October 22, 2014

"Mongolian Throat Singing" for Dummies

This is a pretty stunningly adroit demonstration of polyphonic overtone singing (which is often called "Mongolian throat singing," although I'm told "Tuvan throat singing" is the preferred nomenclature). Just some inside baseball on throat-singing here: The fact that she can move the fundamental (i.e., the lower tone) while keeping the higher tone steady is goddamned *amazing.* #FACT

As Anna-Maria explains, "polyphonic overtone singing" basically means singing two notes simultaneously. This is accomplished by using your mouth as a sort of tuned resonating chamber: You generate the low note with your larynx (as per usual), but also use that vibration to excite the air in your mouth, creating the higher whistling overtone, which you can then control by changing your mouth shape (as you can see her doing).


In my early- and mid-20s I was obsessed with overtone singing, which was much more obscure then (in large part because there was also less Internet then, and far narrower distribution of multi-media files on that much slower Internet). If Anna-Maria's performance is sparking something in your ear, most definitely check out Hun Huur Tu (who do very traditional Tuvan compositions and performances) and Kongar-ol Ondar (who toured extensively during his lifetime, performing both traditional tunes and working in contemporary music, most notably with bluesman Paul Pena, whose documentary Genghis Blues is about Ondar and available through Netflix). Here's a great Ondar-Pena track (I'm also enduringly fond of his very traditional "Shamanic Prayer for Richard Feynman"):

As for Hun Huur Tu, this is an *amazing* 90 minute compilation of lots of their recordings:

My son, who is now 8, quickened at a Hun Huur Tu performance in Ann Arbor, MI. They came back the next year, and so my wife and I took him to the show, and once they began singing he was so rapt that we momentarily thought he was having a seizure, and sorta kinda flipped out (as new parents are wont to do). He was not having a seizure; he was just really digging the sound, and to this day, has sort of a tendency to fall into the things that fascinate him.

Speaking of which, a healthy chunk of my 20s was spent trying to figure out how to throat sing, and through trial, error, and lots of online text-based research, I managed to get the tiniest toehold into the fundamentals. Wanna try it? Here are some pointers:


  1. LOOSEN YOUR JAW: Keep your jaw slack and pushed a bit forward. Your mouth should naturally hang open (as Anna-Maria's does), with your lower teeth a touch in front of your top.
  2. FLATTEN YOUR TONGUE INTO A BOWL: This is the part that takes the most experimentation. You want your tongue to be a flat, shallow U, with the tip of your tongue down, the bottom of the U resting on the floor of your mouth, and the edges of the U pressed against your molar. The idea is that you're making your mouth into a big, round resonator (like the jug played in jug band).
  3. GROAN LOW: Make a deep, low tone in your throat and chest (your larynx will really be buzzing).
  4. WORK YOUR LIPS: Experiment with drawing your lips together into a pucker, like you are going to whistle, and then relaxing them again to the starting position. Work through this slow, and listen for that high, ringing overtone, which will eventually start to quietly peek out of the low, buzzing fundamental. Once you find that overtone, it's just a matter of long, patient practice to refine and control the exact mouth-shape that brings it out.
  5. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE—IN PRIVATE!: You'll need to practice and experiment *a lot* to even start to get this done—which is going to annoy the living hell out of anyone you live with. That said, two great practice spaces: The bathroom (natural home to all manner of shameful singing) and while driving alone (the windshield bounces your voice back at you, making it easier to pick out those first, shaky-legged little overtones coming out to greet the world).

October 17, 2014

This Clip Very Much Gets to the Heart of What I Love about KEY & PEELE (thx @craftingmystyle!)

i.e., that it is the funny, bi-racial TWILIGHT ZONE--which is kind of exactly the TWILIGHT ZONE reboot 21st Century America needs, in my humble.

(via Aisha Harris at Slate)

October 16, 2014

Dept. of Halloween Decor: "Dark Night" Paper Doll Bats #diy @nostarch

This past weekend my wife and son were making Halloween decorations (as I've mentioned before, my boy is somewhat enthusiastic about autumn) and demanded bat paper dolls.

I'd struggled to make paper dolls as a kid (I'm not super visual), so I was pretty shocked when I managed to make these lil guys on the first try. Here are some pointers:

  1. FOLD THE PAPER: Cut a strip of paper (mine was 11 inches long--because it was loose-leaf writing paper--by ~2 inches tall). Accordion fold this strip an odd number of times. As you can see in Figure 1, this puts both your "open" ends on the same side of the little folded paper packet. That's sort of important, or you'll wind up with a trailing half-a-bat.
  2. CUT OUT HALF A BAT: Hold your paper packet with the "open" side to the left and the "fold side" to the right. Cut out the half-bat I've shown in Figure 2, noting that the tip of the wing (circled in red in both Figures 2 and 3) is blunt and goes off the edge of the packet. PRO-TIP: If you hold the packet wrong, with the "fold" side to the left, you end up with monstrous inverse-bats. If you hold it with the fold to the top or bottom, you get half-bat confetti.
  3. UNFOLD: Voila! You've got bat-swag! Note that the wingtip is blunt (circled in Figures 2 and 3), which is what makes it possible for all your bats to link together (highlighted by the dashed square in Figure 3).

October 15, 2014

See the "Southern Lights" from the Outside

The thing getting hyped about this fantastic time-lapse footage from the International Space Station is the opportunity to see the Aurora Australis from above, but what gets me every time I watch this is how many freaking thunderstorms are happening on earth at any given time, and the breathtaking contrast between those chaotic blue lightning flashes and the static golden glow of human-made electrical networks.

WATCH: A Camera Attached To The Space Station Captured This Rare Event Happening On Earth. [VIDEO]

The last three auroras, the bright glows, are Aurora Austalis, going firstly over the Indian Ocean and approaching Australia, then over a wider space of the Indian Ocean, then somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere. This project was featured on NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day.

October 09, 2014

If You Dug the Math of "The Traveling Salesman Solution," You'll Dig This ( #scifi @ccfinlay )

This past summer The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction published my novelette "The Traveling Salesman Solution--which has generally been lauded for getting some hard math right[*] in the service of posing a totally non-mathematical ethical dilemma.

If you're the sort of reader who dug that story--or would dig such a story--for the math, then you are gonna *love* this: A guy named Todd W. Schneider has put together a neat littler interactive web-app for solving instances of the Traveling Salesman Problem using simulated annealing.

The Traveling Salesman with Simulated Annealing, R, and Shiny - Todd W. Schneider

For folks who've read the story, you may wonder: Is this Todd guy gonna build a doomsday device now ('cause, naturally, that's what you do with computer hardware/software that solves the TSP). The answer is, "No," because his program doesn't *solve* the TSP, per se. The neat thing about simulated annealing is that it's a short cut for finding *good* solutions, not *optimum*, solutions. You save time by settling for something less than perfect (which, itself, is sort of a tidy lesson in trade-offs, ethical and otherwise). Very neat, but not the world-shaking all-purpose always-optimal TSP-solver that poor old Bryce built in the story.

For more abut the story, you can check out this interview. Sadly, it's not available as an ebook yet (I've been busy), but you can order the print back issue directly from F&SF, or contact me directly and I'll see if I can hook you up with a PDF or something.

(I got wind of Todd W. Schneider's simulated annealing TSP web app via The Atlantic's City Lab)

Continue reading "If You Dug the Math of "The Traveling Salesman Solution," You'll Dig This ( #scifi @ccfinlay )" »

October 06, 2014

FUN #FACT: Time-lapse Videos of Babies Being Born Totally Makes Flies Want to Retch

(one assumes, on account of the principles of symmetry and the Commutative Property of Inter-Species Disgust)

(via @DavidGrann: Time-Lapse Of A Maggot Becoming A Fly - Digg)

October 03, 2014

ICYMI: I Hung Out with a Pretty Rad Goat

I was doing a book event at a farmer's market early last month, before I got insanely sick. I don't *blame* the goat for my illness, but I'm just sayin' . . . aw, hell, I can't stay mad at this lil guy! Goat, I can't quit you!

September 29, 2014

I Am Depressed, So I Made This Swing #DIY

I am depressed.

I've been depressed and anxious for a couple days, because this is how my brain is, especially as the seasons change toward the tail-end of the year. The angle of the sun early and late in the day becomes more acute, your shadow stretches out in front of you like a wendigo. It's a harbinger of the gloom that will dominate the clock once fall finishes falling, and the cloud ceiling feels like it's about seven feet over your head, waiting to crush you.

Once the sun starts getting low and skulky like that I begin to constantly feel like I'm about to tip over backward in a chair, like there's someone just behind me about to punch me in the back of the neck. It's unnerving, and constant, and so I'm anxious, and so I'm depressed.

Normally I'd treat this depression with alcohol or coffee, but it's 9am and my stomach has been off and there's a point where you Have to Talk to Someone About Thus, Dude, and I'd prefer that not be today.

So I made a new swing for my kids. The old one broke the other day, and I didn't take it down immediately, and my 8-year-old has subsequently been sort of clinging to the remainder and dangling in a vain attempt to swing, which is pretty pathetic, and also sort of eerie looking, like a sophomore-year interpretive dance of a public hanging.

The new swing is a jankety-ass hack made from some junk from the garage (a length of 2" PVC, a length of nylon runner I used to use for rock climbing, back in during the Clinton Administration), but I feel somewhat better. The sun was a little higher in the sky by the time I finished, and so I felt less like my shadow was waiting to stab me in the back, so that helped. Also, there's something to be said for a cylindrical swing seat--it's more like a trapeze, and easier on my old butt. I'm sure the kids will come up with some new and dangerous way to take advantage of this new design.

Anyway, I want to suggest this same mode of treatment to you, Gentle Readers:

If you are feeling depressed or anxious, and it is not yet at the Point Where You Have to Talk to Your Doctor, Dude, make your kids a new swing out of garage junk. Because here's the thing: You'll probably feel at least a little better--on account you will have exercised your rugged individualism or done something physical or reformed the world in your image or tikkun olamed a smidge, or however your worldview best frames voluntary unpaid manual labor in or near the home. But even if you don't feel a damn bit better after you're done building your swing, your kids will still get home at the end of the day, and there'll be a new swing, and they'll be happy about that.

And that alone will help. And all day you'll know this one fundamental truth: At the end of the day your kids will be happy because there's a new swing. And since you've increased the net daily happiness in the world, you have also increased the mean happiness enjoyed by any single human, even if only a smidge. By the magic of division, you're *technically* happier already.

And, shit, by Internet standards, being *technically* happier--like being *technically* more qualified or deserving or right--is even better than being *actually* better. I think you could get round one VC funding on the basis of that math alone.

But whatever. One way or the other, your kids have a new swing--and you've got about six hours left in the day that you can use that swing all you want with no one trying to horn in on it.

September 24, 2014

This is Superrad, but I'm Basically Overrun with Sexbot Jokes Right Now #EmbarrassmentOfPuerileRiches

The most foreboding sentence in the video embedded below--in terms of the obvious teledildonic applications of this tech--has to be: "Predicting the behavior of soft robotic devices is difficult." Yikes!

For reals, though, there is *a lot* of legit awesome here (both in mainstream R&D and homebrew garage mad-science)--as well as the only legitimately feasibly use of 3D printing I've yet seen suggested[*]

Harvard Makes Soft Robotics Open-Source | Motherboard

Robots, the classic symbol of the techno-future, are now bopping around in the suburban garages of most anyone with $40 or so to spend on parts and with a bit of programming acumen, or at least the desire/ability to learn a bit of code.

Thanks to a new toolkit released by researchers at Harvard University, those garage robot tinkerers can now expand into the realm of "soft" robots, e.g. robots made to squish and deform like mechanical slugs or eels.

Here's a cool lil vid of a pretty evolved example of "soft robotics." I think this little fella was even programmed to feel pain, regret, and ennui!

Continue reading "This is Superrad, but I'm Basically Overrun with Sexbot Jokes Right Now #EmbarrassmentOfPuerileRiches" »

September 23, 2014

I'm Sick to Hell of Kickstarter Campaigns, but I'm Backing this One #scifi #China

DISCLOSURE: There is currently no pair of words in the English language that activate my couldn't-give-a-shit gag response faster than "stretch goal"—nonetheless, I have to admit that this is a pretty damn worthwhile Kickstarter project: Clarkesworld: Chinese Science Fiction Translation Project by Neil Clarke — Kickstarter

Clarke is a good editor, and his magazine an excellent venue. I've got at least three readily articulable reasons that I think this isn't just a good or lofty project, but rather a goddamned vital one. Here goes:

1) YOU ARE PROBABLY BIGOTED ABOUT CHINA If you are an American reader (and Google Analytics tells me that your probably are) who mostly interacts with other Americans, you almost certainly harbor a whole host of really fucked-up opinions about China and its citizens, which you repeat often and take as gospel and don't even realize are fucked up and baseless. I host the very same psycho-flora in my own brain-gut--and only became aware if it because I happened to go to Costa Rica for a long visit two years running. CR has *much* friendly relations with China than the US does, and that trickles down to rank and file citizens. It was only in visiting CR that I became aware of the clanging bigotry of what were, in the US, totally garden variety "factual" observations about China. I needed the contrast to see it. This is a similar source of that much-needed contrast, but without having to pay a passport fee or ride an airplane.

2) YOU ARE GOING TO BE CHARMED BY THE SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE WORLDVIEWS PRESENTED IN THESE STORIES AND YOUR OWN This is another one that totally blindsided me, and it was only by the grace of fickle Fortune that I even got the chance to get blindsided. See, I've got this lil wistful steampunk robot-soldier-sexbot novella that got translated into Chinese a while back. The book is set just after the Civil War, and is largely about the uncomfortable quasi-friendship of a pair of outcasts, one a crippled Confederate veteran, the other a Japanese-American veterinarian/doctor. The clockwork soldiers are sort of a narrative foil, at best--or, at least, that's totally how American readers take it (myself included). But then I saw a couple reviews from Chinese readers, and the scales fell from my eyes. To these Chinese readers, the story wasn't really about the outcast crippled Confederate and doctor; it was about those those identical clockwork soldiers, who had done their duty and finally been released by their government, only to be viciously punished by their human neighbors for attempting to live free and remake themselves in some new image. Yeah, all of that was always there in the novella, but it took this new group of readers--and their own fears and fascinations and cultural baggage--to make it visible.

3) FOR THE MOST PART, WE DON'T GET MUCH IN TRANSLATION The US is a *major* worldwide culture creator and exporter; most everyone else takes *a lot* of their entertainment in translation. Meanwhile, we have the privilege of getting most of our thrills, chills, shits, and giggles in our own language and packaged in our own ubiquitous culture and its biases. It is good for your brain to have to try and breakdown strange new cultural proteins.

3.1) CHINA MAKES THIS WORLD The other side: Look around you (including the thing on which you are looking at these words): Without China, an easy 90% of the things in your house don't exist, don't function, or don't matter because the things they need in order to function either don't exist or don't function, because they were MADE IN CHINA. It's time we understood China much, much better, on its own terms.

Just sayin', this is worth your support--but more than that, it is worth your *attention*.


About the Author

David Erik Nelson is an award-winning science-fiction author and essayist. His fiction has appeared in Asimov's, The Best of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded.

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