Eleven Favourite Quotes from “Permacomputing”

Apologies for the clickbait format, which is hardly in keeping with the concepts I’ve been absorbing from Ville-Matias “Viznut” Heikkilä’s remarkable recent article. Think of it not as a push for attention on an ephemeral feed, but respectfully memorialising another’s inspiring vision here on my own site.

Today I will summarise some of that piece’s most remarkable insights for you. I’ll react to quotes, picked for their awesomeness, in turn.

(My WordPress stats suggest that most visitors are here for the jazz content. If that’s you, you are most welcome to stick to that stuff. But consider reading on to ponder alternative visions of the internet and entertainment technology that makes this very blog possible.)

BTW, Viznut is not writing in his first language, and uses “would” where “should” might be more idiomatic, when discussing idealistic futures.

Let’s go!

1. Computers have been failing their utopian expectations. Instead of amplifying the users’ intelligence, they rather amplify their stupidity. Instead of making it possible to scale down the resource requirements, the have instead become a major part of the problem. Instead of making the world more comprehensible, they rather add to its incomprehensibility.

Pessimistic, yet I agree. “Amplifying stupidity” is quite precisely what Twitter does, intentionally spreading wildfires of outrage through our nerves and networks. ICT is projected to take up between 8% and 20% of all energy worldwide by 2030. And incomprehensibility… Jesus. I feel so strongly about how non-technical folk (my parents, for a start) are made fearful and humiliated by corporate tech like antivirus software, operating systems, bank and telecoms billing, touchscreen interfaces, and so on. Yet technologists (I’m one myself) always blindly return to their comfort zone: abstractions, services, always-on internet, new languages and upgrades and frameworks. “Increased controllability and resource use.” And increased incomprehensibility, infantilisation and frustration for everyone else.

Am I being hypocritical? Totally. I depend on myriad frameworks and the seemingly-invisible, actually aggressively-corporate-sponsored development work that keeps big platforms, and our whole civilisation, going. The point is not to deny that but rather observe it and judge it from a dispassionate viewpoint, asking what do we really need, in the long term?

2. Permaculture trusts in human ingenuity in finding clever hacks for turning problems into solutions, competition into co-operation, waste into resources. Very much the same kind of creative thinking I appreciate in computer hacking.

So, Viznut turns to permaculture, a gardening philosophy. Actually, in my long list of article ideas for this site, is one about how my grandfather manages his large garden, despite being in his mid-80s. The point was that due to an inherent rightness in his methods and tools, and a humble reliance on nature to do the work, his garden is still productive and pleasant no matter how physically weak he gets. His work is opportunistic and adaptive. Son-in-law visiting? Make him sharpen my tools. Grandson loafing about the house? Get him to plant lettuces, or pull down vines. Can’t walk much? Put a trailer on the lawnmower. Even when sinking into decay, everything still works, just at a lower level. His old greenhouse, lean-tos and cages are merely waiting for when he has the energy to put one or the other to use.

What has that to do with staring at a screen and tapping away at a keyboard?

3. Any community that uses a technology should develop a deep relationship to it. Instead of being framed for specific applications, the technology would be allowed to freely connect and grow roots to all kinds of areas of human and non-human life.

Could technology – or one or a few specific, locally chosen technologies – fit into our lives like a well-stewarded garden? Like leaving a garden to grow in rain and sun, we would let it do what it’s good at. When resources were at hand we would apply them, if not we could wait. We could deploy it in new ways all the time, like using a garden for meals, sunbathing, athletics, meditation, crafting, cooking, drawing, retreat, nature watching and so on. Even with minimal maintenance it would function, while occasional bouts of serious group work would provide exercise, catharsis and new directions.

Dream on, Kevin.

But I’m basing these ideas off a real scene, as Viznut does with the demoscene. Since about 12 or 13 I’ve been interested in Quake modding, a scene in which enthusiasts create new levels, monster types, versions and toolchains for the first person shooter game, Quake (1996, id Software). There’s something more than a little amazing about how this online community has grown while nurturing a set of powerful, well-maintained software tools, and releasing hundreds of fun things to play. Which also provides a strong, common base for engineering experiments. All with no money changing hands!! Just people doing things out of pleasure and dedication, making the world better.

The DOOM community, based around a similar but earlier and simpler game, is if anything even more broadly creative and supportive.

I won’t go on – I think you get how I feel about this.

4. At times of low energy, both hardware and software would prefer to scale down…. At these time, people would prefer to do something else than interact with computers.

This is where the radicalism comes in. Viznut doesn’t believe our current civilisation can continue. His is a worldview directly in opposition to values we absorb in school, college courses, news, and so on. (For example, in my one-year computer science course, it was absolutely unquestioned that e.g. ever-increasing virtualisation and cloud storage, or working in a monopolistic platform giant, were desirable things.) None of my close friends, who work in engineering or finance, would find it digestible. I haven’t read up myself on degrowth ideologies although I did learn a lot from the fearsomely knowledgeable Dutchman Kris De Decker who runs Low Tech Magazine. But the highly unpalatable idea is that we’ll all have to stop depending on things we’re used to: unlimited flashy content, new phones and personal gadgets, and quite a lot more; because they take too much energy which ruins the planet.

5. People would be aware of where their data is physically located and prefer to have local copies of anything they consider important.

There are countless ways, most of them still undiscovered, to make low and moderate data complexities look good…. For extreme realism, perfection, detail and sharpness, people would prefer to look at nature.

My quick take on this is I don’t know. I don’t know if Viznut is right. However, my intuition says yes, it is healthier to check out some bark patterns, dewdrops and butterflies in your local park, than clicking through 1080p videos on YT. And that yes, something doesn’t add up when Google offers to host gigs and gigs of my data forever on a server for free, even though it would be a notable responsibility and an effort if I resolved to keep it safe on a disc at home.

(Y’know, on that seemingly facetious point about going outside: I think that could be the unexpected philosophical realisation from our constant exposure to high-quality computer graphics – yes, we human beings like looking at realistic, crisp, crunchy visuals… and they’re all around us, all day long, lit by the sun for our convenience.)

More broadly: maybe the saturation of network bandwidth and processor power that now surrounds us is neither necessary nor desirable? Maybe this thing that we’ve had for the last ten years and not in the preceding ten millenia isn’t yet being used right. Maybe we don’t benefit enough from guaranteed industrial strength computing and data streaming at our fingertips day and night, to justify the environmental cost.

6. Integrated circuit fabrication requires large amounts of energy, highly refined machinery and poisonous substances. Because of this sacrifice, the resulting microchips should be treasured like gems or rare exotic spices.

A great way of putting it! The demoscene that Viznut came from is all about getting the utmost from old technology and systems instead of relying on Moore’s Law. So he has come up with a sound justification for this aesthetic interest, which can often otherwise relapse into mere nostalgia. He’s careful not to tie himself to “junk fetishism” as an end in itself.

7. The space of technological possibilities is not a road or even a tree: new inventions do not require “going forward” or “branching on the top” but can often be made from even quite “primitive” elements.

And here’s a justification for playing with old tech, from the point of view of innovation. It does make sense. Again, what I like about Viznut’s writing is the confident, autodidactic, outsider’s perspective. From there I can look at computing, whether enterprise systems or game modding or web content management, quite afresh.

8. Computer systems should make their own inner workings as observable as possible.

Another lofty ideal. I am strongly, instinctively behind this one. In all the software I’ve coded, I came back to real-time feedback as a tool again and again. Observing changes in a feedback loop suits my short attention span. In my computer science course, I most enjoyed the sensation of tunneling into the depths of a system and making them comprehensible and useful. Even a routine backend database like I made for my e-commerce project gives me this pleasurable feeling.

My site (made for a college project) plucking content from a backend database.

9. Any community that uses computers would have the ability to create its own software.

I interpret this not as a call for us all to be hackers, or teaching “kids to code”. Rather I think it’s a call for a smooth continuum of complexity to be available, from newbie use to full control of building the software. For example, I would say Excel formulas, Access pivot tables, and any kind of macros are an absolutely legit place to start programming. Same with game modding, or shell scripting, LaTeX, whatever. (This philosophy developed from ideas from the lovely, now-defunct blog by James Hague.)

The tricky part is for each level of complexity to bleed naturally into the next, tempting the learner to try new things.

This is where gated platforms, whether that’s FB posts or software on the cloud, can be the enemy of creativity. I’ve discussed that issue before.

10. The ideal wieldiness [of a program] may be compared to that of a musical instrument. The user would develop a muscle-memory-level grasp of the program features, which would make the program work like an extension of the user’s body (regardless of the type of input hardware).

Not much to say to that, except that most of the programs we use day to day haven’t reached that standard.

11. Artificial intellects should not be thought about as competing against humans in human-like terms. Their greatest value is that they are different from human minds and thus able to expand the intellectual diversity of the world.

Viznut’s interest in AI was perhaps the most disconcerting part of his article and the one that changed my outlook the most.

For the last few years I’ve viewed AI as a tech buzzword whose visible manifestations (neural upscaling, Google DeepMind, GPT-3) are distinguished by aesthetic hideousness. And as you might gather, fear underlies that dismissal. I found the thought of AI disturbing.

Viznut gave me a different view. While emphasising the computational expense of training machine-learning systems, he mostly views AI as a welcome new type of entity for us to exist with. Criticising it for being inhuman isn’t saying anything. Rather it can be judged by how well it helps us humans to survive. Pragmatic, yet (in a nice change from how we started this piece) optimistic stuff!

Thanks for reading!

[Cover image is nabbed from Kris De Decker’s astounding Low Tech Magazine website. Do yourself a favour!]

A Bass Practice Setup in Reaper

A satisfying practice session can involve many subtasks. I’ve been using the music production program, Reaper, to conveniently manage some of these. In this post I’ll go through my setup. It’s a work in progress. Eventually, I want to have a friendly and supportive digital environment for my creative mind, something to help sustain the musical work I’m doing and minimise clicking around on the computer.

My setup uses one free VST plugin, some drum samples I found for free, three plugins that came with Reaper, the webcam software that was bundled with my (Dell, Windows) laptop, and Reaper itself. An unlimited licence to Reaper costs €60 for personal or small business use, that’s the only thing I paid for. Here’s what it looks like in action:

It took me a while to figure out the arrangement of screen space, so I’ll go through it bit by bit. The aim was to minimise mouse clicks and maximise time with my hands on my bass. This setup is what I leave running as I play.

  1. These are the basic track controls for the recording of my bass. Sometimes I use monitoring i.e. listening to the bass sound as it comes out of Reaper through my speakers, rather than my bass amp – but usually not. Using monitoring would allow use of effects, but there’s still perceptible latency (in the low two digits milliseconds) which I don’t like. I record everything and throw it out after. I keep my amp plugged into my soundcard all the time. I suspect this habit of recording everything may have led to some recent slight corruption errors on my hard drive, because recording involves constant drive access and I left it running for a few hours at a time more than once, by accident. So I put a recording time limit of 45 minutes in my default project options.
  2. My teacher in Amsterdam years ago, David de Marez Oyens, recommended using the waveform of recorded bass as a visual aid to check one’s playing, but I only realised how powerful it is recently. Seeing the waveform instantly gives information on note length and attack, timing and perhaps most of all dynamics. The consistency of my playing has improved from routinely having the waveform on the screen.
  3. The webcam image of my lovely self provides a check on my posture and particularly hand position (especially fretting hand wrist angle and finger curvature). As I’ve had health issues in the past from bad technique, this is a bit of a godsend.
  4. Reaper has a handy tap tempo function so I can click here to change the project tempo (i.e. if I want a slightly different metronome tempo).
  5. Assuming I pressed record at the start, this shows how long my practice session has lasted.
  6. Transport controls to start and stop recording, say if I’m listening back to myself or whatever. Eh, my point is that I don’t allow any of the other windows to cover this up.
  7. This is a cool little thing I discovered recently. You can “expose parameters”, or as I like to say “expose the knobs”, which means putting in a little dial in the track control which will control a parameter in one of the track’s FX plugins. In this case, this little dial controls what pattern my drum sequencer is on – here 0, which is an empty pattern and so plays nothing. But I can load up the sequencer with various patterns like a dance beat, claves, hip hop beat or whatever, and choose between them with this knob, without having to keep the sequencer window open.
  8. Track controls for the drums and metronome, if I need to adjust levels or whatever.
  9. I have lost probably about ten electronic tuners in my life. I just leave them behind routinely at gigs. So a digital solution is nice to have. Reaper’s standard “ReaTune” plugin works grand for bass once you turn up the window size to 100 milliseconds to allow for those big fat bass wavelengths.
  10. For drums and click I use the bundled plugin “JS: MIDI Sequencer Megababy” which is a nice piece of software. It takes a bit of learning as it uses a lot of keyboard shortcuts and some of its design choices aren’t immediately evident, but it’s great and minimises the clicks needed to input a rhythm (because you don‘t have to put in a new MIDI item). The controls could be easily used to manage polymetrically related click tempos (“okay put the metronome once every two and half bars of 4”).
  11. This purple horizontal bar is the click rhythm, in case I wanted to throw in a clave or something here. I could similarly display the current drum machine sequence, but it would take more screen space than this single bar, and also I don’t want my practising to be derailed by drum programming. For the same reason, I haven’t prioritised ease of adding or replacing drum samples – another rabbit hole.

To summarise, this setup lets me have the following functions available at all times as I play:
Tuner
Metronome
Drum machine with preset beats
Waveform visualisation
Video of myself

The plugins I use are:
JS: MIDI Sequencer Megababy (Cockos)
ReaTune (Cockos)
shortcircuit (Vember Audio) (a nice sampler)

Another function I haven’t tried yet would be putting in sound files to play along with (in full or looped). I used to use Audacity for this but it’d be easily done in Reaper.

The main downside from a user interface point of view is that each time after I change anything in Reaper or start recording, I have to click on the webcam software to open up that window again. Another thing is that changing tempo confuses things if done mid-recording and so necessitates a stop and a few clicks, although I could perhaps change some options to mitigate that.

Okay that’s it, I hope you enjoyed the tour. Feel free to comment about any software or configurations you use for practising!