Sunday, January 30, 2005


The Iranian flag.

There’ve been rumors floating about that Iran might be the next country to get a firm talkin’ to by the United States military.

Because things have been going so well in Iraq so far, I thought I’d provide a bit of numeric perspective.


  • Iraq: About 25,000,000
  • Iran: About 68,000,000
  • California, Texas, and New York state together: About 74,000,000
  • Afghanistan: About 29,000,000
  • France: About 60,000,000
  • Great Britain: About 60,000,000

Iran is about the 17th most populous nation on the planet right now. (Iraq: about 45th.)


  • Iraq: About 170,000 square miles
  • Iran: About 640,000 square miles
  • Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California together: About 650,000 square miles
  • Afghanistan: About 250,000 square miles
  • France: About 210,000 square miles
  • Great Britain: About 94,000 square miles

Iran is (coincidentally) also the 17th largest nation on the planet right now. (Iraq: about 57th.)

My Wikipedia skills are unstoppable, but that’s not my point. I don’t really have a point. Except to say that Iran doesn’t appear to be some piddly little nation we can subdue with a pile of bombs and some special ops dudes in wetsuits. It’s a huge chunk of well-populated land about the size and population of Texas, California, and states betwixt. And that’s what makes me (even more) nervous…


Happy New Year

Saturday, January 15, 2005


Brenna and Meri at the Brown Bar, New Year's Eve 2004-2005.

It’s been a couple of weeks since it’s really been a “new year,” but I thought I’d throw this photo up anyway. I met Brenna and Meri down at the Brown Bar at about 9:30 that Friday night, December 31st. “Studio 54”-themed party (though I just dressed in my normal, sexy, unthemed eveningwear). We stayed through midnight, then cruised down to a party at Meri’s place where I accidentally maced the inside living room wall and lit bunches of smelly sparklers in the back yard. I really do need better supervision…

By the way, I have a good technique that I use for taking photos at bars. Using a flash alone normally washes out all the colors at the usual short distances involved in bar shots. It also lights the room unnaturally; the bright world in your photo doesn’t look much like the probably dimmer lighting you experienced. So. Just set your shutter speed to something slow like one second. Then use the flash, but hold a couple bar napkins in front of it to diffuse the light. And viola: Photos in which you can recognize your friends but don’t loose colors and kind of look like what your eyes were experiencing at the time.


Human Marvels

Friday, January 7, 2005


Merry Christmas! L-to-R: Katzen, Brenna, the Enigma, Josh. More photos...

I got home from dinner with the parents and grandmother this evening and fell right to sleep… Slept (off and on) from about 8PM until about midnight. Now at Mojo’s trying to (groggily) get at least a couple things done with my evening…


December 23rd. Brenna invited me down to Saba, the tapas bar on 4th, to have a drink with her and a few other friends. We did so and then wandered around the corner to the sleek and sexy Foundation bar for a few more drinks (running into Sean Owen on our walk, oddly enough). The friends left after a brief stop by Rain, so Brenna and I decided to walk down ot Elysium. I had hopes of running into the owner to talk about some of the details for the show in January.

But. The owner wasn’t around. But. The Human Marvels were. Enigma and Katzen. Enigma you may recognize from the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow back in the early 90s or from that X-Files episode he appeared in. He’s got a band with his tiger-striped ex(?) that features himself on the guitar and vocals with Katzen taking bass duty and a laptop filling out the sound with drums and other noises. Oh, and then he drills himself in the face and pumps a full bottle of Windex through a tube in his nose and into his belly. Which Katzen then drinks. She also pushes skewers through her forearms and sprays sparks all over using her bass guitar and a metal grinder. Very cool! Makes for a super-fun show — and I’d highly recommend checking them out. Yeah, it’s extremely goofy, but it’s all in the name of fun. I bought a t-shirt and a CD from them.

Afterwards Brenna approached the Enigma to chat. (She’s good at that sort of thing.) So we all talked for a few minutes and got some photos. Enigma and Katzen were just really nice people who appear to really enjoy their freak-celebrity status. Very friendly and gracious. And — as with the nudity thing at the House of Commons — it’s interesting how once you get to talking to someone you stop paying attention to their freakier physical attributes (like the puzzle-pattern tattooed on nearly every available piece of flesh).

They don’t play very often in Austin (odd, since they live here), but they do tour often. (And they have a website with more details.) Go see them.

I had a strange coincidence happen a couple of nights ago… I drove over to the campus Kinko’s Wednesday night to print out some stuff. While using the internet there I finally got access to these photographs (taken by a guy we met at the show). And, well, Engima and Katzen were at the Kinko’s as well doing something on one of the computers. So I showed them the photos and we talked for a bit longer. Enigma showed me a couple different National Geographic magazines he had appeared in. Heh. Again, just super-friendly. Good people. I’m glad I’ve met them.


Katamari Damacy

Thursday, December 30, 2004


Looks like we've got some lipstick, a few pieces of gum and candy, some Go tiles, etc...

I just completed this odd little Playstation 2 game a couple of hours ago — Katamari Damacy. The thing arrived in the mail on Monday — a little Christmas gift to myself (like I need another) — so it didn’t take long… Maybe six hours at the most, not counting about ten rounds of Versus play with Haley the first night I had it.

A few months ago I read a review of Katamari Damacy and it just looked too clever and unique to miss. The premise is really, really simple: You’re a little green fellow that pushes around a ball (a.k.a. katamari, apparently Japanese for “clump”). You roll this ball around in the world and everything smaller than your katamari will stick to it if touched. As you roll stuff up, your katamari grows, so you can grab larger and larger objects… That person you bounced off of while picking up a long chain of umbrellas off of the road can eventually be snared when your clump grows bigger.

That’s all there is, really. You start off picking up tacks and Lego blocks off of the floor of a very messy home and graduate to picking up sushi, telephones, cars, cattle, vending machines, and manymanymany other objects. Grow grow grow. (To a surprisingly rediculous size.) It’s also one of the few games in which you rarely die or loose. (Instead, your successes get ranked and you have the option to try to do better or go on to the next thing.) So you just progress along and enjoy the sheer weirdness of it all…

So. I’d really recommend it if you’re looking for a quick and unusual game to distract you for a few hours over a weekend or a slow week.

After a few hours of play I found myself thinking about a katamari in real life, about what it might take to pluck a tree from the earth or lift all of the traffic out of my way on the ride to work…


A few cars, a tree, part of a watermelon, a bear…


The Longbranch Inn Bar

Saturday, December 4, 2004

Though I’ve thought about it before, I’ve never really used my weblog to bitch about bad experiences with businesses. Seems petty and rather useless, anyway. No one reads this weblog. Except me.

Today, though, I’m going to bitch. About the Longbranch Inn bar (on east 11th street) and my experience there last night.

Last night the UT School of Architecture held a fundraiser at the bar. They packed it with people — maybe fifty or sixty. (It’s not very large.) They also booked some live music. My friend Ryan Lauderdale invited Jacob Green and I to do sets later in the evening. He would play, also. Awesome.

So. Shane Bartell played a set from about 10:30 until 11:30 with a live drummer. Sounded good. Good crowd. We were excited to play.

Jacob sets up and starts into his weirdo electro singing lounge act thing. Okay. Silly. Students tend to have high tolerance for unusual. But. One of the bartenders starts heckling him. Not some random idiot. An employee. Getting in Jacob’s face. “C’mon, man — I wanna boogie! Let’s boogie!” Repeatedly. Then standing just feet from the stage and saying things to other people like, “This is shit, man.” The guy acted either high or mentally retarded. He looked normal — in his mid-thirties, maybe. But behaved like a 10 year-old whose mother was very tired of having to tell him to leave people alone and act his age, dammit.

So Jacob just gave up after about fifteen minutes. He hadn’t invested much into the event, so fuck it.

So he cleared off and Ryan and I set our stuff up. Ryan would play for a half hour, then I would.

Except. While we were setting up our stuff, they had turned the jukebox back on loud, just to provide some ambient music during the break. This is perfectly normal. Except they, um, wouldn’t shut it off. And when someone asked, we were informed (indirectly) that they didn’t do live music after midnight. After, y’know, watching us set up after midnight. The staff just kind of ignored us. Blaring the jukebox: not a problem, apparently. Being very rude to people who came out to support your establishment asking for nothing in return — not even getting a free drink out of the deal. That’s fine.

Anyway. Ryan and I gave up and put all of our stuff away. Then the fucking jukebox broke. So no music at all. I’ve never believed in a god, but that moment made me want to start. (And I made sure to stay away from the device, not wanted to catch blame for the coincidence.) Within five minutes of the removal of our gear: No music at all. And people started leaving. It felt like the party was ending. And. Having offended us, they failed to consider that we might have friends in attendance. That they might irritate a slightly larger group of people. And they did.

And then retarded bartender — as a part of a team of people trying to fix the jukebox situation — starts yelling shit like, “You’re on! Go! Play!” What? Jesus, what a moron…

As we left (about 20 minutes later), one of the bartenders was in the process of trying to plug the audio out of some small, shitty jambox through the P.A. system the bands had used. Good luck with that, Chief.

I have played bad shows. Or’ve shown up to play and have not been able to. But I have never been treated like such a piece of shit. And not just by one guy — by the owner of the place, one bartender in a big way and just flat-out ignored by everyone else.

I wish them the best, but I don’t understand how they can so cavalierly alienate their core audience: People who go to bars often. ME. And other musicians and twenty-somethings. Unless there’s a very good reason, I won’t go back. The bar’s nice, but it’s no nicer than two dozen other bars in town. And it’s kind of out-of-the-way in a somewhat bad neighborhood.

I’ve had great experiences dealing with owners of other venues — even when problems arise. Rachel Koper at Gallery Lombardi worked with me at every turn — even when the cops showed up. The people at Ruta Maya have never complained, even though I know some of the music we’ve done there has been rather obnoxious. John at Elysium has been extremely friendly and open and communicative with me. They act like adults. And I want to support their businesses (as should you).

But not the Longbranch Inn bar. It’s bullshit. I left feeling crappy that I had bothered to buy a couple beers from them before things went sour.

When I got home, Haley recited that marketing gem: “If you have a good experience at a place, you’ll tell two friends. But if you have a bad one, you’ll tell ten friends.” Kind of unfortunate, but in this case totally true.



Mac OS X Con: Musical Interfaces

Saturday, November 6, 2004


Driving in San Francisco.

[Here are the details for this panel, fully titled “Physical Interfaces for Musical Performance.”]

Scott: I didn’t come up with a very catchy name, like the Powerbook Rockstar or something.

First we’re going to talk about physical interfaces. Real-world, hands-on. Then we’ll talk about virtual interfaces such as Ableton Live.

Why do we need a physical interface? I already have a keyboard and mouse, right? Some people prefer the erganomics of an external controller. [Holds up a white, plastic kid’s guitar toy.] Practicality is another good reason. Maybe you want to be something more of a rockstar.

Disadvantages to some of these are the steep learning curves sometimes. Rolling your own can be the most difficult. Off-the-shelf tend to be easier to use and configure. [He’s got an Evolution UC-33 control surface up on the screen.]

You can also take apart off-the-shelf tools and make your own with them. [Holds up guitar he made — same as above.] This has the guts of a USB keyboard. They keys are attached to the chord buttons on the guitar and he’s got a couple of knobs mounted on it.

[Showing some other devices he’s found that could be turned into an interface.]

I’m showing these because I’ve worked on them.

How do you get knobs onto you computer? Doepfer makes a CTM-64 MIDI interface component you could use to convert analogue voltages into MIDI data. Or data your computer can understand.

Sort of things you might want to interface with.

First, a switch. All of the guitar keys are switches. [Shows photo of guitar innards.] You can see the switches and the wires connected to them here. I opened up the body of guitar and wired everything to the neck. To the contacts in the neck. So when I press a button, the computer sees it as a keypress. If you use a USB board, your instrument could actually be a hub.

You’ve got to be prepared when you do this that you might fuck around and accidentally short something or fry something like hte USB port on your computer. And don’t spill things on the electronics. If you fry your USB port like this, Apple may not fix it…

Now — potentiometers. Can’t read a variable voltage with a USB hack. There are other hardware options, though.

Old ball mice use little disks with holes in them so a little light sensor sees different patterns of light through the holes depending on the direction of the turn. That’s what he did to ake the guitar knobs. is the electronics supplier from which I buy a lot of my stuff. [He moves the cursor around the screen by twirling the knobs on the guitar.]

What about getting voltage out of the device? The voltage comes in pulse waves (called a “duty cycle”). As you increase the duty cycle the receiving device kind of forgets the gaps and averages out the voltage. [Or something like that.] This happens hundreds of times per second and can be used to adjust brightness of LEDs or the speeds of motors and such. I used it to monitor the signal output of the device I build.

As far as performing with this stuff. The guitar is kind of still in progress and I’m afraid to pull it to far away from ther computer, but here’s a demo…

[Playing a glitchy little number using the guitar as a controller.]

I used Ableton via a Max/MSP patch to connect it to an external keypad.

This guitar was $3 at a local thrift store. Bought the bigger things from a guy who didn’t know what they did. Which is fine, because I gutted them, mostly. My parents also have some stuff. You don’t have to pay a lot for these things. It’s remarkable the amount of stuff that’s floating around. I’ve got bunches of stuff I just walked out of the university with and they didn’t care — they were glad to have me take it away. Duke University also had a surplus. None of them seem to care.

I built the guitar for this conference because it’s small and can be carried on the plane.

Wearable computing is a big buzzword, but there’s not reason it can’t be built into a gassmask or something. They’re cheap. I’ve got a gasmask with a little USB keyboard in it, has buttons around the edges. There’s really no end of fun if you’re willing to tear things apart — and the key, of course, is to get these things for free.

We were talking about aesthetics earlier. Playing with this guitar would have a certain aesthetic to it. Some drums I have lend themselves to palying more goofy, toy-like music.

[Now he’s showing the Max/MSP patch he uses to convert the MIDI to something Ableton Live can use.]

Names of some of the IO boards: makes some of them. Their stuff is very robust and durable. are good, also. Fusion Systems iCube is another MIDI box. EasyIO is a serial adaptor that’s available.

Commercial controllers are a bit more reliable. Invariably I’ll be playing somewhere and something will come unglued or unsoldered. These commercial things are designed to endure the rigors of playing live repeatedly. But with my controllers, I can develop an interface with a specific performance in mind.

Cook at Princeton has a COW controller.


Mac OS X Con: iPod Parlor Tricks

Saturday, November 6, 2004

[Here are the details for this panel, fully titled “iPod Parlor Tricks.”]

Scott Knaster: Tim O’Reilly kind of brought hacking back into vogue. Some months ago Wiley publishing contacted me wondering if I’d like to do a hacking iPod book. I was skeptical because Apple keeps the iPods closed up pretty tight. They don’t want you hacking. Apple says it’s not a platform. Just play music, take notes, store photos, etc. So I looked at Heloise as an example. And I thought of my hacking idol McGyver.

Basic hack:

See and copy your own music on the iPod. TinkerTool lets you see hidden folders on the iPod. PodWorks lets you see everything on the iPod and even sometimes rescue data. You can also find invisible files using Terminal because Terminal doesn’t care what files are invisible or not.

[He goes through it.]

You can find hidden files in the finder, too. Just do “Go to Folder…” and type the path. Then drag that folder into Find and find invisible items and do a search!

Question: Why are they hidden?

Microsoft spends millions on DRM. Apple just disabled copying from the iPod in iTunes and hid those folders.

Hack 2: Diagnostic Mode

You do a key combo and you see a backwards Apple logo (behind the scenes) and you see a menu in a weird font… And then you can make lots of beeps and noises. And play a funny little key-test game. And other various things.

Hack 3: iPod “Upgrade”

SuperiPod? Has music, photos, telephone, video? Okay. Not a real upgrade. Fake fake fake. So how did I do this? Museum mode! Lets you take over the user interface of your iPod. Designed for use by museums that may want to change the functionality a little bit.


PocketDock lets you use Firewire with your iPod.

Voice Recorder by Belkin or Griffin iTalk have a mic and a speaker.

NaviPod. It’s a remote control.

iBeam from Griffin. Flashlight or laserbeam.

SimpleSpeaker from Higoto. Looks like Mickey Mouse ears. Cheap.

GroovePurse Triplet. Speaker purse for iPod. With speakers.

Scott Knaster found a German company that sells “Knaster Brand Fresh Hemp” and IKEA sells a bag of rocks called “Knaster.”

iPod Socks! $29. From Apple.

Other things without accessories…

It’s a flashlight and a bike safety light! It’s a nightlight! Booklight!

You can put Linux on your iPod. Makes it dual-boot…

Getting Free [Legal] Music

Amazon “candy dish” or free music. Go to Click “More Stores” or “Free Music.” You’ll find all sorts of free mp3s. iTMS has a free weekly track and free audio of conventions and the 9/11 Report etc. Can’t search for “free,” unfortunately…

Some labels have free stuff, as well. has a bunch of stuff, too.

And They Might Be Giants Clock Radio… A little flash clock radio thingie. [What a really fucking good idea!] You can use AudioHijack or Wiretap to get those tracks and turn them into mp3s.

Now he’s showing off a iPodPhoto! Exciting. Except he showed me earlier when I was setting up. New font. And it holds photos. And lets you do slideshows and such.

And that’s all!


Mac OS X Con: Reason Turbo Start

Saturday, November 6, 2004

[Here are the details for this panel, fully titled “Reason Turbo Start — Mastering the #1 Software Studio.”]

[A few minutes before the talk is scheduled to begin, our host has some goofy synthesizer version of Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” playing in Reason.]

Mark Vail: I teach this to seventh and eighth graders. And they’ve released a much less expensive educational pack. It’s a simplified version of Reason. Called “Reason Adapted.” Recently all of our G3s have been replaced by Windows XP boxes.

[Grumbles from the few people in the crowd.]

[Showing more photos of his students and talking about them.]

Mark: My class could not function without the Korg GEC3 system. It allows you to communicate with the entire class and it lets you listen to any student you wish without them knowing it. One student wondered if this was constitutional or not. It’s got a touch screen with all the students’ names. And each student has a box with a button they can push to get my attention. Because all of the students use headphones, this is a necescity to running a class. Girls even sometimes take my classes. I had five or six girls once. My class is an elective. I pu the best of their music on Harker’s website: My students are currently working on Halloween music.

[Opens Reason.]

Mark: We start with an empty rack and create a mixer. Then we’ll create a Dr. REX loop player. It give you access to all sorts of loops. With Rhodes and synths and other instrument loops. You can go into the sequencer and actually look at the events and slices.

[This is a very intro-to-Reason sort of talk (obviously, I guess) — so I may not transcribe absolutely everything.]

Mark: Now we’ll add an r’n’b drum loop using another Dr. REX module. I also require my students to do some programming because so many other people have access to these same loops. I require that they customize their loops. I use Oxygen8s in class. They’ve very reliable. And you can use them to play the individual slices of the loops.

[He’s manipulating the samples the way one might with Intakt — by modulating the pitch and other parameters for each slice of the drum sample.]

Mark: I tell my students not to let any loop play for more than four bars without evolving it somehow. You can also use a scroll to shuffle the order of the slices. Do this enough and you can really change the way the song plays.

[This is actually kind of cool… And the music he’s making doesn’t sound sucky! Sounds good, actually.]

Mark: You can’t change the tempo throughout a Reason piece. But you can use the editting function called “scale tempo” to slow down or speed up a section.

[This appears to give you the ability to half- or double-time a sample loop, not really change the actual tempo at all. And he’s playing around and getting some pretty decent drum’n’bass-ish sounds.]

Mark: You have access to several different sorts of synths in Reason, as well.

[Plays examples.]

Mark: Some of my students really like the Matrix module (and some really don’t). It lets you enter notes in a kind of player piano scroll. Sometimes my students just use the randomize pattern function. Which is okay with me.

Mark: Another module that’s been added is the Malstrˆm graintable synth. It’s got an arpeggiator. If things get too loud, you can create a mixer track and automate the mixer. We’re now about one month into my class with 7th and 8th graders.

[Still playing with the automated mixer. Now panning stuff around.]

Mark: Malstr&oulm;m has some very powerful parameters for you to change. Which I can also automate.

[Does so.]

Mark: If a student’s having a problem, I can actually just grab their file on my machine and project it on the screen and help fix the problem. I teach an hour-long class five times a week. I used to have to teach in an English classroom.

[Playing around with Malström.]

Mark: I make my students reprogram the patches instead of using the presets. I try to make them make their patches as different as possible from the originals.

[He uses the work “program” in a different way than I do. I don’t consider moving virtual knobs around “programming.” But I get the point.]

Mark: So right now we’re working on Halloween music.

[Adds an NN-XT module.]

Mark: The NN-XT module was added in version 5. You can load up samples and patches and sound banks. Alot of people use it to do orchestra sounds with the orchestra bank.

[He just loaded up a rooster sound and is playing with it. Oddly, a rooster sound sounds almost identical when played backwards. Weird. Now he’s playing a “Wizard of Oz” sample: “I’ll get you, my pretty — and your little dog, too!” He’s isolating “my pretty.”]

Mark: There’s also the NN-19 digital sampler module. Reason doesn’t have the ability to directly record sounds, unfortunately. But we have some sample players (like this).

Question: Do you ever have a problem with copyright or clearing samples?

Mark: No, not really. Sometimes students will copy other people’s Reason work and I try hard to avoid that. One student tried to turn in a Reason demo as their own, for example. But I don’t worry about clearing samples since we aren’t really releasing these tracks for money. But this is an issue that I should probably consider talking about.

Some UT Film Guy: All of our sample collections that we use have been fully licenced or are royalty-free. So our in-house tools are covered. And you still have all of the necessary tools to create a releasable soundtrack for a film. Some students want to licence other music, so we actually use that as part of the course: contacting the licence holder and working something out. We have to show that everything’s been cleared when applying for film festivals.

Mark: I’m going to play a song that’s not a freebie and not something I hand out to students. It has a sample I wouldn’t play for students.

[He’s playing it and it just sounds like cut-up, sped-up, otherwise indistinguishable language. Don’t know what the problem would be, but who am I…]

Mark: Oh, I skipped over a few things on the Matrix module. It’s not just a note device.

[Oh, now he’s playing the non-appropriate sample. Sounds like “motherfucking [something],” cut-up and sped-up.]

Mark: New to Reason 2.5 is Spider CV and Spider Audio. These let you send sources to multiple outputs or combine multiple sources down to one.]

Mark: Now for effects. Reverb, delay, etc. You can’t use VST plug-ins with Reason unless you use Reason within another host like Logic or Live.

[Showing various effects. I’m not going to write all of this down.]

Question from UT Film Guy: Do you ever demonstrate using real hardware units?

Mark: No, I don’t. I’ve thought about bringing my MiniMoog in. The problem with a real synth is that one student plays with the headphones on and everyone else is bored. The exception is the theremin — which everyone has a blast with. Another one that works well in an individual case is the Korg Kaoss pad.

Mark: There’s drum machine in Reason called Redrum, also.

[Play with it.]

Mark: And there’s a vocoder.

[Show it off.]

Mark: This really attacks the CPU. Okay. Now I’m through all of the modules. That’s about as far as I get in an entire semester with my students.

Question: Do you just do single-semester classes?

Mark: Until this year I only had one class. Now I have two classes. I might get to teach a 6th grade class — but not teaching Reason. Two more classes could be taught in Reason to really get into it, but I’m not sure I could handle it. This is only my third year teaching. With two classes I can’t maintain the high level of commenting I used to have. So the music isn’t quite as good and isn’t quite as customized.

Question: How do you keep the kids who pick it up right away from getting bored?

Mark: Well, I used to demo this for 6th graders to get them to sign up for the course. And I wouldn’t show them that we’d be using Reason because I didn’t want them to get ahead. Then I spoke with someone who said that you should never hold back a student. So some students download the demos and learn all sorts of tricks really quickly. Sometimes I also have slow students. One student lost a file. So we have computer-challenged students who can’t keep up. About 20% of my students have not studied music and it’s a neat feeling when those students do make music.

[Now two audience members are having a back and forth that I’m not paying attention to. Two other audience members also teach: one at UT RTF, one who knows where.]