Thursday, January 31, 2013

Pearls Before Death

As I mentioned in a recent post, (Terry and the Pirates: Death and Rememberence) death in the daily comics is rare. And while it sometimes occurs in adventure/drama strips, death in humor comics is almost unheard of. But that's exactly what happened in Pearls Before Swine. And Stephen Pastis' handling of it fit quite well into the quirky worldview of the strip.

The sequence involves Andy, a dog who's escaped from his master (note the broken chain hanging from his neck) to be with his dying father. Although the father isn't particularly interested in seeing him -- especially when his game shows are on the TV. It's an experience I think many readers with aging parents can relate to. Andy wants to talk to his dad and tie up loose ends, something his father doesn't want to do.

Overall, the situation was handled humorously, as in the sequence below (click on image to enlarge).

But then the end comes. On Christmas day, this sequence appeared.

Pastis' understated simplicity delivered the message effectively. We feel sad for Andy.

The following day, this sequence was run. And the reader -- along with Andy -- reach some type of closure.

Most comic strips are content to deliver a gag a day. But the ones that deliver more -- like Pearls Before Swine -- are the ones that keep me reading every day.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Straco Layout, Part 29 - The Recycled Roadster

Nomura Sedan, ca. 1959
Read all the installments of the Straco Express layout project here.

I hadn't intended to add another vehicle to the layout, but this one looked particularly nice (and was available at a particularly right price).

The toy is in great shape, and although it's almost a half-century old, the lithographed colors are still bright and crisp.

And there are a couple of details that make this an interesting piece.

Two men in the front, two women in the back. Got to be
two old married couples.
First off, note the arrangement of the passengers. (click on images to enlarge). There are two men in the front seat (one with a pipe), and two women in the back. Obviously two married couples out for a spin! Kind of an odd detail for a kid's toy.

Second, the frame has a secret. If you look carefully at the photo at left, you can see that the hidden surface of the metal has a design on it.

Nomura recycled a previously used piece of tin for the frame. The underside of the car is plain, the majority of the lithographed surface is hidden by the car body.

Note the lithography on the
frame inside the bumper.
The chassis started out life
as part of something else.
It's something I've seen before. As a child I owned a police badge made in Japan that was recycled from a peach can.

Nomura was one of the few Japanese toy companies of the postwar era to put trademarks on their low-end toys. Their brand, the letters "TN" in a circle is plainly visible on the back of the car.

There isn't a lot of information available on these Japanese penny toys. So getting one that merits careful study is a welcome bonus.

The Nomura logo is visible in the lower right side.

Total cost for the project:
Layout construction:
  • Pegboard: $4.95
  • Flathead Screws: $0.40
  • Molding: $2.49
  • SilClear: borrowed from a friend
  • Green Paint: left over from another project
  • Wood Screws: $3.60
  • Felt Pads: $1.99
Power Pack: $5.90
Small Houses: $3.00
Testor's Gray Paint for road: $1.29
Bandai Areo Station: $8.99

The back of the police badge. Recycling is good!
  • Two Japanese toy cars: $2.00
  • A.W. Livestock truck: $4.99
  • Taxi: $2.99
  • Ambulance: $2.99
  • Two Japanese patriotic cars: $6.99
  • Namura Police Car $2.52
  • Haji three-wheel sedan $3.00
  • Namura lumber truck $3.48
  • 1950's sedan $2.99
  • 6 Namura vehicles $16.99
  • LineMar Pepco Truck $8.50
  • Namura Red Sedan $5.00
Total Cost: $95.05
The front of the police badge. Who knew
it started out as a peaches can?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

An Updated Directory of Literature (sort of)

As promised, I'm posting my latest National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) novel. I finally finished with the preliminary editing, so here it is. By preliminary, I mean all I did was correct the spellings and the typos, made the character names consistent, and cleaned up the grammar a little.

This is writing in the raw, but that's part of the fun of NaNoWriMo -- producing a 50,000 word novel in a month. This particular piece, The Commissar Commands, continues the adventures of Raven. Raven is a mysterious crime fighter of the 1930's, and has been the subject of all my NaNoWriMo projects.

I've always enjoyed the pulp literature of the 1930's, and the breakneck speed at which most of it was written seemed very close to the NaNoWriMo spirit.

Below are links to all the novels. One thing to keep in mind: while the writing is done, the editing has yet to start in earnest on any of these. I've tried to clean up as many mistakes as I can find, but there may be some plot points that need fixing, chronologies that need tweaking, and other structural issues a professional editor would see and correct. It's only after they've been edited that I will officially offer them to the world (and you'll see them on Amazon).

Murder Squad
Men mysteriously die of a weapon that doesn't fire bullets! Toy police badges are left at the scene of the crime! What does it mean? Can Raven solve the puzzle before becoming the next victim?

The Crimson Cypher
A dead thief found in an isolated farm yard clutches a coded message in his hand -- a message that pits Raven and Crow against a merciless army of killers in an international race to rescue Police Commissioner Rowland from certain death and save America from saboteurs!

Death in Five States
A beautiful young heiress is trapped in an express train full of killers! Can Raven and Crow reach her in time as the train of doom hurtles across the country, leaving a trail of murder behind it?

The Purple Doom
A mysterious figure holds sway over New York society. His demands are simple: pay to live, or die the horrible death known as the Purple Doom! And after Commissioner Rowland and MacGuffey are attacked, Raven must fight alone to stop the Purple Doom from destroying an entire city! 

The Crime Broker
Business is booming in the underworld. Someone is investing in crime, and the police are overwhelmed. Can Raven help stem the tide of lawlessness and stop a powerful supercrook from taking over the city?

When the Commissar Commands
Who is behind the concerted attack on American industry? A vital new weapon to Uncle Sam's arsenal is in jeopardy, and even the Federal authorities are helpless. Can Raven stop a nest of spies and unmask their leader before the weapon is stolen?

Monday, January 28, 2013

Terry and the Pirates: Death and Rememberence

Dick Tray's future father-in-law, Emil Trueheart,
is brutally murdered in a 1931 sequence. 

Death in the daily comic strips is rare, and the death of a sympathetic character even rarer. (as I've written about before) Adventure strips had a certain amount of mortality, as villains came to untimely ends, or minions were felled in firefights. But those deaths seldom meant anything to the reader -- also many mourned the passing of the murderous Flattop in Dick Tracy, but just because he was such a great character.

When a sympathetic character dies, it can be a jolt to the reader. So the writer better have a good reason for doing so. In 1931, Emil Trueheart was gunned down in front of his family's eyes, and the eyes of the reader. One of the witnesses was his daughter's fiancee -- Dick Tracy. Because of that death, Tracy joined the police force to capture the murderers, and the rest is history.

In 1940 Milton Caniff killed off Raven Sherman in Tracy and the Pirates. It was a move that shocked and dismayed readers. Raven was an unusual character. Unlike Caniff's other females leads, she was plain-featured. A wealthy socialite, she had given up the shallowness of high society to make a difference in the world. She worked in China providing medicine and shelter to those displaced by the Japanese invasion.

She was killed while preventing hijackers from stealing medical supplies in a particularly horrific sequence. Raven was shoved out of a speeding truck and landed on her face. She suffered severe head damage and massive internal injuries. In the isolated mountains of China, without any possiblity of medical aid reaching her, her friends could only make her comfortable as they watched her die. It was a shock to the readers -- this wasn't fair! This was not the death a heroine deserved. But Caniff did it for a reason. War was messy and brutal, and sometimes good people died horribly and senselessly. Like Raven.

In the sequence below, note how Caniff depicts Raven's death. There's not a lot of words, here. Just simple images and stark shadows. All of which make this a powerful sequence. (click on images to enlarge)

And that's not all. often comic strips move from story to story with little reference to past events (Emil Trueheart was seldom mentioned after Tracy caught his killers, for example).

Over a year after Raven's death, Caniff is in the middle of another adventure. Flip Corkin has crash-landed in the Chinese mountains, along with the Japanese pilot who downed him. On Christmas Day, 1941 he stumbles across an unmarked grave.

Readers knew whose it was. It was a strong reminder -- not only of the Raven's death, but of the American casualties of the war, which was still in its early days when this was published. Deeply moving in 1941, and also today for those who read the complete sequence.

Friday, January 25, 2013

CCC 056 - Emma Lou Diemer

The Consonant Classical Challenge continues with a look at American composer Emma Lou Diemer. Diemer is an accomplished pianist, and has composed many works for her instrument. She's also written extensively for choral groups (many of which have piano or organ accompaniment). Her facility for creating lyrical melodies is best reflected in this part of her ouvre. Diemer has experimented with some advanced performance techniques, creating some exciting works in the process. For the most part, her music has a clarity and common-sense approach. Diemer's language may be tonally-based, but its one that is distinctively her own.

This excerpt from her Piano Sonata No. 3 showcases Diemer's pianistic skills. The movement (marked "Tango fantastique") is energetic without being overly showy. The harmonies are distinctively modern, but still tonal in character.

Her setting of Shakespeare in her "Three Madrigals" shows her skill at composing vocal music. The lines are carefully woven together in interesting ways that help illustrate, rather than detract from, the text.


In her Quartet for Trumpet, Horn, Trombone and Piano, her melodic gifts come to the fore. The piano part is well-developed, of course, and sounds like a gratifying part to perform. The music for the brass instruments is carefully crafted. Diemer takes advantage of each instrument's strengths and uses them to create music that's perfectly in character for the instruments performing them.

Emma Lou Diemer has composed for larger forces, too. Her "Santa Barbara Overture" is a good representative sample of her orchestral writing. The shapes of the melodies are similar to those of her chamber works. Diemer's orchestral writing is quite precise and clear. Although this is full orchestra, the full weight of the orchestra isn't often used.

Emma Lou Diemer is yet another composer whose work (I believe) is under-represented in the concert hall. Her compositions use the tonal language most audiences are used to, so they're naturally engaging. And yet she uses that framework to create soundscapes of appealing originality. Her works are most frequently performed by choral groups. I'd like to see her name appear on programs for chamber and orchestra concerts in the same frequency, at least.

Recommended Recordings

Emma Lou Diemer: Chamber Works

Summer Day: The Complete Works for Violin and Piano by Emma Lou Diemer

The Psalms of Emma Lou Diemer, Volume 1

The Psalms of Emma Lou Diemer, Volume 2

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Ferdinand Ries: Piano Concertos, Vol. 5 - A fitting finale

Ferdinand Ries: Piano Concertos Vol. 5
Christopher Hinterhuber, piano
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Uwe Grodd, conductor

Naxos concludes their survey of Ferdinand Ries' works for piano and orchestra with this release. Ries was an interesting character. A talented pianist and composer, he moved to Vienna to study with Beethoven, and became his secretary. In time, Ries set out on his own to become a highly successful performer and composer.

This installment presents Ries' first and last piano concertos. It also features one of the large-scale single-movement works he wrote to showcase his talents in concert.

Piano Concerto No. 2 in E-flat, Op. 42 starts the program. Despite its number, this 1806 concerto was actually the first of the eight Ries composed. It has the bravura of Beethoven but tempered somewhat by simple triadic melodies that seem more akin to Mozart. This late Mozart/early Beethoven character is reinforced in the Larghetto and Rondo movements, which sound light, and lighthearted.

The Introduction et Rondeau brilliant, Op. 144  is a big, sprawling work full of grand gestures. Finished in 1825, the music sounds more like Schubert than Beethoven. Especially in the slow and elegiac introduction, the piano part seems to presage to Chopin in its expressiveness and fluidity.

Final work on the album is Ries' Piano Concerto in G minor, Op. 177. Finished 24 years after his first concerto, Ries displays an expected growth in his style. Ries' melodies sound more like Brahms than Mozart. The burliness of Beethoven is still there in the solo passages, but Mozartean elan has been replaced by more sophisticated harmonies and increased drama. The orchestration has also developed, with instruments being exploited more for their colors than just providing accompaniment.

Judging by the piano part, Ries must have been a ferocious player. Although there are some real technical challenges here, Hinterhuber makes them sound simple, and even fun to play. And that just adds to the listener's enjoyment. This release brings a satisfying close to this traversal of Ferdinand Ries' most important compositions.

(I've also reviewed Volume 4 in this series)

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Terry and the Pirates: The Good Villain 2

In The Good Villain 1 I called out an unusual piece of characterization in the classic Terry and the Pirates comic strip. In 1941, fictional heroes and villains tended to be portrayed in stark contrast. The bad guys were bad -- pure and simple. Caniff presented some that weren't, though, which added to the verisimilitude of the strip.

By 1941, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi war machine were appearing with increasing frequency in American popular fiction as the Bad Guys. The stereotype of the haughty German officer (which first appeared in fiction during the First World War) was revived, as well as that of the unquestioning minions that served them. Which is what makes this sequence by Milton Caniff so interesting. In mid-1941 he introduced Kiel -- a haughty German officer sent to China to work with the Japanese on a special project.

Initially, there's nothing remarkable about the character. But then we get this sequence. In the first strip, he gives orders to a German naval commander who appears to be a willing lackey.(click on image to enlarge)

But note what happens in the next sequence. The professional soldier has no respect for Kiel, who he regards as a political hack, and even less for the "new order" in general. His comment is the final panel might have resonance even today: "Personal exposure to danger has a way of flattening the taste for war in the mouths of politicians."

The tension between professional soldiers and the amateur politicians who direct them is nothing new. But it's a remarkable thing to bring out in a daily comic strip of any era -- let alone 1941. I have to admit, the captain's final thought about how the realities of war might change the armchair generals' attitudes is one I find appealing even today.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Terry and the Pirates: The Good Villain 1

I am grateful to IDAF Publishing for their beautiful reprints of Terry and the Pirates. Milton Caniff was a masterful storyteller and artist. The six-volume collection has the entire run reproduced on library-quality paper, making the series a joy to read and study.

I received The Complete Terry and the Pirates, Vol. 4: 1941-1942 for Christmas, a volume I was particularly excited to get. It has the seminal sequence chronicling the death of Raven Sherman. Raven wasn't the first comic strip hero/heroine to die onstage, but it was one of the most powerfully rendered.

But there was something else remarkable in this collection. There were not one, but two appearances of good villains. The first appeared in January, 1941. In this sequence, the Japanese commander knows that a Chinese freedom-fighter (Dr. Ping, AKA the Blue Tiger) is escaping in a group of refugees. He orders the column strafed, reasoning that killing all the refugees will ensure the Blue Tiger is also destroyed. (click on image to enlarge)

By the end of 1940, Americans were becoming increasingly leery of the Japanese as they continued their conquest of China. Since "Terry and the Pirates" was set in China, Caniff had actually introduced them into the strip in 1937, shortly after the Japanese invasion began. At the time, he was not allowed to call them by name, so they were simply referred to as "the invaders."

In most depictions of the Japanese in the immediate pre-war and World War II era, there are seldom any redeeming features. The Japanese became the embodiment of the "Yellow Peril," an Asian stereotype that had been floating around in Western fiction since the 1890's. They were portrayed as unscrupulous, murderous, and -- being Oriental -- soldiers who did not acknowledge the Geneva Convention.

The commander in the first sequence fits that pattern. Ordering the wholesale slaughter of civilians in order to kill one combatant personifies the evil that readers of the day imagined were typical in the Japanese military. (And if you think this is too outre, imagine the story being written today with Syrian characters.)

So far, this is a story of its time. But notice the final panel. One of the plane crew is uneasy with the command. An enemy with a conscience. Something we might expect today, but very rare in 1940's fiction. And notice the final sequence. The good villain again expresses his distaste with his actions.

In the final three panels, we get a nicely paced little morality tail. The "evil" villain scoffs at his crew  mate's unease. "Who cares? Those taken by surprise never know what hit them." The next panel shows a Flying Tiger taking them by surprise. And the final panel shows the invaders dying, riddled with bullets, as they had riddled the refugees below. They never knew what hit them.

Of course, both invaders had to die. The narrative demanded the evil villain pay for his hubris and lack of remorse. And the good villain, while a reluctant participant, still had to pay for his crime.

One final note: Caniff plays with our expectations in the middle sequence. The wagon is strafed and Dr. Ping clutches his chest. For a moment, it looks like the end. But only for a moment. Small touches like this kept the reader guessing, and engaged. Because unlike other adventure strips, you never could be 100% sure how the plot would unfold.

Complicated stuff -- especially for the funny papers. But the depth of characterization Caniff portrayed -- even in such minor roles -- is part of the reason "Terry and Pirates" is still admired and enjoyed in the 21st Century.

Next: The Good Villain 2

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Tender Trap 8

What is the tender trap? It's an all-too-common error where someone sets up either a model or toy steam locomotive and places the tender backwards. To the folks setting the train up, it "looks right" with the tender backwards.

My issue isn't with their ignorance. It's a pretty esoteric area of interest we're talking about, after all. But most toy trains are designed so that the engine and tender share a unique coupling arrangement, making it impossible for the two pieces to be connected any other way. And yet, the phenomenon persists.

Today's example is perhaps even sadder. Because although there is no unique coupler to give the people setting up the toy train to photograph, it's something they should have gotten right --because they were employees of Lionel.

Lionel is perhaps the best-known brand of toy trains. The company was founded in 1900 by Joshua Lionel Cohen, and continued as a family-owned business until 1969. Since then, the Lionel brand has gone through many hands . It was first bought by MPC (General Mills) in 1970, then real estate mogul Richard Kuhn in 1986, then another group of investors -- Wellspring -- in 1995.

Somewhere along the way, the knowledge of trains got lost, because this is a gaffe that never should have happened.

Look closely at the main photo on this box. (click on image to enlarge)

As you can see from the detail at left, the tender's backwards. It's easy to tell, because there's no opening for the coal.

But look at the train in the upper right hand corner of the box. The tender is oriented correctly! (Here's another view, below).

 Throughout the Cohen era, and even into the MPC and Kuhn ownerships, catalogs and advertising art always had the tenders facing the right way. For those of us who notice such things, it just indicates a further dilution of a once-respected brand.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Steampunk/Steam Reality

Steampunk can be a lot of fun, but sometimes I think there's something missing -- steam reality. Sure, it's great to imagine all kinds of magnificent retro-future machines powered by the power source for all Victorian-era devices, the steam engine.

Attending a steam and gas show this summer caused me to rethink the genre a little. I'm not saying the realities of steam should invalidate steampunk, but I think by it might suggest new directions for the genre to explore. Here are a few things I noticed spending the day with over 100 different operating vintage steam engines that can sometimes get overlooked in fiction.

When that door's open, the temperature
jumps about 20 degrees.
Steam engines are hot
Steam is created by boiling water, so these engines -- whatever size --are hot. Even with insulation, steam engines (large or small) keep the air around them quite warm. And every time the firebox doors are opened to feed in fuel, there's a blast of hot air.

Steam engines are heavy
In order for steam to move pistons, it needs to be kept under pressure. And that means the chambers and pipes that contain it must be strong. So even the smallest steam engines (and I saw some the size of footstools) are constructed of thick metal and held together with massive nuts and bolts. Working steam engines of the past century could be very small, but they weren't light.

That dark spot on on the floor is a mixture of
water and grease.
Steam engines are messy
Escaping steam condenses back into water. Pistons, rods, and gears require lubrication to move freely and efficiently. The steam tractors I saw all left trails of water and grease behind them as they passed. And the stationary engines had pools of grease and and water around them.

Steam engines aren't necessarily mobile
The term "steam engine" tends to conjure up images of locomotives speeding down rails, but that was but one use for this technology. Stationary steam engines were the main power source for factories from the 1850's through the 1920's. The stationary engine would have a single (or sometimes double) wheel that was connected by a belt to a long bar that it kept turning. That bar ran the length of the factory floor.

Various smaller pieces of machinery could draw power from that bar through a belt drive. Some of them had gear shifts attached to vary the speed of the device as needed, and even to stop the machine completely. An entire assembly line of stampers, drill presses, crosscut saws and other mechanical devices could be run from one large stationary engine.

When this rolls by, you not only see it pass, but you can
feel the ground rumble, too.
Steam engines exude power
This is probably the most important point. Regardless of the size, a working steam engine has a commanding presence. It's almost a visceral expression of power that engages all the senses. You feel the heat, smell the grease, hear the hiss, and see as governors, valves, and pistons execute their intricate mechanical dance.

If you have a chance to see a vintage steam tractor or stationary steam engine in action, take it. At the very least, it helped me understand the Victorian fascination with steam.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Pearls Before Swine - A Quiet Commentary

What's the role of a humor strip in the face of tragedy? For many, it's simply to carry on. Regardless of what's happening in the real world, Dagwood will still be building huge sandwiches, Beetle Bailey will be hiding from Sarge, and Garfield will be dreading Mondays.

Sometimes events happen that affect an artist so deeply, they can't pretend it's business as usual. But how -- within the confines of a humor strip -- can a serious, heartfelt emotion such as grief be expressed?

Stephen Pastis successfully did just that with today's installment of Pearls Before Swine. (click on image to enlarge)

Those names in the stars are the children who died at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Nothing else needs be said.

Friday, January 11, 2013

CCC 055 - Beth Anderson

Just because you use traditions doesn't mean you have to be a slave to them. Beth Anderson, our featured Consonant Classical Challenge composer is a good example of that. This American composer has been labeled a neo-romantic, and that's true to a certain extent. She decidedly uses tonal harmonies to support her melodies, and said melodies flow in logical and lyrical fashion.

But, as perhaps befitting a student of  John Cage and Terry Riley, her musical language is exclusively her own. Anderson's primary music form is something she developed and calls a swale. According Anderson, a swale is a collection of original musical samples arranged in an aural collage. It's an original way to organize music, and one that works quite well for Anderson.

The Cleveland Swale for two double basses and piano is a good example of this highly individualistic genre. This 2001 composition presents all the major components of a swale, but listen to the overall effect of sounding both familiar and unique at the same time.

The Pennyroyal Swale is a work for string quartet. Like other musical forms, the swale can be adopted to accommodate different groupings of instruments.Anderson has composed swales for orchestras as well as smaller ensembles.

Of course, Anderson isn't locked into a single form of composition. The Kummi Dance for flute and piano shows her melodic gifts to great advantage.

Beth Anderson has composed swales (and other types of works) for chamber groups, solo instruments, and orchestras. In my opinion, her music should appeal to a wide variety of listeners. Her tonal base provides a familiar starting-point for more traditional-minded audiences, but every work sound fresh and innovative. And really isn't something that speaks to all audiences something that programmers should be looking for?

Recommended Recordings

Beth Anderson: Quilt Music

Beth Anderson: Swales and Angels

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Hiding in Plain Sight 2

When I wrote Hiding in Plain Sight in 2011, I remarked on the strange disconnectedness of social media. Recently something happened to show me that things haven't really changed all that much.

A question came up on a professional listserve -- where's Ralph? I used to participate in the discussion, but mostlyI  just monitored the list as I didn't have much to contribute. Engagement slacked off still further and I hadn't checked the list in over a year -- email (especially on an AOL address) is so 20th Century.

A friend alerted me that the question had come up, and before I could respond, there was a flurry of discussion. No one seemed to know where I was. Was I still in the country? Still alive? Still in business? It was a mystery.

While my participation in an email listserve waned, I've become increasingly active on several social media sites -- including Linkedin, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Google+ (just starting with that last one). No one knew where I was. This blog passed 100,000 views -- and no one knew where I was.

It didn't remain that way for long, though. Some of the folks did some searching and thought they had found me on those sites, but weren't sure if it was me or someone else with the same name. I've since responded, and let everyone know that I'm fine, and confirming where I can be found.

The interesting thing is that some of those folks are on Facebook, and/or Twitter, Pinterest, Google+ and Linkedin -- but they apparently weren't aware I was also.

Two years ago I noted that there seemed to be clear divides among my social media associates. Friends on Facebook had no idea I was a blogger (or what I might even be writing about). Twitter followers are seldom my LinkedIn contacts, and Pinterest followers are mostly completely unrelated to any of the other groups.

It can be kind of liberating, because I can have a different persona for each group. But there's a danger, too. I've tried very hard to raise my public profile online, yet I'm still invisible to most of the people I know personally and professionally. So who cares if I post something embarrassing or in poor taste or illegal? No one's watching anyway.

Except when they are. We needn't wonder why people continue to share such things on social media sites. It seems that no one's paying attention, which makes the poster feel safely anonymous.

I'm glad I've never succumbed to the temptation. Because once people started to actively search for me, I was very easy to find -- along with all of my public posts, pins, tweets, and updates. Being on a  social media site doesn't guarantee people will beat a path to your door. But when they find that path, it better be in good repair.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Iamus -- Ghost in the machine, or its soul?

A new composer has entered the classical music scene, and not everyone's thrilled about it. Before you read further, give this short work a listen.

Is it the greatest piece of music written in the 21st Century? Probably not. Is it a coherent piece of music, though? Definitely. And one that seems to have a sense of motion.

It was a work created by Iamus, a computer cluster at the Unoversidad de Malaga. It was designed to compose contemporary classical music -- like the example above.

What makes this different, and perhaps less mechanical than other attempts at music generators? First, the algorithms used (melomics) are far more advanced than those of previous compositional computers. Second, the goal isn't to slavishly recreate the style of a particular composer, but take a small motif and develop it in different ways.

But perhaps the biggest difference is that Iamus isn't writing computer music to be played by itself. Its compositions are to be played by human musicians. Which allows for individual interpretation, and adds an important dimension to what could otherwise be a cold intellectual exercise.

As I said, not everyone's thrilled about it. Comment fields in articles about Iamus are filled with ragings against the machine. Will this put humans out of the composition business? (Hardly) Does it help us further understand the mysteries of artistic creation? (Perhaps) Is it music worth listening to? (You decide)

So what do you think? And more importantly, how much of your evaluation of the music comes from your knowledge of its origin? If Iamus was a human being, would the reaction to this music be the same?

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

WTJU and SoMe Question

In December we finished another fund drive at WTJU, and by the end of the final day we didn't quite meet our goal. As we were asking for pledges on the air, I was busily typing away, keeping up the bullpen chatter on the station's Facebook and Twitter feeds.

That got me thinking about the quantity -- and quality -- of our Social Media (SoMe) numbers. And if there was any potential for growth in those areas.

Here are the numbers:

WTJU Facebook Page: 1,982 Likes

WTJU Twitter feed: 1,324 Followers

WTJU Online Listenership:
For December (the last complete month of stats)
3,739 Visitors, 6,805 Hours, 16369 Sessions

Our goal for the fund drive was $40,000. We need to raise $158,000 directly from our listeners to fully fund our operational budget for a year.

So what if every single one of those people pledged $10/month ($120/year)?

Facebook Friends: $19,820/month, $237,740/year
Twitter Followers: $13240/month,, $158,880/year
Online Listeners: $37,390/month, $412,680/year

Wow. Any one of those sources would more than fully fund the station for a year.

Of course, it's not realistic to expect that any of those sources will fully come through for four reasons.

1) Online relationships can be pretty casual. It doesn't require much effort to click "Like" or "Follow."

2) It assumes absolutely no overlap of audiences. What are the chances that someone who follows us on Twitter is  also a Facebook friend and/or an online listener? Pretty good, actually. So some of our Twitter/Facebook/Online Listener numbers represent the same person rather than three different people.

3) It assumes all are individuals, and listeners. I think it's safe to assume all of our unique online listeners are real. But SoMe? Not so much. Take our Facebook Friends. A significant amount of them are either station volunteers, bands that have played in our studios (or we otherwise support), or local businesses -- folks who wouldn't be expected to pledge money to the station. The same is also true of Twitter, although there's not an exact correspondence between the two groups.

4) Not every person who listens to non-commercial radio pledges. In fact, the percentage can pretty low.

So given all that, suppose we just assumed 10% as the maximum realistic pledge potential:

Facebook Friends: $1,982/month, $23,774/year
Twitter Followers: $1,324/month,, $15,888/year
Online Listeners:  $3,739/month, $41,268/year

Well, we couldn't fully fund the station from any one of those source,s that's for sure. But look at that online listener number. That would take care of our $40,000 fund drive goal quite handily over time. And 10% of our Facebook Friends get us over halfway there.

So I wonder: are we leaving money on the virtual table by not effectively pitching to these groups?

Monday, January 07, 2013

...And We're Back

Happy New Year!

Over the holidays I took a short break from Off Topic'd to spend some quality time with friends and family. Which was good, as it gave me a chance to recharge my creative batteries. And some things happened over the break that suggested some subjects for posts.

Thanks for continuing to follow this blog, and especially for your comments. I'll try to keep the quality high in 2013. This week you'll read about a company that made a major error that it -- of all firms -- shouldn't have, a parallel between a comic strip sequence in 2012 and another in 1940, and a continuation of the Consonant Classical Challenge, as we move ever closer to our 100th entry in the series!

Sounds exciting, I know --  all I have to do is actually write the darned posts!