Wednesday, November 21, 2018

My Trip Through the Milky Way

I've been on a science spree lately.

A little over a year ago the National Geographic channel was showing a multi-episode series dramatizing the life and achievements of Alfred Einstein.  Using clever stories and images, the show did an impressive job bringing you a few steps closer to understanding hard-to-get-your-head around things, like Einstein's Time Dilation.  So I could really grasp it, though I embarked on an exploration of a few dozen YouTube videos on Time Dilation.  I finally understood it and why it happens.  Coolest of all is the fascinating proof of Time Dilation occurring on a human scale (i.e. not interstellar).

But that's for another blog post.  Since my Einstein fetish, I've moved onto curiosity about the Milky Way Galaxy.  It started with the question that most people ask about the Milky Way: "How can I see the Milky Way in the sky if I am in the Milky Way?" led me to learning the answers to a multitude of other questions.  

So here's how I'd explain the Milky Way to a friend.  Hopefully my explanation is not too marred by my very thin amount of scientific knowledge, and hopefully I didn't rely on bad sources, but if anyone spots anything, please feel free to tell me about it.

 How can we see a galaxy that we are in?

Artist's conception of the Milky Way (source)
Okay, you can't.  There are no photos of our galaxy.  The pics you see that show a spiral galaxy, and are labelled "Milky Way", are digital artistry, projections based on what other galaxies look like, and based on the clever measurements and inferences scientists can make.  Or, if it really is a photo, then it is a real pic of another galaxy.  "NGC 6744" is a spiral galaxy popularly used to show us what our own galaxy looks like.  Or you may be seeing a real photo, not of the Milky Way's entire spiral galaxy, but parts of the Milky Way stitched together from views in the sky.  See examples of these below.

Photo of Galaxy NGC 6744, having a spiral structure similar to the Milky Way's.  (source)
Composite of many sky images of the Milky Way taken at different times and locations, by Axel Mellinger. (source)

The Spiral Arms

The way to talk about where things are located in the Milky Way is by referencing the spiral arms of the Milky Way.  The schematic below wonderfully depicts what we need to know:
There's the Norma and Cygnus arms, Sagittarius, Scutum-Crux, and Perseus.  We (our solar system) reside in this dip-shit little afterthought of an arm called the "Orion Spur"!  It's closer to the edge of the Milky Way than the center, about 2/3 of the way out from the supermassive black hole "Saggitarius-A" at the galactic center.

"Far" is actually close

You've see those fantastic Hubble images, often of spectacular dust clouds (such as the so-called "Pillars of Creation")?  You probably know that they are impossibly far away and impossibly huge.  But where in the universe are they, in our galaxy, or another?  To put it another way, how far away are such things, on the Milky Way scale?  I'm sorry to tell you that they are barely off of our front porch in our Orion Spur!  Yes, these things whose distance from us that are beyond comprehension, whose light we see comprise photons that were emitted thousands of years ago...are right here in our "neighborhood".  The Pillars of Creation are a "mere" 7,000 light years away from us, putting them not only in our Milky Way, but still comfortably in our little neighborhood of the Orion spur (10,000 light years in length).  

Those wonderful Exoplanets we're learning about, the ones possibly hosting life, but whose citizens we have no hope of ever meeting, or vice-versa?  You guessed it:  in the Orion Spur.

For comparison, the center of our galaxy, super massive black hole Saggitarius-A, is 25,640 light years away.  The total width of the Milky Way is around 100,000 light years.  So, the rest of the universe?  Forget about it.  The Milky Way alone is just one of trillions of galaxies.  Feeling small, punk?

Answering the Big Question

Finally there was my big question, the one that took several videos and articles for me to understand:  when you see one of those photos taken in deep country, away from city lights, and there's a big, beautiful arc of colorful galactic soup that is the Milky can something that we are IN be something we can point to?

The answer was very cool to me.  It starts with describing the shape of the galaxy; it's a disk (not a sphere).  Better yet, to borrow Dave Fuller's illustration, it's more like a deep dish pizza:  a disk, but one with significant height.  Consider the pizza for a minute: looking at it from the top, our solar system would be a tiny fleck of pepper located 2/3 from the center.  But the fleck is not on the surface, we are inside the pizza.  Let's say the pizza is 1" high, and we are right in the middle, 1/2" down.

Look at the Sun in the Spiral Arms diagram above.  Which side of it are we on?  Well, that depends on the calendar.  When we are facing out, we are looking out towards part of the Perseus arm only, so we see what is around us in our Orion spur, and what is in the Perseus arm.  That's all.  That is when there is very little to see in the sky, not the source of many spectacular photos.  During the times we are facing in, we are seeing the superimposition of our Orion spur, Saggitarius arm, the Scutum Centaurus arm, the Norma arm, and the galactic center...and then back through the arms in reverse order again.  That's a lot of layers of lasagna, and what produces the really pretty photos.

Okay, back to our location inside the pizza.  Let's look around.  Turning around 360 degrees, looking straight ahead, we see cheese everywhere.  And there's more or less of that cheese, depending on whether we're facing inward or outward.  But we can look in other directions too:  upwards or downwards, past either the top or crust of the pizza, to whatever is above or below the Milky Way.

Now the mindblower:  when you look at the vertical stripe of the MW in the sky, that is you looking straight ahead through the pizza, looking at cheese, cheese, everywhere.  To the one side of the stripe is your "out and above" view from the pizza, and the other side of the strip is your "out and below" view from the pizza!

That's it, that's the awesome discovery.

Where are the Constellations?

I've got another disappointment for you.  Almost all those constellations we know and love, and the stars that comprise them, that are so impossibly far away, are once our shitty little Orion Spur!  With a few exceptions, we don't see any points of light (stars, other galaxies, nebulae, etc.) that aren't in the Orion Spur.

"But wait," you ask:  You told us that the stuff to the left and right of the visible Milky Way band is us "looking out" beyond our galaxy...yet our favorite constellations are spread all over the night sky.  So don't those constellations have to exist outside the Milky Way, inside some other galaxy?  No.

I made that mistake too at first.  What I forgot is that our Orion Spur surrounds us in every direction.  When you're "looking out" you are still looking through the surroundings of the Orion Spur first, before you see the things that are "out there".

Will Voyager Take a Picture of the Milky Way?

The farthest human-made objects from earth are the two Voyager spacecraft launched between 1979 and 1980, and they keep going and going at 35,000 mph away from our solar system.  Will they leave the Milky Way, and in theory, be able to photograph the Milky Way?

I wish I could have answered, "yeah, got a sec?"  Because in 40,000 years, we'll at least get the first fly-by of a star other than our Sun: the star Gliese 445, about 4 light years away from earth.  And that is, you guessed it, still in the Orion Spur.  In fact, at it's narrowest, the Orion Spur is 3,500 light years, so Voyager will remain in the 'hood for at least 35 million more years.   After that, then?

As an object, bombarded by cosmic rays and high energy charged particles, Voyager could last another 100 million years before dissipating into dust, so we've got that going for us.  We do have a problem with power supply though; eventually, in fact, as soon as 2025, its onboard Plutonium-238 powerplant will cease to provide the power it would need for photos and communications.  But in theory, could Voyager someday be positioned to take that picture?

Unfortunately no, it won't leave the Milky Way, ever.  Voyager was supplied with the necessary rocket fuel to leave the sun's orbit; no extra fuel to achieve an escape velocity from the Milky Way, which itself is a gravitational/orbital system.  It will stay in Milky Way orbit forever, and like our sun, complete its circle around Saggitarius-A once every 230 million years.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Remembering Frank Zappa and The Mothers in 1971

May 18, 1971 was the date of a concert by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention at Bridges Auditorium in Claremont, CA.  I was a few weeks shy of 14, it was my first concert, and a life-changer.  And I had front-row seats, right under Frank's nose.

The Mothers at this time were the band of the albums Fillmore East – June 1971Just Another Band from L.A.; and to a lesser degree, Chunga's Revenge and 200 Motels (soundtrack).  

I distinctly remember the lineup including: Zappa, Mark Volman & Howard Kaylan (vocal), Ian Underwood (keyboards and sax), Aynsley dunbar (drums), Jim Pons (bass) and another keyboardist whom I assume was Bob Harris (in the photo above, behind Frank's left).  I vaguely recall seeing Don Preston, but I'm not sure about that.  There is a setlist of songs that were played at, much of which seems accurate to me.

I don't recall enough of the concert to provide a continuous narrative, but have strong recollections of specific moments, many of which have been added to by my bother Tony and our friend Brent Tannehill.  Here they are.  You'll need to know the albums I named above to follow all the references.

Zappa Himself

  • He was wearing bright "Easter colors," possibly pink pants and a yellow shirt
  • At concert opening, he introduced singers Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan as formerly of The Turtles, which drew expressions of surprise from the audience (including me).  Mark and Howie smiled appreciatively at their intro.
  • Zappa spent the concert on the far right side of the stage (stage left).  For the long stretches when he wasn’t playing, he leant casually against the proscenium arch and watched the theatrics approvingly, with much mirth and smiles
  • Visually, Zappa was an arresting site to anyone who first saw him for the first time in a photo.  Up close and in person, the effect was even stronger.  The blackness of his hair, the razor sharp nose, the emaciated body, the greasy mediterranean looks, were all very striking
  • His constant smoking was a surprise to me. It seemed to me like a very "bar band" thing that was uncommensurate with progressive Rock and Roll.  He wedged his cigarette between the nut and the tuning pegs of his guitar, and played while the thing burned away
  • His guitar was the SG with silver tailpiece he was known for during the period (and which Dweezil has been playing a likeness of in his Zappa Plays Zappa concerts).  His amp gear included Orange Amps, and of course he used the wah-wah a lot.

From “the Groupie Routine”

  • Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan were generally very visually entertaining, and good actors
  • Mark Volman had his shirt off to portray the pregnant groupie.  It was really out of my experience to see a portly fellow display himself that way. 
  • Mark Volman & Howard Kaylan were generally being pretty lewd with each other, e.g. Howie rubbing Mark’s rubbing his belly lasciviously.  That kind of homoerotic-tinged acting was pretty out there for me. 
  • The “number one with a bullet” thing over and over really made us laugh
  • The crazy noise distortion “I can’t STAND it!” part had great visuals from Zappa, he "fucked his amp with the guitar" a la Jimi Hendrix, with crazy legs dancing
  • As Jim Pons played the slow two-note riff that happens through much of the routine, he would just rock his weight from left to right feet in a slow rhythm.  Looked like a wedding band guy playing "a casual"
  • My reaction to the bit about the “enchilada wrapped with pickle sauce shoved up and down in between the donkey's legs until he can't stand it no more”...let's just say it was a kind of sexual fetishism I had no frame of reference for.  And all the more so because they repeated it many times, making me wish they'd stop.  Remember, I was 13.
  • I remember the bits about ’Bwana Dik’, which were really funny
  • "The Mudshark dance," consisted of Mark and Howie, putting their hands together in a fish-shape and making a swimming motion, often between their legs
  • The climax where they performed “Happy Together” was a surprise that created a lot of laughter

From “Billy the Mountain”

  • Frank announced that this was the first-ever performance
  • Jim Pons doing his George Putnam imitation had us in stitches.  
  • I remember “Studebaker Hoch” being the main character
  • Memorable Aynsley Dunbar moment:  coming from behind his drums to do “THE STUDEBAKER HOCH DANCING LESSON & COSMIC PRAYER FOR GUIDANCE featuring Aynsley Dunbar...  Twirlie, twirlie, twirlie…"
  • And he played the hell out of drums, including the 8-measure solo from the Fillmore album.  His drums moved around a lot from the force of his playing, and he kept on having to drag his bassdrum back towards him.  His energy was a big mover in that band.  And a very photogenic guy to boot.

Other things

  • Ian Underwood was pretty hidden behind the keyboards the majority of the time.  He seemed to crave no spotlight whatsoever or was concerned with showmanship.  Mostly you'd only see him when he "whipped out" his alto saxophone and played it high and sideways over the keyboards.   
  • The playing of Peaches en Regalia, with Aynsley Dunbar's note-perfect intro, got us all very excited
  • The crowd demanded an encore, but we got the feeling that Zappa hated encores, so instead of a song, they quickly did the “left hand from the heart-ah, right hand from the heart-ah” routine that eventually was part of Billy the Mountain.

Our Bootleg Tape Debacle

A recording of the concert might exist to this day were it not for teenage foolishness and naiveté. Tony smuggled in a small tape recorder for the concert; he remembers it being cassette, I remember it being a tiny reel-to-reel.  (You have to understand that affordable consumer-level recorders still were very rare in 1971, and the cassette medium too.)

At the end, proud of his accomplishment, Tony (15 years old) played the recording as we walked to the car.  We took a circuitous route that brought us behind the auditorium, where we could see Frank, along with band members, women, and roadies leaning against a truck.  I remember seeing the glow of one of his Winstons.  This motivated Tony to show "how cool he was" by making it even more audible to those around us, including Frank and party.  Next thing you know, Herb Cohen (we're pretty sure) makes a beeline towards us, and demands the tape.  To try to make it smart a little less, he offered $5 for it.  When we handed it over, rapidly unspooled it and threw it high up into some eucalyptus trees where we could never get to it, and walked back to the truck.

Well, however tragic, let's just call that a concert memory we'll never forget!

Thanks to Murray Gilkeson for the concert poster.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Get To Know Jelly Roll Morton

A frequent activity of my obsessive, music-loving nature is to pick a musician I don't know much about, and then dig deep, and try to listen to everything they ever recorded.

Jelly Roll Morton:  an important figure in the early history of jazz, very active in the middle 1920's.  The other day I ran across some graphic novel work of R. Crumb's where he portrayed JRM's own description of the downfall of his career through voodoo.  That made me decide to take the plunge on JRM's music.  JRM was a bit of a 'factory' of endless hits, hours of similar sounding piano rags and New Orleans ensemble pieces.   But I found these great high points.

Beale Street Blues

One of his fun-time songs for New Orleans style combo, with crazy trombone glissandi, funny clarinets, everything.

Wild Man Blues

One trick of JRM's that brings a smile to my face is in one of his slow pieces when the tempo suddenly goes quadruple-time for a measure or two.  It reminds me of an early Saturday Night Live episode where Steve Martin and Gilda Radner did a suave ballroom dance with occasional moments of frenetic feet movement and insane jazz hands.

The Chant
Some wild early jazz, with a degree of frenetic that sounds like a Bugs Bunny cartoon.  My brother Tony, a drummer, gets a kick out of the many choked cymbals.  Also features another early jazz oddity, a saxophone with a very clicky attack sound.

Grandpa's Spells
More early jazz fun hi-jinx.

Someday Sweetheart

A funny kind of sentimental 1926 pop, featuring a sad basset-hound of a melody, played by the mournful tones of the viola and bass clarinet.

If Someone Would Only Love Me
  Another broad, comic portrayal of basset-hound like sadness.

King Porter Stomp  
Possibly his most famous number.  Like Scott Joplin's rags, but with its own kind of vibrancy.

Billy Goat Stomp
A novelty song featuring a bleating goat, goofy and fun.

The title is descriptive of what must been very "progressive sounding" in JRM's time.

Oil Well
A musical portrayal of the good life that you'd have if you had an oil well in the 1920's.  Featuring that notorious stereotype of "society music", the broad-vibrato sax and clarinet.

I hope you enjoy JRM as much as I do.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Review of Apple's HomePod

When you try the new HomePod at the Apple Store, you're only allowed to do generic things with it because the floor model is configured to disallow a connection from your iPhone.  This product costs $349, by the way.  But you can always try it out by buying one and returning it in the 14-day period.  Apple is there to help!

Admittedly I'm not exactly the target consumer Apple has in mind or the HomePod.  I don't wish I had an Alexa-like device around the house.  I never became a fan of using Siri commands on my iPhone.  I don't need Apple Music to be the source of music I listen to, and I already know that my eclectic music tastes are not well catered to by Apple Music's holdings.

But Apple always makes smart products, right?  When Steve Jobs presented the iPhone, he described it as a phone, an iPod, and an internet browser in one device.  Apple could have bait-and-switched us by providing some poor excuse for a phone, short on features and long on predictability.  No, Apple gave us a phone that was all they things we expect from a phone, plus more, with creative twists, and they changed the world.  So I should expect HomePod to charm the pants off of me and do a better job than some of the devices I already have around the house, like bluetooth speakers, and serve up my music with interactive voice commands.  I was quite intrigued by the potential for great sound by the extraordinary audio hardware inside:  seven beamforming tweeters and a high-excursion woofer.

So yes, it does fill the role of a bluetooth speaker.  I can play the songs that are physically on my iPhone from the Music app.  The quality is very good, it does fill the room with sound nicely.  But those charming, unexpected features that can change my life?  They aren't there.  In fact, HomePod is astonishingly not good at all the things you'd like it to be.

But I'll play nice, and start by listing what HomePad IS good at.

  1. Deep bass response.  When plugged in, it emits a low tone you can feel in your tummy, almost.
  2. You select HomePod as your audio device the way you would with any bluetooth speaker or Apple TV.
  3. Siri understands how to pause a song and advance it.  It takes request to get louder or softer.
  4. It understands a few conventional Siri commands to interact with iCloud and your iPhone to accomplish some tasks.  It will send a text, it will create a reminder.  
  5. Siri seems to know something about the genres of my music.  I asked Siri to play some Irish music.  She gave a vague reply about "playing all songs" but she actually did proceed to play Irish songs and fiddle tunes from my iPhone.  This is a mystery since Siri was unaware of my songs' genre tags (see below).
  6. If you can get Siri to understand you, it will play a song by name that you physically have on your iPhone.
  7. Siri hears you over the music it is playing for you.  It doesn't have to stop your music to take a command.
  8. Siri knows about the podcasts on your iPhone, and play podcasts that are on your list.

But here's the $349 bad news.

  1. Except for the two things I mentioned above, HomePod does not act as an extension of your iPhone, with Siri as your assistant.  It does not connect with your Contacts, Calendar, Notes or Phone over iCloud. You don't ask Siri to write an email, set a meeting, look up a contact, ask who you are, or set the name of your spouse or work address.  Siri will tell you, "I'm sorry, I can't do that."
  2. Siri has been endowed with no special intelligence when it comes to your music.  She's not combing through your music collection and priming herself to recognize the artists, titles, genres and playlists you're likely to be asking about.  You'd think that because I have McCoy Tyner's "Contemplation" physically on my iPhone, you think she'd be primed to play it on request.  Nope, Siri couldn't help me when I said "Hey Siri, play Contemplation by McCoy Tyner." 
  3. In fact, Siri is just as bad as ever at correctly hearing your words at all, in spite of the purported Adaptive Audio and the six microphone array.  She still regularizes all your unusual words to something more common, and completely gets wrong what you're asking.  Your motivation to speak naturally with Siri drops like a rock.
  4. Siri has no knowledge of my playlists, so I couldn't ask her to play my Thelonious Monk playlist.  And: "Hey Siri, add this song to my Christmas playlist" gets the response, "Hmm, I couldn't find a playlist with that name."
  5. Siri has no knowledge of genres tagged on my iPhone's songs.  I have several hundred songs tagged with a genre of jazz, but not according to Siri:  "Sorry, you don't have any jazz music."
  6. Siri will try to do things and follow it with an "uh-oh".  I asked to her create a note, and she said she did it, but it was not to be found on my iPhone.  She cheerfully agreed to rate my current song with two stars, and then said "something went wrong."
  7. There is a lag between the actions you take on your iPhone's music player and when you hear them on HomePod.  Pausing, resuming play and scrubbing all have a response lag that you do not experience with today's bluetooth speakers.
A few interesting or odd things:
  1. HomePod is heavy like a brick.  I'm not sure why the subwoofer would need a heavy magnet; new metals from rare earth minerals, like Neodymium, have made much lighter speakers possible.
  2. HomePod is battery-less and plugs into the wall.  It's not meant to be a totable device like your current bluetooth speakers.
  3. HomePod has a clever (or strange) relationship with the connection to your iPhone.  I started a song playing from my iPhone.  Then I disabled both BlueTooth and Wi-Fi from the settings on my iPhone.  The song did not cease playing, even after a long time.  In fact, the iPhone was no longer even the source of the sound; the controls were in paused state.  If I pressed play, it would play independently of the HomePod through its own speakers.  It appears that the HomePod is buffering audio, and making a seamless handoff to Apple Music.
  4. There is a 'Home' app on your iPhone which is your gateway to the HomePod, but you can't really do anything more than use it to disconnect from HomePad.
So I don't know why you'd want a HomePod.  Apple seems to have made a product that's meant for asking very generic things with simple words, and a gateway to the mainstream music to be found in Apple Music.  My advice?  Stick with your bluetooth speakers, and the for better quality, pay more.  

Here's a sorry list of the many things I tried to get Siri to do with my HomePod.

ContextCommand AttemptedSiri's Response
My iPhone has song "Four By Five" by McCoy TynerHey Siri, play Four By Five.Sorry, you don't have a song called Four.
I have music by the Finnish musician Maria Kalaniemi on my iPhone.Hey Siri, play some Maria Kalaniemi.Sorry, you don't have any Maria Callas.
My iPhone has song "Passion Dance" by McCoy TynerHey Siri, play Passion Dance.Sorry, you don't have any dance music.
My iPhone has lots of music tagged with the jazz, rock and classical genres.Hey Siri, play some jazz|rock|classical.Sorry, you don't have any jazz|rock|classical music.
Hey Siri, who is the president of the United States?(Siri gives me a description of the United States.)
Hey Siri, do you have access to my iCloud Account?This is about you, not me.
Hey Siri, how can I get access to my contacts?I can't get the answer to that on HomePod.
Carol Sandell's mobile number is in my Contacts.Hey Siri, call Carol Sandell mobile.I'm sorry, I can't help you make calls on HomePod.
Milton Stern is in my Contacts.Hey Siri, find Milton Stern.I can't locate people here. Sorry about that!
Hey Siri, what time is Seinfeld on?(Siri gives me a list of movies with Seinfeld in the title.)
Hey Siri, what time is Seinfeld on TV?I can't give you information about TV shows. Sorry about that.
Hey Siri, what is my name?I don't know your name but you sound like a human being to me. I'm a big fan!
I have an Andrew in my Contacts.Hey Siri, send an email to Andrew.I wish I could.  But I can't help with emails here.
Hey Siri, what appointments do I have tomorrow?I wish I could, but I can't access your Calendar here.

Santa Cecilia Orchestra plays Beethoven & Handel, Feb 11, 2018

Sonia Marie De León de Vega conducted the Santa Cecilia Orchestra Sunday in a splendid program at Occidental College's Thorne Hall: Beethoven's Egmont Overture and 7th Symphony, and Handel's Water Music Suite. The playing was flawless, the phrasing and dynamic control magnificent, and we had superb sonics sitting in the fourth row.

I enjoyed Beethoven's orchestration to a greater degree than ever before, because each timbral element came from a definite spatial location. In my mind, with my eyes closed, I likened the music to a 3-D cutaway automobile with multiple levels of x-ray detail, which would "light up" here and there, revealing the whole auto by the sum of its parts. I guess it was a 50's car because certain of the elements would be the fins, others the chrome.

The string writing in Egmont was particularly wonderful and lush. Who can beat Beethoven at brilliant string writing? I am amazed how he can create effects with strings alone, e.g. certain material behave and sound like "brass parts". And the Santa Cecilia orchestra projected that wonderfully.

The 7th Symphony never ceases to amaze me. Those interior movements are friggin' long!! In fact, the scherzo made me laugh. It's really a scherzo with an atrophied trio that swallows the whole movement. He manages a recap of the scherzo, but it's so pro-forma and brief!

We got a nice, meaty bass sound all concert long because we were seated on "house left", and the "stage left" cellos were pointed right at us. At second desk there was a young (college age) cellist who was really emoting with her face and mannerisms all the enjoyment she was getting from the music. I'd hate to kill youthful joy, but the optics weren't great, because at first chair was a player with a controlled expression, but who could play the HELL out of her instrument. Afterwards, backstage, I told her: "you were a machine!" (which she enjoyed hearing).

Maestro De León de Vega said that this concert was managed with only two rehearsals. I don't know how you do that! There were so many demands of phrasing, style and tapered diminuendo/ritards in the Handel. And so much of the Beethoven effects are like "stunts" that you have to coordinate perfectly, or it's just slop. How would you find time to rehearse each one of those moments? Apart from one French horn clam, the whole concert was flawless. But no matter how it was achieved, Ms. De León de Vega showed that she is a magnificent interpreter of the music.