My weblog ELECTRON BLUE, which concentrated on science and mathematics, ran from 2004-2008. It is no longer being updated. My current blog, which is more art-related, is here.

Wed, 31 Jan, 2007

Calculus Becalmed

It hasn't been just technical difficulties that have limited my blogification this last month. I am ashamed to admit that I have done hardly any mathematics in January. There are all sorts of excuses, but in the realm of Physicsworld, there is no excuse. Remember that Freeman Dyson and Murray Gell-Mann, as well as others, taught themselves calculus in less than a year when they were just teenagers. So what's wrong with me? Well, one of the reasons is my failure of nerve. After six years, I have lost some of the fervor that drove me to rush out of Fermilab and into the world of learning mathematics and physics. That wintry slowness tells me: What is the point of it? I will never be a scientist, never go through the twenty years' ordeal that it takes to really become a True Scientist, never struggle for the Ultimate Totally Admirable Goal of tenure at an academic institution, never really work at Fermilab. Why do I, a commercial artist specializing in architecture and vegetables, need to do any of this? It's not just for making pretty pictures with exponential or catenary curves in them.

As the anniversary of the third year of this Electron Blog approaches, what have I got to show for it? Am I launching rockets yet? No, but my friends gave me a lava lamp which reminds me of the processes of convection and cooling. Have I discovered new particles? No, but I like to read the articles on particles in New Scientist Magazine. Have I learned to unravel string theory? No, but I have good friends who blog about knitting and even knitting and calculus. So why is the Electron losing energy? Is there some unseen winter field slowing me down? Am I about to emit a photon and put on the brakes as I turn some graphic curve?

I can point to two main reasons why my calculus study is going so slow. The first is that I don't have a lot of personal contact with anyone who knows that I am doing this or can help if I get into perplexity. The closest of my Friendly Mathematicians are in Baltimore (an hour's drive away even in normal traffic), and they are so incredibly and legitimately busy in their lives that I am not able to reserve enough time with them. They want to help, but some of my questions are just not things that can be answered over the internet. My entire life, at least since I can remember it, consists of trying to find time to work on whatever with people whose lives are so full and overscheduled that I am hardly more than another demand on their time, in essence, a nuisance. I can remember with vivid fondness the few times when one or another of these people has sat with me for more than an hour or two, just helping me clear up the problems of various sorts that were hindering me. (Thanks, Electron readers…you know who you are.) "Don't bother them," has been my refrain, yet how could I learn something without that vital contact? As I've said before, I will not subject myself to the nightmare of a formal classroom again if I can help it. And tutors are very expensive. That is one reason for the slowdown.

Another reason is the material itself. I was OK with looking at graphs and finding where the limits were. I was even OK with figuring out where the limits were from the equations, and I'm trying to review that right now. And I could even crank out derivatives, either from a graph or algebraically or from one rule or another. But here's the mathematical obstacle. The book (Anton's calculus text) offers proofs of each derivative rule. I have tried to work through them, but the book doesn't give all the steps or explain what's going on. For mathematicians, proof is the essential criterion for legitimacy. If it isn't proved, it doesn't work. But I don't get these proofs. Without understanding and working through the proofs, I am not entitled to work with the derivative rules. And without the derivative rules, I can't go ahead and derive. That's why I am stuck on the learning curve. So I guess I'll emit these photons of synchrotron blog radiation and hope that I'll find some way to gain back the energy to continue on beam and on course.

Posted at 10:51 pm | link

Tue, 30 Jan, 2007

Copal River

Copal is a resin incense once used by the ancient Mayans, and it is still available for those who like adventures in fragrance. Placed on a bit of burning charcoal, the golden crystals emit a plume of pungent smoke. The composers of the 2006 album Copal River are conoisseurs of incense, and this is the origin of the album's title. Copal smoke wafts over the archetypal River which symbolizes all things flowing as well as a real river they visited during the making of the album.

Copal River is composed by Darrell Burgan, who lives near Dallas, Texas, and Scott Turner, who is based in Northern California. These two are the main hosts of Stillstream, the online ambient music community that I wrote about in the previous entry. Burgan uses the nickname "Palancar" in the chatroom (after a tropical reef he likes to dive), and also as his main "artist pseudonym" for making ambient music. Turner, known in the chat as "Lofat" for his strict vegan diet, records under the wry name of "Not Your Average Hippy." The Copal album came about from what Burgan and Turner called "ambient weekends," where they would actually get together with their synthesizers and acoustic instruments and play ensemble. The music they recorded during one of those sessions became this album.

As a listener in the online chat, I had the opportunity to hear the album in progress, as Burgan played the pieces in their evolving versions. It wasn't my business to criticize or suggest anything, but I like to think that I was at least a little bit of a participant in the creation, even just as part of an appreciative audience. The final version of the album was released in late 2006, on Burgan/Palancar's own ambient music label Blue Water Records.

In my opinion it is one of the finest albums to come out of this community since Stillstream's beginning a few years ago. Burgan and Turner, both experienced ambient artists in their own right, combine the best of their forces to produce a calm and compelling set of sound-journeys. Despite the copal incense, there is no connection to any ancient Mayan ritual or any specific culture at all. It has no faux-"tribal" drumbeats or chanting, and to the composers' credit, no cliche'd nature sounds of birds or crickets or frogs. The best description might be "abstractions from nature."

The tonality is consistent all the way through; it is resolutely modal and minor. There isn't a major chord to be heard in its more than an hour's duration. It sometimes approaches "Oriental" pentatonic tonality as well. This choice of harmony gives the album a close consistency of mood and style. On some of the tracks, a rambling melodic line played on synthesizer keyboard calls forth memories of psychedelic rock of an earlier era. On other tracks, the microtonal electronic sounds dominate, with some acoustic percussion added in. There is also a large amount of "ambient drone," the trance-like, slowly changing form that Stillstream often favors.

The opening track "The River" places listeners in a cool, misty soundscape of muted colors. The contemplative and often melancholy mood will stay through the whole album, though each track plays a variation on it. A standout track early in the album is the graceful "Outbackyard," which mixes tonal percussion (sounding rather like marimba notes) with a pentatonic melodic tracery. This track reminds me of Robert Rich's Indonesia-inspired compositions, but it is more restrained. Burgan and Turner mix influences from "world" music here, as the "Outback" of "Outbackyard" ends with a didgeridoo drone.

Towards the middle of the album, the mood turns dark and more than a little scary with "Earlier in the Day," a title which, like most of the other ones, means much more to the composers than the listeners. (Their interim titles were names of elements from the Periodic Table, which I thought were cool but which they discarded.) This track's motif repeats in pentatonic gloom, interrupted by a sudden sizzling of electronic noise which will wake a listener from a drone-inspired trance. It is the dark, more than a little disturbing center of the album. The next track after "Earlier," "The Toy Room Upstairs," (are the toys electronic music synthesizers and computers?) moves deeper into a noisier "industrial" soundworld, with lots of swizzles and harder-edged echoing sounds over the characteristic Copal drone.

Track 7, the enigmatic and uneasy "New Freeway," begins with tragic minor chords, which are then joined by spacey engine sounds which could be cars or UFO's. Copal then moves back toward flowing drones for the last two tracks. Track 8, "Remembering," and Track 9, Plume," return to the misty, somber River and the meditative mood of the beginning of the album, fading out with what might be a human voice, singing in the twilight.

What makes this album so good is not only its musical consistency and clarity, but the depth of emotion and inner imagery evoked from what might otherwise be simple electronic noises. This is where the musical instincts and insights of the composers make the difference, no matter how complex the gear or software. Burgan and Turner intend to release more of their collaborations, and I await further journeys down the river of fragrant echoes.

You may hear samples from the Copal River album at the Copal River site.

Posted at 3:34 am | link

Sun, 28 Jan, 2007

The Electronic Salon

One of the nicest things about 2006 was that I became part of an informal online "club" devoted to electronic music. They meet through internet chat, a type of communication which allows "real-time" conversation over the Net. Members type their lines of conversation onto the screen, which everyone in the group sees on their own computer, and they can respond to anyone on that screen. The whole event is known as a "chatroom," though of course there is no real "room" involved. The "room" meets about four times a week, once on Tuesday evening and later at night on weekends.

Internet "chat" is mostly thought of as being a place for teenagers to flirt and connect. It also has a more threatening reputation for harboring stalkers and sex predators. But this electronic music group is far from that. There is none of that "hey baby how R U 2Nite" stuff going on. Instead, the talk can range from the music itself to aesthetics, movies, books, philosophy, and religion. The chat is not always serious, though; there's plenty of silliness and humor and bad jokes. But most of all, they talk about the equipment and software that they use to make their experimental music.

When it comes to electronic music, the technology has progressed incredibly much since my experiences with the Buchla and Moog thirty-five years ago. Those old "analog" synthesizers are now treasured relics, sometimes reproduced and replicated lovingly by modern craftsmen. But the edge of music technology has long since moved into the digital realm. A single laptop loaded with the right software can do just about everything that an old wall-size Moog used to do. Modern synthesizers, with keyboards or without them, create sounds from samples as well as electronic generators. Manipulations of sound which used to take hours on old tape machines can now be done in seconds. Sounds are "looped" digitally so they repeat; echoes and sequences and arpeggiations pour out of software into equally virtual sound-working devices. The output, in the case of this "community," is ambient music.

I've described ambient before, and as always I refer you to some of my first Electron entries of February 2004, where you may read my series of essays describing this kind of sound and the composers who make it. In this case, the online community is its own audience. Almost everyone in the group not only listens to ambient, but creates it as well. During the chat sessions, there is often a real-time concert, in which the host of the group plays about twenty minutes of live ambient sound from his home studio. With the marvel of the global Internet, we can hear live improvisations from a studio in Hawaii, Texas, Scotland, or even Croatia. While the improvisation is going on, the listeners in the chatroom sometimes comment. The unspoken agreement is that nothing harsh or rude should be said about the music. Most of the comments are either sympathetic and simple, such as "I'm really feeling this," or mildly constructive, such as "You have a nice sequence going on here now." The best of these improvisations are recorded and placed in an online archive where they can be heard again.

The membership of this chatroom is almost exclusively male, and also older than the usual group of internet chatters. Ambient music, like physics, continues to be a predominantly male field. There are a couple of women ambient musicians who stop by, but they don't stay very long. I am usually the only female in the chatroom, and I'm there not as a player but as a devoted ambient listener. I have none of the elaborate sound equipment that they talk about, so their "gear talk" is lost on me. However, I often share my own memories of working with the old synthesizers. Some of my friends in the group have suggested that I try making electronic music again, even after three decades and more. A modest synthesizer or piece of electronic sound software is not that expensive. I am tempted, but if I want to do sound as well as art, I would have to find the time to do it, and at this point I don't have enough time to do what I should be doing, let alone what I might want to do. So I am satisfied for now to listen and belong to the "Salon."

If you would like to hear and read what goes on in the Salon, drift on over to the Stillstream web site where you can find links to the music, the chatroom, and the archives. I must remind my more conservative musical listeners that ambient may not sound like "music" to them at all. It is more like "sound sculpture" or "audible wallpaper." It is not always meant to be the center of attention, as a conventional piece of classical music would be. Ambient is often there just to set a mood, a feeling, or evoke memories of places and times beyond our ordinary reality.

In my next entry, I'll introduce you to one of the best efforts of of this community, a newly released CD by two of its creative leaders.

Posted at 3:58 am | link

Thu, 25 Jan, 2007

Liberated from Limbo

After more than three weeks of inactivity, due to the renovation of two of my computers and the temporary absence of my indispensable Webmistress, I am now finally back on track with ELECTRON BLUE, furnished with new blog connection software that should be easier than what I have been working with up to now.. I may have lost half my readers in this hiatus, but that's, like, only six people anyway. So for that handful plus one of devoted readers, your wait is over, and I'm back on the Electron Road.

So, what happened during those three weeks? Well, it finally got to be winter. I am, as most of you know, thrilled (not) by the resumption of wintry weather. I put gas in my new car, twice. I have driven 100 percent city driving, stop and go traffic. What else? Uh, let me try to remember…my mind is a blank, it's winter. OK, one thing happened: my Dendrobium orchid bloomed.

Stay tuned, or return tuned; coming up is some interesting music writing as well as more math. Thanks for your patience.

Posted at 3:03 am | link

Sat, 13 Jan, 2007

Ne Plus Ultramarine

While I'm waiting for my main system to be renewed, let me show you my latest painting. It is a gift to my friend Amanda Walker, the "Net Goddess," whose expertise and moral support has sustained me for more than ten years, both in the virtual world and the "real" one. The painting is acrylic on board, 12" x 16", and is titled (at least one of its titles) "Dimensional Interface." There's a lot of ultramarine blue in this picture, because it's one of Amanda's favorite colors.

Posted at 2:33 am | link

Fri, 05 Jan, 2007

Electron Glitch

After a busy and overfed Holiday Season, I am now back to my pursuits. My desktop fountain is filled and trickling, paint is flowing, (or rather, oozing) and I have new paper on my mathematics clipboard. However, I am also having what they now call "issues" with my main computer, so both my e-mail and my blogability have been somewhat compromised, not to mention my digital art action. I am going to have this 2003-vintage system overhauled by my computer friends, and that should take care of the Issues. But it will also take about a week, so I may be unusually silent for that time. I can probably toss off a couple of entries from one of my laptops, but only if I have something worth talking about.

Having a computer overhauled is like being born again. As my Computer Friend explained, a computer over a couple of years old gets filled not only with files, data, and memories, but with spyware, extra programs, used-up old files, and what computer professionals generally call "cruft." "Cruft," which sounds like something you would have to use a special shampoo to remove, is the detritus of computer use over the years: old temporary files, web leavings, mini-programs that were once useful but now outmoded, and all sorts of other leftover code that slows down your machine. To get rid of it, the whole machine must be emptied and then filled afresh. I am not enough of a computer expert to do this, so I am handing it over to the professionals. They will also install more memory chips.

When it returns to me, my computer will be innocent again. He won't even remember his name, let alone what it was he did for me over the last three years. I am currently frantically backing up any files that I want to keep, which is most of them. I have filled three DVD's and a number of CD's as well. My files go all the way from Zoroastrian essays to the sounds of the seventeen-year cicadas in 2004. I'll have to re-load all my programs, too, and download the proper drivers for my printer and scanner as well. It will take some time. So when you read my next Weblog entry, it will probably be coming from either Fravashi, my angelic Dell laptop, or SoyMac, my nutritious white Macintosh. I think I'll re-name the desktop. I now have confirmation from many sources that even the most abstract-minded of mathematicians and physicists name their computers. Let's go with something very familiar. As I no longer drive the blue Electron Car, I will transfer the name to my other vehicle of choice. Therefore I hope to re-name my re-born desktop computer "Electron Blue," or simply, the "Electron."

Posted at 2:37 am | link

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