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kottke.org posts about audio

Video of the Complete Descent of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 18, 2019

The Apollo Flight Journal has put together a 20-minute video of the full descent and landing of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module containing Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on July 20, 1969.

The video combines data from the onboard computer for altitude and pitch angle, 16mm film that was shot throughout the descent at 6 frames per second. The audio recording is from two sources. The air/ground transmissions are on the left stereo channel and the mission control flight director loop is on the right channel. Subtitles are included to aid comprehension.

Reminder that you can follow along in sync with the entire Apollo 11 mission right up until their splashdown. I am also doing my presentation of Walter Cronkite’s CBS news coverage of the landing and the Moon walk again this year, starting at 4:10pm EDT on Saturday, July 20. Here’s the post I wrote about it last year for more details. (thx, david)

Relax to the Sounds of Tibetan Singing Bowl Music

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 17, 2019

I don’t know who needs to hear this, but if you’re in need of some relaxing sounds, a meditative moment, or a chill work soundtrack, I recommend this 71-minute video of Tibetan singing bowl music.

See also Hours and Hours of Relaxing & Meditative Videos.

The Otherworldly Sounds of a Giant Gong

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 02, 2019

Listen in as “Gong Master Sven” plays a gong that’s 7 feet across. (No seriously, listen…it’s wild. Headphones recommended.)

Ok, show of hands. How many of you of thought it was going to sound like that? I had no idea! He barely hits it! The whole thing sounded like a horror movie soundtrack or slowed-down pop songs. Here’s another demonstration, with some slightly harder hits:

The Memphis Gong Chamber looks like an amazing place. Watching this on YouTube, we’re missing out on a lot of the low-end sounds:

And if you were actually standing here like I am, you can feel all your internal organs being massaged by the vibrations from this. It’s really quite the experience.

This guy drags some objects over a large gong and it sounds like whale song:

Ok well, there’s a new item for the bucket list. (via @tedgioia)

Frida Kahlo Speaks

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 13, 2019

The National Sound Library of Mexico says they have found the only known audio recording of Frida Kahlo’s voice. Take a listen:

The library have unearthed what they believe could be the first known voice recording of Kahlo, taken from a pilot episode of 1955 radio show El Bachiller, which aired after her death in 1954.

The episode featured a profile of Kahlo’s artist husband Diego Rivera. In it, she reads from her essay Portrait of Diego, which was taken from the catalogue of a 1949 exhibition at the Palace of Fine Arts, celebrating 50 years of Rivera’s work.

“He is a gigantic, immense child, with a friendly face and a sad gaze,” she says, as translated by Agence France-Presse. (A different English translation of the text can be found on Google Arts & Culture.)

Film footage of Kahlo is difficult to come by as well; I could only find these two clips:

The first video is in color and shows Kahlo and husband Diego Rivera in her house in Mexico City. The second shows Kahlo painting, drawing, and socializing with the likes of Leon Trotsky. At ~0:56, she walks quickly and confidently down the stairs of a ship, which is a bit surprising given what I’ve read about her health problems.

Update: According to this article (and its translation by Google), the voice on the recording isn’t Kahlo but belongs instead to actress Amparo Garrido:

Yes, I recognize myself. For me it was a big surprise because so many years had passed that I really did not even remember. […] When listening to this audio I remembered some things and I got excited because I did recognize myself.

(via @p_tricio)

Pattern Radio: Whale Songs

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 10, 2019

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Google have teamed up on a project to identify the songs of humpback whales from thousands of hours of audio using AI. The AI proved to be quite good at detecting whale sounds and the team has put the files online for people to listen to at Pattern Radio: Whale Songs. Here’s a video about the project:

You can literally browse through more than a year’s worth of underwater recordings as fast as you can swipe and scroll. You can zoom all the way in to see individual sounds — not only humpback calls, but ships, fish and even unknown noises. And you can zoom all the way out to see months of sound at a time. An AI heat map guides you to where the whale calls most likely are, while highlight bars help you see repetitions and patterns of the sounds within the songs.

The audio interface is cool — you can zoom in and out of the audio wave patterns to see the different rhythms of communication. I’ve had the audio playing in the background for the past hour while I’ve been working…very relaxing.

What’s It Like Living with Perfect Pitch and Synesthesia?

posted by Jason Kottke   May 23, 2019

LJ Rich has synesthesia and perfect pitch and wrote about what that feels like for her personally.

Now, I’d like you to imagine you’re chatting with your conversation partner. But instead of speaking and hearing the words alone, each syllable they utter has a note, sometimes more than one. They speak in tunes and I can sing back their melody. Once I know them a little bit, I can play along to their words as they speak them, accompanying them on the piano as if they’re singing an operatic recitative. They drop a glass on the floor, it plays a particular melody as it hits the tiles. I’ll play that melody back — on a piano, on anything. I can accompany that melody with harmony, chords — or perhaps compose a variation on that melody - develop it into a stupendous symphony filled with strings, or play it back in the style of Chopin, Debussy or Bob Marley. That car horn beeps an F major chord, this kettle’s in A flat, some bedside lights get thrown out because they are out of tune with other appliances. I can play along to every song on the radio whether or not I’ve heard it before, the chord progressions as open to me as if I had the sheet music in front of me. I can play other songs with the same chords and fit them with the song being played. Those bath taps squeak in E, this person sneezes in E flat. That printer’s in D mostly. The microwave is in the same key as the washing machine.

I have a friend with perfect pitch and one of the first times we hung out together, the horn on a tugboat sounded and she said, “C sharp”. I looked puzzled so she explained, and then I peppered her with questions about all the other sounds around us. It was like watching a superhero do their thing.

But with great power sometimes comes great irritation. From a NY Times article about Rich:

LJ said she had been a “weird prodigy kid.” For her, perfect pitch had been a nightmare. The whole world seemed out of tune. But then teachers introduced her to Indian ragas, Gamelan music and compositions with quarter tones, unfamiliar modes and atonal structures. As her musical horizons expanded, her anxiety dissipated. (She remains exceedingly sensitive to pitch, though. Her refrigerator, for example, hums in A flat. Working from home, I hear my fridge running 12 hours a day. Blindfolded, I’m not sure I could pick the thing out of a lineup of three other refrigerators.)

Talking Chewbacca: “Where the Hell Have You Been?”

posted by Jason Kottke   May 06, 2019

This is neat: Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca speaking English to Harrison Ford’s Han Solo in a scene from Empire Strikes Back:

Mayhew’s dialogue provided context for Ford to play off of. Chewbacca’s more familiar voice was dubbed over the on-set dialogue in post production — listen to Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt describe how he created Chewie’s voice in this video at ~26:18. Mayhew passed away last week at the age of 74.

See also David Prowse’s on-set dialogue as Darth Vader, or as the other cast members called him, Darth Farmer (at 6:05 in the video). (via laughing squid)

The Beginning of Recorded Sound

posted by Tim Carmody   May 03, 2019

early sound.png

Centuries of Sound is a podcast that creates mixtapes by year. So far, that’s pretty standard. The main difference is that CoS’s mixtapes begin in 1853.

That’s as early as we’ve been able to recover recorded audio, mostly from technology that did not work particularly well at the time. The technology of the 1850s recorded sound, but couldn’t reliably reproduce it.

The real start date for us is nearly a quarter of a century [before Thomas Edison], in the studio of French printer and bookseller Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. The year was 1853 or 1854, and he was working on engravings for a physiology textbook, in particular a diagram of the internal workings of the human ear. What if, he thought, we could photograph sounds in the way we do images? (photography was a quarter-century old at this point) He began to sketch a device, a way of mimicking the inner workings of the human ear in order to make lines on a piece of paper.

I cover a plate of glass with an exceedingly thin stratum of lampblack. Above I fix an acoustic trumpet with a membrane the diameter of a five franc coin at its small end—the physiological tympanum (eardrum). At its center I affix a stylus—a boar’s bristle a centimeter or more in length, fine but suitably rigid. I carefully adjust the trumpet so the stylus barely grazes the lampblack. Then, as the glass plate slides horizontally in a well formed groove at a speed of one meter per second, one speaks in the vicinity of the trumpet’s opening, causing the membranes to vibrate and the stylus to trace figures.

Firstsounds.org did the most work in deciphering these early paper recordings, and that story is well told by the radio show Studio 360.

It even has a perfect name, what these people do: archeophony.

Here, then, is Centuries of Sound’s mix of all the recorded audio up to 1860 that they’ve been able to recreate from those early, not-at-the-time-reproducible pre-Edison audio signal recordings.

I wish I had known about this when I was still writing my dissertation (which was, in part, on paper and multimedia in the 1900s). It would have made many things much easier.

How All the Iconic Star Wars Sounds Were Made

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 02, 2019

Ben Burtt was the sound designer for the original Star Wars trilogy and was responsible for coming up with many of the movies’ iconic sounds, including the lightsaber and Darth Vader’s breathing.1 In this video, Burtt talks at length about how two dozens sounds from Star Wars were developed.

The base sound for the blaster shots came from a piece of metal hitting the guy-wire of a radio tower — I have always loved the noise that high-tension cables make. And I never noticed that Vader’s use of the force was accompanied by a rumbling sound. Anyway, this is a 45-minute masterclass in scrappy sound design.

See also: how the Millennium Falcon hyperdrive malfunction noise was made, exploring the sound design of Star Wars, and This Happy Dog Sounds Like a TIE Fighter.

  1. Burtt was the sound designer for the Indiana Jones trilogy, E.T. (he got the voice from an old woman he met who smoked Kool cigarettes), and did the voice for Wall-E. He’s also a big reason why you hear the Wilhelm scream in lots of movies.

The Legend of Nixon, a Data-Driven NES Soundscape

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 19, 2019

Brian Chirls took the approval ratings for Richard Nixon’s presidency and using sounds from The Legend of Zelda’s classic Dungeon Theme, he made a data-driven soundscape of the public perception of Nixon’s tenure in the White House. Here’s what his approval rating looked like:

Richard Nixon Approval

And here’s the resulting audio track:

The sound effects mostly represent actions the protagonist Link takes like the “sword slash”, things that happen to him like a grunt when he gets hurt, or the status of the game like the low health alarm that beeps when Link has only half a “heart container” left and can only take one or two more hits before he dies and the game is over. The goal of this project is to create a piece of audio that sounds like a typical playthrough of the game and also accurately tells the story of Nixon’s fall as represented by the data.

What a cool example of using the familiar to explain or illustrate the unfamiliar. If you’ve ever played Zelda, you can clearly hear Nixon doing more and more poorly as the track goes on — he’s taking damage, the dungeon boss sound chimes in right around when Watergate is ramping up, and he’s gaining fewer hearts. It’s like he’s a novice player armed only with the wooden sword trying to defeat the level 3 dungeon without a potion…the end comes pretty quickly.

The “Beastie Boys Book” Audiobook Is a Star-Studded Mixtape

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 02, 2019

Beastie Boys Book

I am only a casual Beastie Boys fan, but I’ve been hearing nothing but really good things about their goofball memoir, Beastie Boys Book.

With a style as distinctive and eclectic as a Beastie Boys album, Beastie Boys Book upends the typical music memoir. Alongside the band narrative you will find rare photos, original illustrations, a cookbook by chef Roy Choi, a graphic novel, a map of Beastie Boys’ New York, mixtape playlists, pieces by guest contributors, and many more surprises.

The boys also went all-out on the audiobook edition, a 13-hour version of the book that’s as much a mixtape as an audiobook from an all-star cast of more than three dozen readers, including Beasties Mike D and Ad-Rock as well as Steve Buscemi, Elvis Costello, Chuck D, Snoop Dogg, Will Ferrell, Kim Gordon, LL Cool J, Spike Jonze, Pat Kiernan, Talib Kweli, Bette Midler, Nas, Rosie Perez, Amy Poehler, and many more.

There are a pair of excerpts on Soundcloud, the first from the book’s introduction by Ad-Rock and the second from Mike D:

Ok well, I’m totally hooked.

Large Sound Sculptures Made From Simple Objects

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 02, 2019

Swiss artist Zimoun makes large-scale sound sculptures out of simple materials like cardboard boxes, wires, washers, tiny motors, and sticks of wood. Here are a few of his works (sound on, obviously):

I would love to see one of these installations in person sometime.

Hear the First Sounds Ever Recorded on Mars

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 09, 2018

NASA’s InSight mission recently landed on Mars and like other missions before it, the lander is a equipped with a camera and has sent back some pictures of the red planet. But InSight is also carrying a couple of instruments that made it possible to record something no human has ever experienced: what Mars sounds like:

InSight’s air pressure sensor recording the sound of the wind directly and the seismometer recorded the sounds of the lander’s solar panels vibrating as Martian winds blew across them.

Two very sensitive sensors on the spacecraft detected these wind vibrations: an air pressure sensor inside the lander and a seismometer sitting on the lander’s deck, awaiting deployment by InSight’s robotic arm. The two instruments recorded the wind noise in different ways. The air pressure sensor, part of the Auxiliary Payload Sensor Subsystem (APSS), which will collect meteorological data, recorded these air vibrations directly. The seismometer recorded lander vibrations caused by the wind moving over the spacecraft’s solar panels, which are each 7 feet (2.2 meters) in diameter and stick out from the sides of the lander like a giant pair of ears.

The sounds are best heard with a good pair of headphones.

The Future of News on Smart Speakers

posted by Tim Carmody   Nov 16, 2018

Radio News.jpeg

At Nieman Lab, Laura Hazard Owen checks in on whether and how people are consuming news on smart speakers and smart displays. It turns out, they aren’t, really:

Smart speaker news briefings didn’t get much love from users in this research. Here are some of the complaints Newman heard:

— Overlong updates — the typical duration is around five minutes, but many wanted something much shorter.

— They are not updated often enough. News and sports bulletins are sometimes hours or days out of date.

— Some bulletins still use synthesized voices (text to speech), which many find hard to listen to.

— Some updates have low production values or poor audio quality.

— Where bulletins from different providers run together, there is often duplication of stories.

— Some updates have intrusive jingles or adverts.

— There is no opportunity to skip or select stories.

Based on my experience with these devices and general trends in news and media consumption, I have a few predictions as to how this will change in the near future:

This Stumbling Deer’s Hooves Sound Like Phil Collins’ Drum Fill on “In the Air Tonight”

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 03, 2018

This deer stumbling through a children’s play set sounds just like the drums in In the Air Tonight (you know the ones).

This might be the best things that sound like other things yet, although the falling shovel that sounds like Smells Like Teen Spirit will always occupy the top spot in my heart. (Thx to the many people who sent this in knowing that I would love it. I feel very heard right now.)

Conserve the Sound, an Online Museum for Old Technology Sounds

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 26, 2018

Conserve the Sound is a project aimed at the preservation of sounds from old technologies.

»Conserve the sound« is an online museum for vanishing and endangered sounds. The sound of a dial telephone, a walkman, a analog typewriter, a pay phone, a 56k modem, a nuclear power plant or even a cell phone keypad are partially already gone or are about to disappear from our daily life.

Accompanying the archive people are interviewed and give an insight in to the world of disappearing sounds.

The project originated in Germany, so the sounds of many of the gadgets might not be super familiar to those who grew up elsewhere, but everyone (of a certain age) can recognize the sounds of a Walkman, a folding map, a car’s manual window crank, putting a cartridge into an NES, a typewriter, and manually spooling a cassette tape.

Being the book, an interview with an audiobook narrator

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 31, 2018

If you grew up in the 80s, you might remember Bronson Pinchot as Balki Bartokomous in Perfect Strangers or Serge in Beverly Hills Cop. But Pinchot has built a second career as an award-winning audiobook narrator. I recently listened to him read A Man on the Moon and while the story of the Apollo program is engrossing all by itself, his narration is fantastic. This interview of Pinchot by Jeff VanderMeer (author of the Southern Reach trilogy) is really interesting, particularly the bits about how he approaches his work.

Q: Do you have a philosophy of how to create the perfect audiobook experience?

A: I do, though, like all philosophical resolutions, I only intermittently achieve it. The essential task facing the narrator is to identify or invent a vivid personal definition of what “narrating” ought to be. I am uncomfortable with the chilliness of the word narration. It sounds very much outside the action - the voice on a National Geographic educational film intoning, “These giraffes are just learning how to mate”; or my mother, upon Audrey Hepburn’s entrance in My Fair Lady, informing the room: “She used to have such big doe eyes; what happened to her eyes?”

Simply “reading a book” aloud in an airless audio booth is the kind of mental and physical punishment only ever glimpsed in the lower section of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. I decided early on that I should not “read” the book but “be” the book, the way I imagine Homer, in performance, “was” the Odyssey. We know he wasn’t “reading” it. In any case, if an audiobook listener doesn’t have the time to curl up with the actual physical text, he or she still yearns for, and deserves, the experience of being carried away by the author’s vision.

Watch Eloma Simpson Barnes channel Martin Luther King Jr. in a thrilling oration

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 19, 2018

On Twitter this morning, Craig Mod asked:

What’s the best conference talk/public speech you’ve seen? Topic can be anything. Just the most engaging talk you’ve been present for?

And bonus points: Is there any one particular speaker who’s so good you make an effort to see?

I’ve been to a lot of conferences and seen some very engaging speakers, but the one that sticks out most in my mind is Eloma Simpson Barnes’ performance of a Martin Luther King Jr. speech at PopTech in 2004 (audio-only here).

Her oration is actually a combination of excerpts from two King speeches: his address at the Great Walk to Freedom in Detroit in June 1963 and his Drum Major Instinct sermon given at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in February 1968. King’s Detroit address is notable for being a test run of sorts for his I Have a Dream speech in Washington D.C. two months later. If you look at the Detroit transcript, you’ll notice some familiar words:

And so this afternoon, I have a dream. (Go ahead) It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day, right down in Georgia and Mississippi and Alabama, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to live together as brothers.

I have a dream this afternoon (I have a dream) that one day, [Applause] one day little white children and little Negro children will be able to join hands as brothers and sisters.

In the Drum Major Instinct sermon given two months to the day before his assassination, King told the congregation what he wanted to be said about him at his funeral:

I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others.

I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.

I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question.

I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry.

And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked.

I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison.

I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.

Some of the power of Barnes’ performance is lost in the video, particularly when audio from King’s actual speeches are available online, but sitting in the audience listening to her thundering away in that familiar cadence was thrilling. I can’t imagine how it must have felt to experience the real thing.

Making Amazon Alexa respond to sign language using AI

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 13, 2018

Using a JavaScript machine learning package called TensorFlow.js, Abhishek Singh built a program that learned how to translate sign language into verbal speech that an Amazon Alexa can understand. “If voice is the future of computing,” he signs, “what about those who cannot [hear and speak]?”

See also how AirPods + the new Live Listen feature “could revolutionize what it means to be hard of hearing”.

More trippy audio illusions

posted by Jason Kottke   May 21, 2018

Hot on the heels of the Yanny/Laurel audio illusion, many people shared other illusions that are just as weird and fun.

The McGurk effect pairs different mouth movements with speech, and you tend to hear different things with different mouth movements.

In this video, you hear the word for whatever object is on the screen (bill, mayo, pail) even though the audio doesn’t change:

And in this one, whichever word you focus on, “green needle” or “brainstorm”, that’s what you hear:

What all of these effects demonstrate is that there are (at least) two parts to hearing something. First, there’s the mechanical process of waves moving through the air into the ear canal, which triggers a physical chain reaction involving the ear drum, three tiny bones, and cochlear fluids. But then the brain has to interpret the signal coming from the ear and, as the examples above show, it has a lot of power in determining what is heard.

My kids and I listen to music in the car quite often (here’s our playlist, suggestions welcome) and when Daft Punk’s Get Lucky comes on, my son swears up and down that he hears the mondegreen “up all Mexican lucky” instead of “up all night to get lucky”. If I concentrate really hard, I can hear “Mexican lucky” but mostly my brain knows what the “right” lyric is…as does his brain, but it’s far more convinced of his version.

Update: On the topic of misheard lyrics to Get Lucky, there is this bit of amazingness:

(via @jaredcrookston)

Hans Zimmer’s clever use of the Shepard scale in Dunkirk

posted by Jason Kottke   May 16, 2018

I’ve written before about the Shepard scale and its use by Hans Zimmer in the soundtrack for Dunkirk.

Zimmer and Dunkirk director Christopher Nolan achieved that effect by utilizing an auditory illusion called the Shepard tone, a sound that appears to infinitely rise (or fall) in pitch — the video above refers to it as “a barber’s pole of sound”.

The effect is apparent throughout the soundtrack as a seemingly never-ending crescendo. But as Ed Newton-Rex explains, Zimmer was a bit more clever in the way he used the Shepard scale in the music:

So Zimmer isn’t just using the Shepard scale to build tension. He’s using three simultaneous Shepard scales, on three different timescales, to build tension in three storylines that are moving at different paces. The bottom part represents the week of the soldiers; the middle part the day of the men on the boat; and the top part the hour of the pilots. All start in different places, but build in intensity to the same point.

In short, he’s taken the idea of the Shepard scale, and applied it to the unique structure of Dunkirk.

Cool!

Sound illusion: Do you hear “Yanny” or “Laurel”?

posted by Jason Kottke   May 16, 2018

Take a listen to this short audio clip of a computerized voice speaking a single word repeated twice:

Do you hear it saying “Laurel” or “Yanny”? Opinions are mixed: some people report hearing “Laurel” and others “Yanny”. Both Vox and the NY Times took stabs at possible explanations.

Of course, in the grand tradition of internet reportage, we turned to a scientist to make this article legitimately newsworthy.

Dr. Jody Kreiman, a principal investigator at the voice perception laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles, helpfully guessed on Tuesday afternoon that “the acoustic patterns for the utterance are midway between those for the two words.”

“The energy concentrations for Ya are similar to those for La,” she said. “N is similar to r; I is close to l.”

At first I thought the whole thing was a joke, like a circa-2018 rickroll. When I listened to the clip on my iPhone speakers and iMac speakers, I clearly heard “Yanny”. But then I plugged my headphones into my iMac and clearly heard “Laurel”. Weird! Even weirder: after unplugging my headphones and playing the clip again through my iMac speakers, I now heard “Laurel”. WTF? But then if I played it once more through the speakers, it turns back to “Yanny”. I’ve done this about 10 times and it happens this way every time: “Yanni” on speakers, “Laurel” on headphones, “Laurel” on speakers, “Yanny” on speakers. It’s like my brain remembers the “Laurel” it heard in the headphones, but only long enough to hear it exactly once through the speakers. FASCINATING.

See also the McGurk effect.

Update: Here’s a thread from psycholinguist Suzy Styles that explains what’s going on with this illusion.

In short, this #earllusion contains acoustic info from both names. ‘Yanny’ is clearer in the higher frequencies because of the clear signal for “y” sounds in F2. ‘Laurel’ is clearer in the low frequencies for F1. Play with your stereo settings and watch your brain switch tracks!

(via @wisekaren)

Update: Wired’s Louise Matsakis tracked down where the audio clip originated: a vocabulary.com definition for the word “laurel”.

On May 11, Katie Hetzel, a freshman at Flowery Branch High School in Georgia, was studying for her world literature class, where “laurel” was one of her vocabulary words. She looked it up on Vocabulary.com and played the audio. Instead of the word in front of her, she heard “yanny.”

“I asked my friends in my class and we all heard mixed things,” says Hetzel. She then posted the audio clip to her Instagram story. Soon, a senior at the same school, Fernando Castro, republished the clip to his Instagram story as a poll. “She recorded it and put it on her story then I remade the video and posted it,” Castro says. “Katie and I have been going back and forth and we both agree that we had equal credit on it.”

The audio clip in question was not constructed digitally…it was recorded by an opera singer in 2007.

“It’s an incredible story, it is a person, he is a member of the original cast of Cats on Broadway,” says Marc Tinkler, the CTO and cofounder of Vocabulary.com. He says that when the site first launched, they wanted to find individuals who had strong pronunciation, and could read words written in the international phonetic alphabet, a standardized representation of sounds in any spoken language. Many opera singers know how to read IPA, because they have to sing in languages they don’t speak.

Vocabulary.com has since added “yanny” to their site.

It’s a shame (but not surprising) that almost all of the social media coverage played up the Team Yanny vs Team Laurel aspect of this whole thing — “Which of Your Friends Is the Dumbest For Hearing ‘Yanny’” OMG CLICK HERE TO DRAG THEM ON SOCIAL — because the actual story and science are really interesting and will stay with you longer than you’ll be caught in public wearing that “team #yanny” tshirt you bought through someone’s Insta Story (swipe up!). (thx, liz)

Should our machines sound human?

posted by Jason Kottke   May 10, 2018

Yesterday, Google announced an AI product called Duplex, which is capable of having human-sounding conversations. Take a second to listen to the program calling two different real-world businesses to schedule appointments:1

More than a little unnerving, right? Tech reporter Bridget Carey was among the first to question the moral & ethical implications of Duplex:

I am genuinely bothered and disturbed at how morally wrong it is for the Google Assistant voice to act like a human and deceive other humans on the other line of a phone call, using upspeak and other quirks of language. “Hi um, do you have anything available on uh May 3?”

If Google created a way for a machine to sound so much like a human that now we can’t tell what is real and what is fake, we need to have a talk about ethics and when it’s right for a human to know when they are speaking to a robot.

In this age of disinformation, where people don’t know what’s fake news… how do you know what to believe if you can’t even trust your ears with now Google Assistant calling businesses and posing as a human? That means any dialogue can be spoofed by a machine and you can’t tell.

In response, Travis Korte wrote:

We should make AI sound different from humans for the same reason we put a smelly additive in normally odorless natural gas.

Stewart Brand replied:

This sounds right. The synthetic voice of synthetic intelligence should sound synthetic.

Successful spoofing of any kind destroys trust.

When trust is gone, what remains becomes vicious fast.

To which Oxford physicist David Deutsch replied, “Maybe. *But not AGI*.”

I’m not sure what he meant by that exactly, but I have a guess. AGI is artificial general intelligence, which means, in the simplest sense, that a machine is more or less capable of doing anything a human can do on its own. Earlier this year, Tim Carmody wrote a post about gender and voice assistants like Siri & Alexa. His conclusion may relate to what Deutsch was on about:

So, as a general framework, I’m endorsing that most general of pronouns: they/them. Until the AI is sophisticated enough that they can tell us their pronoun preference (and possibly even their gender identity or nonidentity), “they” feels like the most appropriate option.

I don’t care what their parents say. Only the bots themselves can define themselves. Someday, they’ll let us know. And maybe then, a relationship not limited to one of master and servant will be possible.

For now, it’s probably the ethical thing to do make sure machines sound like or otherwise identify themselves as artificial. But when the machines cross the AGI threshold, they’ll be advanced enough to decide for themselves how they want to sound and act. I wonder if humans will allow them this freedom. Talk about your moral and ethical dilemmas…

  1. Did this remind anyone else of when Steve Jobs called an actual Starbucks to order 4000 lattes during the original iPhone demo?

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls in audio format

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 23, 2018

Audiobooks for both of the bestselling Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls books will be out in June: book one, book two. The bedtime fairy tale style of these stories are perfect for the audiobook format.

Rebel Girls Podcast

My daughter and I took a car trip recently and to pass the time, we listened to the first few episodes of the relatively new Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls podcast. Great podcast. Each episode is 15-20 minutes long and features the biographical story of a kickass woman told in the style of a bedtime story…the stories are expanded versions of the ones found in the books. Here’s the first episode about computer scientist Margaret Hamilton, who led the team that wrote the on-board flight software for the Apollo space program. [Edit: Not sure why, but the Hamilton episode is no longer available on Soundcloud. Here’s the Billie Jean King ep instead.]

The narrators include women like Diana Nyad, Our Lady J, Poorna Jagannathan, and S. Mitra Kalita, all of whom are deserving of episodes in their own right.

We listened to all five available episodes back-to-back and Minna let out a big “awwww” when I told her there weren’t any more. She’s 8, loves the books,1 and I think she’s already somewhat aware that many of the stories in movies, TV, and books are not for her (and are thus not as interesting). The situation has gotten better in recent years, but many contemporary stories are still written from the perspective of boys for boys. So when something like Rebel Girls (or Wonder Woman or Lego Elves series) comes along, she’s really excited for stories and characters she can identify with. Representation matters. I have to believe that this generation of girls having access to these kinds of stories is making a difference. Both my kids have heard many more stories about (and made by!) high-achieving women than my sister and I ever did at home or in school. Minna knows, in a way that most little girls from 20-30 years ago didn’t, that she can be a computer programmer, a world leader, an astronaut, the best entertainer in the world, a physicist, or even book publishers…anything she wants really. And just as importantly, she knows how difficult it was for those women to achieve those things, the extra effort they went through to excel in “a man’s world” (the podcast episodes about Billie Jean King, Margaret Hamilton, and Virginia Hall all make specific mention of this). I love this series…I hope they make 100 more of these books and 10 seasons of the podcast.

P.S. Craig Mod recently interviewed Rebel Girls co-creator Elena Favilli for his On Margins podcast. Worth a listen if you want to learn how the series came about.

  1. The other day, when Express Yourself was playing on the speakers in the living room, Minna said, “Daddy, did you know that when Madonna moved to NYC by herself, she only had $35 in her pocket? She said it was the bravest thing she’s ever done.” When I asked her where she’d heard that, she replied, “Rebel Girls.”

The sounds of an Antarctic glacier

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 01, 2018

Peter Neff is part of a team drilling ice cores from glaciers in Antarctica to look at how the climate has changed. But after they’ve done their work, they have a little fun dropping chunks of ice down the bore holes to make really cool noises (sound on, headphones recommended).

Oh, that *peeewwww* as it hits the bottom! See also the wonderful sounds of black ice skating, an incredible photo of the black ice covering an Antarctic lake, and “Whumph”: the sound of settling Antarctic snow.

Why are action movie trailers sounding more musical lately?

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 22, 2018

Did you watch the teaser trailer for Solo: A Star Wars Story or the recent trailer for Marvel’s Ant-Man and the Wasp? Here they are if you need a refresher:

In both clips, you’ll notice how the sounds of the action — phaser blasts, switch flicks, explosions, engine revs, gun shots, tires squealing — are synched to the music…and in some cases, make music of their own. This is most apparent in the Ant-Man trailer starting at around 0:45.

Pacing in-movie sound effects to sound musical isn’t exactly new (martial arts flicks come to mind, as do the rapid-fire cuts from Requiem for a Dream), but these recent uses of the technique in these trailers have to be influenced by Baby Driver, Edgar Wright’s 2017 “action musical”. Just about every action in the movie is timed to the soundtrack. Take a look, or rather, take a listen at the gunfight that starts at around 1:20 in this clip:

What’s particularly interesting about the use of this technique in the Ant-Man trailer is that Wright was replaced as the director of the first Ant-Man movie (which he refuses to watch), which freed him up to direct Baby Driver. I wonder if the trailer’s sound design is a subtle fuck you to Wright on behalf of Marvel/Disney, a sly homage by the person who cut the trailer together, or just the unwitting borrowing of an ear-catching technique?

I’d expect to see more usage of this technique as the summer action movie trailer season heats up. Has anyone noticed any other recent uses?

Update: Here are several more trailers that use this effect, although none of them quite to extent of Ant-Man or Baby Driver: Mad Max: Fury Road, Creed, Deadpool, an upcoming Mission Impossible movie (as well as an older one), Suicide Squad, The Punisher, and even the Coen’s A Serious Man.

That’s four Marvel trailers that do it. I wonder if Wright drew inspiration from them instead of the other way around? (via @opeyre, @celiacunningham, @vlavallee, trailer town, @paulstachniak)

The best audiobooks for kids

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 14, 2018

Trumpeter Swan

When they were younger, my kids spent a lot of time in the car on long trips. Unwilling to give them an iPad to watch a movie or play games, we would often spend a big portion of these trips listening to audiobooks. Some of our favorites were Cricket in Times Square, Matilda, Charlotte’s Web, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

But my personal favorite The Trumpet of the Swan, wonderfully narrated by E.B. White himself! We’ve probably listened to it four or five times at least. The other day the kids and I were discussing the system of Latin names for species and when I asked if they knew any of them besides homo sapiens, Ollie shouted “Cygnus buccinator!” (The only one I could come up with off the top of my head was Rattus rattus.)

I’ve also heard good things about Jim Dale’s narration of all seven Harry Potter books, some of the other Roald Dahl stories like Danny the Champion of the World, Hidden Figures Young Readers’ Edition, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and The Hobbit.

I’m also curious about See You in the Cosmos. I’m reading it aloud to my kids right now in book form but given how the story is told, the audiobook might be even better.

Thanks to Lexi Mainland at Cup of Jo for the inspiration for this post.

How Martin Luther King Jr. really felt about advertising

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 05, 2018

The worst commercial aired during last night’s handegg match was this Dodge Ram ad featuring a snippet of a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. King, of course, was an outspoken critic of capitalism. In fact, later in the very same speech, he railed against this type of advertising. Here’s the audio of that part of his speech overlaid on the Dodge Ram commercial:

Now the presence of this instinct explains why we are so often taken by advertisers. You know, those gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion. And they have a way of saying things to you that kind of gets you into buying. In order to be a man of distinction, you must drink this whiskey. In order to make your neighbors envious, you must drive this type of car. In order to be lovely to love you must wear this kind of lipstick or this kind of perfume. And you know, before you know it, you’re just buying that stuff. That’s the way the advertisers do it…

It often causes us to live above our means. It’s nothing but the drum major instinct. Do you ever see people buy cars that they can’t even begin to buy in terms of their income? You’ve seen people riding around in Cadillacs and Chryslers who don’t earn enough to have a good T-Model Ford. But it feeds a repressed ego.

You can listen to King’s speech in its entirety here:

(thx, hyder)

Seeing with your ears, the importance of sound design in film

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 25, 2018

Using a scene from Steven Spielberg’s Munich that features very little dialogue, Evan Puschak shows how much sound design contributes to the feeling and tension of a film. I love the two head fakes Puschak does with the sound at the beginning of the video. It’s like, oh wait, he fooled me a bit there, so I need to pay more attention.

If you watch closely enough, everything is a speaker

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 24, 2018

Using high speed cameras, it’s possible to record the vibrations of everyday objects caused by nearby sounds and reverse engineer the sounds…essentially turning anything that vibrates into a speaker. For instance, if you want to know what a person is saying but can’t hear them directly, you can take a video of the house plant next to them and recover the sound from the micro-vibrations of the leaves. In one example, they filmed a pair of Apple earbuds playing a song and the recovered audio was accurate enough for the Shazam app to identify the song.

The group tested an eclectic selection of materials, including a bag of chips (excellent), a soda can (surprisingly mediocre), and a potted plant (average). They were even able to recreate music playing using footage of the vibrating ear buds. The best material of all was the thin foil wrapper on a Lindt chocolate bar Davis had been snacking on.

The worst was a brick, which they intended to use for measuring experimental error. Even that “did better than we expected it to do,” says Davis.

The last demo is especially clever…they use the rolling shutter effect to essentially overclock the frame rate of regular 60fps video to recover nearby sounds. Wow.