The Community Weblog. In byte-sized chunks.

Stepping out of the clown shoes

Libraries' Tech Pipeline Problem.

They're not human... yet

Mention Vocaloid, and most people think of this. But this is also a Vocaloid. As is this, and this. (warning: Youtube-heavy)

With her collaborations last year with the likes of Lady Gaga and Pharell Williams, as well as an appearance on the Late Show (previously), the Japanese Vocaloid superstar Hatsune Miku (Japanese product page) has been the focus of rising interest in mainstream Western media. Still, the idea of a truly synthetic pop star is somewhat problematic to most folks, and one of the biggest hurdles is Miku's robotic, high-pitched singing voice, as well as her inability to sing in comprehensible English. But what people don't necessarily realise is that singing voice synthesizing technology has been around for decades - the Vocaloid engine itself is over ten years old, and since then the quest for an ever more realistic-sounding Vocaloid has been going strong.

The very first Vocaloids (previously), LEON and LOLA, were English voice banks released back in 2004 by the Zero-G studio. They were followed quickly by MIRIAM, voiced by Miriam Stockley (of Adiemus fame). Later that same year, Crypton Future Media (the company that made Hatsune Miku) released MEIKO (now in her third iteration), the first Japanese Vocaloid, whose voice was provided by the singer Meiko Haigo.

The Zero-G Vocaloids met with a lukewarm reception, and their lack of sales in the US was blamed on their "British" accents. (Leon and Lola's voice providers are unknown, but Miriam Stockley is a South African-born British singer.) MEIKO, on the other hand, sold well in Japan (success being defined, apparently, by whether the product could sell 1000 units within the first year, and MEIKO sold more than 3000 units). She remained Crypton's bestselling Vocaloid until Hatsune Miku's release in 2007.

What made MEIKO so much more successful than Leon or Lola? The most obvious answer is language: English is a much more difficult language to vocalize than Japanese.

The English language itself is made up of about 20 vowel sounds and 24 consonant sounds. Also, English doesn't have a systematic orthography, so there is not a one-to-one or near one-to-one match between letters and sounds as it happens with other languages like the Spanish or Japanese...

VOCALOID and VOCALOID2, uses American spelling for the lyrics... However the phonetic notation doesn't follow this, and instead uses the Received Pronunciation written in X-SAMPA, with some minor modifications when it's required, like its the case of the allophones...

In some instances, Producers may be found to have adjusted VSQ and VSQX (VOCALOID format) files so heavily to make them work for 1 particular English VOCALOID that they become "VOCALOID specific" and are unable to work particularly well without further adjustments on other English VOCALOIDs. Cases like this are often rare in languages such as Japanese, though not foreign to them and many VSQ and VSQX files will work without too much adjusting.

Compelling though this argument may be, it does not fully explain the success of the Cryptonloids (short for Crypton Vocaloids). KAITO (voiced by Naoto Fuga) was developed as a complementary male voicebank for MEIKO, but didn't fare as well; his release in 2006 was infamous for being the one and only time a Crypton Vocaloid failed upon launch, having sold only 500 units in his first year. His failure has resulted in Crypton turning their focus almost exclusively on female Vocaloids. It's not really known why he failed initially; in 2007, he enjoyed a sudden revival of popularity, and he has since been hailed by Vocaloid song producers for the versatility of his voice and his compatibility with other Vocaloids. It's probably safe to say though that he failed because he was male, and people wanted female Vocaloids.

The perception of Vocaloids as robotic background singers incapable of carrying a song through by themselves changed with the release of the Vocaloid 2 engine in 2007. The sound of breathing, and the ability to tune the Vocaloid to create a more husky-sounding voice, were added to allow more realism. In addition, Megurine Luka, the first natively bilingual Vocaloid, was released. She was, in fact, meant to be the first Vocaloid for the Vocaloid 2 engine, but the schedules of her voice provider (voice actress Yuu Asakawa, who is fluent in both English and Japanese) clashed with those of Crypton, and she became the third voicebank released for Vocaloid 2. Hatsune Miku became the first, and the rest was history.

Interestingly, Crypton chose voice actors instead of professionally trained singers to provide the voices for Vocaloid 2, because they feared that the Vocaloids would overtake their human counterparts in popularity and thus ruin a real singer's career. Indeed, Yuu Asakawa, who voiced Luka, expressed vehement objection at the suggestion of a voice synthesiser realistic enough to take over the job of a radio personality. Naoto Fuga also disliked the first Vocaloids that he heard, although he has since embraced his fame as KAITO.

Those fears may not be completely unfounded. Among the plugins for Vocaloid 2 was a demo for VocaListener, which analysed a human's singing and automatically created estimated parameters based on it using the song lyrics. In other words, it allowed the Vocaloid to follow the inflections of the human singer almost perfectly. Although it has been released for the Vocaloid 3 engine, it's still not widely used, partly because it's still restricted to Japanese only and partly because Vocaloid fans thought that the Vocaloids' individual quirks and "personality" were lost when VocaListener was used.

It could be argued that when it comes to natural-sounding Vocaloids, the importance of language, gender and engine capabilities pale in comparison with the talent and ability of the person using the software, known in the Vocaloid community as Producers. With some skilled tuning, Producers can manipulate Vocaloids into emulating some degree of dynamics and even emotions. They can even make Japanese voicebanks sing heavily-accented English, and vice versa. But they have competition: following Luka's popularity as a bilingual Vocaloid, English voice banks have also been released for all of the other Cryptonloids. The level of realism is varied, depending on the voice provider's level of English ability.

But other studios have not been sitting on their hands while Crypton steams ahead in singing synthesizer technology. Internet Co., Ltd's GUMI (voiced by Megumi Nakajima)is widely thought to have the most realistic English voicebank of all the bilingual Japanese Vocaloids. IA (voiced by singer Lia) is at times almost indistinguishable from a real human's.

Even English Vocaloids are slowly making progress: Avanna has recently been released for the Vocaloid 3 engine, and is considered the most realistic English voicebank available. And with the Vocaloid 4 (warning: autoplay) engine recently released, these virtual singers can only get more realistic.

But here are some of the most realistic-sounding songs from the Vocaloids mentioned in this post, and you can judge for yourself how realistic Vocaloids have become over the years.

Take On Me by v3xman2

Fly Me To The Moon

Poem Weaved in Ruins by hinayukki/仕事してP
Amazing Grace (in English using Japanese V1 voicebank) by Nanameue-P
Love Is War

Byakkoya no Musume (The Girl In Byakkoya) - cover of theme song from Paprika by Susumu Hirasawa, which itself features LEON
Alice (mu-cho remix)
Jougen no Tsuki (Crescent Moon) by Kurousa-P; compare to Kazuki Kato's version

Hatsune Miku V2:
Freely Tomorrow by Mitchie M
Crystal Quartz; compare to Saki Fujita's version

Megurine Luka V2:
Megane (Glasses)
Poker Face (English voicebank)

Fragments of Star (English voicebank)
Interstellar Flight; compare to Megumi Nakajima's version

IA V3:
IA ROCKSで「daze」 by Ciel(神無月P)
Tori no Uta; compare to Lia's version

Avanna V3:
Titanium mix by GrandMasterFlames159

Interview interrupted by the largest animal to ever exist

Live footage of a blue whale.

new/ old/ hazy/ lo-fi boom-bap beats from Saikei Collective

If you enjoy laid back/ hazy/ chilled/ lo-fi hip-hop type beats, you may well enjoy the sounds of the Saikei Collective, which is based in the Philippines but includes a fluid roster of like-minded cats* from around the world, making original beats and remixing some tracks you may recognize. Since April 2015, the collective has posted nine releases on Bandcamp, consisting of five compilations, one collection of "two-player" collaborations, and three solo releases.

*As far as I know, none of them are actually cats, but there's not a ton about them online, beyond their Soundcloud accounts, which are helpfully linked in their various releases. What they've made:

- Saikei Collection Vol. 1 (April 2015, 26 tracks)
- Saikei Collection Vol. 2 (May 2015, 44 tracks)
- Sankei Collection Vol. 3 (June 2015, 56 tracks)
- Sankei Collection Vol. 4 (Aug. 2015, 30 tracks)
- Saikei Collection Vol. 5 (Aug. 2015, 54 tracks)

- . t w o p l a y e r . (June 2015, 9 tracks)

- O.S.L - It Ain't Easy (June 2015)
- Kabocha - Tokyo Velvet (Aug. 2015, 7 tracks)
- proche. - Adventure Tape (Aug. 2015, 5 tracks)

Stay lo fi.

best friends, best cuddlers, pyjama wearing blanket hoggers

Playing with bubbles, frolicking outside, after a bath, taking a nap. Meet Darren and Phillip, a pair of sweet Staffies from Brisbane: The Blueboys! [h/t]

"I was robbed of my childhood"

Children are defenseless against abuse. They don't vote. They don't organize. They don't have money to hire lobbyists or spin media campaigns to protect their interests. They don't have a voice. They rely on adults for protection—and sometimes it's those same adults who violate their rights. Children of the Tribes is a look at child abuse masked as religious practice in the reclusive and controversial Christian Twelve Tribes sect. Some may find the descriptions of corporal punishment of children at these links disturbing.

"I've tried to end this video like five times"

Shower With Your Dad Simulator 2015: Do You Still Shower With Your Dad? was released on Steam today.

"No deal is perfect"

Today, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) announced she would support the Obama Administration's Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the international agreement to end economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for restrictions imposed on its nuclear program. As the 34th Senator to so announce, Mikulski hands the White House the final Senate vote needed to protect President Obama's veto of Congress's expected rejection of the deal.

Mikulski, who this spring announced she would retire from the Senate at the end of this term (her fifth), is the longest-serving woman in the history of the U.S. Congress, where she represented Maryland (her home state) in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1977 to 1987 and in the U.S. Senate since 1987.

I'm the treasure in the box

The annoying boxes puzzle: There are two boxes on a table, one red and one green. One contains a treasure. The red box is labelled "exactly one of the labels is true". The green box is labelled "the treasure is in this box." Can you figure out which box contains the treasure?

Slave Tetris

Because it was "perceived to be extremely insensitive by some people," Danish game developer Serious Games Interactive has removed the 'Slave Tetris' feature from Playing History: Slave Trade.

"In the interests of metric, that is more than a metre?"

Daniel Tomlin, a gardener from Kelowna, British Columbia, claims he has grown the world's longest cucumber. According to Guinness World Records, the cucumber that currently holds the world record for longest ever grown measured "107 cm (42.1 in) and was grown by Ian Neale of Wales, UK. It was presented at the Bath & West Showground in Shepton Mallet, Somerset, UK, on 26 September 2011." Tomlin's cucumber measures just over one metre (44.5 inches).

The hosts of CBC's As It Happens noted in a tweet that one listener "questions the circumference" of Tomlin's cucumber, and provided them with calculations to back up that skepticism.

Tomlin expects to hear back from Guinness World Records in a few weeks.

Direct link to the CBC interview with Tomlin available here.

Other cucumber-related records:

Heaviest cucumber

Largest cucumber plant

Most cucumbers chopped blindfolded on the hand in one minute

Most cucumbers sliced from a person's mouth with a sword in one minute

Most cucumbers harvested from one plant in one year

Largest gazpacho

"Roots of the Cotton Tree"

Paul Lewin likes to mix traditional Caribbean and African motifs with surreal visions of nature and the ancestry that surrounds us daily. Enjoy.

Let him wear it!

Egyptian president (1956-1970) Gamal Abdel Nasser uses comedic timing to entertain a live audience by recalling his meeting with the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1953. "What did he request?" [Pause]. "The first thing he asked for was to make wearing a hijab mandatory in Egypt, and demand that every woman walking in the street wear a scarf" . Hilarity ensues.

Nasser's relations with the Muslim Brotherhood after 1953 were much less amusing, but that's another story.

Good luck, woolly!

Overgrown sheep rescued near Canberra receives some much-needed help from four-time Australian Shearing Championship winner Ian Elkins. As carrying full fleece can be dangerously unhealthy for the animal, RSPCA Australia will assess any injuries and provide updates.

Mystery Woman on Otis Redding Album

Help Solve the Mystery! Who is the woman on the cover of the Otis Redding album Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul? On the 50th anniversary of the album, the Estate of Otis Redding asks for assistance in identification.

"Soulsville, the foundation that runs the Stax Museum, has no record of it. The photographer, Peter Sahula, thinks that it might be a model he worked with regularly named DAGMAR DREGER. If it is not her, he thinks it is another model who later became famous but is now deceased."

The world's longest yard sale runs for nearly 700 miles

It seems fair to say that the average yard sale has a few hundred items for purchase, maybe a thousand, between the bins of baby clothes and the stacks of books and the junk boxes full of old Happy Meal toys. That's a dense concentration of the evidence of lived human lives. But imagine even more. Imagine the sheer scale of humanity at the largest yard sale there's ever been.

How to Survive a Footnote: AIDS activism in the "after years"

"When protease inhibitors arrived, one era of the AIDS crisis was over. Many stories of the plague years in America end with this victory. Sometimes a coda is appended to acknowledge that the crisis itself isn't over, referencing ongoing epidemics in Africa and, less often, in black and brown populations in America. What's often missing from these analyses is an era that I've come to think of as the "footnote years" of AIDS activism: a sliver of about five years, from 1996 to 2001, in which a specific urban, queer-identified American activism played a role in changing the global response to HIV, and sought, less successfully, to use this work as a jumping-off point for a broader quest for justice."

Temple of Bel: 32 AD - 2015 AD

The UN has confirmed, through satellite imagery, that militants of the Islamic State (IS/ISIS/ISIL) have destroyed the Temple of Bel, one of the most iconic structures in the ancient city of Palmyra.

IS is waging an ongoing campaign of destruction of ancient sites across the territory it controls.

Palmyra's Temple of Bel withstood 2,000 years of war and invasions — until the Islamic State
The streak of doubt that underlies ISIS' destructive acts of religious fervor

Why IS militants destroy ancient sites

Palmyra previously

Going back to summer in Igboland

"Before the trip, Nigeria was a dim set of associations in my mind: my parent's stories of their childhood, highlife cassette tapes, dated images from Google searches, negative news headlines, the taste of rice and stew. Going back gave me vivid experiences to call part of my life, to draw from when I talk about the country, my identity, what kinds of people I come from, and the roots of why I do what I do."

Ruth Newman dead at 113

1906 San Francisco Earthquake survivor Ruth Newman passed away July 29th at the age of 113. This leaves William Del Monte (warning: auto-playing video), currently 109, as the last confirmed living person to have survived the earthquake and fire.

Everyone goes to Hell's Club.

And I do mean everyone.

If every state had an official word, what would it be?

Slate presents The United Slang of America, a state by state map of popular regionalisms. I'll take jojos over a quakenado any day.


Christie's third annual Out of the Ordinary auction (PDF catalogue) will take place in London on September 10. If you've been in the market for screaming Japanese nut demons, a Victorian caiman dumbwaiter, or a spoon bench, now is your chance.

The 2013 lots.
The 2014 lots.

College Football Returns, Notre Dame Still Sucks

The college football season kicks off in earnest tomorrow night (though the first game and first upset have already happened) when the Ramblin' Wreck from Georgia Tech take on the Alcorn State Braves.

But if you don't want to watch a 45-point FCS underdog get tuned up on, the weekend will also bring us some more intriguing matchups:

The Michigan Wolverines have their first game under Coach Jim Harbaugh, whose signing generated more offseason ink than every other story in college football combined – to the point that Fox Sports will feature a Khaki Cam trained on him throughout the game. Oh, their opponent? The non-cupcake Utah Utes of the Pac-12.

The defending first-ever College Football Playoff champion Ohio State Buckeyes (picked by virtually everyone to repeat) look to avenge their sole loss from last year, when Virginia Tech upset them in Columbus.

The historically punching-above-their-weight Boise State Broncos welcome back the guy who brought them to national prominence, now coaching the Pac-12's Washington Huskies.

Defending College Football Lineal Champions the TCU Horned Frogs travel way north to defend the belt against perennial Big Ten midcarders the Minnesota Golden Gophers in what is also one of the best mascot matchups of the weekend, if not the entire season.

The federal government says that college football players aren't employees, so enjoy this year's crop of scholar-athletes playing an extracurricular sport that in no way detracts from the real reason they're there – to attend classes.

Aerophones In Flatland

SIGGRAPH 2015 - Technical Papers Trailer (Previously)