Forgotten & Surreal Instruments [#42]

Two nights ago we had the privilege of listening to the latest show put together by the Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments. Never heard of them? Well, neither had I. In fairness, had we not known one of the musicians (who, it turns out, was stepping in for another member) we still wouldn’t know about the Society and certainly wouldn’t have heard them perform.

Which is rather lucky, because both the members and the performance itself were brilliant. I had absolutely no idea what to expect and, frankly, even if I’d read a blurb or heard an explanation I doubt my expectations would have fitted the reality. In brief, the hour-or-so performance was a string quartet playing a medley of medieval and modern compositions, interspersed with readings from Sir Francis Bacon, the 16th century philosopher and naturalist. Oh, except the string instruments on which they played were not your standard violins, cellos etc. but rather the likes of the trumpet marine (one of the only ones in the world), viola bastarda (the only one in the world), gothic bray harp and utterly bizarre looking nyckelharpa (to name only a few, with each musician swapping instruments at least once throughout the performance). Layered on top of these medieval instruments were sound recordings, (occasional) electronic music and various distortions – these being the remit of the fifth musician, whom we know.

The result is a fascinating walk down both scientific and musical history. Francis Bacon has some wonderful excerpts on the nature of sound, the concept of his titular “Sound Houses” (from his New Atlantis, which I really must read) and Medieval anecdotes about noise in general. I doubt that a group of revellers truly did clap hard enough to “make the air thinner and cause the birds to fall from the sky” [paraphrased] but his observations on sound propagation are wonderfully modern and his vision for the future of music consumption is, at times, eerily prophetic. The excerpts were performed brilliantly by a live actor, lending a very clever degree of wit, movement and comedy to proceedings.

Alongside, and greatly overshadowing, the classical excerpts from Bacon was the music itself. For the most part, the musical performance was just incredibly well played Medieval fare. It’s a genre which I love, because it feels somehow incredibly alien whilst the core rhythms and structures, at times, feel almost pop like. The sound mixing was brilliant, allowing the whole medley to produce a wonderfully lyrical and complementary music whilst still permitting you to hone in on individual instruments, which you absolutely wanted to do from time-to-time. In particular, the trumpet marine was fascinating. A single stringed instrument with dozens of hidden vibration panels and sympathetic strings it could produce a bizarre array of sounds. I’m not so convinced as to the claims likening it to a trumpet, whose sound is much fuller and cleaner, but there is definitely a level of reverb and rasp which I’ve never heard from a stringed instrument before. I’m genuinely tempted to donate to their crowd funding campaign to get four of them made, just to hear what several of these instruments could produce together! Personally, though, my favourite was the weirdly altered bray harp, with small pegs fastened to the end of each string creating a very harsh, discordant noise completely antithetical to the classically perceived sounds of a harp.

Whilst there were new compositions interspersed with ancient, you really couldn’t tell them apart, and although the mixture of Medieval strings and modern audio sampling sounds odd on paper, in reality it worked extremely well. One of the last pieces performed, with the most electronic overlays, in fact felt ripe for sampling beneath a grime track, a combination I would happily pay to listen to. When paired alongside the esoteric poetry of Bacon’s prose and the atmospheric setting, an equally ancient church in the centre of a mist enshrouded town on the Moor, the result was wonderfully evocative and utterly riveting. An extremely fun way to spend the evening!

Stickers, Eclipses and Lighthouses [#36]

Today is a day for another round-up of interesting pieces from across the web. Nothing too special, but hopefully a little intriguing.

First up is Google Lighthouse, one of the many branches of the Alphabet behemoth and a pretty interesting little project. I haven’t actually managed to get it up and running, but I’ll definitely be trying it out on theAdhocracy some time soon (and probably weeping at the result). I don’t need to test it, though, to see it will be a very useful tool in battling the increasingly problematic issue of internet lag.

Second is the article which led me to Lighthouse in the first place: AMPersan, by Ethan Marcotte. Not much to add to this one, just another voice adding weight to my uneasiness with the idea of AMP and similar projects. Well worth a read if you’re interested in the open web.

In third place is a collection of ‘achievement’ stickers doing the rounds of the blogosphere right now. Originally designed by Jeremy Nguyen, published on The New Yorker and personally discovered via TheLogoSmith, the stickers are a humorous look at the pitfalls of being self employed. They’re specifically designed for freelance designers, but I feel a lot of them are applicable across disciplines. If you work from home, you’ll probably find yourself smiling and nodding.

Fourth on the list is a simple article from Martian Craft outlining “The Importance of Routine“. The post is aimed at remote works and is far from news to me, but it is a well written example of how to apply this kind of thinking. I’m saving it here more to try and force myself into setting something like this up for my own free time.

Finally, I was blown away by the “Lifetime Eclipse Predictor” visualisation created for The Washington Post (discovered via Source). In the wake of the recent total eclipse in the US, along with reading various posts on the rarity of such events, I’ve been left with a real urge to try and make sure at my path eventually coincides with a path of totality. It is a ridiculously awesome coincidence that our moon’s diameter and planet’s solar distance align so accurately. I mean, even if there are other life-hosting planets out there, we’re certainly one of an incredibly small number that can witness this phenomenon. That makes it practically a responsibility to see a total eclipse, at least once.

Awesome Azhdarchids [#9]

Two giant pterosaurs striding over an ancient grassland hunting small dinosaurs.
Image from Naish & Witton 2017

Looking through my article categories it would seem that I’ve never blogged about prehistoric creatures at all on this site, which is frankly ridiculous. As such, a post such as this one is well past due. Plus the subject matter, in my opinion, is ridiculously cool (that likely says more about me than the source material, though).

I’ve followed Darren Naish’s ideas on Azhdarchid behaviour very closely over the past few years, partly because I’m generally a fan of Naish’s work and partly because the concept is just very exciting to me. The popular image of pterosaurs rarely expands beyond the concept of reptilian, bat winged flying creatures that were ultimately a poor man’s bird, replaced by the evolutionary advancements made by their avian (distant) cousins. Of course, that’s a load of nonsense: pterosaurs, of all sorts, were fascinating creatures that occupied a huge variety of niches and continued to be highly successful for millennia after birds first evolved. Not only were they incredibly varied, but they often branched out into niches that today’s birds can barely scrape, achieving evolutionary feats that have never been paralleled.

Arguably, one of the clearest examples of pterosaur splendour is the most well known Azhdarchid: Quetzalcoatlus. Famous for its gigantic wingspan, most likely topping out somewhere around 11m, Quetzalcoatlus and its kin are far more interesting than merely boasting the largest wings to have ever evolved. The Azhdarchids are also a bit of an enigma.

Their huge wing spans and, in general, huge sizes have never fit well with the more archaic notion of pterosaurs as bird analogues. When we look at living (or even extinct) birds, the closest niche that seems to fit is that currently embodied by the albatrosses: huge winged ocean wanderers, gliding for days over the waves and feeding on the wing. Azhdarchids are certainly well designed for long-haul gliding, likely (again) being the best long distance gliders to have ever evolved, but they don’t fit as albatross analogues because they largely didn’t live near the sea.

The vast majority of Azhdarchid remains are found in continental interiors, far from evidence of large bodies of water, so the traditional interpretation of them as oceanic just doesn’t make a lot of sense. Naish and Mark Witton are two of the more prominent figures putting forward an alternative theory: Azhdarchids as giant, terrestrial land striders. Storks or secretary birds would become their closest living analogues, but these pterosaurs simply outflank all modern birds in terms of size. To quote Naish directly from his latest blog post on the matter:

Small dinosaurs – up to the size of humans – were very plausibly on the menu for this animal.

Here Naish is referring to a more recent discovery, the robust Romanian Azhdarchid Hatzegopteryx, but increasingly it seems similar to other ideas being put forward at the edges of the scientific community. Indeed, in their latest paper on the matter, Naish and Witton advance an even more radical concept: Hatzegopteryx as the top predator in its ecosystem. It’s an idea I absolutely love and one I will continue to follow closely, both in the technical literature (where possible) and in popular science reporting (which has a tendency to lag somewhat). I may even, in the future, use the Azhdarchids as part of another project I’m working on. At any rate, the concept of these gigantic pterosaurs being not only terrestrial predators but potentially sitting at-or-near the top of their respective food chains is just another example of how, often, pterosaurs just outclass modern birds.


CMYK and the Magical Illusion of Colour

View post on

There’s isn’t much to add to the above GIF, other than that I think it’s a really cleverly designed and demonstrated concept. The idea of CMYK printing is nothing new to me; I’ve been interested in the physics used in forming imagery since I first noticed the tiny circles of colour (read: pixels) on a Coca-Cola vending machine image at school. Heck, I’ve worked for a newspaper company right next to the printing warehouse and currently program for a company that specialises in bulk printing!

That said, I still find the concept of combining varying levels of cyan, magenta, yellow and black to form a seemingly full-colour image a little magical. I’m clearly not the only one, too, and this was a little too well executed not to share.

PS: This is also the first time I’ve ever posted using a card. Having finally seen the process in the wild, this is also a little bit magical. I’m just a little concerned its magical towards the Dark Arts end of the spectrum.

How Do I Join Hell’s Anthropologists?

Science Gang Tattoos by Tom Gauld, created for New Scientist.

A brilliant little illustration of possible science-based gang tattoos. The names aren’t the best (though Particle-Physics She-Devils has a special place in my soul) but the actual imagery is spot on. I’d love to revisit this idea at some point and come up with my own variation for us Evolutionary Biologists (or possibly Software Engineers, I can rep both crews)!