Group improvisation for one

In the mid-’90s, I was a member of a musical group called Bassius-O-Phelius. Working under a name based on an obscure Captain Beefheart reference, my friend Mark Bergen and I, occasionally supplemented by other musician friends, recorded a number of albums of free-form improvisation. Mark played organ, electric piano, and viola, and I played electric bass, woodwinds and percussion. It was all about experimentation and the power of music to convey mood and mystery. It was also kind of ridiculous, but we did everything with a sense of humor.

The Bassius-O-Phelius method was to use a 4-track cassette recorder, lay down an initial pair of tracks — typically on keyboard and bass — and then play the tape back and improvise another pair of tracks on viola, clarinet, and assorted other instruments. This led to some interesting results, as our improvisations were based not only on the live interplay of two musicians standing in a room together, but of those two musicians interacting with themselves via the prerecorded tracks.

For this year’s RPM Challenge, I decided to channel that spirit into a solo album, which I have entitled 222: Improvisations for 6 Instruments. Obviously the dynamic here is different: there’s only one of me, so I can’t interact with another player live. This difference was most apparent while laying down the first instrumental track: it was just me on the keyboard, with no frame of reference. My experience with Bassius-O-Phelius, however, taught me that it was important, among other things, to establish a steady, repetitious groove from time to time, anticipating opportunities for solos in subsequent tracks.

Another difference was the recording tools at my disposal: in the ’90s we recorded on a 4-track cassette recorder, but I recorded this album in GarageBand on my MacBook. The number of possible tracks is (in principle) unlimited, so I could easily lay down six individual instrument tracks without needing to worry about “bouncing down.” But there was another significant effect of using GarageBand: I could watch the waveforms of the other instruments as I played. Obviously this couldn’t totally allow me to “read the mind” of… well, myself… from the prior tracks, but it did allow me to anticipate major events. This might seem like “cheating,” but it actually felt more akin to the “two people in the same room” experience: while musicians are collectively improvising, it is common for them to make eye contact and give each other visual cues to facilitate group events in the performance.

Once the six instrument parts were recorded, I created 8 distinct “pieces” based on this single 8:38 track, by splitting up the instruments into different arrangements. For instance, the first track is just keyboard and guitar; the second is just Bebot and bass clarinet. Only on the final track do all six instruments finally come together and reveal the ultimate end product of my endeavors.

Incremental redesign

If you are the a regular reader of this blog, you may notice things look slightly different than they did before. The light blue striped background behind the right sidebar is gone; there’s navigation at the top; the left sidebar on the featured item on the home page has now become a standard element of all of the posts and, hey, the home page is now back to a standard one-post-after-another blog layout. Also, the sidebar widgets are different, and if you scroll waaaaaay down to the bottom, that’s different too. But since you’ve never bothered to do that before now, you probably wouldn’t have noticed anyway.

Incremental redesign seems to be more common with websites these days than the biannual complete overhaul we’ve grown accustomed to from sites large and small over the years. Why? Perhaps it’s a sign of maturity (of the designs, not the designers): designs stabilize over time as they’re refined based on user feedback. Perhaps it’s inertia: sites are so much more complex these days that, despite the benefits of semantic HTML and CSS, it can still be a massive undertaking to redesign a website from the ground up. And perhaps it’s strategic: designers have an idea where they’re going, but it can be jarring to users to have the proverbial rug pulled out from under them with abrupt and large-scale changes to a site’s design.

So, which is it in my case? Honestly, it’s probably a combination of all three. Anyway, I hope you like the refinements, and if not, feel free to let me have it in the comment section!

The growing problem of registration spam in WordPress

WordPressNow, this is odd.

A few months back I wrote a plug-in for WordPress called RegisTrap. It’s beyond basic, and has one simple purpose: to block registration spam on my WordPress-based website.

Registration spam, for those of you who don’t know, is when a “bot” (a computer program written to seek out and exploit poorly-written web forms to send floods of spam email messages) signs up as a “user” on your site. These “users” can’t really do anything on the site, but they clutter up your database nonetheless.

I had a feeling that RegisTrap was really only going to work reliably if I kept it to myself. And I was right: after submitting it to the official WordPress plug-in repository, it eventually stopped working, as the bots adapted to avoid its “traps.” It might have happened eventually anyway, but I’m sure that the publicity it received from being in the repository, and the hundred or so people who downloaded it (many of whom, I suspect on reflection, were probably bot developers looking to dissect its workings), accelerated its demise.

As I announced here a few days ago, I turned RegisTrap off on my site, and I also turned off registration altogether. But that hasn’t stopped the flood of new bot registrations. There are 14 of them sitting there in my database right now (well, there were before I just deleted them), all added after I turned off the ability to register altogether.

I suppose, since the bots don’t actually visit the site and fill in the form, they just submit the right data directly to the right URL, whether it’s “browsable” or not, it doesn’t even really matter if your site is set up to reject registrations. Still, it’s a bit dismaying that WordPress is processing those registrations even with registration turned off. Apparently it stops at making the registration page inaccessible via links; it doesn’t actually turn off the code that processes registrations. Boo. Perhaps that should be my next plugin: “Stop All Registrations 4 Realz.”

But maybe I won’t call it that.

Ralph Nader is a douchebag

Ralph Nader is a douchebagRalph Nader used to have a good reputation. He spoke for those who were rarely spoken for, and represented the interests of those who didn’t have the resources to represent themselves.

And then he ran for president.

Back in the early days of 2000, when it seemed nearly impossible that an inarticulate failed businessman and death-penalty-championing former Texas governor could become president, I actually supported Nader’s campaign. He represented something strikingly different from all of the political insiders the major parties had to offer. “Bush and Gore make me want to Ralph” actually seemed to make sense. But in the end my gut instincts kicked in, and I colored in the little oval for Gore. Not that it mattered.

And then he ran for president again.

By this point, the few loyal Naderites who tipped the 2000 election had wised up along with the rest of us, and his showing in 2004 was as feeble as it deserved to be.

You might think everyone in the country now realizes the futility of a Nader presidential bid (even as a spoiler). But it looks like at least one person still thinks he has a chance.

Things are different this year, though. Anti-Republican sentiment has finally risen to a level commensurate with the havoc their failed policies have wreaked upon us. The Democrats have not just one (which in itself would be a big deal) but two viable candidates who are capable of generating genuine enthusiasm, and both of whom would, if elected, be an historic first. Ralph, this time around, you really have no chance. What compels you to waste your time and money (and potentially other people’s money) like this, not to mention squandering your once noble reputation? I guess in a way, Ralph really is a mirror of America itself. We’ll see in November just how true that is.

New site design (partially) implemented

My guilt over slighting those regrettably still stuck using Internet Explorer 6 finally got the best of me, and I decided to do a new site design that doesn’t completely break down in that (outdated) browser.

Well, that’s not really the reason I did it. I wanted to take a new approach that allows for more customization of the presentation in different sections of the site. But I made it IE6-friendly while I was at it. The new design is based on another color scheme called “Salamander” that I found at Kuler. (Sorry, I’d link right to the specific color palette but, guess what, it’s Flash. Boo.)

It’s not finished yet, but I wanted to put the necessary pressure on myself to keep working on it until it’s completely done. So now that it’s far enough along to be presentable to the public, I’m rolling it out.

Most of the cool site-specific graphical headers are still missing, so it’s falling back to a generic presentation with a nice garish green band at the top. Certain other fine details are also still missing in the CSS, but I’m getting there.

Eventually there will be more dramatic changes to the page structure: the home page will be more of a “portal” than just a dump of the most recent blog posts; different sections of the site will have different content in the sidebar, etc. But this is a start.