Mental Health and Our Education System

Me, unknowingly about to enter 10 weeks of pure stress.

Hi all! I realized I disappeared off the radar for awhile, and I wanted to take this as an opportunity to talk about something really important to me: mental health. Some of you who know me or my work well know that this comes up a lot in my music, but I feel it’s a subject that deserves to be spoken about both implicitly through expression and explicitly, through diatribe. So I hope you like diatribes!

So why did I disappear for the last month or so? Simply put, it was school. I was taking a particularly heavy quarter along with maintaining my professional life, and I became overwhelmed. Is this to be expected? Of course! Did I get through well? I believe so. But, this brings up my opinion:

Our school system is inefficiently rigorous. This leads to education processes which are counterintuitive for setting up a culture of good habits for mental health and effective work ethic.

This applies to primary, secondary, and tertiary school. But I’ll mainly talk about tertiary school (i.e. universities). I’ve experienced two schools: Carnegie Mellon, which uses the semester system, and University of Denver, which uses the quarter system. For those who haven’t heard of the quarter system, here’s how it compares to the semester system:

  1. Both add up to a 30 week academic year plus finals.
  2. Semesters divide this year into 2 15-week terms. Quarters divide it into 3 10-week terms.
  3. DU’s quarters are especially unique, because it results in a 6-week winter break (from Thanksgiving through New Year’s). Semesters usually have 4-week winter breaks from mid-December to mid-January.
  4. Quarter system summer breaks start in mid-June where semester summer breaks start in mid-May.

My issues with tertiary education apply to both systems, but I believe the quarter system augments them. Because, by pushing a class into a 10-week period, maybe some content will be dropped to lighten the load. But the pacing remains constant enough that everyone is very aware of which week of the term they are in (“This is SUCH a Week 7, amiright?”). And this results in students entering the “get-by” frame of mind. Meaning, if a student stumbles in a class, or has a personal emergency, they might be able to catch up, but if they’re already operating at their threshold, then this will push them past it. Then something has to fall off the priority list. And usually mental health is the first to go.

(Students in the semester system experience the same thing, but there’s sometimes a week about 2/3 of the way through where the stars align and that student can do what they need to recover).

So, why don’t students just take a lighter load so they’re not operating at their threshold?

This requires a two pronged answer:

1. Stress Culture

A lot of schools seek to enroll mostly ambitious, self-motivated students. Especially the schools trying to label themselves as “prestigious.” And these students are susceptible to what’s known as stress culture. In a nutshell, stress culture is: if you’re not stressed, you’re not doing enough. How does this become a thing? For one, the “self-motivated” students are picked primarily for their extracurricular engagement in high school. And they knew this as they were preparing for the college application process. The correlation is direct them: I did as many activities as I could in high school, that’s what got me here; therefore, I need to do as many things now so I’m successful when I graduate.

Secondly, the competition is closer in college than it is in high school. A lot of students find themselves experiencing the “no longer a big fish in a small pond” syndrome. Yet they still want to stand out. What differentiates the students from each other can be objectively measured (grades). But a lot is subjective (who cares about grades after you get your first job anyway?). So one of the objective measurements becomes workload. I work 40 hours a week on school, but he works 60 hours. He must be getting 20 hours more education than me. Written this way, the logic is intentionally shaky, but imagine being an 18 year old in a university with an uncertain future. Anxiety will find a way to get to you to this conclusion.

2. The system isn’t built to allow for the sort of flexibility required to allow students to moderate their workload.

No matter the degree a student is pursuing, there’s imposed on them a stark differentiation between “full-time” and “part-time” student. And being a full-time student comes with a number of perks (student loan deferment; university benefits including fitness centers, transportation passes, and insurance; eligibility for more scholarships and loans). So even though I pay by the credit for my master’s degree, I still need to maintain a 25-credit a year trajectory to maintain my benefits (did I mention student loan deferment? That’s a huge one).

And this issue compounds for undergrads. They usually take course loads that operate at a fixed tuition level. Meaning that, when they enter school, they’re planning on paying 4-year’s worth of tuition, no matter how many classes they take. But the requirements to graduate force a heavy workload, or else that 4-year’s worth of tuition becomes 5. And the rate doesn’t drop even though you’re taking fewer classes. The question is, then, should schools expect less of their students to allow for graduation? Would the school, and therefore the student’s degree, be considered less prestigious for it?

Admittedly, these experiences I’ve described are generalized. But each degree program has its variation. Based on what I’ve experienced and what I’ve been told from friends in other fields, these pressures are fairly constant across university campuses.

This leads me to the primary word I use to describe education in my opinion: “inefficient.”

A good friend of mine summarized it extremely well recently. To paraphrase, he said: “I don’t feel like I’m being challenged intellectually anymore. I feel like my existence as a human is being challenged.” He felt that way because he wasn’t learning a particularly large amount of information, but the amount of work being demanded of him was extreme. Is that good education? It’s mostly busy work.

I acquiesce this: part of the university system’s purpose is to teach students how to be effective intellectuals. And part of that is being able to spin many plates at once. But that doesn’t take 4 years of practice. Nor at least 2 extra years to become a “Master.” The point of the lengthy education time is to allow for more information to be communicated, not for more busy work to be completed. If we aren’t spending the time in school teaching effectively, then maybe we can try to teach more efficiently and minimize the busy work in response to allow the education to be shortened. Education would maintain its quality, but become cheaper if a student could get a degree in 3 years instead of 4. Either that or allow students the time to learn to be, and become, humans during their 4 years degree.

This finally leads me to make my point: all while a student is learning their skills, they’re learning to work in 10- or 15-week explosions of stress rather than learning moderation.

So even if you believe it’s valuable for students to experience being overwhelmed, is it worth it? Or are we just training a set of people with unhealthy work habits?

What am I doing about it?

For one, over the next few months, I’d just like to share with you my personal experiences as someone diagnosed with major depression and anxiety, and hopefully it will help some people (with or without mental illnesses).

Here’s what I’ve already started to do:

  1. Regularly see specialists who can help me (i.e. therapist and psychiatrist).
  2. Build the habits that can help me maintain my mental health when life is more challenging.

Going into detail on these is blog post in and of itself. One that should exist soon…

Here’s my next goal:

As I continue enforcing those goals, I am actively pursuing prioritizing my health. Easier said than done. But at least it’s said, and when I first said it, I had to admit to myself that I will not be good at it at first. Everything takes practice, and I have very little practice saying no to things that will impact my mental recovery time, and then using that time effectively. But I’m ready to make mistakes. And I invite you to try your hand at it as I do the same, and we can exchange notes!

These are just a few of my thoughts. I would love to hear your opinions in response. Especially if you disagree with it! Feel free to comment below or reach out to me on social media with any thoughts you have.

– Dewey

[EDT] – Computer Science Rearing Its Ugly Head

Click here to see the final version of the logo, with the resolution reduced in half. Remember, this is intended to be displayed on a vertically hung TV (so you might have to tilt your head to the left to see it)!

Here’s How I Did It

Because I wanted the lines to be directly controlled by the edge of the logo, and not pass through it, I needed to make a list of points that the logo existed at. Easy enough. I looped through the pixels, and checked the alpha layer. If the alpha of a pixel was not 0, but one of the pixels around it is close to 0, we are at an edge of the letter. I stored all of the x, y coordinates of these pixels. This resulted in 25,000 pixels, or 50,000 members of my array. I then set a “particle” to launch from the edges or the middle region, let its trail persist, and had it die when it reached a letter. Voila, lines that converge on the letters EDP.

Here’s the problem: a list of 50,000 elements is inherently inefficient. Especially if I’m iterating through that list 60 times a second. But I had to, because I had to constantly check to see if any of my particles had collided with the logo. 

Problem #1:

When I build my list of edge pixels, it’s not built in a particularly useful order. Picture pixels are stored left-to-right and up-to-down. So when I scanned for my edge pixels, this is how they’re stored. Their position in the array doesn’t correlate to whether or not they are an outer or inner edge of the letter, or even what letter they’re associated with.

Solution #1:

Well, I could find a way to cleverly sort this list. Because the letters function approximately as circles, I considered sorting the array so pixels closest to each other were closest to each other in the array. Then I could at least know where I was in a letter based on the position of the array. Alas, this is a sorting problem. I should know how to do this effectively. But I didn’t have enough time to try it and be wrong about it. (If you are curious about how to do this effectively, my alma mater has a generous resource on sorting techniques: https://www.cs.cmu.edu/~adamchik/15-121/lectures/Sorting%20Algorithms/sorting.html )

As a result, I controlled the spawning of my particles so that I could make sure they interacted with the letters correctly. I had them start on the edges of the frame only. Great. Except these letters have holes in them that these particles would never get to coming from the outside. To solve this, I’d prefer to start the line on one point on the inside of the letter and end it on another. But I didn’t have the information to know which points these are. What I could do is create an imaginary box that surrounds the entire logo and tells particles to spawn inside of that region just as much, if not more, than the edges. Maybe the particles will spawn inside my letters, but they’ll die before they leave. So I drew the logo over top all over the lines to cover up these mistakes. It’s not perfect. But it works.

Problem #2:

I am checking 50,000 elements 60 times a second. That’s 300,000 elements a second. And I’m checking each of those elements against a particle in my system. My system could have 100 particles. Luckily, I only allow the program to loop through the edge-detection list once a frame, but it’s still a lot. That’s 3,000,000 comparisons a second. And the program noticeably lags when it encounters that burden.

Solution #2:

My father happens to be a data storage engineer, so I know there exists clever solutions to minimize which elements of this list I need to compare against each time. For one, somehow, my list ended up having duplicate pixels. I don’t know how. But I made sure to have my program loop through the array and delete any duplicates. I also could have easily divided the list into three parts (by letter, essentially) and then only compare to one letter’s pixels depending on the position of the particle and its likelihood to be interacting with that letter.

But when on a time crunch, the easier, more intuitive solutions, become more appealing. So why not just lower the resolution of collision detector? So I went in and deleted every other pixel. Suddenly, my 3,000,000 comparisons per second problem became a 1,500,000 comparisons per second. 

I then decided that allowing the program to have 100 particles going at a time was unnecessary. So I made the program stop producing particles after it had 50 going. (Particles are deleted once they collide with the letter, so it’s still allowed to make more. It’s just not allowed to have 50 going at once.) My program only had 750,000 comparisons a second. I can live with sub-million comparison territory. I can also live with the program not lagging when it reaches a minute in.

Computer Science is Creativity

Don’t get me wrong, CS is probably one of the most creative STEM fields. Every time I program something, I feel the part of my brain going that goes when I’m composing. It’s strange. But doing both the creativity of art and the creativity of CS at the same time is a TRIP. One I enjoyed. And one that gave me a good night’s sleep afterwards.

– Dewey

[EDT] – Self Awareness as Inspiration

This story starts at two moments.

Moment 1

I have a very passionate wind ensemble director. When he stops you in the hall, he will go on a topic that will lead to some statement on a fundamental profundity of life. Recently, I ran into him and he began to talk about caves in France where the oldest artistic creations of humanity exist. Something of 30,000 years ago. To him, the magnitude of the paintings, hidden away in a section of cave that is very uncomfortable, and somewhat dangerous, to get to, showed a significant functioning and self-awareness in humanity, far beyond anything we give early humans credit for. He said people say early human art was just to show where the food was. But this showed him that these humans were self-aware enough to create expression.

Read more about this here.

Moment 2

I’m a simple man. When I got distracted on worksheets in grade school, I would see all the lines on the page and see how I could connect my own lines between them in some aesthetically pleasing way. When I saw the EDP logo, I saw the opportunity for that same game, but on a platform of an artistic work. 

I’m sure this doodling technique isn’t unique to me. But it’s something that I feel is innately part of me, which is what inspires me to put the effort in to try and teach a computer how to do it. This is the fundamental part of human expression: we are self-aware enough to realize what is inherent to our unique existence. And we want to communicate that. When we pursue communicating that inherent uniqueness, we find the path of least resistance to impactful art. (Note: I’m not saying this is the only path, just an effective one.)

What’s the point of all this heady diatribe?

It’s that, in making my final project for this class, I decided to stick to my intuition. The idea is simple: connect lines from the parts of the letter and edge of the frame to create the EDP logo using negative space. In this, I still had decisions to make. Namely, what aesthetic did I want all of the converging lines to result in? Do I want them to curve? How do I want them to form? The personal nature of the conception of this idea made these answers easier to come to.

Whenever I doodled like this, the lines would always result in some chaotic pattern. The lines were always straight. What did they remind me of? A bird’s nest?

No, too circular of a pattern. A net?

No, too much of a grid-like pattern. Well maybe they should wave? No, that’s not how I’ve ever done it.

So there we’re left with randomly spawning lines that stop at the letter. They don’t go through! That’s too little chaos. Our minds would just fill in the gaps of the lines. All roads lead to Rome. And all lines lead to EDP. 

– Dewey

[EDT] – Compromise

Generative Animation – “Scary”

There were some parts of my vision I was willing to compromise for the sake of time and my skill set. Let’s start with the one I wasn’t: the creepy figure could not be a clear shape. It’s easy with pencil to make fade outs and create the effect that the creature has an ambiguous start. Here was my sketch.

I asked myself: what about these lines are fundamentally different from the lines I can draw in P5.js? They’re not straight, in fact, they arc similarly against each other and layer. I thought, this is possible to generate… but maybe someone has already had this desire. And that’s when I searched through P5.js libraries and found the Sketch library. This was perfect: I could draw lines but have the library stylize them for me.

Here’s what I had to compromise: I wanted the background to glow as a result of the lightning. This would require a gradient that is ideally dependent on the position of the lightning strike. But the noise field is too chaotic to use as an attachment to the lightning strike (I tried drawing lines starting one pixel away from the lightning strike and they ended going a completely different direction). I decided the background could glow, and ideally, it’d glow in a radial gradient from the middle. But I did not have time to draw that.

So we have a progression of a creepy dude getting closer to you randomly with each lightning strike, he disappears for a few seconds, then pops up in your face. I think it fit the Halloween season!

For the mobile project portion, I was surprised that there were specific shapes cut out for our videos to go in. My piece only maintained interest with the view of the full piece (it’s possible neither the lightning nor the creeper goes into the limited frame of the shape cut out used in the mobile projection template for multiple seconds).

Speculative Future Video – “It’s All the Same”

The original vision of this piece was this: a man goes about a typical day as he hears the news of the day. We see familiar actions, but we hear an uncanny different world.

Of course, the project developed. As a result of poor planning, I didn’t actually create the audio until the end of my editing process. As a result, I forced myself to focus on the visuals. A good exercise for me, a musician who doesn’t think about that element a lot, but a bad exercise in workflow. The visuals, therefore, became a heavier communicator of the future than I intended. The world differs from ours in that it’s: dreary, lonely, and controlled through text exclusively. I used lighting, color, and pacing to communicate this.

A note about pacing: I found myself caught between fast a slow pacing. For one storyline, it made sense for my character to move sluggishly through his mundane tasks. It brought more weight to the menial things that brightened his day. But I envisioned at least two consecutive storylines, and the changing between the two picked the pacing up drastically. I’m not satisfied with how this landed, but I sold it as much as I could.

So now I’ve mentioned it: the two story arcs. When I put together the first day’s filming, I had a solid A story (he wakes up, makes coffee, pays his bills, then enjoys a glimmer of light). Perhaps I should’ve stuck with that (does Final Cut have version control?). But I was stuck in my original vision and saw the character, on a different day, going outside, listening to different news.

As I wrote the NPR dialogue, I developed a curiosity in making the linearity of the two stories ambiguous. That is, I was interested in making it not clear which one happened second. So while we hear different points of the same story, we don’t know which happened first. For example, we don’t know if the Freelance Mother’s union faced massive firings and then struck a deal with Facebook or vice versa.

But it was still important to communicate that the days were different from each other. And I used panning and coloring to achieve this. The idea is, one is early in the day, one is later. So one is blue, one is orange. And one voice comes out of the right heavier, and one the left. Hopefully, the distinguishing characteristics communicate the different points in time enough to allow for the confusion in linearity. It was ambitious, and needed more than 4 minutes.

Here’s what I would’ve liked: to commit to the faster pacing by using flashier transitions and sound design to keep the pace. And workshop the NPR dialogue to communicate the difference in days more clearly, but still allow for ambiguity. It’s not perfect, but it’s art, I suppose.

– Dewey

[EDT] – Noise and Purity

Noise

Being asked to make a generative animation for Thursday, I started to think about how closely the noise projects we were working on looked like lightning, and how it wasn’t a far stretch to make a lightning generator based off our other work. The noise just needed to have significantly finer resolution in the y direction than in the x to give it some verticality. Pop in a random number generator to make the strikes seem sporadic and voila:

This is fun, and it looks like lightning. But I want my lightning to glow! At first, I toyed with trying to draw a gradient around the lightning here. It did not go well.

Then I realized, the cool thing about glowing things is the objects they illuminate. And in the spirit of Halloween, this animation could show the progression of some creepy, shadowy, maybe abstract figure in the background. Some images of creepy houses came to mind.

From http://dndspeak.com/2019/06/100-things-you-can-find-in-a-haunted-house/
Luigi’s Mansion. Image from https://jadensadventures.fandom.com/wiki/Luigi%27s_Mansion?file=Luigis-mansion-mansion.jpg
As I was finding my examples, I stumbled across this one and couldn’t help but include it. I don’t know how I feel about those eyes, but I can’t stop looking at them. From https://www.womansday.com/home/decorating/a52379/christine-mcconnell-haunted-house/

And then Slenderman also came to mind.

From https://tenor.com/view/slender-slender-man-horror-scary-gif-14746427
From https://www.ctvnews.ca/world/victim-of-2014-u-s-slender-man-stabbing-speaks-out-1.4655518 who attributes it to Sony’s movie of the same title.

These two concepts have been thoroughly played and don’t require me to explore them, but it’s a good jumping off point as I flesh out this animation with some shadowy, abstract element that induces mild anxiety.

Purity in a Film Shot and What It Conveys

I’ve been reflecting on my time directing and shooting my film project with my generous friend, Diogo, as talent. It was an interesting experience to know that there was an image in my head, figure out what it was, then figure out how to realize it. As with all visions, they seem so perfect, but the setup puts limitations on them that can diminish the realization. Especially with my limited filming experience.

I’ve been trying to figure out what influences I was drawing from throughout the process and realized one was a direct influence from Wes Anderson. Specifically, the trademark Wes Anderson symmetrical shot.

Establishing a person. Taken from https://www.ranker.com/list/symmetrical-wes-anderson/hannah-collins
Establishing a scene. Taken from http://thecinemaarchives.com/2018/03/30/moonrise-kingdom-2012-wes-anderson/

Anderson is quite good at this, and there’s no sense in trying to establish his level of symmetry on my two-day, two-hour-at-a-time shoot, borrowed in a friend’s apartment on a friend’s time. But what Anderson is trying to achieve is an aesthetic. A storytelling technique. A level of surreal perfection in a different world. And while there’s drama in his world, the amount of perfection he strives for puts his style and films into a whole new plane.

I didn’t want that. So a number of my shots were traditionally angular.

Traditonal shot (screen capped)
Symmetric shot (screen capped)

For my film, I liked Anderson’s approach as a story telling device, but not as context setting. And that’s a fine line. The world is certainly not perfect, and we see that in the other shots. But if I tell you who this man is from an objective, face-on view, then that is my most efficient way to tell you who he is and that he is important in our story.

Even the symmetric shot isn’t even close to Anderson perfection. My lighting dim and is heavily profile, and his head’s not quite straight. But that’s the thing: the shot speaks to objectivity, yet the disturbing nature of the world of our story comes through even that lens. I believe that speaks more than a traditional shot could.

So, yeah, I stole Anderson’s style a bit, but definitely put my own bend on it and didn’t commit to it as much as he does. It’s admirable that he can do that, but if I had strove for that, it wouldn’t be my work any more.

– Dewey

[EDT] – Critic

Part 1 – A Critic of My Own Work

At last, I completed my project to make a clock. The clock design was inspired off a desire for the perfection of shapes fitting perfectly into spaces, and the anticipation that goes into watching that process happen. In the spirit of the pursuit of perfection, the final product turned out to be chaotic while attaining some fleeting level of perfect fitting of shapes. The result is what I’d describe as “the sunny side of anxiety.”

It’s best to healthily moderate your internal critic as you create a work as to not hinder exploring any ideas that might lead to something unexpected and great. But now that the work is being submitted, I believe I am safe to unleash the inner critic.

Color

I’ve been encouraged to explore colors, and while I don’t believe I have a color blind imagination, I don’t know if I know how to carry out the ideas in my head. P5.JS has very easy fills for shapes, but they are clunky and monotonous. I might imagine shading on the shapes, but implementing that is extremely complicated. While I can do it, I didn’t have the time to figure out the general technique for shading by visual artists and how to implement that in P5.JS. So everything looks flat.

The decisions on the colors themselves is questionable. The shapes shouldn’t be complementary colors, but they might be too close. And they are also fairly red. Smiley’s are generally more yellow, but that is a trope that need not be followed. So what should they be? 

Maybe the answer lies in the shading. While it adds extra dynamism to the clock, it does take away consistency in pairing of colors. And sometimes the shades don’t pair well.

Form

“Form follows function” was a phrase my brother told me was said throughout his 4 years of architecture school. It’s something that makes sense: what’s the point of a good looking piece if it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do? Well, easier said than done. Because ideas don’t always fit themselves into the function.

The movement of the seconds smiley’s is chaotic. They have a lot of space to travel in a second and, while it’s cyclic, the movements don’t stay to the edges and, therefore, conflict with the rest of the clock.

While technically, the minutes are technically displayed through the number of gridded blocks in the background, that is not an obvious connection a viewer will see until, arguably, the next minute happens and the blocks show their minutes.

But even so, there’s nothing to say in the work itself that this is a clock. Clocks are associated with circles and this is very square. The hours smileys arrange themselves into a circle, but the central smiley confuses the number, as it doesn’t actually count towards the hour number.

Overall, there just needs to be more indication that this IS a clock and what each part of it communicates. The segmentation into seconds, minutes, and hours is apparent, but not obvious due to the chaotic overlap, induced primarily by the seconds’ motion.

Part 2 – A Response to “The Training Commission”

Truth

The largest truth debated in the series is the death of Aoife’s brother, Ciárnan. A truth that was, evidently, large enough to begin a peace process in a unrested country. And that’s the truth for the story. But the line (that seems a little downplayed) that captures truth in 2019 is how Latoya talks about how the real truth got covered up:

“By the time they extradited me from Alberta, the story of his bravery and the fact that footage helped prove Big Tech was bankrolling those militias had already sealed his martyr status.”

This isn’t the result of any of the technological changes or societal changes in this story’s future, this is a a reality we’re dealing with today as a result of our streamlined communication through TV and internet to spark sensationalism. Propelled by companies that want to be the first on a lead, information is dispersed and cemented before it’s verified.

So what is widely accepted as true, becomes the truth. And in the case of “The Training Commission,” that truth, though a lie, is better for everyone. So even if it’s not the objective truth, is it the truth that world needs?

Algorithms of Today

I’ve heard many people complain about search algorithms, especially in regards to YouTube. Seeing as YouTube crosses its roles as being a deliverer of entertainment, but also information, how it lets its users find its content is significant, because it shapes what we expect to see in multiple aspects of our society.

This blog on HootSuite outlines the YouTube algorithm well, because it explores it chronologically first, which really illuminates how the algorithm’s intentions changed. Essentially, the algorithm went from views, to view time, to compatibility with the viewer. This seems to shift its focus from “what do viewers like to see?” to “what do we think the viewers like to see.” Essentially, getting ahead of the viewers’ wonts before they get there.

If people were steadfast in their desires, this wouldn’t be an issue. But people are not, they are human, and this algorithm creates a feedback loop: I tell you what you want and you get what you want from me. Sounds like co-dependency at its finest.

A necessary nuance to mention is that YouTube recognizes the dangerous power, especially politically, their algorithm enables. And they evidently just started to try and eliminated “borderline content.” A small step, three years after America’s sensationalism fueled election, but a nice moment of self awareness.

Interview with Alexa Koenig

The issue that arises as a result of systems is the human input is biased. Koenig discusses exploring a flawed system to try and fix the war criminal system. This is a system constructed by humans to fix human issues. And government systems are essentially inefficient computers composed of humans. And it takes a human to fix that.

The idea behind The Training Commission is that the human element is taken out by a more intelligent power. But that power is also constructed by humans. It will always have human flaws. And there’s no way we can rely on something, even something not human, if a human is able to teach it our biases.

[EDT] – “Brainstorming”

Nothing’s more exciting than an idea before implementation.
Nothing’s more disappointing than an idea after.

In 3 Parts

1. Some Dots

Implementing a program that has a grid of dots that get larger and brighter the closer they are to the mouse is fine. The mouse position is a convenient built in variable and its distance from the circle can be inversely proportional to the circle’s radius.

The trouble is aesthetics. An inverse relationship is asymptotic, and the radius will approach infinity as the mouse gets closer. That’s no good. I imagined an inverse graph and imagined how I needed to transform it to avoid an infinite radius. But why use math when I could use logic? So I just told the program that if it found the radius to be greater than 2, then the radius is 2. Imposing my own asymptote.

Visual representation of our circle’s radius

The aesthetic question I couldn’t solve was this: having the circles overlap diagonally with the bottom-right circle on top didn’t make much sense. It would look better for the circles to be drawn with the nearest (and largest) circle on top. However, our technique for drawing involved drawing them in the same order every time. I tried to have a looper that draw the largest circle last, but doing that in an iterating loop is tricky and prone to failure. So I never achieved that. If I were to pursue that goal further, I would probably build a 2-D array and use that to determine the closest circles and draw them last.

2. A Clock

There’s something about toying with my unhealthy thought processes that inspires me. Story time: I was on the light rail with enough energy to actually put focus into my posture. Sitting up straight is “neat” because you’re creating a right angle against the right angle of the seat. The dead space is used up maximally. To continue to diminish dead space, I sat as close to the wall as I could so that the dead space behind me and the dead space to the left of me was minimized. And so the sitting space in the train is maximized!

It’s a childish thought process. I remember thinking through these things as a kid, bored, sitting in an empty room as my family moved. But back then, I wasn’t ok with any of the dead space. Why couldn’t I fit myself to be perfectly in the corner? At some point, I linked this expectation to my affinity for Hanna-Barbara cartoons. These cartoons created a world where a character can run face first into the corner and their face comes out in the perfect shape of that corner. And in that moment, they have perfectly filled that corner. No dead space.

But wait, I realized, as I was going 60 mph on our most efficient transportation method in Denver. I’ve never considered myself in power to fulfill this desire. But if animation is the inspiration behind it, and I am animating right now, then can’t I create that world? The opportunity to “make a clock” popped into my head. And I imagined an adorable square making its rounds around a rectangular screen, fitting neatly into each corner as it landed, each second. And this wouldn’t be satisfying if he was always a square, so he’s gotta round out when he leaves the corner. Here are the collective qualities of our lovable, time-keeping square:

  1. Fits into the corner perfectly when he lands
  2. Rounds out as he moves
  3. Accelerate out of and decelerates into the corner
  4. Is smiling and maybe changes expressions as he moves
  5. Movement between each corner lasts exactly one second each

The proportions are still to be decided, but I achieved the first three tasks. The fourth and fifth ones will be… time consuming.

As I was spinning out my utopian clock, my musical education kicked in and saw a way to take the numbers of the time and decrypt them into a piece of music. Essentially, creating a self-generating 12 hour piece of music. Luckily, there are 12 hours in a day and 12 pitches in the Western chromatic scale, so there’s an easy correlation. Inspired by minimalists, I figured I would use the diatonic collection based on each scale and move through the notes by a perfect 5th. So 1:00 would be C Diatonic, 2:00 would be G Diatonic, 3:00 is D Diatonic and so on. This will be familiar and slow moving as many traditional pieces move through these collections in this way. How the pitches of each collection are introduced is yet to be decided (though it’ll likely be based on the minute of that hour). Whatever pitches are considered to be “legal” will be arpeggiated through using a rhythm determined by the seconds, where the pulse is quarter note = 120 beats per minute, allowing for 2 pulses per second. The first pulse will be determined by the tens place in the seconds, the second will be determined by the ones place. 

As I was thinking about generating audio using the time, I thought about generating our block friend’s movement, and maybe allowing him to have friends. Thus, I developed this table that denotes the boxes’ position based on the ones place of the second, so his position cycles through every 10 seconds.

NumberTop-Left?Top-Right?Bottom-Right?Bottom-Left?
11000
20100
30010
40001
51010
60101
71110
81011
90111
01111

And each 10 is celebrated with all 4 corners filled. And every time another corner is filled, our friend will split into two, like an amoeba.

As for the actually time telling, I had an idea that withered away after some brief research. I had seen this picture that claimed that the Arabic numbers were made based on how many angles were in the number.

A circulated falsity

I liked the aesthetic of those numbers and considered incorporating them into my clock. After coding 1,2, and 3 into P5.JS, I found out that this fact is false.

Oh well, it would’ve been a weird aesthetic choice anyway. So I’m going to develop my time-keeping friend and see what inspiring aesthetic turns up for the clock itself as a result, and hopefully have a way to flesh out my vision.

3. A Video of a Desirable Future

Curious Rituals

I’m on the fence about this one. I think the Curious Rituals format got stuck in my brain, because I like observing the significance of banality. While the character just believes she’s going through her day, we see indicators for the future. This, combined with my own daily ritual of listening to NPR as I start my day and the option to comment of the state of our world created a vision:

We follow an every day man as he listens to NPR. The video will be a collage of 4 separate days where he is doing 4 separate errands as he listens. The NPR stories will tell, overall, good things. Say, a charity is formed by billionaires to be poised to be the most well funded lobbying organization. And its goal is to create legislation to fight climate change. Or a deer caught in a fence is set free and is found to be returning to its saviors every week to give thanks. Or the stock markets are up. As he listens to these stories, he is going grocery shopping, or to the laundromat, or on a bus, and his wallet is emptying. This is to say: the future will hold positive things, maybe even some mildly relevant to this man, but that still doesn’t change universal struggle of day-to-day living concerns. Those are here to stay for the foreseeable future.

I imagine the shots being fairly stark and straight on. Maybe the coloring is drab. Ideally, each different day would have noticeably varying weather, but this may be beyond my control. And the sounds will be unremarkable: background noise and NPR. Little to none dialogue and no music. It’s an aesthetic. It’s a message. But I don’t know if it’s my most creative idea, so I’m not committing. But it was the most natural idea to come to mind.

-Dewey

[EDT] – Reimagining my Vision

I had an extremely eye opening composition lesson this past week. 

It was my first with Lamont’s newest composition professor, John Rot. He asked his students to bring in a score for a piece we’re happy with, a score to a piece we thought could improve, and our current projects. For the piece I’m happy with, I brought in Trapped in a Mind with a Friend of Mine. For a piece I thought could use improvement, I brought in A Cry for Help (in Puritan America) and Chamber Symphony No. 1 – “Dissociative.” These pieces I picked not because I didn’t like them, but because I thought I could’ve done better with the ideas I really I liked.

And my current project is a piccolo duet. The current inspiration behind the piccolo duet is my varied experience on Fluoxetine (commonly called Prozac), and the numbness I felt it inspired in me, sporadically, over the past few weeks. I think the most accurate description I gave (within the confines of communicating in one sentence) was this numbness was like looking through a piece of thick, translucent plastic, and seeing something there but not knowing what it was. That’s how my thoughts felt at times: at work, in social situations, alone. 

So how do I capture that in music? I had ideas, but Rot enlightened me to something: I’m expressing complicated ideas to an audience, and I’m limiting myself to musical expression alone to get it done. Why? Especially when what I felt my most successful production involved so much more than just music (acting, sets, lighting). Rot’s argument was: my expression needed enhancement. It needed another layer. And he challenged me to reimagine this concept I wanted to convey without any logistical limitations. Essentially:

In an ideal world, what would I do express this feeling of numbness, inspired by 20 mg of Fluoxetine?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: creativity needs constraints. As a listener, realizing the constraints composers set on themselves does wonders in guiding you through the piece (check out my Mahler Live Listening session for an example of this). But without constraints, the decision making process becomes difficult. 

It’s pretty fun to realize this: oh, I can consider the option of submerging my audience underwater for an hour and play whale songs with live underwater piccolos harmonizing with them? It’s no matter how the audience will breathe. We’ll give everyone oxygen tanks. It’s no matter insurance claims if someone drowns. It won’t happen. It’s no matter how the piccolo players will breathe and how their instruments will work underwater. We’ll engineer the problem away.

It actually isn’t a bad idea. Until you ask how you’re going to pay for it.

Back to Reality

Honestly, lighting has been my first extra-musical necessity. Every musical performance should be associated with lighting that enhances the experience. A visual element that confirms your auditory perceptions. It could be as simple as: this sounds sad and the lighting is cool; I’m right to feel sad about this music.

Emotional events in stark, sterile, white lighting are out of place. Therefore, emotions are out of place in classical culture.

The typical lighting for a classical concert experience.

So when I imagine an experience that’s conveying an all-encompassing numbness, I imagine dim (not blackout) lighting with muted colors. The colors are there to make you realize the lack of colors. The performers could seem to almost glow in a shade of muted purple or pink. But it’s rendered insignificant by the dimness of the room. 

This is the world the audience would enter when they accept my invitation to impart my perspective on their world. A subdued space, with a padded sound that is moving, almost swirling, but very much holding still. They would be surrounded by this sound as much as they are surrounded by the dim lighting.

Ideas for the purple, pink glow. A natural phenomenon.
And a less natural phenomenon.

And the performers won’t be visible. The start of the piece will be evident when the piccolo player makes their first sound. And that sound will be distinct enough to signal that the world I’ve submersed the audience in is going to tell its story. But it will play with the sound surrounding the audience. And the player will move. Not into the audience, but around them. Much like the swirling of the pad, but more intentional. And it will develop more than the pad.

The title of the piece will be “Fluoxetine – 20 mg” and it will be in two movements (I) Numbness (with reality seeping in) and (II) Reality (with numbness seeping in). 

The visual component to this piece is relatively simple. Anything too involved would alleviate the numbness. It might even be an interesting statement to make the Reality element a more traditional lighting: stark white with the performers center stage. That stasis would lose interest, but it would be a good sudden transition to the second movement.

I’ve written maybe two dozen notes in the process since before talking to Rot to this blog. And that illuminates a point: this is an experience, this piece. What I’ve shared with you may not be THE experience. But it is a way of thinking I’ve limited for the sake of practicality for awhile. I’m not sure how feasible this idea is in the scope of Lamont’s Composer Concert Series (as lighting itself is quite restricted), but it’s good to exercise this muscle to answer the question: what’s really been lacking from my compositions over the past years?

[EDT] – “Draw a Picture”

EDT stands for Emergent Digital Tools, a class I’m enrolled in. This blog post follows my work created as a result of my assignments for this class.

Visual Arts

We are exploring P5.js, a library in Javascript that makes it easier for artists to create their work through code. It’s very easy! Essentially one line can draw the perfect circle you need.

And our assignment is to use this tool to draw a picture. Which is a big moment of realization for me, as it occurs to me that I am enrolled in a visual arts class as a composer. Visual arts has never been my strong suit, but I’ve enlisted in the challenge and so I’ll find a way to give it my all.

My first thought is, I’ve always been inclined to make more abstract works using various lines, guided by my instinct. And, seeing how P5.js is geared towards using simple forms to make work, I thought it would be appropriate to pursue. But I also wanted to show that I know how to use this tool for more than just lines…

As composers do, I created a system.

I imagined a series of repeating lines that I could procedural generate. And after I drew these lines, I could easily imagine a creepy, but happy face in the middle. The result was this sketch.

My sketch

This poses a few challenges:

  1. The curved lines follow a system and I wanted to code that system as efficiently as possible (not part of the assignment, but I want to flex my math muscles as they have a tendency to atrophy).
  2. The curve of the mouth is very specific. While I can use simple arcs for everything including the eyes, the top of the mouth needs a bit of a swoop on the right to be pulled off. I’ll have to figure out how to do that in p5.js
  3. I don’t think this sketch is everything I want in the picture. I need to think about embellishments and color.

Curved Lines

I knew the radiating curved lines followed a pattern. So I looked at how to draw these lines in p5.js (the arc() tool), and the variables that defined the tool. The tool defines the arc based on how far we’re going around a hypothetical ellipse. So I had to figure out what polar coordinate system it used and how many radians I wanted depending on how far out the curve was. It took some guessing and checking, but I settled on a logarithmic drop off in radians. (I also adjusted the darkness so it had a radiating feel).

The Mouth

Figuring out how to make the curve of the mouth you see above wasn’t hard. It just required the curveVertex() tool. But figuring out how to fill this in was a whole other story. The curve it creates only fills in if it wraps around itself so much, and even so, that mouth is made of two arcs and this curve. Their fills didn’t overlap. So I had to wrap the curve back around the mouth so the fill would show, then fill in the gaps with a filled polygon.

Color

Rattling around in my brain, somewhere, was this image:

Shepard Fairey’s Andre the Giant

Which I’m pretty sure I got from an episode of Family Guy, but that’s irrelevant. The point is, the idea in my head was colorless, but I feel the need to add color.

So I started with the background. It could be one color, but as soon as I did that, the picture screamed 1990’s internet page. And I diagnosed the issue as the monochrome nature of the background. It needed some dodging at the edges to add some fade. Let the eye ease into the picture.

A quick Google search led me to this example, which was very useful, but only allowed dodging on one edge, I wanted a diagonal gradient. So I modified the code, nuanced my blue, and then modified the radiating lines to make them fade into the background better.

Lastly, I wrote everything for a 400 x 300 pixel resolution and couldn’t live with it, so I upped the resolution by multiplying everything by 3. This complicated the code… but wasn’t earth shattering. I then touched up the fade on the radiating lines.

At this point, I had spent way more time on this than I actually had, so I had to call it good. It’s a bit minimalist, so we’ll see how that plays off!

– Dewey