Life in the valley

Evergreen, where I work in Communications, has now upped stakes and moved to a brand new office at Evergreen Brick Works.

Lower Don Trail

This is my new commute (via my preferred biking route, Beechwood Drive).

The Centre for Green Cities

And this is our new office, still under construction but taking shape fast.

A century ago the Don Valley Brick Works began churning out the bricks that built a good part of Toronto. After it shut down in the 1980s, the city and the Toronto Region Conservation Authority filled in the yawning open-pit clay quarry and eventually created a naturalized park in its place. The factory buildings, meanwhile, lay abandoned and became a magnet for urban explorers (try looking up “toronto brick works” on Google or Flickr).

Over the past few years Evergreen has been restoring the old buildings to create what we’re calling a “community environmental centre” – a place for urban-dwellers to get in touch with nature, as well as an event venue, a destination for schools and families and a hub for like-minded organizations. There’s art popping up all over the site: giant flowers bursting from windows, historic photos, diagrams from our patron saint scientist, geologist A.P. Coleman (1852-1939) – there’s even a sculpture of Coleman’s muddy boots.

Grand Opening is this weekend, with the ceremony and tours on Saturday, and a big Community Festival on Sunday. Be there!

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Report on an unknown sea cucumber

Magnification of the Mandelbrot setBack in high school, I played around with fractals, after finding a writeup about the Mandelbrot set in a back issue of Scientific American. The article had loads of dazzling colour renderings, the likes of which would grace psychedelic CD covers a few short years later: spidery frost patterns, seahorse-like whorls, lighting licking around tiny replicas of the snowman-shaped set.

All that colour and infinite detail came from a mind-bendingly simple equation, calculated over and over: zn+1 = zn2 + c. The article provided a snippet of pseudocode, which I compiled in C and ran for days on end on the family PC/AT, pumping the raw results through DeluxePaint to colour them. (Later on I added a pause function so my mum and dad could use the computer again.)

It was a window into a mysterious mathematical world: look at the latest image and pick out an interesting looking bit, work out its co-ordinates, and start up the calculations again, and a day or two later, enjoy the results. There was no end to its detail no matter how much you zoomed in on it, and always with those circles upon circles. Similar but never the same: a fractal.

I hadn’t thought much about the Mandelbrot set until a few days ago, when I happened on a link to the Mandelbulb, a recently-discovered 3-D analogue to the old-school set.

It’s… a little creepy.


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Drawing blanks

Drawing A Blank coverTo summarize the summer:

We released the first full-length Flickershow CD, entitled Drawing A Blank. Ten songs; I played bass, sang harmony, did arrangements and other odds and ends. We’re quite proud of it, and the CD release party was a blast. There’s a link to buy it online from our website, and it’s also available through that music store Apple runs. Things have been a bit quiet since the CD release, since Julian’s just got married (check out their awesome first dance on the YouTube) but there will be gigging in the new year, and with luck some out-of-town gigs in the spring.

All other music ventures have been on hold, meanwhile. I’m starting to plot my return to action, but it’s been nice to take a break for a few months and mess around with other things like writing and drawing (including the cover art for our CD) and catching up on comics.


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This post is in honour of Ada Lovelace Day.

A big part of my fascination with electronic music is thanks to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which I was first exposed to as a kid via Tom Baker-era Doctor Who (I’ve written here previously about Delia Derbyshire’s arrangement of the theme) and the original Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio series, which creator Douglas Adams conceived of in part as a radio play with the production values of a modern rock album. I learned later that they provided sound effects for The Goon Show and other BBC dramas.

But where did they come from? Who came up with the idea of a room tucked away in the Maida Vale Studios whose express purpose was to birth previously unimaginable sounds?

Daphne Oram (photo: BBC)The answer: Daphne Oram. As a teenager she had become a studio engineer at the BBC, entering the traditionally male domain during the height of WWII. Her duties included balancing sound levels and “shadowing” broadcasts from the Albert Hall during the Blitz, keeping a disc of the same piece synchronized to allow the music to play on even if the concert was interrupted by German bombs.

Later, when audio tape recorders came to the UK, she spent nights hauling the machines together to work on projects before returning them to their various studios in the morning. Excited by the possibilities of tape and electronics as composing tools, she lobbied for a dedicated studio for such experiments, and at last in 1958 the BBC established the Radiophonic Workshop with Daphne Oram as its first studio manager.

It was her hope that the new studio would be a centre for art music, but to her disappointment, the music department regarded the Workshop merely as a source of background music and funny noises. She resigned in 1959, though her work there would be the inspiration for those who followed in her footsteps—and for generations of viewers and listeners who grew up hearing their work.

Meanwhile, Daphne Oram went freelance, setting up a studio, which she called Tower Folly, at a farm in Kent. There, she worked on soundtracks and commercial pieces as well as concert pieces, and began work devising a sound synthesis system which she called “Oramics”. It used patterns on 35mm film to generate and shape sounds—essentially an early method of creating sound graphically. (If you have RealPlayer, the BBC’s tribute has a great audio clip from 1972 of Ms Oram demonstrating her invention.)

IMAGEShe also wrote An Individual Note of Music, Sound and Electronics, a playful and eccentric little volume that mingles circuit diagrams, metaphysical musings, electronic music history, and design notes for the Oramics system, which she hopes is a step toward more “humanised” machine interfaces. It’s long out of print, but Dan Pope of the band Gusset has posted a scanned PDF version.

Paradigm Discs have released a two-CD set of Daphne Oram’s work called simply Oramics—the page includes a few downloadable MP3s. Her piece Four Aspects also saw release this year on the Sub Rosa compilation An Anthology of Noise and Electronic Music, Vol. 2. It’s currently the only piece you’ll find on iTunes. Her commercial pieces are light and blippy, perhaps a little reminiscent of her contemporary Raymond Scott’s, while some of the longer, “serious” pieces are moody and introspective, foreshadowing the ambient music of later decades. Here’s hoping for more re-releases to come.

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Nature, cities and brains

Table and chair on Ward's Island. Photo: Sean HowardMy copy of Christopher Alexander’s The Phenomenon of Life arrived in the mail today (I’ve written here previously about his book A Pattern Language). It’s the first of his four-part opus The Nature of Order, an attempt at a grand theory of architecture and aesthetics.

You might have read Jonah Lehrer’s Boston Globe column about the impact of urban versus “natural” environments on cognition. In a University of Michigan study, participants spent an hour walking through the streets of Ann Arbor, or through U-M’s botanical gardens, before undergoing tests to gauge the effect on their memory and attention. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those who walked through the gardens did better.

Chalk one up for nature, then—or at least for superficial science writing. I’d like to see a lot more exploration and research, to give us a more detailed idea of the effect of different types of urban environments (bustling or empty, immaculate or run-down, a hip, bohemian neighbourhood versus a Fifth Avenue, the financial district, the suburbs) and more natural ones (a park, a formal European or Japanese style garden, a vegetable patch, a swamp, a farm, a mountain, an old-growth forest, a riverside)? How about some brain imaging?

Alexander’s research has been an attempt to build such a picture—to draw out the elements that give one place or thing more life than another. Much of his study boils down to simply presenting a subject with two objects or photos, and asking: which of these makes you feel more alive? Which makes you feel more whole? Which more closely reflects your own inner being? He concludes that there are actual, universal principles that underlie our affinity for places, things and other beings. Erich Fromm (and later E.O. Wilson) called this affinity biophilia; Alexander offers a possible structure for understanding it.

The Phenomenon of Life describes 15 essential qualities that contribute to the integrity and life of a system or structure, largely concerned with how the parts of such a system interrelate and support one another: interlock and ambiguity, strong boundaries, local symmetries—essentially extending and generalizing his work in A Pattern Language.

I’m looking forward to examining the world through this new set of lenses, and applying it to other fields (interestingly, while many architects have understandably been cool to his ideas, a number of enthusiastic computer programmers have found ways to apply them to their practice). Alexander only discusses physical objects, so relating his principles to music, for example, is going to be a fun exercise (for instance, “interlock” has strong parallels with counterpoint, and “levels of scale” applies very naturally to rhythms) and one that may finally inspire me to get back to composing.

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Pärt and process

Salon 21 is a wide-ranging series of informal talks by composers and musicians put on by new music org Soundstreams. Last night we heard an appreciation of the music of Arvo Pärt by composer, conductor and Laurier professor Glenn Buhr. Buhr’s enthusiasm made for an engaging introduction to the music, providing lots for a musicology geek like me to enjoy without getting too technical.

One particular aspect that interested me was Pärt’s use of process, following simple, deterministic procedures to generate stirring music from extremely limited material. It’s similar in some senses to Steve Reich‘s phase pieces, or Brian Eno‘s loop-based ambient works, but there are big differences.

Reich’s phase music uses short loops, whether that’s physical loops of recording tape, percussion or piano figures that are simply repeat throughout the piece. These fall in and out of phase with each other, shifting from unison to a subtle echo to cacophony to tightly interlocking patterns, and finally come back into phase again, bringing the piece back to where it began.

Eno’s ambient pieces, such as Music For Airports, were inspired by Reich’s work, but use loops of uneven length that will practically never repeat. Eno’s self-stated goal was to create pieces that were effectively infinite, something he was able to explore further once computer music technology allowed it—he coined the term “generative music” to describe it. It comes as no surprise, really, that Eno’s designing the chimes to be sounded by the 10,000-year Clock of the Long Now.

But where Reich’s pieces are cyclic and Eno’s aspire to being infinite, Arvo Pärt’s music is more fatalistic. We heard a recording of his Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, which uses as its basic material a descending A-minor scale, with violins moving fastest and lower strings progressively more slowly, but all moving toward the tonic—their ultimate destination. The whole piece is relentless in its finality, moving inexorably downward until at last the high strings linger on their notes, waiting for the basses to catch up, and the long final chords boil with a kind of dread—fitting for a meditation on death.

The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir close out their North American tour with a stop in Toronto tomorrow night, but sadly, I won’t be there. My consolation: we’ll be in the studio mixing the new Flickershow CD!

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Paring down

Sean and I are moving into a new place in Leslieville in less than a week, and we’re well into the exhausting task of tossing things we no longer need (the new house is rather smaller than the old) and boxing up everything else. This time around, I finally bit the bullet and got rid of all my CDs and vinyl, except for discs by friends’ bands and the occasional rarity. Since I listen to everything on my computer or iPod these days, my collection had been sitting in boxes in the basement for a couple of years already.

I’d been avoiding the issue for a long time, but today we had a truck rented to do a Goodwill run, and I made the decision to let them all go, pretty much on the spur of the moment. It was actually the first time I’ve been in a CD store in years, and aside from the occasional gift, I don’t imagine I’ll have any cause to do so again. I felt more than a little awkward walking in there with all my boxes — while I was giving them a lot of good stuff (several hundred dollars’ worth, in fact), I was essentially renouncing their services as well.

Aside: my first musical purchase, to my memory, bought at a little shopping mall music store: a cassette of 1000 Airplanes on the Roof by Philip Glass (having been mesmerized by a clip of Koyaanisqatsi on TV).

I don’t remember what the first vinyl I bought was. My mother and I used to park at Yorkdale and ride the subway down to Osgoode to shop at the book and music shops along Queen West, and I picked up lots of Eno, Tomita and Jean-Michel Jarre at Driftwood Music.

First CDs: Electric Cafe by Kraftwerk, The Shutov Assembly by Brian Eno and a 4-track sampler from Hi-Tech/No Crime, an album of YMO remixes by contemporary (ca. 1991) UK electronic acts. The last CD I bought for myself was Komeda’s Kokomemedada.

The hardest part: letting go of all the vinyl box sets of classics Sean’s late father collected and treasured, which we’d had for ages but never played. In the truck, we agreed we’ll have to download some of his dad’s favorites — he was fond of the Russians, especially Shostakovich, and loved opera too. Perhaps something to listen to as we unpack and settle in.

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The ring

The Ring

Above: the ring, made by Sean, my sweetheart of nine years and given to me one week ago, on the beach at Ashbridges Bay, at midnight, while the remnants of Hurricane Ike whipped by.

The awesome Michele, who counts metalworking among her many talents, had invited him by her studio to learn some of the craft and create a piece of jewellery that day. Acting on a deep impulse he decided to make this for me - knowing that even though I never wear jewellery, I’m a big DIY nerd, and if there was one thing I’d never want to take off, it would be something made by his own hands. He made me a freaking ring. For about three days I couldn’t look down at it without starting to cry again.

It was pitch black. We had to use the light from my cel phone to see it. We sat with the hot winds buffeting us, eating pretzels and watching birds fly backwards. And then we got caught in a sudden downpour as we pedalled up Woodbine*, and ate terrible

breakfast sandwiches

Brekwiches at an all-night coffee shop. I spent equal time crying and laughing my head off.

The long and the short of it: we are engaged. Life just got a bit stranger and much more wonderful.

* Oh, did I mention? We got bikes a few weeks ago. It’s been great, and the wounds from our respective first accidents are almost healed!

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The Bee and the Express

Express: back panel test mount I’m finally back to working on some electronic projects. First up, the Express, an analog-to-MIDI converter built around a Bare Bones Board, an inexpensive Arduino clone.

I’ve been making up some patches for my Evolver synth to use it as an effect on guitar or bass, and thought it’d be nice to have some sort of pedal to control it, along the lines of a wah or volume pedal. The desktop model of the Evolver lacks a pedal input, hence the Express (for “expression”, both of the musical and genetic kind - evolution, geddit?). Currently, it reads one analog pin and spits out continuous controller data. Nothing particularly spectacular there, but it did fit wonderfully into the sturdy steel case from a computer keyboard A/B switchbox. There’s room for lots more inputs, and eventually I figure it’ll sport an additional analog in and some footswitch inputs which will send things like note on/off messages.

I’m still new to making enclosures, and to working metal in particular - instead of grinding out a hole that was slightly too narrow, I used a drill, which grabbed hold of the edges and warped the heck out of the front panel. Panic set in for a moment, but I managed to bash the thing back into shape using a busted old hard drive(!) as an anvil.

Word to the wise: there are two incompatible standards for the wiring of expression pedals:

1/4” - tip to wiper / ring to +5V / sleeve to ground: Clavia, CME, Electrix, Emu, Kurzweil, Oberheim, Roland/Boss
1/4” - ring to wiper / tip to +5V / sleeve to ground: Kawai, Korg, Yamaha

The former arrangement allows you to use a standard normalling jack to connect the tip to ground by default, so the input doesn’t float if nothing’s plugged in. I’m using a Boss pedal now, but my other pedal is a Yamaha, so if I want to use it as a second input, I’ll have to wire up something to cross those connections.

Arduino (and Tarquin) Being easily distractible by possibilities - giant trackball! LED matrix! stepper motor-controlled time-lapse photography! - I’m desperately trying to focus on a couple of projects at a time. Arduino project number two at present is using it for ultra-cheap and dirty sound generation, with piezo disc speakers plugged directly into the digital outputs. A little hacked-together code, and voilà:

The Bee (MP3, 640k)

I call it the Bee, though “Mosquito” might have been more appropriate. Modulating the pulse width creates some nice motion, but there’s a lot more to do, like getting R/C filters to tame some of the harshness - it really is annoying after a while. Oh yes, and putting a switch on it to shut it up between tests. And, of course, buttons and knobs to play it with… maybe even some sort of acoustic treatment, like a resonating soundbox or a spring reverb.

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Running in the family

Willow Park Ecology Centre mapLots of funny little coincidences today.

I’ve been working at Evergreen for a few months now. Not long after joining, I stumbled across my father’s name on one of our pages, listed as a contact for the Field Botanists of Ontario. And today, in the big list of projects we’ve helped fund over the years, I found my mother’s name, in an image credit for a hand drawn map of Willow Park Ecology Centre in Norval, near where I grew up. (There’s a better, non-coloured version on the WPEC site.)

Evergreen Brick Works bus route mapThat also means both of us have done maps on our site (I did a bus route map a few weeks ago, partly as a change of pace from staring at HTML all day). A neat reminder of where I got a good deal of grounding in visual communication, not to mention my appreciation for the natural world. Thanks, Mum and Dad.

Happy birthday to me.

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