Spacey fun at the symphony last night, with Legeti’s Atmosphères and Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, both used in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Holst’s Planets.

Atmospheres was subtle, relaxing, and almost entirely without melody – a piece for meditating to, if stark and slightly scary. I really needed that, as Thursday was just one of those days – at one point, I’d even been the target of a precision bombing run by a passing bird. Two things about this piece. Firstly, most recordings don’t do it justice, because it’s all about orchestral color, and that often just doesn’t come through. Secondly, it’s very quiet in places, which offers a great opportunity to really appreciate the inability of some people to simply sit still and be silent.

The opening of “Also Sprach ..”, unsurprisingly, did its best to shake my innards to jelly with awesome – the sheer weight of the music is that much more spectacular when you’re up close with full orchestra and pipe organ. Like most, I wasn’t too familiar with the rest of the piece, but I’m now inspired to fix that.

Sadly, no Blue Danube.

The Planets, being one of my favorite pieces, were up for more criticism than the rest. They played it alongside a sequence of photos and reconstructions from various space probes, many of which were awesome. Unfortunately, while most of the performance was serviceable, there were a number of missed notes in the lead brass portions in several movements. I also think the conductor stuck too rigidly to the meter in places, and as a result, certain sections came off a little mechanical and slightly too fast. That said, my reference performance was conducted by Karajan, and he’s famous for interpreting the meter and tone of a piece in his own way.

Posted in Art & Photos, Music | No Comments »

I’ve been involved with the Orion’s Arm Universe Project for almost 9 years now, almost since its inception.

In that time, it’s grown from a mailing list of 10 or so to a thriving community with about 60 active contributors, a board of 10, over a thousand people signed up on the mailing list, and something over a million words of canon source material. Not to mention several side projects including an island, “Port Moravec“, in Second Life, an RPG under development, and an ezine called Voices: Future Tense.

What is Orion’s Arm, then? A few snippets from the Orion’s Arm Intro page might help..

Orion’s Arm is:
  • A collective hard science fiction world building endeavor
  • A space opera
  • A communal background for science fiction stories
  • A universe ready to be brought to life through illustration
  • A forum for cutting edge science
  • A roleplaying setting
  • A transhumanist projection of what the future might look like
  • A bunch of semi-sane sentients having fun together

Orion’s Arm is a work in progress, a space opera setting like no other. It spans the next ten thousand years of galactic history, from the near future interplanetary colonization to the far future where the galaxy is ruled by vast ascended intelligences. It incorporates hard science, the softer, social sciences, as well as mythological, archetypal themes as the gods of the collective psyche incarnate in unforseen new forms.

We’ve got two big developments underway at the moment:

The first is a new website. Despite the size of Orion’s Arm, the current website is entirely static HTML, which for those non-technically inclined people means that it can’t easily be updated en masse – there’s pages in there that haven’t been touched in five or six years. So, over the last two years, a team of us have been re-conditioning, re-organizing, and re-writing the entire site for re-release on a new website, currently in open beta at It’s still not quite finished, but we’re scheduled to launch the new site on July 20th, Tranquility Day, the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission’s landing on the moon.

The second is a book. Last year, we held a novella competition, and got a number of great submissions. The best three have been edited by the Orion’s Arm Editors, and are now in the final stages of being published. We’re really excited about this, and hope to publish more in the future. I’m not 100% sure where copies will be sold, but they’ll almost certainly be available through our website.

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Posted in Art & Photos, The Future | 1 Comment »

I recently listened to this interview with Denis Dutton on about his new book “The Art Instinct“.

I haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment on it in detail, but I can definitely tell I want to read it. The basic premise is that the art can be explained in evolutionary terms as the emergent result of a series of adaptations supported partly by natural selection, and partly by sexual selection.

Since the borders of art are often fuzzy, he begins by establishing a working ‘cluster definition’ consisting of 12 characteristics, where anything that matches all characteristics is definitely art and anything that has none is definitely not.

Works of art:

  • give us direct pleasure
  • are stylistic
  • have expressive individuality, a mind behind them
  • are creative and novel
  • have a surrounding air of criticism
  • challenge us intellectually
  • tend to exist within institutions and traditions
  • are representative of reality
  • embody skill and virtuousity
  • are a focus of attention
  • are emotionally saturated
  • exist partly in our imagination

The rest of the book applies the two elements of Darwin’s theories, natural selection and sexual selection, to art. Natural selection is what we most commonly understand as evolution, and has to do with adaptations that make us more likely to pass on our genes; an art related example is the ability to construct imaginary situations and communicate them that assists in both planning and survival. One example cited is an art experiment in which people from a wide variety of countries were polled as to their tastes in calendar pictures. These were then painted and compared, with interesting similarities – see the book Painting by numbers for an account of this.

Sexual selection, on the other hand, is poorly understood by most people, if known at all. Where natural selection deals with adaptations that help individuals survive within their environment, sexual selection deals with adaptations that help individuals compete with others of their species for mates, even at the cost of reducing their survivability. It explains peacocks tails, the antlers of reindeer and the combative mating rituals that go with them, and behaviours such as infanticide among lions. In the context of art, sexual selection ties directly into, for example, displays of skill and virtuosity.

I’m fairly certain that this will be contentious with some; it builds on evolutionary psychology, itself controversial, and undermines relativist theories of art. As I’ve mentioned above, I’ve not actually read the book, so I can’t argue it in more detail, but I find this sort of explanation a lot more accessible and plausible than relativist theories, though I’m open to these being a contributing factor layered on top. Of course, I’m an engineer, so I guess the relativist argument would be that I have a pro-science bias and relativism still holds.

Stepping back, though, we humans share a whole range of common physical attributes, all explained by evolutionary processes, and it’s absurd to think that these don’t play some role in our appreciation of art. Furthermore, neurological pathologies reveal that slight variations or damage to the physical structure of our brains results in perceptual and behavioural differences far in excess of those that exist between cultures, which suggests to me that evolutionary processes not only play some role, but play a major role in explaining art and its appreciation.

Either way, this book sounds like a fascinating read and a great starting point for discussion.

Why do I blog this?
Recently, I’ve written about music appreciation and explained taste as a set of priorities for the various attributes by which we judge a given performance. Assuming the book’s arguments hold, music, being just another form of art, can be explained in evolutionary terms. Is it reasonable to expect that music appreciation is also explainable through evolutionary principles? To what extent are our tastes defined by our genes, as opposed to our environments or simple variation?

It’s kinda awesome to see and hear people from Canterbury being interviewed like this – it’s nice to be reminded that despite New Zealand being way down at the bottom of the world, we’ve still got some great minds in our universities.

Edit: I was going to point at this article by Dutton “Aesthetics and Evolutionary Psychology” from a few years back that fleshes some of these arguments out a bit..

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Posted in Art & Photos, Philosophy | No Comments »

Over the last few years, I’ve become strongly affected by the seasons. I suspect it probably correlates with the time at which I started keeping a garden, something I’ve yet to start doing here in the US. Anyway, as winter’s slowly turned into spring, I’ve been taking quite a few photos. Here’s three sets of my favourites

Taken in the Seattle Arboretum during mid-February with Winter still upon the city. Of particular interest was the Winter Garden, a collection of plants that remain colourful and attractive through the winter.

First Spring set at the University of Washington, early March. Blossoms weren’t yet out properly, but the bulbs were in bloom.

Second Spring set at UW, taken today, with blossoms in full profusion. Of particular note are the cherry blossoms flooding the quad and the swarms of people out to enjoy them.

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Posted in Art & Photos | No Comments »

While waiting for pizza this evening, I read an article by David Allan Grier in IEEE Computer about the ways in which technology has changed entertainment, particularly the theatre, over the last 40 years or so.

In particular, he discusses how automated lighting, sound and so forth can afford a stage manager the opportunity to calibrate the response of the audience by controlling the timing of cues much more closely, much in the same way a live television producer does the same. What this has meant is that show production, in addition to be a massive organizational exercise, is now a performance unto itself.

Later, he goes on to talk about ways in which producers of other media gauge audience reaction and adapt accordingly – focus groups for TV and movies, golden ears for music, and now, with technology, learning systems based on customer profiling and crowd-sourcing, that can supplement socially driven recommendations such as friends or local record store owners – being a prominent example.

So inspired, here’s an interesting extension that occurred to me:

What if specialized AI, running locally, could be injected into traditionally mass-produced media like music, TV, or movies to act as a kind of virtual stage manager? It could observe you, the audience, a focus group of one, then tweak the timing, the content, the tone, and even the script of media to better suit your current mood, your tastes, to stimulate you in ways to which you are more sensitive, or even to better fit your available time.

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Posted in Art & Photos, Rants & Opinion, Science & Technology | No Comments »

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