January Buchla Project: Day 4 – Background

So I’m not intending for this project to be a history lesson so much a forcing mechanism for myself to focus on something and see where it leads. Today I only spent a little time with the easel and that time was more confusing than enlightening so I thought I’d share something I did learn history wise in the last few days. I mentioned that I have one of the “reissue” Music Easels and some of the differences between the new ones and the older ones. When I hear of a “reissue” I tend to think of something that was released and then eventually production stopped and later on someone went back and revisited it. This is what I assumed happened here though I didn’t really understand the scope of the earlier production. As it turns out, only 13 of the original Music Easels were ever made. And of those, each one was made by hand. I spoke with someone today who has seen and worked on 3 of those, and noted that the circuitry on each of the 3 he saw was different, which suggests that of the 13 originals, there are at the very least 3 different versions, though in all likelihood each one was probably a little different. Personally, as someone who has built and released hardware and products, I wouldn’t call that a release. I’d call that a collection of proof of concept prototypes. Or if we assume that 10 of them were the same and the 3 that were observed were the oddballs, I’d still call that a small run not an actually produced unit. But that’s just me. Anyway, that’s only important when you start thinking about differences between “original” and “reissue” without considering the differences between each of the “originals” and what that even constitutes. There are also a handful of unauthorized clones that were produced by various people in the inter-period between when the original idea was shelved and the new one was announced. Unknown numbers and sources, but for sure more than 13. So more knock offs than originals. Anyway… In my BEMI easel (that I have) is the first authorized, produced version of this idea. And kind of shows how special it is.

But that’s just me.

The video above is an album (that I love) by Alessandro Cortini that was composed and performed entirely on one of the original Music Easels (possibly the first one ever made?), and was absolutely the thing that pushed me to get one. In the few years I’ve had the easel I’ve ever been able to make anything with it that sounds nearly this beautiful.

January Buchla Project: Day 3 – The Warm Up

Many analog instruments need to warm up before you can use them, anything with tubes for example needs to get cooking before it really does its thing. The Buchla Music Easel does not have tubes but it does need to warm up. I’ve heard anywhere from 5-20 minutes of just running before it’s in operating range. In practice I’ve never waited that long. Sometimes I wait a few minutes, sometimes I just dive in. This leads to confusion and chaos, as I learned yesterday. The sound of the oscillators drastically changes during that warm up period, I didn’t realize just how much they changed and how important that warm up period is.

Now I do.

January Buchla Project: Day 2 – Complex Oscillator variation

Today’s exploration has me looking backwards instead of forwards. The Buchla Music Easel is essentially two modules perfectly paired for performances and everything you could need in an “all in one” suitcase synth. The 208 module being the “brains” and 218 module as the controller. That’s overly simplified but gives you the main idea. It was originally released in 1973 and reissued a few years ago, I have the newer model.

The new model was promised to be “as close as possible” to the original with some performance improvements, most notably in the 218 (keyboard) module which has 4 presets instead of the original 3, and better layout of CV jacks. The 208 module changes seemed entirely cosmetic to me until some troubleshooting today led me to learn that the original complex oscillator offered a spike tooth wave rather than the sawtooth option on the new model. This also seems to be an improvement as the spike was fairly shrill on it’s own, where as the sawtooth can be quite beautiful. I’ve looked at these panels many times and never noticed that before. So that’s what I learned today.

Original 1973

Modern BEMI reissue

January Buchla Project: Day 1


I decided that I’m going to spend January focusing on my Buchla Music Easel. I lusted after this for so long and when I finally got it I was neck deep in other things and didn’t spend the time with it I should have. Even now, 2 or so years later I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface and want to really get the feel for this instrument.

At Tara’s suggestion I’m going to try and post one thing a day about it, which means at the very least a month from now I’ll know 31 things about it, but ideally those will be things I’ve learned as well. Today I went back and watched Todd Barton‘s excellent MacProVideo series on the easel and I don’t know how I missed this before – with the slower ambient stuff I do I often use the full 10 second pulse CV from the pulser, but I somehow missed that the Envelope Generator could self cycle as well, giving the potential for a 30 second CV (10 attack, 10 sustain, 10 decay). This seems silly but I was really excited and my head started racing with all the things I might be able to do with that kind of CV time.

I’m posting this series on Instagram first, though I don’t think I’ll keep it there, so I’m cross posting here to my own blog as well for archival purposes. Hopefully this is interesting for some of you.

Japan Stories: The ER

There is a stretch of sidewalk between the train station and my house that is a bit precarious. It’s narrower than usual, it has a telephone pole right in the middle of it and on the side closest to the building it passes in front of it runs right into a tiled 45 degree slope downward that is easily double the width of the sidewalk. Often, if there is anyone else on the sidewalk, rather than struggle with the lack of space, I’ll just walk over onto the tiled slope and skip past them without issue. Of course I’ve always done this while wearing the shoes I wear all the time.

The other day it was cold and raining pretty hard when we went out and I decided to wear my snow boots because they are more waterproof and also pretty warm. I’ve never worn these in a non-snowy situation and I learned quickly that the grip on their soles is lacking. It works great in snow, not so great on wet slippery pavement. All day long I was slipping and skidding, it was not fun. Walking home at the end of the day I was tired and anxious to be off the streets when I passed this narrow spot in the sidewalk which of course had other people on it. I thoughtlessly stepped off to the side like I had a hundred times previously without remembering that this slope was tile and that I’d been slipping in my boots all day. And I went down instantly, fast and hard. My back felt tweaked, my hip clearly took a direct hit. I felt really old right away. I also immediately noticed that my right hand was completely numb and had a big abrasion along the thumb part of my palm – as that seemed to have taken the brunt of my fall when I smacked it hard into the curb. I was pretty annoyed.

I got back up and as I continued towards my house I realized that my hand wasn’t getting any feeling back and felt very ghostly when I tried to squeeze it. I could squeeze it which was great, but the numbness was lasting much longer than it should have. I was also starting to feel a little nauseous. Having broken bones before, I wasn’t excited about this particular combo. I got home and put ice on my hand and immediately started googling broken thumbs. Over the next two hours while the numbness faded and the pain kicked in I read that the symptoms of a broken thumb were very near when I was currently experiencing. That and my hand had progressed to a solid 8 on a 1 to 10 pain scale. I also read that the longer you wait before getting medical assistance with a broken thumb the more likely you’ll have lifelong side effects of it, so I decided I should go see a doctor. And because no emergency in my family ever happens during weekday business hours, it was not 8pm on a Sunday and the ER was my only real option.

I’ve never been to a doctor of any kind in Japan and was a bit apprehensive about the whole thing, though I’d been looking forward to the first time I got to use my fancy new National Health Insurance card. Heath care is socialized here in Japan and I pay $300 annually for my entire family to be a part of it. Compared against the $1000 a month we used to pay in the USA this was already an improvement but how would it work in practice? I was about to find out.

I got to the hospital and the check in receptionist spoke perfect english which was a relief as I didn’t know what to expect. The nurse he handed me off to didn’t speak a word of english though, and we had to communicate via a live translator who she called and we kept passing a phone back and forth. Apparently “I fell and I think I broke my thumb” is a new one in Japan and they kept asking me about my head, if I’d passed out today before falling or another day recently, or had been drinking. I finally conveyed to them that I didn’t hit my head, hadn’t been drinking and didn’t pass out, I simply slipped on some slippery tiles. They seemed disappointed. What a boring injury.

I was told that I’d see the specialist in about 30 minutes and about 10 minutes later he called for me. He spoke better english and went over the details with me. After looking at my now swollen hand and seeing where it hurt me when he moved it he confirmed that it was acting very much like a break, but he’d need x-rays to confirm the idea. I agreed and was whisked off to the x-ray room, which was right around the corner. When I’ve gotten x-rays in the US they cover me with lead aprons and the doctors hide behind several walls and layers of thick glass. Here, the doctor lined things up and just reached out of the room with one hand to fire the x-ray. It was so casual. The x-rays contradicted our suspicions and showed no break. This was good news. My hand was really killing me by this point though. The doc told me to keep it rested, put some ice on it and take these pain pills, then sent me home. I walked back in the door almost exactly 1 and a half hours after leaving. I also got hit with a $20 bill when leaving the hospital, a fee they were very apologetic about. There won’t be any more fees, that was the entire cost of this endeavor.

A few days later and the swelling has gone down and my hand feels much better, but I’m still amazed at how much easier the ER experience was here than eery time I’ve ever gone in the US. For comparison, even with insurance in the US, the last time I went to the ER I was there for 6 hours and walked away with “nothing wrong!” and a $5k bill that insurance didn’t help with at all because my deductible was around $10k. So, let’s just say this experience – all things considered – was pretty great.

Japan Stories: The Beginning

2 months ago we landed in Japan. Me, Tara, Ripley and our cat Vincent. We moved out of LA, packed half our stuff into a storage unit and brought or sold/trashed the rest. We dumped our LA apartment and US mobile phone accounts and got a house and new SIM cards in Shibuya, Tokyo. We moved to Japan. If you follow me anywhere else on the internet you’ve known this for a long time but I wanted to lay out the backstory here for later context. I keep thinking of things I want to talk about relating to this move and thought doing a blog post every day might be a good excuse to do that, as well as motivation to jump start the blog again. I’m fast approaching my 20th anniversary of having a blog, and it would be a shame for that to roll around and this place be covered in dust, I think anyway.

Today I registered my bike. All bikes in Japan need to be licensed and you get a little sticker which is like a license plate on your bike and the registration lasts for 10 years. There’s a lot of reasons for this, it helps reduce theft because cops can (and do) stop anyone on a bike at any point to check the registration. I’ve been told “anyone at any point” is a nice way of saying “foreigners only” but I’ve never been stopped and I know many Japanese people who have, so at least in my limited experience it’s a wash. I also know people who have had their bikes stolen, and weeks later returned thanks to the license. I also know people who have left $3k bikes unlocked outside restaurants in Shibuya and forgotten them only to go back the next morning and find them still there. Bike theft in Tokyo is seems is more the drunk guy accidentally grabbing the wrong bike and riding home than it was in LA where anything and everything loose will be stripped and sold off in minutes. In LA I used 2 heavy duty U-locks and had to super glue BBs into the allen wrench bolts on my bike to prevent people from running off with my saddle or handlebars, in Japan the tiniest cable lock is enough of a deterrent that sends the message. Anyway, I got my bike registered and it was a perfect example of a smooth and streamlined system that flies off the rails when something isn’t the usual. What I mean is, my bike isn’t a brand name, or rather, isn’t a brand at all. It was built by hand, in the 1940’s by a guy in Europe. There’s a number on it that passes for a 4 digit serial number but in all likelyhood that’s actually just the part number of the plumbing tubing that the bike builder used. The registration calls for a make, model and 10 digit serial number. The guy at the bike shop had no idea what to do. We laughed about it and he figured something out, but this is a common thing I’ve seen – There are 4-5 possible options and as long as you fit perfectly in one of these it’s smooth sailing, but if by some unfortunate luck you happen to be a combo of two of those, or worse – one they hadn’t considered, people get completely stuck and have no idea how to improvise. This is a operational and societal issue, but one of the many things that I’m seeing now as a resident, but never had reason to encounter as a visitor, even a frequent visitor for over 10 years.

Taking a ride on Mastodon

“All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again.”

I’m trying out Mastodon, you can follow me on Mastodon.xyz  [Aug 2018 update: find me as @seanbonner on counter.social] – if you haven’t seen it yet Mastodon is the latest iteration of a very long line of wannabe Twitter replacements. Pownce and identi.ca and diaspora and app.net and ello and peach and now mastodon, oh my. That sounds like a skeptical way to start this off but as one of the first 140 people to join Twitter more than 10 years ago, who has written about the service a lot and has been disappointed with it recently to the point that I keep threatening to leave – I would love a better Twitter. Of course I would just love Twitter to be better, but if I’m honest about it they have had their chance again and again and continue to blow it, so if someone else can do it better then I’m all for that. So every time the next Twitter replacement shows up I participate in the experimentation and after a while you start seeing the same patterns repeat themselves. People keep reinventing the wheel, and keep making it square each time.

I want to be believe.

I’m just approaching it with healthy skepticism.

I’d heard a lot about Mastodon recently though admittedly it took me a while to realize people weren’t talking about the new Mastodon album, but Sarah’s Motherboard article clarified that for me. Mastodon boasts an impressive list of attributes right out of the gate, someone has obviously been listening to a lot of the complaints about Twitter.

Say no more! Selfishly I wanted to secure the username I use everywhere else on the web, and this sounded like a good start so I decided to join and check it out for myself only to find that it was closed to new sign ups.

But one of Mastodon’s features is that it’s open source and federated, so while I couldn’t sign up on the main site Mastodon.social I could sign up on Mastodon.xyz which I found on this short list of other instances and I picked it because at the time it was one of the only ones that had the word Mastodon in it which made me feel like it was somewhat more official. That list is getting longer, and here is an even more exhaustive list showing just how many instances there are already out in the world, and this is growing quickly. This is important and I’ll explain way in a moment.

Let me clarify this a little, because it took me a while to get it myself. Each Mastodon “instance” is a wholly separate installation of the Mastodon code.  Think of how you can install WordPress on your own server or something like that. BUT, because it’s federated, they all talk to each other to have common timelines easily allowing someone with an account on one instance to follow and talk with someone with an account on a different instance. The immediately obvious benefit here is that this is completely decentralized, so one server can go down and Mastodon stays up. The less obvious hiccup with that is because each instance is completely independent each one has it’s own rules, or lack there of–and each instance is subject to the whim of whoever decided to set it up in the first place. Some instances are moderated, some aren’t. Some instances take a strong stand against certain kinds of speech, others don’t. But because of the federation, they all come together, right? Wrong. Each instance can also decide if it wants to federate with all the other Mastodon instances or with only select instances. So you and your friend can both be on Mastodon, with accounts on different instances and you can talk to each other, but you might be able to talk to some people your friend isn’t able to. Or more concerning, any number of things may cause other instances to stop federating the instance you or your friend are on cutting you off from each other. This is a huge problem, and one we’ve seen with with other attempts at this and I’m surprised is a mistake being repeated.

You may assume, as I did, that this isn’t really a concern because as noted earlier there are lots of other instances so you should be able to just create an account on another one and be back up to speed. And indeed Mastodon offers account detail export & import to make this easy. But again, what isn’t so clear is because each instance is independent, so is each account on each instance. Meaning just because you secured your favorite username on one instance doesn’t ensure you will get it on another. I’d assumed that upon joining I could tell people “I’m @seanbonner on Mastodon just like I’m @seanbonner on Twitter.” That turns out to be incorrect. I’m actually @seanbonner@mastodon.xyz and if I want to be @seanbonner@mastodon.social or @seanbonner@mastodon.cloud or any of the other instances then I have to create separate accounts on each of those, and there is no way to sync them. This also means that some other Sean Bonner can go sign up as @seanbonner@anothermastodon.instance and judging by how much email I get from other Sean Bonner’s who apply for jobs and join dating sites and register bank accounts without knowing what their own email address is, that is going to be a huge problem at any kind of scale. This is the biggest flaw in my opinion because without the ability to claim your identity across an entire service there is huge potential for confusion and no way to embrace it as a home.

This is subjective, but 100% of the people I’ve talked in in person about Mastodon in the last few days have made a comment about how they should go lock in their username now, and when I’e explained the above they’ve lost the motivation to go check it out. They really should be using some shared ledger to have global usernames across the whole federation.

Going back to the import/export thing for a second, it’s true you can export your info to make setting up on a new instance easy–however you export only your following list, not your followers. So if you create a new account you are back to zero followers. Pointing out this problem on Mastodon is however assured to get you a lot of replies from accounts with anime avatars dismissing your concern and equating a Mastodon account with an email account. Almost like a talking point.

This is a quite flawed analogy for a social network. Your email address is not your public identity where as your social media accounts often are. And while it’s true that no one would try to lock in the same name@email.server for every email host out there, it’s also true that there haven’t been massive lawsuits and fights over email addresses the way there have been for social media account usernames. Email is inherently private and social media is inherently public. I’ve had people call me @seanbonner to my face, or introduce me to others that way, but no one has ever referred to me as my email address. I think it’s safe to say anyone making that analogy here really hasn’t thought it through.

There’s also the lag where it seems some instances don’t see posts for many hours which creates a weird reply stream, but that’s more likely attributable to the recent exponential growth and I expect will be solved.

I sound like I’m hating on Mastodon but I’m really not, I wouldn’t have bothered to write any of this if I didn’t care. I actually really like a lot of it and have high hopes for it, and I say all this because I’m concerned that these are fatal flaws that will prevent it from really taking off.  This piece on The Verge dives deep into the genesis of Mastodon and the creator’s motivations and goals. He’s very clearly trying to solve his own problem, which is where all really good ideas come from. Unless he also tries to solve some other people’s problems, I’m doubtful how much of a future Mastodon will ever have.

Of course I’d very much love to be proven wrong there. I still want Twitter circa 2008 back.

Open Data: Now More Than Ever

For those interested in knowing what is in the world around them, the current news is disgusting. All US Environmental Protection Agency grants have been frozen, and employees are being prohibited from discussing the changes or talking to the public. The ban also halts all new contracts and the agency is being told to remove information from it’s website. It’s not just the EPA either, other govt agencies including the Department of Health and Human services have been ordered to cease all public contact and the Center for Disease Control just cancelled a major event it has been planning regarding climate change and health with no explanation. Starting immediately the US Department of Agriculture will stop providing any public facing documents. An EPA internal memo shows just how far reaching these new silencing policies are.

While we’ve certainly been critical of the EPA in the past, we’ve always applauded their motivations and efforts to get more data out there and get more people interested in it. Today’s news effectively puts an end to that. This isn’t completely out of the blue, for months scientists have been urging each other to copy as much of their data as they can in anticipation of the new US administration destroying their work. Even requesting information which hasn’t been made public though FOIA is now getting harder. And while these are largely US based issue, the data and information provided by these agencies is used by scientists the world over – and the US is just the latest to start blocking. Earlier this month Air Matters, which bills itself as “A Leading Global Air Quality Provider” was ordered by the Chinese govt to limit the readings it published, an order which they complied with immediately.

These actions go against everything for which Safecast stands.

We believe all people should have access to freely available, trustworthy and accurate data about their environments – especially as environments and health go hand in hand. The problem today–as it’s been since before we founded Safecast–is that governments are expected to be the gate keepers of this data, with the assumption that it’ll be there when it’s needed. We saw this first hand with Fukushima when people were shocked to learn there wasn’t an existing radiation monitoring network in place, and that the little bit of data that was available was restricted. We built Safecast as a reaction to the realization that the world had no idea what radiation levels were on a global scale, and there was very little data available to find out. Six years later, we now publish the largest background radiation dataset that has ever been available, and we put it completely into the public domain (via a CC0 designation) enabling awareness and research that has never been possible before. Our air quality beta test is in full swing and we hope to provide similarly useful data there in the near future. This data belongs to everyone, has no gate keeper, and can’t be shut down by any government. This is the power of open data.

We have frequently been approached by governments, companies and organizations who are interested in environmental monitoring. The vast majority of these people see environmental data as valuable IP that they can sell, license restrict and control. We’ve even had companies beg us to pull our data and let them sell it for us with promises of many piles of money that we could all swim in together. These requests show a complete lack of understanding of how public domain works, an appalling disregard for the value of shared research, and outright contempt for public awareness and education. We’ve made significant strides in collecting research quality data and making it available to everyone, but there is still a lot of work to do.

While many see today’s information blockade as a terrifying sign of things to come, we see it as a call to arms. This is exactly why we shouldn’t trust governments to be the sole gate keepers of our data. This is exactly why we shouldn’t let research that we fund with our tax dollars be kept from public view. This is exactly why we shouldn’t tolerate companies and organizations collecting data in public and licensing it back to us. As long as these walls and restrictions are in place, anything we have access to today can disappear tomorrow. We, as a global community, need to recognize this as the mis-judgement that it is and route around it.

But what can we do about it? Here are a few places to start:

  • Contact your local politicians and demand that all environmental data that your city generates or already possesses be placed into the public domain.
  • Demand that your city officials cut ties with any companies collecting data in your city and not releasing it under public domain.
  • If you are a researcher, refuse to sign agreements and licenses for restricted environmental data and instead work to create open alternatives.
  • If you have an environmental dataset, open it up. The data, any related algorithms or calculations and how it’s collected need to be public.
  • If you have an environmental start-up, discard any plans that see data as your IP.
  • If you are funding or supporting any environmental start-up, insist their data is open.
  • We’d love you to support Safecast with a one time or recurring donation or by getting one of our devices and helping collect data, but if radiation or air quality isn’t interesting to you we’re happy to point to projects measuring other things openly.

If you work at a company selling environmental data, it’s time for you to find a new business plan. Your actions and land-grabbing is now actively harming the public. This sounds like a battle cry, and in many ways it is. As the public, we can no longer sit by and trust these companies and governments to have our best interest in mind. We need to make them irrelevant.

(originally posted on Safecast)