done some decent tunes some of which were picked up and released by Anode Records, which was amazingly encouraging. In an environment where it’s very hard to get any honest feedback from anyone, getting at least the nod that you’re in the right ballpark is priceless. I’m pretty proud of a lot of those tracks but they are not there yet.
Since then, and this year, I’m working on some new stuff. However this time I’m going to amass a collection of material and mull it over and (I hope) probably never release most of it except for only the very best stuff once I have had time to be more objective about it.
To this end I’m using a new and anonymous identity for more ‘ambient’ music and I’ll also do some more dance floor stuff under the firstperson name.
So, to get to my point, it was on listening to Microhumans (long pre-amble over) that I realised I still have some way to go with this. Like great design, Ali’s music has a simplicity and elegance to it that shines a harsh light on my own efforts. A lot the music I have done tends too much towards being too busy even though all along I’m aiming for simplicity and elegance. I suppose, as with good design, it appears effortless when it’s done well – but in fact a lot of hidden work has surely gone into it.
This is famously the case with the creative process in general, so it is something I must keep in mind on those days when I get disheartened having finished a track I’ve been working on for days only to realise it sounds uncomfortable or too fussy.
This all reminds me of that modern-art-hater’s comment ‘I could have done that’, when looking at a Rothko. Well, no, you didn’t and also you couldn’t. But you could possibly make a rubbish emulation of it.
I’m not trying to emulate anyone else’s music but of course I am inspired by it. Earlier I was musing on whether I should again play here to my strengths. Perhaps rather than fighting against my natural tendency towards logic and technical thinking there is a way of building some interesting music around how my mind naturally tends to work. For example this could be using Max/MSP, and turning my coding skills towards making sounds. I have some ideas about machine learning that could be interesting there.
However I like the physical process of jacking things into each other and turning knobs, and that noise that comes out of the Volca Keys or the Juno chorus. I already spend too long at the computer so the thought of more coding (which is a big part of my job) puts me off the software approach… although yes there are control interfaces, and, gosh, maybe modular synths are an option although that is becoming a cliché…
I have just recorded this DJ mix, with a selection of firstperson tracks from 2017-2018. Putting it all together feels like a good way of closing this chapter. I am pretty proud of a handful of these tracks for personal reasons. YMMV of course. Learned lots and now it’s time to do something a bit different… and perhaps more considered.
People in the US might not be able to play it on Mixcloud owing to the fact they have to process a waiver form saying that I produced all of the tracks in the mix. So just under the Mixcloud embed please find a direct link to the MP3 file.
This tweet by Ron S. of Anode Records encapsulates well how it often feels to share your music online. For me it’s borderline embarrassing to announce to the world your own creative work. And the way it goes is that you build it up… and spend days (sometimes weeks) fussing over details and over-listening until you have pretty much no idea if it’s any good or not any more.
So after all that, and even though you primarily make music for your own enjoyment, it would seem a shame to just leave it on your own hard drive forever, never to be heard by anyone else. And if you’re me (which I am) then you know full well that it’s amateur dad-techno which probably has niche appeal to a handful of your also-40+ cohorts. But… well maybe those people would like to hear it. It would be great to get a bit of feedback too. Is it any good? Do you like some bits? Does this have any merit at all? So you send it privately to ten or so friends and family. Be honest, tell me if it sucks. Anything!
But you don’t hear back for a few days so whatever… out goes the Tweet and a Facebook post. May as well throw it out there.
But then still nothing. No interactions or responses. Awkward.
So you then worry that everyone thinks it’s so terrible that they don’t know what to say. So you look at the stats and, no, that seems not to be the case because because, well, twitter gives you tweet analytics:
Likes: 1 (thanks bro)
Retweets: 1 (my other account)
Link clicks: 1
3 people reached
So one person clicked through and listened to the track on SoundCloud. In 36 hours. The tweet is now well buried.
The reality seems to be that it’s pretty difficult to get people to hear what you’ve recorded. Is nobody interested in this sort of music any more? Or are they just busy? (probably this) Is it because there’s a zillion hours of free music uploaded every minute? Or is it the algorithm making it essentially hidden? (could be) Is social media just a bad way of sharing music unless you’re Calvin Harris with 12.6M followers?
If the problem was just that the music is crap I would expect a lot of clicks but no likes. But there are near zero clicks. Nobody is hearing it to begin with.
This, in part, led me to giving up for 18 months. What’s the point? But then I missed doing it and got quite low because I wasn’t doing anything creative in my life (work is mostly technical these days).
So it’s 2020 and I’m starting up again. And it’s not at the standard I would like yet. So the answer is to make more and more stuff. But then to be more selective. Fail lots and get better. I’ll continue to share it because why not. But like Ron, above, I won’t expect any of these tweets to blow up anytime soon.
p.s. Ron S’s Planet Z tracks are pretty great. And thanks to anyone who did spare a few minutes to listen to my new tracks (thanks Tom, Ben + Daniel!) And thanks Dad for buying a copy on Bandcamp 🙂
Our boy is now seven so we were keen to sit him down to watch the lectures. I remember being at school and struggling a bit with the “why” of maths. Understanding how maths is applied in the real world can really bring it to life. This year’s lectures did exactly that and he loved them!
In one of the lectures Matt Parker demonstrated a machine called MENACE created by Matt Scroggs (a copy of Donald Michie’s 1961 MENACE). MENACE is built out of matchboxes and can effectively play noughts and crosses:
I found this totally fascinating and decided to make my own version, basically as a learning exercise. It had never previously occurred to me that building reinforcement-based machine learning code might be something within the reach of my capabilities.
Play it here – Hint: when you first load it you are playing a complete beginner. Click the green button to load a pre-trained computer player.
It is built in AngularJS which is a framework I know well, so I could quickly put together the basic game mechanic. AngularJS provides a code-light way of binding data to an interface.
The first (and easiest) part was to make a noughts and crosses game engine. This is fairly straightforward because it’s such a simple game. Initially the game was just for two human players.
The second (and more interesting) part of the task was to make the computer player itself. The computer player is separate from the game program, and is notified by a window event when it is its turn to go. The game controller has a public method so the computer can ask it for the board configuration, and another method for the computer to make its turn (also used by the human player).
The computer player is in not programmed to play noughts and crosses, it has to learn how to play it from scratch. The only thing it gets told is where it can go, so it doesn’t try to go in places that are already taken.
The computer player deals quite abstractly with a flat array of positions that it calls the ‘stateArray’. For basic play it doesn’t even need to “know” that these are arranged in a square. The process is:
Get the state array from the game controller
Find which places are free
If it’s the first time it’s seen this configuration: Generate an object representing an equal chance of going in each free position. Otherwise: Fetch from memory the existing object representing this configuration.
Pick a position at random from a pool of choices where the number of each choice in the pool is determined by the weightings (so for the first time it sees any given configuration there are an equal number of choices for each position).
Make its move
Remember where it moved and what the board configuration was at the time
At the end of the game, for each move made, create or update a permanent record of the configuration at that time updating the weighting according to whether it won, lost or drew the game. In other words if it won it will be much more likely to make that move again. If it lost it will be less likely to make that move again (and eventually the chance will be zero) and if it drew it will be just slightly more likely to repeat the move.
All of the above can be done without the computer player needing any sense of it being a square board. However an extra level of complexity was required for it to work like MENACE – namely rotations (technically rotations and flips). So in addition to the above I added a rotations handling service. This needs to know the board width and height. Essentially it turns that flat state array into a two dimensional array (rows and columns). These 2D boards can then be rotated or flipped. For any given board configuration the rotations service works out all the equivalent rotations that are unique on the fly. So for some configurations there would be no equivalents (e.g. a blank board, or only one item in the middle). It mirrors and flips the board so there are up to eight equivalents for any board layout (see this Google sheet).
The mirrors service itself took me about a day to grapple with, it’s complicated because we need to:
Get all rotations of the current board
Search our history for the ‘keys’ of those rotations (to see if we have seen any of those rotations before)
On finding a match get the move weighting of that match.
‘Unrotate’ the matched move weighting object (reverse the process) so it aligns to the ‘real’ board
Pick a move using the unrotated weighting and make our move
Finally re-rotate our actual move position so we can update the chance of going there again in the context of the rotated version in the history
This mirrors service itself ran to 250 lines of code. There are probably ways to do this more simply, perhaps by people more adept at maths! I got there eventually but this was by far the most complicated party of the work and took a day to write (this file and the integration with it back inside the computer player module).
I made the rotations module separate from the computer player to keep things flexible. It does not have the board dimensions hard-coded, so it could be used for other games too.
This was great fun to build. Noughts and Crosses is of course a very trivial game with only a few hundred possible board configurations (and even fewer due to the rotations) but even so building a computer player that learns how to play it was surprisingly complicated.
I am now wondering if I can repurpose the computer player to learn how to play a simplified version of Pontoon (i.e. should it stick or twist for any given hand?). And I am also thinking about a way of building a player for Connect 4.
Connect 4 has many more places and possible configurations so it might require a different approach but I will see where I get to. The key differences are:
In Connect 4 you can only pick a column to move in, not a row (pieces always fall to the bottom and do not float)
In Connect 4 we can’t rotate the board as it is bound in one orientation by gravity. However we could most definitely half the configurations (and must do to speed up learning) by flipping horizontally.
The number of possibly configurations is vastly greater than in noughts and crosses so we might not be able to store every possible state, in part due to memory limitations and in part due to this being inefficient. Given that we only need to worry about rows, columns or diagonals of length 4 it might be sufficient to only consider configurations within 4×4 squares regardless of where they are on the board. This should reduce the amount of unique patterns to store. I will report back once I get going with it.
Anyway let me know what you think. Or if you have any ideas on how to simplify or improve the code let get in touch and / or make a pull request.