December 3, 2010 at 4:26 pm

Ten Years of Dorkbot: PalmPilot Music, Kinky Americans and More

Dorks, geeks, and other smartypants New Yorkers gathered in downtown Manhattan for the tenth-anniversary Dorkbot event on Wednesday night, where they were treated to three presentations from Dorkbot legends recounting their creations over the past decade of the event’s existence.

The big idea: to “celebrate 10 years of hot nerd on geek action.”

Attendees saw some really neat stuff, ranging from the legendary Swinger to Luke DuBois’ fascinating A More Perfect Union, which remaps the country, replacing town names with the most popular adjectives from online dating sites in that particular area.

Fair warning: This post ended up being by far the longest we’ve published in the short history of Evolver.fm, so you might want to read it in installments. There was just too much interesting stuff going on. Sorry. Here’s what we saw, following an introduction by Dorkbot founder Douglas Repetto, in order of appearance:

Brian Whitman: From 30 to 5 Million Listeners

The Echo Nest co-founder Brian Whitman, who gave the very first Dorkbot presentation on December 6, 2000, led with the same thing he presented back then: music composition and performance tools for PalmPilot called Handheld-music and Capers (The Echo Nest publishes Evolver.fm). Don’t get it twisted: while music-creation apps for the iPhone are all the rage now, handheld music performance actually saw its genesis on the Palm platform, which included MIDI support right out of the gate — something the iPhone only recently managed to add:

That same year, Whitman also debuted another handheld music project. The Pushpin Game Boy Color MIDI Synthesizer (right), created in collaboration with Noah Vawter, allowed the user to control sounds on the Game Boy from any MIDI keyboard, synthesizer or software.

This let those with the requisite skills perform original “retro-video-game” music with two square waves, a noise channel, a programmable sound wave channel, and other niceties probably too complicated for non-music-hackers to get their heads around.

PushPin Audio Sample

By Whitman’s reckoning, only two musicians ever used the above tools to make music, and only 30 people ever heard the music they created, including 18 attendees of a live performance at The Knitting Factory.  His next creation, a collaboration with Ethan Bordeaux, Ben Recht and Noah Vawter called Chiclet, enjoyed slightly wider distribution.

Presented at the November 2002 Dorkbot, Chiclet was a “tiny and powerful hardware platform for algorithmic synthesis and composition” that combined a variety of sine waves to make haunting sounds. By making decisions about what to play based on what it has already played, Chiclet plays an ever-evolving song that lasts for 30 years:

Whitman estimates that the number of musicians who have ever used it doubled to four. He, Bordeaux, Recht and Vawter encased their creation in a slab of concrete and sent it to an art gallery in Barcelona, Spain where it appeared in an installation on opening night, but perhaps it was damaged on the flight, because it didn’t last anywhere near 30 years.

“It broke within three hours,” recalls Whitman. “And it was encased in a concrete block, so there was nothing they could do about it.”

Still, progress had been made. Between Dorkbot attendees and visitors to the Spanish art gallery, an estimated 100 people heard Chiclet… until now — listen here:

Music Concrete Audio Sample

After that, Whitman decided his creations warranted wider circulation.

“By my third trip to Dorkbot, I was pissed off,”  he joked. “I wanted more people to experience things. I decided, ‘Forget this, I’m going to make beautiful music with machine learning.’”

“I made this thing called Eigenmusic, [which in turn made] a Christmas album called A Singular Christmas, which was a computer trying to figure out what Christmas music sounded like by listening to it all at once and trying to generate a new Christmas song.”

The results do sound beautiful, if unlike any Christmas carol you’ve heard before:

The Echo Nest co-founder Brian Whitman walks Dorkbot 2010 through his presentations (photo: Eliot Van Buskirk).

2004′s A Singular Christmas was very well-received, with over half a million listeners, who found it through (my former employer) Wired Magazine, a solid Pitchfork review, and the BBC.

Clearly, things were moving in the right direction, but Whitman’s next co-creation would draw yet more attention.

With MIT Media Lab co-PhD Tristan Jehan, Whitman launched The Echo Nest, a music intelligence platform that powers all sorts of neat stuff, including a Remix API that allows musical software engineer-types to manipulate existing songs with a high degree of control. One manifestation of The Echo Nest’s Remix API, The Swinger, convincingly gives any song a “swing”  by stretching the first half of every beat and shortening the second half [updated]:


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Between The Swinger, Put a Donk on It, More CowbellJames Brown Forever, and other creations, The Echo Nest’s Remix API has found an estimated audience of about two million listeners so far, following mentions on BoingBoing and elsewhere.

Whitman pegs the number of musicians, listeners, and “children conceived” even higher for The Echo Nest’s full collection of APIs, which is used by thousands of programmers at Music Hack Days held around the globe and by independent programmers from the commercial and non-commercial sectors:

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Luke DuBois: Turning Online Dating Sites into Map of Desire

Luke DuBouis at Wednesday's Dorkbot meet-up (photo: Douglas Repetto).

Up next was Luke DuBois of Cycling ’74, who likewise took attendees on a tour of his past Dorkbot creations before presenting a sneak-peak of his next fascinating project, which maps the United States based on online dating profiles (more on that below).

“Back in the 20th century, I had this laptop,” said DuBois, “and the very first thing I presented at Dorkbot, which I’ll just show you very briefly, because I don’t know how to use it anymore, is a thing I wrote with Mark McNamara called ‘The Chez.’”

At the core of that app was Jitter — live video processing software he created with a team of other music software engineers in San Francisco and New York, which became part of Cycling ’74′s Max/MSP, an incredibly powerful, configurable music software enabling everything from customized virtual synthesizers to a rock band called The Guitar Zeros, who used it to make real music with Guitar Hero controllers.

If you already know what Jitter and Max/MSP are, you already know how important they are. For the rest of us mere mortals, DuBois’ next project, like Whitman’s later work, likely has a wider appeal. To create it, he had to impersonate every gender identity in every zipcode in the United States.

“I found myself unexpectedly single, so I decided to try online dating,” joked DuBois. “I tried to figure out which one to join… and couldn’t… so what I decided to do was join all of them.”

He ended up joining every dating site in the country from every U.S. zipcode, registering profiles for both sexes as straight, gay, bi-sexual and trans-gendered in order to ensure that he had scraped every single dating profile out there. DuBois compiled this data about the nation’s 16.7 million online daters into a massive database on a single hard drive, then crunched that data to determine which words people were using to describe themselves, by town.

“I decided to create my own census using this data from online dating sites, called ‘A More Perfect Union,’” said DuBois. “I can tell you how many people in your Congressional district are shy… ‘sexy’… ‘bored,’ or ‘lonely’… I can also tell you that men on the eastern side of Long Island are more interested in being spanked than men on the western side of Long Island.”

DuBois and his team of hard-working invisible software robots analyzed the data by location to determine which word the people in each town tended to use more than any other town in the country to describe themselves. “A More Perfect Union” is not fully online yet, but DuBois has already posted some fascinating results.

For instance, self-descriptors in the Bay Area included “postmodern, flamboyant, gender, subconscious, robot, and folksy,” among others:

Central California concerned itself with “afternoon, purpose, pride, spirituality, and architecture”:

Online daters in the Los Angeles area, on the other hand, are all about “career, fashion, director, television, writer, acting, beauty, industry” and other terms you might expect to find there:

Moving over to the eastern seaboard, online dating Americans in New York need everything “now” — but they also like it “fancy, skeptical, and overdressed”:

Floridians in the greater Miami area describe themselves with words like “boat, sunny, Latino, escort, honest, and sea”:

Meanwhile, Madison, Wisconsin tends to describe itself as “pierced” more than any other United States town:

Finally, looking at the entire country, DuBois’ “A Perfect Union” study found that areas in the lower middle area of the country were most likely to describe themselves as “kinky”:

These are only the initial findings. Check perfect.lukedubois.com for further updates and fully-browse-able maps.

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Photo: Douglas Repetto

Tali Hinkis and Kyle Lapidus: LoVid VHS Video Mixer

Rounding out the evening was LoVid, an  “interdisciplinary artist duo” consisting of a couple: Tali Hinkis’ and Kyle Lapidus’ LoVid. To celebrate the tenth anniversary of Dorkbot, LoVid planned to use their VHS video mixer to combine the video they showed at their first Dorkbot festival a few years back.

As can happen with (relatively) ancient analog equipment, they encountered a technical snag, apparently in the form of one of the VHS machines not working properly. Still, LoVid’s video mixer did display some interesting forms (example to the right), as attendees lined up for free beer and pizza.

Sound good?

Dorkbots happen all over the world, and as this retrospective proved beyond a doubt, people present some pretty interesting stuff there. To attend, find the chapter nearest you.