The content on this blog is my personal opinion and does not reflect the views of the Department of Defense or the US Navy in any way.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Engines of (Musical) Creation

So about a month ago, right before we left on our current patrol, I decided that I didn't have enough random bits and pieces of computer software. So I decided to add an music/audio editor and synthesizer to the list of software tools I possess.

Specifically: Vocaloid, version 3, code 01: Miku Hatsune. (And I got the version with an English voice library.)

What's unique about this is that the Vocaloid software is designed to synthesize vocal tracks. Essentially, what I paid for was the database containing each of the sounds that a vocalist might make while singing (ideally) any song that one could imagine. Then I use the included editor to designate pitches and timing intervals, and the program takes those sounds out of the database and plays them back at the right pitches in the right sequence.

While it might not seem possible, I can assure you (having listened to a lot of Japanese Vocaloids music) that the result is surprisingly realistic. There's something slightly off about it, something that generally makes it possible for the listener to tell that they're listening to something artificial, but it's still very, very close to the real thing.

Of course, there's only one possible use to which I could put such a thing: write music.

Unfortunately, I'm not quite there yet. Frankly, even after a month of toying with this in my spare time, I'm still trying to get the editors it came with to work properly. Getting Miku to sing some of the old chorus warm-up exercises I remember from high school was rather fun and amusing. Getting the results to sound as realistic as possible will take longer.

And writing an actual song of my own will take a level of musical theory knowledge that I don't think I ever possessed, even when I was practicing on the piano every day and taking chorus classes. (Incidentally, misreading a key signature and the notes on a staff when I tried to get Miku to sing Irish Folktale was... not exactly one of my prouder moments. As good as my memory is, dredging up details I haven't used in six years isn't the easiest thing in the world.) I'll get there... eventually... if I stick with this... but I'm not there yet.

So where am I going to go from here? Well, I already have some things I can use to get some practice. The audition music from high school (the aforementioned Irish Folktale) is both readily available and relatively simple, yet adding flourishes to it will still serve as a good learning experience. And if I get bored with that, well, I managed to find some sheet music for Frozen in a bookstore in Kuala Lumpur, so I can always have Miku sing that as well.

For that matter... I've found some pretty good instrumental music (mostly connected with Internet games I play) on the audio section of a website called Newgrounds, and the Creative Commons license it's released under means I can do whatever I want with it so long as I don't try to sell it. So maybe adding lyrics to some of that would be worth a try.

Not sure where I'm going to post whatever I come up with, though. I suppose that will be more important when I actually have something to share, though.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Fanfiction Notes: A Song for a Starlight Miracle

One of the things that dropped off the radar last year when my interest in blogging waned was the announcement that I actually do have a complete (albeit very short) piece of creative writing posted on the Internet: one of my fanfiction pieces, set in the web novel City of Angles. It's called A Song for a Starlight Miracle. In addition to using my blog to announce that, I was going to post author's notes, so that I could explain how I came up with the story, what I liked about it, and what I didn't.

I briefly considered trying to write those author's notes now that I'm back, but with a year's separation in between me and writing that story, I didn't think I remembered enough about the writing process to capture everything I'd wanted to. Then I found a file on my hard drive... I'd thought that I hadn't written anything since there wasn't anything in my draft post list, but apparently I did. I touched it up a bit to reflect the time that's passed between when it was written and now, but it really didn't need that much editing. So:

First off, a couple quick acknowledgements for the songs I quoted in the story (all of them are real songs, but all of them are also originally in Japanese; I’m fairly certain I didn’t screw up too badly but I can’t vouch 100% for the accuracy of my translations)
Kimi no Shiranai Monogatari (anime: Bakemonogatari, artist: supercell)
Kitto Koi wo Shite'iru (anime: Dog Days. artist: Yui Horie)
Philosophyz (game: Rewrite, artist: Runa Mizutani)
Shinkai Shoujo (Vocaloids, artist: yuuyu )
Hidamari Basket (game: Hidamari Basket, artist: Yoshino Nanjo)
telepath ~hikari no tou~ (movie: A Certain Magical Index, artist: Sachika Misawa)
With that said. The rest can be read now or after you read the story, depending on whether you want to see the story or my thoughts about it first. Also, there will be unmarked spoilers for details from chapters of City of Angles through //008: Heart of the City below, so you might want to read that first if you care about spoilers.

The plot is heavily inspired by the old computer game Planetarian – a kinetic novel created by the Japanese game company Key. Essentially, I took the plot of that game – repairing a damaged projector in a planetarium – and put it in the dream world of the City of Angles, where what was a metaphor for the change in the main character can have a very strong impact on the world. Not that I really needed to give that particular metaphor more strength… I just wanted to play a little with the notion of a world so strongly affected by the thoughts of its inhabitants.

Of course, my main character has her own major change, and where my story differs from that inspiration is that I spend much more time than Planetarian did describing how my character specifically got to the point where she needed a positive change. (Planetarian did describe the apocalypse that makes it a post-apocalyptic game in some detail, but spends little time on the Junker’s personal history.)

I’m not quite sure why I started using songs as a framing device for all of this and/or how well it works. Mostly, I wanted to write a music-based story – and to capture and pass along the emotions that some of my favorite songs make me feel. Which isn’t always happy, obviously, but there it is. (For that matter, I may have misrepresented some of them – I don’t actually know the plot of Bakemonogatari or the themes of Kimi no Shiranai Monogatari that well. I know I partly misrepresented Philosophyz; that’s part of the reason why I skipped some parts of it.) In the end, I’m not sure if trying to get an insert song (or songs) of sorts into a written story really works all that well. And in my case, since I was trying to fit a new story to established music, I had to adjust my own plot to compensate. (Not that I necessarily mind that.)

Also, a note on point of view: The third person POV is something which just sort of happened; it’s the POV I’m most comfortable writing, so I never really even considered trying anything else. It may make my descriptions of Melody’s feelings a little more awkward, but I think it still works anyway.

On that note, I’m actually fairly proud of Melody’s character. I think it turned out… about like an average teenager, perhaps, but with enough edges to put her a little past your typical teenage angst. I certainly hope it turned out that way, since that’s what I was aiming for. I’m not sure if I really managed the grief and loss in part three that well, but... I guess I have no choice but to trust the judgment of the people I had review it.

As usual when I start trying fanfic, I’m not sure about how well I use previously established characters. My representations of Bedlam, Echo, and Lucid are fairly one dimensional… which may be fine, given that their role in the story is to represent the choice that Melody goes through (and is fairly brief, as well), but I’m still not sure if I really should demote them like that. It certainly doesn’t make sense as I look back a year later; Bedlam and Echo now have much more characterization in the canon. (Although I suppose I can always say that my story is set before Penelope’s involvement forced them to change and grow.)

Of course, I kind of wish I could bring myself to read the story again. I went back to look at it in preparation to edit/publish this, but somehow I felt too embarrassed to read it. Not quite sure why.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Burdens of Proof and Minor Questions

This political post is a response to a National Review Online article about Benghazi.

I've briefly mentioned Benghazi before... almost a year and a half ago. I really don't want to give the impression that I'm trying to minimize this... but that's mostly because I think it will make people ignore my point, not because I believe it really is an important issue.

And the fact that I can say that, despite reading the list of questions in the article, probably makes my opinion of that article clear. I don't intend to write a blog post long enough to address all of these questions, so let's just hit the high points...
Were there political reasons why requests for additional security were ignored, suggesting that American lives were not as critical as President Obama’s reelection? 
Unlikely. To put it bluntly: I've never seen any reason to believe this isn't more of the same bureaucratic incompetence that we've never quite gotten rid of, no matter how we try. You can mention the upcoming election and President Obama's desire to proclaim that al-Qaeda was in retreat all you like - unfortunately, that does not constitute proof that he did withhold support for political reasons. And eventually, the continued failure of anyone to find that proof should be taken as an indication that it does not exist. Particularly when the State Department's reviews have found proof of that bureaucratic incompetence I mentioned. The President certainly is ultimately responsible for that, as well, but there's quite a bit of difference between that and intentional, self-serving malice.
At what time on the night of the attack did the president go to bed, and who made decisions not to order military assistance?
... The only times I've ever seen a question like "where were you when X happened?" asked (this one included, unless I'm mistaken), it's being used as a rhetorical question to claim that the person in question was neglecting his leadership responsibilities. Also, I don't give a single solitary damn what time someone goes to bed unless they are neglecting those responsibilities. So if you intend to make that point, make it, and stop pretending that your curiosity about petty little details constitutes a serious question. The POTUS is damn well capable of deciding his bedtime for himself.

The half of this question about decisions regarding military assistance is a little more serious. While my ability to speculate on decision-making at that level is limited, that decision would have depended on what we had available, what their chances of success were, and the risk we would be running by sending them. Someone decided that what was immediately available wasn't going to be good enough to justify the risk of sending them into a situation with so many unknowns - and make no mistake, whoever it was, the President and SecDef are responsible for that decision. I'm sure that whoever it was immediately started putting together something that could do the job... but the survivors, with some very overdue help from Libyan security, managed to get out of Benghazi before sending that group in proved necessary.
What exactly did top-ranking officials of the CIA initially testify about the attacks, and were their original statements contradicted by later assertions?...Why did our U.N. ambassador assert falsehoods, and why was she selected to be such a spokesman?
Inasmuch as this is a legitimate concern, it points to the often very uncertain nature of intelligence work. Figuring out who did what, for what reasons, is a little tricky, and rarely happens quickly. The administration didn't have complete information at the time, and they and the intelligence community knew that. Rather than say that, they chose to pick what they saw as part of the answer and present that. This turned out to be a mistake, as it resulted in some contradictory messages from the administration for two or three weeks, until all the information was in and analysis firmly pointed to "premeditated terrorism, using video-spawned unrest as cover".
Why were the real perpetrators never seriously pursued as promised?
Why don't you tell me why you think we didn't? I'm reasonably certain we care quite a bit about it, but that doesn't mean we're necessarily going to find everyone involved, or that it will be worth the trouble to do something about it if we do find them. 
Have all those who participated in the defense of the Benghazi facilities been fully heard from?
... This is the sort of question you can keep asking, no matter how many people testify. Again, if you have a point to make regarding who has and has not testified regarding that day, then make it and back it up. Trying to make it this way makes me think that you can't back it up and are trying to make it anyway - and whether or not you're trying to make a point you can't defend, you still aren't giving me any reason to believe that the reviews up to this point have all been incomplete.

I'll leave with one quote from the last section.
Until these questions are answered, we are left with the strong possibility...
Laundry list of potential crimes of the administration left out. Frankly? They don't matter. Until someone comes up with a better reason than this to believe that there's mountains of evidence that none of the previous investigations found, this isn't worth any more of my time.

(Okay, one last note: I usually try and cite sources in-line, with links to an appropriate article or document. Since I neglected to do that this time, I'll just include a quick list of links here, if you want to read more of the reporting which drives my opinion.)

NYT: A Deadly Mix in Benghazi
Vox Media cards about Benghazi
Snopes: Benghazi Bungle

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Mental Math Algorithms

I prefer to write longer blog posts than this, but it was slightly too long for a Facebook status. So it goes here instead.

So I've been seeing posts (okay, two, but that's still plural) about the stupidity of the new Common Core methods for math education (example here, if you haven't seen them). Haven't said much, because I didn't really have any evidence to cite either way - both methods shown work, but I also couldn't come up with an argument for why the latter should be preferred.

Then what happens? I needed to figure out 3550 - 2680, didn't feel like pulling out a piece of paper or the computer's calculator, and caught myself doing the following in my head:

2680+20 = 2700
2700+800 = 3500
*800+20 = 820
3500+50 = 3550
*820+50 = 870

And then I realize I've been using this same method for mental math for years, because I find it easier to remember two running totals than trying to mentally run the traditional algorithm. Maybe there's something to the new method after all...

(More comprehensive response here... and from two months ago. Why are we still talking about this "problem"?)

Monday, May 12, 2014

Liberty Call

... so it's time to go hide in my stateroom and play computer games.

No, really. We're in Thailand and I couldn't care less. I'd rather explore my virtual worlds then go out to the beach. And I get a lot of questions about why that is.

Well... like the vast majority of the human race, I need to burn off stress every once in a while. And I prefer to do that by playing video games, just like everyone else has their own ways to relax. This is part of what makes me an introvert, as opposed to more extroverted people who can relax by going and hanging out with friends. I don't think that's always a bad thing, and I've been trying to stop feeling guilty about spending my time how I want to, even if it does mean I don't hang out with my friends all the time.

"But don't you want to pet a tiger/ride an elephant/eat some Thai food?" is usually the next thing I get asked.

No, I don't.

More specifically... I do enjoy new experiences, and I can be quite eager to seek them out. The problem is that, as a method to relax, it doesn't work very well. I need to find local money, find the places where I can do these things, make sure to avoid dangerous areas, and make sure I can get back to the ship before my liberty expires. I can try and get my friends to make all these plans instead, but finding a group of friends with a plan that I'm willing to go along with can be a very long struggle all by itself. And worrying about all those things is a source of more stress, not less. So getting those new experiences occasionally has been, and sometimes will be, subordinated to my desire to relax by doing nothing stressful.

Do I worry too much? For that matter, is it sometimes worth it? Probably, and yes. Things rarely actually go as bad as my cynicism says they will, and I've had some evenings spent with my friends that were extremely enjoyable. But when my stress level has climbed high enough, and my ability to tell the worst voices in my head to shut up has gotten low enough, I'm not going to take that chance. I'm going to go with something that I know works. (Well. Has a much higher chance at working, at least...) Particularly since said inability to stop worrying about such things has, in the past, been what made the difference between a potentially fun evening and a late return home, in a very unsatisfied/depressed mood, with no time left to fix my mood and still get the amount of sleep I need.

 If anyone wants to call me boring because of that, then that's a problem with them, not me... Is what I'm getting better at telling myself. Still can't quite shake the feeling that I'm playing Elsa from Frozen with all this, though.

Political Awareness

I usually consider myself fairly well-informed about current events. It's one of the things I take a certain amount of pride in; while I try to avoid criticizing people too much for ignorance (this xkcd comic is a good explanation of why), I also prefer to avoid ignorance. (Or, if all else fails, to avoid admitting it until someone tells me what I'm missing or I get the chance to look it up, which is a less praiseworthy character trait.)

Which makes it all the more amusing that I had to look up information on the domestic political disputes in Thailand at the end of last week, barely a day's sail away from the coast of that same country. Somehow I never quite noticed it until then.

The problem with ignorance regarding political issues (and regarding some other types of knowledge, though not all) is that there's no way to know some details until you look for them, but no reason to look for details until you know that something unusual has happened. One has to have a sense of curiosity driving that search (which is probably one of the reasons why I consider less ignorance praiseworthy, since it can indicate that the person in question does have good curiosity), but even then, there can be problems.

Each news source I can use to feed my curiosity has its own sense of what is and is not newsworthy; each blog I read has its own ideas regarding which parts of the issue are important and which are not. I can skim as wide a variety of sources as possible, but then I have to start spending more time sorting out good information from biased or incomplete information. And no matter how much time I spend on this, there will always be some part of the world, or some level of detail, that simply wasn't important enough to spend time on... and so I'm still ignorant, in the end.

Part of the response is the same xkcd comic I linked above - sometimes it's best to just tell people what they don't know. Ignorance is hard to understand when you already know something, but that doesn't mean it has to be willful ignorance.

Part of it is being willing to listen when someone says you don't know something and suggests you learn about it. Insisting that you already know everything you need to is a good way to stay ignorant - and it quickly turns into willful ignorance, which is worthy of condemnation.

Yet another part of it is being capable of distinguishing good information from bad. Relying on incorrect information is another good way to not even realize that you don't know something you need to, although the degree to which it deserves criticism depends on the magnitude of the mistake involved.

And the last part is being confident enough in your own knowledge to spread it around when confronted with someone else who is ignorant. Even if that does require you to, however temporarily, ignore the possibility that you might need to learn more first.

Good luck sorting all that out, of course.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Restoral Priorities

One year since my last post to this blog, and with that last post itself being nothing but a short note that I was going to try to post more.

... Oops?

Well, let's go ahead and try this again.

Most of the points in that previous post remain true. I am going to try to post more "personal" items - fanfiction notes, music translations, and random details about my personal life that I feel like sharing. I am also still going to post about political and social issues - no, they still haven't gone away, oddly enough.  I'd like to make that weekly schedule I was trying to use last time, but I suppose we'll have to see about that.

Really, though, I just find remaining silent to be increasingly tiresome. I need somewhere I can feel comfortable speaking out; my Facebook page has already seen a bit of a revival (which means one post every few weeks instead of none for years, admittedly) and this blog is the other option I have. So above all else - I'll make posts when I feel I need to, and not feel guilty about not making posts when I don't feel like it. (Or try to, at least.)

As before, I hope my words are worth my readers' time. And for all the half-dozen of you that are still seeing this, thanks.