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First Contact

Hoping for a kind E.T.

September 27th, 2019 | Science | | Comments: 0

As it concerns the first time we make contact with creatures not of this world…

  1. I can’t wait. Finally, something new in this world.
  2. I’m a bit terrified. You non-earthlings are likely much smarter than us proud, precocious primates. Please don’t kill us. I’d like to get to know you and want to learn how to communicate with you.
  3. We (humankind) haven’t made very many good movies or television shows about anyone who isn’t from here. For the record, I had nothing to do with any of these productions. Those people were just trying to sell tickets.
  4. Please don’t judge us by our leaders. They are mostly megalomaniac buffoons that none of us actually like. They are people that had no real friends in school. They are highly incompetent, undesirable, and self-seeking. The ones that aren’t that way don’t make it past the primaries. My dear extra-terrestrials, imagine if your sewer systems were anthropomorphized and given titles like Master Captain of the Poop Brigade. That’s kind of how it is determined who will “lead” us. The ” character used in the former sentence indicates that the word enclosed by those characters is a way of expressing a fabulously dissatisfactory falling short of the ideal. In other words, our leaders are idiots, which is an English word for turds who belong in a sewer system. At your earliest convenience please feel free to relieve us of our lemon-cotton-candy-topped Cheeto-in-chief. He’s basically one of the worst one of us.
  5. If anyone not from Earth has any life pro tips, please comment below. Humans, I’ve heard the best arguments we have, so unless it’s extremely novel, puhlease abstain from commenting. Thanks.
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Tympanic Reflex

Musicians, your ears are trying to protect you from hearing loss. Let them do their job and keep you healthy by keeping both of your in-ear monitors in.

a visual pun - earbuds that are timpani drums

This is a visual pun. The design is intentionally bad.

As a musician that uses in-ear monitors (IEM), the tympanic reflex is a topic I regularly think about, but can never remember the name of it. I should file this article under “personal reminders.” I’m writing about it here so I can find it faster in the future.

What is tympanic reflex?

Our bodies have a natural protection mechanism built into our ears that tries to prevent hearing loss from loud noises. I’m not an audiologist, but from what I understand, the tympanic reflex is an involuntary reaction that temporarily muffles the transmission of louder sounds by contracting some inner ear muscles. Unfortunately, the reflex is not immediate; it takes about 40 milliseconds to kick in, which is why very sudden loud noises like gunshots, explosions, snare drum hits, and shouts can still do a lot of damage. But the reflex does help (to some degree) to reduce damage from sustained loud noises.

Why should musicians care about tympanic reflex?

Many musicians now use IEMs instead of stage wedge speakers to monitor audio in live performances. IEMs can help solve a lot of problems that stages wedges present. IEMs can help reduce overall stage volume, prevent hearing damage, allow musicians to hear exactly what they need or want to hear better, and provide click tracks or guide tracks that the audience can’t hear.

However, to provide these benefits, good IEMs completely seal off the “outside world”—an auditory experience which can be quite alienating for performers. This disconnecting feeling drives many musicians to play with only one “ear” in. Best of both worlds, right? Nope. The bad news is that the tympanic reflex doesn’t kick in when our ears hear a loud noise isolated in one ear. Our bodies didn’t evolve to adapt to such an unnatural experience, so we can’t benefit from the natural protective effects of the tympanic reflex in such a scenario.


Musicians, please wear both IEMs. It’s all or nothing if we want to protect our hearing over time. I know a few of my fellow musicians that have hearing loss due to wearing only one earbud. Protect yourself before you wreck yourself.

If you are looking for IEMs, there are tons of options now. I have some Shure E2 earbuds I got a while ago. They’re alright. I don’t love or hate them. I know there are better options out there now (prices correlating with quality). Shure has lots of newer options. Tons of consumer-grade options exist. For professionals, I hear a lot about IEMs from Westone and Future Sonics.


I first read about the tympanic reflex in this article In-Ear Monitors: Tips of the Trade by Keith Gordon. I was researching best practices for IEMs and discovered some valuable tips there. Check it out.

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Big, Bright, and Hot

Just wanted to point out how huge the Sun is. That’s all.

Me playing slide guitar in front of a bonfire. Photography by Ben Gilliom.

Indiana is hot today – really hot – maybe a record setter. News outlets are saying that in Colorado wild fires are crawling across mountains and consuming neighborhoods. The heat and fires have me thinking about something I often think about: how big and hot the Sun has to be for it to be this hot and bright here on Earth.

Being a country boy, I’ve attended a fair number of bonfires. Some of them have featured quite enormous, roaring fires. Yet, no matter how big the fires have been, the heat and light quickly drop off just yards away and the night remains dark, cold, and unaffected.

I haven’t measured this myself, but I’m told that on average the Earth orbits somewhere around 92,960,000 miles from the Sun. That’s a long way away (approximately 1 astronomical unit). The Sun is so far away that it takes about 8 minutes for the Sun’s light (which coincidentally travels at the speed of light 299,792,458 miles/second) to reach us here on Earth. So compared to the bonfires I’ve seen, I think about how big that burning ball of fire we call the Sun must be for it to be this hot and light out here. Amazing.

Even more amazing: compared to other stars in the Universe, the Sun isn’t even a very big star.

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Tomato Artichoke Salad

Here’s a fresh tasting salad that’s as incredibly delicious as it is verifiably healthy.

After taking this picture, I ate the entire bowl by myself.

The Story Behind This Recipe

Some time ago, I watched a TED talk by Dr. William Li called “Can We Eat To Starve Cancer?” Around that same time, Whole Foods was promoting a nutrition ranking system by Eat Right America called ANDI. I couldn’t help but notice the glaringly obvious similarities between Dr. Li’s list of cancer-fighting foods and the ANDI Superfoods list. So, I decided to change my diet to include more of these naturally healthy and delicious foods. That I already loved many of these foods didn’t hurt the cause either. 😉

After returning from the supermarket with a load of super foods late one night (which is the perfect time to go grocery shopping), my appetite was… “heightened.” So, I decided to make a little snack using the ingredients I had just purchased. I quickly chopped up some stuff and threw it in a bowl. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting much because I didn’t give this concoction much thought, but I knew I had discovered something after that first bite. This recipe kind of feels like a home run – or maybe even a grand slam. It’s easy, fast, delicious, and healthy. You can’t ask for much more than that.


  • 6-8 campari tomatoes – quartered
  • 1 (12 oz.) jar marinated artichoke hearts – quartered
  • 1/2 C. flat leaf parsley – roughly chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic – crushed or finely minced
  • 1 T. dry or fresh oregano
  • 1 lemon – zested and juiced
  • 1 T. olive oil
  • sea salt & fresh cracked black pepper (to taste)


In a large bowl, zest and juice the lemon over the garlic and oregano to kick start the marinating process. Pour the liquid from the artichokes in the bowl. Quarter the tomatoes and artichokes into similar size pieces and chop the parsley. Dress with some good olive oil and a little salt & pepper. Stir to combine. Allow the magic to marinate for as long as you can stand. Usually I can only wait about 10 minutes, but if you have patience you can prepare this recipe day ahead of time.

Serves 4-5 adults (or 1, if you’re me).

Download this recipe in PDF Format!

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Height, Width, Depth, Length

What is the proper way to use these common every day measurement terms?

Black and white photograph of the Cloud Gate in Millenium Park, Chicago, IllinoisThere doesn’t seem to be definitive consensus on the matter of the proper way to use the terms height (H), width (W), depth (D), and length (L) when describing the dimensions of things. Usually we are left to sort out which dimension each term is describing on a per object basis. This is stupid.

A Real World Problem

I need cases for my studio monitors. Touring is not very friendly to delicate reference speakers, so proper cases are kind of important. Since the manufacturer of these particular monitors does not make cases, I had to look to other manufacturers for appropriately sized cases. In the specifications for the monitors the manufacturer lists their product in H x W X D dimensions. That’s fine, but one case manufacturer lists their product in H x L x W. Another manufacturer lists their cases in H x L x D. That makes immediate identification of a properly sized case a bit difficult. The fact that some manufacturers list their products in imperial measures while others use the metric system complicates things too, but I’ll save that for another day.

Isn’t it funny that we don’t have standardized language for something as common as measuring the size of things? To be clear, this isn’t necessarily a science problem, but a linguistic problem. Science has created a variety of coordinate systems to make sure we send rockets in the right direction, but for every day use we don’t have a standard system of common words. I love the English language, but it is rife with deficiencies. Don’t get me started on the lack of a “grammatically correct” gender-neutral third person singular pronoun. Grammarians, if you’re reading this, stop complaining about the misuse of “they” and SOLVE THE PROBLEM.

Back to dimensions.

A Plan of Action

In most cases, an object’s dimensions can be described using Cartesian, cylindrical, or spherical coordinate systems with words we already know and love. If an object is roughly box–shaped, orient the object so you’re looking directly at it’s forward-facing orientation and describe it as if you’re looking at it from the “front.” This means you’ll have to determine which side is the front. Most things have one. If your object doesn’t, then it’s probably not useful and should be recycled. (Kidding.) For example, studio monitors are useful because their front side houses speakers which emit sound.

H x W x D

Using Height, Width, and Depth (in that order), make your measurements. Roughly 3 out of 4 objects in this world can be described this way.

  • Width = X-axis (left to right) derived from wide
  • Height* = Y-axis (bottom to top) derived from high
  • Depth = Z-axis (front to back) derived from deep

H x W x L

If an object is really long in one dimension but still boxy (e.g. lumber, french fries), use Length (L) instead of Depth. The word “length” comes from the word “long.”

  • Length = the long side of an object

D/R/C x L

If an object is long but round instead of boxy (e.g. guitar cable, baseball bat, spaghetti), use Diameter (D), Radius (R), or Circumference (C) (usually in that order of preference) and Length. If it’s something like a drinking glass or flag pole, use H x D/R/C.

  • Diameter = the width of the widest distance across a circle
  • Radius = distance from the center to the edge of a circle
  • Circumference = the length of the edge of a circle if it was stretched out into a straight line

The Ball Method

If an object doesn’t have any boxy sides and is mostly round like a ball, use the Ball Method. Describe your object by choosing a ball that’s roughly the same size. Hail and cancer are the most common things to be measured this way, but it’s used for all sorts of things. They are good because they are self-explanatory. Here are some of the most common sizes. Pick one.

  • The tip of a ballpoint pen
  • A pencil eraser
  • No bigger than the tip of your pinky finger
  • A golf ball
  • A baseball
  • A softball
  • A basketball
  • A watermelon
  • A medicine ball
  • One of those cages they do motorcycle stunts in
  • The shiny silver thing in Chicago that looks like the ship from Flight of the Navigator
  • That space ball ride at Epcot
  • The Moon
  • Your mom

Now for the sake of progress, can we all agree on this and get back to doing whatever it was we were doing before we had to sort this out? Good. Glad we worked through it.

* The Word Nazis tell us that the word ‘height’ doesn’t have a -th on the end of it, but it should, if we follow logical convention. Can we at least downgrade it from grammatical sin? From now on, if you say, “heighth,” I say, “How high?”

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Future Music Debate: Beyond Analog vs. Digital

A response to the question “After Analog vs. Digital, what will we fight about in the future?”

As part of their “#DJChat,” German audio equipment manufacturer Behringer asked this question on Twitter:

…Analog vs. Digital is a debate that will always continue. But in the future, what technology will we move on to AFTER digital? 😀 #DJChat

It’s an interesting concept. The wars between analog and digital rage on because they are systems separated by technologies that both have pros and cons. As technology progresses, what new pros and cons will we have to debate against older systems? Initially I answered with the following:

@BEHRINGER future: Cerebral vs. Digital. Was it made entirely “in the box (aka your head)” or did you collab with other humans and devices?

Realizing there’s much more to this debate than just a tweet, I thought I’d talk more about it here.

We Need Better Words to Describe How We’ll Make Music in the Future

In my original tweet, I used the phrase “Cerebral vs. Digital” to describe the future debate I imagine will happen. Maybe my choice of opposites wasn’t perfect. Better words can probably be found. This concept of diametrics I have in mind could be expressed in a variety of ways.

  1. Cerebral vs. Physical
  2. Solitary vs. Collaborative
  3. Internal vs. External

Each of those word combinations is describing the same contrast of ideas. But how to best describe it?

Composite image of music flowing from a girls mind.

The New System of Mind Music

In the (maybe not so distant) future, musicians will have the ability to directly output music from their heads. Technology will be developed that will allow artists to simply think/imagine/hear the music in his/her head and output this as audio and/or notation. This cerebrally generated “audio feed” could be routed (maybe even wirelessly) to a recording device to be documented, distributed, and sold. Theoretically, this process could happen as a live performance. The signal could be routed to a sound system for a concert, to an internet connection for worldwide streaming, or even directly injected (almost telepathically) into the head of a “listener” outfitted with the proper “receiver” device.

The possibilities are fantastic. Composers could direct an entire imaginary orchestra as they hear it in their minds. Dancers could dance to their own music in real time. Musicians could play exactly what they intend to play. Singers could sing in whatever voices they can imagine. Handicapped artists suddenly would be unrestricted by their handicaps.

This is not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. If we already can control toy helicopters with our thoughts, then it’s only a matter of time before we can output music directly from our minds. UPDATE (2011-09-23): This just in… UC Berkeley neuroscientist Professor Jack Gallant announced today that it’s possible to recreate the video from brain activity.

This technological breakthrough in music will follow a path familiar to video games. With the Wii, Nintendo brought wireless motion-sensing accelerometer action to everyday people. The developers of Guitar Hero and Rock Band banked a lot of cash by making it really easy to “play” popular music without having to learn an instrument. Microsoft’s Kinect for Xbox removed the need for a controller, allowing the person to become the controller. I don’t know who will create the first mind-controlled music technology, but somebody’s going to do it.

Brace Yourselves

Cool meant something totally different back then. Don’t judge.

As with any change, it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Unfortunately, music will experience yet another Regrettable Period in which we have to learn how to use this new technology properly. I predict some gross and unsavory abuse of the technology, much like the ubiquity of terrible synthesizers in the 1980s or prevalence of auto-tuned vocals since Cher started believing in life after love. But some lucky artist is going to enjoy the honor of being known as the one that mastered this wonderful new system, thus becoming the “Grand Master Flash of whatever-this-thing-may-become-known-as.” Someone will figure out how to use it right, but it might take some time. In the meantime, wear earplugs.

Why We’ll Argue About This

At first, this newfangled gadgetry will be heralded as the end of “real” music and musicianship. The critics will say it’s too easy and not authentic music. Traditional composers and invested players will complain that no one has to learn how to write or play anymore. And much in the same way that digital was derided as a poor substitute for analog, purists will say that this cerebral form loses something in the process. Those arguments all might be right, but there may be a bigger issue lurking.

Trapped “In The Box”

When the process of making music becomes entirely internalized it will be really great because of it’s purity and singularity of thought, but will it simultaneously suffer from lack of external influences? When digital recording became popular, the question was often asked by one artist or engineer to another: “Was this all done ‘in the box?’” – meaning: was the audio signal created, mixed, and mastered on the same computer? Early on, music created entirely in this fashion lacked the beneficial effects that analog systems inherently imparted upon the audio signal. Today, the line has been blurred by better technology, so it’s harder to tell if something was recorded analog or digital. Only engineers with “golden ears” can hear the difference (even then I suspect shenanigans). At any rate, the question still remains: What benefits will be lost due to the signal remaining “in the box” of your head?

Potential Musical Influences

  1. People – The comradery, inspiration, ideas, criticism, differing views, and friction found when people work together often makes for better music. Being alone can lead to dead ends and boring or bad music. Collaboration can make beautiful things.
  2. Hardware – Though they are inanimate objects, the instruments and devices used to make music come with their own inspirations, challenges, rewards, frustrations to overcome, and occasional good glitches. Sometimes a piece of gear has to be conquered and relinquishes its magic upon defeat.
  3. Criticism – The critic is the archenemy of the artist, but every good story needs a villain. Without judgement, no work is ever as best as it can be. Words are often revealed for their folly only after they’ve left the head.
  4. Movement – Music and movement are very strongly related. When making music, movement is both part of the instigation of sound, but also a reaction to the sound being created. Performance and dance are like cousins. So if movement is not necessary for the creation of music, what effect will that have on the final product?

Good Things Will Happen

A lot of things can go wrong in this new system, but a lot of things can go right too. Eventually we’ll work out the kinks. We’ll figure out the typical pitfalls. We’ll master this medium like we have with all the others. One day amazing music will be generated using nothing but musicians’ brains. I’m hedging a bet it will be the direct output of some ridiculously young Mozart’s mind that will blow us all away. Perhaps this new interface will teach us something about how our brains work. Maybe it will allow us to communicate more precisely on ever deeper levels. What if it develops into a new universal language? Hmm.

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iPhone Rolling Shutter Captures Guitar String Oscillations

This is cool. My inner nerd had to come out and dance for bit. This is video by Kyle Jones, a designer, animator and illustrator from Nashville. Check out his website here and follow him on Twitter. He decided to record himself playing guitar using his iPhone from inside the guitar. Genius. Rejoice with me, […]

This is cool. My inner nerd had to come out and dance for bit. This is video by Kyle Jones, a designer, animator and illustrator from Nashville. Check out his website here and follow him on Twitter. He decided to record himself playing guitar using his iPhone from inside the guitar. Genius. Rejoice with me, all you audio and science loving geeks.

If you want to know why this strange wiggly string phenomenon happened, ask my cousin Chris Whonsetler, the photographer behind the beautiful images found on WhonPhoto.com. Here’s his blog entry about rolling shutters.

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