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21 October 2010

Obits: Benoit Mandelbrot, mathematician who almost flunked me

While at college I took a class from this guy. He invented fractal geometry. His name was Benoit Mandelbrot. A few days ago, he died. I remember it being said that he did not know how to use computers. The class was a gut mathematics course. My purpose in taking it was to fulfill a math & science requirement. If my recollection is correct, I almost failed.

(I like computers.)

But who can argue with the logic for his anti-computer stance? The greatest proof of his theories was the shape of a coastline:

    Dr. Mandelbrot traced his work on fractals to a question he first encountered as a young researcher: How long is the coast of Britain? The answer, he was surprised to discover, depends on how closely one looks. On a map an island may appear smooth, but zooming in will reveal jagged edges that add up to a longer coast. Zooming in further will reveal even more coastline.“Here is a question, a staple of grade-school geometry that, if you think about it, is impossible,” Dr. Mandelbrot told The New York Times earlier this year in an interview. “The length of the coastline, in a sense, is infinite.”

    In the 1950s, he proposed a simple but radical way to quantify the crookedness of such an object by assigning it a “fractal dimension,” an insight that has proved useful well beyond the field of cartography.


It was this insight that eventually led him to geometrical figures familiar to psychedelic drug users and Grateful Dead fans, figures like this:

…and this…

…and, more familiarly, this…

…and, most of all, this…

Once again, he did not like computers. I’d be skeptical about the utility of computers, too, if my ideas manifested themselves as a vegetable:

Or the look of the sky through trees:

Hugs Benoit. I’m sorry I almost flunked out of your class. You’re an inspiration:

    “He knew everybody, with interests going off in every possible direction,” Professor Mumford said. “Every time he gave a talk, it was about something different.”

    When asked to look back on his career, Dr. Mandelbrot compared his own trajectory to the rough outlines of clouds and coastlines that drew him into the study of fractals in the 1950s. “If you take the beginning and the end, I have had a conventional career,” he said, referring to his prestigious appointments in Paris and at Yale. “But it was not a straight line between the beginning and the end. It was a very crooked line.”

(Quotations taken from his obituary in the New York Times.)

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15 January 2010

Wonky spiritual reggae: a short attention span essay about Zomby, fractal geometry, dubstep & some adherents and ancestors I can really get behind

I like new sounds.

I only really like new sounds, however, when they are encased in a structure that propels them — be it a folk music architecture of repetitive and/or shopworn patterns; composed music’s cerebral, considered developments; or a dance music’s tension and release model.

I dislike music that prides itself solely on being free jazz, experimental, avant-garde classical. That’s the equivalent of priding yourself on “being fun at parties.” (What do you do when the party ends and it’s time to do household chores or eat breakfast?) The real problem with music that is insistently & exclusively devoted to extremity, however, is that it’s rarely fun enough to give me a reason to put it on. I don’t know about you but I’m a busy guy. For music to work well, I need to desire it, I need to want to put it on while doing other things: the laundry, for example, or cooking. Folk, composition & dance structures are like spoons full of sugar that make the medicine go down.

I think this ethic of mine as being somewhat au courant, even. It sort of echoes the current vogue for sustainability: Everyone and everything should have multiple uses, expansive comfort zones, real utility. When slaughtering a pig, the bladder should be saved to make sausage, the skin can be turned into cowboy boots. Don’t buy disposable clothes. Don’t take that filmsy, black, plastic shopping bag.

Similarly, I believe the music we advocate should work well on headphones and as ringtones and in a room filled with pleasant company (or, well, okay, unpleasant company, too — I’m cool with that).

You may disagree with the killing of a pig part, but with the rest I think most sane humans would agree.

I disagree with the pursuit of a perpetual avant-garde. Especially when it comes to individual artists seeking eternal progress within the scope of a single career. This is, in part, a Darwinian notion. Unless you’re a creationist you’d never expect an amoeba, in the span of its life, to sprout legs. Nor would you expect a dinosaur to grow wings, or an ape to change the cut of it’s jib, the bulge of its jaw.

Why, then, do some musicians think it’s a realistic life goal to do more than find the natural limits of their individual creativity? to do more than find the secret sound of their unchained heart? to discover anything more than the vibration that they were meant to make?

At best humankind is a bell not the clocktower. You can stand on the shoulders of giants. But after puberty — short the intervention of drugs or science — it’s very hard to grow.

Speaking of which, let’s start talking about the exciting & “mysterious” (aka “trying real hard to be…”) UK electronic musician named Zomby. His music is my favorite kind: a new sound housed in an old kind of building. The critic Simon Reynolds places his music in a genre those taxonomy-obsessed Brits have created called “wonky.” In his least Rock Critic-like moment, he blames the sound on drugs in the same way that baseball Mark McGuire blamed his drug use on the sports culture of the 1990s. Here’s the clip:

    Then again, “wonky” does happen to be street slang for ketamine (see also “wonky donkey,” which plays on the notion that the drug is used by veterinary surgeons as an anaesthetic for horses). And how about the fact that Zomby is the name of the genre’s leading producer, while “zombies” is the most common description of K-heads made by people who deplore the drug’s effect on the vibe in clubs? Just coincidences, maybe. Still, even if it is a myth, like the connection between jungle and crack you heard a lot about in 1993, it’s a revealing one. Rumours are social facts in themselves.

Want to test his thesis for yourself. Well, here is a second jam from our friend Zomby. How does it make you feel?


RE: mystery
Well we are, for example, made to understand that this is a picture of the artist (via photographer Sidney Lo): zomby

Okay then, fair enough. I doubt he gets his morning coffee dressed like that, but there’s no doubt people are as authentically excited by his sound as I am.

As well, I am excited about the larger movement dubbed “dubstep” of which Zomby is part. He’s put most of his records out on the scene’s most noted label Hyperdub. And the “wonky” genre that Reynolds places him in is actually a subgenre. Here’s another track which foregrounds where all the dub talk comes from:


It’s a scene poised for a mainstream breakthrough which, when it happens, will very likely sound something like this just leaked song by M.I.A. which was produced by Rusko:


Reynolds describes the “wonky” sound as taking “dubstep’s rhythmic grid and scrawled woozily all over it with fluorescent marker pens” — though “woozily scrawled flourescent rhythmic grid” sort of gets at the defining characteristic that makes me like a lot of the dubstep I’ve been hearing. To me it sounds something like spiritual contemporary reggae — mixing up the echoing beats & samples of Jamaican music and turning those iterations in on their head in technicolor spirals until what you have sounds less like a lazy day smoking joints than an evening of studying Mandelbrot sets on a dance floor:



Though I am not much for the power of da club I like it.

So, what is it that I’m hearing in this music? Well, recall that the most fascinating thing about fractal geometry is not the multi-colored neon in the computer models which illustrate it, and which have previously decorated Grateful Dead albums and the homes of potheads everywhere. Rather, the most fascinating thing about fractal geometry is its applications for understanding nature. Image of this Romanesco cauliflower via the UMass Boston computer science department website; images of leaves via me:


berlin11 berlin10 berlin13

I expect we’ll be hearing a lot more about Zomby in the US now that Animal Collective have featured him on the cover of their guest edited issue of The Fader.

As for next steps to digging this kind of music? Might I recommend the work of fellow travelers from Los Angeles like Flying Lotus (whose connection is explicit having released material on the Hyperdub label), and J. Dilla (who is more of an ancestor, having passed away in 2006). As befits two African-American residents of Los Angeles, both are more rooted in hip-hop than Britain’s tradition of abstract dance music. But the whole lot of it = excellent.



Mia Doi Todd (remixed by Flying Lotus) “MY ROOM IS WHITE”

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis  

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