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Month: February 2011

Melody generator update…

My obsession with programming an automatic melody generator (that actually gives good results, unlike just about every other melody generator out there) continues. Again, the program works by analyzing existing melodies and “learning” from them. In my 2008 version, the program analyzed the given melodies while it composed new ones from them. Now the program stores its “knowledge” so it doesn’t have to analyze a melody more than once. Of course, there’s still the problem of getting the program to find the right sort of knowledge and to use it appropriately. But what I have is coming up with some interesting results. I’ll post more later, but here’s one melody the program wrote early this morning: MelodyExperiment2.mid (melody stated and repeated ad nauseam in pizzicato… the output of the program just gives chords and melody numbers; the tempo, the instrument choice, and alberti bass were added by me)

EDIT: By the way, obviously some of the melodies it outputs sound much worse than that. That’s one of the better ones…

Unfortunately there are still a lot of limits in the program that need to be dealt with:

1. It can still only compose an 8-bar melody in 4/4 time. I need to give it a wider range of time signatures (3/4, 2/4, and 6/8 at the very least), and I need to let it be able to compose 16 and 32 bar melodies, and “extended” melodies, such as a 10-bar melody which is really just an 8-bar melody that takes two extra bars to resolve. Ideally the user could choose the bar length and time signature.

2. It can only compose in C major. That might seem trivial; can’t the program just transpose the melody up and down afterward generating it? Unfortunately that can lead to notes that are way too high or way too low. To keep the melody within a certain range, we’ll have to deal with this.

3. It can only compose diatonic melodies. It can not yet shift into other keys or limit itself to a certain scale. Fortunately I don’t think this would be very hard functionality to add; it’s just a matter of giving the program more options, and making sure it uses them appropriately.

4. It can only compose within a certain range of notes. Which is fine, but ideally the user could decide what range is allowed, and what interval leaps are allowed.

5. There are limits on chord progressions. It must always start and end with the I chord. This makes it sound nice and complete, but it should have the ability to start on a different chord or something. It also sometimes comes up with some pretty odd chord progressions that are technically fine, but just odd. It would be interesting to program an “inventive” variable, telling the program how much it should do whatever it wants with the chord progression (within reason), and how much it should adhere to what it “knows.” Also, it currently only recognizes the main triads; it ignores major 7ths, major 9ths, sustains, etc. I’m not sure that matters much; a listener could always change that himself if he wants to use the melody for something, so if I do add that feature, it will probably be the last thing I concern myself with.

And then matters of practicality:

6. It outputs numbers in a text file which then have to be laboriously converted manually into a MIDI file, which takes too long. It should be able to output a MIDI file (or files) by itself, or at least a much easier to read text file.

7. It’s programmed in Java. To get it to work on the Internet (if that’s what I decide I want), it will probably have to be converted to PHP, and we better make sure it’s not too computationally heavy for that. (I don’t think it would be.)

That’s all! Enjoy that beautiful melody! Look out for more!

Computer, write a melody in G major, please…

I’ve been finding it hard to focus on my animation studies this week. I had a little musical epiphany, and my mind is now once again obsessed with working on my book on writing melodies and the “melody generator” computer program to go with it. The program is now capable of outputting some pretty nice stuff, a huge improvement compared to the 2008 version. But you’ll just have to take my word for it because I’m not quite ready to share samples just yet. But soon, I hope. I also think I’m pretty close to getting it to generate complete songs (in melody + chords format, not entire instrumental arrangements), at least algorithm-wise; then I still have to program it. I’m tempted to expand the topic of the book from melody composition to musical composition in general; after all, couldn’t one define any polyphonic piece as just a bunch of melodies played together? It’s the natural extension of my work, so why not just go for it? But who knows how long that would take…

Anyway, I’m extremely excited, and I’m pretty confident that within this decade, perhaps even within the next few years, we’ll have some great computer music generating programs (from me or from someone else) that will provide us with a lot of inspiration. I’m confident because I have it now. In baby form, at least.

But I’m probably getting way ahead of myself. “Don’t get excited.” It’s in the artist’s creed. Gah, it’s hard…

I’m not really sure why I’m posting this. I don’t have anything useful or interesting to share yet. I guess I just wanted to let out my excitement.

Oh, I’ve also been composing endless melodies. When you’re writing a book on the subject, the ideas just pour from the mind. I suppose that’s part of what’s fueling my obsession… melodies, melodies everywhere…

The forgetting problem

Here’s a question I made up (though I’m sure someone’s asked something like it before… nihil novum sub sole). I don’t know the answer to it, I’m still trying to puzzle it out:

Say you’re trapped in a science lab. The scientists there have invented a way to erase 24 hours worth of memory each night at midnight.

You have several choices on how to spend your day. You may either:

1. Commit suicide
2. Be tortured half the day then play for the other half
3. Be tortured the entire day, giving you the privilege to play all day the next day

Regardless of your choice, you will continue to be stuck in the lab and continue to have your memory erased each night until you die.

The question is not about what you would choose. The question is: does it matter?

UPDATE: Though one could come up with a bunch of variants, what about a guilt-based one? What if you were stuck in the same lab, had the same forgetting-at-midnight scenario going on, only this time the choices are:

1. Be tortured while another science lab prisoner does not suffer for that day
2. Do not suffer while another science lab prisoner is tortured all day

For #2, you might feel guilt, but is that better than the torture itself, especially considering you’ll both completely forget the experience the next day?

Gah, this problem is really annoying me…

Five ideas to change the way you see the world

1. The idea of emergence
2. There are no secrets to success
3. School is stupid
4. There’s no such thing as a genius
5. There’s no such thing as a teenager

Here are my top five worldview convictions; ideas that I was not raised believing but came to accept through thought, observation, and communication with others.  In a sense, they are like epiphanies; for each idea there was a time I had either no idea about it or believed the opposite.  And all of them are subjects of debate; for each one of them there are plenty of people out there who vehemently disagree with my position.

The books listed are simply the best ones I’ve read on the subject.  Although certain books have certainly helped convince me of some of these things, please do not think that I believe anything blindly; there are plenty of authors I disagree with.  A book’s contents and ideas are always subject to my own observations, analysis, and judgment.

1. The idea of emergence

OK, this first one isn’t necessarily that anti-intuitive, but it’s something a lot of people still seem to have trouble understanding or accepting.

There are still ongoing debates about how exactly to define this idea of emergence, but I’ll define it like this: an emergent property is a large scale property that emerges from a bunch of small, usually simple, interactions on a small scale.

A simple example might be a rush hour traffic jam.  A bunch of people get off work and drive home at the same time.  A traffic jam emerges from a bunch of individual decisions to drive at that specific time.  A traffic jam itself is a collection of cars; one car is not traffic jam, and a traffic jam can be made up of different cars at different times.

A famous example is John Conway’s Game of Life.  Conway made a grid and came up with a few simple “breeding” rules.  A square on the grid is either living or dead, on or off.  Then the player (or, more efficiently, a computer) uses the breeding rules for each square to determine if it would be living or dead in the next iteration (or generation).  Might seem boring, but playing around with it for a while, one can easily see patterns emerge, structures that cycle through patterns, structures that cycle but move around, structures that build other structures, etc.  All from a few simple rules applied to a bunch of grid squares.  The point is that they all interact with each other, and the patterns emerge.

Another example would be life itself, and nature’s use of DNA.  When combined with the machinery of a living cell (life doesn’t just pop up around a DNA strand all by itself), DNA contains instructions on what proteins to create.  From a bunch of small physical chemical interactions, a body grows.  Hands, brains, eyes, teeth, hair, etc.  It’s all encoded in the DNA, and it all emerges with trillions of tiny chemical interactions.  It’s important to understand that a physical body is the outcome of these interactions; though it’s encoded in the DNA, it’s not actually in the DNA.  Similarly, a music file encoded in a computer is just a long string of 0’s and 1’s, but it’s not music until this sequence is interpreted by a computer, played back through speakers, and ultimately heard by ears.  We can’t just look at the string of 0’s and 1’s and know how the music would sound.

One reason emergence can be hard to grasp or agree with, especially in the context of living systems, is that we humans tend to perceive intent, even when there’s no intent.  (There might be a more technical word for this problem, but I don’t know it.)

When we seek a reason for an event (or for the existence of something), we can seek two sorts of answers: intent to be fulfilled (a purpose), or a causal reason (cause and effect).  For example, if we ask “Why does the heart pump blood?” we can give two sorts of answers: an intent to be fulfilled (“The heart pumps blood to provide the rest of the body with supplies that travel through the blood”), or a causal reason (“The heart pumps blood because the brain sends a signal to it and its muscles contract”).  We can understand both these answers, but one is wrong: the heart has no consciousness; it doesn’t care what the rest of the body needs; it doesn’t do anything on purpose.  So why is it so natural for us to give the heart the human ability of having intent?

We can simulate similar systems in which emergent properties arise on a computer using genetic algorithms.  For example, we can program a robot to roll through a maze based on simple rules.  But we can also program the robot to figure out those rules on its own.  When it’s done, the rules might seem intelligent to us, as if the robot thought about his problem and solved it with intent to solve.  But really it’s just all the outcome of the simple rule-making rules of our program. (Unless, of course, we have succeeded in programming consciousness!)

If you think about genetic algorithms, it’s not really an amazing feat.  You just have the program come up with a bunch of random rule sets, test them, and weed out that ones that don’t produce the results you want.

The same thing happens in real life.  If the rules of making a life form (as dictated by the DNA) cause the life form to die before it breeds, its rules won’t be passed on.  Duh.  So in the end all we get are rules that “passed the tests.”

Although we do not yet know the exact science of it, emergence makes it quite plausible that God is not needed to explain the emergence of life on earth, or human life specifically.  This is enough to lead some people to atheism.  But to me it seems if your belief in God is dependent on ignorance regarding the origins of life, your faith is rather thin to begin with.  This really isn’t any sort of proof that God doesn’t exist.

There are quite a few books on this subject, and many more that relate to it, or utilize it in some way.  The two best books I have read on this subject are Emergence: From Chaos To Order by John H. Holland and Complexity: A Guided Tour by Melanie Mitchell.  (Complexity: A Guided Tour is really about the subject of complexity, obviously, but the concept of emergence is an important part of it.)

2. There are no secrets to success

If you understand the idea of emergence, this isn’t a big leap of logic: success, at least in terms of fame and money, is an emergent property.  The fame of a person or a person’s work emerges from thousands, or millions, or billions of human interactions that take place each day.

This is anti-intuitive because it’s just too complex to understand.  When something becomes popular, we want to know why, and we feel that we should have the ability to know.  So we analyze the work of art (and the perhaps the traits of the culture that made it popular) and try to pinpoint what factors must’ve made it popular.  We try to reverse engineer its success.

Ultimately, though, the system is just too complex.  There is no way to guarantee success.  There are no key factors.

And yet so many people want to analyze and analyze and analyze.  Why?

OK, this might not actually be very anti-intuitive to a lot of people.  But it implies something else, something that might be more anti-intuitive.  Eventual popularity is not inherent in anything, be it a person or a work of art or whatever.

What I mean by this is that people sometimes look at famous things and take it as an objective measurement of greatness, as if there’s something undetectable but inherent in the work that makes it have such widespread appeal.  However, by feeding into this, they are unknowingly becoming a part of the social system that makes the object famous in the first place.  For example, it’s easy to look at the popularity of Mozart’s music and claim that it’s popular because genius is simply inherent in it, even though we can’t identify what factors make it so genius.

This sort of thought has pervaded through cultures for centuries, and it’s wrong; it’s a complete misunderstanding of what exactly popularity is and how it comes about.  That is, more specifically, it’s a wrong guess about how it comes about.

You’ll notice that many of these ideas simply involve giving different, sometimes anti-intuitive (but more correct!), answers to the question “why?”

The best book about this sort of thing is The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.  OK, it’s not exactly just about objective greatness and popularity in art; it deals with the bigger problem of induction in general.  But the two subjects are very related.

3. School is stupid

This really seems to get people riled up for some reason, I suppose because the idea of school being necessary is so embedded in our culture; we grew up with it and simply can’t imagine (perhaps even fear) a world without it.  It’s odd, because when people are young students, they usually fully agree that school is stupid.  But for some reason, as they get older, they change their minds.  Usually they’ll defend the necessity of school when they are no longer required to go themselves, as if that’s suddenly a more objective position from which to judge it?

Notice that I did not claim that education was stupid.  And I don’t doubt that school is about education; it just has an extremely inefficient and overall harmful way of educating.

There are quite a few reasons formal schooling is dumb, and I won’t go over all of them here (there are books on the subject, after all), but I’ll mention the big ones.

The biggest problem with school is the material taught.  School systems simply want to teach too much.  This comes from a misunderstanding of intelligence.  People seem to think (and I’ve blogged about this before if this is sounding familiar) that intelligence is merely about knowing stuff, and the more you know the better.  I suppose it’s a bit like the idea behind hoarding—it’s better to just keep everything you can in case you need to use it someday.  But hoarding makes it difficult to live, difficult to have room for the stuff you want later, etc.  True, memory doesn’t work quite like that, but the point should be obvious: knowledge that you don’t use is useless.  The time and effort spent acquiring it is wasted.

And people already know this, otherwise students would be taught to memorize phone books.  Some knowledge is clearly useless; it’s not like the concept of useless knowledge is simply foreign to educators.  They’re just bad at figuring out which knowledge is useful and which isn’t.  In fact, usually someone figures it out for them, and they’d rather not think about it or question it.  How many times is a teacher asked “When will I ever use this?” and the teacher replies something like “You’ll use it on the test!” or “You’ll use it on your homework!”?  It’s easy to say that a teacher who utters such words should be immediately fired, but the intellectual crime he is committing and that instance probably deserves worse.

Figuring out what knowledge is useful and what isn’t shouldn’t be a difficult feat, nor should it be up to the government or any collective institution to determine.  It’s very simple, you just ask yourself: will I use this knowledge?  If you are interested in the knowledge, then yes, of course, it’s automatically useful because it gives you pleasure.  If you need the knowledge to get something you want (like a job), then yes, it’s useful; you are going to use it to get something.  If it does not fit one of those categories, it is, at the moment, useless.  What if it will be useful later?  Then learn later!  That’s why people write books.  Books store knowledge.  You don’t have to know it until you need it!  Amazing, huh?!

But you might protest: “How will I know whether or not I need a piece of knowledge until I know it?”  Easy: if you find yourself asking yourself a question, then you need more knowledge.  You could be asking yourself a question because you’re just curious (“What’s the population of the USA?”), or you could have a specific goal in mind (“How do I play the piano?” or “Can I make this work I have to do easier somehow?”).

Then you must search for the answer.  It is (or should be) up to you to find it; you can’t (or shouldn’t) just sit back and hope someone will come along and tell you.

Sometimes the answer can be found through a simple search query in Google.  Sometimes you want a deeper understanding that a book can provide.  Sometimes you might need several books.  Sometimes you might be interested in talking to a professional.  Sometimes taking a well-designed school course in the subject is appropriate.

Sometimes no one really knows the answer, and you must figure out how to find it yourself (that’s why people do experiments) or get used to the disappointment of ignorance.  (We’ll never know how many hairs were on Thomas Jefferson’s head.  Too bad for us.)

The point is that you know beforehand that there’s some sort of knowledge you want to gain, and then you seek it.

You probably realize that public schools have the process almost completely backwards.  They teach (or try to teach) students things before the student has any use for them.  This is completely counterproductive.

There is only one case in which this is justified, and that is in the teaching of young children.  Children are too inexperienced to understand what they want to learn, or why they need to learn certain things.  Some things are hard to learn, and they might naturally resist.  Most parents would agree that children need to learn to use the toilet, to pack up their toys, to not throw things at the wall, to not hit their siblings, to eat their vegetables, to tie their shoes, to dress themselves, to act politely, to read, etc.  Adults naturally need to guide their children in learning these things, even if the children claim they don’t want to learn.

This is not the case with many subjects taught in school.  There is no reason to force-teach calculus, the phases of the moon, the date George Washington died, how to calculate torque, the names of the big rivers in California, etc.

How do adults figure out what should be force-taught and what doesn’t need to be?  Again, the answer is simple: do most adults use the knowledge on an everyday basis?  If not, then force-teaching anybody such knowledge is a waste of time.  (Note that just because most adults know a piece of knowledge does not make it useful.  Most adults could know that the USA has fifty states, but that does not imply that children need to be taught that specifically.  It’s not useful information; it’s just common sense trivia.  As with all common sense trivia, children will naturally pick it up eventually.)

(Sometimes people say: “I have very eclectic interests.  Sometimes I just read random books without searching for any specific answer.”  Well, that’s great; go for it.  But that’s not the same as subjecting yourself to a strict classroom setting, where tuition is paid, schedules are followed and tests and grades are given. In other words, this doesn’t justify anything; it’s irrelevant to the argument I’m making.)

So, from what I can tell, that is the biggest problem of our (the USA’s) current public education system.  I’ve met a lot of people who agree that public schools have problems, but they completely miss this point.  They argue for fewer grades, less work, better teachers, smaller classrooms, etc., but they uphold the belief that so much knowledge should be force-taught in the first place.  As long as so much is force-taught, schools will be flawed and wasteful.  You can’t solve any other problem without first answering: why are we teaching this in the first place?

The other problems do include the grading system.  While it provides numerical assessment, it is wrongly used as a motivator (“If you don’t do this, you’ll get a bad grade!”), punisher (“You got a low grade, so you must do more work!” or “You got a low grade, so no TV for a week!”), and comparing system (“Sean had the highest grade in the class, so he is the best!  No one else is as good as him!”).  All of these hinder the actual act of learning.  There are other ways to assess educational progress.  Note that if the knowledge is useless in the first place and the student knows it, there is no honest way to motivate the student to learn it.  This is an example why solving these smaller problems will not help if the previously mentioned bigger problem is not dealt with first.

Another problem is that schools are thought of as factories (they are “systems” after all).  Students go in ignorant and come out smart.  But in structuring it like a factory, students are treated like prisoners: they are split apart by age (what purpose does that serve?), they are required to sit as long as they are told, they need permission to use the bathroom, they all must work at a similar pace, they are all taught the same material at the same time, etc.

There are problems with teachers: they are underpaid (people who might be good teachers don’t become them), they cannot be fired easily, and they sometimes aren’t very good.

Creativity is not cultivated as well as it could be; it is sometimes considered a detriment.  Music programs are sometimes cut before math programs, for example.  Why is math considered inherently more important?

There are probably books on this, but I actually haven’t read any.  As I’ve said before, people, including authors, usually discuss the smaller problems, but don’t see or agree with the bigger one.

4. There is no such thing as a genius

There is such thing as one person having more skill than another.  However, the notion of “genius” comes from a human misunderstanding of where that skill comes from.  Sometimes a skill seems to come so easily to another person that we simply can’t attribute it to practice; therefore, we suppose, it must be innate, it must come from DNA, it must be a gift from God.

Sometimes intellectual fame is also considered an inevitable product of genius.  Mozart, Beethoven, Einstein, Newton, Edison, etc. are considered famous because their minds were special and the rest of the world just naturally recognized it.

But, as discussed in idea #2, their (and their works’) fame (“success”) is actually the product of our complex social interaction system.  That is, it’s an emergent property.  Mozart was not special.  Newton was not special.  Edison was not special.  Yes, they’re special in the sense that they’re famous, but they never had greater intellectual potential than anyone else.  Their status of fame is the result of both their hard work and luck. (By “luck” I don’t mean pure random chance; I simply mean it is an emergent property, a product of a system that is otherwise far too complex for us to understand.)

You, yes you, whoever you are, can play the piano and compose symphonies as well as Mozart.  But you have to put in the time, and a lot of it.  But it’s not beyond your mental abilities (though perhaps it’s beyond your time resources).  You can understand the theory of relativity, you can study quantum mechanics, you can paint a beautiful sunrise.  But you’ve got to put in a lot work and practice.  Sometimes it does seem like a skill comes to some people faster than others, but no one is ever just born with it.

Again, hard work won’t guarantee fame.  Since Mozart’s famous touring-as-a-prodigy childhood, there have been plenty of other parents of young pianists seeking the same kind of fame.  But fame was not just the product of Mozart’s skill; it was an emergent property. Mozart got lucky, not just in his time, but throughout history (at least to this day; nobody knows what people hundreds of years from now will think).

Making a breakthrough scientific discovery is a bit trickier.  Again, it comes down to luck.  We might like to think it comes down to natural genius, but once you come up with your discovery, it’s not as if you’ll be the only one who’ll ever be able to understand it (if that were the case, your discovery would be useless anyway).  It might take hard work to arrive at your theory, but there’s nothing you can do innately to guarantee that you make the discovery first.

There are a few books on this subject, such as The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent, and IQ by David Shenk and The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle.

5. There is no such thing as a teenager

Similar to the notion of a genius, a teenager is a purely cultural idea that emerged from a purely cultural way of raising children.  Biologically, after puberty, humans are ready to go out on their own and breed.  For some reason, culturally, we don’t accept this.  We might even think of it as disgusting and wrong for a thirteen or fourteen year old to get pregnant.  But that’s what the body is designed to do.  (Or perhaps I should say that that’s how the nature of the body emerged.) The reason it seems disgusting and wrong is cultural; we were raised in a culture that thinks of it as wrong and disgusting, so we accept the belief ourselves.

What is the basis for it?

Well, you could argue that teenagers are unruly and irresponsible.  But is it really biology that makes them that way?  I think yes and no; that is, biology indirectly makes them that way, and would make adults that way too if they were put in similar environments.  Biologically and psychologically teenagers are ready to take the reins of adulthood.  But they are not given those reins.  Parents, teachers, and lawmakers deny teenagers the reins for several more years, sometimes up to a decade longer than they should.  They exert control, sometimes giving them only more adult responsibilities without adult privileges.

The consequences of this should be apparent and predictable, and they’re exactly what we observe: teenagers resist.

Duh.

But then society makes the mistake of guessing that a teen’s troubles are due directly to biology and psychology; they conclude the teenager is in fact not ready to be treated like an adult, and the vicious cycle continues.

Does that mean parents of teenagers are bad?  Well, I wouldn’t say they’re evil.  After all, the belief is cultural; it’s natural and understandable that most parents would accept the common societal views of teenagerhood.  But they’re still wrong, and usually end up doing more harm than good.

Unfortunately this wrongness is even embedded in national law, so even if a parent wanted to treat their teenagers more like adults, there would be still be lawful limits on just how many privileges the teenagers could be given.

The best book I’ve read dealing with this subject is The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen by Robert Epstein.  However, there are still scientific papers and articles on the differences between the teenage brain and the adult brain that try to explain teenage rebellion, so this is still quite a controversial subject.

Conclusion

I hope that was interesting to some people out there!  I continue to see these ideas all over the place.  Emergence is everywhere and helps shape our world in complex (sometimes mysterious) ways.  The problem of induction leads people to false knowledge and a misunderstanding of the nature of fame and success.  Schools continue to waste so much time and effort, and the people trying to make it better often miss its main problem.  The cultural notion of genius encourages people to underestimate their own true abilities.  And what people think about teenagers leads to vicious endless cycles of strained relationships.

I was considering adding more ideas, such as compatibilism (the notion that free will and determinism are compatible) and Ayn Rand’s ideas on selfishness (I do recommend The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged to everyone), but they didn’t quite make the cut.  Maybe next time.

I’m tempted to think some people get too satisfied with their convictions; they naturally resist any sort of idea that might change how they see the world. I suppose they’re afraid that if they change their outlook, it implies they’re stupid. But the opposite is true. No one is born with perfect knowledge. In fact, you’re really not born with very much knowledge at all. Most of your current knowledge came from somewhere. Your convictions should be changing as you grow older. I’m not saying they have to completely reverse every few years (that would be awful and probably would imply your stupidity), I’m simply saying one should be open and honest with himself in his judgments. Changing your mind about something is not a sign of stupidity.

Inside Pixar

The New York Times online has a great little video about Pixar:

Now if that doesn’t make you want to be an animator, what would?

Pixar has been coming under scrutiny lately as it was recently revealed that their film Up borrowed heavily from a short cheaply-produced poorly-shot film of the same name that Disney productions released in the 60’s…

Lastly, here is the best demo reel I have ever seen… I only hope someday I can get skills like this…

Freedom to Learn by Peter Gray

I recently came across this blog: Freedom to Learn by Peter Gray.

There are a bunch of interesting articles there, and I haven’t read them all. But I really appreciate some of them; they echo what I’ve been saying all along, and it’s always nice to feed my confirmation bias.

In one article, Gray writes:

We can use all the euphemisms we want, but the literal truth is that schools, as they generally exist in the United States and other modern countries, are prisons. Human beings within a certain age range (most commonly 6 to 16) are required by law to spend a good portion of their time there, and while there they are told what they must do, and the orders are generally enforced. They have no or very little voice in forming the rules they must follow. A prison–according to the common, general definition–is any place of involuntary confinement and restriction of liberty.

I recently talked to a teacher who was complaining about the things the school system made teachers do, and I asked: “Then why do you do it?” The answer was something like: “For the hope it might get better.” I said: “That’s pathetic!” but at least it wasn’t some BS about how much the teacher loved kids and knowledge and making a difference, etc. Some teachers will make a huge point of their pure intentions, as if that somehow absolves them of any wrongdoing. The truth, however, is probably quite apparent to most of us, it’s just considered rude to talk about: most teachers became teachers because they didn’t know what else to do.

I can certainly sympathize with the plight of getting out of college and not finding any jobs available that I would actually want. But becoming a teacher, especially if you have serious disagreements about how the education institution does things, seems pretty dumb to me. What should you do instead? I must admit, I’m not sure; not going to college in the first place might help.

But don’t you think an excellent way to make our education systems change would be to help them experience a shortage of teachers? I can’t imagine you being able to change too much from the inside, after you join a labor union which doesn’t agree with your position.

In another post, Gray responds to Daniel T. Willingham’s book Why Don’t Students Like School?, a book I blogged a bit about on my Book Quotes blog. Gray writes:

Willingham’s thesis is that students don’t like school because their teachers don’t have a full understanding of certain cognitive principles and therefore don’t teach as well as they could. They don’t present material in ways that appeal best to students’ minds. Presumably, if teachers followed Willingham’s advice and used the latest information cognitive science has to offer about how the mind works, students would love school.

Talk about avoiding the elephant in the room!

Ask any schoolchild why they don’t like school and they’ll tell you. “School is prison.” They may not use those words, because they’re too polite, or maybe they’ve already been brainwashed to believe that school is for their own good and therefore it can’t be prison. But decipher their words and the translation generally is, “School is prison.”

See? I told you so.

OK, most of Gray’s articles are not about schools being prison, but he does bring up the notion of “freedom” a lot from a psychological point of view, from the idea that a sense of freedom is an innate psychological desire for all humans, including children. And it seems right to me; I certainly have a sense of freedom and hate having to do stuff I didn’t choose to do. In fact, (and I’ve said this before) I’d say the common reason parents and teenagers clash is because the teenager is psychologically ready and thirsty for more freedom, but parents and society don’t give it.

Interesting movies for 2011

Here are the 2011 movies I’m most interested in. Some I definitely want to see in theaters (the ones with a star), and some I just want to keep an eye on and I’ll decide after watching previews and hearing other people’s reactions. (Animated films I almost always want to see in theaters.

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March 4, 2011 – *Rango – Industrial Light and Magic finally tried its hand at animating its own feature instead of just doing effects work. I’m very interested to see what they’ve come up with. The movie seems to be about a chameleon who goes on and wild west adventure of some sort…

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March 11, 2011 – *Mars Needs Moms – These motion capture films always look a bit wonky to me, but I do have a special place in my heart for 3D CGI spaceships.

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April 1, 2011 – Source Code – IMDb says: “An action thriller centered on a soldier who wakes up in the body of an unknown man and discovers he’s part of a mission to find the bomber of a Chicago commuter train.” Supposedly when he fails the mission, he gets to go through it again, so it’s like Groundhog’s Day sci-fi thriller style. Or maybe not, who knows… but it definitely sounds interesting.

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April 15, 2011 – *Rio – Finally some new stuff from Blue Sky Studios! Supposedly the plot of Rio was too similar to Pixar’s previously planned film Newt, causing its cancellation; the film is about a bird of rare species who must breed to save his kind. Nothing like an animated romantic comedy to make forced arranged marriage seem OK. But I have no idea if that’s really the story or not…

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May 20, 2011 – *POTC: On Stranger Tides – Yes, I know the sequels were awful, but maybe the absence of certain characters will be a blessing for this one. Plus I want to see what it’s like in 3D.

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May 27, 2011 – *Kung Fu Panda 2 – I actually haven’t seen the first one yet, but I’ve heard a lot of good things about it from my animation friends, so I will be sure to check this out.

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June 10, 2011 – Super 8 – I don’t know why J. J. Abrams thinks it’s so cool to not reveal plots before the movie comes out. I don’t find it interesting or compelling, I find it annoying. Maybe he doesn’t want people to pre-judge the logline, or maybe he just likes the mysterious attention it gives him? Anyway, the teaser during the Super Bowl looked interesting, so I’ll keep a watch on this one.  Personally, I think this is a film based on the classic Magic 8 Ball toy and has nothing to do with cameras, though I did find this description online: “Set in Ohio in 1979, the movie follows six kids who are using a Super 8 camera to make a zombie flick. One night, they end up filming near a set of train tracks and capture a calamitous wreck — the same one first revealed in last year’s teaser trailer — and the alien creature that emerges from the wreckage.”

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June 24, 2011 – *Cars 2 – It’s Pixar, so I have to go, even though the idea of talking cars still seems too “Putt-Putt” for me.

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July 29, 2011 – *Cowboys and Aliens – Because it’s cowboys and aliens. (So that’s where Thirteen has been…)

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October 28, 2011 – Now – From the director of the awesome sci-fi film Gattacca, this sci-fi film takes place in a world where people stop aging at 25 (why, that’s my age! ZOMG!), but then they die at 26 or something weird. And then this guy gets accused of murder or something. The details are sketchy to me. But I definitely want to see this one. (So that’s also where Thirteen has been…)

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November 23, 2011 – The Muppets – I love the Muppets, but The Muppet Christmas Carol was the last good Muppet movie. Disney bought the Muppets and I’m sure they want to do something with the franchise. I just hope they can keep that “Henson charm” even though Henson has been gone for so long. These characters are so easy to ruin with the wrong kind of humor.

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December 9, 2011 – *Hugo Cabret – My family members were reading the book and recommended it to me. A children’s book?! I scoffed at such an idea. OK, not really. I started reading it, and was immediately pulled in to the magical mysteriousness of the world and the characters. It is truly a fun book, almost like Victorian steam-punk. But what really excites me about the movie is that it will be directed by Martin Scorsese, who is awesome.

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December 28, 2011 – Adventures of Tintin – I’m not sure about this at all, but it’s a Steven Spielberg directed motion capture animation, I think? I’ll be interested to see what it will look like, but I won’t hold my breath for a compelling story.

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Sometime 2011? – Power of the Dark Crystal – A sequel to the 80’s film Dark Crystal? It sounds interesting, but it would be easy to come up with a lousy story, so I hope they’ve got something compelling… IMDb says: “An evil mysterious girl named Thurma made of fire who lives in the blazing center of the planet steals a shard of the crystal in hopes of reigniting the dying sun! There is only one thing powerful enough to heal the star – a shard of the crystal.” Um… OK. Hmmm… and please don’t overdo the CGI. Keep it looking tangible?

Overall, looks like a fun year for movies!

UPDATE: I almost forgot, *Atlas Shrugged: Part I is scheduled to come out this April.  I’m hoping there will also be a part 2?  While I think the book is great, I have to admit that I don’t have a lot of faith in a film version; I just don’t think it will translate well.  It would be better as a TV miniseries.  Still, I’ll definitely watch it.

Oh, and I’ll also be looking out for *Death Note, based on the manga series.  (I never actually read the manga, though I’d like to someday; I only watched the anime series based on the manga series, which is awesome.)  The story revolves around a student who finds a powerful book (the “Death Note”) that allows him to easily kill people by writing their names in the book.  He can also control how they die (with limits).  So he sets off to use the book to rid the world of evil; what a lofty noble goal!  Meanwhile, the police realize something extremely weird is going on, and try to hunt him down.  This has the potential to be a brilliant film, but it also has the potential to be completely awful.  Not just because it’s easy to hire awful writers, but because the material itself is kind of… delicate, in my opinion.  That is, it’s easy to get the spirit of it wrong, if that makes any sense.  Anyway, I’m predicting this will actually be pushed back to 2012 or later or never, because I don’t think there have been any developments on the production at all; I think it’s currently in limbo?  We’ll see.  The franchise is popular, so I don’t think they’ll forget about it completely.  I just pray that they use some of the O Fortuna-esque choir music themes they used in the anime, but they probably won’t just to make me angry.  And really, to do the entire series justice, there should be at least a trilogy of films, but I’ll doubt they’ll do that.

Finally, I do want to see what Pixar director Brad Bird handles live-action with Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.

And there will be a Happy Feet 2?

What else did I miss?

Are 3D conversions actually better?

There’s an interesting blog post over on Blue Sky Disney about 3D. I do find it nice to see a blog post by someone who doesn’t seem to hate 3D as much as many other bloggers (just check out that post’s comments), but he also makes an interesting point:

A lot has been said about shooting 3D rather than post converting. Just because some studios wanted to rush a conversion and the conversions came out poorly, people have just assumed that all conversion is poorly done. The way conversion should be used is just like any other art form, it should be viewed like cinematography, editing, sound, it is essential to the picture to be done right. “Conversion is a artistic process, not a technical one” – Jon Landau.

If you’ve read some of my older posts, you’ll know that I’ve said that a live-action 3D movie should be shot in 3D, because 3D conversions look awful. I suppose I fell prey to a deductive fallacy; just because the conversions I’ve seen have been awful doesn’t mean that they’re all awful. I’ll still have to see the conversions myself to judge them, I’m not going to take anyone’s word for it, but the writer does make a good point that converting to 3D in post (when not rushed) gives artists much more control over the shot. I still have to wonder how they would convert something like a panning shot of a tree or a field of grass; there’s just so much stuff there to worry about. But if I were a director, it would be much easier to worry about depth perception after shooting, instead of having it hinder my cinematographic decisions during shooting.

Also, though the writer mentions the rise in popularity of 3D TVs, I still think they flicker too much and I’d rather not wear clunky expensive battery-powered glasses. Gimme the cheap movie theater glasses. And raise those frame rates. Maybe they need to sell 3D projector systems?

Animating a box lift – part 2

In our second part of animating a box lift, we space out the poses we did last time and add in betweens.  Unfortunately there’s really not much to show here, but I’ll blather about the process I’ll use for a bit.  Here’s a screenshot of what my workspace looks like in Maya:

[[insert screenshot here – eventually]]

I actually don’t worry about the timing between any of the poses until I started working on the inbetweens.  So I take two poses, spread them out, and think about what the character (Stewie) should be doing halfway between the two poses.  More often than not, his “mid-pose” won’t be exactly in the center of the two poses; it will “favor” the first pose or the second pose.  I use the sliders on TweenMachine to create this pose easily, though I still have to manually move some things around so that they will travel in arcs and not straight lines.  Move the hand down a bit, add a bit of drag on this rotation, move the foot to the side a bit more, etc.

Then I play through the poses and move them around time-wise to try to get the timing right.

Then I do the same steps on a smaller scale, between the first pose and the newly-created inbetween pose.

And I repeat these steps until I’m done, usually with only about 2 to 5 frames between the poses.  And I end up with this:

Isn’t that just great?  Yes it is.

But before moving on to the next step of polishing, we have our director or animation supervisor (or, in my case, my Animation Mentor mentor and fellow students) take a look at it and point out parts that could use some improvement.

Here’s my list of areas to improve:

1 – Around frame 74ish, the head pops back to looking forward too fast.

2 – When Stewie puts his arms under the box around frame 70, the box should sink just a bit into Stewie’s front hand — it should not look like it is magically trapped in space.

3 – Around frame 101 and 103, the box seems to slow strangely in it’s ascent — the timing needs to be reworked there.

4 – Head pop on frame 96 to 100!

5 – The front foot should not slow into it’s position on the floor on frame 151… it should hit the floor with a bit more speed; Stewie is *falling* onto that foot.

6 – Frame 160 to 183 — what the heck? It’s supposed to be a bit of an overshoot on the settle, but the timing doesn’t quite work, and the front hand on the top corner of the box goes a bit funky (especially on frame 167). That whole area needs attention.

7 – More drag on the front hand throughout, especially during its bigger movements.

8 – When Stewie moves to the side on frame 119 to 120, but more drag on the box; he can’t move it to the side that fast; it’s heavy!

9 – On frame 17 it looks like both hands hit the box at the same time.  Maybe one should hit before the other?

Here are some of the main phases this animation went through, ending with the final shot:

So, we tackle these issues, then go into our graph editor and spline it.  When we first spline it, a bunch of issues are obvious: unwanted overshoots, jiggers, and pops.  Some of these can be fixed visually by just looking at and fixing wonky curves in the graph editor.  But there were a few things I needed to give special attention to.

Firstly, the spacing on the head as Stewie comes up was full of pops and strange spacing.  The main problem was that the position of the head was the sum of the joints in the spine, which all bent at different times and speeds.  The only fix I could fine was really to go into each of those spine joint curves in the graph editor and try to orchestrate their changes in such a way that the spacing on the head was more or less even.  This was quite difficult.  The end result is passable, I think, but could’ve been better if I had had more time (and experience, for that matter).

Secondly, the elbows popped a lot, especially the back elbow near the beginning, when Stewie first starts tilting the box.  In the final shot, you can see that I bent his back sideways (towards the camera) – that’s just to make that back elbow not (without having to edit the hip translations).

The spacing on the box was also a problem, one that I never fully fixed.  You can see that in the first few shots the spacing was – weird.  It started going too fast too fast, then went too slow too fast.  Or something like that.  By the final shot it was much better, but still wasn’t quite right.  Oh well; it was due, so I had to turn it in.

I think the overall animation works, but with the spacing and timing issues it’s still a bit wonky, especially in the head and the box itself.  In the future, I will try to put in more inbetweens in the “blocking plus” phase, really trying to define the arcs and the timing and spacing more specifically before going into splining.  Really I need to do little “spline test” – spline a short duration of the shot just to see what exactly splining will do, then switch it back to stepped mode and make the changes I need.

And that’s the practice animation of a box lift!  Next up: practice animation of a heavy box pull and push.  Whew.