Not Drowning, Waving

Adventures in multilingualism and the adventure's interfaces

With one stark exception, I did well in school, both in terms of grades and a sense of engagement. The exception: languages other than English. In high school I did poorly in Spanish, French, and Latin, in that order. In college I was required to extend my disappointing entanglement with French. My sophomore year I ran into one of my French instructors outside the classroom — during class we only spoke French — and after some staring and nodding we came to an agreement that it was OK to speak in English if the sun was overhead and no other students were around. Also, were we to have spoken French I wouldn’t really have been able to say much of anything. After dual sighs of relief, we chatted a bit, and I witnessed an expression form on my teacher’s face: “Hey, this kid actually isn’t an idiot.” 

Fresh out of college, I enrolled in night classes in Japanese, and proceeded to do just as poorly. Much later in life, I worked in manga for five years and ended up vice president of multiple departments with dozens of employees, and I still couldn’t manage to pick up any of the language (scanlators, I salute you). The office language instructor had a familiar expression on his face when we ran into each other at a bar one night. 

I exist as, if nothing else, an exception to the idea that someone with a deep interest in music might have a natural inclination toward languages. (More to the point, I think the situation reflects how much writing — in English — I have running through my head at all times.) A big turning point for me in my writing about everyday sound was a trip I took to Tokyo in the mid-2000s, during which I maintained a detailed sound diary. It was all transportation, pachinko, ventilation, birds, device UX, entertainment, etc. Essentially none of it, when I look back, was about language. 

And now as part of my low-grade midlife crisis, I’ve decided to be perhaps the last person on the planet to install Duolingo on one’s phone. I still long for the idea of being able to have some facility with another language, and so I’ve been pondering which language to pursue. Returning to Japanese seems like a natural option. Given my eating habits and my neighborhood in San Francisco, Chinese is also a good idea, though I’m fairly confident more Chinese science fiction will be translated into English than I’ll ever have the time to read. Korean has, hands down, my favorite alphabet on the planet. However, the U.S. State Department tells me those are among the most difficult languages for a native English-speaker to learn, and I don’t think the government had even taken into consideration my well-documented deficiencies. Top of the list (inverse proportion to difficulty) are Romance languages, and a few others. Right below that set is a shorter set, which includes German, which is what I’m currently experimenting with on Duolingo. Germany has more than its share of electronic music, music-instrument makers, music in general, and contemporary art. If nothing else, I’d eventually gain access to the blogs of plenty of musicians and coders. And I’ve always coveted those tiny paperbacks with the yellow spines.

One of the reasons I did poorly with languages is because I do well with patterns. I’d find a pattern in a textbook, and make my way through the lesson quickly. For a while I’d earn solid As, until suddenly I didn’t. It was initially a struggle in Duolingo for me to actually pay attention to the words and to not memorize letter combinations (devoid of pronunciation or meaning) and collate them with their English equivalents. Fortunately, Duolingo reinforces reading with listening and — quite amazingly to me, when trying it for the first time — with speaking. You aren’t just queried to read or to type words or to click on buttons with words, but to identify them by ear and to say them aloud and have your words parsed by a machine and then rated as passing or failing.

Which brings me to the above interface. (This has gone long, so you may need to scroll up before proceeding.) When I first saw this list of options on my cellphone (the answers, by the way, are “Bruder,” “ich,” “mit,” and either “mein” or “meine,” I’m happy to say I actually know), I felt my old pattern habit kick in. The top waveform seemed to suggest two syllables, and the second and third suggested one syllable each. The fourth was ambiguous. This was all a distraction, for two reasons. The first reason is those waveforms are simply there for you to click on: You listen to the words, and then match them with their written English equivalents. Second, those waveforms don’t actually coordinate at all with what is spoken. They’re just different as a subtle means of distinction. It’s almost entirely decorative. I’m not sure anything would be lost if the waveforms all looked exactly the same, and in fact, if you’re prone to pattern-finding, then you might actually find a uniform interface more welcoming. 

There’s plenty to be said about the use of sound in the Duolingo app — the gamification-addled pings, the forgiving nature of the speech grading, the option to register when you’re not in a situation where you can speak, the humorous character voices — and presuming my interest remains as engaged as it has been, and I avoid the sad language-averse path I’ve repeated in the past, then I’ll have more notes to share in the future. Or I should say, die Zukunft.

Scratch Pad: Muzak, Dreams, Scores

I do this manually each Saturday, usually in the morning over coffee: collating most of the little comments I’ve made on social media, which I think of as my public scratch pad, during the preceding week (or in this case, the past two weeks). These days that mostly means (Mastodon).

▰ I’ve read some great Chinese fables that characterize something akin to hell. None of them mentioned the piano rendition of “Living on a Prayer” playing in this restaurant while I wait for takeout.

▰ I experienced something this morning I wrote about a few weeks ago (in the context to a scene in a film), which was waking to an alarm I first experienced in my dream as something where my brain tried to insinuate the presence amid whatever narrative was unfolding, and eventually I woke to what was actually happening. In this case, the alarm in my dream first sounded like loud insect noise, until recognized what was actually happening.

▰ Can the new Pixel Tablet UX be installed on a Samsung Tablet (it doesn’t really matter, ’cause I 99% of the time just use the Samsung as a Duet extension of my MacBook).

▰ I’ve come to wonder if this electric car I’ve been driving turns off the fake engine noise when it hits a certain speed, and if there’s a speed when the sound of the car moving is quieter than the combination of a slower speed and the fake engine noise

▰ Nothing spoils a TV/movie thriller quite like rote music. If the director approves rote music, it undermines every other decision they made.

Kelly Akashi’s Heart of the Matter

Currently on display at the San Jose Museum of Art

This is “Mirror Image” (2020), a sculpture by Kelly Akashi currently on display at the San Jose Museum of Art as part of a sizable solo exhibit. The artist brings a broad array of techniques to her work, including glass-blowing, candle-making, carpentry, and bronze. If I were constructing a docent tour of the Akashi show, I might ask the visitors to locate the sonic in this piece. Is the blown bubble a signifier of human breath? Is the hand signaling something in ASL?

As it turns out, the pedestal depicts the artist’s own echocardiogram. After learning this fact, you might recognize that the woodwork does, indeed, have an unusual cadence to it — an unusual shape, at least for pedestals, which tend toward the symmetrical rather than the lopsided. And then you might notice that the pulsing, the beating, is at the same time highly familiar, since it’s something we, as humans, have in common. Once you know what the pedestal is, those two secondary bulges, which signify the apex of heart beats, take on a somewhat discomforting significance, and draw further attention to the fragility of the glass bubble below that heavy, if delicately positioned, brass hand. The paired beats form a sort of mirror image, as does the connection between the two representations of mortality. The exhibit closes on May 21, 2023.

Speaking of bronze, I guess it is currently a thing. There’s quite a bit of bronze in the Kehinde Wiley exhibit currently at the De Young Museum here in San Francisco. The Wiley exhibit is titled “An Archaeology of Silence,” a term apparently from Michel Foucault, the late French philosopher. We’re informed that Foucault “used it to describe the action of making visible a socially repressed phenomenon.” This phrase has a social and political connotation in the context of Wiley’s art. In a sort of mirror image, it might also be applied to the more personal realm of intimacy inherent in Akashi’s. (The Wiley exhibit closes on October 15, 2023.)

TWiS Listening Post (0000)

An experiment in commerce

Today I wrote a post to the This Week in Sound email list just for paid subscribers. It’s an experiment, and supplements the usual (and still free) Tuesday and Friday issues. 

Just yesterday I asked what people would potentially pay for, or more to the point what people who do pay might appreciate, and so far in the poll recommended ambient music came up on top, seconded by an additional email issue. Today’s email accomplished both those ideas. We’ll see how it goes.

The items in this first issue of the TWiS Listening Post were (1) a remix, (2) a demo, and (3) a clip. The remix was a sneak listen to Karen Vogt’s upcoming album (the cover image of this issue is a still from the video for one of the tracks). The demo was a short video of a piece of looping/sampler software. The clip was a video by Orbital Patterns on Instagram.

I don’t love paywalls, but I figure one out of three posts requiring a paid subscription may not be a bad idea. Or it may be a bad idea. Experimenting means experimenting, and as Brian Eno says, something really only is an experiment if there’s a potential it will fail.

This Week in Sound: The Science of Calling a Cat

Plus: sound gadgets for infants, onomatopoeia ingenuity, and more

These sound-studies highlights of the week originally appeared in the May 9, 2023, issue of the weekly email newsletter, This Week in Sound.

JUST KIDDING: There is a Kickstarter (I have no association with it) for a “smart pacifier.” The little device, which seems to combine a harmonica and a binky, is designed to “activate the creative mind at an early age, making passive listeners into musicians before they can say their first words.” … And separately, news about a nursery device that turns “patented auditory sequences into soothing melodic and other background tracks to help the infant brain do its job of paying attention to environmental sound changes.” It’s the Smarter Sleep Sound Soother from RAPT Ventures.

WHISKER WHISPERERS: “Scientists in France might have just found the most effective way to catcall an unfamiliar cat. The team discovered that cats living at a cat cafe responded most quickly to a human stranger when the stranger used both vocal and visual cues to get their attention. The cats also appeared to be more stressed out when the human ignored them completely,” writes Ed Cara at Gizmodo. Here’s a helpful diagram of how the experiment, by Charlotte de Mouzon and Gérard Leboucher at Paris Nanterre University’s Laboratory of Compared Ethology and Cognition, was undertaken:

THE THIX OF IT: “Irish inventors Rhona Togher and Eimear O’Carroll created an advanced acoustic material that reduces noise and can be used with household appliances, as well as in the automotive, construction, and aerospace industries.” The material is called SoundBounce, and it “has a cellular structure that works in tandem with a thixotropic gel placed inside the cells that allow sound to be dampened, reducing noise transmission from one space to another.” FYI, “thixotropic” means “Becoming a fluid when agitated but solid or semi-solid when allowed to stand.” Togher and O’Carroll are currently in the running for a European Inventor Award 2023.

CROSSTOWN TRAFFIC: The ecommerce/delivery reality is making life louder: “With millions of Americans now living in close proximity to a warehouse, it’s time to start treating these drab, feature-less buildings like pollution hotspots, says a recent report by the Environmental Defense Fund. Warehouses are quickly popping up all over the US, bringing truck traffic and tailpipe emissions with them. And yet there is no federal database to see where current or proposed warehouses are located, unlike other major sources of pollution like oil and gas facilities. … [T]here’s significantly more traffic, air pollution, and noise in census tracts with warehouses compared to those without them, another study based in California found last year.”

QUICK NOTES: Rim Shot: Netflix has a news desk (I don’t know how new it is) and it’s called “Tudum” — i.e., onomatopoeia for the network’s sonic brand logo — and that is sorta genius ( ▰ Bank Teller: Voice biometrics was the focus of a letter sent by Senator Sherrod Brown, chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, reportedly to JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Morgan Stanley, Charles Schwab and TD Bank. ▰ Moon Man: Austin Kleon did a new blackout poem inspired by comments I madein recent issue of This Week in Sound. ▰ Bull Market: The Shriek of the Weekwas the bullfinch, “adept mimics” that “can be taught to whistle a human tune like a parrot.” ▰ Mo’ Mojang: There’s new ambient music in Minecraft (update 1.20) and Rohan Jaiswal knows where to find it. ▰ Street Scene: Check out this microtonal composition based on data related to Krasnodar Public Transport in Russia. (Thanks, Glenn Sogge!) ▰ Blue Jay Way: Soundfly, which offers courses for musicians and connects them to mentors, has a story about bird song — I love the idea of musicians having an avian tutor.