13 December 2007

Wiimote Experiments

In the interest of time and money I’m giving the Wiimote a spin as I think about hardware for gourdo v.3. The Wiimote has 11 buttons and a 3D accelerometer transmitted wirelessly over Bluetooth for $40 US. They’re available for a similar price nearly everywhere – I got mine at Target in Seekonk, MA. SparkFun.com sells the accelerometer in the Wii (the Memsic ADXL330) for $34.95 and a variety of Bluetooth transmitters starting at around $50 US. They also sell a package they call the WiTilt with accelerometer data over Bluetooth for $109.95. In addition to cost, I’m exploring the Wiimote in hopes of an increase in data stability over gourdo v.2. My current solution and my preferred homemade Bluetooth solutions depend on Max’s serial object – something I’ve never had great luck with. In gourdo v.2 I learned that serial communication on the PC is de-prioritized in such a way that I receive data drops under heavy processor usage (in Mac tests the data was more reliable but audio was severely sacrificed). In the past I’d considered flaws with serial object implementations a product of my own limitations, but recent conversations with Emmanuel Fléty convinced me otherwise. Emmanuel abandoned serial in Max years ago (preferring instead the imperfections of MIDI), so I feel justified in so doing. With the Wiimote, I can use third-party Max externals which see the data as a human interface device (HID).

There is currently an excess of Wiimote "hacking" information of the web. Wikipedia.com’s page on the Wiimote is a good overview of the device and there is an excellent technical specification page at Wiili.org. SparkFun.com did an excellent Wiimote deconstruction with pictures and commentary. Hackawii.com has a page dedicated to Wiimote hacks showing some popular applications of the device.

The WIili.org driver page is the best place to start for getting the Wiimote connected a computer. I’m using an Acer 8204WLMi which happens to contain a Wiimote-compatable Broadcom 2045 Bluetooth device. I’m able to connect to the Wiimote using XP’s system software and successfully view the Wiimote data in Max/MSP using the tk.wii object by Takeru Kobayashi (linked from the forums at Cycling ’74). On Mac the preferred solution appears to be the aka.wiiremote object by Masayuki Akamatsu. I’ve not yet tested the object for Mac, but in a peek at the help patch it appears that the data formatting is different such that the objects cannot be used interchangeably. To maintain cross-platform compatibility I’ll likely make the data collection patch an outside entity which sends incoming data into the primary patch. The correct data collector can then be launched on the side depending on the current platform.

Connection to the Wiimote was simple and data was immediately available in Max so I have begun to test the Wiimote’s sample resolution and rate. While the Bluetooth supports audio transmission, the Wiimote inherits any limitations inherent to the HID protocol. An article on ddj.com reports that HID implemented “mice are polled for data every 8 ms, and respond with 32 bits of data” and that “a keyboard transmits 64 bits of data over the same interval.” Because greater sensitivity is unlikely necessary for such applications these restrictions help keep power usage down, an essential feature in wireless applications. While such information about the capacity of the protocols is interesting, real-world (read: Max) performance may vary. As such, I have spent relatively little time investigating these two technologies opting instead for max-based testing with my existing gourd patches.

Data from with tk.wii object is 8-bit data reported every 5.02 milliseconds on average (with a 4.90 median and 5.86 in one test). The data is represented as a 0.0-1.0 value the tilt of the controller occupying 21% of that range – tilt values for the X-and Y-axis range from 0.396 to 0.608 with sharp accelerations using the entire range. Substituting Wiimote data in my hit-detection patch where taps of the device are reported as triggers proved successful. The data rate doesn’t appear to be high enough, however, to support directional tapping detection reliably enough. With tapping, the difference between subsequent sensor values is sufficiently large to distinguish those actions from tilting. I use a rolling buffer to hold the last 20 sensor values reported and, when a hit is detected, search for the maximum and minimum values in that set. If the maximum value is larger than the absolute value of the minimum, the hit came from the right, if not, it came from the left. Because the sample rate is too low, the peak value is not always captured. When this occurs the “recoil” value is usually recorded and is the highest value in the set, causing the incorrect direction to be reported. The data rate is more than sufficient for tilting applications.

The next step is to try the Tilt, Shift patch with the Wiimote and see if the data resolution over the tilt region is sufficient for performance with the granulator. While gourdo v.2 featured 10-bit data resolution, I believe that 8-bit data over the tilt range would be sufficient. The data from the Wiimote, however, represents the tilt range with only 56 values (the full 256 are for the entire sensor range). My next testing step will be to connect the Wiimote to the Tilt, Shift granulator to see if I’m satisfied with its performance. This will be my first opportunity to physically test the latency of the tilt and see if it’s low enough.

08 December 2007

Short, Preliminary Dissertation Project Description

A Music of Vocal Technologies and Angolan Technologies of Voice in Literature

I will spend one year in Angola, beginning December 2007, to conduct the creative research for the dissertation project required for the doctoral degree in Computer Music and Multimedia Composition at Brown University. The final form of this project will be the live performance of a newly-designed electronic instrument which interfaces with a computer to play, process, manipulate, generate, and synthesize audio and video. The source material for this work will be created primarily in Angola and will feature texts by Angolan writers and the voices of Angolan writers reading their work.

This work examines themes of voice, writing, and technology in the context of cultural change. Considering oral cultural practices as technologies, the project will use voice and text to explore how Angolan writers draw from a rich set of oral traditions. The focus will be on the possibilities provided by an encounter between contemporary digital technologies and an Angolan literature successful at adapting narrative technologies to make important contributions to Lusophone and African literatures. Angola is an ideal place to explore these themes of technology, change, and adaptation: it has the fastest growing economy on the African continent, is modernizing at an historically unparalleled rate, and sustains a vibrant literary community. Of particular interest are the successes of Angolan authors in maintaining a uniquely Angolan voice through difficult periods of colonialism and civil war. I seek to trace this tradition through to the current generation of Angolan authors who maintain this voice and forge new ones in the present context of development and social change.

The portions of the project to be completed in Angola will be carried out in three stages. Stage one is focused on Portuguese study with particular attention to the language as is unique to Angola, including local vocabulary, accents, and speech rhythms. This stage includes initial contact with the literary community in Luanda facilitated by introductions from renowned writer Manuel Rui and through sponsorship by the União dos Escritores Angolanos (UEA, The Angolan Writers’ Union).

In stage two I will work with a variety of Angolan authors, their texts, and audio and video recordings of them reading their work to create short musical sketches. This composition allows writers exposure to the computer systems I have designed and allows them to evaluate their interest in further collaboration. The sketch production also allows me to tailor the system to the developing needs of the project and to change the system in response to input from the writers. These sketches will be performed for audiences in Angola as they are completed.

Stage three is dedicated to making audio and video recordings of authors reading the primary text or texts of the final project and to designing the overall compositional form of the work. Working with captured footage and with texts written or selected for the project by the collaborating authors, I will begin initial editing of the media and design of the performance system with on-going feedback from the collaborators.

The work will be finished after my return to the United States, incorporating final feedback from my academic advisors, and will receive an initial performance at Brown University. Recordings of the performance will be made available for permanent storage at the UEA, at the National Library and the National Archives in Luanda, and elsewhere as directed by the Director of the UEA and the Ministry of Culture. Every effort will be made for a performance of the final work in Angola at a subsequent date and for primary collaborators to receive invitation to and sponsorship for travel to the premiere.

The project is funded by a Dissertation Fellowship from Brown University and overseen by my dissertation committee chairman and by the Department of Music at Brown University.

So long PVD...

Many, many, many moons and nearly as many changes of plan later, the show has moved on from PVD and hit the road for an extended US tour before heading abroad. For work-related reasons our international departure was slightly delayed, and because it does little or no good to arrive in Luanda during the extended holiday period (not to mention the cost of holiday flights), we decided to remain in the US until the end of January. We’re currently in Atlanta, visiting (read: taking advantage of) friends and we hope to make a swing out west before we depart. Things are still up in the air, however, and no plane tickets for other US destinations exist.

Things that have been accomplished include packing our apartment and moving it to storage in Maine, delivering the lovely if irascible Ms. Egypt to her foster cat parents in DC, and passing my preliminary examinations to become a doctoral candidate and ABD. Technology experiments and dissertation proposal writing are officially underway with positive results in the early stages. I’ll be posting soon with results from max/msp experiments and hardware testing. I’m also going to post the short dissertation description I’ve been circulating and will be blogging bits and pieces as they come.

12 October 2007

US Operations Expand, Housing Futures Fall

As our leave date looms ever nearer, we've been dealing more and more with some of the messy details of moving out of this house and into a new one in a land far, far away. Last week the big mission was storage facilities and, with logistical support from the Rocky Mountain office, we're going to be mooching off of family. The operation is now growing quickly as our international launch date approaches. In addition to the home office in Little Rhody, there are now branch offices in Colorado, South Dakota, Virginia (pet operations management), and Georgia (communications hub) with a warehouse in Maine. We really should talk to management -- everyone here deserves bigger salaries and better titles.

This week the ugly issue of housing is front and center. Things kicked-off ominously with a lovely little piece in the Financial Times entitled Rents rocket in Angola's oil boom and it's been more of the same ever since. It's hard not to be a little dejected when you know that if you're lucky and someone's feeling generous you can find a place for $5500 per month. It's reasonable to blanch after you quickly calculate the amount of cash you'll need in hand to secure said lucky find because the going trend is to pay the first year up front. (That's $66k for those of you counting along at home.)

Why are things so expensive? Well, you'll see different numbers different places, but the city of Luanda was basically built to house about 400,000 under the rule of the Portuguese "settlers". Today, Luanda is home to well over 4,000,000 with little or no new construction through 2002 outside of refugee shanty towns. Add to this a new, huge influx of foreigners because of oil and other financial interests (Angola has the fastest growing economy on the continent as measured by GDP) and you've got a royal mess. (I should mention that housing's not the only expensive thing in Luanda, but that's a post for another time.)

The good news, however, is that we've been speaking all week with the powers that be and they tell us that they're putting pressure on those that can put pressure on those that might be able to talk to the people that might be able to give us more money for our housing allotment. The actual relief comes, though, when you've been a couple times so you're sure you've got somewhere you can stay while you find a place. And, better, when you talk to the friend you've got in Bairro Popular who's been on the ground for a long while now and who knows tons of people (local and ex-pat) to enlist to help you (including Os Cheirosos!).

We're nervous and we've got a lot of other things to worry about, too, but we're confident that things will work out. The most frustrating part is simply that it's impossible to get things set up before we arrive. The friends we can lean on are wonderful and will take care of us, but that doesn't really help make a couple of control freaks feel much better.

Ah, well, I'm sure we'll get a personal email next week from an ambassador begging us to house-sit some swank digs on the Marginal for friends for the next year or so. It could happen... right?

12 September 2007

Angolan Films and Filmed in Angola

We recently embarked on a project to watch all of the Angolan or Angola-related films we could get our hands on. The project is generally motivated by simple interest but Ms. R's also been able to justify it somewhat in terms of research as it's generally useful to her work to have a handle on some of the ways that Angola and the civil war have been portrayed in media. We were able to find films in the Film, Media and Video Resources for African Studies Database at Emory University and by doing a variety of searches for "Angola" in country, description, location, etc at the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) website. We were able to find copies of the films at our local, independent video rental store, through Netflix, and through interlibrary loan. Here's what we've watched so far:

Angolan Films:

O Herói (The Hero) (2004) directed by Zézé Gamboa won the Sundance Grand Jury prize for World Cinema. It follows parallel stories of a young boy and a soldier with an amputated leg trying to put their lives together in Luanda after the end of the conflict. It deftly packs in a tremendous number of the challenges facing Angolans (then and now) without interrupting the flow of the narrative. I especially admired Gomboa's ability to avoid tipping into the overly-dramatic or the unrealistically optimistic, though the resolution somewhat avoids the challenges the characters will facing going forward.

Na Cidade Vazia (Hollow City) (2004) directed by Maria João Ganga centers on the experience of a young orphan boy, N'Dala, that has run away from the mission that transported him to Luanda from the provinces for care. In stumbling through the strange new city he befriends a variety of people including another boy, a fisherman, and a criminal. By the time the end of the film arrives and the nun that's been searching for him is about to find him, N'Dala has found himself in more trouble than he realizes, despite his best efforts. This is a sad and tense film without a happy resolution but, like O Herói, has some wonderful views of the city and gives a picture of one life there.

Bad Action Flicks Set in Angola:

First, a note: these films are terrible. I mean terrible. But, there is something you can do to make them more entertaining: Follow the bad guy. These movies come at an incredibly difficult time for Hollywood; the cold war has more or less ended and the terror wars haven't yet begun. So, who, prey tell, is going to serve as the go-to bad dudes in all those B-movies? "Well, hell," Hollywood thinks to itself, "There's still a war in Angola! The Russians and Cubans are still on fighting on the opposite side from us! Let's go there!" And, well, it almost worked except for the fact that Americans had little or no idea about the Angolan civil war, and that the who's fighting whom was pretty complicated. It's hard to be a "good guy" if you're fighting with the diamond-funded rebels. So, the "good guys" and the "bad guys" in these movies are different both between films and, in most cases, within films. It's hard to keep track of, but that's OK; you'll need something to do during the show to keep yourself from gouging your eyes out.

Who knew that when, as kids, a friend and I decided that Red Scorpion (1989) staring the awe(or cringe)-inspiring Dolph Lundgren was easily be the best movie ever, that we had unwittingly committed ourselves to spending weekend after weekend after weekend watching a film set in Angola? Not us! We were just in it for Dolph's bad-assed-ness and the explosions! Well, well years later I've decided to head to Angola and discovered that Dolph is the actor to hire if you're setting a film there. Let's not mince words: this film is terrible. A specially trained Russian super-weapon (Dolph) is sent on an assassination mission and fails after which he is betrayed by his government. He escapes into the bush where he nearly dies. He's saved by a local tribe and initiated as a warrior. The tribe is subsequently massacred by the Russians. This terrible personal tragedy allows Dolph to see the beauty of the land, and so he joins the struggle of the local people (lead by the man he failed to assassinate at the beginning of the film, no less) against the intruding government(s). The Russians then attack a village and succeed in killing the local leader, sending Dolph into a fit of rage. Massive explosions ensue, Dolph kills more or less everyone. What's not to love? Special props, by the way, to the hilarious (read: terrible) portrayal of the American journalist here by M. Emmet Walsh.

If after seeing Red Scorpion and remembering back to Rocky IV you think that Dolph is one-dimensional, Russian-playing muscle-head, perhaps his performance in Sweepers (1998) will convince you of his tremendous versatility. Playing an American and the ultimate mine sweeping expert, Dolph goes on a bender after losing his son to a minefield accident. American Michelle arrives on the scene in search of a classified mine design that's gone missing. In the course of sobering up Dolph to elicit his help in finding the mine and running from various bad guys, they uncover a mine manufacturing and smuggling operation and fall in love. They bring down the illegal operation the only way Dolph knows how: blowing up everything in sight. The best part of this film is that the trailer included on the DVD shows you every important scene in the film, so you can just watch that instead and save yourself 90 minutes you'll never recover.

There's no more Dolph at this point, but there is a terrible Ernest Borgnine performance in Skeleton Coast (1987). Ernest plays an aging former soldier who heads to Angola to mount a private mission to rescue his son, a captive CIA operative, from a heavily guarded fort. His private militia includes a classic set of ass-kickers (introduced in a hilarious pan sequence) like Muscle-bound Ex-Marine Guy, Crazy Guy that Likes to 'Xlplode Stuff, Technology Specialist Gadget Guy, Ninja Martial-Arts Asian Guy, Gutsy "I don't give a damn" Black Dude, and Tough-ass Hot Blond Chick with Big Rack (shower scene included!). Along they way they drive through the desert, smuggle some diamonds, drive through the desert, get help from the rebel army, walk through the desert, steal a plane, and, oh, fly over the desert. The ending is completely confounding, but it involves imitating Cubans, the good guys win, and Ernest gets the girl (more-or-less).

SNL Season 1:

The last thing we've watched (so far!) are excerpts from the very first season of Saturday Night Live where during Weekend Update Chevy Chase tries on three separate occasions to connect with a reporter live in Luanda. The first time Chevy reaches a reporter in her American home, the second time no one except a janitor is in the office in Luanda because of the time difference, and the third time the reporter is sexually accosted (eventually willingly) by a horny mercenary during a live interview. These scenes are very brief and have little or nothing to do with Angola. We were, though, very impressed by the first season of SNL. We learned that we hate Dick Cavett and we loved the live performances by Jimmy Cliff and Bill Withers. Highly recommended!

11 September 2007

Media Links for Angola

As I've mentioned elsewhere, the amount of web-available news and information from and about Angola is exploding. When we prepped for our first trip in 2005 there was little or no information available online; recently I've been able to do things like look at satellite images of Luanda from Google Maps, listen to live, streaming radio, watch a streaming evening news cast, and even browse a budding online classifieds site. I'll be sharing more about these resources in coming posts, but I wanted to start out with some information about links to current Angola news and some of the Angola-based blogs that I've checked out.


My primary method for following news from Angola is with Angola-specific RSS feeds from a variety of the usual suspects. You can view the feeds I track as a regular webpage here or you can import my current feeds into your feed reader with this file. These are the sites that I'm currently tracking:

BBC News
Human Rights Watch
Relief Web

My favorite, though, might be watching a stream of the local evening news. By following the "Multimedia" link on Televisão Pública de Angola's (TPA) website you can watch episodes of Telejornal, TPA's evening newscast. The updates can be intermittent (the last episode posted as of today is nearly a month old), but I find it to be very interesting with or without a thorough knowledge of Portuguese.


First and foremost, here are the blogs of Arthur and Jojonneke, our wonderful Dutch friends living in Luanda (in Dutch but with great pics! I use Babelfish to translate them to "English").

We recently had the pleasure of meeting Bostonians Robert and Beth who were in Lubango, Angola during 2006-07; they’re both doctors and Robert was there on Fulbright funding. Their blog is here but please be fore-warned about the graphic surgery photos.

There are other blogs out there with accounts of Angola by folks we don't know. Some of them have only occasional Angola posts and/or are no longer being updated with Angola content because their author has moved on to other adventures. They're fun to read because there's usually something here which overlaps with our own experience; for example, we stayed at the DW guest house in Huambo (2006) and had a snack at Bahia with Arthur and Jo (2007) -- both are mentioned on Kate's blog:

Nate Down There
Kate's Travel Blog
Tony and Lotty at large in Angola

The news links are good for just that, news. The blogs are much better for some sense of what life has been like lately in Angola and for pictures. I've got more sites with pictures and the like that I'll be posting soon, but the above sties are probably the best starting points.

As Músicas de Angola

I'm still trying to get a handle on the Angolan music scene and figure out what's from where, what's influenced by what, and who's who. Somewhat surprisingly the good ol' interweb and especially YouTube and Wikipedia have been tremendously helpful in getting the lay of the land. (The amount of information about Angola as well as the Angolan presence online is currently exploding -- more on this in other posts.) The best known and clearest thread in Angolan music runs from Semba to Kizomba to Kuduro, with Kuduro being the most recent incarnation. Here's where I'm at so far in figuring this all out.

Semba is commonly considered to be descendant from a Congo-Angolan dance style and has etymological roots in both Kimbundo ("pleasing, enchanting") and Kikongo ("honoring, revering"). It's highly prevalent in Angolan popular music and when spending time in Luanda folks frequently point out which songs on the radio are semba and Angolan. I've even had people clap for me the rhythm that they recognize as semba but I'll confess to not always being able to distinguish it in course of songs.

Kizomba music is generally slower than semba and also very romantic or sensual with the dance having a reputation as being quite technical. Kizomba is rooted in semba but also takes influence from Caribbean musics, specifically zouk. We've got a disc purchased on our last trip to Luanda called "Kizomba de Angola, disc 2" that's been in heavy rotation in the car this week (Big D loves it) with a nice melody turn on the lyric "Kuduro não da" (Kuduro won't do) about how semba's all right, kuduro is questionable, but kizomba -- kizomba is the way to be.

Kuduro, an aggressive rap music developed in Malange and highly influenced by Haitian rap, is the most recent pop music development. It's a relentless music with an unchanging beat and a rapid-fire lyric style. The music is somewhat grating for me but I've been listening to a fair bit of it to get to know it better. There are a fair number of YouTube videos featuring kuduro and they're my favorites because they frequently feature bairros (neighborhoods) and musseques (slums) that you don't see in the other videos and that are difficult for "tourists" to take pictures of because of concerns about the police and camera use. These videos best represent the neighborhood style in bairro popular where we stayed in 2005 with Arthur and where we've been on the streets outside of the main urban center.

I'm very much enjoying Angolan music right now. We bought 10-15 CDs on our last trip getting a variety of styles and artists. We met Alberto Teta Lando, the president of União Nacional dos Artistas e Compositores (UNAC), and he gave us a slew of recommendations as did Dª Alice and Paolo. For me the stylistic approach of Angolan music is still more recognizable than the rhythms. There's a vaguely "African" feel to the music but it's much less ornate than the prototypical West African musics. In addition to the beautiful simplicity, much of it is in minor modes and has a somewhat down atmosphere (even the quicker songs) which I really enjoy. I hear it as a somewhat serious music regardless of the lyric topic, and as mature and down to earth. Waldemar Bastos's Pretaluz was the first full album I heard by an Angolan artist and it represents well some of the things I hear (or at least it's colored my ears so much that you should check it out to know why I can't hear anything differently).

YouTube examples



  • Amazing kuduro dancing examples here and here

Best links for general listening: