Sound


Those of you who visit the Cow to read my skeptical take on all things weird and woo might be interested in my new blog Hummadruz. On Hummadruz I’m focussing exclusively on matters of sound & music – my own fields of expertise – and the huge amount of nuttiness that can be found therein. To kick off, I’m taking a look at a phenomenon that’s currently in the news: The West Seattle Hum. The Hum is a strange vibrating buzz that appears in West Seattle from time to time, but has manifested quite significantly over the recent Labor Day holiday.

I hope you’ll come and join the discussion over at Hummadruz. I am always on the lookout for weird and wacky audio phenomenon to examine, so if you have any favourites, be sure to let me know.

Yes, it does look exceedingly amusing, but it is very very effective.

The Huffington Post is carrying an article at the moment which is headlined:

Japanese HOLOGRAPH Plays Sold Out Concerts;
Science Fiction Comes To Life

The caps are theirs. Needless to say, once again this is not a holograph. Or a hologram either. In its typical air-headed style, the HuffPo goes on to delineate the fizz of the story while entirely missing the interesting bits:

In what is surely a terrible omen not only for musicians but also the continued existence of the world as we know it, holographs are now playing sold out concerts in, where else, Japan.

Firstly, I’ll reiterate (because stupid journalists just can’t seem to understand this) – the Hatsune Miku performances are NOT HOLOGRAMS. As I’ve said before on The Cow, we currently have no technology to allow anything like this as a holographic projection(i) The giant avatars are simply projections on a screen. There is nothing three dimensional about them, as would be the case for a genuine hologram. Here’s a still frame from Hatsune Miku’s video Romeo and Cinderella, in which you can plainly see the flatness of the character, and the screen on which it’s projected:

It’s an impressive technical display, for sure, but it’s just a very bright projector and a piece of clever animation. You could, if you were motivated, achieve the same thing in your lounge room.

Of course, the Huffington Post, could have carried a story about what is actually happening here, which is far more interesting than their stupid and inaccurate ‘Look at those wacky Japanese and their holographs’ fluff piece.

The ‘live’ Hatsune Miku concerts are in fact the culmination of what was originally a promotional concept for the Vocaloid 2 speech synthesis engine. Vocaloid 2 is software developed at Pompeu Fabra University in Spain with funding by the Yamaha Corporation. The application takes snippets of real human voice and arranges them in such a way that the many complex parts of human speech can be controlled, via simple programming, to make coherent speech and song. In 2006, Vocaloid 2 was acquired from Yamaha by a the Japanese company Crypton Future Media, who, with exceptional insight, packaged it for sale to consumers as a ‘personality’: Hatsune Miku, ‘an android diva in the near-future world where songs are lost.’ The name Hatsune Miku is literally translated as ‘future sound’. Miku’s voice is generated from recordings of voice actress Saki Fujita. Using Vocaloid, musicians are able to program the Miku voice to sing whatever lyrics they choose along with their music.

When CFM released the software, they had the idea of creating several ‘mascots’ to anthropomorphize the Miku personality, and it wasn’t long before a programmer named Yu Higuchi released a freeware application, MikuMikuDance (MMD), which allowed users to easily create 2D and 3D animations based on the these mascots. A huge fanbase rapidly grew around this concept, with thousands of users interacting on Nico Nico Douga (a kind of Japanese YouTube) to produce videos of Hatsune Miku performances. The phenomenal success of Miku has spawned a family of new Vocaloids, such as Rin and Len Kagamine, Megurine Luka, Gackpoid, Megpoid and numerous ‘fan-created Vocaloids like Neru Akita and Teto Kasane.

Here is a video of Miku’s more sophisticated sister Megurine Luka,(ii) singing ‘Just Be Friends’:

The live Miku concerts with the 12 foot tall all-singing all-dancing projections of the character avatars are a natural result of the extraordinary popularity of the Vocaloid characters and their music.

Now isn’t that a lot more interesting than the Huffington Post’s (and others, I might add) flippant dissing of this story as an oh-my-god-singers-are-going-to-be-replaced-by-holograms-bring-back-the-good-old-days piece of sensationalism? Their silly take on it does nothing more than expose their white-bread middle-American sensibilities, and make them look like the insular conservatives they really are. The Hatsune Miku phenomenon might be slightly oblique to Western sensibilities, but one thing is very clear – here are large groups of passionate music fans having a genuinely good time. What the hell is wrong with that?

And besides, the music was made by musicians, not robots, people. And it’s damn catchy.

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Thanks to Joey for the find.

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Footnotes:

  1. You will notice here that I have used the correct forms of the words ‘hologram’ and ‘holograph’. You’d think journalists would take the time. []
  2. Megurine Luka is the first bilingual Vocaloid. Calm down Atlas – I said bilingual. []

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If you answered wooooooooooooo… to the title question, then you were entirely correct! Yes that’s right – today’s post features woo and sound, two of my most favourite subjects.

Well, as we all know, it seems that for treatment of their medical ailments, more and more people are turning to ordinary water, coloured water, crystallized water, flower water, needles, colours, smells, lack of food, enemas and just about every other nutty thing under the sun except actual medicine.

It was only a matter of time before someone realised that there was a niche for an ‘alternative’ medical treatment based on sound. Today on The Cow, I will examine one such treatment(i) – something named Human Bioacoustics, the amazing cure-all featured on a site called NutraSounds.(ii) Human Bioacoustics was created by a personage named Sharry Edwards™,(iii) who claims that her process ‘has unlimited health and wellness potential.’ Unlimited! Human Bioacoustics can make you weller than well!

BioAcoustics Voice Spectral Analysis can detect hidden or underlying stresses in the body that are expressed as disease. The vocal print can identify toxins, pathogens and nutritional supplements that are too low or too high. In addition, vocal print can be used to match the most compatible treatment remedy to each client. The introduction of the proper(iv) low frequency sound to the body, indicated through voice analysis, has been shown(v) to control(vi): pain, body temperature, heart rhythm and blood pressure. It has also been shown to regenerate body tissue(vii) and alleviate(viii) the symptoms of many diseases (in some cases, even those considered to be incurable).(ix)

Oh yes, there it is! Gobbledigook piled on balderdash layered on crapola. I’ve given you a helping hand with the shifty language and vague promises. I wonder why the disclaimer that is hidden away at the bottom of the NutraSound pages in very small print isn’t placed in slightly closer proximity to the above paragraph?

Disclaimer: Human BioAcoustics, as originated by Sharry Edwards, M.Ed., does not diagnose or prescribe for medical or psychological conditions nor does it claim to prevent, treat, mitigate or cure such conditions. HBA researchers do not provide diagnosis, care, treatment or rehabilitation of individuals, nor apply medical, mental health or human development principles.

Hmm. On the one hand Human Bioacoustics cures everything and then, somehow, when it comes down to a real-world, write-your-name-here-in-blood guarantee, it doesn’t. Is Ms Edwards a little nervous about getting her ass sued off, one wonders? She certainly isn’t shy of making unsubstantiated claims though. In big bold print on her bio page:

Edwards was named scientist of the year in 2001 for her work in BioAcoustic Biology.

Really? Scientist of the Year! Very impressive! That’s not something you could just make up! Let’s see what teh internets have to say about that! Oh, right, here it is. The award was presented to her by a body called the International Association of New Science. Funny… all those links are either dead or seem to point back to organizations with which Sharry Edwards™ has affiliations. She was given the award by her pals!(x) Elsewhere she claims that all her work is peer reviewed. I think she is (obviously purposely) conflating the concept of scientific peer review (which is a strenuous intellectual process designed to weed out errors and bad science) with the idea that you get a few of your ‘peers’ to peruse what you’re doing and give you the thumbs up.(xi)

(By this logic, you, my Faithful Cowpokes, could all agree that I was Scientist of the Year and I could boast that on Tetherd Cow! In fact, what a good idea – I need a few endorsements so that I too can plaster it across my banner! Feel free to wax lyrical!)

The phenomenal power of Human Bioacoustics is completely free to all and sundry in the form of the nanoVoice(xii) program, software which is, sadly, only available for PC.(xiii) Of course, you can only freely download the ‘micro’ version – you have to pay (surprise) for the real deal.(xiv) nanoVoice ‘uses frequency-based biomarkers within the frequencies of your voice to allow you an enlightening peek into your Secret Self.’

I bet you didn’t even know you had ‘frequencey-based biomarkers’ hidden inside your voice. I certainly didn’t and I’ve been working as a professional sound person for thirty years.

This is how it works, as near as I can make out from reading about it: you load a recording of your voice into the program and it analyzes the ‘frequencies’(xv) and spits out a bar graph in a rainbow of colours. Here’s what the colours supposedly mean (click to get the full chart):

Gee, now what do all those vague waffly non-specific phrases remind me of… oh, that’s it – the local paper’s astrology section! There are some classic howlers:

Yellow (E): ‘uses words first to convey messages and meaning’

Oh yeah, like that’s not going to apply to everyone except mute people.

Green/Blue (G): ‘likes to mix and manage the physical aspects of life’

What? That could mean just about ANYTHING.

Blue (G#): ‘wants to make a difference’

Oh please.

The colours are also arbitrarily tied to various kinds of organs and body parts. When I say ‘arbitrarily’ I mean that there is absolutely no scientific substantiation to say that, for example, the colour green has anything to do with your kidneys, or that the colour blue ‘retrieves nutrients from your bowel’. This is just utter, unmitigated hogwash. And Sharry Edwards™ knows it, or else she wouldn’t have put the comprehensive disclaimer on her site.(xvi)

For an example of nanoVoice’s extraordinary powers of deduction, you can amuse yourself by visiting an analysis of Mr Mel Gibson’s phone ‘conversation’ with his estranged wife Oksana Grigoreiva, in which he uses bad language, racist terms and is generally an obnoxious prat. I want to say two thing here: first of all, the pages of unbelievable rubbish that you will find here could be attributed to just about anyone, viz:

You have an unusual sense of time. Not having all the information needed to make a decision stresses you. Your reputation is very important to you. You will go to great lengths to protect it. It is important to you that spirituality be a part of everyday life. You think that feeding the mind is just as important as feeding the body. You are aware of how painful thoughtless words can be. You push yourself and others to finish the job. You love new ideas that mean you can have a project to work on. A sense of belonging is important to you.

… and secondly, these ‘frequency’ analyses were made from a telephone recording. To someone like me who knows anything about sound, this constitutes the epitome of ridiculousness. Telephones severely restrict the frequencies of voices, in order to squeeze intelligibility down the lines. Ms Edwards is asking us to believe that her software uses inherent voice ‘frequencies’ to make its divinations, but is simultaneously independent of frequency restrictions. It is the utmost peak of buffoonery. Not only that, it demonstrates without any equivocation, that Sharry Edwards is completely ignorant about how sound works.(xvii)

Like many similar pseudoscientific concepts, Human Bioacoustics uses as its basic modus operandi the general ignorance of most people in a specific field of expertise. Few people understand how sound works, but to someone like me who does, Human Bioacoustics, nanoVoice, ‘vocal profiling’ and the ‘Institute of Bioacoustic Biology’ look about as convincing as a pig in a tuxedo.



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Footnotes:

  1. Oh yes, there are many more than just one. Perhaps I will cover Tama-Do at some later stage… []
  2. Oh dear. Already with the dumb. []
  3. Yes, that’s right, she’s trademarked her name. []
  4. If you don’t do it ‘properly’, it won’t work… []
  5. By whom? []
  6. ‘Control’? What does that mean? []
  7. Body tissue regenerates anyway. This means nothing. []
  8. Alleviate? In what way? []
  9. Note the equation of the symptoms with the disease itself – a common ploy of pseudoscentific medicine []
  10. Searching on International Association of New Science turns up some frightening crosslinks. The IANS appears to have been concocted by Dr Brian O’Leary a UFO ‘expert’ and Cleve Backster, who is quite famous for writing books about communicating with plants. The frightening part is that the IANS name also appears in conjunction with legitimate research into climate change. These people are being given government money for their idiotic beliefs… If you follow the links even further, it’s worse – there are ties to the whole anti-vaccination hoodoo and a whole other world of medical stupidity. []
  11. This is what really gets my goat with these kinds of people – they shamelessly trade on the credentials that genuine science affords, while simultaneously bashing all its accomplishments as worthless. If you adopt science, you adopt science. Play properly by its rules, not by some airy fairy ones that you make up yourself! Otherwise, stay off its turf and name yourselves as the magic peddlers that you really are. []
  12. Yep, Ms Edwards has her whole racket trademarked up the wazoo. []
  13. Well, technically it could be installed under Virtual PC on my Mac, apparently, but I ain’t running VPC just for this piece of crap. []
  14. Curious, when the organization that produces it boasts that it is ‘non profit’… []
  15. There are those goddamned frequencies again. Teh woo just loves the vibrations and the frequencies! []
  16. I’m sure she justifies the disclaimer by saying that she ‘was forced to do it’ by the ‘system’ which ‘persecutes her for her beliefs’. A song that we’ve heard many times before. []
  17. Oh, I’m sure she’d come up with some piece of silliness to ‘explain’ how she can get readings from a telephone conversation – I’d be disappointed if she couldn’t! []

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Y’know, as much as I’m critical of the woo-mongers mixing it up with what they perceive to be ‘science’, I’m afraid that sometimes it’s the scientists themselves that need a good fresh mackerel to the side of the head.

Take this article Chaos Makes a Scream Sound Real, from ScienceNews.

To be fair, it’s not just the scientists. There’s a combination of factors that contribute to the diffuse, nutty quality of this piece, and it’s one that you find frequently in science journalism: a scientific concept that doesn’t immediately appear to be anything remotely worth reporting to a general audience, and a journalist’s desire (or job requirement) to try and spice it up into something that does.

I’ll try and paraphrase the whole idea for you, since I can’t be entirely sure what this is exactly about from reading either the Science News article or the abstract of the paper at Biology Letters, where it was published under the title Do film soundtracks contain nonlinear analogues to influence emotion?(i)

Some scientists studying vertebrate communication observed that:

A variety of vertebrates produce nonlinear vocalizations when they are under duress. By their very nature, vocalizations containing nonlinearities may sound harsh and are somewhat unpredictable; observations that are consistent with them being particularly evocative to those hearing them.

What they’re basically saying is that jarring, loud or sudden sounds have a noticeable impression on an animal hearing them.

Yup.

They go on to hypothesize that maybe this is the case for humans too, and that filmmakers use that trick in films.

Yup.

To this end, they analyzed a bunch of films and found that there are more jarring and sudden sounds in horror films, although some appear in action films and a few appear in drama.(ii)

Yup.

Then they sum up their hypothesis with:

Together, our results suggest that film-makers manipulate sounds to create nonlinear analogues in order to manipulate our emotional responses.

(Translate that to: ‘Film-makers use different kinds of changing sounds for emotional effect’)

Er… Yup.

Now, I don’t suppose that this was likely to be an experiment that cost oodles of money, but whatever they spent on it was WAY too much, because they could simply have emailed me and I would have told them all that for free.

The Science News reporter makes a futile attempt to spin this up into something more than what I just told you, by stirring in some references to Chaos Theory (wtf?) and getting a quote about ‘crying babies’ from a cognitive biologist who was not even involved in the study (‘Screams are basically chaos!‘). She then tags the piece with an entirely irrelevant factoid about how Hitchcock’s The Birds contains sounds that were electronically generated(iii) and signs off with the following knowledgeable-sounding quip:

…capturing a realistic, blood-curdling cry is so difficult that filmmakers have used the very same one, now found on many websites, in more than 200 movies. Known as the Wilhelm scream it is named for the character who first unleashed it in the 1953 western The Charge at Feather River.

Well, someone has been pwned here and I’m not sure who. Either the reporter hasn’t done her homework, or she thinks that no-one will notice this risible flub. The Wilhelm scream is used in a lot of movies, not because of its terrifying blood-curdling quality, but because it’s so utterly lame that it has become a game among sound editors to see if they can sneak it in skillfully enough to let the director keep it in the final sound mix.

What’s more, it’s even extremely well known for that reason as even a very cursory search will reveal. Here’s a (VERY old) YouTube compilation of appearances of the Wilhelm scream.

You’ll have noticed that many of the above clips are from the George Lucas/Steven Spielberg stable, and that’s because sound design guru Ben Burtt is responsible for ‘resurrecting’ the Wilhelm scream in Star Wars and the fun challenge of trying to get it into mixes arose among sound editors who worked with Burtt (and with some of whom I’ve worked myself, so I know of what I speak).

I’m all for the concept of popularizing science, but this kind of writing doesn’t really help anyone. It’s painting a hazy and inaccurate picture for a lay audience, can easily be demonstrated to be factually sloppy and, worst of all in my book, because of the two preceding transgressions, casts a sickly glow over the effectiveness of all other science reporting. Science can’t, and shouldn’t be, reported in the same way as entertainment. Science is interesting for what it is, and if you’re a science reporter and can’t find an appropriately absorbing way of working with the actual facts at hand for a story, you should leave it alone and go on to something else.(iv)







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Footnotes:

  1. And I’m not about to fork out for the full article – people still aren’t getting this stuff. Listen to me Biology Letters editors: religious fundamentalists of all persuasions make their stuff available to all and sundry for nothing. THEY ARE YOUR COMPETITION! Get with the 21st Century already! []
  2. Without even doing an experiment I can tell you that there would be close to none in comedies and romances. []
  3. I’m not even sure I understand what the point of including it is – that electronic sounds are more jarring/chaotic/annoying than natural sounds? Again, wtf? It’s not true, and it’s immaterial in this context anyway! []
  4. Another disappointing consequence of this phenomenon is that the bad story gets picked up, often completely uncritically, by other popular science outlets. In this case I note that it appears in Wired Science who should totally know better. []

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It has been a sad, sad week around Cow Central, good Acowlytes. This end part of February, being the anniversary of the death of my much loved Kate, is always melancholy for me, but this year it has been even more so. My great friend Simon – who you all know better as hewhohears – has been extremely ill in recent months, and late in the evening on Wednesday, the disease that he had fought for so many years overwhelmed him at last.

I have so very many memories of Simon – we had been friends for over twenty years. He has been to me a pal, a confidant, a mentor, a partner in plotting & scheming, a drinking buddy, a co-solver of mysteries, a fellow bunny-boomer, a staunch skeptical companion and much more besides. His cancer has been slowly taking him away from me these last few months, and, as he has slipped from my world, the void he has left is profound. He was a big part of my life and my happiness. Even though I moved away from him physically when I came to Melbourne, we still saw each other often, and we were also wired together through the net. A day rarely went by without us talking on the phone or on iChat.

I want to tell a story that I think sums up a lot about Simon’s character; his sense of wonder, his love of science, his sharp mind and his cheeky wit.

We were at the Treehouse in late 1998 – he was a regular visitor, and a fellow researcher in my experiments to uncover the mystery behind accelerated whisky evaporation rates.(i) As the evening drew in, Simon, who had been glancing at his watch for the last thirty minutes, quite excitedly proclaimed:

“I looked online for the orbit times of the International Space Station and it should be coming over us just about now!”

It was so much a part of Simon’s character to proclaim such geeky things that no-one really questioned that he would not only know the timetable of the newly launched ISS, but have worked out roughly where it would appear in the Australian sky. We went out onto the verandah and turned our gaze upward into the clear and spectacularly starry heavens. Almost immediately we picked out a bright light moving purposefully across the Milky Way.

“That could be it!” said I, “But it might be a plane I guess – it’s very bright.”

“Well, we should know pretty soon,” he said.

“How so?”

“Well, if it is the ISS, then it should fade out when it goes into the shadow of the Earth. About… now!” he said, and snapped his fingers.

And just like that, the little bright light winked out of existence.

It was one of the best magic tricks I’d ever seen. I laughed out loud.

“Simon, you would have to be the biggest geek I’ve ever met,” I said, impressed beyond belief.

I imagined him figuring out the height of the orbit and the angle of the sun on the other side of the planet and doing some kind of calculation to work out the arc of the sky where the ISS would no longer catch the light of the sun.

“How the hell did you calculate exactly where the shadow of the Earth would be?”

He looked at me with his cheeky smile and said:

“It was just a lucky guess!”

The humour in the story may not translate if you didn’t know Simon, but you can probably tell that it comes from the fact that it was more likely that he’d worked out the problem than just made a wild guess (Simon was also the person who introduced me to The Bee Joke and I think you can see that two people who find such things humorous share a very special bond indeed)

Tragically, the bright light that was Simon has now been snuffed out far too soon by the Great Shadow that must in time eclipse us all. Farewell my very dear friend. My life was much the richer for your company and is much the poorer for your passing.

Rest in peace.

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Footnotes:

  1. Single malt whisky seems to evaporate faster than any other substance known to humankind. I still haven’t gotten to the bottom of this phenomenon []

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