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Wed, Mar. 23rd, 2016, 08:28 am
Where have all the jazzy gone?

Popular music definitely goes in waves for what's trendy and what's not. Something I've begun to notice over the last few years is how "jazz" influences in popular music are most definitely not very trendy right now. Certainly not compared to the 1990's and early 2000's, when everyone from hip hop artists, to indie bands, to rave DJs, to punk rockers, were dabbling in jazz elements, putting horns and jazz samples and acoustic bass in all kinds of music. From the mid 90's to the early 00's, using jazz elements like this was one of the most common ways to say you were trying to do something "artsy" with your popular music.

Boy have things changed. Try finding any significantly popular newer musician doing anything like this these days. Even the soul music revival of Amy Winehouse and friends is gone now. Everything is either very folksy, or very very minimalist and/or electronic. Singing is very loud, or angular, or folksy, but jazzy... not very much. Hip hop is about as un-jazzy these days since it the electro craze of the early 80's.

These things come and go, of course. Rock'n'roll had roots in the jazzy sounds of rhythm & blues, but very quickly developed its own less jazzy sound. As the late 60's approached, musicians were eager to explore newer sounds, and started incorporating those jazzy elements back in. Much of the popular music from the 1970's had jazzy elements, and continued to do so until the new wave era brought a whole new sound to popular music. Electronic instruments became affordable, and soon everyone want to create a more robotic, digital sound to their recordings. The 80's might stand as the least jazzy era for all of American popular music.

But, of course, that rigid 80's sound could only last so long. Digital samplers actually helped change this, allowing hip hop artists to easily sample old jazz and funk recordings, creating a more retro-sounding hip hop that was all the rage from the late 80's through the late 90's. Many techno artists did the same, creating new genres of dance music that were far more jazzy and organic sounding than anything the original techno artists had originally envisioned. Indie artists started to jump on the bandwagon as well. Some (such as Beck), being heavily influenced by the new hip hop music. Others, such as Stereolab and Yo La Tengo, being influenced by more arcane styles of bygone eras. But it wasn't just the artsy-indie crowd who was doing this. Punk rockers also started to incorporate jazzier elements as well, particularly those in the ska/swing-revival scene. And of course, adult contemporary artists were becoming more and more jazz influenced as well, particularly encouraged by the popularity of artists such as Harry Connick Jr and Norah Jones. By the late 90's and early 00's, it seemed as if just about everyone outside the world of the heavy metal and industrial rock were expected produce at least some kind of music with jazz elements.

But nothing lasts forever. What once was new and novel begins to seem like boring and unoriginal. By the 2000's the new thing (if you really wanted to stand out) was to revival the old angular, jerky sounds of post-punk and new wave music. Hip hop and dance artists looked back to the older electro era for inspiration again once more. Everything 80's was suddenly trendy again, and jazz revivalism was just no longer interesting to almost anyone. As the post-punk revival faded, a new folk-revival took its place. And from that came newer indie artists blending a variety of different styles together. The inspiration came from numerous sources, but one thing they all had in common was an avoidance of stereotypical jazz elements. You were far far far more likely to see a banjo and accordian in this new indie music than the vibraphones, trumpets and other jazzier instruments the previous indie artists were exploring.

So what happens from here? I doubt jazz influences are gone from popular music for good. Within 10 years it'll probably become trendy for some movement again. But by that point in time other genres will be old enough to seem cool and interesting again. The question remains: by the time the current fads have died out, will I be able to enjoy whatever comes next? Or am I a cranky old man forever? :-D

Fri, Jan. 8th, 2016, 12:25 pm
Generational Attitudes Towards Cars

I keep hearing about how the current generation of young people are less and less interested in cars, and I've noticed it to be true myself. It got me thinking about how the different generations of people over time have interacted with cars differently. Using the list of generations as defined by Wikipedia, here's my own non-scientific observations of how each generation has interacted with the automobile.

The Missionary Generation
Birth: 1860's - 1880's
While this generation came before the popularity of the modern automobile, it's an important generation in that many of the famous innovators came from it (e.g., Henry Ford, Ferdinand Porsche, etc.) It was a highly industrious generation, that helped bring about many of the things that we associated with the 20th Century, and while most of them did not embrace automobile culture themselves, they would lay the groundwork for the car culture that was to come.

The Lost Generation
Birth: 1880's - 1900's
This was arguably the first generation to truly adopt the automobile. Born when the first true cars were being built, they reached driving age just as the world's first affordable car became available: the Ford Model T. While not everyone in this generation jumped on the automobile bandwagon, this was arguably the generation that started the car culture of America.

The Greatest Generation
Birth: 1900 - 1920's
Born during the era of the Model T, this was the first generation in which driving (for many) became a normal part of life. Cars for this generation were no longer novel new technology, but were a part of every day life. As adults, they would drive the purchasing of many of the classic car models of the 1950's.

The Silient Generation
Birth: 1920's - 1940's
This generation embraced car culture to a level no previous generation had. Attaining adulthood in the post-WWII era, this was the generation that brought us the famous hot rod culture of the 1950's. Cars were now something that even most young people could afford, and it became a major part of this generation's culture.

Baby Boomer
Birth: 1940's - early 60's
This generation famous embraced car culture as well. Born during the height of the hot rod craze, this generation embraced high performance in their cars, and brought about the popularity of the muscle car. This generation also helped bring about the rise of affordable sports car, as well as more mundane vehicles such as the minivan, when they became old enough to have families. Cars have remained a central part of this generation's culture.

Generation X
Birth: Early 60's - early 80's
This was arguably the last generation to really embrace car culture on a broad scale. The members of this generation grew up in a time when used cars were very affordable, and many young people had a large selection of diverse and relatively exciting cars to choose from. While this generation grew up with technology, they grew up before the internet had become a significant culture unto itself. Cars were still the main way most people had to communicate and gather as young people. This generation embraced technology in their cars more so than the previous generations, including helping give rise to the popularity of hybrid and electric vehicles.

Birth: Early 80's - early 2000's
The first generation to appreciate cars significantly less (on a broad scale) than the generation before it. This was also the first generation to become excited about cars that drove themselves - something most people in the previous three generations would have not been excited about. While car culture still exists for many millennials, it is not as universal as it once was. Being able to drive a stick or work on your own car was no longer something to be expected, but was something unusual and to be avoided.

Generation Z
Birth: Early 2000's - ?
Not much is known about what this generation will be like yet, but it can be expected that they may be the generation that comes of age during the rise of the self-driving car. They will undoubtedly have a significantly different car culture than the previous generations, although there may be a minority who still enjoys the automobile pastimes of the previous generations. It will become increasingly unusual, though, I suspect.

Thu, Dec. 31st, 2015, 01:12 pm
Mid-life and Logarithmic Time

If you're like me, I'm sure you've heard people talk about how much faster time seems to be as you get older. When you're a small child, a year seems like an incredibly long time. 5 years seems like almost an eternity. By the time you hit 30, a year seems like nothing, and 5 years seems like a relatively short period of time. I assume this pattern continues onward as you get older.

I've heard a number of people say that this passing of time is essentially "logarithmic" in nature. If you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. When you're 5 years old, 5 years is the length of your entire life - a time span that's almost incomprehensible to think about. When you're 30, it's just 1/6th - the equivalent of less than 1 year when you were five. When you're 80 it'll be a mere 1/16th of your life. As every year passes, it seems that much shorter than the year preceding it.

People normally think of their "middle years" as being their 40's and 50's. This basically makes sense, if you assume to live a full life is to live to be at least 80 or 100, which is not totally out of the question. However, if you factor the whole logarithmic notion of time into account, this is actually disturbingly near the end! If we were to assume the passing of time was literally logarithmic in nature, your "middle years" would actually be when you were only 10 years old! In other words, if each period of time felt like it was half as short as the time before, it take as much time to go from 1 to 10 as it does from 10 to 100.

Of course, I don't think the passing of time is truly logarithmic, but it does feel that way sometimes. Even if it is only quasi-logarithmic, the apparent middle of your life must actually come a lot sooner than 40. Especially considering how many of us don't actually live to be 100. I guess it's another good remember to always seize the day! Carpe diem!

Wed, Nov. 18th, 2015, 09:34 am
P and NP

I don't know if anyone reads this blog anymore. I certainly don't expect anyone to read this post. But I'm going to write it anyway, because it's a serious personal pet peeve of mine.

You hear a lot of computer scientists (and in particular, computer theorists) talk about the famous "P vs NP" problem. It's become so well known that it's entered popular culture in a number of different places, including an entire indie film that used it as its main plot device. However, there is so much misconceptions about this problems out there, even among people with computer science degrees.

Most computer scientists and software engineers have a pretty good idea about what P means. It's the problems with a known polynomial time solution. In most cases (although not all) these are problems that run relatively efficiently.

The category NP throws people, though. A disarming number of people seem to use this term to mean "Not-Polynomial". But it couldn't be farther from the case! NP actually refers to all the problems with a known "non-deterministic polynomial" solution. It means these problems can be solved in polynomial time (that is, relatively efficiently) if you have access to something called a non-deterministic Turing machine.

By definition, all problems in P are also in NP. Sorting numbers? That's in NP. Finding the shortest path between two points? NP again. Calculating the area in a rectangle? NP, of course. All of the easiest problems are in NP because they are in P, and all problems in P are also in NP.

So at this point, if you've followed the P vs NP problem at all, you might be a little confused. "Isn't the point was that we didn't know if these things were the same? I thought NP meant really hard!!!" Ah yes, see, we know that all problems in P are in NP. What we don't know is whether or not all problems in NP are also in P! Because some things that are easy to do with a non-deterministic computer seem to be very, very hard to do on a real computer.

One famous example is the famous "traveling salesman" problem. What is the absolute most efficient way for a person to visit every city in his state, and return home? While it's possible to quickly come up with an answer that's close to the most efficient, there is no fast method for finding one that's certain to be the absolute fastest. The only way we really know how to do that is to basically try an exponential number of possible routes. Which takes a very long time if the number of cities is very large at all.

This is an example of what is known as an "NP-hard" problem. These are the problems that are so hard for computers to solve. NP-hard problems are not necessarily in NP. NP-hard simply means it's at least as hard as the hardest problems in NP. It means that given a program that can solve an NP-hard problem, you can translate any other problem in NP in polynomial time to be solved by your NP-hard solving program. In other words, if you could solve the traveling salesman problem efficiently, you could solve all the other problems in NP relatively efficiently as well.

Traveling salesman is both NP-hard and in NP. I won't go into too many details about why this is, because over simplifications of NP often lead to more misunderstandings. (I'll save that for another post, if anyone is interested). Problems that are both NP-hard and in NP are known as "NP-complete". I believe when many people use the word "NP", what they really mean is "NP-complete". These are problems that (as far as we know) are very hard to solve on real computers, but are quite fast to solve on the theoretical device known as a non-deterministic Turing machine.

One common misconception out there is that a quantum computer is a non-deterministic Turing machine. This is not true. Quantum computers (if they ever really get built) are simply nowhere near that powerful. However, it is possible to use them to factor prime numbers quickly - something that could break the most popular form of encryption these days. Another common misconception is that prime factoring is NP-hard. It isn't. (If it was, quantum computers would be non-deterministic Turing machines). While we are pretty sure prime factoring is not as hard as NP-hard problems, we also don't known a polynomial time algorithm for it yet for traditional computers. There is one for quantum computers, though. I think this is part of what makes some people mistakenly think quantum computers are non-deterministic Turing machines. Sorry, no such luck.

So what's the big deal about the whole P vs NP problem? Well, after years and years of trying, computer scientists have been unable to do two different tasks. The first is to try and come up with a polynomial time solution on a standard computer for an NP-complete problem. If they could, it would mean P and NP are actually the same thing. All problems that can be solved on a non-deterministic computer in polynomial time could also be solved on a regular computer in polynomial time. This would be huge, as it would mean countless problems that are deemed too hard to solve today could potentially be solved relatively efficiently.

Most computer scientists think this is impossible, though, for reasons I can go into in another post. However, despite all their trying, no one has been able to write up a bullet-proof math proof showing why this is impossible. Most of us are pretty sure it is, but there's a difference in mathematics between having good reasons to think something is impossible and actually proving it. In other sciences, they'd probably just say "evidence shows this isn't true, so unless something changes, we are going to say P != NP". However in mathematics and computer theory, this doesn't cut it. These people expect perfect proofs, not just good evidence. (This is one of the major differences between mathematics and empirical science.) That said, from a working computer scientists perspective, it's generally just accepted that P != NP, although a very tiny minority still hold out hope.

And that, I believe, should help counter many of the major misconceptions about the famous P vs NP problem. P and NP are not opposites. The question is, are they exactly the same thing, or is NP everything in P, plus a lot more?

Thu, Nov. 12th, 2015, 04:12 pm
The Internet Across the Decades

The 1980's - The Professional's Internet: The proto-Internet exists almost entirely for the purposes of researchers, academics, engineers and the like. This is the most serious the Internet will ever be.

The 1990's - The Nerd's Internet: The early Internet adopters were almost all heavy computer nerds, techies and other's who were first intrigued by the power of the Internet to share ideas, data, technology. Even the pop culture online in the 1990's was very nerdy. The politics associated with the Internet were more libertarian than liberal.

The 2000's - The Mainstream Internet: The majority of homes in America begin to have some kind of Internet connection. The Internet begins to lose its associated with being for geeks. The idea of buying something online isn't just for hardcore geeks any more, but is something anyone might do. Social networks start springing up that are just for nerds, but intended for normal people. Even Grandma likely has an Internet connection (even if all she ever uses it for is forwarding you horrible e-mail rumors).

The 2010's - The Clickbait Internet: Virtually everyone is online, and almost everyone is heavily involved in some kind of online social networking. Internet marketing from even mainstream sources becomes more and more debased in an effort to drive people to their websites. The "culture" of the Internet is no longer associated with science and technology, but with pop culture of the lowest common denominator. The biggest users of the Internet are no longer the tech nerds, but those who are into socializing and spreading various pop culture "memes". Even sites like ThinkGeek now primarily sell items related to TV shows and movies.

The 2020's [Prediction] - The Post-Internet: With the Internet of things, streaming TV, smart watches, etc, what is and isn't the "Internet" (or a "computer" for that matter) becomes completely blurred. All technology is connected in some way or another. There is no longer an "Internet culture", but various cultures that are blurred across the various ways we communicate and entertain ourselves.

Thu, Nov. 12th, 2015, 08:37 am
Today's Politics Baffles Me...

According to the latest polls, over half of all Republicans would prefer a candidate with zero experience in government, and almost a third of Democrats would prefer a candidate who literally considers himself a socialist.
What in the world has happened to our country?
USA Today 2016 poll tracker

Wed, Oct. 28th, 2015, 08:32 am
Post for New Order fans

So I've really been enjoying the new New Order album lately ("Music Complete"). For those who haven't heard it yet, it's one of the best things they've done in ages. Ironically, it's also the first album they've done with out their legendary bass player, Peter Hook, who left the band a number of years ago. For those unfamiliar with the band, Peter Hook had a very iconic style of bass playing that often supplied the melody as much as it did the bass line.

It got me thinking about Peter Hook's bass parts, and how pretty much all of his really classic bass parts came from either Joy Division or really early New Order songs. Ceremony, Transmission, Disorder, Leave Me Alone, Love Will Tear Us Apart, etc. They were all in the real early days of the band. As the band progressed, and became more electronic and production heavy, Hooky's bass lines became more just added flavor on top of the songs, instead of something integral to the music. The real bass would end up being supplied by synthesizers, and Hook's part was just something added on top. Even on the track's that were more rock-guitar based, his part was not nearly as interesting and intertwined as it was on their early material.

I think part of it is the way they changed how they wrote music. In the early days they were rooted in the punk movement. Each song was crafted for the four of them to play live, probably largely written in collaboration in a room together. The bass, guitar and drums all work in sync, puzzle pieces that were designed to fit together. Even the early synthesizer lines were intertwined in this same way, written in a live setting to be played in a live setting.

As time went on, though, they began adopting the more modern, heavy production techniques that's dominated most mainstream music. With the exception of some indie type bands, songs are no longer crafted by a group of friends in a room together. Instead, they're often driven by layering different ideas on top of each other in a studio. The recording ends up being more complex, but the result ends up being harder to pull of live, and the individual elements are rarely anything special in their own right.

New Order's latest album is no exception to this. In fact, it's probably the heaviest production they've done yet. It's not necessarily a bad thing, it's just a different thing. But it also explains why Peter Hook's bass lines were no longer what they used to be. I think if Hooky wants to really re-capture the class Joy Divison, early New Order sound with his new endeavors, he'd be wise to try and really strip down the production to old school punk levels again. Make the bass part the focus of a song, with some minimalistic guitar and drums intertwined. That was the formula that worked so great on all those early classic songs. It'd be interesting to see him try to recapture that again.

Thu, Oct. 22nd, 2015, 10:02 am
Archetype of the Old Wizard Mentor

Yesterday was "Back to the Future Day". We had finally arrived at the point in time when Mary and Doc Brown had traveled to the "future" in Back to the Future II. Like a lot of people, I re-watched the movie, as well as many of the fun videos people have been creating to celebrate the moment. Something I noticed that's kind of interesting in the films is the relationship between Marty and Doc Brown. You have a young protagonist who's best friend and mentor is apparently an eccentric old genius who lives in the neighborhood.

While this seems like an unusual pairing in reality, it seems to be quite common in many popular adventure stories. I'm sure I'm not the first person to notice this (it's probably canonized in the monomyth somewhere) but there is definitely an archetypal character of the "Old Wizard Mentor" in a lot of these popular stories, who often befriends and mentors the young protagonist. Here's some examples:

Merlin and Arthur (perhaps the origin of the archetype?)
Gandalf and Bilbo
Gandalf and Frodo (Gandalf got to do this a lot, apparently)
Obi Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker
Yoda and Luke Skywalker
Doc Brown and Marty McFly
The Doctor and Companions (Doctor Who)
Dumbledore and Harry Potter
Doctor Xavier and various X-Men

In many cases, it's a literal wizard who helps the protagonist. (Obi Wan Kenobi is literally called an "old wizard" in one line in Star Wars). In other cases, it's an eccentric older genius of some kind. In either case, the character interaction is very similar. Often times they are represented as a "doctor" or professor of some kind. In the case of Dumbledore, he is both professor and wizard.

While I don't think this kind of pairing is as common in real life as it is in fantasy/sci-fi stories, I can attest to having one of these friendships when I first started working at the lab. An older scientist (who has since past away) was a major mentor to me when I first began working here. He had the role for a number of young people, I think, and was even nicked name something like "Mr. Wizard" by school children he occasionally taught science to. If you think about it, the original Mr. Wizard was himself something of this archetype as well.

What about you guys? Can you think of any more examples, either in real life or fiction, that I am missing? Would love to hear your thoughts.

Mon, Oct. 5th, 2015, 09:55 am
What I Do

I am such a weirdo when it comes to what I do in the overall computer science and software engineering world. I'm not an academic computer scientist, but I'm not a true software engineer either. As somebody who's personality is probably closest to the "ENFP/INFP/INTP" types -- I love discovering patterns and logically analyzing things, but I have an incredible difficult dealing with the tedious nature of both pure research or pure engineering. Luckily I have a career that lets me do an interesting mix of the two that I actually do have the attention span for.

See, pure research is tedious because it involves either a lot of experimentation, or a lot of rigorous mathematical proofs. Either one involves a serious amount of tedious, exacting work. Neither of which are things people with my personality traits are good at handling. I like discovering cool proofs when my intuition can figure them out, but working through a long, exacting, tedious set of mathematical deductions is much more difficult for me. I have trouble even reading them - not because I don't understand them, but because I don't have the attention span for it.

Likewise, I struggle with pure engineering for similar reasons. Pure engineering involves large amounts of tedious, exacting, testing to make sure every minor piece of your project is completely fool proof. All aspects of your software should be well-documented, with a consistent set of programming standards and coding practices applied, coupled with large amounts of unit testing. While I can do all of these things fine, I find myself getting quite bored by these more routine aspects of software engineering if I end up doing them for long periods of time.

This is why the position I have at PNNL is so awesome. You might call what I do "research engineering" or "research development". Some people even call it "mathematical programming", among other things. It's not pure research - I don't always have to be publishing research papers on what I do (although I occasionally do). But it's not pure engineering either. The main point is to get the software working - not to have it full-proof against every possible issue a user could have with it. If it gets to the point they want to turn the software into production code with large user base, I almost always pass it on to someone else (although they might call me in to help with various parts of it).

It's great because this sweet-spot between engineering and research is the least tedious aspect of computer science and software engineering I know of. I get to think of interesting ideas, implement them fairly quickly, and see if my results show any interesting promise. If I really want to promote them in academic circles, I can work with more pure researchers to do that. If I need to turn it into more robust engineering, I can work with experts on that as well. And I get to utilize my own skillset to its best ability. It's a pretty great place for me to be in.

If you like computer science and software development, but find pure research or pure engineering too tedious, I'd recommend looking into positions like mine. You might find you really enjoy it after all.

Mon, Aug. 3rd, 2015, 03:35 pm

True Story:

For a while when I was a kid (around 3rd or 4th grade), I decided it might be cool to be a mathematician when I grew up. I remember wondering how feasible it would be to actually make money doing this, and I remember deciding that what a mathematician probably did was have their name in the phone book under "M" for mathematicians, and when someone was having a difficult mathematical problem which they needed help on, they would call him up to come to the house and help them figure it out. In my mind a mathematician was basically like a plumber, except for math problems.

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