Eager to please!

The other day, whilst in a philosophical mood, I got to musing on whether there would be any way for humans to tell if we were being kept as pets by some alien intelligence.

Consider the goldfish that we keep in our kitchen.

Goldfish contemplating sunken treasure chest.

I doubt that they have even the foggiest idea that the glass-walled vessel in which they find themselves is in any way strange. Or even that they have any idea of what ‘glass’ is, or what ‘strange’ is. They are quite obviously accustomed to the large shadowy figures that loom over them from time to time, and have come to associate these figures with food, which makes for obvious excitement for them. Their goldfishy brains probably can’t even encompass the idea of humans, or a kitchen bench, or meatballs and tomato sauce (which is what I happen to be cooking for dinner as I write this).

But what if we are like that? If we were the pets of aliens, how would we even know? Our puny human brains might be to them as goldfish brains are to us. If we are being kept in the alien equivalent of a glass tank on an alien kitchen bench, how could we even know, if we are unable to contain the concept of alien glass, or alien kitchen benches or alien meatballs? If we know nothing other than the circumstances in which we find ourselves – like the goldfish, raised in tanks in an aquarium and transported in plastic bags to a new home – what possible reference point could we have?

As silly as this sounds, I don’t mean it to be a flippant question. It is at least as plausible as any other hypothesis for why we are here, and it is just as unfalsifiable as postulating the existence of God, or alternative universes, or that we are a computer simulation.

If you accept that there are grades of intelligent awareness possible in the universe (and our own experience tells us that goldfish seem to be less aware of the universe than we are, and at the same time more aware of the nature of things than bacterium, say, so that appears to be a fairly reasonable assumption) then putting ourselves at the top of the intelligent awareness ladder seems a tad presumptuous. Is there any way, therefore, to know whether our reality is a ‘natural’ one or whether we are in an alien goldfish bowl?

I suspect not. But the places to start looking would be things in our universe that seem to be a little too ‘convenient’ for us to be here. And there are, indeed, some of those.

What I’ve been working on for the last six or seven months. You should go see it. It’s fun.

The Sony Pictures studios where I’m working in Los Angeles was once upon a time owned by MGM. It’s nice to know that, if you know where to look, remnants of the Golden Era of movie making can still be found.

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 ((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.)) 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, ((Megurine Luka is the first bilingual Vocaloid. Calm down Atlas – I said bilingual.)) 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.


Thanks to Joey for the find.



•150ml Glycerine
•100g KY jelly
•1 level tspn sodium bicarbonate (baking soda)
•1½ cups detergent concentrate
•1 cup hot water
•Filtered water to make up 2 litres


•1 x 2 litre plastic bottle
•1 small bucket
•2 x 1 metre lengths of wooden dowel
•5m natural fibre string


Dissolve the sodium bicarbonate in the hot water. Carefully mix in ½ cup of the detergent, all the glycerine and the KY jelly. Stir until dissolved as much as possible. Pour about 1 litre of cold water into the 2 litre bottle. Slowly pour in the remaining 1 cup of detergent, taking care not to make foam. Very slowly add the warm glycerine/KY/detergent/water mix. Add water to bring to 2 litres.

Gently rotate the bottle until the contents are mixed as much as possible (there will probably still be undissolved NaHCO3 and visible threads of KY & glycerine – don’t worry). Leave the bottle to stand for 2 days.

Meanwhile braid the string into a loop about the size of a basketball and attach to the ends of the dowel like this:

After two days have passed, check the solution and make sure it is completely uniform – there should now be no visible traces of any of the individual ingredients.

Now, go to a park or a beach – somewhere sheltered and not too hot. Pour some of the solution into the small bucket and dip the string into it – make sure you get it nice and saturated. Now do this:

You might even be able to make one like this…

Science! Just because something isn’t imaginary doesn’t mean you can’t believe in it…


Bubble photos by Violet Towne.


The more astute among you will have noticed a distinct ‘commercial’ aspect to The Cow in recent times, what with the adding of the Tetherd Cow Ahead Gift Shoppe and my nauseating pleading, at every opportunity, for you to buy my fine wares. I want to assure you all that this is not a prelude to Tetherd Cow Ahead franchises opening up in your street, but is part of an experiment I’m conducting to see if there’s any relatively non-intrusive way to have the considerable time and effort I put into The Cow make any kind of headway in ‘earning-real-money’.

Tetherd Cow Ahead is not, and was never, designed as a money-making enterprise, and in all truth, I don’t really care if it ever pays its way – it’s a great diversion for me, and a terrific way to interact with my many friends, both from real life and from teh intertubes.

But as we hobble into a new era of artistic creation, a big shakedown of the status quo is occurring, and as an artist it is affecting me. There is no longer any question that my former avenues of income are starting to show some signs of wear and tear. It is obvious that new things must occur, but unlike most of the rest of the artistic world I’m not content to sit on my ass and moan about how much better it was in the old times. The new landscape interests me, and I’d like to see what it has to offer.

I don’t really have a clue where the new avenues for earning a living as an artist might be. I don’t like the idea that everything is fuelled by impersonal and anonymous advertising – it annoys the crap out of me – so I have never bought into the Google Ads-style concept, where a web page supports advertising material in return for some kind of kickback. My personal belief is that such an idea is eventually doomed to extinction as people become sick of the constant wash of advertising that floods through their lives. ((I may be wrong on that score, but it certainly is a big turn off for me to visit websites that constantly assault me with ads.)) My philosophy has always been (in the old media and the new) that I’d rather pay a few cents out of my own pocket to have my entertainment unencumbered by unrelated, meaningless and usually tasteless distractions. I hope you feel the same way.

To this end, I’m putting some experiments in place. None of these things will (I hope) make much material difference to The Cow – you will still be able to do as you please and go where you will and say what you want. As usual I will not censor The Cow ((Well, except when I make egregious boo-boos of grammar, fact or spelling. I reserve the right to fix those things in order to maintain the illusion that I am an uber-genius.)) except in the most extreme of cases. ((I have, in the past, removed material that was highly offensive from the Comments on some posts. This is necessarily a subjective decision on my part, but I think you know that I am liberal enough that any such material must be pretty awful.)) I don’t want you to change any of your usual habits, ((Well, except for Malach, I guess. We’d all like to see him change some of his usual habits)) nor do I want anyone to feel that they are in any way obligated to donate to The Cow – your time here is valued by me more than any monetary reward, and I’d give up any whim of earning a few dollars well before I’d turn you away.

Treat The Cow as you might a busker, or indeed, a religion. ((I’m speaking in the generous sense here – I don’t want any spitting or profanity)) If I make something that particularly amuses you, or write something that gives salve to your soul, drop a coin in the Collection Plate (over in the side bar there). ((The Collection Plate costs you nothing in actual monetary terms. It is just a measuring device. But, for the sake of the experiment, pretend that you’re throwing in a few cents.)) And if you should find you actually need a new coffee mug, or a t-shirt, consider a Cow alternative to the cheap trash that you were going to buy from Walmart.

There is some lengthy philosophizing on this stuff coming, ((I heard that groan Polanski!)) but I would like to know your thoughts. Not just about how this might be relevant to Tetherd Cow, but on how you view the whole new landscape in general. What do you think of what you see on the web in the way of entertainment and art? Do you pinch music? Would you pay if it was a few cents? How about news – will you pay when Rupert Murdoch tries to charge you for the privilege of reading his half-baked excuses for journalism? If not, why not? We are constantly berated by the movie studios and the record companies who want us to believe that ‘pirating’ their goods affects the livelihoods of their artists – do you believe them? Do you think these kinds of tactics work? Is there a better way?

The 5th Birthday of Tetherd Cow Ahead has just passed. Don’t worry if you didn’t notice – I missed it myself. But I look back and to me, at least, it’s a pretty magnificent achievement. Possibly the biggest, most comprehensive, most elaborate and meaningful artwork I’ve ever done. It’s not my day job, but in a strange kind of way, it’s my life’s work. Vanity leads me to think that this effort should at least pay its way. Maybe that’s a misguided notion, but I’d feel remiss if I didn’t at least explore the possibility.

Off you go now. Have fun! The Cow, as always, salutes you!

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