I drove into Boul­der, Col­orado at mid­night on Wednes­day, my impulse to eat a late din­ner near­ly over­bal­anced by my need to declare the long day over.  It turns out that, even with throngs of kids boozi­ly wan­der­ing from bar to bar, this town doesn’t offer much in the way of late din­ing.  There was one place— open at all hours, dec­o­rat­ed like an elven vil­lage spe­cial­iz­ing in the min­ing of near­by foothills veined with Formi­ca, and run by the ban­dan­na-wear­ing dis­ci­ples of some gen­tle Chris­t­ian sect.  They seemed to be con­nect­ed with a yer­ba mate dis­tri­b­u­tion enter­prise, and along with deli delights and “arti­san bread”, they prof­fered at least two dozen vari­eties of whole­some drink, hot and cold, soy, almond and dairy, based on the steeped foliage of Ilex paraguar­ien­sis.

And with a woozy slur I bethought myself, is yer­ba mate spelled with an accent on the e?  Because then I guess I’ve been pro­nounc­ing it wrong.

No: my smart­phone, bat­tery gasp­ing its last 3%, assured me that it’s spelled with­out any accents, and pro­nounced with the accent on the a.  Ah: so the accent seems to have been added— “yer­ba maté”*— in order to give it an air of for­eign mys­tery.  Or per­haps as a kind of visu­al appendage to trans­form a worka­day row of let­ters into a brand, sort of the way cer­tain hair met­al bands from the 80s deployed the umlaut.

(*If we read the accent­ed text again in its lan­guage of ori­gin, it more or less reads “herb I killed”.)

Any­way, whether it was ful­ly inten­tion­al, half-inten­tion­al or just someone’s mis­take, one way to con­sole one­self about this ortho­graph­ic quirk is to think of it as a delib­er­ate hack, dis­tanc­ing the word from the Eng­lish “mate”.  In many gringo-mex restau­rants one can see the same act being per­pe­trat­ed on the word “molé”, which in its cor­rect spelling might be con­fused with the Eng­lish word “mole” (and it maybe does look like a sauce stewed from those, Mac­beth style).  Or there’s the bur­ri­to chain “Andalé”, a case in which sure­ly the vio­la­tion was com­mit­ted in the first degree.  I can almost imag­ine a pink-cheeked, shirt­sleeved brand­ing spe­cial­ist point­ing out that with­out the sig­ni­fy­ing accent, Andale would sound like the name of a sub­urb in Ohio.

Of course many Eng­lish speak­ers don’t know what func­tion these accents play in actu­al Span­ish.  Maybe I’m on thin ice here, but I’d guess that giv­en how errat­ic Eng­lish spelling is, there sim­ply isn’t a strong sense among native speak­ers that spelling and sound are causal­ly con­nect­ed; “words are”, to quote a Lan­nis­ter, “wind”.  An accent then becomes just a typo­graph­ic effect, like the swoosh under a sig­na­ture, or an ectopic serif.

I’ll end this lit­tle SNOOTy rant** with an acknowl­edge­ment that this kind of dri­ve-by lin­guis­tic appro­pri­a­tion and half-thought-through ortho­graph­ic dis­tor­tion is a fine exam­ple of the fer­til­iz­er that keeps our lan­guage peren­ni­al­ly in bloom.  Since Eng­lish has exist­ed at all, it has always been a messy busi­ness, all bar­barisms and neol­o­gisms in vary­ing phas­es of accep­tance.  From Caxton’s pref­ace to Eney­dos:

And specyal­ly he axyed after eggys.  And the good wyf answerde that she coude speke no fren­she.  And the mar­chaunt was angry for he also coude speke no fren­she but wold haue hadde egges and she vnder­stode hym not.  And thenne at laste a nother sayd that he wolde haue eyren.  Then the good wyf sayd that she vnder­stood hym wel.”

A few years ago, I got excit­ed in front of a shop in Ams­ter­dam, on which was embla­zoned the Dutch word bakker­ij.  Notice how it looks in the fol­low­ing exam­ples:

In five min­utes of casu­al research I can’t find any source to con­firm or deny this, but my the­o­ry is that the Eng­lish “bak­ery” and sim­i­lar –y end­ings for busi­ness­es might have come from the Dutch “ij”, writ­ten in styles pre­dat­ing human­ist typog­ra­phy, and con­dens­ing, in a semi-lit­er­ate squint, into a sin­gle con­ve­nient let­ter.  Human­ist friends, drop me a line if you know bet­ter...

**cf. David Fos­ter Wal­lace, “Author­i­ty and Amer­i­can Usage” in Con­sid­er the Lob­ster.

Posted in books, thoughts, travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | 27 Comments

where’d you go, bernadette?

Our friend Maria Sem­ple mailed us an advance copy of her new nov­el, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? a few weeks ago.  Adri­enne took the first nib­ble, then qui­et­ly devoured it in a few hours, a sphin­xy smile on her face.  Being a much slow­er read­er, it took me a few days.

It’s always a scary thing, read­ing a friend’s book.  Because what if it sucks?  Which prob­a­bly it will, right, sta­tis­ti­cal­ly speak­ing?  But what good luck we’ve had.  Or what genius friends.  Some of each, I think.

Maria’s book is bril­liant.  It begins as a com­e­dy of man­ners in the Pacif­ic North­west, writ­ten most­ly in the hip post-nov­el­ian form of a col­lage of emails and notes, with occa­sion­al con­nect­ing pas­sages in the first per­son by the clever teenaged pro­tag­o­nist, Bee.

Bee’s par­ents are exiled intel­lec­tu­als from the Eatons, Choates and Prince­tons of the East Coast, flee­ing north from career suc­cess and trau­ma in Los Ange­les.  They now live in grand squalor in the ruins of a school for way­ward girls on Queen Anne Hill.  The histri­on­ics of bitchy stay-at-home neigh­bor­hood moms, the over­achiev­ing pri­vate school scene, the wincey Microsoft jar­gon of “mas­sive game chang­ers”, “non­starters” and “epic fails”, they’re all in there.  But just as one is adjust­ing to this book as light­heart­ed avant garde farce, it takes a plunge through an unseen trap­door and become some­thing total­ly dif­fer­ent.  As we enter into the mind of Bee’s moth­er (who it must be said, is very Maria-like) the book deep­ens almost dizzy­ing­ly, foibles becom­ing nail-bit­ing risks, slap­stick becom­ing poten­tial tragedy.  Char­ac­ters who are intro­duced as unsym­pa­thet­ic car­toons, seem­ing­ly whipped up to serve some minor expos­i­to­ry func­tion, pop into three-dimen­sion­al­i­ty and are warm­ly re-lit in star­tling acts of lit­er­ary sleight-of-hand.  This book is in the end humane and opti­mistic, as well as won­der­ful­ly enter­tain­ing.

I don’t know if the book design is final, but I do wor­ry about that.  The fem­i­nine hues and forms on the cov­er feel to me like they’ll sup­press male read­er­ship— per­haps also lit­er­ary read­er­ship.  Togeth­er with the whim­si­cal title, one gets the impres­sion of beach read­ing, which in a sense it is— though it’s also so much more.  I hope the stel­lar reviews Bernadette will sure­ly reap go some way toward bring­ing it the audi­ence it deserves.

Though this makes me blush, I should men­tion that Bee’s father is a Dis­tin­guished Engi­neer at Microsoft, hav­ing sold his start­up to the com­pa­ny some years ear­li­er, and has giv­en a “TEDTalk, which is num­ber four on the list of all-time most-watched TEDTalks.”  This was, Bee solemn­ly assures us, “a real­ly big deal.”  (Yes, we met Maria and her real part­ner, George, at TED.)  Luck­i­ly the resem­blances between Elgin Branch and y.t. pret­ty much end there.  Though I do quite like the idea for Elgin’s big project at Microsoft, Samantha2.. must send Desney Tan an s+…

Posted in books | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

on{X} update

The devel­op­er community’s response to on{X} has been real­ly fun to watch.  I’ve made a short post for the site about some of the high­lights of the past week.  In late-break­ing news, some­one has appar­ent­ly just whipped up a fledg­ling inde­pen­dent on{X} mar­ket­place.  It’s immense­ly sat­is­fy­ing to make some­thing which in turn is used to make.

Posted in mobile | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments


A cou­ple of weeks ago I came back from a great trip to vis­it my very tal­ent­ed and hip team at the Microsoft Israel Devel­op­ment Cen­ter in Tel Aviv.  Excite­ment was run­ning high as we geared up for the launch of on{X}, which I can now talk about, as it went live today.  Here’s the “trail­er”:


Eran, the team lead, already wrote a nice and detailed blog post for the web­site talk­ing about on{X}’s capa­bil­i­ties, so prob­a­bly I should just stick with the link.  I can’t resist reit­er­at­ing some of his points, though, and giv­ing a bit of my own col­or.

Some­time in the mid­dle of the last decade, it became clear to every­one that mobile phones aren’t appli­ances or pieces of sin­gle-func­tion con­sumer elec­tron­ics, but rather are lit­tle per­son­al com­put­ers— small enough to keep in your pock­et, and with just enough bat­tery to stay on the whole day.  I think that because of a kind of metaphor hys­tere­sis, the impli­ca­tions of this still haven’t ful­ly sunk in; we still call this device a “phone”, which is the same name we give to the fixed-func­tion radio hand­sets some of us still have docked in a cra­dle on the kitchen counter… which are in turn noth­ing but “cord­less” ver­sions of their mid­cen­tu­ry fore­bears, which in turn con­sist­ed of noth­ing but a speak­er, a micro­phone, some wire, and some kind of dial­ing appa­ra­tus encased in a Bake­lite shell.  Even that sil­ly word we use in Amer­i­ca, “wire­less”, sounds like more or less a syn­onym for “cord­less”.

So we now agree that it’s not real­ly a phone, but rather a tele­pho­ny-capa­ble pock­et com­put­er.  To call it a “phone” is an unnat­ur­al act of metonymy akin to call­ing a toolch­est a screw­driv­er.  Think of how fun­ny it sounds to say “my phone comes with a phone app pre­in­stalled”.

One odd­i­ty about this pock­et com­put­er idea is that unlike the big­ger com­put­ers those of us who like to hack have grown up enjoy­ing, smart­phones still inher­it much of the fixed-func­tion think­ing that per­vades con­sumer elec­tron­ics.  Deep in the phone’s OS is a kind of dis­patch­ing or com­mand-and-con­trol sys­tem, a switch­board, that takes all of those won­der­ful sen­sors and capa­bil­i­ties and orga­nizes them into rigid­ly pre­de­fined appli­ance-like behav­iors: when the always-on radio detects an incom­ing phone call, launch the phone app.  When there’s an incom­ing SMS, launch the SMS app.  You don’t need to know that there’s an app for that, because the phone itself does.

What if you could open up that switch­board on your own device and rewire it to do what­ev­er you want?  With all of those sen­sors and capa­bil­i­ties, and all the pow­er of the Inter­net, one should be able to do a lot more than per­form fixed phone-like func­tions and run apps.

This is espe­cial­ly inter­est­ing when it involves the automa­tion of actions based on events on the phone or in the world, which one could call “push” or “reac­tive” behav­iors.  (This is to dis­tin­guish them from “pull” behav­iors, which are char­ac­ter­ized by begin­ning with an explic­it user action with intent— for these cas­es, the app mod­el works well.)  We think there’s great untapped poten­tial in push and reac­tive pro­gram­ming.  The sam­ple sce­nar­ios and scripts we’ve put on the site begin to explore the pos­si­bil­i­ties, but we imag­ine that the devel­op­er com­mu­ni­ty will come up with a much, much larg­er set.  That’s why we didn’t restrict on{X} to pre­script­ed rules, but rather made it pos­si­ble for any­one with JavaScript skills to hack a new behav­ior.  This think­ing (and of course our choice of script­ing lan­guage) is very much inspired by node.js.

The most excit­ing thing about this project, for me, will be see­ing what peo­ple do with this wide-open field.  Mak­ers, have at it!

In the mean­time, we’ll be busi­ly adding capa­bil­i­ties and shar­ing ideas.

3am update: appar­ent­ly we’ve just made App­Brain’s top 10 hottest Android apps :)

Posted in mobile | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments


I was pleased to see David Pogue’s pos­i­tive review of the new Win­dows Phone, Nokia’s Lumia 900, a cou­ple of weeks ago in the New York Times.  Win­dows Phone has made great progress these past cou­ple of years, and has advanced a beau­ti­ful and fresh design lan­guage, Metro, which we see being adopt­ed all around Microsoft.  (I’ve been a big advo­cate for Metro lan­guage and prin­ci­ples in my own part of the com­pa­ny, Online Ser­vices.)  Pogue’s only real com­plaint is that apps for Win­dows Phone  are still thin­ner on the ground than on iPhone and Android— though as he points out, what real­ly mat­ters is whether the impor­tant, great and use­ful apps are there, not whether the total num­ber is 50,000 or 500,000.  Many apps doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly imply many qual­i­ty apps, and most of us have got­ten over last decade’s “app mania” that inspired one to fill screen after screen with run-once won­ders.

What real­ly made me smile was Pogue’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of what those impor­tant apps are, in his view.  After reel­ing off  a few of the usu­al sus­pects— Yelp, Twit­ter, Pan­do­ra, Face­book, etc.— he added:

Plen­ty of my less famous favorites are also unavail­able: Line2, Hip­munk, Nest, Word Lens, iStop­Mo­tion, Glee, Oca­ri­na, Songi­fy This.

Even Microsoft’s own amaz­ing iPhone app, Pho­to­synth, isn’t avail­able for the Lumia 900.

I’ve also been asked (a num­ber of times) about Pho­to­synth for Win­dows Phone... hang in there.  A nice piece of news we’ve just announced, how­ev­er, is a new app for Win­dows Phone that I hope will join Pogue’s pan­theon, and that is con­sid­er­ably more advanced than its coun­ter­parts on oth­er devices: Trans­la­tor.  Tech­ni­cal­ly this isn’t a new app, but an update, though the update is far more func­tion­al than its pre­de­ces­sor.

Trans­la­tor has offline lan­guage sup­port, mean­ing that if you install the right lan­guage pack you can use it abroad with­out a data con­nec­tion (essen­tial for now, I wish inter­na­tion­al data were a prob­lem of the past).  It also has a nice speech trans­la­tion mode, but what’s per­haps most inter­est­ing is the visu­al mode.  Visu­al trans­la­tion is real­ly help­ful when you’re encoun­ter­ing menus, signs, forms, etc., and is espe­cial­ly impor­tant when you need to deal with char­ac­ter sets that you not only can’t pro­nounce, but can’t even write or type (that would be Chi­nese).

Word Lens, men­tioned by Pogue, was one of our inspi­ra­tions in devel­op­ing the new Trans­la­tor.  What’s impres­sive about Word Lens is its abil­i­ty to process frames from the cam­era at near-video speed, read­ing text, gen­er­at­ing word-by-word trans­la­tions, and over­lay­ing those onto the video feed in place of the orig­i­nal text.  This is quite a feat, near the edge of achiev­abil­i­ty on cur­rent mobile phone hard­ware.  In my view it’s also one of the first con­vinc­ing appli­ca­tions of aug­ment­ed real­i­ty on a phone.  How­ev­er, the approach suf­fers from some inher­ent draw­backs.  First, the trans­la­tion is word-by-word, which often results in non­sen­si­cal trans­lat­ed texts.  Sec­ond, there isn’t quite enough com­pute time to do the job prop­er­ly in just one frame, yield­ing a some­what slug­gish feel; on the oth­er hand the inde­pen­dent pro­cess­ing of each frame is waste­ful and often makes words flick­er in and out of their cor­rect trans­la­tions, just a bit too fast to fol­low.  For me, these things make Word Lens a good idea, and bet­ter than noth­ing in a pinch, but imper­fect.

The visu­al trans­la­tion in Trans­la­tor takes a dif­fer­ent approach.  It exploits the fact that the text one is aim­ing at is print­ed on a sur­face and is gen­er­al­ly con­stant.  What needs to be done frame-by-frame, then, is to lock onto that sur­face and track it.  This is done using Pho­to­synth-like com­put­er vision tech­niques, but in real­time, a bit like the video track­ing in our TED 2010 demo.  Select­ed, sta­bi­lized frames from that video can then be rec­ti­fied and the opti­cal char­ac­ter recog­ni­tion (OCR) can be done on them asyn­chro­nous­ly— that is, on a timescale not cou­pled to the video fram­er­ate.  We can do a bet­ter job of OCR and trans­la­tion, using a lan­guage mod­el that under­stands gram­mar and mul­ti-word phras­es.  Then, the trans­lat­ed text can be ren­dered onto the video feed in a way that still tracks the orig­i­nal in 3D.  This solves a num­ber of prob­lems at once: improv­ing the trans­la­tion qual­i­ty, avoid­ing flick­er, improv­ing the frame rate, and avoid­ing super­flu­ous repeat­ed OCR.  It’s a small step toward build­ing a per­sis­tent and mean­ing­ful mod­el of the world seen in the video feed and track­ing against it, instead of doing a weak­er form of frame-by-frame aug­ment­ed real­i­ty.  The team has done a real­ly beau­ti­ful job of imple­ment­ing this approach, and the ben­e­fits are pal­pa­ble in the expe­ri­ence.

Use this app on your next vis­it to Chi­na!  I’d love to read com­ments and sug­ges­tions from any­one try­ing Trans­la­tor out in the field.

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bear pond espresso

Much has been writ­ten about the food scene in Tokyo.  In the end, maybe it’s just a very, very big city.  The “largest met­ro­pol­i­tan area in the world”, says Wikipedia, and among the dens­est (at more than 37,000 per square mile).  I’m sure that if we plot­ted the num­ber of Miche­lin stars per city against either of these vari­ables we’d find a more-than-lin­ear rela­tion­ship, for the same rea­sons one finds such rela­tion­ships with the num­ber of patents or any oth­er mea­sur­able cor­re­late of cre­ativ­i­ty.

Well, on a recent trip to Tokyo I expe­ri­enced this cor­re­la­tion first­hand.. or maybe I just ran into a very spe­cial tal­ent.  Not that either of these pos­si­bil­i­ties excludes the oth­er.

Mor­gan-san intro­duced me to this very cute neigh­bor­hood, Shi­mo-Kitaza­wa, just a cou­ple of tube stops from our hotel in Shin­juku, and home to the extra­or­di­nary Bear Pond Espres­so, with own­er and appar­ent­ly sole barista Kat­su Tana­ka pre­sid­ing over his tricked out La Mar­zoc­co.

Some pic­tures first of the neigh­bor­hood:


The scale and pro­por­tions of neigh­bor­hood archi­tec­ture in Tokyo are so dis­tinct.  I feel as if, were a streetscape reduced to noth­ing but fea­ture­less white box­es, I could still pick out a street in Tokyo from one in any oth­er city in the world.  When it works, there’s some­thing pleas­ing and inti­mate in this con­fig­u­ra­tion of space, a sense of implic­it trust, of social con­tract and effi­cien­cy, of high­ly inten­tion­al design.  In Shi­mo-Kitaza­wa the Japan­ese love of tex­ture and mate­r­i­al is also evi­dent, and thank­ful­ly there isn’t so much of that ubiq­ui­tous rec­tan­gu­lar ceram­ic tile on the build­ing façades which I find so oppres­sive.  Instead, lov­ing­ly rust­ed iron plates, sal­vaged twists of wood and art­ful­ly rough cal­lig­ra­phy dec­o­rate the bou­tiques, which rub shoul­ders with what look to me like tra­di­tion­al Edo hous­es among the back streets.

And now, Bear Pond.  There was a “no cam­era” sign inside, so I was only able to snap a pic­ture of the white slid­ing doors from the out­side.  The space is small and cement-floored, com­bin­ing the shab­by genius sen­si­bil­i­ty of a Bay Area garage with the curat­ed aes­thet­ic Miyaza­ki and Kondō cap­ture so won­der­ful­ly in Whis­per of the Heart.  There’s enough care­ful­ly deployed clut­ter in the minia­ture space to make it clear that this is a neigh­bor­hood cof­feeshop and not a bou­tique, yet even the furred, ingrown cor­ners of the “order here” sign seem to sig­ni­fy, like the ful­some red drips of the graf­fi­ti on the cof­fee machine (cour­tesy Cur­tis Kulig).


(Note that sev­er­al of these images are from the lit­tle Bear Pond book, which I bought a copy of although it’s unde­cod­able by my non-Japan­ese-read­ing self.)

OK, let’s talk about the cof­fee.  It was amaz­ing.  Mor­gan and I had an espres­so and a mac­chi­a­to each.  The espres­so rede­fines ristret­to.  It was a messy dark syrup, just a few cc’s, and dense, dense, dense.  There were plen­ty of trapped aro­mat­ics, but the thick extrac­tion didn’t cre­ate any­thing like the usu­al tiger-stripe cre­ma— at the bot­tom of the cup, noth­ing but an inky, intense depth of fla­vor and col­or, sweet, funky and com­plex, cocoa-ish, with no hint of the “south­ern” burnt fla­vor and even less of the acid lemoni­ness of an improp­er extrac­tion.  This real­ly was some­thing new, and I’m afraid I don’t real­ly have the words for it.  It’s just a dif­fer­ent beast.

The mac­chi­a­to was good— I would have been hap­py with it under any oth­er cir­cum­stance— but I think it’s a waste to blend such exquis­ite nec­tar with milk, even small amounts.  The caramel-like effect Vivace achieves in the mac­chi­a­to with their Vita blend was not in evi­dence here; this espres­so felt both too dense and too ephemer­al some­how to fold with the milk fla­vors, they seemed not imped­ance matched.  Per­haps an issue of pH?  The Japan­ese milk is dif­fer­ent, also, with less body it seemed to me, and this may have con­tributed to my impres­sion.

The work­man­ship of the lit­tle roset­ta was of course per­fect, but alas, “no cam­era please”.

In any case, if you find your­self near­by, treat your­self well— wan­der the neigh­bor­hood, drop in, taste what I sus­pect might be the most beau­ti­ful­ly craft­ed espres­so any­where.

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fish stew

As I’ve been com­pelled to email this very good bouil­l­abaisse-like recipe from Ondi to myself a num­ber of times over the past cou­ple of years, it seems more con­ve­nient and socia­ble to put to put it on the blog.  Here goes.

  • An onion.

Fry in olive oil.  Add:

  • Cumin seed
  • Corian­der seed
  • Sev­er­al sprigs of thyme
  • 2 bay leaves
  • Fen­nel seed
  • Sev­er­al cloves gar­lic (pressed or fine­ly chopped)
  • Saf­fron
  • Sea salt to taste
  • Pern­od.

When onions are gold­en add:

  • 1 can of San Marzano DOP toma­toes (can be chopped before­hand, and can sub­sti­tute fresh Roma toma­toes if suf­fi­cient­ly good ones are avail­able)

Cook down for a good 20 min­utes.  Then add:

  • Chick­en broth or fish stock till the base is as thick or thin as you like.
  • When that’s cooked about 20 min­utes, add assort­ed seafood.  Typ­i­cal­ly:
  • Monk­fish
  • Salmon, in chunks cut from a steak is eas­i­est
  • Spot prawns
  • Clams
  • Mus­sels

I use the prawn shells and heads to make the stock.

For extra joy, I also add sea scal­lops at the end, which I’ve seared in but­ter and flamed with Pern­od.

This should be served with a crusty bread.

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escape from camp 14

Our good friend Blaine is gear­ing up for the pub­li­ca­tion of his new book, Escape From Camp 14.

It’s about a young man who has man­aged to escape from the most bru­tal of North Korea’s giant con­cen­tra­tion camps, even­tu­al­ly mak­ing it to the US.  The sto­ry is absolute­ly har­row­ing.  North Korea’s total insu­lar­i­ty seems to have kept most of the world from real­ly under­stand­ing what’s going on inside— sense­less hor­rors on a tru­ly grand scale.  It’s a bit like imag­in­ing a Nazi Ger­many turned entire­ly inward rather than bent on dom­i­nat­ing oth­er coun­tries.  In this sce­nario, would the rest of the world have stood by while the atroc­i­ties were com­mit­ted?  The answer appears to be ‘yes’.

Over the past year, through lots of long fam­i­ly din­ners and hur­ried hel­los at the neigh­bor­hood cof­feeshop, I’ve had the good for­tune and hon­or to see Blaine devel­op Escape From Camp 14 from an idea, through sev­er­al drafts, and of course through the ups and downs that go with this kind of project.  Blaine is a pro at this, and in addi­tion to his very pro­lif­ic career as a reporter, he has writ­ten some great books— A Riv­er Lost: The Life and Death of the Colum­bia (hur­ry!  Ama­zon says only 11 left in stock!), and Africa: Dis­patch­es from a Frag­ile Con­ti­nent, which Adri­enne and I each read in about a day on an Africa jag that I remem­ber also includ­ed Beryl Markham’s auto­bi­og­ra­phy and What Is The What.  I have a feel­ing, though, that the time­li­ness of Escape From Camp 14, as well as the extra­or­di­nary source mate­r­i­al, might make it his big best­seller.  I cer­tain­ly hope so— this is a sto­ry that needs to be read by many.  It comes out next month, and you can pre­order it now.

Blaine enlist­ed me to do the voiceover on his pro­mo video.  He assures me it turned out OK, though I can’t actu­al­ly lis­ten to it.  There’s some­thing hor­ri­fy­ing about hear­ing your own voice record­ed.

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Before the five Equal­iz­ing pieces, I made an inven­tion in d minor to begin exper­i­ment­ing with coun­ter­point:

Inven­tion in d minor

This was the first thing I record­ed on the lit­tle per­son­al record­ing device.  It’s a bit of a mess, but post­ing it any­way, as it has some ideas that might be worth return­ing to when I’ve improved.  It’s record­ed in two pass­es, since I can’t yet artic­u­late all four voic­es in real­time (and this leads to some tim­ing prob­lems).  I used the harp­si­chord set­ting, both because it seemed appro­pri­ate and because in the begin­ning I felt unable to con­trol the piano dynam­ics well enough.

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So I’ll now take a deep breath and post the first edi­ble fruit of my labor.  The per­for­mance is of course imper­fect, since I’m not an actu­al pianist, and the piece should also be con­sid­ered a draft, as there are places where it still needs edit­ing.  But I do hope it man­ages to cross the thresh­old into music.

  1. Equal­iz­ing I (Tone pat­tern)
  2. Sec­ond phas­es
  3. Equal­iz­ing II (Clock­work)
  4. Night train
  5. Equal­iz­ing III (Indone­sia)

OK, some lin­er notes.

Equal­iz­ing is in five move­ments, where the first, third and fifth are vari­a­tions I, II and III on a cen­tral idea, while the sec­ond and fourth are inter­ludes.

The ascend­ing octave tone pat­tern in the vari­a­tions is some­thing from child­hood.  It was an ana­log equal­iz­er, one of our pieces of stereo equip­ment, which when put in tone gen­er­a­tor mode would light up the slid­ers in sequence while play­ing the pro­gres­sion of octaves, from a bass you felt in your stom­ach to an inaudi­ble dog-whis­tle.  Some­times when we’re young we become obsessed with appar­ent­ly triv­ial sen­sa­tions— I remem­ber watch­ing our kids at the beach very slow­ly drib­bling sand through their fin­gers for hours.  I’m not sure exact­ly what’s going on dur­ing these long unprompt­ed med­i­ta­tions which would try the patience of a Zen monk, maybe it’s sig­nif­i­cant, maybe not.  But I cer­tain­ly remem­ber many of those times.  I remem­ber the sense of flow, the engage­ment of all of the sens­es at once even when the input was pure­ly visu­al, or pure­ly audi­to­ry.  And I remem­ber the lim­bic pow­er of those inten­si­ties, the dis­em­bod­ied yet pri­ma­ry-col­ored emo­tion, hyp­not­ic and unreg­u­lat­ed.  Even the echo of that is a trea­sure.

Yes, I know I made over­much use of the sus­tain ped­al.

Con­nois­seurs of the WPRB school will notice the influ­ences of John Fahey and Guy Klucevsek, as well as Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt.  Like the last two, I’ve tried to build around a stripped-down har­mon­ic arma­ture (though I haven’t been as rig­or­ous about stick­ing to it as those sages).  This feels con­sis­tent with the octave tone pat­tern at the core of Equal­iz­ing, which on the one hand is triv­ial in that it lacks any har­mon­ic struc­ture at all.  On the oth­er hand, con­tain­ing noth­ing but pow­ers of two, it’s nei­ther major nor minor, but hov­ers behind and above this pass­ing weath­er in a kind of mathy space beyond sad or hap­py.  Is it just me, or is this naked pre­cur­sor to tonal­i­ty already thrum­ming with feel­ing?

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