Sunday, January 11, 2009

Sharp transformations

Sharp transformations dot our times like stars dot the milky way. Mostly we were swept in so swiftly and painlessly, we scarcely noticed the enormity of change that was upon us.

One of those sharp transformations was of course the Internet. No, not a cliche - I at any rate am never able to cease marveling at it afresh; the sheer concept of it; what it brought to pass in our lives in two decades.

Two of the big changes that it brought along were where we go for our knowledge and where we do our shopping. I'll talk about those two here as they touched my life.

I became a professional engineer in this century - in fact just six years ago. Where did the engineers of yester-year learn their trade? I exaggerate, but not overmuch, when I say I learned mine on the Internet. And I am unable to comprehend what it would have been like for a callow new-minted engineer in the years before. Books don't teach little practical tricks. Bookstores and libraries don't always stock the most urgently required books and journals. Then, the senior colleagues were the well-spring of wisdom. The scope for favoritism and politics (gender, race, any other) that left - not pleasant to think of. Sure, there's plenty of scope for politics on the Internet, for instance in the online communities or inherent in PageRank. All the same, the Internet places a huge amount of collective wisdom equally at the disposal of every aspirant wisdom seeker. The Internet truly was the great democratizer.

And then, there are one's other hobbies, pass-times and interests - things that may not mean much to the people one spends time with routinely in office or at home. In my teens and twenties I loved reading Dostoevsky. I owned most of his novels, novellas and short stories. But being an engineering student, I had no point of contact with the literary types, much less Russian literature types. I got to hear of Bakhtin and Joseph Frank at the Dostoevsky group at Yahoo Groups - an extra-ordinarily lively and articulate group that vanished unexplained from the web some years ago - and I was thirty then. And then of course, I needed Amazon.com to lay hands on those infinitely precious volumes as soon as possible. I thank the Lord for having given me some part of my life to be lived in the age of the Internet. The color that it brought to my life has been blessed.

But its not just to do with profession and hobbies. All those odd bits and pieces of info and good advice that one went to the neighbor for - who was the doctor that did wonders for your mother's friend's vitiligo - or virtigo - that kind of thing - now the Internet provides us with those so much more capably and efficiently. Then the Internet's the great new expanded neighbor.

The Internet has been, through and through, the great new wave in education. We are surely generally more educated, skilled and knowledgeable today than we were two decades ago.

So I list the Internet's grand epithets:
- The great new democratizer
- The great new wave in education
- The great new expanded neighbor
- The great new shopper's stop

and of course the list can be expanded.

Everything, actually, in a mammoth scale. In a world that seemingly had lost its taste for grandness, the Internet is an amazingly grand new denizen. And we are still trying to comprehend the implications...

Thursday, January 8, 2009

And I thought MIR meant peace

I am a software engineer with a specialization in signal processing and I love to play the violin. Recently I was so fortunate as to be able to bring togather those two loves - music and signal processing - into a heady mix, and have been delving into the strange beautiful amazing new field of Music Information Retrieval - MIR.

The thing is that a sharp transformation has happened here - but then that's nothing to remark, fiddlesticks, in our century. Anyways, music analysis, that somewhat esoteric field, has been around for ages. It was for theoreticians, philosophers, hobbyists, and the disinterestedly curious. Yes, there was that gentleman who claimed disinterested intellectual curiosity was the lifeblood of true civilization. But music analysis wasn't of utility to men in general. And now suddenly, its become a utility. And what's more, its become something with huge money in it. How did that happen?

Well, the simple answer seems to be: music analysis makes it possible to search for and retrieve specific kinds of music from digital databases - which includes the Internet. In its new context, as a tool for search and retrieval, its a boon for every music lover. The applications it will be put to in the near future can but be imagined. Some might be to do with automatic genre and mood recognition in music. I want to find sad songs in a voice with texture like Connie Dover's, but composed in renaissant Italy - how's that for a search query. I want to find songs in a voice that sounds like a Maggini violin.

The amount of work happening in MIR these days is quite a bit. Well, some of my first discoveries: ISMIR is the prime conference of the MIR community, and the next one will be in Kobe, Japan, in October: http://ismir2009.ismir.net/. MIREX is a competition where the submissions are software that perform MIR related tasks, like performer identification or genre classification: http://www.music-ir.org/mirex/2009/index.php/Main_Page. Curious: if four participants are guaranteed, you can create a contest at MIREX for any MIR related task of your choice. An active list discussing MIR related topics is music-ir - easy to locate the subscription info on the web.

And some papers that really got me recently (more on them in later posts) - one from ISMIR and one from far before:
- Using expressive trends for identifying violin performers http://www2.iiia.csic.es/~arcos/papers/2964.pdf
- Stochastic processes in music and art
http://www.springerlink.com/content/y5159n4316vq2w6h/

Now, if you are a musician who loves technology, or a technologist who loves music, you'd do well to go listen to the strange things those folks are saying, and check if there's something you can contribute by way of two cents or more. Seems to me MIR could do with a confluence of musicians who mayn't be tech savvy and techies who mayn't be note savvy...

My appologies to anyone of the MIR community who comes along, for being such a busybody - I hope you don't mind! Well, I do hope to be a contributor as well - in a while.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Why Aricia

J. M. W. Turner's painting of the Golden Bough. Lake Nemi is in the background.

Well, I just made this my first blog, and when it asked what the title should be, I thought this one up, because after all I was going to call myself Nemi. So, if you don't know about the woodland lake of Nemi in Aricia, and about Frazer and his Golden Bough, you might just want to take a peep here, for instance:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Golden_Bough

Its weird stuff, arguably, but its to do with the essence of who we are, and moreover its to do with the essence of who I am, the kind of things I like involving myself with, so don't miss it if, for better for worse, you have half a mind to tune in to me...

BTW, please don't be put off by the 'magic' and 'religion' - this has verily been called the first book of modern anthropology. I'd say its part of our richest intellectual legacies. I read it in my adolescence, and it left its lasting mark on how I see the World and the Times.

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