Monday, April 25, 2011

A Lot from a Little: See and Try Generative Music

When you hear complex music, you might imagine a serious-minded composer, choosing each note with a learned and discerning ear. Instead, imagine clicking a few cells on a grid, then clicking “Play.”

It’s called generative music, and it will surprise you. For example, this 17-second video is a musical piece that took all of nine clicks in Otomata, a tool you can try for yourself in a Web page.

Before recording the video, I had lit up nine cells by clicking them. The music came from Otomata’s executing a simple set of rules on the lit cells:

  • Each lit cell has a direction: up, down, left, right.

  • On each beat, all the lit cells move one step in their respective directions.

  • If a cell hits the grid’s edge, the cell bounces back the opposite way. On the bounce, a tone will sound. The pitch (low to high) depends on the position, like a piano key’s pitch depends on its position along the keyboard.

  • If a cell hits another cell, each cell changes direction 90 degrees clockwise.

To avoid overly dissonant results, Otomata uses a limited set of pitches. This enforces a similar feel to Otomata pieces. However, within the general similarity is a world of potential variations.

Having experimented for a while, below is the best Otomata piece I created.

I like the way the piece moves through many different tonal relationships and densities. It was the result of my having clicked eleven cells, plus a few extra clicks to change certain cells’ directions.

Otomata is an implementation of cellular automata, a computational technique that combines simple elements and rules to create complex results—or, I should say, potentially complex results. Depending on your starting state, you can end up with simple cycles or highly complex variations on a theme.

If you try it, a little experimentation should quickly get you interesting results. (For a shortcut, you can start by running or tweaking my second piece.)

While Otomata won’t replace the serious-minded composer, it’s a fun way to see how generative music can make a lot out of a little. Thanks go to Batuhan Bozkurt for creating it and making it freely available.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Review: Robert Spector’s The Mom & Pop Store

Part history, part biography, Robert Spector’s The Mom & Pop Store is about America’s corner stores, neighborhood grocers, and other small retailers. You won’t read about these businesses in BusinessWeek or Fortune, yet their human stories are as interesting as any corporate CEO’s.

There’s Rob Kaufelt, owner of Murray’s Cheese Shop in Greenwich Village, New York City, who says: “Sameness is what the larger market is about....Clearly, what we’re celebrating is not sameness. The cheese that you’re buying today is not going to be the same next week as it was last week, because the seasons are changing. The cows are eating something different. You go to McDonald’s or Starbucks for the same thing. That’s what you’re there for. You come to us for the opposite experience of going to Starbucks.”

There’s Chuck Robinson, co-owner with his wife Dee of Village Books in Bellingham, Washington, who says: “We are not in the business of selling books. The grocery store and the drugstore are in the business of selling books. We would like to sell the books off our shelves. But our business is your coming into the store looking for a certain book or idea, and our ability to connect you with that book or idea.”

And there’s Spector’s father, who ran Spector’s Meat Market in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, for four decades. As American Dreams go, Spector’s father’s was more grit than glory, but it got the job done. Spector’s Meat Market bettered the lives of both the Spector family and a local population of loyal customers.

For Spector, a mom & pop’s role within the local community is key. When employees know customers’ names, and people stop by just to stop by, it’s a great mom & pop store. Such stores have meaning beyond buying and selling things. And that’s why Spector thinks they will never go away.

To the conventional wisdom that says the classic mom & pop is an endangered species, Spector says, “Throughout the history of retail, some new format always has been ‘killing’ the mom & pop store, but somehow it always survives.” In the past hundred years, five-and-dime chains, catalogers, department stores, deep discounters, shopping malls, category killers, and e-commerce have all hit the mom & pop economy. The great mom & pops survived by adapting, by finding new ways to keep their communities.

In profiling various mom & pop stores, Spector covers a lot of ground: around America and occasionally beyond, from meat to music to jewelery to pine furniture. Along the way, he seasons the narrative with gems like this one, about a local diner: “If Perth Amboy was an ethnic melting pot, Texas Lunch was the stove.”

My main quibble with the book is it sometimes lets the great mom & pops stand as representatives of all mom & pops. But as Spector notes, “About a third of family-owned businesses survive to the second generation.” We all have had less-than-great experiences with the other two-thirds. I suspect those businesses hold their own lessons. Maybe that’s an opportunity for Spector to write a sequel.

For now, it’s enough to enjoy The Mom & Pop Store as an alternative to the usual fare of books about big businesses and hot trends. Spector brings us back to basics, in a satisfying way.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Beautiful and Pointless Numbers about Poetry

Defending poetry with numbers seems as promising as defending a business plan with an interpretive dance. But David Orr’s book Beautiful and Pointless attempts the feat.

From his review in the New York Times Book Review, David Kirby summarizes Orr’s approach:

[W]hat makes “Beautiful and Pointless” different from thousands of other defenses of poetry is that, according to its author, poetry differs from music and stamp collecting in that people’s love for poetry is measurably greater than their love for any other activity. Poetry fans don’t just love poetry a little; they really love it.

To test that hypothesis, Orr went to Google and conducted two different searches, one for “I like X” and one for “I love X,” with X being represented by baseball, cooking, gardening and half a dozen other activities, including movies and poetry. Admittedly, the science behind this research is slightly less complicated than that required to make a lemon meringue pie, but the results are noteworthy. In every instance except two, more people “like” an activity than “love” it; for example, readers of romance novels like that art form 3.36 times more than they love it. The exceptions are poker, which splits 50-50, and — of course — poetry, whose partisans “love” it twice as much as they “like” it.

Reading that, my first thought was, I hope he searched with those phrases in quotes. With the quotes, Google would find documents containing the phrase as a whole. Without the quotes, Google would find documents that contained all the words but not necessarily in order or together. The difference matters: Much poetry, and commentary about poetry, is about love. The same cannot be said of poker. And it’s debatable where love fits in the world of romance novels. ;) So if Orr did not use quotes around his queries, poetry might have had a big advantage against the others.

Since it was easy to do, I asked Google myself. The answers were surprising.

I tried poetry, without quotes. I got a love-to-like ratio of 0.92. With quotes, I got 0.93. Hmmm. I was expecting Orr’s ratio of 2. Instead of getting double the love, I got no effect.

How about romance novels? With quotes, the ratio was 3.75—which sounds like Orr’s result except it is reversed; Orr’s 3.36 ratio was for like-to-love, whereas my 3.75 was love-to-like. Ouch. But without quotes, I got a love-to-like ratio of 0.43 for romance novels—much closer to Orr’s 3.36 ratio when it is inverted into love-to-like (0.30).

Poker? With quotes, the love-to-like ratio was 1; without quotes, 0.96. That was in line with the 50-50 split (as Kirby put it) that Orr found.

I checked poetry again. For the record, the results were:

  • 74,000,000 for love, no quotes
  • 80,700,000 for like, no quotes
  • 2,750,000 for love, with quotes
  • 2,960,000 for like, with quotes

Maybe, from Orr’s book to Kirby’s review to my interpretation, something got disconnected. But for me, the numbers failed to add up.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Misguidedly Different

As I check out, the desk guy asks, “How was your stay?”

I say the room was nice, especially the view of Central Park. But I have a question: “Why is my room-key card like this?”

The card is narrower and longer than a credit card. It is too long to fit in a standard wallet. In a pants pocket, it will bend. Sticking out of a shirt pocket, it will evoke that 1950s fashion faux pas, the slide rule.

The desk guy flashes a grimace of recognition. “I asked that question my first day here. They said they wanted to be different.”

If they wanted to be different in this particular, misguided way, they could have at least made their key cards also be slide rules.