Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Modulating The Arturia Minibrute With The Arturia Microbrute

A 5-minute video explaining and demonstrating how to do it.



I caught an awful flu earlier this year which had me incapable of doing anything other than sleeping or watching videos for two or three weeks. During that time I watched almost every Minibrute and Microbrute video on YouTube, and I was really surprised, because I did not find one video like this. I definitely saw some great videos, but nothing which addressed this fairly obvious use case. So I made this video.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Arx: Clojure (Overtone) Archaeopteryx Port

I've finally open-sourced an Archaeopteryx rewrite in Clojure using Overtone. It's called Arx. I wrote this last year but only just open-sourced it today. I had planned to make the code more idiomatic, and upgrade the drum samples, but I forgot all about it, so I figured I should just get on with it.

I also wrote a similar Clojure project in 2013 at WACM. It's called markov-bass-lines and it builds moombahton beats with a very entry-level Markov chain.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Maybe Some Empires Never Die

Goethe wrote a terrific paper on plant reproduction. In it, he describes how reproduction in plants occurs after a systematic buildup of the resources which enable it.

One of the classic ideas in Western civilization is that the Roman Empire fell to savage tribes of Goths in what is now Germany. The problem with this idea is that the Empire bifurcated about 100 years prior to that, in a process quite similar to the process Goethe identified in plants. The Western half of the Empire remained headquartered in Rome, the Empire's origin, and retained the original name as well. But the other half had its headquarters in Byzantium (aka Istanbul, aka Constantinople), and began to be called the Byzantine Empire. Although the Roman Empire's Western half collapsed only about a hundred years later, the Eastern half persisted for an additional thousand years, until sometime between 1450 and 1480 (depending who you ask).

Even that longevity looks paltry compared to my preferred interpretation, however. Assume for the sake of argument that empires exist primarily to establish hereditary advantages for the members of particular classes of people. Or, alternatively, that there is, at the core of any empire, a system which exists primarily to establish hereditary advantages for the members of that empire's aristocracy.

Depending on which variant you prefer, you could say that the aristocracy-favoring system within the Roman Empire abandoned the Empire and took over the Roman Catholic Church instead, or that the Roman Empire abandoned many of its governmental aspects and became the Roman Catholic Church. Keep in mind that popes commanded armies and exerted governmental authority in and around Rome for well over a thousand years, all the way up to 1870. Even today, the Church may be the third-biggest landowner in the world, although its vast wealth is difficult to calculate from the outside. And I had a Latin teacher in high school who met a Catholic priest from Poland and had a conversation with him in Latin, even though my teacher spoke no Polish and the priest spoke no English.

Consider also the British Empire. The best estimate for the official fall of the British Empire would be 1997, when control of Hong Kong reverted to mainland China. Likewise, although Britain lost its American colonies as early as the 1700s, colonies like India, Pakistan, Palestine (now Israel), and many others remained under British control until the middle of the 20th century. Although Canada became semi-independent in 1867, and Australia in 1901, Canada didn't officially finalize its separation until 1982, and Australia did it in 1986.

Here in the States, we tend to underestimate the British Empire's lifespan, because we got out of it much earlier than average. But again, there's an alternative interpretation which attributes even greater longevity to that empire as well. As with Rome and Byzantium, the Empire bifurcated, and its older half shriveled to a non-imperial status, while its newer half - the United States - continued to thrive as an imperial power right up to today.

The exact degree to which American foreign policy is imperialistic or democratic is wildly contested, yet its near-total domination of global politics is pretty hard to dispute. And again, just as the Roman Catholic Church kept some core elements of the Roman Empire intact, while allowing many others to atrophy, the US is quasi-imperialistic where the British Empire was unequivocally imperialistic. Both subsequent pseudo-empires have kept the original empire's language alive, as well as continuing to privilege the respective aristocracies involved, while dropping many of the core governmental and militaristic aspects of a true empire.

I can't prove this, but I believe that if you follow the money in either case, you'll find continuity. In the Roman example, my guess is families and companies which began in Rome were able to persist either through the Byzantine Empire or the Roman Catholic Church. In the British example, my guess is families and companies which began in England or Scotland were able to persist through the American continuation of British law, or through international corporations (which were originally invented by the British for explicitly imperialist purposes).

Whether this represents genuine imperial persistence or a vaguer kind of imperial drift is an interesting question, but not one I'm qualified to answer. It could be that empires are caterpillars, and their butterfly forms are more loosely organized and less explicitly governmental. But the continuity's easy to spot in either case, and I definitely think the commonality here is real.

Since pretty much everyone who reads my blog is a programmer, I'll bring this around to tech.

In the 1990s, I and many others assumed that Microsoft would die out because of the Internet. I'm sure a big crowd, twenty years before that, thought Microsoft would kill off IBM forever, too. Both these companies have been considered "empires" in their day, though never in a purely literal interpretation, of course. Each of these companies currently survives in a form which is very different from the form they held during their respective imperial glory years.

It's possible that this is always how it's going to be, and that Google will still be with us, in some radically mutated form, two hundred years from now. Likewise, if you're a tabletop gaming nerd, I used to think the Roman themes in Warhammer 40K were ridiculous, but those mecha legionnaires look more realistic to me these days.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Teaching A Class On Synthesizers

Probably not a ton of my readers who have the option of signing up for a class at my local community college, but I'm looking forward to this.



Here's the web site for it.

IP Address Firmware Hacker Black Hat Leetspeak Code Code Code

Monday, April 6, 2015

Can They See My Dick?



More detail here.

Monday, March 30, 2015

What If Uber's Just A Terrible Business?

Update: I had to block an angry libertarian on Twitter who declared me an "Uber hater" and was launching all kinds of contempt and overgeneralization my way. I also saw people retweeting this post and describing it as a general takedown of the sharing economy. So I just want to clarify: I think AirBnB is a terrific business, but Uber might be a terrible one. This is a post for rational adults who can handle nuance. If that's not you, there are plenty of other posts to read out there.

Sometimes an industry which is very tightly regulated, or which has a lot of middlemen, has these obstructions for a reason.

Working for any taxi service holds enormous opportunities for kidnappers or rapists, and makes you an easy target for armed robbery. In some cities, being a cab driver is very dangerous. In other cities, it's dangerous to take a cab anywhere - don't try it in Argentina - and in many cities it's dangerous for both the driver and the passenger. A taxi service with built-in surveillance could be even worse in the hands of a total maniac. And just to state the obvious, both Uber drivers and regular taxi drivers have logical incentives for driving unsafely.

In this context, I have no problem with governments wanting to regulate Uber literally to death, at least outside of California. California is a special case, in my opinion. Cabs are completely unacceptable garbage throughout California, and the startup scene definitely skews Californian, so the typical startup hacker probably thinks all cabs suck, but cabs are gold in London, Chicago, and New York, and probably quite a few other places too.

In Los Angeles, cabs are licensed by city. A cab driver can only operate in one "city," and can face disastrous legal consequences if they pick up a passenger outside of their "city." But the term's misleading, because the "city" of Los Angeles is really a massive archipelago of small, loosely affiliated towns. It's extremely common that a taxi cab will be unable to pick up any passengers once it drops somebody off. I lived in San Francisco before I lived in Los Angeles, and I had always assumed Bay Area taxis were the worst in the industrialized world, but Los Angeles cabs make San Francisco cabs look competent.

(In the same way that San Francisco's MUNI system makes LA's Metro look incredible, even though both suck balls compared to the systems in New York, London, and Chicago. I'm told the system in Hong Kong puts even London's to shame.)

By contrast, in London, you have to pass an incredibly demanding driving and navigation test before you can become a cab driver. Researchers have demonstrated that passing this test causes a substantial transformation in the size of the cab driver's brain, in the regions responsible for maps and navigation.

Disrupting something which works great (i.e., cabs in London) is not as impressive as disrupting something which sucks ass (i.e., cabs in California). I think the tech industry overrates Uber, because the industry's headquartered in a state which probably has the worst taxicabs of any first-world country.

Uber is obviously a disruptive startup, but disruption doesn't always fix things. The Internet crippled the music industry, but introduced stacks of new middlemen in the process. Ask Zoe Keating how that "democratization" turned out.

In music, the corporate middlemen are this pernicious infestation, which just reappears after you thought you'd wiped it out. Artists have to sacrifice a lot to develop their art to a serious level, and a lot of music performance takes place in situations where people are celebrating (i.e., drunk or high, late at night). So somebody has to provide security, as well as business sense. There's a lot of opportunities for middlemen to get their middle on, and disrupting a market, under those conditions, just means shuffling in a new deck of middlemen. It doesn't change the game.

In the same way that the music industry is a magnet for middlemen, the taxi industry is a magnet for crime. A lot of people champion Uber because it bypasses complex regulations, but my guess is that disrupting a market like that means you just reshuffle the deck of regulations. If Uber kills the entire taxi industry, then governments will have to scrap their taxi regulations and re-build a similarly gigantic regulatory infrastructure around Uber instead. You still have to guard against kidnapping, rape, armed robbery, unfair labor practices, and unsafe driving. None of those risks have actually changed at all. Plus, this new regulatory infrastructure will have to deal with the new surveillance risks that come along with Uber's databases, mobile apps, and geotracking.

Uber's best-case scenario is that the society at large will pay for the consequences of their meager "innovation." But if you look at that cost realistically, Uber is not introducing a tremendous amount of new efficiency to the taxi market at all. They're just restructuring an industry so that it offloads, to taxpayers, the costs and complexities of a massive, industry-wide technology update.

Uber got rid of inefficient dispatch mechanisms, and routed around licensing laws, but odds are pretty good (in my opinion) that those licensing laws will re-assert themselves. Those laws don't exist to preserve an inefficient dispatch mechanism, which is the only real technological change here. They exist mostly to guard against risks of criminal behavior. Those risks are still present. Like it or not, licensing laws are a very common response to risks of that nature in societies like ours.

It's possible that those licensing laws might be gone forever, but I wouldn't bet on it. I think it's a lot more likely that Uber has a huge IPO and its stock price withers to nothing a few years later, once the slow-moving systems which generate regulation in democratic societies have had time to react. If all you're doing is building to flip, sure, you can take the money and run, but if you want an actual business that lasts, Uber might not deliver.

I could totally be wrong. Only time will tell for sure. But I think Uber is a really good lesson for entrepreneurs in how a market can look awesome but actually suck. From a long-term perspective, I don't see how they can hope for any better end-game than bribing corrupt politicians. While that is certainly a time-honored means of getting ahead, and it very frequently succeeds, it's not exactly a technological innovation.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Scrum Fails, By Scrum's Own Standards

I've raised some criticisms of Scrum and Agile recently, and gotten a lot of feedback from Scrum advocates who disagree.

My main critique: Scrum's full of practices which very readily and rapidly decay into dysfunctional variants, making it the software development process equivalent of a house which falls apart while people are inside it.

Most Scrum advocates have not addressed this critique, but among those who have, the theme has been to recite a catchphrase: "Inspect And Adapt." The idea is it's incumbent upon any Scrum team to keep an eye out for Scrum decay, and prevent it.

From scrumalliance.org:

Scrum can be described as a framework of feedback loops, allowing the team to constantly inspect and adapt so the product delivers maximum value.

From an Agile glossary site:

“Inspect and Adapt” is a slogan used by the Scrum community to capture the idea of discovering, over the course of a project, emergent software requirements and ways to improve the overall performance of the team. It neatly captures the both the concept of empirical knowledge acquisition and feedback-loop-driven learning.

My biggest critic in this Internet brouhaha has been Ron Jeffries. Here's a sampling of his retorts:


Mr. Jeffries is a Certified Scrum Trainer and teaches Certified Scrum Developer courses.

In a blog post, Mr. Jeffries acknowledged that I was right to criticize the Scrum term "velocity." He then added:

For my part in [promoting the term "velocity," and its use as a metric], I apologize. Meanwhile you’ll need to deal with the topic as best you can, because it’s not going away.

He reiterates this elsewhere:

Mr Bowkett objects to some of the words. As I said before, yes, well, so do I. This is another ship that has sailed.

The theme here is not "Inspect And Adapt." The theme is "you're right, but we're not going to do anything about it."

This isn't just Mr. Jeffries being bad at handling disagreement. It's also the case with Scrum generally. I'm not the first or only person to say that sprints should be called iterations, or that "backlog" is a senselessly negative name for a to-do list, or that measuring velocity nearly always goes wrong. Scrum also has a concept of iteration estimates which it calls "sprint commitments" for some insane reason, and this terrible naming leads to frequent misunderstandings and misimplementations.

These are really my lightest and most obvious criticisms of Scrum, but the important thing here is that people who love Scrum have been seeing these problems themselves over the twenty years of Scrum's existence, and nobody has fixed these problems yet. In each case, all they had to do was change a name. That's a whole lot of inspecting and adapting which has not happened. The lowest-hanging fruit that I can identify has never been picked.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Ladies And Gentlemen, Nastya Maslova

A very talented young multi-instrumentalist, singer, and beatboxer from Russia, with many videos on YouTube (some under her name's Russian spelling, Настя Маслова).



Thursday, March 12, 2015

And Now For A Breakdown

Here's a live drum and bass set from Mistabishi on a Korg Electribe MX.



Here's another one:



Here's a more electro-house-ish set Mistabishi recorded live at an illegal rave in London last year:



You can actually download all the patterns and patches in this from the Korg web site.

Korg also had Mistabishi demo the new Electribe – basically the next generation of the EMX – in a couple YouTube videos:



(In this one, he enters the video at around 6:45.)



The new Electribe seems pretty cool, but these videos motivated me to buy an EMX instead. The new one's untested, while the EMX is a certified classic, with a rabid fan base, tons of free downloadable sounds, tons of videos on YouTube showing you how to do stuff, forum posts all over the Internet, and rave reviews (no pun intended).

Also, the new version literally has a grey-on-grey color scheme, while the EMX looks like this:



They run about $350 on eBay, but if you find an auction ending 8am on a Sunday, you might pick one up for just $270 (I did).

It also helps that I'm a huge fan of the original Electribe, the Korg ER-1, one of the most creative drum machines ever made. I've owned two (or three, if you count the iElectribe app for iOS, based on the second iteration of the ER-1).